Everybody Have You Heard: To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

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Hush little baby, don’t say a word,

Mama’s gonna buy you a Mockingbird.

And if that mockingbird don’t sing

Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring

  To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s 1960 coming-of-age novel won the Pulitzer Prize, made the names Boo Radley, Scout and Atticus Finch cultural touchstones and arguably, at least in the case of Atticus Finch, archetypes, and may well have helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

    The story is a familiar one, not only in terms of this book, but to childhood itself.  There’s a new kid in town who challenges the norms.  Figuring an offensive burst is better than defending himself for his exotic background and petite frame, Dill taunts Scout and her brother Jem into confronting the stranger who lives in the spooky house within their midst:  Boo Radley.

   All the while, Jem and Scout’s widowed father Atticus Finch, a small town lawyer in the town of Macomb, Alabama, is fighting the struggle of his life, in court and out, in defending a black man, Tom Robinson, from the unfounded accusations of Mayella Ewell and her father Bob Ewell.  The book, and the film adaptation, are so full of iconic moments that one simply needs to see an image or read a brief quote and be reminded of the fullness of feeling contained throughout this beautiful novel.

.   Atticus and Tom   mocking book     to_kill_a_mockingbird_photo

  On the eve of the novel’s fiftieth anniversary, American media outlets celebrated the novel in the way only American media outlets would:  by unleashing venom upon the book, Harper Lee and the novel’s fans.  The Wall Street Journal said, “It’s time to stop pretending that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is some kind of timeless classic that ranks with the great works of American literature.”  http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748703561604575283354059763326.  The New Yorker published Malcolm Gladwell’s interestingly harsh criticism of To Kill A Mockingbird on the eve of the novel’s 50th anniversary.  Gladwell’s hypothesis is that Atticus should have been a stronger defender of civil rights and lacked moral fiber.  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/08/10/the-courthouse-ring.

It just seems to me that to judge Atticus Finch by 2009 standards is unfair.  Atticus was a man of his time and place, as Harper Lee makes very clear.  “He liked Maycomb, he was Maycomb County born and bred; he knew his people, they knew him and because of Simon Finch’s industry, Atticus was related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in town.”  He treats everyone with respect; including some people the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal writers deem unworthy.  And everyone, almost everyone, in the town respects him.

A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson.  The foreman handed a piece of peer to Mr. Tate who handed it to the clerk who handed it to the judge. . . .

I shut my eyes.  Judge Taylor was polling the jury:  “Guilty . . . guilty . . . guilty . . . guilty . . . ”  I peeked at Jem:  his hands were white from gipping the balcony rail, and his shoulders jerked as if each “guilty” was a separate stage between them.

. . .

Atticus took his coat off the back of his chair and pulled it over his shoulder.  Then he left the courtroom, but not by his usual exit.  He must have wanted to go home the short way, because he walked quickly down the middle aisle toward the south exit.  I followed the top of his head as he made his way to the door.  He did not look up.

Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle.

“Miss Jean Louise?”

I looked around.  They were all standing.  All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet.  Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up.  Your father’s passin’.”

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The book is plumb full of great food, from Calpurnia’s summertime daily does of lemonade, to the many angel food cakes, to the Halloween pageant costumes of Maycomb County agricultural products including ham, beef, butter beans and peanuts.

My book club menu for To Kill A Mockingbird would include:

County ham and biscuits

Butterbeans (baby lima beans) with butter, salt and pepper

Roasted new potatoes (400 degree oven, salt & pepper and olive oil til crispy)

My grandmother’s angel food cake

1 1/4 up soften cake flour

1/2 cup sugar

12 egg whites at room temperature

1 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

1 1/3 cup sugar

Measure sifted four, add 1/2 cup sugar and sift four times.  Combine egg whites, cram of tartar, salt and flavorings in large bowl.  Beat at high sped until soft peaks form.  Sprinkle in rest of sugar in 4 additions beating until blended after each addition.  Sift in flour mixture in four additions, folding in with large spoon, turn bowl often.  Pour into ungreased 10 inch tube pan and bake at 375 for 35-40 minutes.  Cook cake upside down in pan on cake rack.

And of course, Tequila Mockingbirds

  • 1 Jalapeño pepper slice
  • 2 oz Patrón Silver Tequila
  • 1.5 oz Watermelon-Basil Purée*
  • .75 oz Fresh lime juice
  • .75 oz Agave syrup (one part agave nectar, one part water)

In a shaker, muddle the jalapeño slice. Add the remaining ingredients and fill with ice. Shake for 10 seconds and double strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice.

*Watermelon-Basil Purée

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 cups Chopped fresh watermelon
  • 7 Basil leaves

PREPARATION:
Purée both ingredients in a blender or food processor until smooth. Refrigerate until needed.

