Saturday, August 31, 2013

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

Shame researcher Brene Brown's most recent book is called Daring Greatly. I fell hard for this one. The first thing that Brown shares about herself is that she hates being vulnerable. Me too. Unfortunately for us, vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation and trust. Brown also discovered through her research that the willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single most important factor in living wholeheartedly.

"Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It's going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn't change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging."

"We're hard-wired for connection -- it's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging and connection always leads to suffering. [...] Those who feel lovable, who love, and who experience belonging simply believe they are worthy of love and belonging. They don't have better or easier lives, they don't have fewer struggles with addiction or depression, and they haven't survived fewer traumas or bankruptcies or divorces, but in the midst of all these struggles, they have developed practices that enable them to hold on to the belief that they are worthy of love, belonging, and even joy."

I listened to three quarters of the audiobook read by Karen White [Blackstone Audio: 8.5 hr] but then switched to the paper book because of technical difficulties. Both formats are easy to digest. The text is somewhat repetitive, with lots of real-life examples to drive home the main points.

If you haven't already seen it, start with Brown's TED talk, online here. We can all benefit from a pep talk about living wholeheartedly.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Progress by Michael V Smith

The drama in Michael V. Smith's character-based novel Progress takes place over the course of just one week. A woman happens to witness the accidental death of a construction worker on a hydroelectric project. Helen Massey lives in a community that is in the process of being moved to a new location, before the new dam floods the area. Shaken by what she has seen, Helen arrives home to find her brother Robert waiting. He left home abruptly, 15 years earlier, and no one has heard from him since. Helen isn't surprised to learn that Robert is gay, but he holds deeper secrets. Truth must come to the surface before their lives can move forward.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

This audiobook cover image in
Hoopla looks too saccharine for me.
I was quite taken aback by the cover image of the e-audiobook The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty in the Hoopla database [Dreamscape: 13 h 46 m] at the library. If I hadn't already been convinced to read it based on a review, I would have dismissed it as not to my taste, strictly based on the cover art. Despite appearances, it is not a frothy romance. Australian actor and voice artist Caroline Lee performs the story with lively wit and warmth.

This audiobook edition is
a little more appealing, with the
 shattering flower, but still not
something I'd pick up cold.
In Kirkus Reviews, Liane Moriarty is described as an "edgier, more provocative and bolder successor to Maeve Binchy." I agree. The Husband's Secret is perfect for readers who enjoy contemporary stories about interesting women. It opens with Pandora's version of events regarding a jar that was not to be opened, and then follows the interconnected lives of three women in Sydney, Australia.

Cecilia, mother of three, has found a letter addressed to her from her husband John-Paul, with instructions not to open it until after his death. He is still alive, but he acts so out of character when he learns that she has found the envelope that Cecilia eventually breaks her promise not to read it. Secrets from the past have far-reaching effects.

 The thought-provoking moral issues in this novel make it perfect for book group discussion. I wasn't crazy about the tidy way things get wrapped up at the end, but I still liked it very much.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Canary: Stories by Nancy Jo Cullen

The short stories in Nancy Jo Cullen's first collection, Canary, are about moving on and letting go of the past. Her characters are easily recognizable, young and old, living in different Canadian locations. Most of the stories have at least one queer protagonist.

In 'Ashes,' a family in the Okanagan erupts at the same time as Mount St. Helens. In 'Passenger,' on the spur of the moment, an elderly widower from Fort St John invites his neighbour's queer granddaughter to join him on a long-distance driving pilgrimage. A closeted gay Torontonian and his much younger wife each have their own reasons for keeping their marriage together in 'The 14th Week in Ordinary Time'.

(In one of those odd literary coincidences that I love, Maria Goretti, the little virgin martyr, is mentioned in 'The 14th Week in Ordinary Time' as well as being the namesake of one of the daughters in Jacqueline Dumas' Madeleine and the Angel.)

In 'Regina,' a 23-year-old waitress at a newly-renovated pub in downtown Vancouver in the '80s questions her direction in life. She isn't so sure about her boyfriend, either. "He was into business plans. I was into being a movie star or a lesbian. It wasn't as easy a choice as it might sound."

