Thursday, December 1, 2016

Book Reviews November 2016

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.  This was an interesting novel, although one that was emotionally difficult to read at moments.  I’ll start with the good aspects.  Flanagan did a great job of choosing what part of his characters’ stories to tell.  He is adept at honing in on the small moments in a life and showing how they become what shape a person.  This novel is mainly about Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor who joins the army and becomes a POW in WWII; he is a captive of the Japanese and is part of the work crew assigned to clear the jungle in Burma so that a railroad can go through it.  They are doing so with no tools and a riceball a day for sustenance.  He also tells the stories of other POWs, who become important in Dorrigo’s life, and he tells Dorrigo’s backstory of his childhood in the outback and a love affair he had with his uncle’s wife.  This brings me to what I did not like, which is that he goes on in too gruesome a detail about how horrible and torturous the prisoners had it.  One can argue he had to do so to a certain extent, but I think it just went on and on a little too long.  Yes!  It was horrible.  Yes!  Things were more grotesque than we could imagine.  But after reading scene after scene with amputations with no anesthesia, and people falling into latrine pits, and starving to death, and suffering pulsating ulcers with no medicine, etc., it just has the opposite effect of desensitizing one to it all.  At one point I almost stopped reading the book because of these scenes.  I also was a little troubled by the fact that the Australians were all decent folk, while the Japanese officers were horrific sadists.  Flanagan does tell the backstory of several of the Japanese officers, as well as what happened to them after the war, but it is all a little too easily black and white.  Dorrigo survives the war, but of course is forever scarred and damaged by his experiences there.  Don’t get me wrong:  Flanagan is a talented writer and gets much right.  I think parts could have been edited, however.

Sorcerer To The Crown by Zen Cho.  I enjoyed this very strange yet delightful book!  It is half fantasy/half 19th century drawing room novel, a weird combination that ultimately worked well.  It is sometime in the 1800’s and Jeremiah has just become England’s first black Sorcerer Royal, a liaison from the magic community to the rest of England.  He was the protégé of the former Sorcerer Royal, and thus came by his position honorably, but there is a lot of prejudice towards him and dissent in the ranks.  Meanwhile, Prunella is working as a teacher/servant at a school for girls with magic talent, the point of which is to teach them how to NOT use their magic powers.  Prunella, an orphan, discovers that she has been left a very powerful magical gift from her parents, and meeting up with Jeremiah fortuitously, goes to London to work out what this gift is and how she should use it.  The book is very funny and well done – Cho wrote it at 22 or 23 or some absurdly young age, and is planning it to be the first book of a trilogy.   It is odd and fun and imaginative and excellent.  I’m looking forward to books two and three.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid.  I hated this book.  It reads like a first-time pitch at an idea for a cheap horror movie, complete with young couple driving unwittingly to their doom in the night.  If you liked those movies with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, especially the first one in which two twenty-somethings try their hand at philosophical life talk, then perhaps this is the book for you.  I could barely stand it, however.  The book is told from the point of view of an unnamed woman, who is riding with her boyfriend of a few months, Jake, to meet his parents who live in a rural area.  Jake is a scientist, and seems like a good guy, but the narrator thinks the relationship has run its course and is thinking of ending things (thus, the title).  They visit the parents, and things get creepy fast.  They leave after dinner and instead of driving home, end up at an abandoned high school in the middle of nowhere.  All sorts of typical horror movie scenes play out, badly written, and then in the last few pages Reid completely changes the scenario, and we find out that the narrator was not a real person but a figment of someone’s imagination, more or less.  Of course, there are ZERO hints that this was the case as we read.  It was all very poorly and annoyingly done, and I am very surprised that it received the excellent reviews that it did.  Don’t read it.

Every Time I Find The Meaning Of Life, They Change It by Daniel Klein.  This was a small book that I thought my parents were loaning to me this summer, although it turns out they were only showing it to me and did not mean for me to abscond with it.  Oops!  Since I had it, I figured I might as well read it, and it is entertaining enough.  Klein is a philosopher who comes across an old notebook labeled “pithies,” in which he used to write down quotes from philosophers that spoke to him in some way.  He stopped writing the book in his thirties, and now in his seventies, decides to read the quotes and discuss how he feels about them all these years later.  It’s interesting, on the whole, although probably a better book to dip into now and then, rather than read from cover to cover.

Deadline by John Sandford.  I adore John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers mysteries.  There are nine so far – this one is the eighth – and all but the seventh have been absolutely delightful.  Virgil is an agent with the BCA and lives and works in small-town Minnesota mostly.  He’s a laidback kind of guy, who loves music and fishing and women, and is whip smart.  I’m not quite sure what it is about these books that I find so appealing.  The writing is understated and generally unnoticeable, as far as turns of phrase go.  But they always have such a perfect pace and unfold in interesting ways.  People underestimate Virgil, because in many ways he appears a young slacker, but Virgil just goes calmly about his business unfurling the crimes he is presented with.  I like them so much I’m wondering if I should read the “Prey” series for which Sandford is famous.  Can anyone tell me if they are any good?  At any rate, Deadline is one of Sandford’s best Virgil Flowers mysteries.  Virgil heads to Trippton, a small town on the Mississippi to do a friend a favor helping to find and bust a dog theft ring.  While there, a journalist is killed, and Virgil is assigned the case and sets out to solve the murder.  I enjoyed every minute of it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I'm Still With Her

I decided after the election that for the most part I would give myself the gift of not reading about it.  I don’t usually go the way of sticking my head in the sand, but I couldn’t bear to fill my brain with any more Trump minutiae (and everything about Trump is so very, very small).