 MUSIC

Must start with James Taylor and Carly Simon’s Mockingbird!  This video is too much fun, to see Sweet Baby James and Carly dancing the shag mid-song.  http://youtu.be/4WM_R-6AKHE

Rocking Robin, Jackson Five

Blackbird, the Beatles

Freebird (if you can stand it)

Little Bird, Annie Lennox

MOVIE CASTING

There’s no need to remake To Kill a Mockingbird, but if Hollywood should ever decide it wants to, I can only hope George Clooney will be cast as Atticus Finch.

 

Happy Reading & Eating!

 

 

Mockingbird illustration by Jon Janoski, credit Encyclopedia Britannica

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The Vacationers by Emma Straub

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    One married couple, on the rocks.  Check.

    One disaffected, about-to-leave-for-college, recently-Facebook-traumatized teenage daughter.  Check.

    One selfish adult son and his much older girlfriend.  Check.

    One gay couple awaiting news of an adoption.  Check.

   Add in the exotic locale of Mallorca, a Spanish tutor both mom and daughter have the hots for, a retired Spanish tennis stud and lots of gorgeous food and descriptions and you have The Vacationers by Emma Straub, who appears to be all of 12 years old.

 jpbook-master180photo by Jennifer Bastien

    Ms. Straub has quite the nice website, incidentally, on which she uses some language that is definitely not that of a 12 year old.  http://www.emmastraub.net

   Amidst the romantic comedy elements of vacation-location-vocation, Straub (daughter of horror novelist Peter Straub) weaves a recurring thread of infidelity.  Jim, one half of the parental married couple, has recently admitted an affair with a 23 year old assistant at his magazine for which Jim’s job was terminated.  Franny, his wife, is furious.  Mostly silently, but occasionally vehemently.  Franny cooks, fusses, intrudes into her Charles, her gay best friend’s marriage to Lawrence, aggravates her daughter and torments her son’s girlfriend.vacationers

    The Vacationers is one of those books that I had a very tough time finding a character to like.  Of them all, I liked Jim, Charles and Lawrence the best I suppose although I don’t think that is the author’s intention.  The teenage daughter Sylvia was whiny and attitudinal as a whole.  The adult son and his girlfriend were narcissistic body-building freaks.  Franny was the Barefoot Contessa gone mad.

    But one thing Emma Straub does very, very well is add food, music and flavor to her book.  The Vacationers is an excellent book club choice.  It’s an easy but fun read.  It has lots of issues to discuss:  infidelity, kids going to college, older women-younger men.  And the food options are wonderful.

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   Spain is the land of tapas and every time the group goes out to eat, Straub describes beautiful Spanish food.  An “overflowing plate of blistered green peppers covered with wide flakes of salt, touted pieces of bread with dollops of whipped cod, grilled octopus on a stick.  . . . Albondigas, little meatballs swimming in tomato sauce; patatas bravas, fried potatoes with a ribbon of cream run back and forth over the top, pa amb oli, the Mallorcan answer to Italy’s bruschetta.”  Ensaimadas, a sort of flaky pastry with sugar, makes several appearances.

  Back at their borrowed vacation house, complete with pool, Franny whips up group servings of pancakes with blueberries, roasted chicken with asparagus, fish with couscous, guacamole, pies, bread.  The choices are myriad.

 I would roast a chicken, serve it with asparagus with vinaigrette and try to make ensaimadas.  Photo courtesy of http://www.sky-blue-mallorca.com.  Here’s a recipe link:  http://spanishfood.about.com/od/dessertssweets/r/Mallorcan-Spiral-Pastry-Recipe-Ensaimada-Mallorquina.htm.

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MUSIC

   Ms. Straub happily includes many specific musical references in The Vacationers.  Elton John, Maroon Five’s Hands All Over, Enrique Iglesias’ Euphoria c.d., and native Mallorcan Tomeu Penya.  She also mentioned One Direction, but don’t get me started.

MOVIE CASTING

   Sylvia:  Sarah Hyland, from Modern Family

   Joan, the Spanish tutor, Alex Gonzalez

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   Franny:  Marcia Gay Harden

   Jim:  Sam Waterston

   Charles:  Bruce Willis

   Lawrence:  I don’t know.  I didn’t get enough of a feeling for Lawrence.  Someone likable, intellectual-looking, patient.

   Bobby:  Chris Pine

Enjoy!