"The Blue Sky was the last refuge of men like Al and Fred and Jack, surrounded as they were by Robson Street's new yuppies, designer boutiques and gay men. Fred and Al and Jack tried to be pleasant but the future was encroaching and it didn't like their yellow fingers and dingy suits. They were not accustomed to being met with such open distaste. Not that they were finicky but being phased out does not bring out the best in people."

I have found myself thinking a lot about these stories since finishing the book. There is an atmosphere of sadness, but Cullen treats her troubled characters with compassion. The epigraph -- Gas, grass or ass, no one rides for free -- is fair warning. Whether we open ourselves to love, or shut ourselves away from it, there is always a price to pay just for being alive.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai

Shivan Rassiah is gay and of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese ancestry in Shyam Selvadurai's The Hungry Ghosts. Homosexuality is illegal in Sri Lanka. "Ten years in jail, not just for getting caught in the act, but for actually being so inclined." It is 1983. Ethnic strife between Tamils and Sinhalese is escalating. At 18, seeing no future for himself in his native country, Shivan decides to emigrate to Canada. He and his widowed mother and sister leave behind his estranged maternal grandmother.

In Canada, however, Shivan experiences something like the insatiable hungry ghosts of Buddhist mythology, whose tiny mouths prevent nourishment. Happiness eludes him. Shivan returns to help his grandmother in Sri Lanka, but tragedy forces him to leave again. Unfortunately, living in Canada also feels unbearable.

"Rising in me was a great longing to be back in Sri Lanka and also, paradoxically, a revulsion against being there. These two irreconcilable feelings pressed tight against each other."

Like Selvadurai's earlier novels, Funny Boy, Cinnamon Gardens, and Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, this book evokes rich details of daily life in Sri Lanka. Unlike the others, The Hungry Ghosts is permeated with emotional pain, giving it a more sorrowful tone. It provides thought-provoking and authentic insights into the immigrant experience.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Unusual Creatures by Michael Hearst

Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth's Strangest Animals is one of the most entertaining wildlife books I've read in a long time. Michael Hearst shares trivia about his 50 favourite animals with goofy gusto.

I learned how the wombat manages to make square poop and that artist Salvador Dali took his pet giant anteater for strolls through Paris. I already knew that male platypus have a venomous spur on each hind ankle because of the adult novel Albert of Adelaide, which stars a platypus named Albert. I didn't know that "there is no agreed-upon plural form of platypus, although scientists typically use 'platypuses' or platypus,' Not 'platypi.' Sorry."

The tardigrade, a water-dwelling microscopic animal found worldwide, is possibly the hardiest creature on the planet. "In 2007, tardigrades were taken into orbit on the Foton-M3 space mission and exposed to the airless, gravityless vacuum of outer space. After they returned to Earth 10 days later, it was discovered that not only had they survived, but they had also laid eggs."

"The hair on a sloth curves in the opposite direction of most other mammals: from the stomach to the back. Clearly, this is a mohawk waiting to happen."

An individual sea pig "is just about the perfect size to fit in the palm of your hand. I would suggest that the sea pig might make an awesome pet, but you would first need to find a 3,000-foot-deep fishbowl."

Check out Hearst's website, where you can also hear songs that he has composed in honour of unusual creatures. The Jesus Christ lizard video animation with toy piano music is pure fun. ("People have given the common basilisk [the name Jesus Christ lizard] because of its amazing ability to run on water.")

The artwork in Unusual Creatures is by Arjen Noordeman, Christie Wright, and Jelmer Noordeman. At first, I was disappointed that there were no photos of the creatures, but the strong visuals quickly won me over. The book's graphic design has a funky retro vibe.

An appealing nature book for readers of all ages.

Readalikes: Ubiquitous (Joyce Sidman); You Are Stardust (Elin Kelsey); Rare (Joel Sartore); and Packing for Mars (Mary Roach)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser

When I'm not sure what book to read next, I'll go through my TBR pile, reading the first page of each until I know I've got the right one. Michelle de Kretser's Questions of Travel begins with a chapter titled 'Laura, 1960s.'

