Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The bad news.....and the good

Irritating things keep happening to me this week.

-I received a book through paperbackswap that was water damaged, moldy, and had writing throughout.
-I did a gift card swap and received a non-transferable merchandise credit so we are working on rectifying that.
-My credit card may have been compromised due to a 'phishing' email from someone pretending to be paypal.
-Another fitted sheet is worn through - the second sheet in two weeks! Now I have only one set left.
-It seems like there's something else. Perhaps the fact that it was -16 this morning.

But....lovely things have happened as well. For example, Eva and Bybee gave me the You Make My Day Award. That makes my week! Thanks so much ; I needed that. I'm to award this to 10 more people....which is so hard. Every time someone I read posts, that makes my day.

1. Mel from lit*chick
2. Becca from Becca & Bella
3. Lisa at Pfeifferbooknotes
4. LK at The Literate Kitten
5. Geraniumcat at Geranium Cat's Bookshelf
6. Robin from A Fondness for Reading
7. Nan from Letters From a Hill Farm
8. Literary Feline
9. Kay from My Random Acts of Reading
10. Cath from Read-Warbler

And just because I think this post could use a few more links.....

Have you heard of the singer Joshua Radin? He's a singer/songwriter/guitar-playing acoustic folksy guy - check him out here on the Ellen show. I've been to see him twice and I'm crazy about his music. This song will be on his second album. I even got to meet him once - he's nice, too.

Would the person who sent me to The Traveler IQ Challenge please stand up? Try it. I'm hooked, so it my husband and a few of his coworkers.

That's all for now.

P.S. I know I've sworn off challenges....but has there ever been an India challenge? With all the great suggestions from my last post, there would be lots to choose from.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Reviews - Finally!

Last year I decided to keep an official record of books I wanted to read. I would read blogs and other sites and learn about new-to-me books and jot the titles onto little bits of paper which I would promptly lose. I found a beautiful notebook:

and it quickly became essential to me. It is primarily a list of books that I've read about accompanied by the person or blog who has suggested it. It has also become a catch-all for other bits of paper about books. Every few weeks, I look through the pages and sometimes I notice patterns. The same book turns up again and again. I begin to think, hmm..obviously there is some reason I keep writing down the title of this book....I'd better just read it. The Ghost Writer by John Harwood was one of these books.

The Ghost Writer is about Gerard, an Australian librarian who has always felt, no, known, that his mother is hiding something from him about her past in England. Gerard's closest friend is Alice, his English pen pal to whom he has been writing since he was a young teen. Alice refuses to meet Gerard in person until she has recovered the ability to walk - she was in a terrible car accident that killed her parents. Eventually Gerard decides to find out the truth about everything for himself and travels to England where the action and the answers come to a climax. I was really enjoying this book until I came to the last 1/5 or so. I really do not like novels in which it feels as thought the author is writing a screenplay. That is to say, there is too much description of place and action. I don't really care to try to imagine the layout of a large and confusing house....I just want to know what is happening. The author has included four stories within the book. I'm not sure if I just didn't remember that or just glanced over it but either way I'm glad I didn't remember. I'm not a big fan of short stories and realizing this might have turned me off from reading this book. In this case I enjoyed the stories within the story, and it didn't feel too jarring to me going back and forth. I took a peek at the reviews at Amazon and realized that people seem to either really like or dislike this novel. It is not really my regular fare, and I'm certainly glad I decided to read it.

I asked Literary Feline recently about books set in India or by Indian authors. One of the authors she recommended was Amylya Malladi and I decided to pick up her first novel at the library. A Breath of Fresh Air was a quick yet intense read. It is the story of Anjali, a woman whose first marriage ended in divorce. Anjali is remarried and after a fair number of years comes in contact with her ex-husband. This was a very interesting story to me on a number of levels. It explores the relationships between men and women and Anjali's conflicting feelings about her stable marriage and her more wealthy ex-husband. The fact that the book is set in India adds another dimension to the story, that of a culture in which divorce is particularly rare (that is my understanding here, please correct me if I am wrong), and a culture whose expectations of women are so different than that of my own, even now. Anjali and her husband have a child who is ill, which was a very sad part of this book and really touched my heart. I certainly enjoyed this book and would recommend it.