Plain Jane: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

 

Jane EyreI confess.  I have never particularly enjoyed Jane Eyre.  The mischievous and frolicsome social world of Jane Austin is much more to my liking.  It always seemed to me that just opening the cover of any Bronte book brought darkness not only into the room, but conjured a rainstorm outside as well.  And Jane Eyre is even worse than Wuthering Heights, although better than The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte.  Despite Jane’s orphanage and mistreatment at the hands of her aunt-by-marriage, I found little to empathize with her.  She was rather smart-mouth and goody two-shoes and self-satisfied.  For example, this is Jane’s parting outburst upon leaving her aunt’s residence:

I am glad you are no relation of mine. I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to visit you when I am grown up; and if any one asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty. . . . You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so: and you have no pity. I shall remember how you thrust me back . . . into the red-room. . . . And that punishment you made me suffer because your wicked boy struck me—knocked me down for nothing. I will tell anybody who asks me questions this exact tale. ’Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty. . . .

And Mr. Rochester! I’m down with the whole bad boy thing, but Rochester’s main appeal to Jane seems to be that he’s a man and he lives in the same place that she does.  He admits to having had a long-time affair with a French “dancer,” that may or may not have resulted in his ward Adele, he is moody, mean, often drunk and flaunts his relationship with Blanche in Jane’s face time and time again.  That’s even before we get to the point where we know he’s got his current wife penned up in the attic like an animal.  Here’s Jane’s description of his pre-marital, loving behavior:

In other people’s presence I was, as formerly, deferential and quiet; any other line of conduct being uncalled for: it was only in the evening conferences I thus thwarted and afflicted him. He continued to send for me punctually the moment the clock struck seven; though when I appeared before him now, he had no such honeyed terms as “love” and “darling” on his lips: the best words at my service were “provoking puppet,” “malicious elf,” “sprite,” “changeling,” &c. For caresses, too, I now got grimaces; for a pressure of the hand, a pinch on the arm; for a kiss on the cheek, a severe tweak of the ear. It was all right: at present I decidedly preferred these fierce favours to anything more tender. […] Meantime, Mr. Rochester affirmed I was wearing him to skin and bone, and threatened awful vengeance for my present conduct at some period fast coming.

Sounds charming doesn’t he?

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    However, it is a classic of English literature.  And perhaps Jane Eyre does just what it should.  It is, after all, a Gothic novel fully inhabited by a Gothic Byronic hero, a Gothic manse, and multiple persons of Gothic malevolence or mystery.

    And according to scholars, much of the plot and characters derived from the life of Charlotte Bronte herself.  Her alcoholic brother, her sisters who died of consumption while in the charge of a less-than-ideal school.  It is, significantly, a first person narrative and Jane and Charlotte, her author, have been cited as early feminist models.  The Literature 100:  A Ranking of the Most Influential Novelists, Playwrights and Poets of All Time, by Daniel S. Burt.  (Charlotte Bronte is #20.  Jane Austen, I am pleased to report, is #20 and the highest ranking female, unless one believes the gossip and Shakespeare was actually a noblewoman and/or Queen Elizabeth.)  If you are interested in a very scholarly deconstruction and criticism of the novel, here’s a link to Arthur Shapiro’s journal article:  “In Defense of Jane Eyre.”  http://www.wssd.org/cms/lib02/PA01001072/Centricity/Domain/202/In%20Defense%20of%20Jane%20Eyre.pdf

  I much prefer the story of Bertha Rochester, as told by Jean Rhys, in Wide Sargasso Sea.  Now there’s a good tale.  See my review:  https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/mrs-rochesters-room-of-her-own-wide-sargasso-sea-by-jean-rhys/

  But school children will soon be moaning through the pages of Jane Eyre, or bewitched by them, and if you and your book club are interested in reading alongside as encouragement, there are many things to be appreciated and enjoyed about the book.  The creepy atmosphere, the saintly characters and the sinner counterparts, Jane’s own tortured self-examination to find she is in love with a married man and but for the nearly divine intervention of George Mason would be married to a bigamist.  And let us not forget, the big finish.  It’s a real barn-burner.

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Jane is hungry much of the novel.  At Lowood, she eats burned porridge and frozen water.  And, at one point she begs a farmer for some of the porridge fed to the pigs.  Let’s see if we can do a bit better than that, shall we?

Pheasant/Dove Shepherd’s Pie

Breast meat of 4 pheasants/8 doves cut into bite-size cubes and browned in a skillet with olive oil, salt, pepper.  Remove the meat from the pan after browning.

Saute 1 cup of chopped carrots, 1 cup chopped leeks, 1 cup celery and 1 chopped onion in the same skillet, cooking until soft.   Add 1/2 cup chicken stock.  Cook until slightly reduced and then add the meat.  If it’s watery, add 2 tablespoons cornstarch to thicken.

Place mixture in a casserole pan and smooth out.  Then top with mashed potatoes.  Add a dollop of butter to the top and cook at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or so until the meat and vegetable mixture is bubbling up around the potatoes.  Ummmmm.

