Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Anti-Julia

This month, The Typical Book Group is reading My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.  Luisa describes herself as someone with a US passport and Italian citizenship, who lives in Berlin.  In fact, she was living in West Berlin while the wall was still standing, when her parents divorced.  Her father, an American, moved back to Boston with Luisa, while her mom stayed in Germany.  Luisa became a person divided, shuttling between the US, Germany, and her mother's family in Italy.  So, she did what any reasonable person would do after graduating from college, and moved to Paris.

Luisa first became known to the world as a cooking blogger.  She has a blog still, called "TheWednesdayChef", which you can get to by clicking on those words.  Knowing her history, I was expecting MBK to be a sort of Julie and Julia meets Eat Pray Love.  In Julie and Julia, a young woman living in New York, Julia Powell, tries to cook every dish in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in a tiny kitchen in 2002, and she blogs about her results.  In Eat Pray Love, a young travel writer, Elizabeth Gilbert, tries to recover from her divorce by travelling to Italy, India, and Indonesia.  The Typical Book Group has read both of these memoirs, and MBK seemed like it might be the perfect combination of the two, with a woman traveling the world, and giving us recipes.

In the early pages of MBK, I was really hooked.  I know a young woman who is living in Paris now, and blogging about it at La Jeune Fille Au Pair.  When I read the chapter called "Depression Stew", I couldn't decide if I should photocopy and mail that chapter to The Young Au Pair right away (so she would get real mail!) or if I should wait to finish the book and mail her the whole thing.  But before I sent it, I would, of course, photocopy the delicious recipes, like the Omelette Confiture and the Tomato Sauce with Carrots and Onions.  I was even excited to give the Sour Cherry Quarkauflauf a try, since Luisa told me where I could find Quark.  But then, Luisa turned into The Anti-Julia.

In the 1950s and 60s, when Julia Child was writing her masterpiece, she had a problem.  She was living in Paris, and writing a cookbook for busy American women.  She wanted to be sure that the recipes that she included would work in the US and that her readers would be able to find her ingredients.  She also wanted to try to make French cooking simple, even fool proof, so that American women could feel confident giving it a try.  Enter Avis DeVoto.  Avis lived in America, and Julia could ask her about the availability of ingredients, differences in appliances, and the utensils and equipment that she should expect an American woman to own. 

I first realized that Luisa was not following in Julia's footsteps when I read the recipe for Poppy Seed Whiligig Buns.  In the introduction, Luisa assures me that "they're actually quite simple to make", but then she tells me, twice, that I should eat these buns the morning that they are made.  Well of course, right?  But then I read the recipe.  It requires me to let the dough rise for an hour, mix in some more ingredients then freeze it for an hour, let it rise for another 45 minutes, and then bake it for 30 minutes.  So, by my calculations, if I am going to eat these buns the same day that I make them, I either have to get up at 4 am, or eat breakfast for dinner.

I should have realized that Luisa had something up her sleeve when she insisted that I use a "spotlessly clean" bowl for the Quarkauflauf.  Spotlessly clean.  Why would she think that my bowls aren't spotlessly clean?  Are my bowls spotlessly clean?  How does one get a bowl spotlessly clean anyway?  And then she insisted (in several recipes) that I use organic lemons.  Not organic milk, not organic eggs, not organic berries, but the lemons must be organic.  Huh.  Has she had bad experiences with genetically modified citrus?

Then we come to the Elderflower Syrup.  When a recipe begins by telling me that the greatest challenge may be finding the main ingredient, and suggests that I should try looking "in the wild" in the Pacific Northwest or mid-Atlantic region, I can be pretty sure that I will never try that recipe.  Julia Child was so concerned that American women wouldn't be able to find the proper ingredients that she changed some of her recipes.  Luisa, on the other hand, tells us to go look outside.  In another state.  Really?  Once I find the elderflowers (20-25 large sprays), I should combine them with some other ingredients in my 5 quart earthenware crock.  Could I borrow yours?