If anyone has any other recommendations of books to read about this part of the world, I would really welcome them.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Booking Through Thursday

What’s your favorite book that nobody else has heard of? You know, not Little Women or Huckleberry Finn, not the latest best-seller . . . whether they’ve read them or not, everybody “knows” those books. I’m talking about the best book that, when you tell people that you love it, they go, “Huh? Never heard of it?”

I couldn't resist the opportunity to mention a book I read a few years ago and have yet to meet anyone to discuss it with. The book is Anya by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. Written in 1974, Anya is a novel about a Polish woman's experience during the Holocaust. I don't have words to tell you how beautifully written this book is, but I think it is an important book for several reasons. First of all, its publication date - 1974 is not that far removed from when these atrocities occurred. Secondly, the first portion of the book deals with Anya and her family's life before the Holocaust. The life of a happy and well-to-do family. I think so many times, Holocaust literature begins with the holocaust. In this book, we see these people in the beginning not as victims but just as people. Like you and I. I know some people just cannot bring themselves to read books about this period, but if you can, I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Comfort Food Meme

I just wanted to thank everyone again for all your kind and thoughtful comments on my last post. When I made the soup recently, I just knew I wanted to share it and its origin with you. I'd love to know if you decide to try it. School began today after four days off (!!) and being on a round of playdates I've had little time for reading the two very good books on my nightstand.

In lieu of a book report, I'd though I'd do this fun meme I found at Cat Musings. Join me if you wish!

What did you eat/drink today?

It's early, so I'll answer with what I ate yesterday. For breakfast: tea and plain yogurt with homemade granola with dried cranberries. For lunch: orzo sauteed with arugula (rocket for those of you in the UK), some ham, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese -all leftovers hanging around the refrigerator. For dinner: pasta and bean soup, pumpkin bread and an orange.

What do you never eat/drink?

Peanut butter. Lima Beans. Oatmeal or other hot cereals.

Favourite fail safe thing to cook (if you cook) or defrost if you don't
My go-to dinners for busy nights are: pasta with the sauce I made in the summer, sausages, ham, tacos. I'd like to add more vegetarian meals to my repertoire but I live with two meat lovers and it is difficult.

Complete this sentence: In my refrigerator, you can always find:

Milk, cheese of several varieties, yogurt of several varieties, whole wheat bread, fruit of some sort.

What is your favourite kitchen item?

Good question! Besides the usual - my knife - I reach most often for my microplane grater and my fancy garlic press.

Where would you recommend eating out - either on home turf or elsewhere?

In my hometown - Punch Pizza. They have a woodburning oven and Meryl Streep was reported to have said it was the best pizza she ever ate. My daughter has been known to say "I don't like frozen pizza. I only eat Punch Pizza."

Elsewhere - The most memorable meal I can think of was on our honeymoon in Paris at Le Petit Troquet in the 7th.

World ends tomorrow. What would you like for your last meal?

A margarita made by a friend of mine. Steak Frites with some sort of wine/butter sauce. Or maybe replace the frites with a potato gratin, I can't decide. Roasted asparagus. Some sort of warm chocolate cake with an oozy center. Whipped cream on the side.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Christi's Tortilla Soup

Once upon a time, in 2000, I found myself driving though blizzardy conditions in the greater Washington DC area. We were on our way to watch the Superbowl with some college friends of my husband and their little daughter who was around 2 years old. I had only met these friends once before. The drive was very frightening and I was so relieved to arrive at the apartment safely. The hostess, Christi, had prepared a feast, beginning with her Tortilla Soup. Oh my goodness. It was the best soup I'd ever had, and I kept telling her so and asking for the recipe. To the point at which I think she thought I was a little nuts. I managed to get her to write down the recipe for me and describe some of the instructions. I was still a pretty new cook but I was determined to recreate her recipe.

That was the last time I ever saw Christi. Life went on as it does, we got married and had a baby and they moved around a bit. Then we heard that Christi had ovarian cancer and it was very bad. My husband made a trip to see her. Christi died about a year and half ago, leaving her young daughter.

