Thursday, December 31, 2009

Year-End Book Roundup

Back in May, I posted about my favorite books of the first 5 months of 2009. (You can find that list here: Sunday Book Recommendations, though I'll include a cheat sheet for those too lazy to click the link):

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver (serious novel)
Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri (short stories)
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken (memoir)
The Family Man, by Elinor Lipman (light novel)

I still stand by those four books, but now that my reading year is just about over, I wanted to add a few more. They don't exactly fit into the same categories as the first four--it turns out that Jhumpa Lahiri's book of short stories was the only one I read this year. (That seems wrong, somehow, but so be it.) I'd also like to note that this is purposely not a Best Books list. (The fact of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi turning up on so many year-end Best lists shows how subjective the whole thing is.) These were just the books I enjoyed the most, whatever their category.

Memoir: What I Thought I Knew, by Alice Eve Cohen. This actually is an interesting companion to Elizabeth McCracken's memoir. But while McCracken's is the story of a child lost, Cohen's is the story of a child found. At 44, after being told she's infertile and in menopause, Cohen discovers that she's 6 months pregnant. Her story of her ambivalence about her high-risk pregnancy--and the daughter it produced--is brief but deftly told and moving.

Epistolary Novel: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Okay, admittedly this is the only epistolary novel I've read in recent years. But still, I wasn't sure how to categorize it otherwise. This book was a bestseller and has been written about a gazillion times. For that reason, I avoided it. Until I didn't, and I ended up really enjoying it. Despite the twee title, the book itself isn't twee. In her first and only novel, Mary Ann Shaffer manages to write about a serious topic--the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II--with a very light touch. (Shaffer, sadly, got sick while she was writing the book and died before it was published. Her niece, Annie Barrows, a writer herself, finished it for her.) As letters fly back and forth between the main character, a journalist named Juliet, and her newfound friends on Guernsey, it's hard not to be taken in by their growing friendship. This year's lesson in, "occasionally good books do end up being bestsellers."

Mysteries: The Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries by Louise Penny

Louise Penny's mysteries were one of my great discoveries a few years back. Usually with mystery series, by the time I discover them, the series is well established, and I have to go way back and start at the beginning. I found Louise Penny's first novel, Still Life, on the new fiction shelf at the library, some time after it had first been published but before the next book was out. That's given me the opportunity to follow Louise Penny's burgeoning mystery writing career with great pleasure. It's not just that Penny seems to be a lovely person; she's also a good writer. In Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, she's created a detective of depth and charm, and in Three Pines, the rural Quebec village where most of the books are set, she's created a place I'd like to move to immediately except for the rather unsettling frequency of murders that happen there. Penny's characters are quirky and flawed and compelling, and the mysteries solid.

I haven't liked all five of them equally, but I very much enjoyed both that came out this year, A Rule Against Murder and The Brutal Telling, with the latter especially strong. I'm delighted that Louise Penny seems to have garnered both critical and commercial acclaim for her work, and I'm looking forward to more of the lovely Gamache and more of that idyllic but murder-ridden village, Three Pines.

Novel both light and serious: This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper. Although I had read and enjoyed one of Tropper's earlier novels, it hadn't prepared me for how much pleasure I would get from Tropper's latest. This was a book that had me snorting inappropriately in various public places as I read it--the library, the waiting room at the garage--but had a serious undertone that serves as ballast for the levity. The novel's narrator, Judd Foxman, is recently separated from his wife--who, he learns in a particularly unfortunate way, has been sleeping with his boss for months--when he finds out that his ill father has died and that the father's last wish (despite being an atheist) was for his whole family to sit shiva for him for the full 7 days. The Foxman family is exquisitely dysfunctional, and their forced togetherness is a perfect set up for the novel. There are too many good parts to name; just read it.

Best Audio Book I haven't finished listening to yet: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley. Okay, so that's not really much of a category, but I wanted to make sure I wrote about this one, even though I'm only about halfway through it. Bradley is a 70 year old Canadian who'd never been to England until after he'd written this novel, yet his narrator is 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives at Buckshaw, a stately house in the British countryside. Flavia is precocious, in love with chemistry, a bane to her older sisters and determined to solve the mystery of how a dead man (with the villainly name of Horace Bonepenny) ends up in their cucumber patch. She's a wonderful narrator, and I loved his story (in an interview) about how he was actually writing a different book when "Flavia walked onto the page . . . and simply hijacked the story." Wisely, Bradley stopped writing the other book and gave Flavia her due. The narrator of the audio book, Jayne Entwhistle, has a quirky and interesting (though occasionally annoying) voice that seems just perfect for Flavia and all her eccentricities. This is the first of a series, and it's one I'm looking forward to.

So, that's my list for the year, a year that featured a rather significant amount of re-reading of beloved childhood books (which I think jacked up my overall number of books read, which still came in under 100, including audio books--a bit of a disappointment). But it will soon be a new year, and my reading slate will be clean again. I look forward to whatever literary discoveries 2010 has for all of us. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Celebration Chocolate Cream Pie

It must be said that in this household, at least, December hasn't been a particularly celebratory month. The 5K on December 5 may have been the high point. A few days after that, I trekked down to Baystate hospital and had a PICC line put into my left arm--it's a very thin tube that's threaded through a vein in my upper arm up to my chest. Through this, I've been able to give myself the IV antibiotics I was prescribed for Lyme, once it was apparent that the oral antibiotics wouldn't be enough. The 45 minutes or so that it takes to do the infusion is fine--it's the other 23 hours and 15 minutes every day that I've had the tube in my arm that I mind. It's been 2 1/2 weeks now, and I no longer spend my waking hours thinking, "oh my god, there's a thing in my arm." But I am still frustrated by the limitations--I'm not supposed to lift anything heavier than 5 pounds with my left arm or do any repetitive motion, which makes exercising a challenge. (So, basically, I haven't run since the 5K.) Plus, I can't get the dressing wet, so I have to shower wearing a plastic sleeve. I do realize that there are people who live with PICC lines for much longer than 3 weeks, and really, I admire their fortitude. Mostly what it's showed me is that I'm a very bad patient. It turns out that I'm not, actually, particularly stoic.

But the good news is that I'm down to my last few days of medicine. December 31 is day 21, and I am looking forward to starting 2010 IV free. (I was very disappointed when I realized that I would have to break my trend of starting new decades in India--in 1989, I spent New Year's Eve in Delhi (at the Delhi branch of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, of all places), and in 1999, I was in lovely, lovely Goa. This year's New Year's highlight is going to be showering without any plastic on me, but so be it.)

But enough about PICC lines and Lyme and crankiness. This post is supposed to be about pie. Next week, perhaps, I'll post some nice healthy soup recipes, figuring that everyone will be feeling abstemious after the excess of the holidays. But before you become abstemious, I'd recommend making this pie. A last hurrah of excess, if you will.

Before I got involved with Alex, I had never given much thought to chocolate cream pie. But for reasons I'm still not sure about, it began appearing on holiday menus a few years ago. A couple of times, I assisted in the pie making. And this year, I took it on myself, twice, for Thanksgiving and Christmas both. The main virtues of this particular pie are that it's easy to make and delicious to eat. But even better, it must be made in advance, which is a fine quality in a pie during holidays when oven time is at a premium. (And even then, the crust only needs to bake for 15 minutes, and that's it.) Basically, you make a pie crust, you make a thick chocolate pudding, and then you combine them. Voila.