While there are other examples that I could give of recipes with obscure ingredients, there are also lots that I want to try.  I will definitely make the Tomato Bread Soup, using Jim Lahey's No-Knead Bread recipe, as Luisa recommends.  I also need to make the Meatballs in Tomato-Chipotle Sauce.  My husband is always anxious to go over to one of our neighbor's houses during football games, since she makes meatballs just for him.  Now I can compete!  Of course, my neighbor is in The Typical Book Group, so she read this one too, but maybe she'll get frustrated by the elderflowers, skip a few chapters, and miss it.  And finally, I can't wait to try the Apple Tart.  I've made The Pioneer Woman's version, which she calls a "flat apple pie", a bunch of times, but it's never turned out for me.  Hopefully Luisa has the trick.

As for the story, it is a good one, and I might have even read it without the recipes!  Luisa  lives an interesting life with her nontraditional family and her lost and found love life.  She also acts as an unofficial ambassador to Berlin, making it sound like we all should go, if only for the elderflowers.  I am adding a link to Luisa's blog to the column to the right, so we can check in and see what she is up to.  It looks good to me!

Next up:  Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Still Listening to:  Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Auf Wiedersehen

In The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott, Tess Collins is a young woman working as a maid, who is desperate to start a new life for herself.  She has heard of a job opportunity working on an ocean liner, and is anxious to give it a try.   Alas, when she gets to the ship, they have already filled all of their positions.  Then Tess notices a very elegant woman arguing with a man about someone who was supposed to work as her servant on the ship, but refused to make the trip.  Tess learns that the woman is the famous designer, Lucy Duff Gordon, and rushes in to take the place of her maid.  Tess convinces Lucy to take a chance on her by showing Lucy the handiwork on her own clothes, and promising that she is good at sewing buttons.  And that is how Tess finds herself sailing for America aboard the Titanic.

Once aboard, Tess realizes that she is competing in her own private Project Runway, with Lucy serving as a very harsh judge.  Everything changes when, well, you know what happens next.  

Anyhow, in real life and in the novel, Lucy and her husband survive aboard lifeboat 1, with 10 other passengers.  Tess doesn't make it to that lifeboat, but I'm not spoiling anything by telling you that she does manage to find her way to America.  On the Carpathia, where the movie, "Titanic" ends, the drama in The Dressmaker begins.   Even before the survivors make it to the dock, an inquiry has begun into why the Titanic sank, and why so few passengers survived.  Tess becomes friendly with a crewman who was in the Duff Gordon's lifeboat, and quickly begins to worry that the Duff Gordons were not exactly heroic in their escape.  Heidi Klum always tells Project Runway contestants, "As you know in fashion, one day you're in. And the next day, you're out".  Lucy learns this as public opinion turns against her even before she can show her latest designs.

Once in America, Tess makes friends with a writer covering the story of the Titanic survivors, Pinky Wade.  Pinky teaches Tess about life in America for real women, in contrast to life for the extremely wealthy, which Tess learns about from Lucy.  Tess also feels a connection with her fellow survivors, the unsinkable Margaret Brown, and a first class millionaire who Alcott appears to have created but who was likely based on a real life survivor.  I really liked how Alcott intertwined true stories of the survivors with fictional characters.  I found myself checking the list of survivors on Wikipedia to see which characters were really aboard the Titanic and which Alcott created. 

For the movie, because there really should be a movie for this one, I would suggest Kate Winslet as Lucy Duff Gordon.  Kate's too old to play Tess now, but I would love to see her on the Titanic again.  Also, the movie needs to close with "Suffragette" by Nina Gordon playing in the final scene.  Who knew we would need a 21st century song about suffragettes?  Nina Gordon and Kate Alcott did.

This is one more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge!

Next up on CD:  Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Still Reading:  My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss

Monday, January 21, 2013

Intro to LARPing

A few months ago I went out to dinner with one of my old friends.  We were catching up on what our families have been doing, when she mentioned that her nephew is really into LARPing.  Did I know what that was?  No!  She explained that LARP is an acronym for Live Action Role Play, and that it basically means that her nephew dresses up in costumes with a big group of other people, and they act out different scenarios over the course of a weekend.

