Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

TescoFriday night is Eleanor Oliphant’s favorite night of the week. She  takes the bus home from her low-paying office job in a Glasgow ad agency, buys a Tesco pizza and two bottles of Vodka and then settles in at her apartment for a long weekend of public television, nature documentaries, and mental fuzziness.

And Eleanor is fine with that. Really fine. Really, she is.

“Some people, weak people, fear solitude. What they fail to understand is that there’s something very liberating about it; once you realize that you don’t need anyone, you can take care of yourself. That’s the thing: it’s best just to take care of yourself.”

Since she moved into her solo apartment nearly a decade ago, Eleanor has had few guests. A total of two in fact. The meter reader and a social worker who checks on her about once a month. That is fine with Eleanor as well . . . until the night she encounters rock star-wannabe Johnnie Lomond who immediately impresses her as the type of man her mother would find acceptable because he buttons the lower button of his vest while performing in a local music venue.2016-05-24-1464091272-8813709-bookbinderrockstar

I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor – I’m Eleanor Oliphant. I don’t need anyone else – there’s no big hole in my life, no missing part of my own particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity. That’s what l’ve always told myself, at any rate. But last night I’d found the love of my life. When I saw him walk on stage, I just knew…here, at long last, was a man who could be described with some degree of certainty as “husband material”.

I listened to the audible.com version of this book and enjoyed it immensely. Cathleen McCarron’s narration spooned the words and voice of author Gail Honeyman’s character. Hearing Honeyman’s words in McCarron’s voice I felt I knew Eleanor, even as she said once again exactly what she thought, leaving her colleagues speechless or collapsing in laughter,

Once Eleanor spies Johnnie Lomond she embarks on a no-holds barred makeover attempt. New haircut, new wardrobe, adding some make-up, and making a new friend: Raymond, from the ad company’s IT department. She found — to her surprise — these small changes reaped some rewards that she actually enjoyed.

“It turned out that if you saw the same person with some degree of regularity, then the conversation was immediately pleasant and comfortable—you could pick up where you left off, as it were, rather than having to start afresh each time. . . . Was this how it worked, then, successful social integration? Was it really that simple? Wear some lipstick, go to the hairdressers and alternate the clothes you wear?”

When Raymond and Eleanor encounter an older gentlemen in medical distress after one of their lunches, Raymond begins introducing Eleanor to lunches outside the office. Parties. Tea with his own mother. The internet becomes Eleanor’s tool to spy on Johnnie Lomond, read his tweets (hilariously narcissistic), see his Instagram posts all while plotting the first meeting that will lead inevitably to the couple’s long-term wedded bliss. It doesn’t, of course, work out that way which leads to Eleanor’s finding out she’s in fact not fine, not fine at all. Which is exactly when things become really interesting.

Gail HoneymanEleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a debut novel by a post-40 year old author. Gail Honeyman worked in the British Civil Service and as a university administrator writing her debut novel during lunch and after work. She entered Eleanor in a fiction competition, didn’t win, but an agent signed her and the novel became the subject of a bidding war,  was named 2017 Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, and the film rights have been optioned by Reese Witherspoon.  Talk about a Cinderella story.Oliphant

 

So deserving.

Your book club will adore it.

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Eleanor’s preferred weekend meals are Tesco frozen pizzas and vodka. She prepares pesto pasta for dinner each night because it tastes good, it’s easy and it fulfills her nutritional requirements. At the pub she frequents with Raymond she becomes enamored of frothy coffee and cheese scones. She orders “Magner’s” frequently when she becomes more a part of social events, at the suggestion of a bartender. I’d never heard of Magner’s but it is an Irish hard cider. It looks to be available in the US so I would serve Magner’s with cheese scones.

Here’s a recipe for classic British cheese scones: https://www.thespruceeats.com/easy-classic-british-cheese-scone-recipe-434867

I would also serve pizza. One of my favorite things to do with pizza is to buy pre-made pizza crusts, then place an array of toppings out for people to make their own favorite. Pepperoni, turkey pepperoni, mozzarella, fresh basil, shrimp, parmesan, artichokes, spinach, baked chicken, a jar of roasted red peppers. Your guests get to have exactly what they like and have fun making them together.