A couple of notes. The original recipe calls for chocolate wafers for the crust. It's good that way, but it's equally good with ginger cookies. I've discovered that Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Snaps make a fine crust.

I melt the chocolate the same way I now melt butter if at all possible--I put it in a stainless steel mixing bowl and stick it in the oven when it's pre-heating. Once, recently, this didn't work--the chocolate never really melted for reasons I never figured out--but usually it works just fine. Just make sure the chocolate is broken up into little pieces ahead of time.

The one tricky moment occurs when you're making the custard. You stir and stir and stir, and all of a sudden it thickens up, and then you have to take the custard off the stove immediately lest the eggs cook too much. (It's slightly nervewracking but not nearly as nervewracking as my first experience with a candy thermometer, making caramel for the caramel corn Molly recently wrote about in Orangette.) After that, you swirl it through a strainer to get any lumps and bumps out, then mix it with the chocolate. Then you chill it in the bowl for a few hours and then in the pie crust, overnight, if you like.

The pie is rich and silky and decadent and especially good with whipped cream. And while the regal Lino (also known as Rigolini), pictured at the top, could resist the luscious piece of pie placed right next to him so temptingly, it's unlikely that Loofa, his fatter, fluffier sister, could do the same. And nor, for that matter, could I.

Yield: Makes 8 to 10 servings
Active Time: 45 min
Total Time: 8 hr (includes cooling and chilling)

For crust
1 1/3 cups chocolate wafer crumbs (from about 26 cookies such as Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers) (Can substitute ginger cookies as well)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar

For filling
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large egg yolks
3 cups whole milk
5 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), melted
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla

For topping
3/4 cup chilled heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar

Make crust:

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F.

Stir together crumbs, butter, and sugar and press on bottom and up side of a 9-inch pie plate (1-quart capacity). Bake until crisp, about 15 minutes, and cool on a rack.

Make filling:

Whisk together sugar, cornstarch, salt, and yolks in a 3-quart heavy saucepan until combined well, then add milk in a stream, whisking. Bring to a boil over moderate heat, whisking, then reduce heat and simmer, whisking, 1 minute (filling will be thick).

Force filling through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, then whisk in chocolates, butter, and vanilla. Cover surface of filling with a buttered round of wax paper and cool completely, about 2 hours.

Spoon filling into crust and chill pie, loosely covered, at least 6 hours.

Make topping:

Just before serving, beat cream with sugar in a bowl using an electric mixer until it just holds stiff peaks, then spoon on top of pie.

Cooks' note:
Pie (without topping) can be chilled up to 1 day.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

My First 5K!

The exciting news of the weekend is that I ran my first 5K yesterday. I've been thinking about doing one for awhile, but 5Ks have come and gone this fall without me running any of them. I think I was more determined about this one, partly because of being so irritated about having Lyme disease. So, I guess I ran this in the spirit of, "Take that, you blasted Lyme bacteria." Or something like that.

Basically, what I learned is that if you can run 3.1 miles outside on your own, there's no reason you can't run 3.1 miles among hundreds of other people doing the same thing. What I liked about this race is that it was huge (more than 4000 people, with 2500 or so walking and 1500 or so running) and not particularly intimidating. Yes, there were elite runners up in front who got to leave right when the gun went off (not actually a real gun, more of a "ready, set, go") rather than nearly 5 minutes later, but there were also old people and young people and babies tucked into strollers and people who looked rather stout to be runners and people in costumes--a polar bear and a penguin, as per the logo above, a tortoise who ran at the very, very end and a whole host of marshmallows, as befitting a run at which hot chocolate was served at the finish line.

I'd been a bit nervous ahead of time, given that I've been on Doxycycline for more than 2 weeks, and I'd been feeling a bit queasy in the few days before the race. There was also the fact that I never exercise in the morning, if I can possibly help it, and I don't particularly like the cold. (It was 30 degrees at the 10 a.m. race time.) I left my stuff at Alex's house and walked over, to avoid any parking insanity, and he'd insisted that I wear an extra fleece and my hat, but when I got there, there didn't seem to be anyplace to leave them. Thankfully, the nice folks at the Chameleons hair salon--all of whom were running or walking themselves--let me leave them there.

The only thing that surprised me was that there weren't more people I knew there. I ran into my friend Michael at the end and saw my friend Susan, who was volunteering, but that was about it. The one mean thing I thought about the course was that the only real hills were just after the 2 mile mark when the course cut across the Smith campus. I'd seen Susan before the race, and I saw her right before the second Smith hill, and though she was wearing hiking shoes, a down jacket and long underwear, she ran up the hill with me, which I thought was very nice of her.

I still don't know my exact time, since I left at least 4 minutes after the official start, but it was somewhere around 35-36 minutes, so just under 12 minute miles. No one, including me, would say that was at all fast, but for a person who didn't run for 20 years, I thought it was just fine. The even better number is that the run raised more than $90,000 for Safe Passage, which is a local domestic violence organization. (Update: The final results are in. My time was 35:13, 11:21 a mile. I'm pleased that it was closer to 11 minutes than 12 a mile, and I was right that I left a full 5 minutes after the gun.)

And afterward, after I'd collected my mug and chatted with Michael and drunk my hot chocolate (slightly burned, alas) and fetched my jacket and hat from Chameleons, I wandered back to Alex's via the new winter farmer's market (where I got some spinach) and Cornucopia (where I got some Sidehill Farm yogurt) and the Pleasant Street Video store, where I got some movies. I ran into Andy and showed off my race number (3239). And after tea with Alex and a few more errands, I came home and got to feel virtuous for the rest of the day, which is the advantage, I learned, to morning exercise, especially at 106% of your maximum heart rate. (Well, so said my trusty heart rate monitor which, I have to assume, was mistaken.)

And one more time, I have to give a shout out to Couch to 5K (which I first wrote about earlier this year here) because without being talked through an easy, systematic way to start running, I'm not sure I would have done it. And now here I am, one very slow 5K down, thinking about when I might run another.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Hooray, Hooray for Betsy Ray

There are times when only comfort reading will do, and comfort reading of the most extensive sort--a much loved childhood series. One such time was this summer when I was sick, and I re-read the first four Betsy-Tacy books, ostensibly to see how they would work for my nieces, now both reading up a storm. (Just fine--not that there was any question of that.)

Another such time was this past week, when I learned that not only do I have Lyme disease but that I tested positive several months ago, and the doctor's office accidentally misplaced the test results. Not only that, but my best case scenario for treatment is a month of oral antibiotics (thereby wiping out all the good stomach bacteria I've been building up for years, which I'm convinced has kept me relatively healthy when I'm in India). (The other treatment scenario involves IV antibiotics for several weeks, but I'm devoutly hoping it won't come to that.) (By the way, I feel fine.)

So, comfort reading, if only to avoid thinking about all the things I'd like to do to the doctor's office, not to mention the stupid deer tick that bit me god knows when and didn't have the courtesy to make me get a rash, so I would know what had happened.