"When Laura was two, the twins decided to kill her.
They were eight when she was born. Twenty-three months later, their mother died. Their father's aunt Hester, spry and recently back in Sydney after half a lifetime in London, came to look after the children until a suitable arrangement could be made. She stayed until Laura left school."

I couldn't resist that opening and soon decided this is De Kretser's finest book yet. (See also my reviews of her earlier novels, The Hamilton Case and The Rose Grower.) Obviously I'm not the only one who likes Questions of Travel because it's been sweeping the medals in Australia this year -- the Miles Franklin, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, and the Prime Minister's Literary Award.

Interleaved narratives follow two people of the same age through their entire lives. Laura Fraser leaves university to travel the world before eventually returning to Australia to work for a travel guide publisher. Ravi Mendis grows up in Sri Lanka, where devastating events force him to seek asylum in Australia.

As in the Zimbabwe setting of NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names, children's games in Sri Lanka mimic the violence in their immediate world:

"Ravi lit a cigarette and remained at his post. A different game started up below. The children ran around until one shouted, 'Bomb!' At once, the others threw themselves to the ground, where they lay spread-eagled and very still. After a little while, they got up and ran around again. Ravi couldn't see the point of this game. But there were days when the children played it nonstop."

Universal truths about our connections to geography and to other people are revealed through finely-drawn individual characters. Foreign places are variously experienced by tourists, immigrants, and refugees. Questions of Travel spans the globe and incorporates world events of the past 50 years. Instead of trying to choose from among the many eloquent passages flagged while reading, I'll just say that I highly recommend it.

(Those of you who love excerpts, please stay with me, right to the bottom. I can't return this book to the library without saving some of this great stuff.)

Readalikes: A Disobedient Girl (Ru Freeman) and Five Bells (Gail Jones).

"Laura thought, Perhaps suffering isn't a sign that God is absent or indifferent or cruel. Perhaps all the horrible things happen because he just gets distracted. She was sixteen, a metaphysical age. The Absentminded Almighty: having created him in her image, she felt quite protective of him and worshipped him tenderly until the phase passed."

"Hefty eucalypts filled tiny yards: broccoli jammed into bud vases. The trees must have been planted in the optimistic sixties, when minds expanded and it had seemed that everything else must follow."

"Across the world, the world-weary were waiting. Time after time, Laura would learn that she had missed the moment; to be a tourist was always to arrive too late. Paradise was lost: prosperity had intervened, or politics. The earthquake had finished off Naples. Giuliani had wrecked New York. Immigrants ruined wherever they squatted. France -- well, Fance had always been blighted by the necessary evil of the French. But if only Laura had seen Bangkok before the smog/Hong Kong before the Chinese/Switzerland before the Alps/the planet before the Flood."

"Nimal, too, kept in touch. He no longer worked for RealLanka; the company had folded. Hugely successful at first, it had fallen to a creeping malaise. Clients began to complain that the experiences for which they had paid handsomely and in hard currency lacked authenticity. Those who chose to stay with urban families were affronted when their hosts addressed them in English or invited them to watch reruns of American soaps. A Norwegian wrote that the household into which he had been thrust was grossly materialistic. He had been assured that these people were Buddhists, yet five curries had waited on the table, including beef. A new Zealander demanded a refund: her hosts' eleven-year-old daughter had confided that when she grew up she wanted to be just like Britney Spears."

"Tracy moistened her lips with peppermint tea and explained to Laura that she was part time at the gallery. Because Destiny was only three, although you'd never know it, everyone from the swimming coach to the piano teacher said she was so advanced for her age. That was when Tracy had known she'd made the right decision about her future, meeting Stew the very same week she moved back to Sydney. you had to believe in karma, n'est-ce pas, darl? Had she mentioned that Stew was a Buddhist? But not in that fundamentalist vegetarian way."

"The true [travel] guidebook would advise: 'Pay attention, be kind, think twice, shut up.'"

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Madeleine and the Angel by Jacqueline Dumas

I recently re-read Jacqueline Dumas' award-winning first novel, Madeleine and the Angel, because I'll be seeing a Fringe play tomorrow that is a continuation of this story. (More about that later.) My first reading must have been more than 20 years ago because I was in a book group that discussed it shortly after it came out and the publication date is 1989. What we get from the same piece of writing changes as we grow older. I remember really liking the book before. Now, I think I appreciate it even more.