MUSIC

Definitely some Scottish bands. The Proclaimers, Simple Minds, Big Country.

The standard which our Johnnie Lomond will never meet. Alas.

MOVIE CASTING

Dear Reese: I really hope you don’t transfer this story to Rupert Grintthe U.S. The Glaswegian character of the novel should be preserved.

That being said, please cast British actors! My suggestions:

Eleanor: Sophie McShera, a Scottish

Sophie_McShera_May_2014_(cropped)actress, and fan favorite Daisy from Downton Abbey

Raymond: Rupert Grint, our man Ron Weasley of Harry Potter fame

Happy Reading!

 

 

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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!

The Freedom Broker by K.J. Howe

tomb raider       eartha kitt       Athina-Onassis-aristoteles-onassis-34494050-450-340

Thea Paris, the clever, action-packed protagonist of K.J. Howe’s thrill-a-minute debut novel The Freedom Broker, is sort of a cross between Tomb Raider, Catwoman, and Athina Onassis. Her father is a Greek oil magnate, she’s special ops trained and apparently, a vixen in high heels. Her only weakness: she’s diabetic and doesn’t want anyone to know, which can be problematic when you are one globe-trotting, kidnap-victim-rescuing, corporate-negotiating, rock-of-the-family babe.

KJSeriously, nearly every page of The Freedom Broker has some mortal danger on it. K.J.  Howe, a fabulous writer, world-traveler and adventurer in her own right, is the Executive Director of ThrillerFest, an annual gathering of several hundred international thriller writers. It’s not surprising K.J.’s first book is such a great read.

[Thea] tapped her smartphone to call up her glucose reading: 105. Monitor batteries fully charged. Perfect. Nothing could screw up a mission more than low blood sugar. She slipped her phone into her tactical vest beside her glucagon kit. Rif was still watching her as she adjusted her vest, and she wondered if he knew. She’d done her best to keep her condition a secret, but he didn’t miss much. It probably wouldn’t change anything, but she didn’t want anyone on the team thinking she wasn’t up to the job.

The pilot’s voice crackled in her earpiece: “Three minutes to touchdown.”

“Roger that. We’re green here.”

The stormy sky hid the second helicopter from view. Thea wiped her damp palms on her fatigues. Rain rattled on the chopper’s fuselage, and the turbulence unsettled her stomach. Flying had never been her strong suit. The poor visibility would allow them to fly in under the radar, but the cloying humidity and heat could degrade the chopper’s performance. They’d reduced its fuel load to stay as light as possible, but that left only a minimal buffer if they ran into problems.

Rif shifted to face Brown and Johansson. “Okay boys, let’s grab this Oil Eagle.”

Thea and Rif, childhood friends, are part of a private military-style organization that rescues kidnap/hostages when governments do not, cannot, or will not. But after rescuing the oilman in The Freedom Broker’s opening sequence, Thea and her team have to find the one hostage she can barely begin to think about: her father.

I met K.J. at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat a couple of years ago, and I was able to persuade her to answer a few questions for daeandwrite readers.

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There are some fabulous champagne-drenched parties detailed in The Freedom Broker. According to K.J. Howe, Thea Paris’ favorite food is “baklava, but she has to watch her carbs because of her type 1 diabetes.”

I’ve never made baklava, but I’ve tried making some dessert using phyllo dough and I’m going to go to the bakery on this one. I lack Thea’s courage.

MUSIC

From KJ: “I listened to Gavin DeGraw’s Soldier, as it reminded me of the relationship between Thea and Rif.  In the childhood scenes from Nikos point-of-view, I listened to K’Naan’s Waving Flag.  That song gives me chills.”
My Playlist
Soldier, Gavin DeGraw
Waving Flag, K’Naan
Akon, K’Naan
Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Graceland, Paul Simon
freedom broker
MOVIE CASTING
K.J. shared her ideal cast — here’s hoping you get that sale of The Freedom Broker‘s movie rights, friend!
Mehgan Heaney-Grier is an incredible talent, and I see her as Thea.  Mehgan holds the world record for free diving, 165 feet.  Would love Phillip Winchester as Rif, Rupert Friend (plays Peter Quinn on Homeland, brilliant actor) as Nikos, and Selma Hayek for Gabrielle.
I predict The Freedom Broker will be one of summer’s hottest beach reads. Happy Reading!