When Justin Calderone emailed me to ask if I would review his book, LARPThe Battle for Verona, I was ready.  I already knew what LARPing was, after all!  So I agreed.

LARP:  The Battle for Verona is a LARPer's fantasy.  The first third is focused on the politics of LARPing.  Then, our LARPers meet an unexpected challenge.  Their town, set on an island off the coast of Washington State, is invaded by Mongolians.  The US Army doesn't know how to fight these primitive warriors, but the LARPers are prepared.  They have been battling medieval style every weekend for the last 10 years, and are excited to try out their moves for real. 

Did I mention that this is a fantasy?  Seriously.  If you are looking for a story based in reality, this is probably not the book for you. However, if you can let go, and give the LARPers a chance, it is a fun, quick read.  Also, it is worth mentioning that while this book is intended for adults, it would be appropriate for high school and even middle school students who are strong readers, as it doesn't really have much violence, and there is no sexual content or strong language that I can recall.  In this book, the nerds finish first, even though it took them until they had been out of high school for 10 years to win.  That might be just the message that a teenager who is having a rough time in school needs to hear.

I have no idea if other people are writing about LARPing.  It seems like an area that would make great fiction.  If I understand correctly, LARPers come up with a fictional scenario, and improvise, based on their characters' imagined traits.  They are different from war reenactors because they are not trying to re-create something that already happened, but instead are crafting their own story as they go along.  I liked the part of Calderone's book that was focused on the LARP group preparing for their scheduled battle, with all of the power struggles and ego stroking that involved.  A great storyline for a different LARP book would be to start there, but then add a real life murder or series of murders within the LARP battle.  The LARPers could then try to solve the crime before they become the next victims.  Actually that might even make a good CSI episode, if that show is still on!

In the interest of full disclosure, as I mentioned, the author, Justin Calderone, contacted me and asked me to review his book.  He sent me the book, in .pdf form, and I agreed to read and review it.  No promise were made, no payments were received.  I cut back on my Off the Shelf Challenge commitment for this year to give me the time to do one "industry requested" review like this each month.  I've received several requests this month, and next month I will be reviewing Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie, Jr.

Next up:  My Berlin Kitchen:  A Love Story with Recipes by Luisa Weiss

Still Listening to:  The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Wheel of Fortuna

As Ignatius Reilly, an enormous 30 year old man, prepares to move out of his mother's house, his girlfriend who is helping him asks "Don't you want to pack anything?"  To this, Ignatius responds "Oh, of course.  There are all of my notes and jottings.  We must never let them fall into the hands of my mother.  She may make a fortune from them.  It would be too ironic." 

That line so embodies the publishing of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, that I question whether Toole actually wrote it, or if it was added when it went to publication.  You see, Confederacy was published in 1980, and Toole committed suicide in 1969.  As we are told in the prologue, Confederacy only got published after Toole's mom badgered a professor at Loyola to read it.  The professor reluctantly agreed, if only to stop the pestering calls from Mrs. Toole, thinking that he could give it a try, hate it, and give it back.  Instead, he found that Confederacy was really good.  So good, in fact, that it not only got published, it also won the Pulitzer, most likely making Mrs. Toole a very nice fortune.

The story begins with Ignatius waiting for his mother, Irene, outside of a store.  A police officer, Angelo Mancuso, tries to arrest Ignatius for doing just that.  When Ignatius explains that he is only waiting for his mother, the crowd around him erupts in protest, leading to the arrest of an old man, Claude Robichaux.  At the police station, Mr. Robichaux meets a black man who had also been arrested on shaky grounds, Burma Jones.  To recover from their shock, Ignatius and his mother stop at a local bar, The Night of Joy, for a drink, not realizing that it is a strip club.  The rest of the novel follows the characters that we meet in that one incident, and their crazy struggles to find happiness in New Orleans.