It's a harrowing novel about two sisters growing up in Edmonton in the mid-20th century with francophone parents who are mentally ill. Pauline and Maria Goretti lived with abuse, uncertainty and poverty. Their father, Michel Gauthier, heard divine voices. Their mother, Madeleine, explained to the girls that their father was sometimes inhabited by the devil and sometimes by an angel.

Pauline, the narrator, is looking back on her life from a safe vantage point. She's a single mother with a young daughter. She knows that Madeleine is in a hospital bed 1,000 miles away, but she refuses to go to her.

One time when she was younger, exasperated by her mother's continual excuses for their father's erratic behaviour, Pauline snapped at her. "Oh for heaven sakes, mom. He's not tired, he's drunk."

"She slapped me. 'Don't you dare talk about your father like that! How can you say such a thing, how can you even think such a thing? He doesn't drink, you know that; the Angel gives him medicine - for his heart.'"

Pauline's father explained puberty to her:

"It is my father who tells me about the bleeding. My mother does not speak of such things as deodorants or sanitary napkins.
Because you're getting tits now there's some things I have to explain to you. He paces back and forth looking down, as if the appropriate words are to be located somewhere on the floor. He takes the mickey of Teacher's from his back pocket and has a swig. He finds some of the words: dink, balls, cock. When women pee it slops into them and men have to put their cock in to clean them out. One day, any time now, a spot of blood will come onto my underpants from, ah, from 'that place.' He has lost one of the words. He clears his throat, takes another swig. He finds the word. Cunt."

Photo from the promotion
of the Fringe production
of Secrets by
Jacqueline Dumas.
Pauline and Maria Goretti are on good terms at the end of Madeleine and the Angel, having survived the outrageous actions of their parents. Dumas has more trials in store for them, however. Her new play, Secrets, is described: "Following a 45-year separation, Maria Goretti has come to stay with her sister Pauline, ostensibly because of their mother's imminent death. What has kept the sisters apart, and what has compelled them to come together again? Old resentments and sibling rivalries bubble to the surface."

Jacqui and I have been friends for a long time. She is the former owner of two bookstores in Edmonton; first Aspen Books, then Orlando Books. (She was also mentioned in Janice MacDonald's mystery set in Edmonton, Sticks and Stones.) I'm really looking forward to seeing her show tomorrow!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee

Bobcat and Other Stories is a whip-smart collection by Rebecca Lee, a native of Saskatchewan who now lives in the USA. The stories are longish -- 30 to 40 pages -- and focus on the inner lives of the characters.

"Standing in front of the mirror, it occurred to me that Lizbet and I were living out our mothers' dreams for us -- mine that I finally be pregnant and Lizbet's mother's dearest desire that she never be pregnant. Our mothers had met in a consciousness-raising group in late 1967, in the East Village. They had become best friends, even though Lizbet's mother was a radical feminist, even a lesbian separatist for a while, without ever working up to actually sleeping with other women, and my own mother liked feminism as a sort of hobby, and a way to chat with a big, cozy group of women, eating coffee cakes. Once she told me that feminism had given her some good 'tips' for dealing with husbands, such as don't cry; resist."

That's from 'Bobcat,' the title story, in which a dinner party is fraught with suspicion and lies. Partway through the evening, the host and another woman stand weeping on the balcony while the rest remain in high spirits at the candlelit table behind them. "The city never disappoints [...]. Kitty and I both looked out at it now -- the lights, its long, winding roads, the million interiors. It doesn't know what you want so it tries to give you everything."

There's a quality of longing, or of inchoate need, that runs through the collection. The characters are mostly of university age, still sorting themselves out. Descriptive passages pulse with originality.

"My roommate Solveig was permanently tan. She went twice a week to a tanning salon and bleached her hair frequently, so that it looked like radioactive foliage growing out of dark, moody sands. Despite all this she was very beautiful, and sensible." (From 'The Banks of the Vistula.')

