Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

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When my mother tells me I have to read a book, it’s written in a way no other book she’s ever read is written, and then gives me the book, I read it. I was so impressed by this unprecedented move on her part, I read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders in less than 24 hours.

Lincoln in the Bardo. Yes, that Lincoln. And his son, Willie. The one who died. And the Bardo, according to Saunders’ website is what purgatory is known as in the Tibetan tradition.
Willie Lincoln

As you may remember, William Wallace Lincoln died of apparent typhoid at the age of 11 in 1872, during Lincoln’s second year in office. Specifically, he died at 5 p.m. on February 24, a few days after the Lincolns hosted an extravagant state dinner during which the President and First Lady traipsed upon and down the White House stairs any number of times to check on their beloved child. In Saunders’ novel, the two events — dinner and death — seem to occur simultaneously. Newspapers reported at the time that Lincoln returned to Willie’s crypt several times.

From this truth, Saunders launches a spectacularly innovative novel, a large portion of which is composed of a compilations of citations from actual historical novels. The rest of the narrative is composed of the voices of … well, of the residents of Oak Hill Cemetery, where Willie Lincoln was entombed.

Sad.

roger bevin iii

Very sad.

hans vollman

Especially given what we knew.

roger bevin iii

His boy was not “in some bright place, free of suffering.”

hans vollman

No.

roger bevin iii

Not “resplendent in a new mode of being.”

hans vollman

Au contraire.

roger bevin iii

As is their custom, several denizens of the cemetery greet young Willie moments after he arrives, expecting him to move on quickly, as most young people do, in the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” by which the cemetery dwellers left the place. But Willie doesn’t move on. He’s waiting. Waiting to see what his father wants him to do.

In the course of Willie’s wait, we meet dozens, hundreds perhaps, of the cemetery folks,

Gorey

drawing by Edward Gorey

most of whom believe they are “sick,” having arrived there in a “sick-box,” and temporarily detained from their other life. In the cemetery, as in the country, there is dissension, all of the black residents must remain outside the iron fence with the criminals and low class whites. Each resident has his or her own distinct view of why they are there and how long they may have to wait, but none but a Reverend who ran away from his own judgment day seem to have any awareness of his or her own state of being dead.

I found Saunders’ reach into the historical citations and commentary a fascinating tool. He compiles these quotations not as a means of bolstering his own story, but quite often to show the divergence of history reportage. In fact, perhaps he is making the commentary that fact is as fictional as fiction.

A common feature of these narratives is the golden moon, hanging quaintly above the scene.

In “White House Soirees: An Anthology”

By Bernadette Evon.

There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds.

Wickett, op. cit.

A fat green crescent hung above the mad scene like a stolid judge, inured to human folly.

In “My Life,” by Delores P. Leventrop.

The full moon that night was yellow-red, as if reflecting the light of some earthly fire.

Sloane, op. cit.

If this reminds you of Our Town, you’re not alone. I’ve had the good fortune of performing in both Thornton Wilder’s beloved play and in Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters and it seems to me that Lincoln in the Bardo owes as much to these two dramas as it does to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Edward Gorey’s work.

I most enjoyed the sections of the novel that escorted me inside Abraham Lincoln’s mind, Saunders’ portrait of the turmoil of family and country roiling the President, the citations of historical criticism that speculated Lincoln would be the worst president in history.

In short, thanks Mom!

Lincoln Bardo bookMENU

The menu for the state dinner is given in a quotation from Epstein, as “tender pheasant, fat partridge, venison steaks, Virginia hams . . . canvasback ducks, fresh turkeys, and thousands of tidewater oysters shucked an hour since and iced, slurped raw, scalloped in butter and cracker meal, or stewed in milk.”

Additionally, there are descriptions of towering sugar confections, where chocolate fish swim in a pond of candy floss and hives swarming with lifelike sugar bees are filled with charlotte russe.

Charlotte Russe

According to Betty Crocker, a “russe” is a molded dessert. Charlotte Russe is made of lady fingers and Bavarian cream. I found a nice explanation and a recipe for a Victorian Charlotte Russe on the Great British Bake-Off web site: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/recipes/the-great-british-bake-off-how-to-make-a-charlotte-russe/.

My menu would include small muffins and rolls with turkey and Virginia ham. I would avoid the pheasant, partridge and venison, since I don’t have a source for those, but oysters depending on the time of year would be fun.

