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!

Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett ✎✎✎

boat

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

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

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

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

From Margaret:

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

John:

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

Celia:

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

Alec:

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

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

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

haslett

Adam Haslett

 

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

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

imagine-me-gone

MENU

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

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

MUSIC

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

MOVIE CASTING

John        Jude Law/Ewan McGregor

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

Michael          Andrew Garfield

Celia                Blake Lively

Alec                  John Gallagher, Jr.

Happy Reading!

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead ✎✎✎✎

handcar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preheat oven to 425.

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

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

MUSIC

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

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

 

Christmas in Provence for Cooking for Picasso, by Camille Aubrey

children-in-front-of-fire-with-food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9780399177651MENU

Multiple choices. Among them:

Bouillabaisse

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

Cassoulet

Langostine appetizers

Easter cheesecake

Sole Menieure15492391_10212314007744771_3249963201815225282_n

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

White bean puree

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

Chestnut soup

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

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

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

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

Olive Oil Bread (serve with grape jam)

Butter, for greasing the pan

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

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1/3 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

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

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

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

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

MUSIC

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

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

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The Sport of Kings, C.E. Morgan ✎✎✎

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Horse Racing Neck and Neck, public domain

My mom asked me what book she should recommend for her book club to read. I suggested The Sport of Kings, by Kentucky author C.E. Morgan. I hadn’t read The Sport of Kings, but I like to support local authors, I liked Morgan’s first novel All the Living and I had heard good things about The Sport of Kings. Two weeks later, the founder of my mother’s book club called and asked me to present the book for them.

I soon found myself studying this 500+ novel for themes, plot, structure, style, literary allusions . . . in short, I felt like I was back in my undergrad literary seminar and my grade was just as important! I didn’t want to let down my mom or the women in her group with a presentation on The Sport of Kings.

In the end, the women were lovely, appreciative, and I ended up actually quite enjoying the application of my college student skills.

In this age of twitter, Facebook, goodreads, tumbler, ad nauseum, C.E. Morgan is a c-e-morganthrowback: she’s an author who allows her writing to speak for itself, preferring to keep an exceedingly low profile. If she has a website, I can’t find it. In one of her rare interviews, she does admit to graduating from Berea College in Kentucky and Harvard Divinity School. Her novels are filled with the tones, colors, sights, and sounds of rural Kentucky as well as theological meditations.

I’ve read many of the reviews of The Sport of Kings. The word “sweeping” is used quite a bit. “Generational.” “Epic.” It is all those things and more: long, complex, contrary, palaverous, disturbing, beautiful. My personal theory is that The Sport of Kings is Morgan’s attempt to define Kentucky first, its people second, and the thoroughbred industry third in all of their beautiful cruelty. To do this, she uses individual allegorical characters. Back-to-nature Pen. Salt-of-the-earth-farmer-Jamie. Narcissistic-land-owner-Henry.
equestrienneAt the heart of The Sport of Kings is horse farm owner Henry Forge and his daughter Henrietta. Henry is obsessed with breeding: the perfect horse and the perfect progeny and will go to any length to achieve his goals. Henry believes he’s achieved at least one of his goals with Hellsmouth, a fiery filly. But when a recently released ex-con, Allmon, arrives to work as a groom on Henry’s farm, complications (as they say) ensue.

Morgan’s style ranges from the scientific exploration of equine breeding, to bloated descriptions of natural phenomenon. At various points it takes her two pages to effectively cover one year in Henry Forge’s life and two pages to describe a sunset.

The corn spat him out. His face scraped by the gauntlet, he clutched handfuls of husk and stood hauling air with his hair startled away from his forehead. Here the old land is the old language: The remnants of the county fall away in declining slopes and swales from their property line. The neighbor’s tobacco plants extend as far as the boy can see, so that impossibly varying shades of green seem to comprise the known world, the undulating earth an expanse of green sea dotted only by black-ship tobacco barns, a green so penetrating, it promises a cool, fertile core a mile beneath his feet. In the distance, the fields incline again, slowly rippling upward, a grassed blanket shaken to an uncultivated sky. A line of trees traces the swells on that distant side, forming a dark fence between two farms. The farmhouse roofs are black as ink with their fronts obscured by evergreens, so the world is black and green and black and green without interruption, just filibustering earth. The boy knows the far side of that distant horizon is more of the bright billowing same, just as he knows they had once owned all of this land and more when they came through the Gap and staked a claim, and if they were not the first family, they were close. They were Kentuckians first and Virginians second and Christians third and the whole thing was sterling, his father said. The whole goddamn enterprise.

Truthfully, I found myself often bogged down in the vocabulary at times. But if you slog through these places, the plot holds.

Having now read the book, I do recommend The Sport of Kings but it is with reservation. Make sure your book club has set aside plenty of time to read. This is for book clubs that enjoy more challenging reads.