I've made Christi's soup numerous times over the years, last week being the most recent. Just tasting it moves me. Here was a woman, whom I met only twice, but whose soup recipe will remain in my recipe box for the rest of my life and who I'll think of and remember and talk about every time I make it. I'm sure Christi's family misses her terribly every day, but I like to think they'd be pleased to know there's someone out there who makes her soup and remembers the love she put into it when she shared it with us.

Christi's Tortilla Soup

Christi was originally from Mexico so I've always felt this is an 'authentic' soup. If you wanted to make a vegetarian version, I think you could replace the chicken with beans.

1 lb chicken breasts, boneless, skinless
1 can diced tomatoes
1 can tomato sauce
1 red pepper, small dice
1 green pepper, small dice
1 onion, small dice
corn (I use 1 1/2 cups of frozen corn defrosted)
1 quart chicken broth
olive oil
garlic, 2-4 cloves, minced
garlic powder
creole/cajun seasoning
fresh cilantro, 1/2 cup chopped

for topping the soup:
shredded cheese - Monterrey jack and cheddar
avocado slices (we don't usually do this but you could)
fried tortilla strips (I like to make these myself as Christi did, just cut up corn tortillas and fry in canola oil)

Heat 1 TBSP oil in pot or dutch oven. Saute onion and peppers until soft - 5 minutes. Add garlic to middle of pot and saute, stirring frequently about 1 minute. Add chicken broth, 2-3 cups water, 1/2 T salt, 1 T garlic powder, 1 T cumin and chicken breasts. Bring to simmer and simmer until chicken is cooked all the way through. Remove chicken and shred/dice it and return to pot. Add tomatoes with thier juice, tomato sauce, corn, 2 tsp oregano, and creole seasoning to taste*. Simmer about 30 minutes, soup will reduce a bit and thicken. A few minutes before serving, add chopped cilantro.

To serve: place soup in bowl, squeeze lime juice in**, add a bit of cilantro, top with cheese then fried tortillas.

*The seasoning I use is made by McCormick and comes in an 8oz container that is red. Mine says "Creole Seasoning - Adds Cajun Flavor to every Meal"

**I think the lime juice is very important.

The distinctive flavor of this soup comes from the Creole seasoning, cilantro and lime juice, in my opinion.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Good Reading Weather

Oh, it's good reading weather here in Minnesota. We are enjoying temperatures hovering around zero, negative double digits coming later this week, and temporarily frozen pipes (a situation now resolved). As long as your furnace is working, it's the best time to curl up with a good book and a cup of tea.

The House of Stairs is the third book I've read by Barbara Vine and I believe it is one of her earlier books. In it we meet Elizabeth, a young aspiring writer; Cosette, a widow determined to forge a new sort of life that is quite Bohemian; Christabel, a beautiful woman whom we know has murdered, and a host of other mostly eccentric characters. The House of Stairs is the house that Cosette purchases after her husband dies and she fills it all sorts of people ostensibly to help her, but in fact they really just keep her company on her dime. Too much more of the plot and I'll have given it all away. Vine takes her time telling this story, as she always seems to do, and we do not find out all the secrets until the end. Vine's mysteries are more about the journey than they are about the answers and I think that's what I enjoy so much about them.

The book I finished last night was one that just kept popping up everywhere - on all the blogger 'best of 2007' posts, and even since then in numerous posts. The book itself is covered with praise so it is a critical and popular success, it seems. I don't generally walk into a bookstore, buy a book, and feel compelled to read it immediately, but that is just what happened with The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. I was resistant to this book at first: narrated by death? The bold asides starting on the first page and continuing throughout the book? I thought perhaps this book was not for me. I was wrong. In a nutshell, The Book Thief is the tale of Liesel Meminger, a young girl sent to live with a foster family in Nazi Germany. She is illiterate and arrives there with a book she has stolen. Liesel does learn to read and thus begins a love affair with books and words. All the while, the war goes on around her affecting her in ways big and small, in a more general sense and also more personally. Liesel's family gives shelter to a Jewish man and this adds yet another dimension to her life. The story sounds simple really, but it is beautifully and compellingly told. This was one of those books I got lost in, forgetting everything around me. At the very least, this book has such an interesting viewpoint, that of a small German town whose people are just trying to get by and are not interested in waging a war against their fellow citizens. Certainly this is not a topic I've read much about. In the event I am not the last person to read this book, I do recommend it to anyone.