MUSIC

A few years ago, I was able to perform in the Lincoln Bicentennial celebration at Washington’s Kennedy Center as part of the Lexington Singers organization. Our performance was comprised of multiple Civil War songs including The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Dixie, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, the Battle Cry of Freedom, the Star-Spangled Banner. My favorite was a version of Shenandoah. This is a lovely version of that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1EG_4IBzbA.

Happy reading and eating!

 

Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett ✎✎✎

boat

When the National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists for Fiction were announced, I’d read only one of the books: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/commonwealth-by-ann-patchett-✎✎✎✎/, and loved it. Since then, I’m through Moonglow by Michael Chabon, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2017/01/21/moonglow-by-michael-chabon-✎✎✎/, and Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett. I have Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and Louis Erdrich’s LaRose in my near future.

On a idyllic day on the Maine water, Imagine Me Gone finds British venture capitalist John takes two of his three children boating. Celia is the second-oldest of the three; ultra-responsible and caring, if a bit of a bore. Alec, the youngest, is a whiny, clingy child wanting always to be held. Once they are on the water, John leans back into the boat, closes his eyes and pronounces to his children: “Imagine me gone, imagine it’s just the two of you. What do you do?” Celia wishes for her stronger older brother, or to be stronger, or at the very least for her father to quit play-acting and help them get to shore.

But John doesn’t help. Arguably, John has never helped his wife Margaret or their three children. His career, which brought them back to America from Margaret’s preferred life across the pond, has tanked. His relationship with Michael is ineffectual. He and Margaret fight loudly every night, frightening Alec into hiccups.

John has chronic, clinical depression. It is a condition that materially affects every member of his family, each of whom has a compelling authorial voice in Imagine Me Gone.

From Margaret:

“I’m the only one who doesn’t always want answers. John may never articulate his questions, but they are with him, a way of being. And the children want answers to everything all the time. What’s for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner? Where’s Kelsey? Where’s Dad? Why do we have to come in? Why do we have to go to bed? Some days the only words I speak to them are answers, and reasons I can’t answer, and instructions in place of the answers they want.”

John:

“This is the thing: He isn’t calling about his exam. I don’t want to know that, but I do. He’s calling to be reassured about something he can’t put into words yet. I glimpsed it in him when he was young, but told myself, No, don’t imagine that. Children have stages; he’ll change. Then the words started running out of him in a torrent, and I knew they were being chased out by a force he couldn’t see. What was I supposed to say to Margaret? That I see it in him?”

Celia:

“When Paul drank more than a diabetic should or we argued about petty domestic things, I would employ a kind of preemptive nostalgia, filing the episodes away under the heading A Couple’s Early Years. This general retrospective of the present leaped ahead to forgive our moments of anger and doubt, and the occasional day when the frustration and recriminations between us became grinding. It helped alleviate my sense of having been duped into believing Paul would be the person to deliver me from my family, rather than imitate it. And really it was okay, and most often better than that, being the object of his desire, sensing he would never leave me. That we were safe.”

Alec:

As I stepped out of the cabin, whiteness blinded me. The snow-covered yard glistened under the full sun. Icicles lining the roof of the shed dripped with meltwater. The fir trees, which had stood motionless and black against the gray sky, appeared alive again, green and moist in the fresh light. The footprints that Michael and I had made on the snowy path were dissolving, fading into ovals on the flagstone. Beneath our tracks in the driveway I could see gravel for the first time since we’d arrived. For weeks it had been frigid cold, but now had come this December thaw. I wasn’t certain what day it was, or what time, only that it had to be well after noon already.

donna-summerBut perhaps it is Michael the reader hears most clearly, learns most deeply even through the mental illness that drives and disturbs him. We know of the path of devastation his love creates, his musical knowledge and reverence for Donna Summer, his humor, his lack of self-control. Even as he is annoying us with an exhaustive list, we are amused by him and wish him well. He’s trying to beat the beast, much more, we think, than his father ever did.

