Thursday, July 30, 2009

Re-Reading Harry Potter

A few days before I went to see the most recent Harry Potter film, I thought I ought to re-read the book before I went. I didn't have long, and so I started reading with my frenetic, rushed Harry Potter pace. You know the one, where you rush to get to end so no one else spoils the book for you. I got through about a chapter and decided I just didn't want to read so fast so I put the book away, and went to see the film. Of course, that put me in the mood for Harry Potter and I decided to try to read the book again.

I started slowly, a chapter a day. It's always taken me time to 'warm up' to these books, and it never seems the story really starts until everyone is ensconced at Hogwarts. After awhile, I began reading more and more until suddenly I was finished. And now I am reading about the Deathly Hallows.

I am not going to summarize Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince nor am I going to 'review' it. I just wanted to say what a different reading experience this was than before. The last three books in the series I rushed through, reading for plot and this time around I was able to take my time, get to know the characters better, particularly the secondary characters. I do really like the magical world Rowling has created - I can practically imagine the entire thing really exists - and this time I was able to really enjoy it. Another plus, was being able to jump right into the next book in the series, and who knows? Perhaps I will go back and re-read the earlier books just to experience how Rowling set the story up so long ago.

I hope my daughter wants to read these books someday, but won't it be such a different experience! She'll never have to wait and wonder what's going to happen - it's all right there in the next book.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Wrapping Up Memoir Week

Whew! I did it! I'm pretty proud that I was able to post a review of a memoir every day last week. I don't think I'd ever posted so many days in a row before, and frankly I doubt I will again! Several reasons come to mind. First, I really enjoyed all the books I featured last week and I found it difficult coming up with unique adjectives to use for each one. In addition, some of the books had a similar tone or story. The thing I regret the most about last week, is that I don't think I was able to adequately express how very much I enjoyed Harry Bernstein's The Dream. I really just couldn't think of anything else to write at that point, and that is why I am a reader and not a writer.

I was curious to see what the reactions would be last week to the books I featured. I was not surprised that Can Any Mother Help Me? seemed to be the 'most popular' book, or at least the one that received the biggest response. The thing that made me wonder in the first place is that most of the books I featured were not happy books, instead most had some element of sadness or neglect. This is something that I think is common in memoirs. It just seems like most memoirs I read are, well, sad. When someone has a happy and healthy life, it doesn't seem as though they're necessarily driven to write about it. And frankly, it might not be that interesting to read, either.

I think in general as a reader, I tend to choose a greater percentage of books that aren't considered 'happy books'. I'm not sure why I feel compelled to read about negativity in the world, but I suppose I always have. I guess I could say that what I am reading about is life, and life doesn't always bring good things to people.

Thank you for supporting me during Memoir Week - it was fun! But now we will return to regularly scheduled programming.


So, somehow I have wound up with 21 ears of corn. Any suggestions on what I could do with it in the next couple of days? I really want to try not to waste it.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Farmers' Market - July 26

Aren't I predictable? I buy the same things over and over, I suppose because those are the things we all enjoy.

It's pretty obvious at the market that we've barely had temperatures over 80 degrees this July. We're not seeing the 'hot weather' veggies yet, such as eggplant, peppers, sun-ripened tomatoes and the like. I'm growing a variety of small tomatoes in the garden and they are all still green and my zucchini are taking forever to grow. One great thing about this blog, is that I can go back see that for example, last July 10 I had tomatoes from the garden already. It's rather depressing.

Anyhow, tonight, I think we'll grill that rainbow trout you see. I'm not sure what veggies we'll have yet, I'm thinking mashed potatoes with shallots or corn or salad or broccoli. Hmm.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Dream

Memoir week concludes with Harry Bernstein's brilliant memoir, The Dream.

I'd picked this book up a few times at the store, but never took it home with me, until I read Lisa's fabulous review of Bernstein's other memoir, The Invisible Wall. I am not usually so stupid about books, but for some reason I got it into my head that The Invisible Wall was the follow-up to The Dream, so I ordered The Dream, only later discovering that it is Bernstein's second book, after The Invisible Wall. Silly me. But. I can tell you that whether or not you've read Bernstein's first book, The Dream stands alone as a fabulous memoir.