Idaho, by Emily Ruskovich

Visit-Idaho-Logo-Blue

Books recommended by people who love books always seem to be among my favorite reads. Especially when the person who recommends is also a writer whose work I enjoy and appreciate. That happened with Idaho, Iowa Writers Workshop grad Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel.

Sarah Combs, author of Breakfast Served Anytime [https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/06/11/with-a-side-of-warm-southern-wit-please-breakfast-served-anytime-by-sarah-combs/]  and The Light Fantastic, raved about Idaho during a writing workshop. So I picked it up on audible.

Audible is great. It allows me to “read” novels while traveling between home and work and on those long distance rides to various cases across the state. But sometimes, and I suspect this is one of them, I don’t experience the fullness of the language as I would have in the written version.

Idaho begins in 2004. Ann and Wade live on a mountain in Idaho. They are alone and self-sufficient. Ann, a former music teacher, has her piano and Wade his work, crafting hand-hewn handles for knives. Ann worries about Wade’s hereditary and increasingly-apparent early-Alzheimers (he is only mid-50s). And she worries about the tragedy.

truckNine years ago, when Wade was still married to Jenny and both of his daughters were still alive, a mouse had crawled along the top of the truck’s exhaust pipe into the engine compartment and built its nest on the manifold. She thinks of how strange it is that Wade probably remembers that mouse, remembers the sound of it skittering under the hood, and yet he’s forgotten his first wife’s name. Or so it seems sometimes. But the mouse — the mouse is very much alive in his memory.

A few years after Ann and Wade married, Ann found a pair of deerskin gloves in a toolbox high on a shelf in a closet. They were much nicer than the work gloves Wade usually wore, and seemed to be brand new except for the odor of something burned. That was how she learned about the mouse in the first place. She asked why he kept the gloves in the closet instead of using them. Wade told her that he wanted to preserve the smell.

What smell is that?

The smell of a rodent’s nest that caught fire.

The last smell in his daughter’s hair.

According to her website, Ruskovich grew up on Hoodoo Mountain in the Idaho Panhandle. I think anyone who grows up on a mountain named Hoodoo would have to have a great imagination. She knows the territory of which she writes. The isolating, bitter winters of unremitting snow, the miraculous spring of flowers, flies, and sunshine.

With Idahoshe writes a story of one day and many decades. Her perspective moves from Ann to Jenny to Wade, to May and June — Jenny and Wade’s daughters, to Elliott — one of Ann’s students. We learn early on that Jenny, during a family outing to cut and clear timber, has killed her six-year old daughter May, striking her with an axe. June, then 11, runs away terrified and cannot be found. From this crucible, the novel moves forward with Jenny into prison, with Wade into dementia, with Ann who serves as surrogate for what the reader wants to know — why would Jenny do such a thing to her own child.

But, as multiple reviews have noted, that’s not what Idaho is about. From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Idaho novelOstensibly it’s a novel about a tragedy — young mother Jenny inexplicably kills her daughter May with a hatchet, while older daughter June vanishes into the woods. Refusing to explain her actions, Jenny is charged with murder and sent to prison. Wade, her grief-stricken husband, is punishingly alone, struggling until he eventually marries Ann, the local piano teacher.

You might think that the primary focus of the book is going to be a business-as-usual exploration of why Jenny killed May, or where June is and how they find her. But this novel is much more interested in a deeper, more haunting meditation on love, loss, forgiveness, time and memory.

Ruskovich’s website includes some thoughtful questions should your book club choose to read Idaho. I’ll add this one, from Sarah and me: what do you think Ruskovich intended with the two short passages, opposing but parallel, where Wade and Jenny encounter help from a childless older couple and where Ann seeks help from a family but doesn’t receive it?

Here’s the link to Ruskovich’s questions: http://www.emilyruskovich.com/book-club-questions/.

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Another disadvantage of audible, I don’t have the opportunity to book mark passages with food. I do recall Wade, Jenny, May and June were drinking lemonade on the day of May’s death. Ann visited a farm specializing in ostrich products. Limited menu available from my memories, but I would serve:

Pink Lemonade Limoncello

Equal parts Vodka and Limoncello, splash of cranberry juice, sour mix and lemonade. Shake over ice.

