Thursday, September 29, 2011

Audiobook Recommendation: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

You don't have to look far to find fabulously positive reviews of David Mitchell's 2010 novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. (If you buy the paperback edition, they're all over the cover and take up the first several pages of text.) The Guardian loved it, as did the New York Times (twice) and nearly every other major paper. The review that interested me most, though, was a very brief one, in AudioFile magazine, about the audiobook version. The first sentence is as follows: "This utterly original and wildly satisfying new novel gets such a dazzling performance here that you are torn between wanting to know how it ends and hoping it never does."

Well, I was intrigued! As it happens, I already owned a copy of Jacob de Zoet, thanks to my friend Derick, who sent me a copy earlier this summer. He'd borrowed Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten, years ago, and when he was housesitting here in January, he read what is supposed to be Mitchell's masterpiece, Cloud Atlas. My own history with Mitchell is mixed. I enjoyed Ghostwritten (read on the train from Varanasi to Delhi in 2002) but never made it through the first section of Cloud Atlas. I am determined to be more patient and try it again, though, especially after Jacob de Zoet (which, apparently in some circles, is considered lesser Mitchell.)

There are many other places to read about the plot and themes of this novel. The thumbnail version is that it's set at the turn of the 19th Century in Japan, where the tiny island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki is the only point of contact between Shogun Japan and the rest of the world. Dejima serves as a trading outpost between the Dutch East India Company and Japan, and the Dutch merchants who live there are confined to the island. Enter Jacob de Zoet, a pious and upright young clerk, come to make his fortune so he can return home and marry his sweetheart. At first, Jacob is prized for his honesty, and then not so much. Betrayed by the Chief Resident who at first welcomes his attempts to straighten out years of corrupt dealings, then rejects them when he begins to enjoy the fruits of corruption himself, Jacob is left on Dejima when the chief leaves, demoted and seemingly destined to serve as the whipping post for the weaselly colleague who was promoted above him. But during his time in Dejima, Jacob has fallen rather hopelessly in love with Aibagawa Orito, a midwife given special dispensation to study on Dejima with the Dutch Dr. Marinus. Orito is bright and talented but disfigured by a burn to her cheek, making her seemingly unmarriageable.

In the second section of the book, Jacob is nearly absent, as the focus shifts to a sinister mountain shrine/nunnery where Orito has been brought (against her will) after her father's death. The narration of the story shifts between an attempt to rescue Orito and life in the house of sisters at the shrine.

The third section of the book returns to Dejima but also to the British frigate Phoebus and to its gouty, mourning captain. (It was at this point that I felt like I'd been flung, briefly and happily, into a cousin of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels.)

My temptation is to natter happily on about the plot, but that's not the point of this. I have no doubt that I would have enjoyed reading the book version, but I loved listening to the audio book version. Fat historical novels, when narrated well, turn out to be intensely pleasurable as audio books. The length and breadth mean that you can settle into the story in a different way. I learned that with the Patrick O'Brian books and again with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Both Patrick Tull (Patrick O'Brian) and Simon Prebble ( Jonathan Strange) are wonderful narrators, and Jonathan Aris, much younger than either, is a fabulous successor to them. I will not quibble that all the Dutch residents have (various) British accents. That the accents are so well done and the narration so seamless is enough. Paula Wilcox narrates Orito's sections, also very, very well.

The book started a bit slowly (for me), and it takes some time to learn the lay of the land, with the plethora of characters--Dutch and Japanese both--to become familiar with. But I felt that I was in good hands with both narrators, and as the book progressed and the plot thickened, it became hard to stop listening. I handed the CDs off to my friend Darnell once I was done, and soon thereafter, I received an email from his wife, my friend Leanna, which said the following: "D was so taken up with finishing Jacob DeZ that he refused all conversation last night and retreated to his chair, where he sat with headphone clamped on, absolutely rapt."

I'm not sure that there's higher praise than that. As for me, it's been weeks since I finished, and I still find myself thinking about it. I think of the plot twists, but I also think of the melancholy but satisfying final pages when Mitchell wraps up his story in the only way the novel reasonably could have ended. I spent 19 hours listening to Jonathan Aris and Paula Wilcox tell me the story of Jacob de Zoet and Aibagawa Orito and the rest, and it still wasn't quite enough. Better, of course, to end wanting more, but a bit sad all the same.