“I remember my first dose of Klonopin the way I imagine the elect recall their high school summer romances, bathed in the golden light of a perfect carelessness, untouched and untouchable by time’s predations or the foulness of any present pain. As Cat Stevens wrote, The first cut is the deepest, though I’ve always preferred Norma Fraser’s cover to the original (the legendary Studio One, Kingston, Jamaica, 1967). Stevens sings it like a pop song, but Fraser knows the line is true, that she’ll never love like that again. Her voice soars over the reverb like a bird in final flight. The first cut is the deepest. I’ve since learned all about GABA receptors and molecular binding, benzos and the dangers of tolerance, but back then I knew only that I had received an invisible and highly effective surgery to the mind, administered by a pale yellow tablet scored down the middle and no larger than an aspirin. There is so much drivel about psychoactive meds, so much corruptions, bad faith over- and underprescription, vagueness, profiteering, ignorance, and hope, that it’s easy to forget they sometimes work, alleviating real suffering, at least for a time. This was such a time.”

haslett

Adam Haslett

 

Imagine Me Gone was, for me, a strange book. Each of the five narrators is to a certain extent unreliable and the family picture comes together only when viewing all of the pieces together, like a work of pointillism. The writing is lovely as you can see from the pieces I’ve included here and the reviewers agree it’s a compelling work of fiction dealing sensitively with mental illness.

A review I read before I read the novel said this is a book about how far a family will go to help a family member with mental illness; how much of one’s own life is a person willing to cede to maintain some normalcy for another who could have little on his or her own. I suppose that’s true, but I thought it was more about family and expectations and loss and ultimately love.

imagine-me-gone

MENU

I can’t cite a menu from the book because I listened to it on Audible. I do remember Alec and Michael eating doughnuts every morning and Margaret’s frustration at going out for an overly-expensive dinner when she would have rather cooked at home. Perhaps if you want to replicate a menu from the book, you can look for that scene, somewhere around 2/3 of the way through.

I would focus on the environment of Maine and serve a blueberry dessert; maybe pie or cobbler. I would also pull in Michael’s life in London and serve a shepherd’s pie or maybe roast beef with potatoes so that I could have leftovers for the week.

MUSIC

This is the easy part. Just play Donna Summer all night.

MOVIE CASTING

John        Jude Law/Ewan McGregor

Margaret       This is a total Grace Kelly role. I can see Gwyneth Paltrow maybe.

Michael          Andrew Garfield

Celia                Blake Lively

Alec                  John Gallagher, Jr.

Happy Reading!

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead ✎✎✎✎

handcar

Like a runaway train, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad swept through 2016 on its way to winning the National Book Award for Fiction. You had to read it so that you knew the construct, the fantastical reimagining of a historical event, the simply gut-wrenching language; so that you could keep up with the conversation.

In Whitehead’s imagination the underground railroad, said to have saved over 30,000 people from slave-holding states, is an actual railroad. Engines, conductors, station agents, tunnels carved from the earth by those who would use them to escape.

The tunnel pulled at her. How many hands had it required to make this place? And the tunnels beyond, wherever and how far they led? She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them. The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables – this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built this thing had received their proper reward.

. . .Who are you after you finish something this magnificent—in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side. On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light. The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart.

The reader travels the rails and stops with Cora, a young woman imprisoned in slavery on a

Georgia plantation, an orphan, the victim of a brutal rape. When a fellow slave offers Cora the chance to run, at first she declines, then she hesitates and then, she decides to go. The two make it to what initially seems a haven — another imagining of Whitehead where the town population imports “pilgrims” from slavery for nefarious purposes — from which they must run again to another and another. Yet Cora takes refuge in her mind, seeking out knowledge, learning, literature.

What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.

In Juan Gabriel Vasquez’ review for the New York Times, he says: “In a sense, “The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/books/review/colson-whitehead-underground-railroad.html?_r=0

whitehead-bookThe Underground Railroad is the first work I’ve read by Colson Whitehead, but according to Salon.com,  he is “[a] recipient of the MacArthur (the so-called genius grant) and Guggenheim fellowships, Whitehead is the author of six previous novels, including “John Henry Days,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prizeand The New York Times bestseller “Zone One,” a zombie tale set in New York.” Sounds like there is more good stuff out there waiting for me to get to. The Salon article includes an interview with Whitehead about the inspiration for The Underground Railroad. “The idea of ‘what if the underground railroad was actually real,’ is, in many ways, something we picture in elementary school. Yes, it’s fanciful and childish. But it also had many possibilities and that got me thinking about all of this in an active way.” http://www.salon.com/2016/08/27/why-colson-whitehead-made-the-underground-railroad-real-its-fanciful-and-childish-but-it-also-had-many-possibilities/

The Underground Railroad is a beautiful but frequently-tough read, particularly for those who may be more willing to pretend (as I once heard a neighbor say) “all that ugly stuff is over.” In this particular time, Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad may be just the warning bell we need to stay attuned.