I have read some blog entries and comments, and then a few postmortems, and I am impressed with how eloquent people have been about their shock and despair, because in the face of my own shock and despair I have been struck dumb.

Sure, I have managed to pass on the cute things my kid said – “But what about America?” and then he suggested that to cheer Hillary up we send her a toy, or maybe a cape?  “Do you think that would help?” – but my overall state is of scrambled brain, wherein my instinct becomes a primal one of wanting to compress all the words into a howl of rage.

And perhaps in this new world, a howl of rage is good currency, or at the very least a starting point.  Because this IS a new world.  There are jackals soon to be in the white house, and their minions are riding roughshod all across the country.

As is any person with a heart and a brain, I’m bothered by so much of what Trump says and what I can thus only assume he stands for.  What bothers me most though is his ignorance about…well, about everything.  In a few short months he’ll start his job as one of the most powerful people in the world, and he’ll be learning the job from scratch.  FROM SCRATCH, people.  He knows nothing about government, or other countries, or agreements, or diplomacy, or culture, and I’d venture to say he knows very little about being a successful business man either.

He’ll be learning everything as he goes, and how is that reassuring?  It seems to me the equivalence would be if I decided to be a doctor, and then my first day of learning to be one was not in medical school but as the chief surgeon of a large hospital.  Good luck to all my patients! 

I’ve been voting for presidents for thirty years and have voted for the winner four times and the loser four times, but this loss is different. 

It’s been a week and I still walk around feeling like we have fallen through the looking glass and everything is askew.  I am heartened by all that people are beginning to do to fight back and to not let Trump’s lyrics become the song of this country, and I think we all need to join in.  In time, perhaps, we’ll even feel good enough to manage a shoulder shimmy.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Book Reviews October 2016

The Timewaster Letters by Robin Cooper.  This is a little comic gem that I had put on my kindle a few years ago and then kept putting off reading.  Cooper writes funny yet seemingly serious letters to real organizations and then continues the correspondence until the other side no longer writes back (upon which he stamps “END OF CORRESPONDENCE” on the letter).  It is all mostly spoofy things, such as writing to an aerial photography association to see if they would have any interest in his picture collection of TV aerials.  When they politely write back saying he has misunderstood, and they are a group that does photography from above, then he writes back to see if they want any of his aerial photographs of aerials, etc.  It’s a short read on the whole, and strangely enough, the gag gets funnier as he goes along.  I was smirking in the beginning and sort of outright guffawing towards the end, partly because he gets in the groove and partly because you get so you know what he will say next but don’t think he actually will say it.  But then of course he does.  At some point in a correspondence, too, he will always propose a meeting, and it was funny to see how frantic the other person would become in his/her desire to NOT meet with this loon.  It’s amusing.

Penelope by Rebecca Harrington.  This was a slightly quirky first novel that my sister sent me to read.  Penelope is an odd girl who is beginning her first year at Harvard.  At first I found her oddness a bit offputting, but eventually she began to grow on me.  She’s a strangely literal person who didn’t have close friends growing up and really hopes to remedy that in college.  She has a mother who consistently gives her bad advice as to how to go about making friends, and she is thrown together with a group of unlike-minded fellow first-years, including two nightmare roommates.  The book is basically a comedy about one’s first year in college, and read as such it is relatively successful.  Penelope ends up in a horrible play, because she can’t figure out how to get out of doing it.  She gets a crush on a worldly upper-classman who uses her, and she does her best to shake off some of her dorm-mates whom she really does not like. It’s better than I’m making it out to be:  what’s good about it in particular is Harrington’s creation of Penelope as an odd bird with a good heart who is always herself in every situation.  As her classmates try on different personas and attitudes, she always states things as she sees them, and in Harrington’s hands this becomes a charming trait.  I’d be interested in seeing what she writes next.

The Trespasser by Tana French.  Tana French’s sixth novel came out at the beginning of the month and the literary world is all abuzz.  I am here to say that it is excellent, too; if you liked her previous five, you will love this one.  French is an American who has lived in Ireland for the past 26 years and her novels are all focused on the Dublin Murder Squad.  Each book focuses on a different detective as they work to solve a case (you do see detectives from previous books, although I admit to having trouble remembering which detectives I “know” and which I do not).  This book is in the first person of Detective Antoinette Conway (she and her partner Stephen Moran were in the fifth and least successful of French’s books, too).  Conway and Moran get assigned a case that looks like it will be a slam-dunk domestic murder case.  As they begin the investigation, however, the tensions from the squad keep encroaching on the case.  For example, an older detective, Breslin, is assigned to help them out, but Conway – perhaps a little paranoid – is convinced that he keeps trying to lead them down the wrong track.  The whole case is interesting, and it is also fascinating to see how Conway and Moran work together to try to get information from a witness; and at the same time they have to keep information hidden from Breslin until they work out what he is up to.  Conway is also convinced that the whole squad is trying to get her to quit, and this also adds tension to the situation.  It’s an excellent crime novel – definitely one of French’s best, and that is saying something.

