Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bitter by Jennifer McLagan

I appreciate the taste of bitterness and so I was excited when I first heard about Bitter: A Taste of the World's Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes. Jennifer McLagan was interviewed by Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter. (You can hear the episode online here.)

I've since read it cover to cover and tried some of the recipes. The Tea-infused Prunes are already a favourite. (Earl Grey tea and orange peel--so simple and so good.) I combined two different recipes, Grapefruit Tart and Grapefruit Curd, to make lovely dessert tartlets for guests at Easter. Some of the other recipes I'd like to try include: Bitter Greens Ravioli, Beer Soup, and Homemade Tonic Water.

McLagan's vegetable recipes often include lard, duck fat, ham, anchovies or other such ingredients that don't come into my vegetarian house. It doesn't matter, because I'm used to making substitutions. In fact, I often go off onto such tangents that the original recipe is unrecognizable. Today I made dandelion and smoked cheese quesadillas. They were totally my own creation, but inspired in general by McLagan's recipes for bitter greens.

Bitter is the kind of cookbook I love to read because it's full of fascinating information. For example:
My sister's jelly tastes
like honey with a slight
touch of dandelion green.
Aurora Mountain Farm

  • There's an association between the shape of a plate and the way we perceive the taste of food.
  • Cold reduces the impression of bitterness.
  • The tongue map has been debunked.
  • A spoon tasting dinner was held in which each of seven courses of mild curry was served with seven different kinds of metal spoons (copper, gold, silver, zinc, tin, chrome and stainless).
  • Some goat and sheep cheeses are made using the enzymes from cardoon blossoms.
  • Forced hop shoots sell for up to 1,000 euros a kilo, making them one of the world's most expensive vegetables. (I'm glad I grow my own! They really are delicious.)
  • Jelly made from dandelion flowers has its own name in France: cramaillotte. My sister Simone Rudge makes dandelion jelly to sell in Whitehorse and I sometimes make it for myself too. 
The only complaint I have is that most of the information pages are laid out in white font on a celadon green background, which doesn't provide enough contrast to be easily read. The photo pages are plentiful and drop-dead gorgeous, often showing plant materials against a dark backdrop.

There are lots of quotes from other sources, such as:

  • "Who wants to eat a good supper should eat a weed of every kind." - Italian saying
    Anyone who loves beer
    as much as I do must
    also love bitterness.
  • "Bitterness is a crucial piece of the taste spectrum that when presented in balance rounds out our flavor experience." - Melissa Pasanen
  • "Food has become primarily an expression of each individual culture, needing to be learned anew form birth and passed on from generation to generation." Paul Freedman

The introductory notes with each recipe are just great:

  • "Serving the custard cold with warm poached fruit also stimulates the trigeminal nerve, which senses the temperature of food." (Tea Custard with Poached Fruit)
  • "The French aren't afraid of darkly caramelizing baked goods (look at the edges of fruit tarts and the underneath of palmiers and croissants); they know that caramelizing, even a little burning, adds taste." (Toast Soup)
  • "This is a mixture of caffeine and nicotine, so I can't really defend it except to say the flavor is surprising and delicious, and not everything can be good for you." (Tobacco Chocolate Truffles)

McLagan's information about phytochemicals reminded me about another food book I like: Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson.

Bitter has received a James Beard Award in the single subject category. (Full list online here).

Friday, April 24, 2015

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

A fast-paced steampunk adventure in alternate 19th-century Seattle with zombies: that's Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. My nephew recommended this audiobook [MacMillan: 13 hrs 42 min] which has two excellent narrators: Kate Reading and Wil Wheaton.

A sulky teenager with a chip on his shoulder decides to clear the name of his father, whom he has never met. His father was the inventor of the boneshaker, the machine that was said to have brought about catastrophy in Seattle. It's now a city of toppled buildings that has been made uninhabitable by poisonous gas seeping from the earth. The blight makes people ill first and zombies later.

The boy's mother follows him into the ruined city to rescue him.

The compelling plot and skilled audiobook narration kept me listening, but this book wasn't quite right for me. For one thing, I couldn't wrap my head around poisonous city air that doesn't disperse into the surrounding area--making it safe to live outside the city walls, but requiring breathing apparatus if you were inside the city. The walls were to hold in the zombies, who didn't seem real enough to me. I know, I know... real zombies. But the vampire zombies in Justin Cronin's The Passage were scarier. 

Also, I was bothered by the ethnic stereotyping of a group of characters called the Chinamen: quiet, patient, pigtailed, superstitious and clannish men who can't speak English. "This here is Huojin, but I call him Huey and he doesn't seem to mind." That should be a line from one of the bad guys, not one of the heroic women.

Boneshaker won the Locus Best Science Fiction Novel Award in 2010. It is first in The Clockwork Century series.

Similar stories that I liked better include: Angelmaker (Nick Harkaway) and Airborn (Kenneth Oppel).

