Monday, March 29, 2010

On Getting Rid of Books and the Pleasures of Re-Reading

I've been cleaning my study over the past few weekends. This is no easy task, alas. It's not that it's big; it's more that it's the most densely packed with stuff, with papers and piles, a desk and a table, 5 bookcases, 2 file cabinets, miscellaneous boxes that have been sitting on the floor since I moved in more than 5 years ago. Every few months I do a purge of the papers, but this time, I actually tackled the boxes and transferred a lot of paper to the recycling and the shredder. While my study is not yet as neat as it was whenever I took that photo (Yes, that's neat, comparatively), it's better than it was.

One thing I did, in the most tentative of ways, was go through my bookcases. Most of my fiction is in my study, from Ab (Diana Abu-Jaber's Arabian Jazz, published while she was at the University of Oregon in the early 90s, the inscription of which calls me her most "delightful, charming, talented, adorable and brilliant" student, which makes me think now that she was excessively giddy to have her first book out) to Sp, Scott Spencer's Endless Love (infinitely better in novel than in movie form). (The remaining fiction is in the hallway.)

I've always wanted a library, and while I may never have the room with the leather armchairs and the fireplace and the sliding ladder--I love the wall of books in my study.

So, it is only with the greatest restraint that I ever get rid of books. Take today's purge of a modest 14 books, for example. Several of the books in the pile are duplicates. A few others are books I can say with some confidence that I'm just not going to read, now or later. These include From Here to Eternity and two Gunter Grass novels, including one, The Flounder, recommended to me by a man who would later break my heart. My bookmark is on p. 88, and at this moment of remove, I'm much more interested in the bookmark--a three tier AC train ticket from Howrah Junction in Calcutta to New Delhi in November, 1994 for a female, age 28--than in the book. My beau had been gone from India for 3 weeks then, and I remember taking it as a sign that this book he'd so recently recommended to me had turned up in a used book stall in Calcutta, with the inscription, "To my dear Frank--May you imbibe these sensual morsels and savor them as you make your way through the jetstream. Love, Mary Ann." Who knows if Frank imbibed the sensual morsels and where he is in the jetstream all these years later. All I know is that I did try--getting to page 88 (even out of a 540 page book) definitely is trying--and maybe the fact that I couldn't make myself read any further was a sign that we were not meant to be.

But I digress. The other books on the pile include a few mysteries, Dreiser's Sister Carrie, Kafka's The Trial and a sappy lesbian novel called Patience & Sarah. I have read all of these books--Dreiser and the sappy lesbian book in college, Kafka in grad school, the mysteries more recently. But they are all on the pile not just because it's been years since I read most of them but because I am quite sure I will not want to read them again.

Because whether a book is re-readable is a key part of both my book acquisition and book retention strategies (if I have such a thing). Sometimes I buy books I've already read, and most of the time I keep books I've already read. It is a huge part of my reading life--and has been since I was a child--to re-read books I've loved and sometimes books I haven't, to see how I feel about them at a different stage of life. (Reading To the Lighthouse in college was a pleasant enough experience; reading it five years later was an astonishing one.)

I know that in some ways, re-reading doesn't make a lot of sense. I will never be able to read all the books I might want to read even once, so re-reading seems almost wasteful, spending precious time on familiar books. But even as I write that, I don't really believe it. I would never be able to read everything I wanted to even if I didn't re-read, and re-reading gives me enough pleasure that I can't imagine forgoing it.

I've been thinking about this recently because when I look through my list of books I've read this year, what I mostly see are mysteries. This is not necessarily a bad thing--I like mysteries--but usually they're interspersed with literary novels rather than with children's books, as they have been this year. The one new literary novel I tried to read I made it halfway through and realized that I just didn't care what happened. I was starting to feel a bit despondent. But I was instantly revived when I learned that Barbara Trapido, the wonderful British/South African novelist whom I adore and admire immensely, has a new book--her first in 7 years--due out soon.