What is rather remarkable about Bernstein's books is that they exist at all. You see, he is now 98 years old and didn't begin writing until he was in his 90s. The Dream begins when Harry and his family set out for America from a small mill town in Britain. This has been his mother's dream for many years as she hopes for a better life for her children. Harry grew up in poverty with a sacrificing mother, and a father who drank away his wages and provided little to his children.

The Bersteins go to Chicago where they have family and have a few successful years. The great depression begins, and life changes again when part of the family moves to New York. Harry writes about his days as a schoolboy and later as a young working man. The move to New York winds up being fortuitous for Harry, as he meets and falls in love with Ruby, the love of his life, and is finally able to spend time writing. The pictures included in the book compliment the story perfectly and the love between Harry and Ruby is apparent in photos of them as young newlyweds and as an older couple.

Harry Bernstein is a gifted writer, he tells his story simply but with emotion and love. This was one of those books that I couldn't put down. I'm now reading Bernstein's The Invisible Wall , a memoir of his childhood and then I plan to read his third book, as well. I understand that he is working on fourth book and hope to enjoy it someday too.

Well, this completes memoir week! I think I'll do a bit of a wrap-up next week, but for me I'm a little 'written out'.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

This Lovely Life

Memoir week continues with Vicki Forman's newly released memoir This Lovely Life.

If I could only use one word to describe this book, that word would be STUNNING.

Vicki Forman became a person she never imagined she'd be when her 23 week gestation twins arrived prematurely. Despite her pleas to the doctors to let them go and not resuscitate them, California law dictated that this could not happen. The twins, Evan and Ellie, survived their birth, though Ellie passed away 4 days later. The months and years to follow find Forman on an unimaginable journey which she details in This Lovely Life.

Evan's story isn't that story we read about when the premature baby goes on to be 'just fine', a little behind in development but otherwise 'normal'. His story is the one in which he spends months in the NICU, with tiny bits of progress, but problems always cropping up. Things are never really 'just fine' for him. A feeding tube, blindess, seizures. These are but a few of the challenges facing Evan and the Forman family as they come to terms with the fact that Evan is considered profoundly disabled.

Forman writes with an unbelievable amount of honesty. The power of her words that articulate the fear, anger, and dismay she felt gave me a heaviness in my chest as I read and reread them. We experience the love Forman has for Evan, as she truly becomes his advocate and fights to achieve for him a life that he deserves. Forman also displays an incredible amount of hope. Throughout it all, she remains steadfast in her determination to celebrate what Evan can do, rather than what he cannot.

This Lovely Life is a sad book, but it is also full of love and hopefulness. It is the sort of book you think about when you are not reading it, that questions how to cope with medical professionals that often treat a patient as a series of problems to be fixed rather than as a human being, the sort of book that questions what 'life' really is.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Can Any Mother Help Me?

It seems like a long time ago that Karen wrote about Jenna Bailey's book Can Any Mother Help Me? The book stayed in my mind though, and once it was available in paperback (with rather a silly cover) I had to make it mine.

This is the story of a group of women who corresponded with one another via a secret magazine from 1935 until 1990. They called themselves the CCC - The Cooperative Correspondence Club - and wrote articles about their lives which one member would compile into a magazine which would be mailed in turn to each member. The magazine was born from a letter written to a mother's magazine in which the writer, a young mother, described how lonely and exhausted she was and desired some sort of occupation. The suggestion was made that perhaps the writer would like to exchange letters with other mothers, and the CCC came to be.

Jenna Bailey was a student looking for a subject for her master thesis when she came across these old magazines and lovingly turned the material into this book. There is commentary from her throughout the book which I appreciated, but the bulk of the book is made of these women's stories through the years. They wrote through all the phases of their lives, from childbirth and young motherhood, through the war, during working days or staying at home with the children, to divorce, and family illness, and finally their own mortality as they aged. There is such an immediacy to their writing. I felt heartbroken as one woman described her divorce from a man she was still in love with and so much sadness as they wrote about the illnesses of their children, both in infancy and as adults. Over time, the women met in person and developed relationships beyond the magazine's pages. The author has been fortunate enough to have met with a few of the remaining women and their families who were so generous in sharing the intimacy of their lives