For more on Jacob DeZoet and on David Mitchell, here are a few links:

An article about Mitchell in the New York Times Magazine shortly before Jacob de Zoet came out.

This review in The Millions was one of my favorites.

The Written Nerd is a new blog to me (and one, it turns out that is now defunct), but I quite enjoyed her review as well.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Amanda Hesser's Peach Tart

It had to be a pretty amazing recipe to get me out of my blog funk, but this one did it. Behold the peach tart, both gorgeous and delicious.

When I bought 2 boxes ($4 worth) of peach seconds at the Farmers' Market last Saturday, I was thinking peach jam or perhaps a crumble. I definitely wasn't thinking about a tart, as I had never actually made a fruit tart before. But I'd noticed up at Food52 that in the contest between this tart and another, this one had won by a landslide, and I got curious. Then I started reading the overwhelmingly positive comments, and then I looked closely at the recipe--the olive oil dough that didn't need to be rolled out, the peaches that didn't need to be peeled, the need for no special equipment. It seemed just the thing to try on a chilly Sunday evening (with the added bonus of the oven being on to warm the kitchen up).

The problem turned out to be the peaches, which, oddly for seconds, weren't quite ripe. By the time I realized that, though, I was attached to the idea of a peach tart and so I gave up the week's eating peaches for the tart. A lesson learned--your peach tart is as good as the peaches you put in it. I'm sure a tart with the seconds would have been fine, but the tart using the better peaches was divine.

The recipe is both easy and unusual. The dough is slightly sweet and slightly salty, the fat provided by a mix of canola and olive oils. There are also 2 tbsp. of milk in there and some almond extract. It looked weird when I first put them in the bowl together (no photo, alas), but they whisked up into a thick, glossy liquid. The dough itself seemed a bit oily, and I was nervous as I pressed it into the pan and covered it with sliced peaches (unpeeled! no blanching!). The topping is a mix of sugar, flour and butter. Amanda Hesser noted that it would seem like a lot of topping, and, indeed, it seemed like a lot of topping.

But in the 35 minutes the tart spent in the oven, the topping melted and turned into a sweet, glossy sheen on top of the peaches. When I looked into the oven the first time, I couldn't believe that I--a person who is accustomed to making baked goods that are tasty but homely--had produced such a gorgeous tart.

I had no whipped cream to serve it with, but Alex and I ate it in silence. Silently, we appreciated the crisp, almond-tinged crust, the soft and just sweet enough peaches, the chewy caramelized bits at the edge of the tart. Until I began to complement my own cooking, and Alex went back into the kitchen and asked if I wanted anymore or could he finish it off. (He didn't really.) Still I was given a stern warning: "Don't bring the rest of this to work!" he said. Point taken.

I am hoping devoutly that there will be at least one more week of peaches, and if there are, I will make this again, perhaps with whipped cream this time. But now that I know how easy this is, I am looking forward to using this tart formula for other kinds of fruit--apples, perhaps, or plums, and in the summer, some kind of peach-berry combination. As Amanda Hesser says in her introduction to this recipe on Food 52, "Every cook needs a good dessert recipe that can be whipped up anywhere." I think this one has just become mine.

Amanda Hesser's Peach Tart
from Food 52

  1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a mixing bowl, stir together 1 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar. In a small bowl, whisk together the oils, milk and almond extract. Pour the oil mixture into the flour mixture and mix gently with a fork, just enough to dampen; do not over work it. Then, transfer the dough to an 11-inch tart pan (or whatever similar pan you have on hand), and use your hands to pat out the dough so it covers the bottom of the pan, pushing it up the sides to meet the edge. (Mine didn't go very far up the sides, but I sacrificed that so it wouldn't have holes in the bottom. Hesser says the dough should be 1/8 inch thick.)
  2. In a bowl, combine 3/4 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt and the butter. (Add an additional tbsp. of flour if you have especially juicy peaches.) Pinch the butter into the dry ingredients until crumbly.
  3. Starting on the outside, arrange the peaches overlapping in a concentric circle over the pastry; fill in the center in whatever pattern makes sense. The peaches should fit snugly. Sprinkle the pebbly butter mixture over top (it will seem like a lot). Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until shiny, thick bubbles begin enveloping the fruit and the crust is slightly brown. Cool on a rack. Serve warm or room temperature, preferably with generous dollops of whipped cream