The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

vietnam life

I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2016 Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Sympathizer the same week PBS’ The Vietnam War aired. My husband, a military man, was fascinated by the documentary but I found myself flinching and turning away from the television night after night, grateful not to have been of age during that conflict to have it register so damningly on my mind.

Instead of watching the images on television, I turned to the pages of my book and found the war portrayed just as compellingly, albeit from the other side.

Nguyen’s Sympathizer is a narrator who sees both sides of nearly everything. He is a native Vietnamese who speaks flawless, unaccented English. His father, a French priest, who denies him; his mother, an impoverished Vietnamese woman who loves him. The Sympathizer is a solder, an aide, a secret Communist in South Vietnam, a spy.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds, . . . able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent,” he continues, but “I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you — that is a hazard.

The_Sympathizer_-_book_coverThis book is deep, important, dense with information, plot lines, characters. Honestly, as someone who was not cognizant of the politics at the time of the war, it was often confusing. Perhaps that is intentional: Nguyen’s narrator while externally representing the South Vietnamese position is internally aligned with the North Vietnamese Viet Cong. And yet, despite his internal beliefs and external work, the reader is not always sure where the narrator’s true sympathies lie. He supports communism, hates America, yet moves to live in America and profits from it.

“My chances of returning to America were small, and I thought with regret about all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner; air-conditioning; a well-regulated traffic system that people actually followed; a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland; the modernist novel; freedom of speech, which, if not as absolute as Americans liked to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland; sexual liberation; and, perhaps most of all, that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which poured through the American mind continuously, whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and nihilism scrawled there nightly by the black hoodlums of the unconscious.”

The Sympathizer begins during the evacuation of Vietnam, continues into the immigrant experience in America then takes a surreal turn onto a movie set, very closely resembling Apocalypse Now. Although it seemed a strange turn for this “serious” novel, the movie set was my favorite part of the read. The American directors, producers, writers, and actors — for all their good intentions or not — can’t help but step in it nearly every time they open their mouth.

“His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination). Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, better to be a villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.”

NguyenThis is an important book and one that I raced through in order to finish it in time for my book club. It turned out only two of us got through the whole things, it is, as I said, dense. But each page contains a nugget of joy, humor, wisdom. It’s a book I’d like to return to and delve deeper into and take more time to read.

MENU

There was a great deal of beer drinking and an ode to fish sauce.  My best idea would be to buy some good quality spring rolls, serve them with rice and fish sauce and also offer American burgers. The duality of the novel calls for the same in the menu.

MUSIC
Spotify offers a playlist of the songs that appear in The Sympathizer in the order in which they appear! How about that. https://open.spotify.com/user/128916364/playlist/7ogZqRZVXiMvlGyceT3dvv

MOVIE CASTING

I’m not even going to try. Way too many characters and my capacity for stepping in it is greater than the great DIRECTOR and AUTEUR imagined by Nguyen.

Happy Reading!

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Carter & Lovecraft, by Jonathan L. Howard

books sign

Science fiction does not generally find its way onto my reading list. But Carter & Lovecraft, described as the start of Jonathan L. Howard’s thrilling supernatural series that brings the myths of H.P. Lovecraft into the 21st Century, somehow found its way onto my audible list. I’m actually not even sure I remember downloading it, but there it was, below Casino Islandhttps://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/camino-island-by-john-grisham/, and above The Jane Austen Project. I pressed play and found myself first at a strange murder scene in NYC, then much more happily, at a bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island.

 

H._P._Lovecraft,_June_1934I’m pretty happy with any novel that includes a whip-smart librarian with a shotgun whoruns a bookstore. Emily Lovecraft is a descendant of sci-fi horror fiction author H.P. Lovecraft: a real guy — I wasn’t sure as I read Carter & Lovecraft if H.P. Lovecraft was a clever variation of an author’s name that sounded vaguely familiar or a real guy. It’s the latter.

I also really enjoyed Dan Carter’s take on nearly everything. He’s smart, pragmatic, funny, and prepared — for almost anything. “In his experience, motives were simple. There was greed, there was jealousy, he’d seen plenty of revenge played out in gang-related crimes, there was even sadism, and sometimes there was flat-out stupidity, which was a pretty powerful motivator in itself.”