When I finished the book last night I was thinking about a scene in The Sound of Music show, which we just went to see a few weeks ago. Do you remember the scene in the film when the Von Trapp family sings in the contest? During the show, it was staged such that we, the audience, were the audience of that event, and suddenly as it began, I noticed a flash of red. Looking right, I saw that from the box closest to the stage was hanging a Nazi flag and the box contained Nazi officers. I looked towards the stage to see (and we were quite close, third row) Nazi guards were standing in the audience. When it was discovered that the Von Trapps were missing after their performance, the guards ran around the theatre with their flashlights bright and burning. It was a very strange experience, one that made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and I felt that flag as a symbol of fear and terror. I appreciated that it was done, that I felt for just a moment that feeling of being watched. Not that I would ever have been on that side of things; my father's side of the family is Jewish and were it not for the immigration of my great grandparents during the time of the Russian pogroms I would not be here today.

Friday, January 11, 2008

An Addiction

I am rather out of practice blogging since the break I took at the end of 2007. It certainly isn't helping my situation that the library came through and fulfilled my request for the entire Up series minus the most recent installment, 49 Up. Which should be arriving via Netflix Saturday or Monday. I mentioned this series a few posts back and found that many people are fans of this series - how is it I not known about it until the past year? In any case, I have watched them all (except the most recent) this week and would like to listen to the director's commentary on 42 Up as well. I just find the series completely addictive. I don't know what it is exactly - in most cases the subjects of the film are not that different from you or I. I suppose it's just the factor of being able to 'find out' what has happened to them - I always wonder whatever became of people I used to know. It's just human nature, I suppose. I can't help but think that my child will be 7 in another year - so what does that mean? The movie states "Show me a child at 7 and I'll show you the man." That is to say, within one year, my child's future 'self' will be set in some ways. I find that alsolutely mind-boggling.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Miss Ranskill

I'm feeling a bit emotional at the moment. I've just been to see Atonement and thought it was wonderful. I really enjoyed watching the film, even though my heart was breaking knowing how it would end. There were quite a few previews and a couple caught my eye. The first film I've known about but hadn't seen the preview for was Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day which looks perfectly charming. The second was for Young@Heart - this is a documentary about a chorus of elderly people singing rock songs. Here is a link about them.

Now on to the title of this post, Miss Ranskill, Nona Ranskill that is, who was stranded on a desert island for some 3 years and returns to England to find the country is in the midst of World War II. This is the story told by Barbara Euphan Todd in this republished 1946 book, Miss Ranskill Comes Home. Nona Ranskill has returned a brave and practical woman, yet the England she returns to is greatly different than the one she left. There is humor in this tale, of a woman who does not understand the status quo; along with this comes embarrassment and confusion. I spent the first part of the novel feeling so badly for Miss Ranskill - to the point at which my husband told me 'it's just a book, you know!' Well, yes it is, but so well told I really felt for the heroine. I couldn't help but think, as annoying as I think many of us consider 'the media', what a different welcome Miss Ranskill would have had in 2008. She would appear on the news, be cared for at a hospital, be provided for and her family would be found. I don't like to give the plot away, but let's just say Miss Ranskill experiences a quite different 'welcome'. This is the tale of a great and abiding friendship that transcends sex, class and even life, of a woman who must find a way in this new world this she does not quite understand and how she does it with strength and grace and love. A most remarkable book.

Books Read in 2008

(This post will be routinely updated as an ongoing list.)

1. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
2. The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine
3. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
4. The Ghost Writer by John Harwood
5. A Breath of Fresh Air by Amulya Malladi
6. Hope's Edge by Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe
7. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
8. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
9. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
10. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
11. Things I Want My Daughters to Know by Elizabeth Noble
12. Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear
13. Remember Me? by Sophie Kinsella
14. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
15. She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb
16. Swimming Lessons and other Rohinton Mistry
17. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
18. The Translator by Daoud Hari
19. The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
20. One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens
21. Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor
22. Girlbomb by Janice Erlbaum
23. The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
24. The Chimney Sweeper's Boy by Barbara Vine
25. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
26. Bound by Sally Gunning
27. Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski
28. You Can Prevent Global Warming (and save money!) 51 Easy Ways by Jeffrey Langholz, Ph.D. and Kelly Turner
29. This Charming Man by Marian Keyes
30. Maggie Again by John Husband
31. The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich
32. Sarah's Key by Tatiana De Rosnay
33. Sin in the Second City by
34. Mothernight by Sarah Stovell
35. The Dark Lantern by Gerri Brightwell
36. Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
37. A Fatal Waltz by Tasha Alexander
38. House-Bound by Winifred Peck
39. The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend
40. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
41. Matrimony by Joshua Henkin
42. Messenger of Truth by Jacqueline Winspear
43. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
44. The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent
45. Daughter of the Ganges by Asha Miro
46. American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
47. In the Woods by Tana French
48. So Long at the Fair by Christina Schwarz
49. On Hitler's Mountain by Irmgard A. Hunt
50. Song of the Cuckoo Bird by Amulya Malladi
51. Little Face by Sophie Hannah
52. Wife in the North by Judith O'Reilly
53. The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham
54. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (reread)
55. When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson
56. The Likeness by Tana French
57. When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale
58. Resistance by Agnes Humbert
59. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
60. Resistance by Owen
61. There are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz
62. The Pages in Between by Erin Einhorn
63. Capote in Kansas by Kim Powers
64. The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry
65. Testimony by Anita Shreve
66. Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran
67. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
68. A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine
69. Immoveable Feast by John Baxter
70. The Secret River by Kate Grenville
71. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
72. The Green Beauty Guide by Julie Gabriel
73. Hurting Distance by Sophie Hannah
74. Fixing Shadows by Susan Barrett
75. Miles From Nowhere by Nami Mun
76. Rosewater and Soda Bread by Marsha Mehran
77. The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson
78. Revenge by Mary Stanley
79. The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker
80. The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
81. The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
82. The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill
83. The Widow's War by Sally Gunning.
84. Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor
85. The Minotaur by Barbara Vine

Thursday, January 3, 2008

New Stacks

Welcome to my first post of 2008! I realized I haven't done a post on new book acquisitions in a while and I have a few things to share.

Here are the books I received as gifts:

Thunderstruck and The Art of Simple Food were from my husband and I think he made terrific choices. Thunderstruck is by Erik Larson, author of Devil in the White City - which I loved (and my husband devoured last week). The Art of Simple Food is going to be a great read and a great resource. It is written by Alice Waters founder of Chez Panisse and seems to be more of her own work than her other books (which have generally been co written according to what I've read). The third book, The Florist's Daughter is a memoir by a local woman and was given to me by my in-laws. I am really looking forward to it. Not pictured is a giftcard to Borders (yeah!) which I've already begun using by ordering Michael Pollan's new book.

Half Price Books had a big sale and here's what I picked up - I shopped two different locations:

From left to right:

Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood - I love her writing and thought I should try her short stories.

My Place by Sally Morgan - An autobiography of an Australian Aborigine - I've been interested in this topic since I read Bryson's book on Australia.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly - There are so many great blog reviews of this.

Falling Blossom by Peter Pagnamenta and Momoko Williams - Published in the US as Sword and Blossom, this is a love story between a British officer and a Japanese woman.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon - A book I always think I ought to read.

The Chimney Sweeper's Boy by Barbara Vine - Well, I love Barbara Vine!

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood - A purchase directly related to great blog reviews.

Daughter of Earth by Agnes Smedley - A Virago Modern Classic and my bargain purchase at only 80 cents.

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher - An old love of mine, this has the same floral cover my copy had and doesn't look as though it's been read. I had wanted to replace this book, but was not crazy about the new cover.

Whew! What a way to start the year.

I have also been spending time lately watching a few films. I have been enjoying the Up Series, starting with Seven Up. This series began following British children in 1964 and checks in with them every 7 years. It's just a fascinating social document and I look forward to watching the rest of the series ( the most recent is 49 Up, released in 2005).

I have also had the great pleasure of watching Cranford. How you might ask? Ah, the power of Y** T*b*. My girlfriend from work and I have been delighting over the series and we agree that it is one of our favorite 'period' productions and would love to own it and watch it over and over.