Wrapped Up in Books.

I’m many things, but a New Years resolutionist I am most certainly not.  That said, I am trying to be a bit more positive-minded, as opposed to my regular the-glass-isn’t-just-half-empty-but-also-about-to-fall-off-the-table-and-smash-into-a-million-pieces-on-the-floor mentality.  So rather than lamenting how I spent barely any time last year on writing posts, I’m instead going to focus on the fact that I spent a good amount reading books. And since I know there’s no way I’d be able to write proper-length posts on all of them, but I’ll give some simple summaries of each, along with my opinions.  Since I started recording what I read last year in April, that’s where I’ll begin.  I’ll keep writing these bookish posts and finish with the last book I read this month.

April

  • Winston had just died, and all I wanted to do when I got back to Boston from New York was reread the beautifully-written novel Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, about the titular geisha’s life before, during and after World War II.  I found the following apropos passage on grief, which I then emailed to my mother: “Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”
  • Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way by Ruth Reichl has been renamed For You, Mom. Finally for paperback, which is not unusual but still something that surprises me.  Something else that surprises me is that I don’t remember much of this memoir.  This is incredibly odd for me, as I have a remarkable memory.  I’m sure the writing is fantastic, as Ms. Reichl’s always is.
  • I do remember The Report by Jessica Francis Kane quite clearly, as I am fascinated by World War II and found this debut novel about a tragedy in the Bethnal Green tube station/air raid shelter to be ridiculously and enviously well-written.
  • A Polish emigrant and a New York adolescent are the sad and cynical narrators of Nicole Krauss‘s The History of Love.  Strange as it is to say, I didn’t care either way about the plot, but since I loved Leo the Pole so much, I managed to overlook everything else.
  • I’ve been obsessed with Suzanne Collins‘s Hunger Games trilogy for a while, and reread The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay for the first time in April.  It held up.
  • While I did enjoy Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education — which was made into the multi-nominated film with a star-making performance by Carey Mulligan — I wonder if part of the reason why I flew through it was because it was so short or because I was on a plane en route to Asia and therefore trapped.  Regardless, Ms. Barber is a perfectly fine writer who recounts her life in the heyday of 1960s England in a refreshing, straightforward way.
  • Ugh, I did not like An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray, a hardback book club read that I lugged from Massachusetts to Manila, Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong and back again.  Protagonist Charles Hythloday plays at being a nobly-born country aristocrat outside Dublin; when he’s forced to eke out a living, it was no surprise to me that this insipid loon struggles to find a place for himself in troubled modern-day Ireland.  There’s another storyline involving explosives and actresses, but I can’t be bothered to go into it.
  • Another novel I brought along on my Asia trip was The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, which set me down a path of kidnapping, violence and crime — in my readings, that is.  Mr. Gautreaux’s book is the truly compelling story not just of abduction, but also of redemption and revenge.  Oh, and there are riverboats.
  • I finished reading Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America (by Les Standiford with Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews) in Siem Reap, and that night in my hotel room I used the dodgy Internet connection to Wikipedia Adam Walsh’s 1981 kidnapping.  From there I read about Ottis Toole, Henry Lee Lucas, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and pretty much every other serial killer I could think of until I was too freaked out to open the door for room service.
Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle + Sebastian.

Lopsided — How Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting by Meredith Norton.

About a week ago I wrote about a memoir I had recently read, and why it was a failure.  Today I’m writing about one that is a success.

That memoir is Meredith Norton‘s Lopsided, which has the subtitle of How Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting, and is probably the funniest book I’ve read in a while.  Yes, I know it’s about cancer, but that doesn’t change the fact that it turned me into The Crazy Girl on the subway — you know, the one who was pitched over laughing and with whom the other commuters tried to avoid accidental eye contact.  That was me with the cut-off gloves, wiping away tears and sliding helplessly out of her seat.

From all appearances, Ms. Norton was living an enviable life; after all, she had just moved into a Parisian apartment with her French husband and their young child.  She spent her time exploring the city, learning the language, cooking European-friendly food (I thought she would make hamburgers, her husband’s client says) and being mistaken for a prostitute.  When a series of French doctors dismiss Ms. Norton’s medical concerns (which range from a whistling nose to a tightness in her chest), she takes advantage of a scheduled trip home to visit an American physician — who promptly tells Ms. Norton that she has inflammatory breast cancer and a forty percent chance of surviving the next five years.