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There may be food described in the novel, but I wasn’t scouring the pages of The Sport of
Kings
for food references. This is a Kentucky novel, I am a Kentuckian, and I would fix traditional Kentucky food. So my menu would include:

Mint Juleps

Country Ham on Beaten Biscuits

Beer cheese with crackers and celery

Corn Pudding. This is my favorite recipe but there are many. It’s from ShakerTown at Pleasant Hill:

INGREDIENTS

    • 3 tablespoons butter, softened
    • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
    • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 3 whole eggs, slightly beaten
    • 2 cups frozen corn
    • 1 3/4 cups milk

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a large bowl, blend the butter, sugar, flour and salt.
  2. Add the eggs, and beat well with a rotary beater or mixer on low –.
  3. Stir in the corn and milk (if using frozen corn, chop it up a little first to release the milky juices).
  4. Pour the ingredients into a buttered flat 10×6″ casserole and bake at 325* for 45 minutes, stirring once halfway through the baking period.
  5. When done, the pudding will be golden brown on top and a knife inserted in the middle will come out clean.
  6. THIS MIXTURE CAN BE PREPARED AHEAD OF TIME AND KEPT IN THE REFRIGERATOR. STIR WELL, THEN POUR INTO A BAKING DISH AND BAKE AS INSTRUCTED.

Steamed asparagus

“Kentucky pie” aka the pie named after the Run for the Roses which name has now been copyrighted.

Recipes for Mint Juleps and Kentucky pie here: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/the-first-saturday-in-may/

MUSIC

Town & Country offered a Kentucky Derby playlist in 2014 that would work quite well for The Sport of Kings. You can find it here: http://www.townandcountrymag.com/the-scene/parties/a1923/kentucky-derby-party-music/

To their suggestions, I would add:

Run for the Roses, Dan Fogelberg

Blue Moon of Kentucky, Bill Monroe

Kentucky Rain, Elvis Presley

Kentucky Woman, Neil Diamond (I hate it but . . .)

Paradise, John Prine

MOVIE CASTING

Henrietta — Kentucky Girl Jennifer Lawrence, as if the book was written with her in mind

Henry Forge — Matthew McConaughey

Allmon — Jessie Williams

John Henry Forge – Sam Shepard

Happy Reading!

Don’t forget to like this post and share it!

 

 

 

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles ✎✎✎✎✎

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Hotel Metropol

When an author takes the reader in hand, immediately plunging her into a world of scent, sound, touch, sight and taste — a world perhaps familiar but just different enough to intrigue — when a writer can do that and hold your attention through each page, so that you can’t wait to pick the book up again, to reconnect with the author’s time and characters . . . that is as soul-satisfying to me as anything could be.

Thanks to author Amor Towles. He’s accomplished this feat twice, first with The Rules of Civility and now with the recently-released A Gentleman in Moscow. I loved The Rules of Civility so much, I couldn’t wait to read A Gentleman in Moscow, even I couldn’t fathom how a novel set in Moscow during World War II and the Cold War, times and a place that didn’t seem to hold much of fascination, could be riveting. How wrong I was.

It is 1922. The Bolshevik Revolution is holding daily inquisitions into aristocrats and summarily standing them up against a wall and administering a lethal dose of justice via bullet. Count Alexander Rostov finds himself before a tribunal explaining a poem he published years before, which the Bolsheviks consider a call-to-aristocratic-arms. Rostov admits everything and nothing in a genial, good humored, fatalistic manner — a manner the reader will come to know and love over the course of A Gentleman in Moscow.

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Vintage Travel Poster

Somehow, Count Rostov escapes execution. He is, however, sentenced to life imprisonment within the confines of his current residence, the Hotel Metropol located on Theatre Square in central Moscow. According to A Gentleman in Moscow, and Amor Towles’ website, www.amortowles.com, the Metropol was of the same vintage and standards as New York’s Plaza, London’s Claridge’s, and The Ritz in Paris. But Count Rostov is not escorted to his multi-room, luxury suite. Instead, the Bolsheviks lead him to a 100-square-foot room in the attic where he must make do.

He unpacked some trousers and shirts into the back rights corner of his bureau (to ensure that the three-legged beast wouldn’t topple). Down the hall he dragged his trunk, half of his furniture, and all of his father’s books but one. Thus, within an hour he had reduced his room to its essentials: a desk and chair, a bed and bedside table, a high-back chair for guests, and a ten-foot passage just wide enough for a gentleman to circumambulate in reflection.

But there are worlds within the Count’s world, and he finds them with the help of a precocious young lady named Nina who has somehow procured a pass key to all the rooms of the Metropol and uses it to great effect. But the Count finds not only the Metropol’s wine vault, silver room, and lost and found, he also finds love, friendship, and a life far fuller than one would imagine could be found within the confines of one hotel, however luxurious, for more than thirty years.

I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. You and your book club will love it. And the food and music options excellent.

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amor-towles

The author, Amor Towles

My guess is that Amor Towles is a gastronome (though his on-line bio says only “that Mr. Towles is an ardent fan of early 20th century painting, 1950’s jazz, 1970’s cop shows, rock & roll on vinyl, manifestoes, breakfast pastries, pasta, liquor, snow-days, Tuscany, Provence, Disneyland, Hollywood, the cast of Casablanca, 007, Captain Kirk, Bob Dylan (early, mid, and late phases), the wee hours, card games, cafés, and the cookies made by both of his grandmothers”).