My favourite story is 'Min.' A young American woman is asked to find a wife for her friend in Hong Kong, shortly before the reunion of Hong Kong with China. The situation of Vietnamese refugees features prominently and, coincidentally, I'm also reading about Sri Lankan refugees in Australia (in Michelle de Kretser's Questions of Travel) and Saharawi refugees in Algeria (in Marcello di Cintio's Walls).

Readalikes: Sleeping Funny (Miranda Hill); And Also Sharks (Jessica Westhead); Dark Roots (Cate Kennedy); and Postcard and Other Stories (Anik See). I'll suggest A Song for Nettie Johnson too, because if Gloria Sawai had been writing and publishing stories when she was younger, they probably would have been like Rebecca Lee's.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

I read Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements way back in June, in preparation for Booktopia in Bellingham. It's a comedy of WASP manners set on an exclusive island in Cape Cod over the course of one weekend while a small family wedding takes place. Winn and Biddy Van Meter's eldest daughter Daphne is the pregnant bride.

"Winn would have felt nothing but proud pleasure about the match if not for the bump in Daphne’s wedding dress. Already her finger had swollen beyond the capacity of her carefully chosen wedding band, and a stunt ring had to be bought at the last minute for use in the ceremony."

"Greyson [the groom] always had a robustness about him, but he seemed even more energetic than usual. Had a football been at hand, he would have been firing passes to Charlie [his best man] and Francis and to his other brothers, the older ones, who were sitting in the second Jeep having a murmured argument."

Daphne and Greyson are actually minor characters in the background of this novel while all kinds of crazy drama swirls around them. There's Aunt Celeste's drinking problem, for example:

“That clink-clink, clink-clink, clink-clink that lets you know she’s coming – it’s like the shark music in Jaws.”

There's also a fair bit of sexual tension:

"He didn’t flatter himself – he had seen her around enough men to know flirtation was, for her, an impersonal reflex, and sex appeal was something she rained down on the world indiscriminately, like a leaflet campaign."

And excellent dialogue:

"On his way back to the table, Winn encountered Mopsy [grandmother of the groom] standing in the bar and turning in a slow, suspicious circle. 'I’m trying to find the manager,' she said. 'It’s so cold in this restaurant. I don’t know why you chose it.''I didn’t choose it,' Winn said. 'Dicky and Maude did.''They wouldn’t have. They know I don’t care for the cold.''Maybe,' Winn offered, 'you’re feeling the chill of approaching death.'She gave him a long, gloomy squint. 'This family is falling into the middle class,' she said.

When my book group discussed Seating Arrangements, I read some of my favourite passages aloud. There are so many funny parts, it was hard to choose. One of the members commented that she probably would have liked the book better if I had read the whole thing aloud to her. She wasn't the only person who struggled to feel a connection with the characters. I found it slow at first and was considering abandoning it until I got to the part where the whale exploded. I was hooked from there onwards. (Decomposing whales do explode; see for yourself on YouTube.)

In the end, I was thrilled with Shipstead's vibrant satire. I also enjoyed getting to know Winn, who is not a particularly sympathetic character, but goes through significant changes over the course of a few days. My friends have suggested that the book would make a great romantic comedy film. We repeat the line about the clinking ice cubes (to the tune from Jaws) to make each other laugh. 

Readalike: The Last Summer of the Camperdowns (Elizabeth Kelly).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert MacFarlane

British nature writer Robert MacFarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is a literary mix of geology, history, birds, plants, memoir and biography. He walks ancient footpaths and his prose rambles along, covering topics in the same organic way that one sees new things along the way and vistas open up when one comes around a bend.

I listened to the Blackstone audiobook [11.5 hrs] read by Robin Sachs (who died earlier this year). Sachs' voice is just the right blend of cultured and gruff for this contemplative outdoor narrative.

Walking is my preferred mode of transportation, so I really identified with the following passage:

"My legs preserved the ghost sense of stride, the muscle memory of repeated action, and twitched forwards even as I rested. My feet felt oddly dented in their soles, as if the terrain over which I had passed had imprinted its own profile into my foot like a mark knuckled into soft clay. How had Flann O'Brien put it in The Third Policeman? 'When you walk, the continual crackling of your feet on the road makes a certain quantity of road come up into you.'"