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

I've realized that I've got a poor track record as far as blogging about the audiobooks I read and my goal is to do better. I listened to seven audiobooks in April, the most recent being Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami [Naxos: 19 hrs].

The two main characters are 15-year-old Kafka (narrated by Oliver Le Sueur) and Nakata, a simple-minded old man who can talk to cats (narrated by Sean Barrett).

Miss Saeki, a former singer, is the enigmatic manager of a private library. Her name is pronounced in two different ways by the audiobook narrators. Barrett: Sah-eh-ki. Le Sueur: Psyche. I don't know which is closer to correct Japanese pronunciation, but I know which one I found more fitting. One of the other characters is Oshima, a transgender librarian, whom I wish had a greater role in the story.

There was a third audiobook narrator who performed the voice of a female teacher, but I couldn't find her name listed anywhere. I downloaded the e-audiobook from OverDrive and it had no publication credits at the beginning or at the end of the recording, which is something I've never encountered before. Searching for more information online, I learned that the translator is Philip Gabriel, who was awarded a PEN/Book of the Month Club Translation Prize for this work.

As I listened, I found myself checking off ingredients common to other books by Murakami that I've read:
  • multiple narratives that come together
  • parallel worlds
  • a central character who feels alienated
  • a ghostly, very beautiful girl
  • music is significant
  • libraries and books
  • lost cats
  • a menacing black dog
  • supernatural entities
  • sex while asleep or dreaming
  • brief episodes of gruesome violence
  • metaphysical musings
When I was about 11 hours into the story, I lost enthusiasm for a while. There's stuff about patricide and sleeping with both his mother and his sister and details about his cock and I needed a break. I switched to a different book for a while, then felt renewed interest in Murakami's use of symbolism and where he was going with this tale. 

I was glad that I finished it, because his work always makes me feel changed. Even so, I liked The Wind-up Bird Chronicles better.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

I was hit in the heart by Emma Hooper's debut novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James… and I can still feel it pulsing there--warm, comforting and wise.

The story shifts back and forth between two time periods: rural Saskatchewan of the depression era, up to and including World War 2 France, and contemporary Canada, 60 years later. The main characters are easy to identify because they are listed in the title. Otto and Russell grow up as close as brothers. They fall in love with Etta, who loves them both. When Etta is 82, with her mental health failing, she leaves her prairie home and starts walking to the Atlantic ocean, over 3,000 kilometres away. Alone.

James is the only character who also is depicted on the cover of the edition I read. He's a coyote who starts following Etta like a dog, and then becomes her companion. Their conversations with each other are just one of the reasons why I love this book so much.

If you were to imagine a combination of elements from The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (by Rachel Joyce) and Freddy's War (by Judy Schultz) and And the Birds Rained Down (by Jocelyne Saucier), plus the dog from The Back of the Turtle (by Thomas King), you might approach something like the magic of Etta and Otto and Russell and James.

Monday, April 6, 2015

A Bookish Trip to Amsterdam

I'm leaving for Amsterdam with my sweetie today and I'm looking forward to lots of art and lots of gardens. My sightseeing will also include literary tie-ins... of course! These are on my list:

The Museum of Bags and Purses (Tassen museum), because my friend Shawna Lemay's forthcoming novel has something to do with this place.

"The Goldfinch" by Fabritius (at the Mauritshuis in The Hague): even though I wasn't crazy about Donna Tartt's book of the same name, I still want to see the painting. Vermeer's "Girl with the Pearl Earring" is also at the Mauritshuis. It's because of the movie, rather than Tracy Chevalier's book, and also because of the documentary Tim's Vermeer, that I'm excited about seeing Vermeer's work again.

Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist has made me want to seek out Petronella Oortman's dollhouse at the Rijksmuseum... even though I was among the minority of readers not enamoured with the book. I found the novel's flaws outweighed its merits, but that's all I've got to say.

I don't expect to find a cave of mosses at Amsterdam's Hortus Botanicus, but I'll think of Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things while I'm there. The garden currently is hosting an exhibit of Josephine's botanical collection at Malmaison that looks interesting.

The Diary of a Young Girl will be front and center at the Anne Frank House, but also a scene from the movie The Fault in Our Stars that has stayed with me: that of Hazel climbing the stairs.

There's a replica of an 18th-century Dutch East India cargo ship moored next to the Scheepvaart Museum that interests me very much. I look forward to climbing around the setting of so many historical novels that I've enjoyed: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell); Set to Sea (Drew Weing); Jamrach's Menagerie (Carol Birch); and She Rises (Kate Worsley), among others.

After 10 days in Amsterdam, we'll spend a few days in Antwerp, home of Pieter Bruegel, a painter I grew to appreciate after reading As Above, So Below (Rudy Rucker). Antwerp also has a fabulous printing museum that displays a copy of Gutenberg's bible.

There's more, but departure looms. Packing reading material is so much easier now with digital devices, but I still have included two paper books in my luggage:

The Land of Decoration. I was reminded that Grace McCleen's first novel has been sitting unread on my bookshelves for three years when I saw that her third, The Offering, is on the Bailey's longlist.