I first read the ten Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace when I was a child and then again as a teenager. I read them during stressful times in grad school, and I read them in my thirties, at least the last six, the books that take Betsy Ray and her best friend Tacy Kelly through high school and then abroad and into adulthood and marriage. I've always known that mine was not a solitary obsession, but it turns out to be more widespread than I'd imagined. The new reissue of the last six books from Harper Perennial Modern Classics, in three volumes, has garnered mentions in both New York Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. It also spurred the first ever Maud Hart Lovelace Reading Challenge, not to mention the Betsy-Tacy Book Blog Tour.

The Betsy books are fictionalized versions of their author's life--Maud Hart Lovelace grew up in Mankato, Minnesota, at the turn of the century in a warm, loving family, wanting to be a writer. Lovelace told stories of her childhood to her only daughter, Merian Kirchner, and the Betsy-Tacy series was born. The first four books, which take Betsy and Tacy, and their friend Tib, from the ages of five through twelve, are delightful. Tacy is shy, Tib is tiny and Betsy makes up stories and hatches adventures for them all.

The last six books are different. Not that they're not equally delightful, but they're no longer children's books. Each high school book takes Betsy and her crowd through a year of high school. Betsy and the Great World skips ahead several years to 22-year-old Betsy on her own in Europe in the months before the outbreak of World War I. And Betsy's Wedding brings her home and sees her married to her sometime high school sweetheart and writing rival, Joe Willard. (I only just now learned that the Betsy-Joe high school relationship is entirely fictional, as Maud Hart Lovelace didn't meet her husband, journalist Delos Lovelace, until she was in her twenties.)

What keeps these books relevant and engaging is Betsy herself. She is incredibly alive in these pages--charming and flawed and constantly aiming to improve herself, or, at some points, change herself entirely. (She never succeeds.) What is lovely about Betsy is that she screws up, over and over again. She gets overly involved with her friends, she blows off her school work, she makes plans and doesn't keep them. She wants to be a writer but doesn't always make it her priority. She is, in short, entirely believable as a teenager and as a young woman.

It's probably been ten years since I last read the series, and it's interesting to me what details remained with me. For some reason, I remembered Betsy's sister Julia getting blackballed by her sorority but not Betsy and her friends forming their own sorority, Okto Delta, with less than wonderful results. In Betsy and the Great World, I remembered her visit to Oberammergau, where the Passion Play is performed every ten years, but I had no recollection of her near love affair with a young Italian man in Venice. What struck me on this re-read of Betsy and the Great World is how perfectly Lovelace portrays how it is to be on your own in another country for the first time. Betsy may have traveled with infinitely more luggage than I did, but some of the things Betsy thinks in her first few days in Munich are exactly the things that I thought during my early days in Delhi twenty years ago. When Betsy finally makes a friend, and everything changes, I knew exactly how she felt. It also amused me to see that I absolutely identified with Betsy's yearning to take a bath. In her case, the obstacle was the location of the bathroom with the tub (in the section of her hotel where army officers were quartered), whereas I was struggling with the paucity of bathtubs in India in general. But while my friend Becca and I were so desperate for a bath that we were on the brink of asking a woman we'd just met if we could use the bathtub in her hotel room (we lost our nerve, alas), Betsy persists, gets her bath and charms the officers all at the same time. Go Betsy!

What's odd is that I don't actually own any of the Betsy books. I always read library copies as a child, and when I got older and thought about buying them, I discovered that the older editions are rare and expensive, and most of the reprints are not very well done. (Really, there were some terrible choices for cover illustrations along the way. Several times I thought, "But Betsy and Tacy didn't look like that!") That may change, though. I'm delighted that there are handsome new editions out, with the original illustrations and new introductions and material about Maud Hart Lovelace and her life. It's heartening to know that Betsy and her family and friends will continue to charm and entertain readers today, a century after Maud Hart Lovelace graduated from high school in Mankato and moved first to Minneapolis and then out into the great world. And maybe if the books are on my shelf, I won't wait ten years to re-read them. I won't need the excuse of illness or anything else to curl up with Betsy, Tacy and Tib, with Carney and Cab and Winona, with handsome Joe Willard and Julia Ray's endless stream of beaus, and watch Betsy roll the Magic Waver curlers in her hair before bed and settle down at her Uncle Keith's trunk to write the stories that she hopes will some day make her famous.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Corduroy Mansions, Part II

Somehow, I managed to miss this entirely, but the ever prolific Alexander McCall Smith is writing a sequel to his delightful Corduroy Mansions, first published online in daily installments in the British newspaper The Telegraph last year. (I'm wondering if I should add more frequent perusal of British newspapers to the too many things I already read online.) This one is called The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, which must mean that Freddie de la Hay, the temporarily vegetarian Pimlico terrier that William the wine merchant adopts, is back.

I wrote about the first volume of Corduroy Mansions here, last November. Alexander McCall Smith is so astonishingly productive--he seems to write a new volume for all three of his other series every year--I'm not sure why I didn't assume he'd write a sequel to this as well, especially because the ending of the first book wasn't really an ending. (AMS likes ending with a party and a toast--he's done this with several of the volumes in the 44 Scotland Street series as well--and it's true that the party and the toast help distract you from the fact that there's no real resolution to anything.)

As with the first volume, there are multiple ways to access the new book. You can read it on the Telegraph site linked above. You can sign up to have each daily installment sent directly to your email address (though I'm assuming you'd have to read the already-published installments on the site). My preference, obvious given my love of audio books, is to download the podcast of the novel, narrated by the excellent Andrew Sachs.

If you missed the first volume and aren't yet sure you want to commit, Alexander McCall Smith has kindly provided a brief summary, to let you know what you're in for. His books are light but smart and always entertaining, and this one is no different.

Meanwhile, if you'll excuse me, I have 46 chapters to download . . .

Monday, November 9, 2009

Meatless Mondays: Tried and True Spinach Soup

I haven't done a Meatless Monday post in a long time, but since soup season is here (even though the past few days could have passed for spring, were it not for the heaps of fallen leaves on my lawn), it seemed like the time to write about this soup.

When I realized, recently, that my ancient copy of The Moosewood Cookbook had broken into 2 pieces, I was not at all surprised to learn that the page on which the binding broke is the page for Cream of Spinach Soup. I don't cook too many things from Moosewood anymore (with a few significant exceptions, of course), but this soup is one of the absolute keepers.

What's funny about the soup is that I make no other soup this way. In fact, I've never seen a recipe for another soup that follows this same method. I think that's interesting, especially given that there's basically a formula you can use that is adaptable to many kinds of soup. (That would be the saute onions, carrots and celery in a bit of oil, add the other vegetables and/or beans and herbs, add the liquid, bring to a boil, let simmer, etc. formula.) This soup is not like that. Mollie Katzen tells you to put a potato, an onion, a carrot and a clove of garlic in a pot and cover with water, then cook til the vegetables are soft and then puree it all, thus creating a stock that is not stock. I am sure that I could fiddle with this recipe and find a more sophisticated way of getting to this same place, but I have no interest in doing that because this way works just fine. (In the revised edition, she's more specific with amounts, but I still see no need to change the original. This is one soup, though, that definitely benefits from having an immersion blender, as you have to puree both the vegetables and the spinach, and it's much easier not to have to deal with a traditional blender.)