A bit of background: H.P. Lovecraft died in 1937 without achieving any financial success during his lifetime. By his own account, his themes were complex and spooky:

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

— H. P. Lovecraft, in note to the editor of Weird Tales, on resubmission of “The Call of Cthulhu

On to Carter & Lovecraft. Dan Carter is a NYC detective who is in on a catch that goes incredibly wrong when his partner dies at the scene. Soon after, Carter retires from the force and hangs his shingle as a P.I. Life is pretty dull until Carter is informed by a stranger-than-normal attorney that he has inherited property in Providence, Rhode Island from a person he doesn’t know. Intrepid Carter seeks out the property and discovers it’s a book store staffed by the beautiful Emily Lovecraft, she of the high cheekbones and shotgun. “Lovecraft angled her head back until she was looking at Harrelson down her nose. ‘I trained as a librarian, and I run a bookstore. Fucking right I can use a gun.'”

Before you can say Cthulhu Mythos, a professor has drowned in a dry car, an Atlantic City pit boss has literally exploded after eating a plate of ribs, and Dan Carter keeps finding himself on an eerie and inhospitable spit of land called Waits Bill where the women are much more than women and the men are even stranger.

monsters

Having no foundation in Lovecraft, I was a bit at a loss at times, but the plot — or enjoyment — of a ripping good read in Carter & Lovecraft is not dependent on that knowledge.

Should your book club read it? Truthfully, you know your book buddies better than I do. Were I to bring Carter & Lovecraft to my own home club, I think my friends would turn on me faster than a Wait woman turns on a strange man. But just in case you do, I’ve got a few food and music suggestions:

MENU

BBQ Ribs. Truly, this is your only choice. And some bourbon. Recipes below.

In Atlantic City, Bernie Hayesman looked at the plate of ribs, and he was not happy. He had asked for an omelet, a simple omelet to be sent up to his office, and they had sent ribs. He couldn’t understand it. He’d spoken to the chef personally. They’d discussed eggs, if briefly. There was no earthly way “omelet” could have been misconstrued as “ribs”. He looked at the plate of ribs, and the ribs looked back. Neither he nor they were overjoyed at the situation.

Rhode Island Clam Dip

  • 2 slices bacon, chopped
  • 1/3 cup chopped sweet onion
  • 1 package Gravy Mix
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 cup shredded white Cheddar cheese, divided
  • 1 (6.5 ounce) can chopped clams, drained
  • 2 teaspoons  Parsley Flakes
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cook bacon in large skillet on medium-high heat until crisp. Remove bacon, reserving drippings in pan. Add onion; cook and stir 2 to 3 minutes or until translucent. Stir in Gravy Mix, milk and 1/2 cup of the shredded cheese. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 2 minutes or until gravy starts to thicken. Remove from heat. Stir in clams.
  2. Pour into 9-inch glass pie plate. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese.
  3. Bake 15 minutes or until cheese is melted. Sprinkle with bacon and parsley. Serve with toasted baguette slices or crackers.

New Jersey’s Award-Winning Rib recipe from Big Joe’s Cookbook can be found here: http://nj1015.com/big-joes-award-winning-ribs-recipe/

Larcery Bourbon has an impressive selection of bourbon recipes on its website, but the Pressing Charges looks like a great combination for a rib dinner:

PRESSING CHARGES Pressing-Charges
  • 2 oz. Larceny Bourbon
  • 2 oz. Ginger Ale
  • 2 oz. Soda Water
  • 2 Dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

In an Old Fashioned glass, combine Larceny, ginger ale and soda water. Float bitters on top.

MUSIC

My playlist would include:

Evil Woman, ELO

Dark Lady, Cher

Witchy Woman, The Eagles

Monster, Lady Gaga

Sweet Rhode Island Red, Ike & Tina Turner

Rhode Island is Famous for You, Michael Feinstein

The Last Resort, The Eagles

MOVIE CASTING

According to Kirkus Reviews, the book has been optioned by Warner Bros. and is headed to tv land. Here are my casting suggestions:

Dan Carter                     Aaron Eckhart

Emily Lovecraft            Gabrielle Union

William Colt                  Thomas Decker

carter &So . . . there you go. If you dare.

Happy Reading!

 

Camino Island, by John Grisham

GatsbyMS One of the greatest literary treasures in the United States, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s hand-written manuscripts are stolen from the Firestone Library on Princeton University’s campus by a gang of five: Denny, a former Army ranger kicked out of the military; Mark, a professional thief with a history of “smash-and-grab” jobs involving art and artifacts ransomed back to the original owners; Jerry and Trey, petty thieves who met in prison; and Ahmed, a computer hacker.

The heist happens quickly in John Grisham’s latest novel, Camino Island, and serves as a backdrop for the real intrigue: where have the manuscripts gone after some of the thieves are caught; and how can Princeton get them back.