I would serve the Shepherd’s Pie with a green salad and take a cue from Bessie and Miss Temple’s cake kindness and serve tea cakes.  Bronte mentions “seed cakes,” but I found this tea cake recipe in my grandmother’s recipe box so that is what I will use.

1/4 cup blanched whole almonds

1 1/3 cup sifted regular flour

1/4 cup sifted corn starch

1/4 teaspoon mace

3/4 cup butter

1 teaspoon grated lemon rind

1 teaspoon vanilla

4 whole eggs

4 egg yolks

1 cup sugar

Grease and lightly flour a nine inch kugelhof pan or a 9 x 3 inch tube pan.  (Note from daeandwrite:  Kugelhof?)

Arrange almond around the bottom of pan.  Sift together the flour, corn starch and mace.  Melt butter over low heat; cool to lukewarm; add vanilla and lemon rind.  Stir together the whole eggs, yolks and sugar in a large mixing bowl; set bowl over a pan of hot, not boiling water over low heat until eggs are warm — about 15 minutes; stir occasionally to prevent eggs from cooking.

Removel blow from over hot water; beat warm eggs until thick, coll and tripled in volume.  Sprinkle sifted flour mixture over eggs.  Fold in gently, gradually adding melted butter mixture.

Continue folding until all butter disappears.  Pour into prepared pan.  Bake in 350 degree oven until cake is golden brown and plus away from sides of pan, about 50-55 minutes.

MUSIC

Jane Eyre was published in 1847.  Even though Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was French, I think his passionate music would be a fitting background for a Jane Eyre discussion and in fact his most productive decade coincided exactly with Charlotte Bronte’s writing.   Try the Symphonie Fantastique!

MOVIE CASTING

According to imdb.com there have been about 20 full-length, film productions of Jane Eyre for cinema and television.  Most recently, Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska held forth as Rochester and Jane.  I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch.  Maybe next time there’s a dark and stormy night.

Go forth and read!

Dark & Stormy: Night Film by Marissa Pessl

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     She haunts the 583 pages of the book, moving “like an animal,” forever dressed in shiny black boots and a “red coat catching the light behind her, making a vivid red slice in the night.”  This despite the fact that she dies on page one of the narrative.  She is Ashley Cordova, beautiful, prodigal, prophetic Ashley, daughter of reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova.  In the telling of the story of disgraced journalist Scott McGrath’s attempts to revive his career by finding out what happened to Ashley, author Marissa Pessl uses a “multi-media” approach.

I wasn’t trying to break any boundaries but I wanted to find the best means by which to tell the story. I personally love archives and I love going through old antique stores and looking at old wedding photographs, and old class photos of people in kindergarten in the 1920s. I love looking at the ephemera people leave behind when they’re no longer here. I wanted to bring that feeling to “Night Film” and through those bits and pieces bring Cordova’s world to life. I wanted to make his world really immediate to the reader.

There’s a voyeuristic quality that I think is really compelling to be able to peruse old reports. I definitely went through a lot of old police blogs and read through crime scene reports. It’s absolutely fascinating the level of detail that goes into describing things like the blood spatter pattern and the positioning of the body, it’s absolutely fascinating. In this CSI world, where everyone knows a lot about forensics, it made sense to give that to readers, rather than just telling them about it.

From CNN.com.  http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/19/living/books-night-film-marisha-pessl/

    night filmPessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, sold 200,000 copies in 2006 and won her a mid-six-figure book advance, which is pretty much miraculous.  (Although as an aspiring novel, one can only hope that lighting does strike twice.)  As an aside, I read Special Topics with a predisposition to not liking it and ended up loving it.  But unfortunately, although at times I enjoyed Night Film, I can’t say the same for it.  It’s received a ton of press, and the film rights have already sold, but as a novel, whatever multi-media frippery may be added, it’s just not that great as a whole.

   Essentially, Night Film is an amalgamation of Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining, Pulp Fiction, Dracula (the one where Gary Oldman roller skates across rooms and up walls), The Shawshank Redemption, the Olivia deHavilland-Joan Fontaine feud, Chinatown and others.  Presumably on the theory that if you stuff all great things into one container the resulting mash-up is also great.  And at times it is.

   One of the key complaints I have about the novel is that so much time is spent describing movies.  Film is a separate medium meant to be experienced as a film.  There’s a reason for that.  They are visual.  It hampers the novel that so much of the reader’s understanding of the novel plot depends upon the author’s description of a set of movies that the reader has no reference to, other than the written information provided by Pessl.  Frankly, the movies don’t sound like anything I would ever care to watch anyway as Pessl describes them all as being a journey through hell.  I’d much prefer that Cameron Diaz Rom-Com Pessl mentions breezily near the end of the book.