This is a remarkable story in many ways. Remarkable in the length of time the magazine continued, the effort these women put into it, and the representation of lives lived in a particular moment in time. It is striking that as the magazine made its rounds among the women, they would make comments in the margins for the writing. Does that sound familiar? These women were the bloggers of their time.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Memoir week continues here, with Melanie McGrath's

An East End Family Memoir

Silvertown is the story of Melanie McGrath's grandparents, Jenny and Len Page. It's one of those extraordinary stories of everyday life in the East End of London around the turn of the century. These are people who struggled every day of their lives, and knew no different. People who lived in London but never visited the Tower of London or St Paul's Cathedral.

McGrath tells this story with candor, she is sympathetic but honest about her subjects. The lives her grandparents led are the same lives everyone else around them led. They both grew up in poor households, Jenny wishing to marry to get from under her father's roof and maintain her own household instead of her parent's. McGrath says this about Jenny's husband:

He was not one of her passions.

Nor was she one of his. Jenny and Len have two children who are removed to the countryside during the war. They stay there for six years during which time they have little contact with their parents. When they return, their father Len is glad to see them as he intends for them to work in his coffee shop. His bookish daughter has other ideas, of school and education. Her diagnosis of tuberculosis keeps her from school and the coffee shop much to her father's dismay - he sees nothing wrong with her that a little hard work wouldn't fix. This daughter happens to be the mother of the author and while we yearn to hear more about her, the author tells us that:

Hers is a different story, to be told another time.

I hope she writes that book.

Jenny suffers her husbands unfaithfulness, eventually winding up on her own, still working hard as she continues to do throughout her life. You know the rest.

This was a fascinating and absorbing read and contained one of the most horrific life experiences I've read in any book. The day Jenny turned 17, her mother took her out by herself, a rare occurrence. They did not go out for ice cream or new shoes. Jenny was delivered to a man who was paid to remove all of Jenny's teeth. There was no anesthesia or pain medication besides alcohol. It is an unbelievable story, and what was even more unbelievable was the reason why.

For those interested in what life was like, Silvertown is recommended.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Memoir A Day....

Keeps the reading blues away? I don't know, but I've been reading a lot of memoirs lately, food and otherwise, and they are keeping me riveted. I have a few to review and so I think I am going to call this

Memoir Week

here at Books and Cooks. I am going to try to post each day, which may not work but I'll give it a go.

Today's featured memoir is

The Imposter's Daughter

by Laurie Sandell

I read an interview with Sandell in a magazine recently about her upcoming memoir and when it was offered for review by Hachette books I eagerly accepted. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it is a graphic book! I was not at all sure I was going to like this memoir, after all, I tried one graphic novel which didn't work for me at all, and another short one that did. Almost immediately after receiving The Imposter's Daughter, my computer was having issues and while I was waiting things to improve I began reading Sandell's book.

I was immediately drawn into her story. Sandell grew up in a home where there were many secrets surrounding her father. Where did he go on his long trips? Why did he get mail addressed to other people? Who did he communicate with on his ham radio? Did he really earn all the degrees and work at all the jobs he said he did? Sandell lived in a cycle in which she tried to understand and please a man who was unstable and dishonest. It's not until Sandell goes away to college and is a young woman that she realizes how her father has personally betrayed her and some of what he was involved in.

The heart of Sandell's book is what effect all this had on her. Not surprisingly, she's pretty damaged and makes some not-so-great choices. While her writing career takes off, she struggles in her relationships with men and with an addiction to sleeping pills. She avoids her father and is frustrated with the fact that her mother refuses to see her father as he really is.

I really enjoyed reading The Impostor's Daughter: A True Memoir . Despite my reluctance to read another graphic book this one has the right balance of narrative and dialogue to make it a satisfying read. Sandell's perseverance to seek the truth and take control of her life is quite moving and I enjoyed the unique way she told her story.

Many thanks to Hachette for this review copy.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Farmers' Market - July 18

Oh Happy Day! Corn is here!

The market was packed yesterday, there was one vendor selling corn and the buyers were 5 deep. It was so busy that the St Paul police officer that monitors the market was breaking down boxes and bagging and selling corn. Nuts!