MENU

When Cora reaches Valentine’s place in Indiana, there is a feast day which includes “hogs . . . chopped on the long pine table and covered dipney sauce. Smoky collards, turnips, sweet potato pie.”

I love watching Top Chef, the current season of which is being filmed in Charleston, S.C. On a recent episode, they mentioned Edna Lewis, (April 13, 1916 – February 13, 2006), an African-American chef and author best known for her books on traditional Southern Cuisine. I’ve got two of her publications on order (back-ordered probably due to others having seen the same show) but I did find her recipe for Spicy Collard Greens on FoodandWine.com http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/spicy-collard-greens.

From my research, “dipney” is a sauce that was mopped on the meat while cooking. Here’s a recipe from a very fun website called the Obsessive Compulsive Barbecue: http://ocbarbecue.blogspot.com/2013/06/antebellum-barbecue-mop-recipe.html.

And from my grandmother’s cookbook, a recipe for Southern Sweet Potato Pie.

Wash 3 sweet potatoes and bake for 30 minutes until soft. (Don’t microwave incidentally, you can’t get the same texture.) Peel and mash. You need 2 cups of mashed sweet potatoes.

Preheat oven to 425.

Cream 1 cup butter, 1 1/2 cups sugar together and then mix with the mashed potatoes. Add 4 eggs, one at a time, until blended. Mis in 1/2 cup bourbon, the grated rind and juice of 1/2 orange and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Pour the filling into the pie crust (my grandmother always used Pet-Ritz) and bake for 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to 350 and bake for another 45 minutes until the filling is set (it doesn’t wiggle) and the crust is brown.

Sift with confectioners sugar when cool or serve with a bourbon-whipped cream.

MUSIC

Spirituals would be ideal. I’ve mentioned the American Spiritual Ensemble before, led by the University of Kentucky’s own Dr. Everett McCorvey, and their music certainly would hold up to a discussion of The Underground Railroad.

Read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Remember its lessons as well as its beauty and power and tragedy. colsonwhitehead-erinpatriceo-brien_sq-7c50afdaaa81e8021d312015cea780f25ff42465-s300-c85.jpg

 

Moonglow, by Michael Chabon ✎✎✎

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Michael Chabon’s words came to me first in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the Pulitzer-Prize winner of 2001. In large part due to my father’s own interest in 1940s and 1950s-era “Classic Comic ” books (he swears he passed college literature by reading the comic book versions only of Les Misérables and Moby Dick, among others), I fell in love with Michael Chabon’s writing. His words in Moonglow, a novel that reads like a memoir with a narrator named “Mike Chabon” enhanced my admiration.

paper-moonMoonglow is Chabon’s ode to perhaps his idealized family history: a grandfather who was a rocket man, part John Wayne-part John Glenn; a grandmother who was a French Jew, a traitor to her country and her faith, a witch and a wise woman; a scandalous rabbi uncle, cheating father, confused mother. The man can definitely turn a phrase. Consider:

At the possibility of truly being seen, something in his chest seemed to snap open like a parachute.

Or

He felt the shock of contact. The weight of her against his chest felt like something she had decided to entrust to him.

And finally, the image that has stayed with me for days:

In his fitful eastward progress through Belgium and Germany that winter, my grandfather had shared all manner of billets: with dogfaces and officers, in misery and in comfort, in attack and in retreat, and pinned down by snow or German ordnance. He had bedded down under a bearskin in a schloss and in foxholes flecked pink with the tissue of previous occupants. If an hour’s sleep were to be had, he seized it, in the bedrooms or basements of elegant townhouses, in ravaged hotels, on clean straw and straw that crawled with vermin, on featherbeds and canvas webbing slung across the bed of a half-truck, on mud, sandbags, and raw pine planks. However wretched, accommodations were always better or no worse than those on the enemy side.

He can definitely turn a phrase. Moonglow is Chabon’s love letter to perhaps his idealized family history: a grandfather who was a rocket man, part John Wayne-part John Glenn; a grandmother who was a French Jew, a traitor to her country and her faith, a witch and a wise woman; a scandalous rabbi uncle, cheating father, confused mother.