The other thing interesting about this recipe is the amount of butter. In the original Moosewood, published during a time that vegetarian food had to be made palatable by the addition of massive amounts of butter and cheese, the recipe calls for a roux that includes 1/3 cup of butter. There is no reason to have 1/3 cup of butter in this soup, and from the beginning, I cut it down to 1 or 2 tablespoons. Still, when a new addition of Moosewood came out, I was surprised to learn that the butter had gone from 1/3 of a cup to optional. This seemed excessive, and I ignored the new instructions just as I had ignored the old, although, admittedly, the optional amount of butter in the revised recipe is approximately what I use anyway. The 1-2 tablespoons of butter gives it some depth but doesn't make it heavy. I also always use 1% milk because that's what I mostly have in the house, and it comes out just fine. (I do find that the roux thickens more quickly if the milk is already hot, so I usually heat it up in the microwave before adding it to the roux.)

The recipe is also flexible enough to adapt to any kind of spinach you might have. I've made it with frozen spinach and with fresh spinach in a bag from the grocery store. I will admit, however, that the best versions of this soup have been made with (usually organic, though not always) spinach bought from the farmers market and cooked shortly thereafter.

Even though I occasionally flirt with other spinach soups (like the lovely spinach and green garlic soup from Orangette), I always come back to this one. It's not just that I've been making it for as long as I've been cooking and can remember all of the kitchens in which I've made it. It's that I haven't found one to top it. Sometimes it's just good in an ordinary way, but when I can make it in the fall, when all of the vegetables are newly out of the ground and when the chill in the air is there to remind us of what's ahead, it can be sublime. And there's no way that something this shade of green isn't good for you. But that it's good for you is secondary. I make this soup over and over because it's a lovely thing to eat, no matter the time of year.

Cream of Spinach Soup
Adapted from The Moosewood Cookbook

1 carrot
1 onion
1 clove garlic
1 potato
Cover w/ water. Steam until tender. Puree in its own water. (I usually don't peel the potato, especially if it's organic, but you can if you want.)

Steam 1lb. spinach in 1 cup water till wilted. Puree.

Make roux by whisking 1-2 tablespoons flour into 1-2 tablespoons melted butter. Whisk in 2 cups (warm) milk and cook over very low heat, stirring, until thickened.

Add the spinach to the roux, along with
1/2 tsp. salt ( or more)
1/2 tsp. basil
pinch nutmeg
pinch thyme
(any fresh herb like parsley or marjoram)

Add carrot/potato onion mixture to spinach. Adjust seasoning and, if too thick, add milk.
Heat (very low flame) and stir till smooth, creamy, green, fragrant. (The soup is all of these things, but I do usually find it needs more salt. At this point at the end, I like to use Maldon salt or other sea salt. I also sometimes grate in a bit of Parmesan cheese.)

Serves 4. Time: An easy 40 minutes.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Another reason to love Mollie Katzen

I don't eat this sandwich as often as I should. I forget about it for months at a time. But usually sometime during the height of apple season, I remember. And I make the sandwich. And I am glad.

It doesn't even have its own page in Moosewood--it's one in a list of sandwich possibilities. I tried it the first time more years ago than I can remember and wondered how such a simple combination could taste so good. I eat toasted cheddar all the time, practically every day, but somehow the addition of apples and walnuts elevates it to something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

It's not complicated. You need good sandwich bread, a bit of butter, a few walnuts, an apple, some sharp cheddar. You put the lightest trace of butter on the bread, cover with thin slices of apple, sprinkle with walnuts, top with cheese. Bake in the toaster oven or under a broiler in the oven. The bread ends up lightly toasted, the apples soft, the nuts crunchy, the cheese melted and bubbly. The tang of the apple cuts the richness of the cheese and nuts. If you arrange it carefully enough at the beginning, in each bite you get a bit of everything. It is especially good washed down with a cup of fresh apple cider (especially the cider from Outlook Farms, which is unpasteurized and utterly delicious).

And at the end, when all that's left is crumbs, you will look longingly at your plate and promise yourself that you will not wait til next year's apple season to make it again. The only saving grace of forgetting about such as simple and delicious treat is that when you remember and make it and eat it, it is like you are discovering it anew.

Friday, October 16, 2009

An Audio Book for a Very, Very, Very Long Car Ride

Earlier this week, I finished listening to the only audio book I'd listened to since August. It's not that I hadn't been listening to audio books much in that time. It was that this one was very, very, very, very long. 26 discs long, to be precise, and 32 hours of reading.

The book was Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, originally published in 2004. I bought it soon after it came out, but it had been sitting on my shelf, unread, for almost 5 years. Then, this summer, I took it out. I had a bout of flu in July, right after my summer break started (what timing), and during the first week, when I wasn't good for much of anything, I re-read the whole Harry Potter series, needing something both familiar and engaging. (It totally holds up when read as one very long story. I would read it that way again, assuming another block of time that hopefully doesn't involve the flu--it certainly helped with the not remembering many of the pertinent details that happened while waiting two years for the next book.)

But when I was done with Harry, I still was in the mood for something long and engaging and having to do with magic, and there was Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on my shelf. I took it out and read a chapter, then had an AHA moment when I realized it would probably be a good book to listen to as an audio book. This was confirmed when I went to the library and happened to run into Darnell, husband of my friend Leanna. He saw the audiobook in my hands and asked if I were going to listen to it. I said I was. I asked if he knew about it. He said he'd listened to it. I asked if he liked it. He paused for a moment, and then said, slowly, "I loved it." He went on to say that just seeing it in my hands made him want to listen to it again. This impressed me, especially given the sheer length of it. When I saw Leanna a few weeks later, it turns out that soon thereafter, Darnell had foisted the book upon her over a long weekend, and she had read it as well. (We both appreciated the coincidence, since we could then talk about it with the details still fresh. Although because Leanna had read it over one long weekend, and I was listening over the course of several months, it meant that she had finished while I had just come to the part, about halfway through, when Jonathan Strange had dabbled in black magic while in Portugal serving as Lord Wellington's personal magician.)

Jonathan Strange is, as I suspected, a very good book to listen to, and Simon Prebble is an excellent narrator. Listening to it is something of a commitment. It is, as I may have mentioned, long. It meanders. And for the first several hundred pages, it's kind of hard to see where it's going, given the slow pace, the digressions, the footnotes. Yes, there are footnotes. I've read several reviews saying that this book wouldn't work on tape for first time readers because of the footnotes, but I disagree. They seem a bit of a distraction, at first, but as the story progresses, they make more and more sense and are often both interesting and entertaining in their own right. (I did consult the paper copy of my book several times to double check and re-read things, but I was tempted to read ahead, and I wanted to let Simon Prebble finish reading, so I had to restrain myself.)