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   I should add that Pessl with the help of a bundle of her talented NY friends, actually directed a series of videos which are posted on Youtube.  These purport to be everything from audition interviews to lost footage of Cordova’s films.   But of course, that doesn’t make the novel itself a film.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34ZvS5-2Ml8

Reviews on Night Film are mixed.  The New York Times was a definite thumbs down, Slate liked it a bit more, and novelist Meg Wolitzer writing for NPR really liked it:  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/15/books/night-film-is-marisha-pessls-new-novel.html?_r=0, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2013/09/marisha_pessl_s_novel_night_film_reviewed.html, http://www.npr.org/2013/08/27/207386392/brainy-fat-and-full-of-ideas-night-film-is-a-good-natured-thriller.

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lp1681-heaven-hill---white-label-kentucky-bourbon-4-year-oldMcGrath and his cohorts in investigation tend to eat in NYC diners or Chinese carry-out.  What could be easier than a book club catered by Chinese carry-out.  That’s what I would do.  Make double sure to buy fortune cookies for this book.

There’s a great scene with a washed-up actress downing a bottle of Heaven Hill bourbon.  Interestingly, there are several references to Kentucky in the book which makes me wonder if Pessl has some Kentucky connection.  And yes, there are lots of Heaven and Hells.  Anyway, I’d have a bottle of Heaven Hill on hand for book club.  McGrath drinks Macallan Scotch but I’m not a Scotch drinker.

MUSIC

The book is all about movie made about the path between heaven and hell.  But rather than go a darker route, I think I would play some songs about the movies themselves.

The New Yorker’s list of songs about movies:  http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/soundtracks-songs-about-movies

Cinelist’s 50 Songs about movies, moviestars:  http://cinelists.blogspot.com/2013/04/50-pop-songs-about-movies-movie-stars.html

MOVIE CASTING

Scott McGrath — Robert Downey, Jr.

Nora — Anna Kendrick

Hopper — Alex Pettyfer

Ashley — Shailene Woodley or Lily Collins

Have fun reading and sweet dreams!

Image:  Beverly Brown designer, beverlybrown.com

Simply Beautiful: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

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     On the rugged, Mediterranean coast of Italy, a land of five towns clings stunningly to the edge of the cliffs;  accessible only by boat, offering fresh seafood pulled daily from the Ligurian sea by men whose families have done the same for centuries and a hiding place from the modern world, the Cinque Terre seems just the place for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to have sought refuge during the filming of Cleopatra in Rome.  In Jess Walter’s sumptuous novel Beautiful Ruins, they do just this.  And the tale of the IT couple’s visit to Porto Vergogna, a lonely innkeeper, a starlet, star-crossed lovers, a wannabe screenwriter (whose big concept is “Donner!,” a movie about the Donner party,) a nauseating Hollywood producer and fifty years of frustrated confusion make the novel one of my top five reads.

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    According to Jess Walter’s website (jesswalter.com), Beautiful Ruins has been recognized by just about everyone as one of the novels of the year 2012:

*Esquire’s Best book of 2012
*NPR-Fresh Air best Novel of 2012
*Audible and Salon best audio book of 2012
*New York Times Notable Book of the Year
*Washington Post Notable Book of the Year
*In UK, Guardian, Times and Sunday Times Best Books of the Year
*Best books of the year: Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, San Francisco Chronicle, Miami Herald, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, St. Louis Today, Kansas City Star, Goodreads, Hudsons, Barnes and Noble, Amazon

Read the NYT review here:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/books/review/beautiful-ruins-a-novel-by-jess-walter.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

   From the first sentence, the reader is immersed in the world of the book.

     The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly — in a boat that motored into the cover, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pit.  She wavered a moment in the boat’s stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing; with the other, she pressed a wide-brimmed hat against her head.  All around her, shards of sunlight broke on the flickering waves.

     Twenty meters away, Pasquale Tursi watched the arrival of the woman as if in a dream.  Or rather, he would think later, a dream’s opposite:  a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep.

     How Pasquale Tursi (proprietor of the ingeniously-named “Hotel Adequate View”) winds up in the office of Hollywood producer Michael Deane some fifty years later must be left to the reader’s own enjoyment.  I won’t spoil a second of it.  I just want to feature one more passage from the book, which I read and re-read and it still makes me snort with laughter.

     The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed.  After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell injections, that have caused a seventy-two-year-old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl.BeautifulRuins_small-330-exp

     Suffice it to say that, upon meeting Michael for the first time, many people stare open-mouthed, unable to look away from his glistening, vaguely lifeline face.  Sometimes they cock their head to get a better angle, and Michael mistakes their morbid fascination for attraction, or respect or surprise that someone his age could look this good, and it is this basic misunderstanding that causes him to be even more aggressive in fighting the aging process.