Potatoes

Definitely something potato. I checked out the Idaho Potato Commission website and these Herb-Roasted Oven Fries look good: https://idahopotato.com/recipes/herb-roasted-idaho-potato-fries

Ostrich Steaks

I love ostrich meat. It’s lean, healthy and delicious.

Sautéed Ostrich Fillets with Green Peppercorn
Pre-heat pan to HOT. Add 2 TBS. of olive oil and a generous sprinkling of green peppercorns. Sear one side of the fillet for 2 minutes, turn fillet and cover the pan and turn off the heat and let rest for 4 minutes.

For dessert the best I can come up with is either black and white cookies from the store or these black and white cookie bars. For Jenny. In prison. http://www.bakeorbreak.com/2015/06/black-and-white-cookie-bars/

MUSIC

Ann is a piano teacher, in fact, she meets Wade when he comes to her for lessons. Music is at the crux of this novel, but it is not music that I can find reference to. As a substitute, I would find some folk songs on piano.

MOVIE CASTING

Ann           Rachel Weisz

Jenny        Jennifer Aniston

Wade        Dennis Quaid

Elizabeth Kristen Stewart

Happy Reading!

 

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

220px-Abraham_Lincoln_by_Byers,_1858_-_crop

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 leave 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, earth-bound 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 in the bardo and how long they may have to wait, but none other than a reverend who ran away from his own judgment day seem to have any awareness of his or her own state; that is “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 stimulating concept in these days of fake news.

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 body of 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!

Emma, A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith

Emma

As much as I love Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet — and particularly Mr. Darcy — it may very well be, if I am quite honest, that I, myself, have more in common with Emma Woodhouse. Miss Austen’s Emma is — a “spoilt, self-deluded” (The Guardian), “altruistic, but self-absorbed” (Time), controlling, opinionated, and kind (Me) young woman living in a small rural community with her chronically-neurotic, hypochondriac father. I like Emma. And despite her penchant for getting in her own way, or perhaps because of it, I find Emma quite charming.

I feel I must not be alone. “Emma” has ranked in the top five of girl’s names bestowed at Emma Gellerbirth in the United States since 2002. However, that is much more likely to the birth of Emma Geller Green on April 4, 2002, to Ross and Rachel of Friends. But where did they get the name? I ask you. (Friends-o-philes know that Monica chose the name first and Rachel stole it. But Monica must’ve gotten it from Miss Austen!)

As part of HarperCollins’ Austen Project, where modern writers have been tasked with rewriting Jane Austen’s novels, The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency author Alexander McCall Smith has rewritten Emma. This Emma, A Modern Retelling is the fourth of the Austen Project novels released, but only the second I’ve read. Eligible!, by Curtis Sittenfeld, is most recent and I loved it. In fact, my book club is reading Eligible! on my recommendation this month. Here’s the link to my review of Eligible! https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/eligible-by-curtis-sittenfeld/

Emma, The Modern Retelling, treads quite softly on Austen’s hallowed ground. Really, all minicooperthat Smith has changed significantly is the century. Emma herself, living alone with her father, is as recognizable as a beloved teddy bear. George Knightley is his same lovable self, though a bit reticent; Harriet Smith, Philip Elton, Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill. All is so much the same, one is quite shocked when a MiniCooper appears. Even Emma’s slight of Miss Bates finds a modernish interpretation:

Then there was Miss Bates. Emma felt a sudden tug of conscience and told herself that she must make more of an effort with Miss Bates; she must give her a bit more of her time. It would be easy enough; all she had to do was to call on her now and then – Miss Bates was always in – and give her a present of those violet creams that she liked so much but obviously could no longer afford. Miss Bates, she assumed, divided her life between the violet-cream days – before she was an unsuccessful Lloyd’s Name – and the days in which violet creams were just a distant memory. Lloyd’s Names had suffered in many different ways – being deprived of violet creams was just one way in which financial disaster brought hardship. Poor Miss Bates – and there she was sitting next to James, who was being so kind to her, as he was to everybody, whatever his or her failings.

