American as Apples: The Orchardist

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William Talmadge, the orchardist, tends to his apples as if the trees were his children.  It is the turn of the century in the Great Northwest and Talmadge is a gentle soul alone with his trees and his one in-town friend, Caroline Middey, for occasional company.  Talmadge has lived this lonely life since the disappearance of his sister, Elsbeth.  First-time novelist Amanda Coplin opens her book with a physical description of her protagonist:

“His face was as pitted as the moon. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and thick without being stocky, though one could see how he could pass into stockiness; he had already taken on the barrel-chested sturdiness of an old man. His ears were elephantine, a feature most commented on when he was younger, when the ears stuck out from his head; but now they had darkened like the rest of his sun-exposed flesh and lay against his skull more than at any other time in his life, and were tough, the flesh granular like the rind of some fruit. He was clean-shaven, large-pored; his skin was oily. In some lights his flesh was gray; others, tallow; others, red.”

It’s an unusual strategy but Coplin says, in an interview with The Oregonian, there was a reason for it.  “The book opens with a physical description of Talmadge that’s a direct physical description of my grandfather,” she says. “That’s something that I selfishly did to celebrate him, I guess, and my family too.”  http://s.oregonlive.com/A2hyJ7J.  Not surprisingly, Coplin grew up in Washington State’s Wenatchee Valley, among her grandfather’s apple orchards.  She writes poetically of the relationship between the man Talmadge and the trees he nurtures:  apples, plums, apricots.  Talmadge seems content with his Edenic life until one day, during his weekly trip to the market with a cart full of fruit, some of his merchandise is stolen by two teenage girls.  Rather than chase them or scold them, ImageTalmadge watches the girls, luring them closer with gifts of food, until they are willing to approach.  The girls are run-aways from a man and a life of horror. On some level in The Orchardist, Talmadge seems to see the young girls as some replacement for his mother and sister and taken them in to raise, teach and care for.  But women and apples.  Soon, the life Della and Jane sought to escape has returned for them.

The Orchardist is dense and chewy, I’ve seen reviews that likened it to the orchards themselves.  Sweet and dark.  Ultimately, because Ms. Coplin received an MFA and MFA recipients seem unable to write anything likely to be called a happy ending, as do all Edens, Talmadge’s comes to an end.  It’s a hard life, the earth is hard, and the world is changing, but to Talmadge the joys of living his days among God’s creations seem worth the sacrifices.

BOOK CLUB MENU

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Green Salad:  tear arugula and baby spinach into bite size pieces.  Cut up a very ripe plum into long, thin slices.  Sprinkle with sunflower seeds and drizzle olive oil and lemon juice.  Season with salt and pepper.

Corncakes:  see https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2013/05/19/adventures-with-huckleberries/ for recipe

Fried Trout — this is one of the dishes Talmadge uses to tempt Jane and Della.  I wouldn’t make this, I would buy it.

Award-Winning Apple Pie

Land-O-Lakes Recipe for the Award-Winning Apple Pie:

http://www.landolakes.com/recipe/2038/blue-ribbon-apple-pie

MUSIC

Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, Andrews Sisters

The Gates of Eden, Bob Dylan

The Hazards of Love, entire album, The Decemberists

And finally, a special poem by my favorite poet

 After Apple-Picking Time by Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

 

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With a Side of Warm, Southern Wit Please: Breakfast Served Anytime by Sarah Combs

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     In Sarah Combs’ charming debut young adult novel, Breakfast Served Anytime, a quartet of talented Kentucky high schoolers meet for the first time at summer “Geek Camp,” also known as the Governor’s Scholars program.  These superbly intelligent teen-agers find common ground and opposing sides in issues as close to home as mountain-top removal and summer crushes and as far away as the difference in metropolitan and farm living.

    Since this review was first published, author Sarah Combs has graciously supplied me with her own menu, a recipe for the Swiss Chard Lasagna featured in the book, which I’m going to try right away, and her playlist for the book.  Sarah is a frequent teacher, collaborator and contributor to the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington and a swell girl in general!  Thank you Sarah.

    While looking for signs in all things, the protagonist admittedly misses some of the most obvious.  She generally “hates” first the things she will become most fond of, including her summer classmate Mason, who she ignores because he is a) smart; b) sassy; c) attractive; d) dressed like the Mad Hatter; e) not the brother of her friend who she has a crush on; or f) all of the above.  (ding ding ding for those of you who guessed “f”.)  Gloria’s prophetic signs include a Magic 8 ball, written words, random references to To Kill a Mockingbird, a drawing on a crypt and most prominently, a proliferation of blue butterflies.