Florence Gordon by Brian Morton.  This was a very surprising little gem of a novel.  It’s been on my kindle for a few years, and I no longer remember who recommended it to me – if it was you, thank you! – and I thought it delightful.  It’s short – I read it in three days of commuting – but it is simultaneously witty and weighty, and very enjoyable.  It primarily concerns three generations of women – Florence Gordon, her daughter-in-law Janine, and her granddaughter, Emily.  Florence is a feminist and scholar, and when the book begins she is 75 and finally getting the recognition she deserves (via a NY book review by Martha Nussbaum, ha!).  Florence is an outspoken curmudgeon – her interactions with people are hilarious, as she tends to say exactly what she is thinking, and what she is thinking is unexpectedly brash common sense.  She is pleased to get the recognition, but she is not going to suffer fools gladly.  Janine is a Seattle-ite psychologist who has a kind of internship position in NYC for a year.  She is enjoying being back in the city, and is beginning to have feelings toward her new boss, which is complicated since her husband, Daniel (Florence’s son), has just arrived in the city for a few months stay.  Emily is a 20 year old who is taking a break from Oberlin.  She ends up doing research work for her grandmother and wins her grudging and silent respect.  The tone of the novel is really excellently done – Morton gets it exactly right.  All the characters are likeable and interesting.  The book itself reminded me a bit of Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf herself is quoted occasionally throughout the book – although not from that novel in particular), only without the depression.  It’s as if Clarissa Dalloway had courage and opportunity as a young girl, and perhaps a Xanax or two as an older one.  I highly recommend it.

The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle.  I think I might have read this book a long time ago, as it seemed very familiar to me.  I read it this time after reading somewhere that it is J. K. Rowling’s favorite novel, so was curious.  It is written in the first person voice of Paula Spencer, a woman who has had a hard past twenty years to put it mildly.  She married Charlo, who then beat her mercilessly.  When the book begins, Paula has just found out that Charlo was killed by the police in a kidnapping and robbery.  Paula had kicked him out a year hence, but in her grief she is going over all that happened in her life from her childhood on.  The best thing about the book is her very distinctive and very charming voice.  Doyle also explores memory in interesting ways – Paula is never quite sure of the validity of what she remembers.  She’ll tell about the same incident several times, and she is always trying to get one of her sisters, Carmel, to agree with her that they had a happy childhood and good parents.  Carmel very much remembers it otherwise.  It’s very well done, and also depressing.  Paula was a smart girl with endless optimism and she was turned into an old before her time beaten alcoholic.  She finally does the right thing when Charlo starts to turn on their eldest daughter, Nicola.  It is a skillful and difficult book.

Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton.  I am really not the best audience for this book, as I tend to be a bit skeptical of getting in touch with one’s inner warrior, and other such self-help dictums.  But GDM can certainly tell a good story and she can write.  The book is basically what happens five years ago when she discovers that her husband has been unfaithful.  At this point in time, she was a very popular blogger and author of another book, and her marriage was part of her image on which she made her living.  So she had more at stake in it then some.  She then realizes that she needs to rehabilitate herself, and dives into an exploration of all her issues, beginning with raging bulimia at age 10, alcoholism in her teens and twenties, and a general self-image problem.  It is easy to get swept into all this when you read, because as I mentioned above, she has talent.  But as I also mentioned above, I tend towards skepticism, and a lot of her story just didn’t ring “true” to me.  I feel like she exaggerates and bends a lot to make the story powerful.  This book is an Oprah pick and there is a lot written about it at the moment, so I also discovered while I was in the middle of reading the book that her marriage – which in the book she is repairing – had just ended before her book tour.  And although she tells Oprah that her journey was never about repairing the marriage, but about both she and her husband repairing themselves, to me their impending divorce does ruin a bit what is happening in the book.  At any rate, I can certainly understand why some love the book and I think it is worthy of the attention it has been receiving; it is just not my kind of thing.

Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante.  I am still slowly reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.  This was the third book and I liked it better than the first two – partly, I think, because Elena and Lila are finally adults and their trials and triumphs more interesting.  It is definitely more of the same though.  Each women achieves in her own way, but each success and failure is inextricably intertwined with what the other is doing.  It’s surprising that Ferrante is able to make this interesting, and I can’t quite put my finger on why it is.  And I do also admit that at times for me it isn’t – I do get tired of Elena always getting pulled back into the goings-on of the neighborhood.  I wanted her to escape.  Ferrante gets this kind of a friendship exactly right though, and it isn’t something that you see much in literature.  I am going to read the fourth one right away now without taking a break.

Simple Matters: Living With Less and Ending Up With More by Erin Boyle.  I have mixed feelings about this book.  It is a lot like what Boyle writes about in her blog, Reading My Tea Leaves, which I enjoy.  She is a practitioner of minimalist living, and writes in book and blog about simplifying one’s surroundings and getting rid of the clutter.  She is similar to Marie Kondo but without the whimsy and charm.  There’s a part of me that is attracted to this lifestyle, but I can’t help but feel that the elephant in the very sparsely furnished room that never gets addressed is CONTROL.  Minimalists basically have control issues, and they appease them by controlling everything that comes in and goes out of their living spaces.  So whereas Boyle writes about it as an aesthetic and ethical choice – and I believe that it is both – I think it is also dishonest to not address the control aspect of what she gets out of her choices.  In a crude nutshell:  I think she and other minimalists get off on throwing things away and doing without.  I also think her lifestyle is often an aesthetic preference masked as a virtue.  She likes the whole look of endlessly neutral color, and beige linens, and everything taken out of the container they came in and decanted into mason jars, but then pats herself on the back for the morality of choosing to live like she does.  Is it hypocritical of me then to say that I think she gets a lot right?  We do have too much stuff and we can live more simply and will be happier if we do so, and Boyle’s book contains a lot of good advice about making this happen in your own life.  Just read it with a grain of salt.