But what is the book about, you might ask. It's a historical novel and a magical novel, or at least a novel with magic in it, and a novel about friendship and rivalry. It's also a very well written novel. It's set in the first part of the 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars (the same time period of my beloved Patrick O'Brian novels). Magic, which had once flourished in England, is no longer practiced but only discussed (at length) by "theoretical magicians." And then the first practical magician in memory appears, fussy and selfish Gilbert Norrell who can enchant the statues in York Cathedral so that they can talk and conjure up ships made of rain to form a blockade against the French. Then, a quarter of the way into book, appears Jonathan Strange, young, brash and bold, who has no intention of becoming a magician until a tramp sleeping under a hedge tells him it is his destiny. Strange becomes Norrell's pupil and friend and eventually his rival and enemy. There are other main characters--noble Stephen Black, butler to politician Sir Walter Pole, a "nameless slave" and, eventually, a king; Norrell's mysterious and compelling servant Childermass; and especially the Faerie king, known only as "The Man With the Thistledown Hair," summoned by Norrell to assist in raising Sir Walter's fiancee from the dead, whose role becomes more evident--and frightening--as the book progresses. There is also one character whose presence hovers throughout the book, but whom we only catch a glimpse of towards the very end--John Uskglass, the Raven King, whose magic ruled England for centuries, the man whom Norrell fears and Strange admires to the point of obsession.

This is not a book with many women characters, unfortunately. There is Lady Pole, the first victim of the Man With the Thistledown Hair, whom we only see glimpses of in her natural and unenchanted state, and Arabella Strange, Jonathan's wife, who is at risk of becoming another. I wish there were more. And it's interesting to me that neither Strange or Norrell is particularly sympathetic. As a result, this isn't an emotionally demanding book, although the last two hundred pages are gripping, the plot racing ahead and much more being at stake.

It's not a perfect book, though few are. It could be shorter and tighter, without losing anything; it could perhaps not meander quite as much. But it is a testament to Susanna Clarke and Simon Prebble that I listened to it patiently and with great enjoyment, through car trips to New Hampshire and Cape Cod and Boston, to and from work, in my kitchen while chopping onions, at the gym while doing leg presses, day after day, week after week, I listened. And when it was over, I was a little bit sad, and I wondered, as others of Susanna Clarke's fans have been wondering for the past 5 years, when she's going to write a sequel.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I miss my friend Doris Abramson, of Common Reader fame, more often than you'd think, given that I usually didn't see her more than a few times a year. But I miss her most when I read an obituary I think she'd enjoy. This also happens more often than you'd think. Last week, it was this Independent obit of Molly Malone Cook, long time partner of the poet Mary Oliver. We went to hear Mary Oliver read at Smith last week, a reading packed with more than 2000 people in the biggest auditorium on campus, usually only packed for Ani DeFranco and the like. (Alex has a nice blog post about it up at his White Mountain blog.) Mary Oliver spoke of Molly and read a few excerpts from the book of Molly's photographs and Mary's prose, called Our World, that came out a few years ago. I was curious later, so I googled and found the obit. (Admittedly, it's possible that Doris saw this obit since it came out in 2005. I hope so.)

Today, there were two in the New York Times. I liked the one about the romance editor (who died at 56), but I especially liked Mimi Weddell, 94, "Actress and Hat Devotee." I think Doris would have liked it too, and I am sad all over again that she is not there to enjoy it along with me.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Accidental Eggplant Parmesan

I didn't wake up last Monday thinking I'd make eggplant Parmesan. It happened much more haphazardly than that--an accidental confluence of ingredients that led me to the conclusion that eggplant Parmesan needed to be on the day's agenda.

I'd bought two glossy purple eggplants at the farmer's market on Saturday and knew I wanted to use them before the week was out. (Mondays, when I don't go to my job, are my best non-weekend cooking opportunities.) I had a quart of roasted tomato sauce in the fridge that either needed to be used or put in the freezer. And I had a hunk of smoked mozzarella left over from a recent pizza. All of a sudden it was clear that eggplant Parmesan was the thing.

I'd thought of making my beloved Eggplant and Summer Vegetable Gratin, which I've only made once this year. But as much as I love eating it, I don't always want to devote most of an afternoon to making it. Plus, I had all that sauce in the fridge, and it didn't seem to make sense to make a different sauce when the one I had would work just fine.

And so I opted for a quicker variation. One thing that made it quicker than a more traditional eggplant Parmesan is the eggplant preparation. I read several recipes that called for breading and frying the eggplants. That seemed like too much work and had too much potential for soggy, greasy eggplant slices. So, I used the technique from the gratin recipe--slicing the eggplants thickly (1/2 inch per slice, or so), brushing them with olive oil and then baking them in the oven for 25 minutes. This method saves time and oil both, and once baked, the eggplant slices are fully prepared to serve as layering material.

Once that was done, most of the work was done. I put down a layer of eggplant in the gratin dish. I spooned sauce over the eggplant. I grated the smoked mozzarella over the sauce. I sprinkled some Parmesan cheese on as well. And then I did it again. There were still a few eggplant slices left, but rather than add a third layer, I made a single dish that I put in the freezer for later. I also didn't worry about the oven temperature. I was also baking yet another batch of blueberry crumble bars, and I put the eggplant in the oven at the same time. The only precaution I took was to cover it for the first 30 minutes so the cheese wouldn't get too brown.

And that was it. The smoked mozzarella is key, I think--it adds another layer of flavor to the already layered flavor of the sauce. But that's not to say not to make it if you don't have smoked mozzarella. Or roasted tomato sauce, for that matter. I can say, though, that if you use both things, you won't be disappointed.

Three signs that this dish is a keeper:
  1. After eating it for lunch three days in a row, I was disappointed that there wasn't any left for lunch #4.
  2. Even before the first batch was finished, I was already thinking about the next one.
  3. When batch # 2 was in the oven, exactly one Monday later, I was on the phone with Alex and mentioned what I'd made. He was on his way home but promptly turned around in the bowling alley parking lot so he could be at my house in time for dinner.
To those I would add that I'm eying the one measly serving left from batch #2 and contemplating my cooking plans for the weekend. Let's just say I won't be surprised if there's more eggplant Parmesan in my immediate future.

Eggplant Parmesan: A Variation

2 medium-sized eggplants, about 2 lbs.
1 quart roasted tomato sauce, or other sauce
8 oz. (approx.) smoked mozzarella
grated Parmesan cheese, to taste

Preheat oven to 375

Slice eggplant into 1/2 inch thick slices. Brush with olive oil on both sides and place on cookie sheets. Bake for 25 minutes.

Reduce temperature to 350.

Layer eggplant slices in a gratin dish or other large pan. Spoon tomato sauce generously over eggplant. Grate smoked mozzarella to lightly cover the sauce. Sprinkle (or grate) Parmesan cheese. Repeat for second layer.

Cover dish with tin foil and bake for 45 minutes, removing the tin foil after 30 minutes.

(As noted above, I've baked it at several different temperatures with equal success. If you're baking something else and want to stick this dish in the oven at the same time, it's flexible enough to take a slightly different temperature. Just leave the tin foil on for the first half hour so the cheese doesn't get too brown.)