In another chapter, MacFarlane is encouraged to experience the joys of walking barefoot. One of his walking companions is even enthusiastic about walking barefoot through nettles, which he describes as being like chili for the feet. MacFarlane himself is dubious, but it reminds me of the time when I was so cold at a farm in Spain that I gathered nettles for soup and welcomed the long-lasting prickly warmth they brought to my hands.

Most of MacFarlane's walking takes place in the British Isles, but he also writes about walking in Palestine, Spain and the Himalayas, as well as travelling by boat. It's all very interesting and it makes me want to take a walking holiday in England.

Readalike authors: Sue Hubbell, Michael Pollan, Bill Bryson, Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux.
Donkeys along the route I took in France in 2009.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Last Summer of the Camperdowns by Elizabeth Kelly

The back cover of Elizabeth Kelly's The Last Summer of the Camperdowns proclaims it is an "uproarious coming-of-age story brimming with old money, young love, and astonishing family secrets." I agree with everything except the uproarious part. Some parts were funny, but there was a creepy guy who terrorized a twelve-year-old girl into silence surrounding the possible murder that she witnessed and I felt more horrified than amused as I turned the pages.

Riddle Camperdown is telling the story, looking back on the eventful summer of her twelfth year at her home in Cape Cod. Riddle was a mess of hormones at that time. Her contrariness mystified her parents and herself. She was constantly skirmishing with her mother, a former actress: "My mother offered up her best falsely conciliatory gaze -- imagine a spitting cobra composing a thank-you note written in venom."

Riddle definitely had my sympathy. Her father encouraged her to be a tough girl, while her mother expected decorum. The adults around Riddle teased her about her crush on 19-year-old Harry Devlin, whose younger brother had recently disappeared. Harry, meanwhile, was perplexed by Riddle's behaviour.

"Obviously Harry had never before met a teenage girl hell-bent on persuading the world that she moonlighted as a Screaming Eagle. Taking a deep breath, I worked to stave off lumbering waves of personal mortification. It was like trying to swallow bleach. Then something darker than mere embarrassment settled inside me. I remembered what it was that had caused me to pass out."

The Last Summer of the Camperdowns is an engaging novel with an eccentric cast of characters, great dialogue, and a twisty plot of new and old mysteries.

Readalike: Seating Arrangements (Maggie Shipstead).

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt is an atmospheric novel that evokes the transitional time towards the end of the Cold War in the USA and the early years of Moscow after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It's about letting go of the past and coming to terms with betrayal.

Sarah and Jenny were best friends when they were children in Washington DC. In the early 1980s, they both wrote letters to Yuri Andropov, the new leader of the USSR, urging him to put an end to the threat of nuclear war. Only Jenny got a reply. On Andropov's invitation, she travelled to the USSR and became an instant celebrity as a young peace activist. Sarah, ignored by Jenny, was still struggling with her hurt when Jenny and her parents died in a plane crash in 1985.

Ten years later, Sarah receives a cryptic message from Russia. Was Jenny still alive? Had she defected? Sarah travels to Moscow looking for answers and internal peace.

You Are One of Them has a "truth is stranger than fiction" feel. I remembered Samantha Smith, the real girl who wrote to Andropov, and was intrigued by the way Holt riffs on the basics of her story. Holt captures the details of intense girlhood friendship that give a sense of immediacy and connection with Sarah. She also places their relationship within the larger context of society at that time. I very much enjoyed the audiobook read by Cassandra Campbell [Blackstone: 8.5 hr].

Readalike: The part set in Moscow, with the mood of uncertainty and of things going on beneath the surface, reminded me of Snowdrops (A D Miller).

Monday, August 5, 2013

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is a food and travel memoir in full colour comics format by Lucy Knisley. She begins with an image of herself as a baby with a round of brie held to her mouth, seated on a kitchen counter amid cooking utensils. "I was a child raised by foodies."

Knisley's mother loved to cook. She was a cheesemonger first, then had a catering business. She worked a farmer's market stall on behalf of growers, along with a partner named Kip.