Ignatius is an over educated man who is still living with his mother because it would be much too stressful for him to get a job.  He also needs time to write a manifesto about his world view.  Ignatius is the sort who would never use a one syllable word if a 3 or 4 syllable word would work instead.  His mother, Irene, on the other hand, is a very simple woman who hasn't even managed to master English, which is her only language.  Ignatius is constantly demanding that Irene make changes to improve his life, including things like doing a better job with his laundry.  You do remember that he is 30, right?  He actually demands that everyone who comes into contact with him work to make the world a better place.  However, his idealism is entirely self centered and misdirected.  Ignatius constantly prays to and curses the goddess, Fortuna.  He is titillated by sexuality in the way of old Republican men - "That's disgusting!  Let me see that!"-  and feels a need to investigate further.

Throughout the book, I had to wonder how much Toole had in common with Ignatius, and how much Mrs. Toole had in common with Irene.  When he killed himself, Toole was a 31 year old man, who was living with his parents.  He was even more educated than Ignatius, but he was drafted, and started working on the novel while in the military.  I would guess that Toole in the military felt a little like Ignatius as a hot dog vendor.  I hope that the relationship between Toole and his mom was nothing like that between Ignatius and his. Given the suicide, I have to wonder if even though he wasn't actually very similar to Ignatius, Toole saw himself as being exactly that, and kept drawing Ignatius as a caricature of his own worst self.

Much has been written about why this book won the Pulitzer.  I won't pretend that the Pulitzer people consult me for my opinions, as we have disagreed in the past.  However, this time, I think I get it.  The characters in Confederacy are so crazy, yet still multi-dimensional and well written.  Each has a distinct way of talking that tells you who they are and what their world view might be.  The story is ridiculous, but it all works so well.  The characters grow throughout the novel, and by the end, they are each a little closer to finding the life that they have been hoping to live.

In Other News:  Remember just a few days ago, when I was complaining that none of the books in my son's 9th grade curriculum were written more recently than 1960?  Well guess what?  As a ridiculously over-involved parent, I am on my district's Education Council, which is a group of parents, teachers and administrators who meet monthly to review and vote on curriculum related issues.  This week, we were asked to approve a new book for students in a program for 9th-12th graders called Ines of my Soul by Isabel Allende.  It is a work of historical fiction, set primarily in Chile in the 1500s, and it was published in 2006!  We unanimously approved the purchase.  Unfortunately, the book will be used at the other high school in our district, and not my son's, but who knows - it's a foot in the door, right?  Now I need to add it to my TBR list.  I just hope I don't hate it after reading it, and regret my vote.  That seems unlikely. 

A Confederacy of Dunces is the second book down for the Off the Shelf Challenge!

Next up on CD:  The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott.

Still Reading:  LARP:  The Battle for Verona by Justin Calderone

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Typical Book Group Report - 9

Last night, The Typical Book Group met to discuss Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  We had so much to say that we couldn't keep from interrupting each other!  There were 7 of us there who had read the book, and 1 who had not.  We really wanted to talk about the details, so the poor person who hadn't read the book yet heard all the spoilers. 

We thought that one of the most interesting aspects of the book was how Amy's parents write the Amazing Amy books.  Obviously Amy felt that she had to live up to the character, and it was a little shocking to us how her parents seem to have used the books to scold real life Amy for her short comings.

We spent a lot of time talking about what was real and what was not.   We also talked about where the schemes went wrong, and what the future would hold.   I still don't want to spoil this for you, so I won't get into too much detail here.  Read the book and you'll know what I mean.  Also, I have a discussion of some of this on my Spoilers Page, if you are interested.

We tried to decide who should play Nick and Amy in the movie, which is sure to come out.  The rumor online seems to be that Reese Witherspoon will play Amy.  I wouldn't pick her.  I would pick the woman from the Samsung ad - you know the one where she says "I also made you a video.  You probably shouldn't watch it on the plane."  Her name is Margaret Emery, and she is blond, skinny, and maybe just a little on the edge of psycho.  I think she would be great.  As for Nick, well, none of us is opposed to Ryan Gossling.