     The novel is now available in paperback and I urge you to read it.  Right now.  Read it yourself.  Add it to your book club’s reading list (for next month), recommend it to everyone you know.  It’s just that good.

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My book club read this book in December and in order to tie the holidays and the book together, I presented the Italian Christmas Feast of the Seven Fishes.  You may want to go a bit simpler, but this is what I did, all accompanied by some beautiful Italian wines, of course.

1.  Bruschetta with anchovies (lots of these recipes on foodnetwork.com)

2.  Fried calamari (I ordered this)

3.  Artichoke and shrimp dip

4.  Potatoes topped with caviar and sour creme

5.  Cioppino

6.  Linguine with white clam sauce (I use the recipe on the can of clams!)

7.  Smoked salmon on toast points with cream cheese, capers, diced onions

Artichoke & Shrimp Dip:  1 cup of mayonnaise, 1 cup of parmesan cheese, 1 can of artichoke hearts and 1 cup of baby shrimp.  Put all in mixing bowl, mix until well blended.  Place dip in appropriate size baking dish and bake at 350 for 20 minutes or so, until hot and bubbly.

Potatoes:  Boil small potatoes until tender.  Scoop out top, leaving skin on.  Top with sour cream and a spoonful of caviar.

Cioppino:  Heat 1/3 cup olive oil in a large stockpot.  Add 2 chopped medium potatoes, 2 carrots, peeled and chopped, 1 onion chopped and 2 garlic cloves, chopped.  Season with salt and cook on medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until vegetables are tender.  Then turn the heat to high, add 3/4 cup dry dry Italian Pinot Grigio and deglaze pan, leaving brown bits in.  Cook until most of liquid evaporates.  Add 1 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes, 1 cup water and 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes.  Reduce the heat to a simmer.  Cook and cover until the vegetables are tender.  After about 20 minutes, add 1 1/2 pounds of skinless white fish such as halibut, cod or char, cut into 3/4 inch chunks.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until cooked through.  Season the stew with salt to taste then drizzle with olive oil and serve.  (Adapted from Giada at Home cookbook by Giada de Laurentiis)

MUSIC

There’s a Cleopatra soundtrack from the 1963 movie with Taylor and Burton available on iTunes that would be really fun.  https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/cleopatra-original-motion/id62874833

If you are doing the book with the Seven Fishes at Christmas, you could also do a Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra Christmas album.

MOVIE

A movie is in the works and casting has actually begun.  http://variety.com/2013/film/news/imogen-poots-todd-field-beautiful-ruins-1200821017/  Imogene Poots will play Dee, the American ingenue.  But apparently the rest of the cast hasn’t been announced, or at least I couldn’t find it.

May I suggest:

Claire Silver:  Emily Blunt

Shane Wheeler:  Garrett Hedlund

Pasquale:  I hereby volunteer to go to Italy and conduct the casting search.

Michael Deane:  OH MY this is too fun.  Who to cast in this role?  You know, Tom Cruise did such a great job with this type of character in Tropic Thunder, it would be fun to see him in this type of role.  You absolutely couldn’t cast someone in their seventies — I don’t think.  Michael Douglas?  Bruce Willis?  I would have to go though with Danny DeVito I think.

   In conclusion, oh dear friends, DO READ this book.  You will adore it.

Cheers!

Dominating the Puzzle: Dominance by Will Lavender

Harvard

     There must be something about small, New England colleges that inspire literary minds.  Maybe its the snow.  Or maybe I’m just on a New England college streak.  But I’ve read several novels recently set in the cold, (often-bleak) world of New England’s bastions of higher learning:  Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, My Education by Susan Choi (UGH, by the way), The Red Book by Deborah Copagen Kogen (another “no”), A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams, Mary McCarthy’s The Group.  I’ve run across all of these within the past six months, and enjoyed some more than others, but none of them caused me to take notes fervently and stay up all night reading like Will Lavender’s Dominance.

In 1994, Alexandra Shipley is Dr. Richard Aldiss’ star student.  Aldiss, a brilliant literary professor, entrances Alexandra and her eight classmates who are enrolled in a very special night class.  So special, the nine students have been hand-picked and approved by Aldiss and Jasper College’s Dean Fisk in order to meet once a week, at night, in a basement where their professor is beamed into class via television.  This is a necessity, as Dr. Aldiss is in prison for two murders.

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This man’s face was harder, its lines deeper.  He was in fact wearing a simple orange jumpsuit, the number that identified him barely hidden beneath the bottom edge of the screen.  The V of his collar dipped low to reveal the curved edge of a faded tattoo just over his heart.  Although the students didn’t know this, the tattoo was of the thumb-shaped edge of a jigsaw puzzle piece.