On his deathbed, Mike Chabon’s grandfather makes a confession: he was the one who time-von-braunfound Wernher von Braun’s stock of V-2 plans, undercutting the Nazi SS officer’s (and father of the NASA Moon Shot) ability to negotiate his escape from Germany. From this confession, Mike uncovers more family secrets that he is not sure he really wants to know.

Chabon’s novel gleams with aurulent moonlight. From the character’s star-watching hobby, to grandfather’s rocket building, and the moon glow songs of the war era, Chabon the author rarely misses a chance to include a lunar reference.

I listened to Moonglow on the audible app and truly enjoyed the narrator’s voice, pacing, and flair for French, German, Southern, etc, accents. It was something I looked forward to turning on when I got into the car for a drive.

With the family secrets angle, the World War II history, a romance, and several mysteries, Chabon’s Moonglow has something for everyone and is a good choice for a book club. I do recommend it. And I am especially excited to recommend a menu and music. Each fall, I enjoy throwing a Harvest Moon Party featuring “moon music” and food. I hope you enjoy.

MENU

Full Moon Cocktails contain 1 1/2 ounce orange curaçao and 1 1/2 ounce amaretto served over ice.

Or make Full Moon Punchman-in-the-moon

  • 2 (750-milliliter) bottles white rum
  • 2 cups applejack
  • 3 cups Velvet Falernum
  • 1 cup Campari
  • 3 cups cranberry juice
  • 3 cups orange juice
  • Juice of 6 large lemons (about 1 cup)
  • 2 liters ginger ale
  • Ice
  • 2 large lemons, thinly sliced
  • 2 medium limes, thinly sliced
  • 2 medium Gala or Fuji apples, thinly sliced

INSTRUCTIONS: Combine rum, applejack, Velvet Falernum, Campari, cranberry juice, orange juice, lemon juice, and ginger ale in a large punch bowl. Add ice and stir until well blended and chilled, about 40 times. Top with lemon, lime, and apple slices, and serve over ice in a punch glass.

Mezzelune Pasta. This half-moon shaped pasta (mezzelune) is similar to ravioli and you can find it filled with many of the same ravioli-typical fillings: cheese, meats, nuts, etc. I generally use a simply butter and parmesan sauce for the pasta.

Moon Pies. Make (or buy) very thin chocolate chip cookies. Tate’s Bake Shop cookies work well. On the flat side of a cookie, spread marshmallow cream then top it with another cookie. Make as many sets as you will serve. Then dip half of the cookie/marshmallow cream combo in melted chocolate and allow to cool. This will earn raves!

(Or you could find some of that astronaut ice cream they sell at the Air & Space Museum)

MUSIC

This is a fun one! So many great songs.

Moondance/My Funny Valentine Van Morrison

Moon River Andy Williams

Moonlight Sonata Chopin

Moonlight Serenade Glenn Miller and His Orchestra

Blue Moon of Kentucky Béla Fleck

East Of The Sun (And West Of The Moon) Diana Krall

Clair De Lune Debussy

Moonlight Serenade Frank Sinatra

Sister Moon Sting

Moonlight In Vermont

Fly Me To The Moon Diana Krall, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra — any version you love

It’s Only a Paper Moon Ella Fitzgerald

Blue Moon The Marcels

MOVIE CASTING

Mike Chabon  — Jason Schwartzman

Grandmother — Juliette Binoche

Mother — Alison Brie

Grandfather — Eric Bana

Uncle Ray — David Krumholtz

Happy Eating and Reading!

 

My Reads: Best Books of 2016

Happy New Year! 2016 has come and gone, leaving trail marks, some more scorching than others. But in my own rearview mirror, I have some books that I truly enjoyed — not all of which were published in 2016 — and will relish the thoughts they left behind and the opportunity to re-read them in the future.

shakespeareA special delight of this past reading year for me was the Hogarth Press Shakespeare rewrite project. I enjoyed Anne Tyler‘s Vinegar Girl, a revision of Taming of the Shrew , and Jeannette Winterson‘s take on The Winter’s Tale entitled The Gap of Time. I haven’t reviewed Vinegar Girl yet, but here’s more on The Gap of Timehttps://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/the-gap-of-time-jeanette-winterson/

austenI enjoyed even more the Harper-Collins “Austen Project” series re-exploring the novels of Jane Austen, particularly Eligible! by Curtis Sittenfield, which is one of my favorite books of the year.  So far, all I have read are Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I have not yet read Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid or Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope. Here are my more in=depth reviews: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/emma-a-modern-retelling-by-alexander-mccall-smith/, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/eligible-by-curtis-sittenfeld/.