New additions for me this week were cucumbers (refrigerator pickles?) and leeks - yum!

We had friends over for dinner last night. I served:

*Barefoot Contessa's lemon chicken with satay sauce
*boiled corn
*a salad of halved roasted fingerling potatoes, blanched green and wax beans, basil, chives and a balsamic vinaigrette
*Molly Wizenberg's lemon yogurt cake with strawberries and blueberries (the recipe from the book for this cake includes a syrup that you pour over the warm cake before putting on the glaze - I think that puts this over the top)

Unfortunately I was too busy to take photos of any of it, but it was all delicious!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Plans Change

So I was all set to have Memoir Week here on Books and Cooks, thanks to the memoir reading binge I've been on. But as I was writing my first post on Tuesday announcing memoir week I was called in early to work. Which was a good thing! And then I spent most of, okay all of my kid-free time on Wednesday trying to get into Harry Potter after the first show I showed up for was sold out. I finally did see it after buying a ticket online, retrieving it, standing in line for a half hour, then sitting in the theater for another half hour. Was it worth it? I'm going to say Yes. I'm not sure how close it was to the book, I read that back in 2005 after all. I did love that there was a bit of humor in this installment and enjoyed the romantic tension between the characters. Alan Rickman is fabulous.

So, here I am on Thursday. I think that it is too late to begin memoir week and I will hold that thought for next week. I will instead tell you about another book I read recently, The Lace Makers of Glenmara by Heather Barbieri.

Reading this book was like putting on an old comfortable sweater. The plot is familiar: a young woman has been facing tough times in life and love and decides to travel. In this case, the young woman whose name is Kate travels to the homeland of her mother's family, Ireland, and finds herself in a small village. She is immediately taken in by a lovely but lonely woman and instead of moving on like she expected, Kate stays on for a bit. She soon begins learning how to make lace with the village women and because pretty things are hard to find in small villages in Ireland, they begin to create beautiful lingerie out of the lace. We get to know the lace makers, the challenges and struggles that they have faced. We get to know the village priest who thinks lacy lingerie is Evil, a storyline that seemed a little far-fetched. I guess I just don't see what fancy underwear has to do with religion. But I let that go, since there was so much to enjoy about this book, including a little romance. Except for the priest, this is a warm and gentle book, one to curl up with. For some reason, I wasn't expecting to like it as much as I did, perhaps because it seemed formulaic. But it brought me pleasure and I am happy to recommend it.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Farmers' Market - July 12

I was disappointed today not to find corn at the market, but now looking back, I see that I wasn't able to buy it until July 20 last year. We're having another summer on the cool side here so I'm sure that is part of the reason why.

Lots of lovely things today though. Besides the 'ususal' snow peas, green/wax beans, potatoes and scallions, I bought some broccoli, gorgeous spinach, shallots, late summer wildflower honey, strawberries, yellow squash and kabob meat. I had a heavy bag, I mean bags, today. I am going to make this squash and potato gratin today, it is an old favorite of mine and I make it a few times every summer. Not sure my family is as crazy about it as me, but oh well, I say.

Friday, July 10, 2009


Mary, fairly newly married, hears on the radio that the British destroyer her husband is on during WW2 has sunk and there are many casualties. Knowing that she will not be able to find out the fate of her husband that night, Mary goes to bed and unable to sleep, thinks about the many events that have made up her life. Thus begins Mariana (Persephone Classics) by Monica Dickens, the coming-of-age story of a woman, a woman that could be everywoman.

She is not the prettiest or the smartest or the most clever. She is not always lucky in love or circumstances or her career. But what she is good at is being herself. In one of my favorite lines from the novel Mary thinks "All one could do was to get on with the one job that nobody else could do, the job of being oneself."

We get to know Mary as a schoolgirl, enjoying holidays with her cousins in the country. From the beginning, we see that she is besotted with her cousin Denys, who will break her heart. Mary is not sure what she wants to do with herself besides become a wife and mother. Drama school does not work out all that well and a trip to Paris to learn dressmaking seems to go well until Mary meets the Wrong Man. Mary seems to sense that he is wrong, but not wanting to displease anyone, and hopeful to improve her family's circumstances, Mary carries on with him, until she simply cannot do it any longer. Finally, there is the Right Man, and with him comes all the joy that Mary has been hoping so long for.