Unseen by Mari Jungstedt.  This is a crime novel that I discovered on a list of best Swedish mysteries, and since I had recently finished reading the Asa Larsson books, which I love, I was hopeful I'd find a new Swedish writer I liked as well.  Jungstedt is no Larsson though.  The book was a good read -- and I think I'll read at least the next in the series -- but whereas I think Larsson is an really excellent writer, the writing in Unseen is just serviceable.  That said, it is definitely a good read with a lot of suspense.  It takes place on the island of Gotland and features Detective Anders Knutas, who remains rather an unknown quantity (not fully on purpose, I don't think).  Anyway, a woman gets murdered on the beach; they think her boyfriend did it; but then when another woman gets murdered in the same way, Knutas realizes something else is going on.  The rest of the novel is a race to figure out who is doing the killing before he kills again.  Nothing groundbreaking, but I was happy daily to return to reading it.

Sunday, October 30, 2016


I am really ready for this election to be over, assuming everything goes my way of course.  I’m really tired of the endless ads, etc., and the evidence of their pervasiveness is this:  Owen was playing with his superhero figures the other day and I heard him say:  “I am batman, and I approve this message!”  Ha!

I won’t have pictures until sometime in November, so I decided if I can’t give you photo breaks, I’ll at least give you bullets:

·         I made my third loaf of whole wheat sandwich bread last Saturday and it turned out well.  Now I’m going to move on to trying out a bread cloche I got for Christmas many years ago and forgot about.  It’s a large and heavy piece of pottery that is supposed to be good for making a peasant loaf.

·         And can I give a shout out now to King Arthur Flour?!  They are the best company.  I used their hotline the other day when I was having trouble with my bread dough, and then more recently I sent them a question in an email, because the only specific recipe I had for the bread cloche called for all white flour, which I didn’t want to use.  They got back to me within 24 hours with the proportions of wheat or rye flour I can use instead.  They have great customer service!

·         We went apple picking on Sunday and I have some cute photos which I shall have to add later.  We had to journey pretty far into the orchard to find trees with apples still on them – note to self: don’t wait until the end of October to pick your apples.  But we came home with a large box of apples and I immediately made some whole wheat apple muffins, which turned out well although I seem to be the only one in the family who is eating them.  So that is 2 apples down, about 48 to go!  I need to get my mother’s apple sauce recipe, and I think I’ll make Smitten Kitchen’s breakfast apple crisp again.

·         Owen is a Hillary supporter, of course, and Susan informed me that at Target the other day he was telling anyone who’d listen that we need to Dump the Trump.  That’s my boy!  It reminded me of the story my sister Martha tells about my nephew Henry at 5 years old lecturing 3 year-old Georgia about not shopping at Walmart because, as he screamed in her surprised face, THEY ARE MEAN TO THEIR WORKERS!  Sounds about right.

·         The weather this October has been very Jekyll/Hyde.  We had several days in the eighties last week (very odd) and now it is the low fifties (more like it).  One feels a bit battered by it all.

·         I can never get Owen to talk to me about what he did in nursery school usually.  The only time he gets very animated about it is when reporting on another kid’s transgressions.  Yesterday he told me three times that Brayden had to sit on the time-out bench for hitting the teacher.  The time out bench, in case you are wondering, is blue.  And Owen, according to Owen, has never had to sit on that bench.  Let’s keep it that way.

·         Sean and I are both completely smitten with the British TV show “The Detectorists”.  There are two seasons available on Netflix and it is a complete gem.  We both watch each episode with goofy grins on our faces.  It is so funny!  And so well-done.  I’m adding it to my list of the best TV shows ever, after Buffy, Star Trek:TNG, and Sex and the City.  How about that for an eclectic pairing?

·         I got Luisa Weiss’s (The Wednesday Chef) much anticipated new cookbook last week, Classic German Baking.  It’s a beauty, but I realized upon eagerly paging through it that I didn’t want to so much cook the items myself, as be served them all, one after the other.  Any takers?  I do plan to attempt many items, slowly.  I hadn’t realized there was a difference between European and American butter, but there is – and guess which one is better?!  Luckily, one can get Irish Kerrygold butter at Trader Joe’s, which should do the trick.  There’s also yeast differences, vanilla extract differences, and the fact that a main ingredient in some German concoctions, quark, is not readily available here.  Plus I’m not sure where to buy fresh poppy seeds, and do I really need a poppy seed grinder?  The jury is still out.

Bread, Second Attempt

I decided for my next attempt at a loaf of whole wheat bread I would try a King Arthur flour recipe that received rave reviews online.  The ingredients were a little bit odd – nonfat dry milk, instant potato flakes, orange juice, amongst others – but I trust King Arthur’s.