book-drawing-lessons-0005.jpgIn addition to my top five list, which I’m getting to . . ., I also had some very fun book experiences this year. I traveled to New Orleans and sat in the lobby bar of the Pontchartrain Hotel jotting some notes for my own novel and hoping I was channelling the soul of Tennessee Williams, reputed to have written Streetcar Named Desire in the same location. I attended the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning’s Kentucky Literary Hall-of-Fame ceremony and enjoyed seeing Bobbie Ann Mason accept her position as only the second living member of the Hall of Fame. My fellow writing group members and I traveled together to New York for a Pitch Conference with our respective works and met fellow writers from across the country, New York editors and agents. I achieved publication with two short stories! The first in Nowhere Magazine, http://nowheremag.com/2016/10/clearing-out/, and the second in the second edition of AvantAppalachia, avantappalachia.com. 

Back to my top reads of 2016:

metropol-postcardA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Dear Mr. Towles: I love your words. Your elegant view of life. The grace and beauty with which you depict humans and the events surrounding them. I will read anything you write. (You should too.) Full review: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/10/15/a-gentleman-in-moscow-by-amor-towles-✎✎✎✎✎/

Commonwealth by Anne Patchett. There are those writers who can haunt you with an idea. Some who can impress you with a particular sentence or a descriptive image. Anne Patchett launches all the weapons in her impressive arsenal at the reader with every book she writes and leaves the reader with her words, thoughts, ideas, and novels imprinted on their memory. Full review: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/commonwealth-by-ann-patchett-✎✎✎✎/

sittenfeld_eligible3Eligible! by Curtis Sittenfield. Any writer who can take Jane Austen, Mr. Darcy, Skyline Chili, the Bachelor, and a day trip through Lexington, Kentucky, and combine them into a funny, sexy, skewering romp through American pop culture should be a best-seller. And Ms. Sittenfield deservedly is. I loved Eligible! https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/eligible-by-curtis-sittenfeld/

brooklyn.jpgThe Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. I’m cheating a little to include two books as one, but there was something quite similar to me in these two tales of Gen X’ers aging into parenthood, amid family crisis and the havoc of the past. I liked and frequently recommended both. Full reviews for both novels: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/06/08/modern-lovers-emma-straub/ and https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/05/04/the-nest-by-cynthia-daprix-sweeney/

Finally, I struggled over this but am going to include The Sport of Kings by Kentucky horse-racing-neck-and-neckauthor C.E. Morgan. I feel like I spent the most time with this doorstop of a book this year, as I reviewed it for my mother’s book club and wanted to do as well as possible in approaching the themes and history as possible. I hazarded some guesses as to the notably reticent Morgan’s literary goals, but long and short: it’s quite a masterpiece of Kentucky history and I feel it must be included here.https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/10/22/the-sport-of-kings-c-e-morgan-✎✎✎/

So, there’s my 2016 roundup. I have a few more reviews to add from the end of the year: The Mothers by Brit Bennet, The Nix by Nathan Hill, Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. And then it’s to my to-be-read stack for 2017: The Underground Railroad, The Guineveres, Tana French’s The Trespasser, Hillbilly Elegy. And then there’s that novel I’m supposed to be writing!

Happy Happy New Year and all the best reading — I hope I can help guide your choices.

toast

Christmas in Provence for Cooking for Picasso, by Camille Aubrey

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Our book club enjoys a good meal, a fine wine, and a well-crafted tale. For the December book each year, we strive to find a novel that will supply us with the foundation for all three. Our choice this year, Camille Aubrey’s Cooking for Picasso, certainly provided ample inspiration for Provencal food and wine.

The novel itself was a strange mix of compelling and semi-ridiculous. Cooking for Picasso revolves between a “inspired by a (real) little known interval in the life of the painter” and a modern day romantic-ish mystery where a woman is searching for the Picasso painting of her grandmother.

Camille Aubrey states in the book jacket that Margaret Atwood is her mentor. During the interludes in the past, that seems possible. But in the sections set during the current day search: the stereotypically villainous lawyer-father, the Gordon Ramsay-like chef who becomes a romantic interest in the blink of an eye, evil twins, the save-the-day-tied-up-with-a-bow plot — I can’t imagine the author of The Handmaid’s Tale championing this mash-up.