Image  The butterflies appear as harbingers of change, forecasters of pleasure and soothsayers.

     In between the rather bizarre English class conducted at the Governor’s School by a rather mysterious teacher known as X and his adorable boxer Holyfield, Image the gang eats breakfast at a local restaurant.

    It’s a charming book.  I read it quickly and then gave it to my niece for her to enjoy as well.  If your book club chooses to read Breakfast Served Anytime, may I suggest:

MY MENU

Christmas Eggs

This is our family tradition.  Prepare 6-12 eggs as if you were going to scramble them.  Heat butter in a large skillet.  Crack and whisk the eggs with salt and pepper.  Add 1/2 to 1 block of cream cheese and whisk again.  Scramble in the buttered skillet until fully cooked.  You’ll never eat regular old scrambled eggs again.

Old Ham

According to the book, country ham is what city slickers call old ham.  Whichever you call it, serve it with the eggs.

Whole wheat toast with real butter and homemade jam

Fresh asparagus and fresh corn on the cob from your local farmers’ market

SARAH’S MENU

country (“old”) ham biscuits
Krispy Kreme doughnuts
just-picked corn on the cob
just-picked summer blackberries
Ale-8 (Bourbon optional 😉
 
And for Calvin’s mom’s Swiss chard lasagna, how about this recipe…I’m not positive, but I think it came originally from Three Springs Farm. It’s a little bit complicated), but MAN, it’s worth it and so good:
 
SWISS CHARD LASAGNA WITH RICOTTA AND MUSHROOMS
 
Bechamel Sauce:
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1 Turkish bay leaf
6 tbs unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp Kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
pinch of ground cloves
 
Swiss chard & mushroom layers:
1 lb chard, center rib and stem cut from each leaf
4 tbs olive oil
1 1/3 cups chopped onion
4 large garlic cloves, chopped, divided
1/4 tsp dried crushed red pepper
Kosher salt
1 lb crimini mushrooms, sliced
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
9 7×3 inch lasagna noodles
olive oil
1 15-oz package ricotta
6 oz Italian fontina
8 tbs parmesan
 
for sauce:
  • Bring milk and bay leaf to simmer in medium saucepan; remove from heat. Melt butter in heavy, large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add flour and whisk to blend. Cook 2 minutes, whisking constantly. Gradually mix milk and bay leaf into roux. Add 1/2 tsp salt, nutmeg, and cloves and bring to a simmer. Cook until sauce thickens enough to coat spoon, whisking often, about 3 minutes. Remove bay leaf.
  • Blanch chard in boiling salted water 1 minute. Drain, pressing out all water, then chop coarsely. Heat 2 tbs oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, 1/2 of garlic, and crushed red pepper. Saute until onion is tender, 3-4 minutes. Mix in chard and season to taste with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Heat remaining 2 tbs oil in heavy. large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and remaining garlic. Saute until mushrooms are brown and tender, 7 to 8 minutes. Mix in nutmeg and season with coarse salt and pepper.
for lasagna:
  • Cook noodles in medium pot of boiling salted water until just tender but al dente, stirring occasionally. Drain; arrange noodles in single later on sheet of plastic wrap.
  • Brush 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish with oil to coat. Spread 3 tbs sauce over bottom of dish. Arrange 3 noodles in dish to cover bottom. Spread 1/2 of chard mix, then 1/2 of mushrooms. Drop 1/2 of ricotta over in dollops and spread in an even layer. Sprinkle with 1/2 of fontina, then 4 tbs parmesan; spread 3/4 cup of Bechamel sauce over. Repeat layering with 3 noodles, chard, mushrooms, ricotta, fontina, parmesan, & 3/4 cup Bechamel. Cover with 3 noodles and remaining Bechamel.
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake lasagna covered for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake until heated through and top is golden, 20-30 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

MY MUSIC LIST

Black Coffee in Bed, Squeeze

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams

Punky’s Dilemma, Simon & Garfunkel (the cornflakes song)

Up for Breakfast, Van Halen

Orange Juice Blues, Bob Dylan

Easy Like Sunday Morning, Bob Dylan

Lots of good morning songs too.  Good Morning from Singin’ in the Rain, jazz standard Good Morning Heartache, etc.