"Kip seemed to know every spot in the Hudson Valley where one could obtain a free harvest. The Osage oranges we sold at market were often plucked from the lawns of Kip's unsuspecting neighbours. This was also how we obtained goldenrod, pussy willow, and a fruit that Kip called 'goldenberries' for market. (Otherwise known as physalis, or the 'lost fruit of the Incas,' they're raspberry-sized semi-sweet objects that grow encased in lantern-like husks.) On goldenberry-harvesting excursions, we'd pluck them from bushes on the side of the road, or from the backyard of a local resident who hadn't the sense to appreciate them in time. Once in a while, the lawn owner wasn't too pleased with our scavenging, and a few times we had to get out of there quickly. But Kip would creep back as soon as their cars pulled out, escaping with buckets of the little yellow fruits in their papery jackets."

In Tama Matsuoka Wong's Foraged Flavor, she sensibly advises foragers to ask permission before collecting on someone else's property. (It is also a way to ensure that plants have not been sprayed with chemicals.) To Knisley, the danger in being caught was part of the thrill of her excursions with Kip.

As in Knisley's earlier memoir, French Milk, travel and food are linked. I loved the description of Knisley's attempts to replicate the perfect apricot-jam-filled croissants that she enjoyed in Venice. Recipes are included at the end of each chapter, and I was wondering how many pages it would take to illustrate making this pastry.

"Making croissants is HARD. I'm serious. I've tried so many ways, always with imperfect results. You know what's good, actually? That canned dough you can buy at the grocery store! Way less cleanup! Pretty decent results!* So, that said, sorry -- no croissant recipe. How about one for Sangria instead?"
My first attempt at bread, age 12.
Simone is at left. Anyone remember
those stretchy terry cloth
jumpsuits from the early 1970s?

Like Knisley, I started cooking when I was a child because I loved food. When I was 18, I spent 6 months cooking in a construction camp and sometimes took on ambitious culinary projects. One day, my sister Simone and I decided to make butterhorn pastries for the crew of 30 men. The results were delicious but it was so much work that I never attempted them again.

Readalikes: Blood, Bones and Butter (Gabrielle Hamilton); Farm City (Novella Carpenter); Marzi (Marzena Sowa); and A Fork in the Road (Anik See).

If you love reading books about food, click on the label below for more of my reviews in the category "cookery/food." Also, I've just discovered a great blog called Reading in the Kitchen. It's by Melissa Brakney Stoeger, author of Food Lit: A Reader's Guide to Epicurean Nonfiction.

*Note added August 7, 2013: Knisley's book prompted me to buy that canned dough yesterday. I baked the rolls this morning and then threw them in the garbage. They taste awful!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Foraged Flavor by Tama Matsuoka Wong

Tama Matsuoka Wong's Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer's Market found its way into my hands by happy chance at the library. Wong writes about supplying chef Eddy Leroux at a fancy restaurant in New York City with assorted wild edible plants in season. 88 recipes by Leroux showcase the best qualities of 71 different plants.

I started reading wildflower guides and books about using wild plants for food, medicine, paper and dyes when I was nine or ten years old. Over the years, I've found that some wild foods are too much trouble (cattails, fireweed shoots) but others are delicacies worth every effort (stinging nettles).

Behind my garage, daylilies, chicory, rocket
and mustards are visible. Raspberry canes
are hidden behind hollyhocks and
string beans are in there somewhere too.
Eating the plants that show up uninvited in my garden is my favourite approach to weeding. Also, by the time spring rolls around in Edmonton -- late April or even mid-May -- I'm desperate for fresh greens in my diet. Young dandelion leaves in my lawn are a treat when there's still snow on the ground in shady areas. Chickweed, mustards, daylilies, chicory and lambsquarters are just a few of the other wildlings that I welcome into my kitchen.

While I've already been making some of the things in the book -- dandelion flower jelly, candied rose petals (Leroux's recipe is for violet flowers), spruce tip tea, and rose petal jam -- there are recipes I found new and exciting.

I grow two kinds of mint but tend to use only peppermint (fresh or dried for tea), so I was eager to try Leroux's spearmint recipes. I adapted the Cucumber and Wild Spearmint recipe, substituting grated, roasted beets for the cucumber. It was so good, I've made it twice. Today I made Chocolate-dipped Wild Spearmint Leaves. What a treat!