Most people* would take this news and promptly freak the hell out, but Ms. Norton reacts differently.  She freaks out all right, but somehow she finds time between breakdowns to also find little bits of levity here and there.  She writes, “…at the supermarket with my friend Rebecca, I reached to scratch over my ear and all the hair peeled off — like a piece of Velcro. We stood holding the patches and laughed until our cheeks ached.”

Ms. Norton also gleefully details her peeling feet, an after-effect of chemotherapy, and looking forward to seeing her post-mastectomy sutures; she had been, she says, the kind of kid who delightedly removed her spayed cat’s stitches.  I can definitely see how these graphic chronicles could easily gross a certain kind of reader out — for example, how many people could possibly take pleasure in reading about the excitement Ms. Norton felt when fitted with an indwelling catheter?  Turns out I do, and not just because it’s hard to offend or horrify me (unless you’re brushing your teeth in my presence).  It’s because Ms. Norton writes with clarity and humor about these so-called disgusting things.  Let’s use the catheter as an example.  Ms. Norton, who had previously used a catheter after her pregnancy, writes:

“It seems odd to adore a tube hanging from your crotch, attached to a plastic bag filled with warm urine, but I did.  I’d spent the previous nine months running to the toilet every twenty minutes, day and night. The last two months I ran to the toilet and still peed on myself when I stood up afterward. It drove me crazy.  Urinating effortlessly and at my leisure into a bag was downright luxurious.”

Though I’ve neither been pregnant nor used a catheter, when it’s described like that I can clearly understand Ms. Norton’s joy in it, just as I can plainly imagine the empty loss portrayed in these two sentences regarding her mastectomy: “There were no black stitches, no gruesome scar. It was just gone.”

What’s tricky about reading a memoir is that there’s not often the convenient sense of closure as in a work of fiction.  This is particularly true about those writers whose works capture a specific time in their lives, or times, as the case may be for M.F.K. Fisher, Ruth Reichl, Augusten Burroughs and other prolific memoirists.  It’s also true for Ms. Norton, but in her defense, who in “real life” can say he or she got that aforementioned closure following every obstacle encountered?  Even Ms. Norton understands this; after she has endured almost twenty weeks of intense chemotherapy and its side-effects, a mastectomy, countless prescriptions and more than fifty radiation treatments, she too looks for finality.  “There [I was],” she muses, “with the same annoying habits and bad manners, ungrateful, pessimistic, undisciplined, and bored. [I was] just as mediocre as when this whole drama began.”

It’s key that readers of Lopsided can look past that, the lack of conclusion, and focus instead on Ms. Norton’s ability to not only convey her humor, but also her matter-of-factness.  This is neither a heroic nor feel-bad-for-me cancer book, and Ms. Norton is adamant that readers do not feel that way.  Instead, Lopsided is a but a piece of a life.  “Nothing else has happened, but it will. As my father says: ‘None of us gets out of here alive,'” she writes.  “But life really is too short to worry. Against all the odds, I am here to celebrate [my son's] fourth birthday on the third anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. For now, that’s enough.”

And for me, regarding this book, it is.

* Me.

This Might Be Why I Am Fat.

I know that after the holidays you’re supposed to feel the need to diet, eat healthily, work out and abstain from things like carbs and bacon and cheese, but I woke up yesterday morning craving pasta, which is why I decided to make spaghetti carbonara for dinner in spite of my leftover-laden fridge.  For the record, I did eat the remaining Brussels sprouts from Christmas Eve dinner for lunch, along with some of my dad’s herb-marinated olives and a clementine, so I didn’t feel as guilty as I could’ve for giving in to the demands of my stomach.

Actually, come to think of it, I didn’t feel guilty at all, which may be why I am fat.

Anyway.

Spaghetti carbonara has a tyrannical iron grip on my heart, and I’m rendered as helpless as a baby bunny when faced with a bowl of it.  The first time I ever ate carbonara was when I was fourteen, at a restaurant in, of all places, my mother’s hometown of Cagayan de Oro, and I loved the creamy thick sauce coating each strand of pasta so much that I convinced my mother to take me back the next day for another mound of it.  Both days I resolutely put my head down and didn’t come back up for air until I was finished, barely restraining myself from swiping my tongue across my empty plate.  My mother’s evil eye might have had something to do with that though.