I enjoyed McCall Smith’s Emma . . . but not as much as I enjoy reading and rereading Miss Austen’s original. Indeed, at the conclusion of the “Modern Retelling,” I wondered what the point of it was? There were no updates to plot, character, setting and even the minor changes to things like occupation and schooling (and a sperm donor in lieu of illegitimacy) did not have any significant impact. In her review for the New York Times, Leah Price said:

Emma bookMcCall Smith’s “Emma,” in contrast, reads like a too literal translation. His reluctance to alter now anachronistic details ­forces him to spend pages explaining why, in an age of universal schooling, Emma would have a governess, and why, at a time when overscheduling afflicts even the erstwhile leisure class, she wouldn’t have a job.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/books/review/emma-a-modern-retelling-by-alexander-mccall-smith.html

Emma, A Modern Retelling, is an easy read, enjoyable. But unlike Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible! which gives Pride & Prejudice a true modernity, McCall Smith’s Emma doesn’t have much point.

For information on the other Austen rewrites: http://www.boroughpress.co.uk/?s=Austen+

MENUMM-sign-Rural-capital-etc

McCall Smith provides several menus from which to choose for your book club.

“Parma ham laid out on a plate with asparagus spears and quails’ eggs” served at Emma’s first memorable dinner party.

Melton Mowbray pies — which is, according Wikipedia, made from “uncured meat, grey in colour when cooked; the meat is chopped, rather than minced. The pie is made with a hand-formed crust, giving the pie a slightly irregular shape after baking. As the pies are baked free-standing, the sides bow outwards, rather than being vertical as with mould-baked pies.” Personally, I would skip those.

The Oak Tree Inn’s blackboard lunch menu of “potted shrimps, steak and kidney pie, sticky toffee pudding.”

And of course, the violet creams, Emma’s gift to Miss Bates. Available for order from Fortnum & Mason or on Amazon. Or if you are a courageous candy-maker, here’s a recipe link: http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/violet-creams.

MUSIC

Emma is playing Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies on the piano when George Knightley arrives for a visit with Mr. Woodhouse. Mr. Woodhouse describes the music — in one of my favorite lines in the book — as “the sort of thing a spider would play if spiders played the piano.”

She also plays Beethoven’s Fur Elise.

And Jane Fairfax is, of course, even more of a talented pianist. She is compared to Bach.

MOVIE CASTING

Emma — Felicity Jones might make a fine Emma. Or Emma Watson.

Harriet Smith — Imogene Poots

Jane Fairfax — Scarlett Byrne

George Knightley — Henry Cavill

Philip Elton — Alex Pettyfer

Frank Churchill — Sam Claflin

So there you have it. Read Emma one way or another.

Happy Reading!

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SweetBitter by Stephanie Danler

waiters

Stephanie Danler’s restaurant bildungsroman SweetBitter hit at exactly the right time to garner big buzz (Vogue, Vanity Fair, The Paris Review!) and accolades from the in-the-know literati. SweetBitter, the cautionary tale of a star-struck dreamer who comes to New York City to live her dream by — working as a back server in a fancy restaurant. Yes. Really. Tess, our protagonist, doesn’t want to be an actor or a singer or America’s next top model. She doesn’t really know what she wants to be. Just “SOMETHING” and “IN NEW YORK.” So, she sets out to interview for a busboy position at Famous NY Restaurant in Union Square, the best in the city, and after she’s hired, learns how to flirt with the bad boy, reject the good boy, drink till dawn, do drugs, be a pawn in someone else’s game of chess, get taken advantage of, take advantage of, and brown nose the important guests, among other things.

According to author Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune Restaurant in New York, who reviewed SweetBitter for the New York Times “This is the dead-on collective mind matter of the current youth of our tribe. Restaurant is and always will be a young person’s game, but the busboys these days have more in common with the class they serve than ever before.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/books/review/sweetbitter-by-stephanie-danler.html?_r=0

Daffy_duck_cartoom_wallpaper-normal5.4

“Picking up,” I said, harder, hands outstretched, ready.

It was all one motion. The roasted half duck had been in the window for going on five minutes while it waited for the risotto, the plate baking. At first, as with all burns, I felt nothing. I reacted in anticipation. When the plate shattered and the duck thudded clumsily on the mats, I cried out, pulling my hand to my chest, caving.