Enter Elaine Shelby, an insurance investigator. Mercer Mann, young, broke, aspiring writer with a past that includes time in Camino Island, Florida. Bruce Cable, owner of Bay Books, acquirer of valuable books, Southern dandy, and book (and author) lover. In his own mind he is “a well-read playboy” and an ambitious businessman.

seersucker“He owned a dozen different seersucker suits, each with a different shader color, and he wore one every day, along with a starched white shirt with a spread collar, and a loud bow tie, usually either red or yellow. His ensemble was completed with a pair of dirty buckskins, no socks. He never wore socks, not even in January when the temperatures dipped into the forties. His hair was thick and wavy, and he wore it long, almost to his shoulders. He shaved once a week on Sunday morning. By the time he was thirty, some gray was working itself into the picture, a few whiskers and a few strands of the long hair, and it was quite becoming.”

Elaine, the insurance investigator, believes Bruce Cable has the manuscripts. She wants Mercer to return to Camino Island, the home of Mercer’s grandmother, and infiltrate the community’s cabal of eccentric authors as a means of getting close to Cable, who has quite the reputation for his way with the lady authors.

The New York Times said Camino Island reads like it was written while John Grisham took a vacation from writing John Grisham novels. Grisham has a lot of fun with books, authors, and characterizations. The romance writer who “you won’t believe has ever had sex with anybody,” the literary writer who pens “really impenetrable stuff the stores can’t give away,” the alcoholic novelist whose been in and out of rehab so often everyone’s lost count, the “vampire girl” young adult novelist, the poet “snob,” etc.

Camino IslandMy favorite depiction is that of Bay Books, Cable’s island store.

. . . the smells of new books, and coffee, and, from somewhere, the hint of pipe smoke. She adored the saggy shelves, the piles of books on the floors, the ancient rugs, the racks of paperbacks, the colorful section for bestsellers at 25 percent off! From across the store she took in the First Editions Room, a handsome paneled area with open windows and hundreds of the more expensive books.

Camino Island is a fun place to visit and talk about books. Learn a little, live a little. Pass it on.

MENU

Food from the book

Shrimp Risotto with bread and wine

This recipe from epicurious.com for Shrimp Risotto looks good: https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/shrimp-risotto-4970

Champagne and pizza

Margaritas with grouper tacos

I would serve the Margaritas and grouper tacos. Yum.

© Sarah Elliott for Jenni KayneFrom http://ripandtan.jennikayne.com/cocktail-of-the-day-the-hemingway-margarita/

By Greg Murnion
Servings:1
Units:
US Imperial
Metric
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Combined all and enjoy!

 

MUSIC

Of course, you could go all Jimmy Buffett. Or add a little variety with some of these:

Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, Otis Redding

Island Girl, Elton John

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot

Don’t Bring Me Down (Bruce!), ELO

Sharp Dressed Man, ZZ Top

The Spy Who Loved Me, Carly Simon

Undercover Lover, .38 Special

MOVIE CASTING  simon baker

This is a fun one to think about casting, especially Bruce Cable. But the troupe of writers would be a great casting assignment too.

Elaine Shelby — Cate Blanchett is the obvious choice but Elizabeth Banks would be fun for this part

Mercer Mann — Emma Roberts

Noel — Margot Robbie

Bruce Cable — Simon Baker

Happy Reading!

 

 

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

the-handmaids-tale

The regime created an instant pool of [women recruited for reproductive purposes] by the simple tactic of declaring all second marriages and non marital liaisons adulterous, arresting the female partners, and, on the grounds that they were morally unfit, confiscating the children they already had, who were adopted by childless couples of the upper echelons who were eager for progeny by any means. . . . [A] desirable characteristic in an age of plummeting Caucasian birthrates, a phenomenon observable not only in Gilead but in most northern Caucasian societies of the time.

“The U.S. Fertility Rate Just Hit A Historic Low.” Washington Post, June 30, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2017/06/30/the-u-s-fertility-rate-just-hit-a-historic-low-why-some-demographers-are-freaking-out/?utm_term=.795cce4c6660

Stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformation were widespread and on the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plant accidents, shutdowns, and incidents of sabotage that characterized the period as well as to leakages from chemical- and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic waste disposal sites, of which there were many thousands, both legal and illegal — in some instances these materials were simply dumped into the sewage system — and to the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays.