The professor’s eyes seemed to pulse.  Sharp, flinty eyes that betrayed a kind of dangerous intelligence.  The second the students saw him there was a feeling not of surprise, not of cold shock, but rather of This, then.  This is who he is.  One girl sitting toward the back whispered, “God, I didn’t know he was so . . .”  And then another girl, a friend sitting close by, finished, “Sexy.”

Indeed.  Sexy is as sexy does, so they say.  And Aldiss takes every advantage of his looks, his mental acuity and his innate, preternatural powers of observation to do sexy.  He begins the night class with the question:  “What is literature?”  A question Alexandra echoes at the outset of teaching her own course, at Harvard (no less), a decade or so later.  After Alex has freed Aldiss from captivity by discovering the real killer and become somewhat of both a literary star and police heroine by doing so.

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     Alex has lost touch with her fellow night class students in the intervening years, but they have gone on to unique and varied lives.  An insane asylum warden, a police officer, a goth soccer mom, an alcoholic actor and a failing writer among them.  And then there’s Alex’s college flame, now a high school football coach and English teacher.  At the outset of Dominance, the students are brought back together, a la Agatha Christie, in Dean Fisk’s creaky mansion to attend the memorial service of one of the nine who has committed suicide.  Once all are gathered, a series of deaths begin among them which may or may not be copycats of the murders of which Aldiss was convicted (and then freed).  And may or may not be related to the very strange novels of the very strange writer Paul Fallows.

Dominancehttp://www.amazon.com/Dominance-Novel-Will-Lavender-ebook/dp/B004G8QTSY/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1408042935&sr=8-2&keywords=Dominance

This is a great, compelling, want-to-figure-out, can’t-believe-it-ended-that-way novel.  Read it!  But start on a Friday night.

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Professor Aldiss prepares a seductive dinner for Alexandra that includes “stewed hare and exotic vegetables” and red wine.  So … I did a little research trying to find a recipe for stewed hare.  And apparently, hare, which is different than rabbit, is only available in the US if you shoot it yourself.  Which I am unlikely to do.  (But I can envision Professor Aldiss potentially strangling some with his bare hands.)  If you want to try the hare, or just learn more about why Hank Shaw at Hunter–Angler-Gardner-Cook is such a fan, here’s a link to his blog with the recipe.  http://honest-food.net/2010/02/11/hare-stew-hard-times/

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But I myself, to avoid all Bugs Bunny/Glenn Close associations, I would go with something else.  Maybe this Wild Game Stew recipe from my cookbook, Appalachian Home Cooking, by Mark Sohn.   For this, you can use beef, lamb, venison, bear (really? Bear?), elk, wild hogs or buffalo.  Here’s the recipe:

1 1/2 pounds of meat, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

3 cups water (I would use 1.5 cups water and 1.5 cups red wine)

1 pound cubed potatoes

1/2 pound carrots, scraped and cut

1/2 pound turnips, peeled, quartered and cut into 1 inch pieces

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Brown the meat over medium-high heat in a large saucepan.  Add the liquid and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat, cover the saucepan and simmer the meat for 1 hour.  Add the vegetables and seasoning.  Simmer, covered, until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.

Exotic vegetables.  Hmmmm.  Wondering if that’s artichoke or Chopped-level exotic?  Since I have the Appalachian cookbook open, and this sounds like it would be great together, how about Cushaw Casserole?  I LOVE Cushaw but it is such a difficult vegetable to peel that most people don’t bother.  The following is my own recipe:

Peel the cushaw neck, leaving it whole if possible and then cut it into 1/4 inch think rounds.  Boil a large pot full of water and place several rounds at a time in the water, just until they soften when pricked with a fork.  Cover the bottom of a buttered baking dish with the rounds and then add heavy cream to cover about halfway up the side of the cushaw, brown sugar and dot with butter.  Bake at 350 for 25 minutes.

With the cushaw, you won’t need a dessert.  But you might want a salad and some good bread or warm rolls to go with the stew.

THIS is making me hungry.

MUSIC

The perfect album for this book club meeting is one my mother has handed down to me that she played when I was little.  It’s all piano music by Ferrante and Teicher on an album called “Moonlight in Vermont.”  Dreamy, chilly and beautifully sensual.  But the album is so hard to find, I can only find that one song on a Christmas album.  So go with Rachmaninoff.  Complex, intellectual, driven.

MOVIE CASTING

Alexandra:  Claire Danes

Professor Aldiss:  Richard Gere is kind of the obvious choice here, but I’d love to see Dennis Quaid or Pierce Brosnan

Jacob Keller (the football coach):  Jason Segal

Christian Kane (the writer):  Bradley Cooper

Frank Marsden (the actor):  James Marsden

Melissa Lee:  Kristen Wiig

Cheers!