Excellent served with pasta and more roasted tomato sauce.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sauce for a sad tomato season

As anyone who lives on the east coast knows, this has been a sad season for tomatoes. We had a rainy June, and a not-sunny-enough July, and the Late Blight set in. I planted 20 tomato plants this year, all bought either from an organic stand at the farmers market or from a local greenhouse. I planted seventeen at the community garden and three at home. My three plants at home were fine--just as the potato bug has not yet realized that there are potatoes in my garden, the blight did not find its way to my garden either. (Because I have woods on two sides and my neighbors are a small distance away, there's no other garden in the immediate vicinity.) The community garden, alas, was another story.

First the Beefsteaks went, then the Brandywines and the Jet Stars, then the large plum tomatoes I planted especially for sauce. Interestingly, the only ones that seemed to survive were the small plum tomatoes, the name of which I'm not sure. I can't even remember where I got them. I just know that even earlier this week when I was at the garden, I could rummage amidst the weeds and dead tomato vines and pick several pounds of the little ones. I have no idea why this is--perhaps they have some kind of survival instinct the larger ones don't. (I think maybe because they ripen more quickly, it's easier to pick them before they start rotting. But who knows.)

The reason I planted so many tomatoes is that last year, I didn't have as many, and I didn't make my usual vat of sauce to put in the freezer, and I missed it. But this year, blight or not, I was determined to make sauce for the freezer, whether it was from my own garden tomatoes or not. (At the farmers market, there are fewer organic and heirloom tomatoes, and the ones that are there are more expensive, but there are plenty of non-organic and non-heirloom kinds. For the most part, I decided that local, rather than local and organic, was going to have to suffice for this year.)

Anyway, I decided to go as local as possible and drove down my street, where condo developments have replaced too much of the farmland. But there are still several working farms, and from the stand at one of them, I purchased a 25 lb. box of "canning" tomatoes for $12. The tomatoes were mostly clean and intact, but I didn't want to take any chances of inviting excessive numbers of fruit flies to my kitchen, so I took them home and started chopping them up immediately.

Enough about the tomatoes. Every year, I always make some plain sauce, the long-simmered kind with onion and garlic and basil and bay leaves. But I also always make a large quantity of roasted sauce as well. My favorite recipe is from Chez Panisse Vegetables, a lovely book I found so intimidating because of its beauty that I hardly used it for the first few years I owned it. And then I discovered this sauce. It has depth to it, because of the roasted tomatoes but also because of the other vegetables in it, not just onion and garlic but also leeks and carrots and a lot of basil. The roasting brings out the flavor in the tomatoes, so even less than ideal tomatoes will make good sauce. It also doesn't take quite as much time to cook as the long-simmering kind.

I hardly ever make just one batch of this, since it's so easy to make and freezes so well. For my most recent batch, I used 10 lbs of tomatoes (5 x the recipe) and ended up with about 3 1/2 quarts of sauce. (2 1/2 quarts of that are in the freezer, and the remaining quart was used for an amazingly delicious eggplant Parmesan that I'm going to write about next.)

I've made just a few changes to the recipe. In all these years, I've never figured out what Alice Waters intended you to do with the garlic--she says to split a whole garlic bulb in half but doesn't say what to do with it. I've chosen to mince it and add it to the other vegetables. Another alternative would be to roast it with the tomatoes. I tend to roast the tomatoes longer than the recipe suggests, though this is a judgment call and also depends on whether you're ready to proceed with the sauce or not. Tomatoes that are more roasted are not a problem. The recipe also says to put the sauce through a food mill at the end. I find that this makes for a very thin sauce, and I prefer mine thicker, so I just puree the whole thing with an immersion blender at the end. (It may be tomato sacrilege, but for the most part, I don't worry about peeling and seeding the tomatoes. I've never found tiny bits of tomato skin to be a detriment to the sauce being delicious.)

I was too busy getting the sauce ready for the freezer to take a photo of it (next batch, I will), but here are some tomatoes in their sticky roasted glory.

In New England, at least, there is a nip in the air. (The annual battle of the window closings has begun in my house--I am in favor and the cats against. My fat cat, Chaya, races around the house as I close windows, wedging his rotund body underneath as if to prevent any thought of window closure. He makes a compelling case, but I usually still win eventually.) Especially if some of your windows are open because you're placating your spoiled cats, it's not a bad time to have something roasting in the oven and a pot of lovely tomato sauce--even if the tomatoes are not from your own blighted garden--simmering on the stove.

Roasted Tomato Sauce
Adapted from Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables

2 lbs. ripe tomatoes (I've used both plum tomatoes and regular tomatoes for this.)
1/4 cup olive oil (I cut down on this somewhat.)
1 large yellow onion
1 medium leek
1 small carrot
several cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
1 small bunch basil (about 1/4 lb.)
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350F
Cut out a cone at the stem end of the tomatoes to remove the core, and cut the tomatoes into quarters. Toss with half the olive oil. Put the tomatoes in a baking dish and roast them, uncovered, for 30-60 minutes, stirring a couple of times to encourage even cooking. The tomatoes are cooked when the flesh is very soft and the skin separates easily from the flesh.

Peel and slice the onion. Trim, wash and dice the leek. Peel and dice the carrot. Mince the garlic.

Heat the remaining olive oil in a stainless steel or other nonreactive (not aluminum) pan. Add the vegetables and the garlic and cook over medium heat until completely soft--about 10 minutes. Add the roasted tomatoes and the herbs. Simmer, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, until the flavors come together, for 30-45 minutes. Pass through food mill (if you want very thin sauce) or puree in blender ( my preference) and season with salt and pepper.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

September Blueberry Bliss

So, this post could have easily been titled "August Blueberry Bliss" or "Summer Blueberry Bliss," but alas, I didn't get my act together til now. But, it is still blueberry season, if the tail end, so there is still time to indulge yourself with these lovely blueberry bars.

As I've mentioned previously, I love blueberries and have made it a summer priority to pick berries so that I always have a supply in the freezer for winter blueberry treats. Emily and I went blueberry picking last week, along with Tommy, now 7. While we were picking, we reminisced about some of our earlier blueberry journeys with Tommy, including the year he was two plus, when he really, really, really wanted to knock the bucket of blueberries over with his stick and was only persuaded not to by force of parental will and repeated exclamations of how unhappy everyone would be if he did. And then there was the year he was three, when his little brother Jamie was a tiny baby. Em was stressed out about leaving Jamie, and Tommy was in no mood for blueberries and had to be set up amidst the blueberry bushes with his blanket and book. And he still didn't like it.

This year, overall, was much calmer. Tommy brought a Tin-Tin book to read, in case he got bored, and though he was mildly irritated by the bugs, he rallied and instigated a blueberry picking contest in which the loser (who picked less) would bake blueberry muffins for the winner. I won, by a very small margin, but I have not demanded my prize (yet).

Most of those berries are in the freezer now, but I saved just enough to make just one more batch of these blueberry breakfast bars. This is a recipe I discovered the weekend that Alex, in a fit of blueberry enthusiasm, took advantage of the 15 pints for $30 deal at the farmers market. Once he had the blueberries home, he was a bit overwhelmed by his blueberry bounty and gave me 3 pints to bake with. My usual blueberry treats include my beloved peach-blueberry crumble and my new standby, blueberry buttermilk cake. But I wanted something that used a lot of blueberries all at once, and I liked the idea of bars. I contemplated Smitten Kitchen's Blueberry Crumb Bars, but I wanted something that was more crumble-like. And then I stumbled on these Blueberry Breakfast Bars from Farmgirl Fare.