“In the United States, there are more than 20,000 stillbirths each year, a rate worse than that of many other countries.” Washington Post, May 16, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/05/16/stillbirth-is-more-common-than-you-think-and-were-doing-little-about-it/?utm_term=.ce53713b1d21

“RadiationfromFukushima nuclear power plant meltdown triggers genetic mutations.” The Daily Mail, August 13, 2012. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2188017/Radiation-Fukushima-nuclear-power-plant-meltdown-triggers-genetic-mutations-butterflies.html

“Report Confirms Use of Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack.” The Atlantic, June 30, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2017/06/report-confirms-use-of-chemical-weapons-in-syrian-attack/532458/

“The EPA is Beginning to Roll Back An Obama-era Rule Limiting How Much Toxic Waste Power Plants Release in Water,” BuzzFeed, August 14, 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/zahrahirji/trump-targets-strict-limits-on-power-plant-toxic-waste?utm_term=.hfJB6NglZ#.nhJ4dwkAQ

“Glyphosate in Our Food,” EcoWatch, August 4, 2017, https://www.ecowatch.com/monsanto-glyphosate-roundup-2468378805.html

It was he who suggested the use of an obscure “CIA” pamphlet on the destabilization of foreign governments as a strategic handbook . . . and he, too, who drew up the early hit lists of prominent “Americans” of the time.”

The World War II-era document, called Simple Sabotage Field Manual, outlines ways in which operatives can disrupt and demoralize enemy administrators and police forces. The first section of the document, which can be read in its entirety here, addresses “Organizations and Conferences” — and how to turn them into a “dysfunctional mess”:

  • Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
  • Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
  • When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five.
  • Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
  • Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
  • Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.”

“Within 24 hours, a part of widely different Trump speeches,” PBS Newshour, August 24, 2017. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/within-24-hours-pair-wildly-different-trump-speeches/

Somestimes I wish she would just shut up and let me walk in peace.  But I’m ravenous for news; even if it’s false news, it must mean something.
Numerous examples to cite. Most recent: “CNN’s Acosta: What Trump Calls ‘fake news’ keeps people safe during hurricanes,” The Hill, August 25, 2017. http://thehill.com/homenews/media/347932-cnns-acosta-what-trump-calls-fake-news-keeps-people-safe-during-hurricanes

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, the said on television. Everything is under control. . . .

That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.

Things continued in that state of suspended animation for weeks, although some things did happen. Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since you couldn’t be too careful.

“The REAL ID Act, Frequently Asked Questions.” US Department of Homeland Security. https://www.dhs.gov/real-id-public-faqs

This is not my standard book club format. After finishing a re-read of Margaret Atwood’s 1984 literary classic The Handmaid’s Tale I was too dumbstruck to try it. Our book club is reading The Handmaid’s Tale next month. Perhaps yours should too.
“The Handmaid’s Tale is the latest dystopian novel to top bestseller lists,” The Washington Post, February 7, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/02/07/margaret-atwoods-the-handmaids-tale-is-the-newest-dystopian-novel-to-top-bestseller-lists/?utm_term=.a4bd87fb92c1

LaRose, by Louise Erdrich

Autumn Woods, Maxfield ParrishIt is hunting season in North Dakota, 1997, and Landreaux Iron is stalking a buck on the land adjacent to his own. He has confidence borne of a lifetime of successful hunts: he will kill the deer, thank it for its food, share the meat with his family — wife Emmeline, sons LaRose, Willard, Hollis, daughters Snow and Josette; his friends; even his personal care clients. Landreaux sights the deer, shoots. But it is not the buck that is taken: it is Dusty, the five year old son of his friend and neighbor. Dusty Ravich and LaRose, Landreaux’s son, have grown up together, children of half-sisters and are nearly as close as brothers. Dusty plummets from his tree perch, and in that instant the lives of everyone within his scope are radically changed.

Like The Round House, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/national-book-award-winner-the-round-house-louise-erdrich/, LaRose revolves around the tribal life of the Ojibwe people in North Dakota. There’s even a brief, and frankly confusing, appearance by Father Travis from the earlier novel. But in LaRose, history takes a central  role. The history of each character which in the study of the individual reveals the history of a people, beginning with the first LaRose, a young girl, in the 19th Century, a healer and a mystic:

She learned how to sew with a machine. How to imagine her own mouth sewed LaRoseshut. For speaking Anishinaabe. She learned how to endure being beaten with a board. How to eat with a fork, a spoon . . . how to grow vegetables, how to steal them, how to scrub floors, scrub walls, scrub pots, scrub the body, scrub the head . . . what rats were and how to kill them. . . . She learned how to stand correctly. . . . How to walk like a white woman on hard shoes. How to use and wash out menstrual stinking rags when Ojibwe women never stunk of old blood. . . . She learned to stink, learned to itch, learned to boil her underwear for lice. . . . She learned to sleep on cold floors, endure the smell of white people, and set a proper table. She learned how to watch her friends die. . . . She learned how to sing funeral hymns. . . . She learned, like her mother, how to hide that she had tuberculosis. . . . She knew ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ and yet her mother had taught her how to use both fierce and subtle Ojibwe poisons. . . . Her mother had taught her to put her spirit away for safekeeping when that was necessary.