The recipe for Tempura Fried Aralia Buds (made from the Japanese Angelica tree) at first made me think of beignets that I prepared once in France using Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus) blossoms. But then I read the description more closely and realized that it is the young leaf buds that are used, not flower buds. They are described as having a "light aftertaste of sap and aromatic pine." This sounds delicious, but aralia doesn't grow this far north, unfortunately.

Some plants that do grow in my yard but I haven't thought of eating include pineapple weed (Pineapple in Pineapple Weed Syrup), lamium (Deadnettle Veloute), and artemesia (Artemesia Rice Crisps). While absinthe is the first thing that comes to mind as a use for artemesia, and I'm not planning on experimenting with that, the recipe for rice crisps sounds intriguing. The herb is used to flavour sticky rice as it cooks, then the rice is spread thinly on a tray, dried, broken into chunks, then fried. I'd like to try it.

A field identification key (with colour photos) makes up the first section of the book. Wong writes "Believe it or not, human brains are actually hardwired to remember plants visually and to distinguish them better than phone numbers, computer instructions, or standardized-test multiple choice questions." Wong also stresses the importance of foraging sustainably. Plants are coded green (naturalized and invasive; safe to forage without limit), yellow (generalist native plants; harvest no more than 20% of what you find); and red (specialist and conservative native plants that should be only collected from your own garden).
Dipping fresh mint leaves into chocolate.
It's fiddly work with delicious results.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The City and the City by China Mieville

Gavin and a guest host, author Tom Pollock, talked about audiobooks in episode #79 of The Readers podcast (July 30 2013). Tom recommended China Mieville's The City and the City, narrated by John Lee [Books on Tape: 10.25 hours]. He reminded me of how much I also enjoyed this particular audiobook, although I never got around to blogging about it until now.

I listened to it back in December of 2011, so I don't remember many plot details. The intriguing premise is that two cities exist in the very same spot, in a sort of time/space overlap. It's the only place like it on Earth, and it is located somewhere vaguely Turkish or Balkan. A murder investigation is complicated by a question of jurisdiction. Did the death occur in one city and was the body then moved to the other place? (This problem of jurisdiction is a little bit like the crime committed in Erdrich's The Round House.) Anyway, it means that representatives of two different law enforcement agencies must cooperate, uneasily. Then, more complicated illegal activities come to light.

My listening experience was unique because I made a mistake when I downloaded the CDs to my computer, made a playlist, and then transferred it to my iPod. The tracks from CD 5 and CD 7 got interfiled, meaning that I listened to about 3 minutes from one part of the book and then 3 minutes from a later part and then back to the earlier part and so on, back and forth. Instead of waiting until I could fix the order, I was too caught up in the story and decided to continue with it as it was. It happened that events on CD 5 took place in one city, while events on CD 7 were in the other. That (and John Lee's narration) helped me to successfully follow both storylines. It also reinforced the setting Mieville created, with two cities simultaneously coexisting.

It's a fascinating book and I wholeheartedly agree with Tom Pollock's recommendation. (There's no need to replicate the weird order in which I listened to it, however.)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary is told in the voice of the mother of Jesus, living in exile in Ephesus after her son's death. Water turned into wine at the wedding at Cana, the crucifiction -- these biblical events are so familiar, and yet Mary's voice is so vivid that her telling is fresh. I was amazed and impressed.

About the raising of Lazarus from the dead:

"The talk was of nothing except power and miracles. It was as if the crowd was roaming the countryside like a swarm of locusts in search of want and affliction. But no one among them thought that anyone could raise the dead. It had occurred to no one. Most of them believed, or so I learned, that it should not even be attempted, that it would represent a mockery of the sky itself. They felt, as I felt, as I still feel, that no one should temper with the  fullness that is death. Death needs time and silence. The dead must be left alone with their new gift or their new freedom from affliction."

Mary is sad, solemn and fierce, determined to set down her own version of events. She is bitterly resigned that her words will be twisted by others for their own purposes.

The Testament of Mary is only about 100 pages long. I am curious to see if this small but mighty book will make it to the Booker shortlist.

Readalikes: The Dovekeepers (Alice Hoffman), for the evocation of daily life in ancient times in the Middle East, and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Philip Pullman) for a more tongue-in-cheek retelling of the story.