The plot of Cooking for Picasso: Picasso travels to the remote village of Juan-les-Pins on the 90c3df0ae6e7474a9f2c35087fbba664.jpgCote d’Azur. It is the years immediately before World War Two and Picasso is trying to escape an enraged wife and find his painting mojo. That part is apparently true. A young girl named Ondine is sent by her restaurant-owner parents each day to prepare Picasso’s luncheon and she becomes his friend, muse and model for a real painting: Femme a la Montre.

Sixty years later, Ondine’s granddaughter goes in search of this rumored family legacy, a painting.

So I told her about how Grandma Ondine cooked for Picasso, which of course immediately intrigued Aunt Matilda. And then I explained that maybe, just maybe, Grandma had hidden a painting for safekeeping somewhere.

As a whole, we enjoyed the information about Picasso and his process, but got bogged down in the modern parts of the story.

The best part of the night was the menu. There are numerous options for food, but since this was the December meeting, I focused on Les Trieze Desserts de Noel.

For the holidays, [Mom’s] rooms were decorated with pine branches and maroon-and-gold ribbon; the parlor had a big tree winking with lights and baubels and wrapped gifts sining beneath it; and, in her large, beautiful kitchen, almost every table and countertop was laden with home-baked desserts.

“You made Les Treize Desserts de Noel!” I exclaimed, thrilled at the charming sight of this ancient, traditional series of Provencal home-baked sweets. Delighted by my enthusiasm, Mom proudly gave me a tour of the Thirteen Desserts of Christmas. Here was the dish of dried fruits and nuts called the Four Beggars to represent the four orders of monks; then a sweet, brioche-like cake made with orange flower water and olive oil; various meringue and candied citrus and melon confections; two kinds of nougats with pistachio and almond; also the think, waffle-like oreillettes, cookies dusted with powdered sugar like the snow sifting outside; and of course, the spectacular buche de Noel — a Yule Log of rolled chocolate cake with a caramel cream filling, and dark chocolate frosting which had been scraped by a fork’s tines to make it resemble a hunter’s newly chopped log from the forest.

The story is interesting, the life of Picasso and his inspirations fascinating, and the food marvelous. You could do worse than Cooking for Picasso.

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Multiple choices. Among them:

Bouillabaisse

Tartine – open face sandwich of cold pate, cheese, olive tapenade

Cassoulet

Langostine appetizers

Easter cheesecake

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My choice was to do my best imitation of the Provencal Christmas Eve dinner called “Le
Gros Souper,”
which calls for seven “plain” dishes that do not include meat. I served white bean dip, green salad dressed in olive oil, haricort vertes, lentils, salmon, croissants, chestnut soup, and marinated olives . This I followed with the thirteen desserts. Four Beggars: figs, raisins, almonds, hazelnuts. Nougat: white and dark. Dates and walnuts. Fresh fruit. Elephant ear cookies. Marzipan. And the one item I attempted to make (and it turned out quite well) the olive oil cake. Here are recipes I used:

White bean puree

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried parsley
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 15-oz can white beans, drained
  • ¼ cup roasted red peppers, finely diced
  • Using a food processor or blender, puree all the ingredients except the red peppers. Add water if necessary, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the bean puree is completely smooth. Stir in the red peppers and serve.

Chestnut soup

  • 4 cups strong vegetable stock
  • 8 ounces cooked chestnuts
  • 1 cup chopped white onions
  • 1/2 cup chopped carrots
  • 1 thin celery stalk with leaves, chopped (1/2 cup chopped celery)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

3/4 cup plus 1/4 cup crème fraiche, divided

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the vegetable stock, chestnuts, onions, carrots, celery, salt, and pepper to a simmer. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low-medium, and simmer the soup for 30 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Stir in 3/4 cup of the crème fraiche.

Process the soup, in batches, in a blender until smooth. Alternately, use a hand-held immersion blender to process the mixture.

Olive Oil Bread (serve with grape jam)

Butter, for greasing the pan

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1/3 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Juice and zest of 1 orange (about 3 tablespoons juice, 1 tablespoon zest)

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.