On Saturday then I mixed the ingredients together and set my old kitchenaid mixer to kneading, and the dough – instead of looking like a ball – looked like streusel topping.  It was very frustrating!  It would go together in a ball when I pushed it so with my hands, but the minute the dough hook started kneading it again it would return to its streusel format.  Owen came into the kitchen at this point, because he likes to share in the anger.  I roared; he roared.  I stamped my foot; he stamped his.  I called my mother and she did not answer her phone.  But then I noticed that the recipe had King Arthur’s baking hotline number printed on it!  How convenient!

I called it and talked to a nice woman who informed me that I measured the flour incorrectly – I scooped instead of spooning the flour into the cup.  Apparently when you scoop you get too much flour in, because it isn’t aerated properly.  She suggested I keep adding tablespoons of water until it came together, and then also to let it sit for thirty minutes so that the whole wheat flour can start breaking down.  I did both and it worked!

While I had her on the phone, I also asked why the recipe seemed to omit the punching down between the two risings – the best part of making bread according to my four year old.  She informed me that one now no longer punches bread dough (alas!) but just releases the air while shaping it into a loaf.

Anyway, it rose beautifully twice and cooked well, and other than having a bit of trouble getting it out of the pan (note to self:  don’t take it literally when instructions say to “lightly grease”), the loaf was quite respectable and tasted delicious.  It was so good, that Owen had a slice as a snack, and even requested it again at dinner, without even needing it to be slathered with butter!

I shall attempt it again – perhaps next Saturday so I can take advantage of the orange juice I bought for my first attempt.  If anyone is interested in trying it, it’s King Arthur Flour’s “100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread.”

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Brisket, Whole Wheat Bread, & Hand Pies

I wrote the below entry a few weeks ago and then when I went to post it I had computer issues which are ongoing and are preventing me from adding pictures.  Alas!  So for the next couple of weeks, there will be no pictures of a cute boy or cute pets pasted throughout.    My laptop is now twelve years old, so I cannot really complain.

Now that Owen is 4, I am finally able to do a bit of cooking on the weekends.  I had forgotten that it is actually fun for me to try new recipes when I do not have a crying toddler attached to my leg or hip.  I organized all my cookbooks and looseleaf recipes and have been very slowly making my way through them.

I decided though to create a fall cooking goal, and it is to become proficient in the random trio of brisket, whole wheat bread, and hand pies.  We’ve been buying brisket on occasion from the smokery that is set up outside of our Whole Foods on the weekends, and it is divine.  I found a recipe for cooking brisket and onions in a slow cooker all day, and shall attempt it soon.

I’ve also been wanting to learn how to make a good loaf of whole wheat sandwich bread.  About eight years ago I decided to learn how to cook sourdough bread, which is my favorite, and after about four failures I finally was able to make a respectable loaf.  However, I was living alone at the time and didn’t feel like I could eat enough bread to keep the sourdough starter going, so my breadmaking fell by the wayside.  So I figured this time I would just do whole wheat without the sourdough part of it.

My first attempt this past Saturday was with a Steakhouse-style bread recipe which I got from the good blog Girl Versus Dough.  I got special rye flour from King Arthur and was all ready to go.  And all went well at first.  The dough rose beautifully the first time and Owen got to punch it down.

Then it rose beautifully the second time, and I put it in the oven to cook.  This is where the problems started, because it did not rise during cooking.  I did some google troubleshooting and discovered that this was probably due to the dough forming a bit of a crust during the second rising (it did), and the crust kept it from rising while baking.  To fix this, I could have a) put a pan of water in the oven and/or b) sliced down the top of the loaf.

The bread was good—just very very dense.  And I did like the recipe, which called for rye flour, whole wheat flour, bread flour, a cup of dark coffee, and two tablespoons of cocoa!  I would try it again.  My next loaf will be a King Arthur recipe, though, which people rave about on the website.

And then I want to become proficient in the making of handpies – both sweet and savory – because whenever I see pictures of them on Instagram or blogs, they look like the most wonderful thing in the world.  Yet where can one buy a handpie?!  Seemingly nowhere.  So I plan to learn how to make them myself, little red hen me.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Book Reviews September 2016

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld.  I had mixed feelings about this book.  It is a modern day rewrite of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and for the first third of it I was basically just grumpy that I wasn’t reading the original.  But then I discovered that if I pictured the main characters as Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, then I could enjoy the book a little more!  Some of the updates are interesting – Lydia elopes with a transsexual, for example, and Mrs. Bennet is a compulsive shopper – but some of the story just doesn’t translate into modern times, particularly the family constraints.  It doesn’t matter today if you have tacky sisters and a stupid mother – that is no longer going to affect your own opportunities.  Sittenfeld is clever though, and the writing isn’t bad.  It’s an entertaining but not mind-blowing read.