And one thing led to another, and I found myself going to the bookcase in the hallway where the T's live and taking out my copy of Trapido's Noah's Ark. (The cover on the left is the edition I have; the one on the right is one of the newer, spiffier reprints.) It's not that I had really planned to re-read it. It's just that in reading the description of the new novel (Sex and Stravinsky, due out in Britain in May), I noticed that there was a character named Hattie, and I wondered if it was the same Hattie who is age 8 in Noah's Ark, fierce-willed, wild-haired and enamored of sparkly disco roller skates, whose decision to smuggle a 3 week old kitten (a female ginger tabby named Susan, "with just the smallest speckle of white on the end of her tail . . . Just like the tiniest spatter of milk.") in her hand luggage from South Africa back to Britain sets up the novel's conclusion. Since four of Trapido's six previous novels share a common set of characters, I won't be at all surprised if it's the grown-up Hattie we meet in the new novel.

But I took the book out, just to look, and just like the first time I read Noah's Ark--in Varanasi in 2002, after having found the book in a used bookshop in Kathmandu when I'd left India briefly for visa purposes--I found myself inexorably drawn into Trapido's complex, beautifully-detailed domestic world, a world I was so loathe to leave that immediately upon finishing the book the first time, I started it again and read it straight through.

Even having read Noah's Ark multiple times already, I still took great pleasure from it this time. I remembered the main arc of the story--how the marriage of the ethereal, artistic South African-born Ali to the American Jewish medic Noah evolved and then evolves as Ali finds herself drawn back to her past--but I'd forgotten many of the details, and re-discovering them was no less of a pleasure for their familiarity. I found myself engrossed all over again, carrying the book around with me and being irritated by anything that distracted me from it. With re-reading, the anxiety of "what happens next" is gone. There's only the pleasure in rediscovering a once familiar and much loved world.

And my re-read of Trapido has refreshed me, I find. Having returned to where I had been before, I'm more ready to strike again into unfamiliar territory. And a heap of intriguing new books beckons, not just Trapido's new novel, but Maggie O'Farrell's as well, and Katharine Weber's and more. Re-reading, it seems, leads me to reading, and so I hope it will continue.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Excellent Chewy Granola Bars

Sometimes when I find an interesting recipe online, I bookmark it and put it away for future reference. And sometimes, especially if it happens to be a Monday when I'm home, I preheat the oven and start measuring ingredients immediately. So it was a few weeks ago when Deb at Smitten Kitchen posted this recipe for thick, chewy granola bars. (She'd adapted the recipe from one on the King Arthur Flour site.)

Since I am a person who likes a little something with my tea in the afternoons, and since I am also a person who goes to the gym after that, I'm always looking for afternoon snack options that are reasonably healthy and reasonably filling and also, of course, more than reasonably tasty. These granola bars absolutely fit the bill. The beauty of the original recipe is that it is incredibly flexible and adaptable. I am writing about it now because I wanted to write about one particular combination.

Last year, during the May blogathon, I wrote about my favorite granola recipe, one full of coconut and wheat germ, sesame and sunflower seeds, slivered almonds and raw cashews, raisins and dried cranberries. Since I started making it, seven or so years ago, I have not strayed. I figured that since the granola was so delicious, the granola bar version of it must be equally delicious. And, I have to say, I was right. Not only that, but the bar version is almost more delicious thanks to the addition of peanut butter, which is obviously a bit tricky to add to granola but ideal in granola bars that you want to stick together. All of my testers approved heartily, and the granola bars were gone within just a few days.

I tried again a week later, this time adding chocolate chips. I am sad to say that it didn't work. It's not that the granola bars were inedible or anything--they tasted fine. But somehow the chocolate didn't mesh with the rest of the ingredients the way I hoped it would. I am going to go back to the original recipe and try a different combination that might work better with the chocolate--no sesame or sunflower seeds, for one thing, and perhaps peanuts or more almonds for the nuts. I will report back if I come up with anything particularly good.

A few notes: I took Deb's advice to make these in an 8" x 8" square pan (though mine is actually 9" x 9") rather than a 9" x 13" pan--this is how they get their thickness, but you do need to be press them firmly into the pan so that they stick together. I use a stainless steel measuring cup to assist with this. The thickness means that they're dense. Deb says she cuts hers into 16 pieces and eats them for breakfast. Since I mostly eat mine as a snack, I've been cutting them into 25 pieces, meaning they are small but still potent.

I usually don't cook with corn syrup, but it helps with the sticking together. Please note that light corn syrup is not the same as the high fructose corn syrup that is so evil.