As an aside, news reports last week spoke of the repatriation of the remains of Native American children forced to attend assimilation boarding schools, http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/editorials/2017/08/09/Matter-of-honor-Grave-repatriation-of-American-Indians-is-just/stories/201708310020, an issue central to the story of the LaRose just prior to Landreaux’s son.

Following Dusty’s death, Landreaux and his wife Emmeline seek guidance by enteringsweat the traditional Ojibwe sweat lodge and when they emerge have a solution. They will give their son LaRose to Dusty’s parents, Peter and Nola. “Our son will be your son now.”

With LaRose, Louise Erdrich won the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN Faulkner award. I listened to this book on Audible and it is the first I’ve heard read by the author. Louise Erdrich reading her own words allowed me to hear the book as the author wanted it to be read, with emphasis on the words she chose to emphasize, focus on the passages upon which she wished to focus.

He was becoming an effective human being. He had learned from his birth family how to snare rabbits, make stew, paint fingernails, glue wallpaper, conduct ceremonies, start outside fires in a driving rain, sew with a sewing machine, cut quilt squares, play Halo, gather, dry, and boil various medicine teas. He had learned from the old people how to move between worlds seen and unseen. Peter taught him how to use an ax, a chain saw, safely handle a .22, drive a riding lawn mower, drive a tractor, even a car. Nola taught him how to paint walls, keep animals, how to plant and grow things, how to fry meat, how to bake. Maggie taught him how to hide fear, fake pain, how to punch with a knuckle jutting. How to go for the eyes. How to hook your fingers in a person’s nose from behind and threaten to rip the nose off your face. He hadn’t done these things yet, and neither had Maggie, but she was always looking for a chance.

Ultimately, LaRose asks whether redemption is possible when you have committed an unforgivable act. Father Travis, Landreaux, the first LaRose, Nola (Dusty’s mother), Romeo — a childhood friend of Landreaux, evenly the saintly Emmeline struggle to find the answer for himself or herself. Erdrich’s answer, though, is yes.

“Sorrow eats time. Be patient. Time eats sorrow.”

I highly recommend LaRose for your book club’s next read.

MENU

The closing scene of LaRose features a graduation feast.famous dave's

Slow-cooker beef chuck barbecue using Famous Dave’s barbecue sauce

Cole Slaw

Fry bread

Potato salad

Meatball soup

Sheet cakes

I haven’t made fry bread, but here’s a recipe from Food.Com: http://www.food.com/recipe/native-american-fry-bread-367036

My grandmother’s cole slaw recipe:

1 medium cabbage, shredded

3 grated carrots

1/3 cup mayonnaise

5 teaspoons lemon juice

pinch of nutmeg

1 teaspoon crushed caraway seeds

1/2 teaspoon onion salt

Mix all ingredients. Cover and “let age” a few hours in refrigerator. Stir well before serving.

MUSIC

According to their website, the Medicine Wheel Spirit Singers’ repertoire is from historical Ojibwe traditions, translated into English. http://www.medicinewheelspiritsingers.com/music/the-songs-we-sing/

Happy Reading!

louise-erdrich-7056216jpg-cfc629cb035ff560

Louise Erdrich

 

 

The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne

Marsh book In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a violent murderer, known as the Marsh King for his ability to live undetected in the back marshes for years, has just escaped from the penitentiary by murdering two prison guards. In Karen Dionne’s superbly thrilling novel The Marsh King’s Daughter, there is only one possible destination for the man: the home of his adult daughter Helena, her husband and their two children.  Helena Pelletier knows her father well. She herself is the daughter of a woman he abducted, raped repeatedly, and held hostage for over a decade.

Now, Helena knows her father Jacob is coming to reestablish his marsh family and to take her and her girls with him.

I had the pleasure of meeting Karen Dionne at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat that she established while she was working on The Marsh King’s Daughter. I remember her glee when she reported how pleased her agent was with her progress on this book and now having read it, I can see why. It’s stunning in plot, character, and description.

marigoldI sit up and check my watch. It’s still difficult for me to be somewhere at an exact time. When a person is raised on the land as I was, the land dictates what you do and when. We never kept a clock. There was no reason to. We were as attuned to our environment as the birds, insects, and animals, driven by the same circadian rhythms. My memories are tied to the seasons. I can’t always remember how old I was when a particular event took place, but I know what time of year it happened.