Adnan’s Story: The Search For Truth and Justice After Serial by Rabia Chaudry.  If you listened to the podcast, Serial, and enjoyed it, then you should definitely read this book.  Actually even if you didn’t, it is a fascinating – if long – read.  Rabia’s brother, Saad, was Adnan’s good friend, and when Adnan got arrested in 1999, Rabia, who was then in law school, became his advocate.  It was Rabia who brought the case to the attention of Sarah Koenig, who then made theSerial podcast.  Anyway, Rabia puts all the very, very extensive evidence that Adnan Syed is innocent into her book.  I thought he was innocent before I read the book, but I definitely think so after.  She leaves no stone unturned, and once Serial becomes so popular, she gets a lot of help from professionals and others to sift through the transcripts and evidence and follow old leads, etc.  It was one of these helpers who discovered the fax page that has led to the case being reopened.  She shows how the police very early on came up with the theory that it was Adnan and some kind of a Muslim honor killing, and she goes on to prove how very silly and unfounded that theory was.  The police then bent all evidence into fitting that story line, however, and Adnan’s attorney was having major medical problems that people didn’t know about at the time.  Her illnesses made her incompetent.  It’s an often times stressful read – I had to put my kindle down and rage a bit from time to time, and Sean got very tired of me filling him in on outrageous details.  Adnan Syed has been in prison since the age of 17 for a crime he clearly didn’t commit.  Free Adnan!  And please find the real killer of Hae Min Lee.

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner.  This was an excellent novel and I look forward to reading more books about DS Manon Bradshaw in the future.  Manon is a detective assigned to a missing persons case in Cambridge, England.  Edith Hind, a 22 year-old student, is reported missing by her boyfriend who returns home from a weekend away to find the door to their apartment open and Edith gone, although her purse and phone and coat are all still there.  He calls her parents and the police.  The majority of the book is through the viewpoint of Manon, a 39 year-old woman who is good at her job and not as good in her personal life.  She is in the midst of internet dating and finding the pickings slim.  We also get chapters from the viewpoint of Miriam, Edith’s mother, and also Davy, Manon’s work partner.  The characters are all very well-written and developed and believable, and Steiner does a good job of telling just what is needed without getting overblown in the process.  The case unfolds slowly, and as more time passes, of course, there is less of a chance that Edith will be found safe.  I recommend it!

You’ll Grow Out Of It by Jessi Klein.  This is a hilarious book of essays, and I often found myself laughing so hard on the train while reading it, that I think I caused a fellow passenger or two to move a few seats farther away from me.  But it is so funny!  Klein is a comedian, and also a writer for Amy Schumer, so of course she is funny, but her writing is quite good too.  She concentrates in this book on her dating experiences, and then once she meets the man she goes on to marry in her late thirties, she writes about their relationship and infertility problems etc.  She has a great eye for detail and is also really adept at the interesting turn of phrase:  I laughed for several days at her description of herself trying on French lingerie in a high-end boutique in Manhattan, looking in the mirror while wearing a thong and saying that she looks like a groundhog wearing a tiny belt.  She pokes fun at herself constantly, yet she also finds the right balance of making serious commentary about relationships and what people go through to find good ones.  I knew she would be funny, but it is seriously an excellent book.

Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich.  I didn’t like this as much as I thought I would, although I think a lot of my problems with it had to do with the fact that it is a work of fiction, yet I kept forgetting that and thinking it was a graphic memoir.  I’m not sure why that caused me irritation, except that it did.  Lena is a woman in her late thirties with two daughters, who has just gotten a divorce and is on her own for the first time ever.  Lena and Anya are Russian immigrants, and Anya writes well about what it is like to have dual identities.  In the course of the book, too, Lena Finkle travels back to Moscow for book tours, and realizes that she cannot truly return.  Much of the first two-thirds of the book are about the different men she meets on an internet dating site.  I feel like the book hit its stride more when she starts dating “The Orphan,” a wealthy heir who lives like a homeless hipster.  One sees that the relationship is not going to last, but Ulinich does a good job of portraying Finkle’s devastation when it ends.  How she does so is also a good example of how graphic novels can perhaps show certain emotions better than words alone:  each time Lena returns to The Orphan to go over why he broke up with her, Ulinich draws her as a duck quacking “But I love you” over and over.

The Woman In Cabin Ten by Ruth Ware.  In general it is a pet peeve of mine when I’m reading a book in which the main character cannot a) sleep, or b) sober up.  It stresses me to the point where I don’t enjoy the book, and it also seems like an easy way out. I’m not saying it isn’t effective in plot advancement, as a sleep-deprived person of course makes bad decisions, but it just is unpleasant being dragged down that path.  Having said that, however, whereas I began being grumpy at this book for precisely the above reasons, I was grudgingly won over by the suspense and the plot.  Lo Blacklock is a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, and has the opportunity to go on a small luxury cruise for copy.  The first night on the boat, she borrows mascara from a woman in the cabin next to hers, and then when she tries to return it, realizes that there is no trace of the woman.  The crew denies that anyone was ever in that room, and the readers and the people in charge on the boat aren’t sure if Lo is telling the truth or if she was muddled from lack of sleep and too much drink.  Lo is stubborn, though, and keeps up her search for this mysterious woman, even when she begins to get frightening threats left in the steam on the mirror while she showers!  The suspense does not let up, and our curiosity and worry is piqued even further by between-section emails Lo’s boyfriend writes about Lo having disappeared herself from the ship.  It’s an excellent read!