As you might guess, the sticking together can be an issue. If you read through the 400+ comments on Smitten Kitchen, you'll see that it comes up frequently. (It's also fascinating to read the different combinations people have come up with.) Letting them cool completely before you cut them helps (though it takes some self control). Some time in the fridge helps. I also found that after a night in an airtight container, they held together pretty well. Also be aware that these keep very nicely. I didn't bother individually wrapping them--I just put the squares into a container, and they were fine. Several people mentioned making a double batch and baking it in a 9" x 13" pan, which I might try if I make these for an occasion or if I want to be generous and share while still having plenty for myself. That's the thing about these granola bars--they make you (me) a little bit greedy. But when it comes to granola bars, that might not be such a bad thing.

Thicky, Chewy Granola Bars
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen/King Arthur Flour

1 2/3 cups quick rolled oats
1/2 cup granulated sugar (This makes a not overly sweet bar, but you could cut down or eliminate if you wanted them even less sweet)
1/3 cup oat flour (or 1/3 cup oats, processed till finely ground in a food processor or blender)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup dried coconut
1/2 cup cashews
1/2 cup slivered almonds (I used toasted ones, though raw would be fine.)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
1/3 cup peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 tablespoon water

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line an 8″ x 8″ x 2″ pan in one direction with parchment paper. Lightly grease the parchment paper and the exposed pan, or coat with a non-stick spray.

Stir together all the dry ingredients, including the fruit and nuts. In a separate bowl, whisk together the vanilla, melted butter and oil, honey, corn syrup and water. Toss the wet ingredients with the dry along with the peanut butter until the mixture is evenly crumbly. Spread in the prepared pan, pressing them in firmly to ensure they are molded to the shape of the pan. (I used a stainless steel measuring cup to help with this.)

Bake the bars for 30 to 40 minutes, until they’re brown around the edges. (I find that 35 minutes works well--the edges are dark brown, the center light brown and a bit soft. They will firm up as they cool)

Cool the bars in their pan completely on a cooling rack. (Alternately, according to Deb, after about 20 minutes you can use your parchment “sling” to lift and remove the bars, and place them in their paper on the rack to cool the rest of the way. This can speed the process up.)

Once they're cool, use a serrated knife to cut the bars into squares. Store in an airtight container. Enjoy.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The View from my Window

So, the one day we had a bunch of snow last week, I took some photos, and on a whim, I sent one of them to Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Daily Dish, for his "The View from Your Window" feature. He gets lots and lots of submissions (hundreds a week, he says), so I didn't really think mine would end up there.

But my eagle-eyed brother called today and said he thought he recognized, well, the view from my window, and sure enough, he was right.

Of course, since the weather has warmed up these last few days, it no longer looks like this from my window, but on that snowy morning, it did: The View from My Window.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Easy Winter Tomato Soup

For years, my tomato soup routine was the same. In the summer, I made a version of tomato soup that I found in Cooking Light years ago. (I meant to post this version when it was tomato season and didn't, so now it will have to wait another few months.) And in the winter, I didn't even try to make my own but relied on Trader Joe's.

Those days have come to an end. Not that I will forgo Trader Joe's tomato soup entirely, but now I have an easy homemade alternative. And it should be no surprise that the source is Deborah Madison, soup genius. This recipe is from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which has been on my shelf for years. Why I never tried this recipe before, I can't say. Maybe I thought it was too simple or basic. I don't know. But now that I've tried it, it's going to be in my repertoire for a long time. It's easy, quick and delicious. And in early March, when one day the sun is out and the next day it's snowy and gray, it's nice to have something both dependable and delicious to rely on.

I hardly tweaked this recipe at all. I did add a carrot to the onion and celery, and I think if you're going to make the soup with water rather than vegetable stock (as I have), the carrot helps give the soup some depth. Otherwise, I followed her instructions pretty closely and was not disappointed.

Cream of Tomato Soup
Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

2 1/2 tablespoons butter

1 small onion, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
1 carrot, chopped (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil, crumbled between your fingers
Pinch of ground cloves

2 tablespoons flour
Two 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes in puree or juice
(or 1 28 ounce can, if that's what's in your pantry)
Pinch of baking soda

2 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
1 1/2 cups milk

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Tomato paste if needed