Mix together the sugar and eggs in a medium bowl with a hand mixer on medium speed until blended and light. Drizzle in the olive oil and vanilla and mix until light and smooth. Add the orange juice and zest and mix well. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in another medium bowl. Add the flour mixture half at a time to the wet ingredients and mix on low just to incorporate. Pour into the prepared cake pan and bake, 25 to 30 minutes. Let the cake cool 15 minutes, dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve.

MUSIC

I have a c.d. entitled A Christmas Eve in Paris that includes Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, and Django Reinhart. It’s available on iTunes. What could be better?

Whatever you’re reading this holiday season, I hope it is hopeful and fulfilling and I wish you the best! Thanks for reading and blessings to you and yours.

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Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen

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Andrew Yancy’s life in the Florida Keys as a disgraced detective now on restaurant varmint patrol may not be his ideal life, but it is great fun for readers. In Razor Girl, Carl Hiaasen’s latest hilarious adventure, Yancy finds himself plagued by Gambian pouched rats, an Italian mafioso, television agents, an exceptionally randy personal injury lawyer and his money-hungry fiancee, the patriarch of a reality t.v. clan of faux backwoodsmen, and a woman who intentionally causes automobile wrecks while shaving her bikini area. Yancy does not live a boring life.

And Hiaasen does not write a boring book. Razor Girl is a rock and roll, non-stop, occasionally out-of-control festival of a book.

razorgirlOn the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.

Twenty-seven miles from Coolman’s destination, an old green Firebird bashed his car from behind. The impact failed to trigger the Buick’s airbags, but Coolman heard the rear bumper dragging. He steered off the highway and dialed 911. In the mirror he saw the Firebird, its grille crimped and steaming, pull onto the shoulder. Ahead stood a sign that said: “Ramrod Key.”

Coolman went to check on the other driver, a woman in her mid-thirties with red hair.

“Super-duper sorry,” she said.

What the hell happened?”

“Just a nick. Barely bleeding.”She held her phone in one hand and a disposable razor in the other.

“Are you out of your mind?” said Coolman.

The driver’s jeans and panties were bunched around her knees. She’d been shaving herself when she smashed Coolman’s rental car.

“I got a date,” she explained.

“You couldn’t take care of that at home?”

“No way! My husband would get so pissed.”

“Unreal,” said Coolman.

The woman was wearing a maroon fleece jacket and rhinestone flip-flops. On her pale thigh was the razor mark.

The novel (classified by its publisher as Suspense/Thriller, which I suppose is accurate but I’d add comedy to the categorization) begins when Merry Mansfield crashes into Hollywood agent Lane Coolman’s car. Coolman is fleeing an expensive California divorce and is on his way to a “performance” by his most lucrative client, Buck Nance patriarch of reality t.v.’s Bayou Brethren. Unfortunately, Coolman is mistaken for a sand con artist and abducted leading to Nance’s disappearance.

Somehow these colorful individuals become involved with roach patrol detective Yancy, a loathsome couple who want to build a MacMansion beside Yancy’s plot of Keys heaven, a Mafioso and his service dog, John, and various and assorted other nuts and charcarl-mugacters.

I don’t like: I love Carl Hiaasen. And I’m not sure if it’s because I love the snarky, jaded,
narcissistic, beach-loving, flawed characters of his or if it’s because of his zippy language or simply because he’s a journalist-turned successful novelist and I want to be him when I grow up. He wrote Strip Tease, Bad Monkey and Lucky You, among many others, during his time off (one supposes) from writing a column and reporting for The Miami Herald. http://carlhiaasen.com/bio.shtml Incidentally, the Miami Herald is also the part-time home of another of my favorite writers, Dave Barry.

In Razor Girl, Hiaasen skewers just about everything and everyone, including the Bayou Brethren fan base of “patriotic Americans” who think a gun, a flag and a wall will save America.

For the dead of winter, it’s the sunniest book imaginable. I highly recommend.

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My menu for a Razor Girl bookclub (despite Yancy’s job as a restaurant inspector, I would serve food) would include:

Hummus (no diamonds included)

Shrimp Cocktail

Cuban Sandwiches, with Chicken

Key Lime Pie — whipped cream is mandatory! Epicurious.com says this recipe won their internal contest for best key lime pie ever: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes-menus/best-key-lime-pie-recipe-article

MUSIC

Of course, Jimmy Buffett would be appropriate. Or some Cuban tunes. The soundtrack from Hiaasen’s Strip Tease is available. You could add AC/DC’s Razor’s Edge, if you like that kind of thing.

Happy Reading!