I know now that for most people, the calendar year begins on January 1. But in the marsh there was nothing about January to distinguish it from December or February or March. Our year began in the spring, on the first day the marsh marigolds bloomed. Marsh marigolds are huge bushy plants two feet or more in diameter, each covered with hundreds of inch-wide bright yellow blossoms. Other flowers bloom in the spring, like the blue flag iris and the flowering heads of the grasses, but marsh marigolds are so prolific that nothing compares to that astonishing yellow carpet. Every year my father would pull on his waders and go out into the marsh and dig one up. He’d put it in an old galvanized tub half-filled with water and set it on our back porch, where it glowed like he’d brought us the sun.

I used to wish my name was Marigold. But I’m stuck with Helena, which I often have to explain is pronounced “Hel-LAY-nuh.” Like a lot of things, it was my father’s choice.

No less than Charles Finch, reviewing for the New York Times Book Review, agrees:

Two elements make Dionne’s book so superb. The first is its authenticity. There’s a strain in the contemporary American novel (“Maud’s Line,” by Margaret Verble, and “The Snow Child,” by Eowyn Ivey, are recent examples) defined by a knowledge of nature that feels intimate, real and longitudinal, connected to our country’s past. When Dionne describes the swamp maples that make a cabin invisible from the air, or the way one digs chicory taproots, then washes, dries and grinds them to make a coffee substitute, it seems effortless, plain that her fluency has a deeper source than Wikipedia.

The second is the corresponding authenticity of Helena’s emotions about her father, painfully revisited and refined as she tracks him. She has no doubt whatsoever that he belongs in prison, but she doesn’t hate him — or at least, part of her hatred is love. . . .

In its balance of emotional patience and chapter-by-chapter suspense, “The Marsh King’s Daughter” is about as good as a thriller can be, I think.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/31/books/review/summer-reading-thrillers.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0

Karen’s authentic descriptions were formed in a way that Mr. Finch may not know, though Karen was kind enough to share the information with me in a series of questions and answers.

During the 1970s, my husband and I homesteaded in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with our infant daughter, living in a tent while we built our tiny cabin, carrying water from a nearby stream, and sampling wild foods, and I definitely bequeathed to my narrator, Helena, my love of wild places and my ease with nature.

My living situation wasn’t nearly as extreme as her family’s, so some of the skills she possesses, I do not. Though I can recognize many wild plants and know which parts are safe to eat and how to cook them, I’ve never hunted, or fished, or trapped—our meat came from the grocery store. That said, I can bake a mean batch of biscuits in an iron skillet on top of a wood stove, and I know how to get a lot of mileage out of a single bucket of water. (Step one: use the fresh, clean, hot water to rinse your dishes. Step two: use the still-warm soapy rinse water to wash the floor. Step three: use the dirty mop water to water your houseplants, or the garden.)

My husband I lived in the Upper Peninsula for 30 years. We came back to the Detroit area when our children were nearly grown so they could have better job and education opportunities, and also to be closer to our aging parents.

Throughout The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen juxtaposes the ordinary chores of Helena’s current life — making and delivering the jams and jellies that help her family survive, parenting the children — with the more severe circumstances under which she was raised. In addition, Karen weaves the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale of the marsh king’s daughter with Helena’s own story to great effect.

SeneyI pick up a news alert: “—escaped prisoner . . . child abductor . . . Marquette . . .”

“Be quiet,” I yell, and turn the volume up.

“Seney National Wildlife Refuge . . . armed and dangerous . . . do not approach.” At first, that’s all I manage to catch.

I need to hear this. The refuge is less than thirty miles from our house. “Mari, stop!”

Mari blinks into silence. The report repeats:

“Once again, state police report that a prisoner serving life without parole for child abduction, rape, and murder has escaped from the maximum security prison in Marquette, Michigan. The prisoner is believed to have killed two guards during a prison transfer and escaped into the Seney National Wildlife Refuge south of M-28. Listeners should consider the prisoner armed and dangerous. Do NOT, repeat, DO NOT approach. If you see anything suspicious, call law enforcement immediately. The prisoner, Jacob Holbrook, was convicted of kidnapping a young girl and keeping her captive for a dozen years in a notorious case that received nationwide attention . . .”

My heart stops. I can’t see. Can’t breathe. Can’t hear anything over the blood rushing in my ears. I slow the truck and pull carefully onto the shoulder. My hand shakes as I reach to turn the radio off.

Jacob Holbrook has escaped from prison. The Marsh King. My father.

Karen’s website, http://www.karen-dionne.com/the-marsh-kings-daughter/, has a raft of great reviews. Here, I add mine. It’s a dynamite read and your book club will love it. Plus there’s some — shall we say very interesting — food.