The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

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Madame Zen a legendary and mysterious Russian perfumer who lived and worked in Paris, created Lanvin’s famous My Sin perfume, among others. Kathleen Tessaro’s character Madame Zed in her novel The Perfume Collector is, according to Tessaro, based on “a fistful of facts” surrounding the real perfumer. Thus, Madame Zed is both at the heart of and absent from The Perfume Collector.

In The Perfume Collector, Madame Zed launches at least one of the careers of Eva d’Orsay and also holds the secrets to Grace Munroe’s past.  She is the both the top note and base note in the novel, to employ the perfume phrase.

Eva D’Orsay works in the Warwick Hotel in New York City in 1927.  Grace Munroe is an unhappily married former debutante in England circa 1955.  When Eva dies at the opening of the book, she leaves specific instructions to dispense a plane ticket to Grace for her travel to Paris to collect an inheritance that includes a luxurious apartment, stock portfolio and a box of cheap, glass tchotches.  Grace has never met Eva, has no idea who she is or why Eva would leave her an inheritance with the bequest that Grace be able to “choose for herself.”

warwick       The setting in the Warwick Hotel certainly appealed to me, as it’s one of my favorite places in New York, both to stay and just to stop into the bar for a drink.  I always expect to see Carey Grant right around the corner.  Tessaro said in an interview with the Keep Calm and Read a book blog:  “I researched and used the Warwick Hotel in New York City, which has the kind of glamorous history that embodied the extravagant, wildly optimistic spirit of the age. Built in 1925 by William Randolph Hearst, it catered to the needs of his Hollywood friends and especially his mistress, Ziegfeld Follies, and screen star Marion Davies, who had her own specially designed floor. It was always a show business hotel and so was from the outset, was accustomed to dealing with outrageous and larger than life characters. It was also the New York home of Carey Grant for twelve years.”

https://keepcalmandreadabook.wordpress.com/tag/kathleen-tessaro/

   So between New York in the Roaring Twenties and Paris at the height of Dior’s New Look and post-war euphoria, the setting of The Perfume Collector are marvelous.  And there’s a mystery at the heart of the book, that even once you have solved, keeps you turning the pages for a bit more information.

   But to me, the most appealing element of the novel are the descriptions of the perfume creations:

My Sin, the label read, in gold lettering.

Very carefully she opened it, holding the gold stopper to her nose.  Up wafted the intense floral top notes of narcissus and freesia, warming to a dark, almost animal muskiness.  It was intoxicatingly beautiful and, at the same time, dangerous, with jarring hidden depths.

My Sin has been discontinued, alas.  And from what I can find, the perfume named Aureole Noire by its creator Monsieur Valmont has never actually existed.

Bright, icy clear and yet tender at the same time — built on the original idea of contrasting states that had inspired him with rain.  Top notes of velvety violet leaves, luxurious white flowers and light geranium, warmed to fiery depths, created from ambers resins, smoky wood and smoldering dry citrus leaves.  Underlying does of ouhd and ambergris lent it a melting, shifting quality; metamorphosing from an apparition of pure light, to a burning dark core and back again.  It was a scent that lacked coyness, made no concessions to charm.  Like standing on the edge of a great and terrifying cliff, it was shocking, beautiful, sublime.

napoleon

  The novel is a swift, pleasant, escapist journey that transports the reader through exotic places and scents and times without requiring much effort from her.

  While writing this post, I found a beautiful blog on perfumes with reviews, history, and even personalized recommendations.  http://boisdejasmin.com.  You might want to check that out.

MENU

Salade Nicoise

Use Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa recipe.  We had this at book club recently and it was the most popular dish ever served.  Our hostess mounded the salmon and vegetables on a beautiful platter and made the dressing easily available for us to serve ourselves.  Heaven!  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/roasted-salmon-nicoise-platter-recipe.html

Crusty French bread (buy it)

A French wine, perhaps a white Burgundy, Macon-Villages

For dessert, beautiful French chocolates

MUSIC

Josephine Baker is a must.  Blue Skies, Bye Bye Blackbird

American in Paris, Leonard Bernstein

Soundtrack from Gigi

MOVIE CASTING

Madame Zed:  Shirley MacLaine

Eva D’Orsay:  Shailene Woodley

Grace Munroe:  Natalie Portman

Andre Valmont:  Chris Colfer

Roger Munroe:  Benedict Cumberbatch

Monsieur Tissot:  Jean DuJardin

Enjoy!

*Vintage Lanvin ad, postcard of the Warwick Hotel