Thursday, September 15, 2016


When Owen and I go for a walk, we often cross a bridge going over a little brook, so I started telling him about the three billy goats gruff and the troll under the bridge.  When we were at my parents’ house in Maine, my mother had a picture book of the tale, which apparently is Norwegian.  Owen was very interested in the book and the tale, and so then we started incorporating it into our playdough play.  We made a bridge out of the playdough cans and Owen made a troll and then I would make animals that would then cross the bridge at their peril.  Owen’s troll almost always let them pass with a gruff, “Be off with you!”  At one point, though, I realized that Owen was calling it a Control instead of a troll.  Ha!  So we played the control under the bridge.  Rather fitting.

My father is named Leighton, and my mother was calling to him one day and Owen leaned over to me and whispered:  “Why does Gee keep calling Pa ‘Plankton?’”

I am finding that four is a pretty enthusiastic age, although one has to do some maneuvering every now and then.  We can never be sure how he will react to something.  One day in Maine when we were going to the beach, we stopped at two stores that we wanted to check out, and told Owen – afraid he would have a fit – that we were just going to peek into two stores on the way.  Owen unexpectedly exclaimed, “Two stores!! That’s AMAZING!!”  Well okay then.

We found a yellow plastic construction hat of Owen’s that had been missing for long enough that he had forgotten about it.  Sean gave it to him and said he could wear it while he was using his tools and doing construction.  Owen replied:  “Yes!  I can wear it when I’m using my tools and I want to look fancy!”  J  As construction workers are wont to do.

Owen and Sean got a pair of walkie talkies to use when they are playing space ship, and it has taken Owen awhile to learn that he needs to hold it up to his ear when he is listening and to his mouth when he is talking.  He tends to do the opposite.  And then he also has to push the button on it when he talks, which is also a bit difficult to remember.  Sean’s been teaching him walkie talkie jargon, like ten four, and Owen, playing a game of one-upmanship, always responds with a ten five.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Back To School

Owen started his 4-Day 4’s class this week, after attending orientation last week.  Here he is before attending orientation:

His class is in the mornings Monday through Thursday, and he seems to have a very nice and very organized teacher!  He also has seven out of twenty kids in the class who were in his class last year, so there are many familiar faces.  Next week we have to bring in 6 red delicious (ugh) apples for Fruit & Veggie Tuesday (it actually has a name that is more clever than that, but I can’t remember it.)  Anyway on Tuesdays one child will bring in assigned fruit or veggies and then as a class they will learn about the fruit/veggie and learn how to prepare it.  I’m hoping this will get Owen to eat vegetables!  My only success so far has been with the occasional sugar snap pea.

They are also focusing on one letter per week, and this week of course it is A.  Owen is just beginning to be interested in trying to write his letters, and he was very, very proud of these two A’s he wrote:

After those two, however, he started going down up instead of up down, so his A’s were like little sleeping vampire bats.  After writing two upside-down A’s he said, “womp, womp.”  I laughed and asked him where he had learned to say that?  And he told me, “Womp womp is what you say when you make a mistake, Mom.”  Indeed.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Book Reviews August 2016

Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty.  Liane Moriarty is one of my favorite novelists writing today, and her newest novel does not disappoint.  She’s such a good story teller, and what always impresses me the most about her books is that all of the characters are interesting and multi-dimensional.  She never just has a character that serves to advance the plot; rather, she is able to reveal usually through small but pertinent details just what makes that character tick.  There is no one completely bad or completely good or wrong or right—they are people who you inevitably become quite fond of.  This novel focuses on three couples, and we know right from the beginning that something horrible happens to them at a barbecue.  Indeed the chapters are labeled, one day before the barbecue, two days after the barbecue, etc., so the reader is immediately aware of – and rather dreading – that event.  Clementine is a cellist who is married with two young daughters, Holly and Ruby.  She has a childhood friend, Erika, who was raised by a hoarder and neglectful mother, and so Clementine’s mother took Erika in and sort of forced  Clementine to be friends with her.  Their friendship is rather fraught, and made more so by the fact that Erika is more or less on the spectrum.  Erika and her husband, Oliver, live next door to another couple, the wonderful Tiffany and Vid.  The first half of the book is spent leading up to the reveal of what happened at the barbecue, and I do admit to wondering from time to time if it wasn’t too manipulative.  At some point I just wanted to know what happened and be done with it.  Once we find out what happened, however, Moriarty does an excellent job of showing how all the characters work through it.  It’s a really good, compassionate read and I think one of her best novels.

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott.  I think Megan Abbott is a good writer, but I also think her books are not for me.  This is the second one I have read, and whereas I can recognize as I read that what she is doing is skillfull, I still end up feeling claustrophobic and stressed.  Like in her mystery, The Fever, Abbott takes a small group of people and has something run amok – in this case it’s a group of elite gymnasts and one of the coaches boyfriend gets killed by a hit and run driver.  The main character here is Kate, the mother of the best gymnast at the gym, Devon Knox.  The problem I have is that Kate doesn’t get much of what is going on, and her viewpoint is mainly the only one we experience.  So as a reader, we can see and sense that so much is happening that Kate isn’t privy to, yet we are forced to remain in the dark with Kate.   It’s the kind of scenario that stresses me out as I read and isn’t enjoyable to me.  I don’t generally mind a character with limitations, but it just is tiresome to be so closely tethered to a limited viewpoint.  Anyway, Kate begins to suspect that her daughter and her husband and one of the other gymnast’s mother knows much more about what is going on than she does, and starts piecing things together.  It was an interesting peek into the world of intense gymnastics, and Abbott also does a good job of raising questions about the pressures and restraints of having a whole family hitch to the star of one child.  I don’t think I will be in a hurry to read her other books, however.