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chokecherry1Helena makes jams and jellies from the natural abundance surrounding her in the Upper Peninsula. Some of the most interesting choices I found to be her cattail and blueberry jelly. I had no idea they were edible. Karen though shared with me her recipe for Chokecherry Apple Jelly. From Karen:

Blueberries grow profusely all over the Upper Peninsula; in fact, some of the old-timers tell stories of how, during the Great Depression, entire families went out into the plains and camped there for weeks picking blueberries to be sold to restaurants as far south as Chicago to supplement their income, so having my character make her living selling jelly and jam was a natural choice.how-to-draw-a-raccoon-9

I’ve made many kinds of jelly and jam over an open campfire (and had to defend the cooling jars against marauding raccoons!). My favorite was wild-apple chokecherry jelly. Chokecherries are far too sour to eat straight off the tree, but make delicious jelly. Because wild apples are a source of natural pectin, mixing the cherries and apples meant we didn’t have to buy pectin from the store.

Once when I was hiking toward the abandoned orchard behind our cabin, I came upon a pile of bear dung that was so fresh, it was practically steaming. I decided to abandon my apple-picking plans that day, since I couldn’t quite picture myself running from a bear and climbing a tree while carrying my infant daughter on my back!

Here’s my recipe for Chokecherry Apple Jelly

1 pint chokecherries
6 medium tart apples
2 cups water
2 tbsp. lemon juice (optional)
5 cups sugar

Cut up apples (seeds and all), wash and crush cherries, and put in saucepan with water and lemon juice. Bring to a slow boil and simmer about 5 minutes. Put in jelly bag; squeeze out juice. Measure 2 cups into kettle. If necessary, add water to make 2 cups. Put over high heat and stir until mixture comes to a hard boil. At once stir in sugar. Bring to a full rolling boil; then boil hard one minute, stirring. Remove from heat, skim off foam; pour into glasses. Top with 1/8″ paraffin. Makes 8 (6 oz.) glasses.

I had to ask about the cattails and here’s what I learned: “In his book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” Euell Gibbons calls the common cattail the “supermarket of the swamps,” and details how to gather and enjoy the new shoots, the starchy rhizomes, and even the unripe flower spikes and ripe spikes covered with rich yellow pollen, and we tried them all. Like Helena in my novel, I particularly like eating the young heads boiled in salted water and eaten like corn on the cob. We also enjoyed young milkweed pods.”

So if you’re truly adventurous, head on out and eat you some cattails and milkweed!

MUSIC

My first thought would be to simply find a nature soundtrack or if you live in a home with summertime insect noises (and screen windows), simply open the window. Karen told me that while writing, “I listen to movie soundtracks  – there are no words, but there is a narrative to the album, and the emotion comes through loud and clear. For The Marsh King’s Daughter, my first choice was the soundtrack for the movie “Inception.” I also listened to a couple tracks from “Jurassic Park” when I needed a particular mood.”

Many thanks to Karen Dionne for participating in my blog today! Karen

Happy Reading!

News of the World, Paulette Jiles

old news

At age 70, Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd has endured wars, a wife, the loss of her, two daughters, and has traveled the roads and byways of his native South. In Paulette Jiles’ 2016 National Book Award-nominated News of the World, this gentleman is now roaming Texas reading periodicals and papers to audiences so starved for news of the outside world they will pay a nickel a piece to hear it proclaimed.

Capt. Kidd seems content to  live life this way while waiting for his daughters to move back home to Texas. Jiles’ paints her gentleman newsreader as remote from the world of his audiences, saddened by the passage of time, impatient with the impatience of intolerance.

Captain Kidd laid out the Boston Morning Journal on the lectern and began to read from the article on the Fifteenth Amendment. He had been born in 1798 and the third war of his lifetime had ended five years ago and he hoped never to see another but now the news of the world aged him more than time itself. Still he stayed his rounds, even during the cold spring rains. He had been at one time a printer but the war had taken his press and everything else, the economy of the Confederacy had fallen apart even before the surrender and so he now made his living in this drifting from one town to another in North Texas with his newspapers and journals in a waterproof portfolio and his coat collar turned up against the weather. He rode a very good horse and was concerned that someone might try to take the horse from him but so far so good. So he had arrived in Wichita Falls on February 26th and tacked up his posters and put on his reading clothes in the stable. There was a hard rain outside and it was noisy but he had a good strong voice.

He shook out the Journal’s pages.

The Fifteenth Amendment, he read, which has just been signed between the several states February 3rd, 1870, allows the vote to all men qualified to vote without regard to race or color or previous condition of servitude. He looked up from the text. His reading glasses caught the light. He bent slightly forward over the lectern. That means colored gentlemen, he said. Let us have no vaporings or girlish shrieks. He turned his head to search the crowd of faces turned up to him. I can hear you muttering, he said. Stop it. I hate muttering.