Next month we are scheduled to discuss My Berlin KitchenA Love Story with Recipes  by Luisa Weiss.  Unfortunately, it seems that only 9 libraries in Michigan own the book, and it is also not available at any of the Barnes and Noble stores near me.  Amazon is still an option, but we are moving the meeting date up, so I would have to pay for shipping . . . we'll see what happens.

Still Reading:  LARP:  The Battle for Verona by Justin Calderone

Almost Done Listening to:  A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Same Old Story

My son's 9th grade English class is reading The Odyssey by Homer.  So, since it was already on my list of books to read this year, I thought I would move it to the top of the list so that I could quiz him on it and get him ready for his tests.  He was thrilled!  That's a total lie.  But as an over-involved-borderline-helicopter parent, how could I resist?

The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus, and his 10 year journey to return to his home of Ithica, after fighting for another 10 years in the Trojan war.  Homer is credited with writing the Odyssey, but there is some question as to whether he actually wrote the story, or if he composed it for relaying orally.  It is also not clear when Homer lived, with some historians saying that he lived as recently as the 7th century BC, and some as long ago as the 12th century BC. 

I didn't read The Odyssey when I was in high school, even though I went to the same school that my son now attends.  I guess that I am glad that the curriculum has changed within the last 25 years, but I have to wonder if it isn't due for some more updating.  This year, my son  will read To Kill a Mockingbird, The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, and A Raisin in the Sun.  The newest of these, Mockingbird, was published in 1960, when my parents were sophomores in high school.  Is there really nothing that 9th graders should be reading that has been published in the last 50 years?

A somewhat recent article in Slate that you can read by clicking here argues that students should read Black Swan Green by David Mitchell instead of Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.  I re-read Catcher a couple of years ago, and was actually surprised that it has maintained its relevance as well as it has, given  that it was published in 1951.  I agree that kids should read Black Swan Green, but maybe they should read both, and compare the styles and themes, rather than reading one or the other.  Black Swan  features a 13 year old, which might make it less attractive to high school students than Catcher, where Holden is a more street smart 17 year old.  Black Swan is also set in England, and uses a lot of British terms, which might be challenging for freshmen, but certainly no more challenging than The Odyssey.

The Odyssey is worth reading, if you haven't.  In the story, Odysseus tells portions of the story of the Trojan war, as well as the stories of his epic struggle to make it to his home.  Helen, Menelaus, and Agamemnon, who starred in Helen of Troy by Margaret George, all make appearances.  Although the story was told by Homer, we would not be reading it without the aid of translators.  The version that I read was D.C.H. Rieu's revision of his father, E.V. Rieu's translation, which was first available in the 1940s.  It was interesting to hear the son complain of the errors he thinks his father made, and see the corrections throughout the text.  One important difference is that the son tries to remain true to the original text by including references to anonymous gods.  For instance, a character might say "some god must have made me forget."  In the father's translation, he felt that this was silly, and deleted all references to unidentified gods.  So his character would have just said "I must have forgotten".  The blaming of the gods as being the reason behind any wrong thing that a character does seems more consistent with George's version of the story, and really seems more in keeping with the thinking of the time.  There I go again, citing historical fiction in support of my historical facts. 

This is the first book that I have finished for the Off the Shelf Challenge this year!  14 more to go.

Next Up:  LARP:  The Battle for Verona by Justin Calderone

Still Listening to:  A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Forgotten Stories

Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison is the story of two people who I never knew even existed.  They are Matryona Rasputina and Alexei Romanov.  Matryona, or "Masha", as Harrison calls her, was the favorite daughter of Grigori Rasputin.  Alexei, or Alyosha, as he is called, was the only son of the last Tsar of Russia.

Before reading Enchantments, I would have told you that Rasputin was an evil person who became close to and may have seduced the wife of the Russian Tsar.   The Russian Tsar and his daughters were executed as part of the Russian Revolution, but there is a persistent rumor that one of his daughters, Anastasia, escaped.

In Enchantments, I learned that Rasputin was murdered while the Tsar was still in power.  According to Harrison, he was not only buried on the grounds of the Tsar's home, but he also named the Tsar and Tsarina as the guardians of his daughters, even though their mother was still living.  Apparently, the people of Russia loved Rasputin, and thought of him as a combination of a doctor and a priest.