Harriet Lane writes in the preface that "Mary is sometimes quite difficult to like." I did not find this this be the case at all, in fact quite the opposite. In fact, I loved Mary, in all her ordinary-ness. Weren't we all Mary at one time or another? I identified with Mary time and time again, when she felt out-of-place, heartbroken, or simply just not enough. Mariana is simply a brilliant portrait of a girl, she could be any girl, at any time, really, which is what makes this 1940 novel timeless and relevant. With this book, it is easy to see why Persephone began publishing in the first place, to share treasures like this one.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Reading YA Books

Until about a year ago, I hadn't read any YA books, since I was, well, a YA myself. Before I began this blogging adventure I would have never thought of looking for books in the YA section. What I've found since, is that when you look past all the vampire books (sorry, that genre just doesn't appeal to me at all) and books with sexy girls on the covers, there are treasures to be found in the YA section. I've read a couple recently myself.

Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls is the story of a young woman suffering from anorexia. I felt as thought I knew a fair amount about anorexia before reading this book. I did a science fair project about it in the 7th grade that was featured in the newspaper. I had a close friend in high school that suffered from the disorder. In my professional career, I've read doctor's interviews with sufferers and observed their behavior in the hospital cafeteria as they obsessed over food, threw some away and sometimes sat with their families in situations that can only be described as turbulent.

Despite all this, I didn't really know what was going on in the head of a person suffering from anorexia and what their families go through as well, and that is where LHA comes in. She has created a portrait of a young woman, full of self doubt and pain that exerts control over her life in the only way she feels she can, by starving and cutting herself. This is an intense and powerful read.

Another book I read was If I Stay by Gayle Forman. This is the story of Mia, a young woman with a joyful life who is preparing to make a choice. A choice between leaving home and going to Julliard after high school or staying home near her boyfriend who is a member of a local up-and-coming band. Suddenly tragedy strikes and Mia finds herself with a different sort of choice to make between everything or nothing.

Reading these books, and other YA books I've noticed some similarities. These books start with a bang. There's no meandering, get-to-know-the-characters in the first 50 pages as I so often find in adult books. By the end of the first chapter or even sometimes even the first page, the story is out there, we know where we're going, there is action and suspense from the get go. I understand this, I mean these books are being written for the ipod and text message generation, they want to just get to the story. This is also, I think, why I tend to not find these books completely satisfying. More likely though is the fact that I'm 'past' much of the subject matter.

I enjoyed both of these books, admittedly Wintergirls more, and will continue to read from the YA section when the right book comes along.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

How I Hit the Book Jackpot

Every so often I browse the library's selection of 'Materials Ordered'. They're listed by month and organized by non-fiction, fiction, cd's, children's, etc.. I usually like to peruse the non-fiction books and wind up requesting a handful that I've never heard of, never seen, simply based upon the titles. You could probably guess what sorts of books wind up on my hold shelf. Mostly cookbooks, other books about food, and sometimes books with Paris or France in the title. While I always browse through the cookbooks that arrive, other times the books that come aren't my thing. But a few weeks ago, a book showed up that was just my thing.

I simply devoured Emily Franklin's food memoir, Too Many Cooks: Kitchen Adventures with 1 Mom, 4 Kids, and 102 Recipes
. Talk about the perfect book at the perfect time. Franklin's memoir is arranged like so many food memoirs these days, as a series of essays with recipes at the end of each one. The difference here is that Franklin is cooking for her family, picky eaters and all.

Franklin is a writer, I believe of YA novels, her husband is a pediatrician, and she stays home with all the children. Franklin loves food and cooking and has experience cooking as a chef. She obviously loves children, her life revolves around them, and it's clear she wants them to have a good relationship with food and eating. While the children are adorable and say lots of clever things, Franklin keeps a tight focus on the family's relationship with food, their day-to-day 'food life' whether the family is at home, vacationing, or celebrating holidays. I love books like this. I love reading about what people eat for dinner, or any meal really. For whatever reason, this fascinates me, which is why I'm sure I've loved so many food memoirs.