He glared at them and then said, Next. The Captain shook out another newspaper. The latest from the New York Herald Tribune states that the polar exploration ship Hansa is reported by a whaler as being crushed in sunk in the pack ice in its attempt to reach the North Pole; sunk at seventy degrees north latitude off Greenland. There is nothing in this article about survivors. He flipped the page impatiently.

This moment presents Capt. Kidd with what is perhaps his life’s last great challenge. A ten-year-old girl has been “rescued” from her Kiowa captors. Kidd is charged with returning Johanna to her closest relatives, across Texas, fighting brigands, harsh countryside, and the girl’s own hysteria at being ripped from the only family she knew.

news of the worldBritt said, The Kiowa don’t want her. They finally woke up to the fact that having a white captive gets you run down by the cav. The Agent said to bring all the captives in or he was cutting off their rations and sending the 12th and the 9th out after them. They brought her in and sold her for fifteen Hudson’s Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware. German coin silver. They’ll beat it up into bracelets. It was Aperian Crow’s band brought her in. Her mother cut her arms to pieces and you could hear her crying for a mile.

Her Indian mother.

Yes, said Britt.

Were you there?

Britt nodded.

I wonder if she remembers anything. From when she was six.

No, said Britt. Nothing.

The girl still did not move. It takes a lot of strength to sit that still for that long. She sat upright on the bale of Army shirts which were wrapped in burlap, marked in stencil for Fork Belknap. Around her were wooden boxes of enamel wash basins and nails and smoked deer tongues packed in fat, a sewing machine in a crate, fifty-pound sacks of sugar. Her round face was flat in the light of the lamp and without shadows, or softness. She seemed carved.

“[It] is a narrow but exquisite book about the joys of freedom (experienced even by a raging river threatening to overrun its banks); the discovery of unexpected, proprietary love between two people who have never experienced anything like it; pure adventure in the wilds of an untamed Texas; and the reconciling of vastly different cultures (as when Kidd has to explain to Johanna, who is all set to collect a white man’s scalp, that this “is considered very impolite” and simply isn’t done). That’s a lot to pack into a short (213 pages), vigorous volume, but Ms. Jiles is capable of saying a lot in few words.” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/13/books/news-of-the-world-paulette-jiles.html 

paulette_jiles-400Obviously Jiles is a writer of immense and immediate talent. She places each word, showing as well as proclaiming herself a poet, novelist and memoirist. Her website, http://paulettejiles.com , contains numerous blog posts enlivening the writer’s work with insights into her life and thoughts and writing processes. I learned that she is, like me, an alto who enjoys singing the low line but occasionally resents the showier sopranos.

I truly enjoyed this book, found it haunting and beautiful and lyrical. Capt. Kidd and Johanna’s growing relationship, their fierce-now-lost world, are with me, thought it’s been several weeks since I’ve read the Jiles’ novel. It is now out in paperback and I heartily endorse the choice for your book club.

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From the novel: Brisket barbecue, divinity candy, taffy, Alsatian noodles with lamb and cream.

I have never tried a beef brisket but I love eating it. I think this novel may inspire me to try. My good friend Monica — a book club member — does her briskets in a “Big Green Egg” but since I don’t have one of those, I will try this Southern Living endorsed, Texas brisket recipe on a grill: http://www.myrecipes.com/recipe/fiesta-brisket . My mouth is already watering.

When I was a child, one of my favorite parts of Christmas was the tray of homemade candies my grandmother would bring out on Christmas Eve. And my favorite part of that tray was the divinity candy. Here’s her recipe:

  • 4 cups sugar
  • 1 cup white corn syrup
  • 3/4 cup cold water
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla
  • 2 cups chopped pecans

Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form.

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, stir together the sugar, corn syrup, and water until sugar dissolves. Without stirring further, cook until mixture reaches hard ball stage.

Use a slow pour to stream syrup into egg whites beating constantly at high speed. Add  vanilla and continue to beat until mixture holds its shape, approximately 5 minutes. Stir in pecans.

Using 2 spoons, drop the divinity onto waxed paper, using 1 spoon to push the candy off the other. If the candy becomes too stiff, add a few drops of hot water.  Cool on racks.

MUSIC

Jiles’ website says she is a choir member and the music sprinkled throughout News of the World reflects a deep knowledge of a Southern hymnal and folk music.

It is Well With My Soul

Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross

Come to the Power

Black is the Color

Yellow Rose of Texas

MOVIE CASTING

redford

Apparently Fox 2000 bought the movie rights to star Tom Hanks as Capt. Kidd. Which to me is a durn shame.

 

Robert Redford is the perfect Capt. Kidd.

Happy Reading!