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. I've been waiting even longer (decades?) to get around to Stephen Leacock's Canadian classic.

Queued up on my iPod are the following audiobooks:

Joan of Arc by Kathryn Harrison (biography)
Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace (novel from the viewpoint of Van Gogh's doctor)
Irma Voth by Miriam Toews (this is the only one of her books I have not read)
Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in that House by Meghan Daum (essays)
The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann (Norwegian crime novel in translation)
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (my colleague says it's his favourite Murakami)
The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker (I'll probably pester my sweetie with tidbits from this)
Buddha Boy by Kathe Koja (YA)
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (my nephew's steampunk recommendation)
The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk (Cusk is on the Baileys longlist for a more recent novel)
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (so much praise for this historical novel with a folk tale at its core)

... more than I'll ever have time to get through, but they don't take any space, really. I'm set!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

A true story inspired Helen Humphreys to write The Evening Chorus. British officer John Buxton studied the birds he could see while imprisoned in a German camp during the second world war and then published a book about them. Humphreys spoke about Buxton when she was touring her previous book, Nocturne, and that is how I came to read his monograph The Redstart.

I always look forward to a new work by Humphreys, who is one of my very favourite writers. The Evening Chorus is exactly as I expected: quiet, thoughtful, poetic and powerful. Perfect. I wept. I don't want to start another book yet, so that I can spend time thinking about this one. Just as Buxton observed the redstarts, Humphreys has made a study of the human heart.

The Evening Chorus begins in 1940. While James is in prison in Germany, his younger wife Rose falls in love with another man. Then James' sister Enid is bombed out of her home in London and comes to stay with Rose.

It is much later that Enid discovers words of wisdom she might have shared with Rose:

   "You can love different people over the course of a lifetime, but you won't love any two of them the same way, and quite frankly, you will love some of them more than others. A great deal more."

James and Enid observe seabirds on a cliff in Wales in 1950:
Gannets in New Zealand

  "It's so hard to get life right, she thinks, pulling the blanket tight around her shoulders. All the small balances are impossible to strike most of the time. And then there are the larger choices. It's hopeless. She might as well be one of those shearwaters, tossed about by the gusts of wind that drive up from the Atlantic.
   Two shearwaters circle their heads and then slide sideways on a current of air, disappearing over the edge of the cliff.
   'Look,' James says. 'The shearwaters that fly on course and the ones that get thrown about by the wind mostly end up in the same place, so perhaps effort doesn't matter, isn't what ensures survival.'"

Within the bleak paucity of post-war Britain, Humphreys treats her broken characters with careful tenderness. Each has their own path to healing. There is that greatest of emotions, love, and there are also the small things. The things that build resilience and sustain us are often small. Simple acts of human kindness. Companionship. The natural world. Sometimes hope is quite literally the thing with wings.

Humphreys' 2008 novel Coventry is an excellent companion to The Evening Chorus. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

A woman hitchhikes solo through New Zealand in Catherine Lacey's compelling novel Nobody Is Ever Missing. 

Elyria is missing. She left her husband and her job as a daytime television scriptwriter in New York without saying anything about her plans to anyone. In fact, she had little in the way of plans when she landed in New Zealand. She just needed to get away. Finding out why kept me turning pages, and so did Elyria's busy internal voice.

"He turned the music up, lit another cigarette, and opened a beer as we drove up a mountain, making hairpin turns at unadvisable speeds. My organs let me know how much they disapproved of where I was sitting--I couldn't remember why I had ever wanted to go anywhere at all."

Elyria saw many odd things on her road trip in New Zealand. I did too.
Many of the people who give Elyria a ride warn her about the dangers of hitchhiking. She, however, has more lofty things on her shattered mind.

"Let me say that whoever invented wanting, whoever came up with desire, whoever had the first one and let us all catch it like a hot-pink plague, I would like to tell that person that it wasn't fair of him or her to unleash such a thing upon the world without leaving us a warranty or at the very least an instruction manual about how to manage, how to live with, how to understand this thing that can happen in a person against her will, by which I mean desire and the need it gnaws in us and the shadow it leaves when it's gone."

New Zealand road ornament.
The world through Elyria's filter is mesmerizing and often surreal. I appreciated the grounding I felt during her moments of clarity.

"I walked into the library and the library smelled like every library I'd ever been in and Dewey decimals were on all the spines, same tiny font, tiny numbers, and I thought, for a moment, that there actually were things you could count on in this world until I realized that the most dependable things in the world are not of any significant use to any substantial problems."

There isn't a resolution for Elyria in the end--her problems are substantial--and yet I had seen enough shreds of resourcefulness to have hope for her. Nobody Is Ever Missing is a thought-provoking novel written in a fresh, wry style.

Readalikes with similar humour and themes: The Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offill) for its exploration of marriage; The First Bad Man (Miranda July) for the mentally troubled main character; and Save Your Own (Elizabeth Brink) for a woman floundering to make sense of her life.