From a practical standpoint, Franklin offers many good ideas, techniques, and her own philosophy on getting kids to try new foods. I have a pretty good eater (she devoured that trout the other night) so I didn't necessarily read this book for that perspective. Oh, the recipes! Franklin has a lot of recipes that really appeal to me. She's altered recipes for things like muffins and other baked goods to include applesauce, wheat germ, and whole wheat flour. Her cooking style reminded me of mine in some ways. She roasts vegetables and makes big pots of lentil soups. Her recipes really appealed to me for their simplicity and I'd like to try many of them. Which is a problem since I don't own this book and it's due back - this is a book I'm now considering buying. I didn't want this book to end and stretched it out to make it last. I could read about what Emily Franklin is making for dinner forever, I think. The experience of reading this book was enhanced when I found this link to Apartment Therapy where there is a tour of Franklin's kitchen. Nice, huh?

What else can I say? Loved it, loved it, loved it. Thank you Emily Frankin for a fabulous reading experience.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Farmers' Market - July 4

I bought lots of good things yesterday. I was most excited to see green/wax beans and most disappointed not to find corn. I went to a BBQ yesterday and meant to make a salad from Sara Foster's book, Fresh Every Day (a fabulous book), which was supposed to contain arugula (stand-in for watercress), snap peas, corn, and a blue cheese dressing. Instead I made a huge salad with arugula, snap peas and wax peas that I blanched, raw summer squash, scallions and blue cheese with the lemon/red wine vinegar dressing. It was yummy and disappeared, always a good sign.

Oh! I almost forgot. I'm trying something new from the market I've been intrigued by for a while. Farm-raised, organic rainbow trout - it's right in the front. I bought some that is already seasoned and we're going to try grilling it.


Thursday, July 2, 2009


Was I ever wishy-washy about The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. I picked it up since it was in the must-read pile, and I was in the mood for some historical fiction.

In case you haven't heard from the huge marketing campaign, this novel is the story of a young woman named Connie working on her Ph.D. in American history at Harvard who spends her summer alternately looking for a dissertation topic and cleaning up her maternal grandmother's home near Salem, MA. The house is perfectly creepy and old, without electricity or a phone line. Connie comes across an old key in the house with a slip of paper attached reading 'Deliverance Dane'. Connie sets off to figure out who Delivance was and has a relatively easy time tracking her down and obtaining information about her descendants. Scattered throughout the novel are chapters that reveal what happened in the past from the perspective of Deliverance and her descendants. Howe's idea was apparently to write a novel from the idea of 'what if the witches from Salem were actually practicing witchcraft' thus the story takes an odd magical turn about halfway through that I wasn't expecting.

So how was I wishy-washy? Well, when I was awake and alert I thought this was an okay read. I really thought the premise was interesting and enjoyed reading about the big old house and its secrets. The Postscript was fascinating and it's obvious there and throughout the book that Howe is a scholar of American History.

But when I was tired, and it was the end of the day, I felt very nit picky about this book. My main problem with it was that the dialogue felt heavy. Too much description of how people said things, or what they were doing when they said it that didn't pertain to the continuation of the storyline. I've found that I prefer books that are just told, not just 'he said'/'she said' all the way through. In addition, I had trouble reading the New England dialect that Howe uses occasionally and had to actually read aloud to figure out what was being said.

The characters often seemed overwritten, like caricatures of people. The innocent student, the bad-boy painter romantic interest, the hippy-dippy mother who is all knowing, and the villain. Connie wasn't the easiest character to like. For a Ph.D. student she took an awfully long time (20 pages) to pick up on clues that I noticed immediately. In addition, from the moment The Villain was introduced it was as though Howe was throwing stuff at me to let me know that he was The Bad Guy. So how did Connie not notice?

{Insert big sigh.}

I know it sounds like I didn't like this book at all, which isn't the case. It's just that this, for me, was an okay book that could have been great, with better execution and more editing. I'm sure there are going to be a lot of people who enjoy this novel. I guess I just read enough to know that it could have been so much better.

Many thanks to Hyperion for this review copy.