HIs descriptions of food, cooking, dining are among the finest in the book. But perhaps there is no way to even compare passages of such beauty ranging from food to literature to philosophy to love. (An aside: this novel is so divine I am ready to re-read it right now.)

Back to a menu — the Hotel Metropol is awash in champagne, brandy, vodka. Towles’ comments are priceless:

“Now, vodka was not the Count’s preferred spirit. In point of fact, despite his love for his country, he rarely drank it.”

“Anyone who has spent an hour drinking vodka by the glass knows that size has surprisingly little to do with a man’s capacity. There are tiny men for whom the limit is seven and giants for whom it is two.”

Some prominent menus:

Vodka and caviar

Whole bass roasted with black olives, fennel and lemon

Osso bucco (“a dish best preceded by a light and lively appetizer”)

A ten scoop ice cream sundae, each scoop a different flavor

Cucumber soup and rack of lamb with red wine reduction

But the piece de resistance for Chef Emile, the Count and maitre d Andrey, is the night when the three conspire to make bouillabaisse; it  has taken them weeks, months even, to acquire all of the ingredients. The author notes 15 ingredients, I can find reference to eight: fennel, two to three fresh oranges, one and a half ounces of saffron, absinthe, haddock, mussels, celery, tomatoes.  I would speculate that onion, garlic, olive oil are involved and potentially herbs of bay and thyme. That still leaves two for discovery, unless Chef Emile (and Author Towles) include salt and pepper.

bouillabaisseAll told, there were fifteen ingredients. Six of them could be plucked from the pantry of the Boyarsky at any time of the year. Another five were readily available in season. The nut of the problem was that, despite the overall improvement in the general availability of goods, the last four ingredients remained relatively rare.

From the outset, it was agreed that there would be no skimping — no shortcuts or substitutions. It was the symphony of silence. So the Triumvirate would have to be patient and watchful. They would have to be willing to beg, barter, collude and if necessary, resort to chicanery. Three times the dream had been within their grasp, only to be snatched away at the last moment by unforeseen circumstances (once by mishap, once by mold, and once by mice.)

But earlier this week, it seemed that the stars were wheeling into alignment once again. With nine elements already in Emile’s kitchen, four whole haddock and a basket of mussels meant for the National Hotel had been delivered to the Metropol by mistake.

. . . At one in the morning, the conspirators took their seats. On the table before them were a single candle, a loaf of bread, a bottle of rose, and three bowls of bouillabaisse.

. . . How to describe it? One first tastes the broth — that simmered distillation of fish bones, fennel, and tomatoes, with their hearty suggestions of Provence. One then savors the tender flakes of haddock and the briny resilience of the mussels, which have been purchased on the docks from the fisherman. One marvels at the boldness of the oranges arriving from Spain and the absinthe poured in the taverns. And all of these various impressions are somehow collected, composed, and brightened by the saffron — that essence of summer sun which, having been harvested in the hills of Greece and packed by mule to Athens, has been sailed across the Mediterranean in a felucca. In other words, with the very first spoonful one finds oneself transported to the port of Marseille — where the streets teem with sailors, thieves, and madonnas, with sunlight and summer, with languages and life.

MUSIC

There’s a bit of a running joke about the song, Yes, We Have No Bananas a tune first made popular in 1923.

Tchaikovsky is mentioned of course, and the Count’s adopted daughter masters Chopin and a Mozart variation or two.

Amor Towles’ website includes a playlist of classics if you want to go that route: http://www.amortowles.com/gentleman-moscow-amor-towles/gentleman-moscow-music/

But the passages that most caught my attention were those of the band rocking the Hotel’s bar with American jazz during the Cold War when foreign correspondents took turns telling tall tales to try to catch the attention of the KGB. Since Mr. Towles expressed a preference for 1950s jazz, that’s what I would play. It fits the celebratory air of A Gentleman in Moscow as well. Here’s a two hour track you can play: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4N1KlyEbazo

MOVIE CASTING

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The Count: Ah, for Cary Grant to be alive to inhabit the shoes of Count Rostov. I can see Michael Fassbender in the role. Eddie Redmaybe. Jude Law. Andrew Garfield maybe?

Anna:  Again, I’m wishing for Rita Hayworth in a non-Rita Hayworth world. Marion Cotillard? Jessica Chastain?

Adult Nina: Emma Watson

The roles are numerous. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Jill had some great casting suggestions that I received via email this morning (1-30-17) and wanted to share: I too have been thinking about the casting for “A Gentleman in Moscow.” What do you think about Alexander (young count) and Stellan (older count) Skarsgård? Also Helen Mirren as the older Anna. I’d love to see the book dramatized as a limited series – like Masterpiece Theater or BBC (are you paying attention, Julian Fellowes?)”

Thanks Jill — great great ideas! I’ll tag Mr. Fellowes, here’s hoping he’s listening.

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Happy Reading!