SARAH’S MUSIC

Author Sarah Combs has created a story soundtrack for Stay Bookish that she shared with me.  It’s a lovely addition or alternative and Sarah explains her choices here:  http://staybookish.net/ah-may-zing-reads-2014-breakfast-served-anytime-story-soundtrack/.  Her soundtrack includes some John Prine, The Everly Brothers and one of my perennial favorites, The Decemberists.

CASTING

Again with the young adult!  I’m clueless.  Do you have suggestions?

Cheers!

The Woman Upstairs: Rage, Rejection and A Plot Twist You See Coming Halfway Through the Novel

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She is angry, and why not?  Her mother died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, she works as an elementary school teacher but wants to be an artist, she just turned forty-two and she’s in love with three people, none of whom love her in return.  On the opening page of The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud’s latest novel, Nora Eldridge tells us just how furious she is:  “It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/daughter/friend’ instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.”

Sheesh, Nora.  When you start a novel that way, it seems it would be difficult to build any tension over the succeeding 300 pages.  Much like Frank Underwood killing that dog within the first two minutes of the first episode of House of Cards.  The subtlety of  foreshadowing is lost on both counts.  Ultimately, both The Woman Upstairs and the House of Cards ask, and answer, the timeless question:  What would you do for . . .?  Art in the case of Messud’s novel.  Power, or course, in the House of Cards.

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But back to Nora.  Michiko Kakutani calls it a mash-up of Chekhov and “Single White Female.”(http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/03/books/the-woman-upstairs-by-claire-messud.html?smid=pl-share)  There’s a tendency among current novelists to disregard the need for a likable, or even sympathetic, protagonist.  And as much as Nora wants to be “a good girl, a nice girl, a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl . . . (who is) good at (her) job and great with kids,” I didn’t really care what happened to her.  She helps an artist friend construct their own version of Wonderland and then Nora, much like Alice, completely loses her way among the double-speaking Jabberwocky, falsely smiling Cheshire cats and the ubiquitous, multiply-referenced aspirin flowers.  (An aside, Frank Underwood style:  Boyoyboy does Claire Messud like her aspirin flower creations.)

The writing is intriguing, though, and the three Shahids — the father, the son and the Holy Ghost of a mother/artist — with the-woman-upstairs_originalwhom Nora is in love are at times interesting.

But the plot twist screams itself halfway through the novel and for the remainder of the book I was waiting for the reveal that I knew was coming.  And it did.

In all, The Woman Upstairs didn’t reveal anything ground-breaking about human nature, the current society, art or artists.  To say much more would reveal the entire plot and I won’t should you choose to read it.  But is it really revolutionary to know that artists will do  anything for their art just like politicians, like the fictional Frank Underwood and the all-too-real Chris Christies of our world, will do anything for their own advancement?  But what a Mad Hatter Frank Underwood would make.

A book club menu would include coffee and red wine served in chipped coffee cups with pastries purchased from a nearby cafe placed on the table in wax paper.  That’s all I seem to remember being consumed in the novel.  But if you want a recipe, here’s my favorite Butternut Squash Soup.  It has nothing to do with the book, but I’m making a batch right now.

Peel butternut squash.  I use a chef’s knife, cut the throat off and stand it on end and slice the thick outer covering away then chop up the neck first.  Then take the round bottom and find a way to remove the peel.  Here’s a handy primer:  http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-peel-squash-an-easier-w-72035

Place the cut squash in a stock pot, and pour in enough chicken broth to reach the top of the squash.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Bring to a boil then put a top on the pot, and reduce the heat to allow a low simmer.  Cook for about 20-30 minutes, until squash is tender.  Turn off the heat, allow to cool.  Place the squash mixture in a blender and blend under creamy and smooth.  At this point, you have all kinds of options.  When you reheat it (slowly), you can add cream, half and half or milk.  I generally add nutmeg, brown sugar and ginger.  Today I’m going to try using molasses and honey instead.

Music is maybe a little more fun:

Pink Floyd’s The Wall (widely believed to synchronize with the Disney Alice in Wonderland movie)

The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love c.d. (the entire c.d. is a concept album, rock opera/fairy tale and the haunting, sometimes creepy, overwrought music should be a nice accompaniment to a discussion of what would you do for art.

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