Chef looked at me. He had never really seen me before.

“Are you kidding me?” he asked. Quiet. All the line cooks, butchers, prep guys, pastry girls watched me.

“I burned myself.” I held out my palm, already streaked with red, as proof.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Louder. A rumbling, then quiet. Even the tickets stopped printing. “Where do you come from? What kind of bullshit TGI Fridays waitresses are they bringing in now? You think that’s a burn? Do you want me to call your mommy?”

“The plates are too hot,” I said. And then I couldn’t take it back.

I stared at his feet, at the mess on the floor. I bent over to pick up the beautifully burnished duck. I thought he might hit me. I flinched, but held it out to him by its leg.

“Are you retarded? Get out of my kitchen. Don’t even think about setting foot in here again. This is a church.” He slammed his hands on the stainless steel in front of him. “A fucking church!”

chefStephanie Danler traverses the seasons of one year in  Tess’s life, just as the kitchen turns to focus on flavors, foods, and menus. I enjoyed SweetBitter’s backstage insight into the kitchen life, the sharing of family meal for staff before the guests arrive, the surreptitious tasting of oysters, truffles, champagne, the late night after work complimentary shift drink for all, the one holiday a year party on New Year’s Day. This was information Anthony Bourdain didn’t reveal in Kitchen Confidential. And Danler has the credentials. I reached out to literary agent Melissa Flashman (a Lexington, KY girl making it good in the Big Apple) of Trident Media, Danler’s agent, who told me Stephanie “worked at Union Square Cafe as well as many other NYT restaurants, bars and a wine shop.”

Danler answered several questions for Vanity Fair, one of which was why use the setting of the very famous Union Square Cafe.

I set it in Union Square not just because that was my first job and my first entryway, but [also because] that restaurant has an ethic and a level of professionalism that is unmatched in New York City. Danny Meyer is a genius and that was his first place.

I could have set it at a more Balthazar-style place, or a more Blue Water Grill–style place, but I wasn’t really looking for that kind of atmosphere. What I found when I went to Union Square Cafe was this group of super-educated, highly creative, ultra-professional servers.

There are places where you clock in, you clock out, and then there are places where you invest emotionally, and I needed a setting where people were investing.

What I didn’t enjoy? Now I know rats are standard residents of every New York City restaurant.

SweetBitter is another in the New York-food genre I’ve been reading lately, perhaps a bit sweetbittercheekier, younger, hipper than The Nest and Modern Lovers, but somewhere on the spectrum. Danler has an MFA from The New School, according to her book jacket, and the prose is clean, tight, clear, well-ordered. Much like a well-run kitchen.

My recommendation: SweetBitter will make a good basis for discussion at your book club. There are men-women issues, generational issues, employer-employee issues, and food. Oh, also, just in passing, did I mention there is wine? Like on every page? Wine, Wine, Wine, Wine, Wine. And the occasional glass of whine.

*Note: I did reach out to Stephanie Danler, hoping for a recipe, a music recommendation, or a private thought. Melissa Flashman sent my email on to her publicist. But seriously, the woman is being interviewed by Vanity Fair, Vogue and Paris Review. Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t responded yet. If she does, I’ll let you know.

MENU

I think we might as well go with the one that dropped on the floor. I don’t know if I can roast a duck, but it sounds like it would be fun to try.

Good, Italian bread

Oysters on the half shell

Roasted Duck. Here’s a good looking recipe from Epicurious.com, one of my go-to websites for cooking. http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/crisp-roast-duck-235744

Risotto

Red wine

Agent Flashman followed up with me to suggest that Stephanie would suggest Campari Soda as a read-with. Sounds delicious.

MUSIC

There’s music throughout SweetBitter but not much of it is familiar to me. I do however love the soundtrack from the movie Chef, downloadable at Amazon and iTunes. That’s what I would play.

MOVIE CAST

Tess — Kiernan Shipke (perfect big budget vehicle for her movie coming out)

Jake — Chris Pine

Simone — Keri Russell

Howard — Matthew McConaughey

Will — Skylar Astin

Happy Reading!