Their set-up is simple--a crumble bottom, a berry middle and a streusel topping. They are easy to make, adaptable, not terribly bad for you and totally delicious. I made a few changes to Farmgirl Fare's otherwise excellent recipe. I cut the amount of butter down rather significantly (from 2 sticks and 2 tbsps. to just over a stick) and added some lemon zest in with the berries. I also experimented with swapping out some of the white flour with whole wheat pastry flour (this works fine) and cutting down a bit on the sugar in the berries. (This had mixed results. The less sweet bars were still delicious, but I think they were better with a bit more sugar. Still, I think you can fiddle with the amount. Given the brown sugar in the crumble layer and in the topping, they will be somewhat sweet no matter what.) In most of my batches, I added walnuts to the top layer, which I'd definitely recommend.

What I love about this recipe, besides its sheer deliciousness, is that the bars travel well and keep well and stay delicious, if slightly smushed, for days. They're great plain or with ice cream, for breakfast, tea or dessert. (And on one fine night, Alex and I skipped dinner entirely and just ate blueberry bars with homemade peach ice cream. Yum.) The recipe also makes a generous batch, although the first time I made them, they were such a revelation that three of us managed to polish off half a pan in one sitting . . . and after a good dinner. They're that good. After three batches of the plain blueberry bars in a rather short span of time, I branched out and made the peach-blueberry version. I included her recipe variation below, but if you want more detail, Farmgirl Susan talks about it here.

And not that my handsome Kalu and sunflowers have anything to do with blueberry bars, but I couldn't resist. I decided that he liked lolling around next to the sunflowers because they complimented his eyes.

Blueberry Breakfast Bars
Adapted from Farmgirl Fare

Bottom Layer
2 cups old-fashioned oats
3/4 cup all-purpose flour (Can substitute 1/4 cup whole wheat (pastry) flour for 1/4 cup white)
3/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

5-6 Tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Top Layer
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (can replace some white flour with ww pastry flour if desired)
1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 stick (4 tbsp.) butter
approx. 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional) or more to taste (If you don't use the walnuts, you might want to up the amount of flour, up to 1 cup total.) 

Middle Layer
3-1/2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries (I usually upped this to 2 full pints.)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon pure almond extract
1/2 - 3/4 cup granulated sugar (depending on sweetness of fruit and your own taste)
3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (1/4 tsp. if freshly ground)
Zest of one lemon

For the Bottom Layer:
Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Grease a 9" x 13" pan. (I put a piece of parchment in the pan and lightly sprayed that with cooking spray.) In a large bowl, combine the oats, flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt. Stir in the melted butter and vanilla until thoroughly combined. (With the smaller amount of butter, you'll need to spend a bit more time on the mixing part to get everything combined.) Press this mixture evenly into the bottom of the pan with your fingers. (You can also use the bottom of a stainless steel measuring cup to help make the crust flat and even--Farmgirl Susan recommended this, and I concur.)

For the Top Layer:
Place the flour, brown sugar, and butter in a small bowl and use a fork, pastry blender, or your fingers to combine until the mixture resembles large crumbs (some pea-sized clumps are okay). You can also use a food processor or mini-chopper, pulsing briefly to combine everything. Set aside.

For the Middle Layer:
Place the blueberries in the bowl you mixed the Bottom Layer in and toss them with the rest of the ingredients. Pour them evenly over the Bottom Layer in the pan. (If the sugar/flour doesn't stick, you can sprinkle them over the blueberries once they're in the pan, but I didn't have any problem with this.)

Sprinkle the Top Layer evenly over the blueberry mixture. Bake at 425 degrees F for 15 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees F and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes, until the top is golden, and the edges are starting to brown. Let cool in pan on a wire rack. Store in a cool place or refrigerate. Bars may also be frozen.

Just Peachy Blueberry Breakfast Bars:
Substitute 3 cups of small peach chunks (about 2 peaches, no need to peel them) and 2 cups of fresh or frozen blueberries for the 3-1/2 cups of blueberries. (It also works vice-versa, with 2 cups of peaches and 3 of blueberries.) Toss the sugar and flour directly with the fruit before spreading it over the bottom layer. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then lower the oven to 350 degrees and bake until topping looks "dry" but edges aren't too brown, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Alex on the radio

A real post is long overdue (and has been in my head for days now), but the excitement of this Labor Day is that Alex was interviewed for the public radio program The Story about the year he walked across the US and took photos. It's a really nice, thoughtful interview (not that I'm biased, or anything). They've included a couple of Alex's photos from the trip as well as a link to his blog, where there are many more photos.

The link to the program is here: The Story, Labor Day Special. Alex is second on the program and starts at about 22 minutes in. I'd never actually heard of The Story before--it comes out of North Carolina Public Radio, and none of the NPR stations around here carry it--but now that I know about it, I'm going to keep my eye on the rest of their stories.

More soon. Really.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

On "Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi"

So, while I was up in NH, I read Geoff Dyer's new novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. I'd heard of Dyer before but never read anything by him, and the main reason I picked this one up was the Varanasi in the title.

It is a sad fact (to me, at least) that there are very few good novels set in Varanasi--or, if they're around, I've never heard of them. There's one I couldn't get through (Sister India by Peggy Payne) and another I started with anticipation and finished in great disappointment (Pankaj Mishra's The Romantics. Even more irritating were the glowing US reviews, including in the Washington Post and New York Review of Books, which had me muttering, "What book were you reading?" (The Indian reviews were mixed.)) Charlotte Bacon's lovely second novel There is Room for You has a section set in Varanasi, but I don't think that can count as an actual Varanasi novel.

So, I picked up the Dyer mostly for that reason. And then there were the blurbs. Down the back cover of the book, there they were, from Michael Ondaatje (who can do no wrong in my mind), William Boyd (a couple of whose early novels I liked and whose recent Restless was one of my favorite books to listen to over the past few years), David Mitchell (okay, I never made it through Cloud Atlas, but I enjoyed the earlier Ghostwritten), Joshua Ferris (Well, I did find And Then We Came to the End rather tedious, but lots of other folks liked it) and Zadie Smith (I really enjoyed On Beauty, and, you know, she's Zadie Smith.) It was a bit daunting, thinking that all of these bigwigs had said such nice things about Geoff Dyer and the book--what would it say about me if I didn't like it?

Geoff Dyer is known, apparently, for writing non-categorizable books. There are a few novels there, but there are also some cross-genre books such as one titled Yoga for People Who Can't be Bothered to Do It as well as a book about not writing a critical study on DH Lawrence (Out of Sheer Rage), one on photography (The Ongoing Moment) and one on jazz (But Beautiful).