The Tsar and his wife, the Tsarina, were both first cousins of King George of England.  Tsar Nikolay's mother was the sister of King George's mother.  The Tsarina, Alexandra, was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and she was also a first cousin to Emperor Wilhelm of Germany.  Many of Queen Victoria's male descendants died as the result of "falls", including her son, Leopold, who was rumored to have dated Alice Liddell, the inspriation for Alice in Wonderland, and Alice I Have Been.  Harrison makes the case, supported by history, that they really had hemophilia, but that the monarchy didn't want people to know that the heirs to the throne had this genetic defect.

Alyosha also had hemophilia.  As the only male descendant of the Tsar, his condition was top secret.  The Tsarina believed that Rasputin could stop the flow of blood to Alyosha's many wounds.  In order to keep the secret of his affliction, the Tsarina preferred letting people gossip about the nature of her relationship with Rasputin, rather than revealing that Alyosha needed to be cured. 

After Rasputin's murder, Masha and her sister moved to live with the Romanovs in the Alexander Palace.  The Tsarina had high hopes that Masha had inherited some of her father's skills, and asked her to spend time with Alyosha, and try to help him.  Masha had no idea of how to help Alyosha, but told him stories to get his mind off of his injuries.  Through these stories, the reader learns the history of the Romanovs and the Rasputins.

Enchantments is unique for historical fiction from the period, in that it mentions Anastasia only in passing, and instead focuses on people who were more significant than Anastasia during her life, but who have been forgotten by time.  Masha lived an interesting life, from palace to circus, and from fame to anonymity, and her life is ripe for fiction.  There are a couple parts of the story that relate to the famous Faberge Eggs.  The Detroit Institute of Arts has an exhibit featuring some of the eggs going on right now, and after reading Enchantments, I am hoping that I will be able to get there before it ends. 

Enchantments was a NYT Notable Book for 2012.

Next up on CD:  A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole

Still Reading:  The Odyessey by Homer

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Guess Again

On the eve of my 18th wedding anniversary, I started reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  Gone Girl  is the story of Amy Elliott and Nick Dunne.  Amy and Nick met in New York City, fell in love, and got married.  Amy tells the story in her diary, while alternating chapters tell Nick's point of view.  From the beginning, I felt like I knew people like them.  I would like people like them.  Maybe I am a little "people like them".  They seem to live a charmed life, even though they are going through a rough patch in their marriage.  But then, on their 5th wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing, and it appears that she has been forcibly abducted. 

From there, Flynn takes the reader on an thrill ride.  Who to trust?  Who to blame?   Nick doesn't react to the abduction the way that one might expect a husband to react, and quickly becomes the prime suspect.  I don't want to tell you much about why this is, but I will tell you that there is a character who seems to be based on Nancy Grace who is stirring the pot.

Complicating matters, Amy's parents have made a nice little empire out of a series of childrens' books called "Amazing Amy", starring their very own daughter, Amy.  In spite of their degrees in psychology, they turn Amazing Amy into something that real life Amy finds hard to emulate, while exploiting her life for their material.  Due to the Amazing Amy books, real life Amy has also found herself the target of stalkers, and of people who feel that they know her better than they really do.

Gone Girl is incredibly well written.  Before I started reading, I had seen tons of GoodReads reviews of the book, all of which were either 5 stars, saying that the book was great, or 4 stars, saying that the book was great, until the ending which the reviewer hated.  With that in mind, from the start I was trying to guess what the ending would be, and why I would hate it.  Flynn kept me constantly surprised.  What I will say about the ending is that I didn't like what happened at the end, but that it is deliberate, it is consistent, and it is a lot to think about. 

There's not much more that I want to tell you about this book, because it is the well planned surprises that make it so great.  I am adding this to my list of Favorites.  So, here I go again:  Go. Get. It. And. Read.   I haven't gotten to say that in a while.

Next up:  The Odyssey by Homer

Still Listening to:  Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...