We’ll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to be French by Emma Beddington.  This is an excellent memoir – funny and sad and well written and full of fine cake.  What more can one ask for?  It was so good that once I was a third of the way into it, I started reading it slowly and doling out a chapter a night so I wouldn’t reach the end of it too soon.  Beddington, who is the blogger Belgian Waffle, grew up in York, England while loving everything French.  She went to Normandy after high school and started dating while there a Frenchman, Olivier.  She writes a lot of how her conceptions of France via movies and literature collided with the real place while there.  She then attends Oxford while still dating Olivier long distance.  Cut to when she is in her mid-twenties and living with Olivier in London with one small son and another on the way:  she learns that her mother, to whom she is very close, has been killed in a freak accident in Rome.  Her grief proceeds to take many forms and all entertwined with her experience of Paris.  Beddington is very smart and witty and does a really good job of writing about weighty topics while not taking herself too seriously.  She and her family leave Paris and eventually end up settling in Brussels, where the whirlwind of her grief finally catches up with her.  Whether you have francophone leadings or not (I don’t, particularly, but I do have cake leanings), her memoir is superb.

City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin.  This is the third book in his vampire (of sorts) trilogy that began with The Passage and continued with The Twelve.  I really liked the first book, and liked the second until its ending, which I thought veered towards the silly.  This third book is a bit of a mishmash.  He is a good story teller, and I really liked reading about how people had continued to survive what was basically an apocalypse that ended life as we know it.  However, when you finally find out some of the main impetus for what has ended the world, it just is a bit ridiculous and thin.  Without giving too much away, there is a kind of evil genius who continues the evil just because the woman whom he loved died while he was awaiting her arrival at Grand Central Station via train.  Although a painful experience, it seems a rather flimsy reason to end the world – especially since the rest of the three books have been so serious.  It just came across as being too cartoony or superhero villainy to me.  However, it IS possible to just sort of ignore that part of the plot and still enjoy all that is going on with the characters and the descendants of the characters that we got to know in the first two books.  And much of the accompanying mythology is interesting and well done.  I’m glad I read the trilogy, but feel like it didn’t quite hold up to the promise of the first book.

Still Midnight by Denise Mina.  This is the first book in Mina's "Alex Morrow" series, and it was as good as I was expecting.  Like with her Paddy Meehan series, Mina's writing is excellent and her main character nuanced and strong.  She very much hits the ground running -- it almost seems like it's the second book in a series, as she doesn't load the beginning with any obvious back-story.  This is a good thing:  you learn things here and there about detective Alex Morrow as she works to solve a case that has been taken away from her control and given to her career-savvy partner.  We switch back and forth from Alex's point of view to the point of view of Pat, a man who against his better judgment gets caught up in a kidnapping for ransom.  Pat knows better, and knows that his partners are volatile, and from the beginning tries to get out of what is going on, albeit ineptly.  It takes place in Glasgow and seems like a good first mystery in a series, in that we are introduced to many items of interest that I imagine will appear in future books -- the crime family Tait, Alex's background, her half-brother, who has problems with the law, etc.  I shall read on.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Maine 2016

I am back from our lovely two-week vacation visiting my parents in Maine, and to make the transition harder, I have come down with a miserable cold.  Alas and o woe!  But I wanted to include a few photos of what we were up to for two weeks, besides enjoying the incredible view and wishing we could live there.

Owen was up to a lot of berrypicking!  In addition to the cultivated blueberry bushes my parents have in their garden, the rest of their property – not to be outdone – decided to bedeck itself with wild blackberries.  Owen and his Granny went out pretty much daily to pick these berries, both blue and black.  I’d say that was Owen’s favorite part of the trip – being able to make a beeline run to the berry bushes to pick a fresh snack.  Now if only we could get him to eat blueberries at home!

Since we don’t live close to my parents, it is important to me that Owen have time in the summer to get to know his grandparents and vice versa.  My parents were very nice in also spending time with Owen and allowing Sean and I to escape for a walk with a beautiful view that was not accompanying by the refrain of “Carry you me!” that Owen tends to “sing” while on a walk.  Owen did all sorts of chores with his Granny, and artwork, and playing ball outside, and even had a few playdough sessions with his Grandfather.

We took Owen on his first canoe ride, which he enjoyed very much, although we probably could have cut it a bit shorter than we did.  It was a turtle-packed ride, and we even came across six turtles sharing a log in a line with each turtle resting its head on the back of the one in front.

We went to L.L. Bean, ate our weight in lobster, and even went out the five of us to Pemaquid Lobster Pound for dinner one night.  Owen had a grilled cheese.

Owen at L. L. Bean, or as he calls it:
the store with the Giant Boot!

We went swimming often at the beach – cold, but lovely! – and would go to another beach to find some seaglass.  Sean has the best method of finding sea glass, and I was surprised that Owen too was quite good (and quite proud) at spotting a few blue bits here and there.

Sean brought his banjo and got a lot of banjo practicing in, not to mention some good stickers for his banjo case.

Needless to say we are already ready for next year’s visit!