But I felt at a disadvantage from the beginning because the first part of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which is set at the Venice Biennale in 2003, is clearly a riff on Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, which I have not read. So, when I was trying to explain to my friend what the book was about, I had to say something along the lines of, "Well, it's about a jaded journalist named Jeff who goes to the Venice Biennale to write about art and ends up going to lots of parties and drinking a lot of bellinis and snorting a lot of cocaine and having lots of sex with a beautiful American he meets there. Oh, and his last name is Atman, which is a word used to describe the soul or the universal self in Hinduism and Buddhism." "Nothing you have said so far makes me want to read it," she said. I pointed out that it was well written and sometimes quite funny, though the most definite thing I gained from it was the knowledge that, had I had much of a yen to do cocaine before I read the book, it would have been gone by the time I finished.

As for the second part, another journalist, this one unnamed (possibly Jeff, possibly not) takes a last minute travel writing assignment to go to Varanasi and then doesn't leave. (The purest bit of fiction--are there any newspapers left who would fly someone, even a big time writer, business class to Delhi and then on to Varanasi and put them up at the Taj Ganges for 5 nights all for a 1200 word piece on Varanasi? I realize I don't travel in very elevated writing worlds, but in these days of vanishing newspaper travel sections, it seems pretty damn unlikely.) Eventually, he moves from the Taj Ganges to the Ganges View (which, as it so happens, is right next door to Anami Lodge, where I've stayed the last few times I've been in Varanasi) and settles in, losing track of time and his passport and desire itself.

This is taken from the roof of Anami Lodge, and the terrace with plants on it, in the foreground, is the Ganges View.

Geoff Dyer has clearly spent some time in Varanasi, and I really enjoyed his take on it--there are some great (and very accurate) descriptions, and as a journey to a place I know and love, I enjoyed his vision. For someone who hasn't been there, this could read as a travelogue with bits of plot attached. And there are filaments of connections between the Venice and Varanasi sections, images reflected and refracted, so it doesn't feel like you're reading each section in a vacuum.

So, I liked the book. I'm not sorry I read it. But where I find the disconnect is between what I felt about it and what various distinguished critics and writers felt about it. In a glowing New York Times Book Review review, Pico Iyer calls it "profoundly haunting and fearless" and ends the review by saying, "In the weeks since I devoured 'Jeff in Venice,' I don’t think a day has passed without my thinking back to it." In the New Yorker, James Wood (who I think is generally rather cranky) is a fan, giving the book and Dyer a serious and thoughtful review, ending with the comment that it is an "original, affecting, and unexpected book." In the New York Review of Books, it gets two full pages by Tim Parks. I actually enjoyed this review quite a bit, until the last column, when he starts talking about the connections between this book and D.H. Lawrence's travel writing as well as the connections with Thomas Mann again, which got me wondering.

Am I not the ideal audience for this book because I haven't read Thomas Mann? Or because I haven't read more D.H. Lawrence? (I'm not sure having read Women in Love, about which I had very mixed feelings, in grad school counts for too much.) Or because I haven't read more Geoff Dyer? I also wonder, as I often do, if it's a gender thing. (The authors of these glowing reviews are all middle-aged men, as is Geoff Dyer.)

It turns out that the New Yorker did an online book club a couple of months ago where they talked about Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi and Geoff Dyer himself shows up to answer questions. ( The first part starts here.) One of the questioners mentioned having gone back and read the Venice section again after having read the whole book and said that it read completely differently. To that, Geoff Dyer says, "I would love it if people followed your example and read the book if not twice then at least one and half times because, yes, the Venice part does change in the light of the Varanasi part, i.e., it’s not just sex and coke and party banter!" Except, on first read, at least, it kind of is.

On the one hand, I'm slightly curious to see if this is true. On the other hand, I think maybe I have to accept that while this is a Varanasi book that I enjoyed, it's maybe not my Varanasi book. (Maybe my Varanasi book I'll just have to write myself.) There are definitely books I've wanted to start over immediately upon finishing them. Maggie O'Farrell's gorgeous first novel After You'd Gone comes to mind as does one of my favorite Indian novels ever, Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines. But I got to the end of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and my first impulse was not to flip back to the beginning. (Sorry, Geoff Dyer.) I finished and was kind of done except for wondering why I hadn't seemed to appreciate it as much as everyone whose reviews I read. It's almost easier, when reviewers have loved a book that I didn't like at all. (Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children comes to mind here. Fine, it was well written and culturally relevant, but I found it very cold and don't like investing time in a long novel when there are no sympathetic characters at all, no matter how well their unsympatheticness is portrayed.) In this case, I feel like we all read the same book except that they got a layer of meaning out of it that I missed completely.

In any case, I am leaving shortly for a few days on Cape Cod with my charming nieces (and their parents), and the book is staying here, so I guess that answers the re-reading question. At least for now. I'll report back if I spend the next few days thinking about the book and wanting to re-read it. Or, maybe, I'll just find a nice fat mystery and read it on the beach and call it a day.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Where oh where has the summer gone?

The original plan was to title this post "Bye, Bye, July," but, you know, it's now 10 days into August, so even that was belated.

I didn't mean to vanish so thoroughly, but apparently, I needed a bit of a blogging vacation. (Perhaps a delayed effect from all that blogging in May.)

There have been some good distractions, like visitors, necessitating some nice summer cooking, which included this lovely summer vegetable pie (in its pre- and post-baked states):

We ate it with grapenut ice cream, a long time favorite but hard to find. (I used David Lebovitz's vanilla ice ream recipe and added a cup of grapenuts. There was some dissent about this, as Abby and Jon liked the ice cream when it was just finished, while Alex and I preferred it a day later, when the grapenuts had time to soften.)

There have been multiple hikes on Mt. Tom and ice cream at Mt. Tom's. In some kind of ice cream irony, the day after we made the grapenut ice cream, Abby and Jon and I hiked across the Mt. Tom ridge and then went to Mt. Tom's, where, on the specials list was none other than grapenut ice cream, the first time I've seen it available outside of New Hampshire (where it's kind of a local specialty).

Unfortunately, there was also a lingering flu that sucked up a couple of weeks of my break and required obsessive reading of the novels of Noel Streatfeild as well as a re-read of the entire Harry Potter series to get through.

There is also the terrible news that most, if not all, of my tomatoes at the community garden have come down with late blight. They were looking so happy and healthy, even with all the June rain, but the leaves started dying, and then as the tomatoes started to ripen, it was clear that something was wrong. I've already gotten rid of a couple of plants and think I'll have to do the rest. The three plants I planted at home seem okay, but that's little consolation, as there are 17 plants at the community garden. It looks like I'll be buying tomatoes for this year's sauce extravaganza. I should note, though, that I bought all my tomato starts from a local garden center and from an organic stand at the farmers' market, so even avoiding big box garden centers didn't help in my case.

At least it's been a good year for potatoes . . .

If those had been at the community garden, they'd be toast too (metaphorically speaking, of course), but I was told early on that the potato bug was there, so I didn't even try. They seem to like my garden here, though, not that potatoes are known for being fussy. I'm thinking I might try Molly from Orangette's salsa verde for my next batch.

Anyway, I'm off in a bit to Lake Winnepesaukee for a few days, then back briefly, then off to the Cape for a few more days. I hope to have my blogging energy back when I'm back home again. It will still be blueberry season then, and there is a blueberry treat I definitely want to write about. (Suffice it to say, for the moment, that, with only three of us present and after a large and delicious dinner, the 9" x 13" pan was half empty by the time I covered it up.)

Until then, happy August!