Ruth Reichl‘s recipe is just as good as the carbonara of my memory, and dead simple.  Something interesting to note is that there’s no cream in the ingredients list; the eggs do all the work, magically transforming themselves into a rich and smooth sauce.

Spaghetti Carbonara, from Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
Makes three portions

1 pound spaghetti
¼ to ½ pound thickly-sliced bacon
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 large eggs
Black pepper
½ cup grated Parmigiano cheese, plus extra for the table

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When it is boiling, throw the spaghetti in. Most dried spaghetti takes 9 to 10 minutes to cook, and you can make the sauce in that time.
  2. Cut the bacon crosswise into, pieces about ½ inch wide. Put them in a skillet and cook for 2 minutes, until fat begins to render.  Add the whole cloves of garlic and cook another 5 minutes until the edges of the bacon just begin to get crisp. Do not overcook; if they get too crisp, the bacon won’t meld with the pasta.
  3. Meanwhile, break the eggs into the bowl you will serve the pasta in, and beat them with a fork. Add some grindings of pepper.
  4. Remove the garlic from the bacon pan.  If it looks like too much fat to you, discard some, but you’re going to toss the bacon with most of its fat into the pasta.
  5. When it is cooked, drain the pasta and immediately throw it into the beaten eggs. Mix thoroughly. The heat of spaghetti will cook the eggs and turn them into a sauce. Add the bacon with its fat, toss again, add cheese and serve.

Book Club Oscar Party.

emily-post Once my book club decided that Laura Claridge‘s biography of Emily Post was our next read, the emails between us started flying with almost more speed than usual.  We had already decided to meet on the twenty-second, not realizing that evening was the Academy Awards.

“We could do an Emily Post/Oscars hybrid theme for food,” Sarah wrote. “I’m not really sure what that means. Perhaps finger foods and a fancy drink or tea, and everyone should wear pearls.”

“I love cocktails and pearls,” Stephanie responded, adding, “and that’s kind of like a bachelorette party*, minus the cheesy condom shirts and the stop at Dick’s Last Resort, so yes!  This sounds perfect!”

We quickly started suggesting possible bite-sized snacks for the evening; I had been looking for an excuse to try out a recipe for gougères, so I used the get-together as the reason to give Dorie Greenspan‘s version a try — but if I had really been on top of things I would have dug out Ruth Reichl‘s recipe from Garlic and Sapphires, since book club had previously read her other memoir, Tender at the Bone.  Oh well.  I mean, I need little justification to make something warm with cheese, and Ms. Greenspan’s puffs came out wonderfully.  Next time, it’s Reichl all the way.

When we gathered at Sarah’s some of us were toting copies of Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners, ready to discuss etiquette, Oscar ensembles and Emily — though I feel like I have to tell you we spent more the time commenting on Kunio Kato.  Melissa valiantly tried to keep us on track during the commercial breaks, hurriedly addressing Ms. Post’s life and legacy, but really we were all too busy eating to contribute much to the conversation.

I am, of course, talking about myself when I say this.  In my defense: how eager would you be to review the contents of a book — no matter how much you enjoyed it — if there was Champagne, spanikopita, chocolate-dipped strawberries and a twirling Hugh Jackman to distract you?

That’s what I thought.

Gougères, from Dorie Greenspan
Makes about thirty-six puffs

½ cup whole milk
½ cup water
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 ½ cups coarsely grated cheese, such as Gruyère or Cheddar (or a mixture of smoked and regular cheese)

  1. Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 375°.  Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.
  2. Bring the milk, water, butter, and salt to a rapid boil over high heat in a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan.  Add the flour all at once, lower the heat to medium-low and quickly start stirring energetically with a wooden spoon.  The dough will come together and a light crust will form on the bottom of the pan.  Keep stirring — with vigor — another 2 to 3 minutes to dry the dough.  The dough should now be very smooth.
  3. Turn the dough into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or you can continue by hand).  Add the eggs one by one and beat, beat, beat until the dough is thick and shiny.  Don’t be concerned if the dough falls apart — by the time the third egg goes in, the dough will come together again.  Beat in the grated cheese.  Once the dough is completed, it should be used immediately.
  4. Using about 1 tablespoon of dough for each gougère, drop the dough from a spoon onto the lined baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches of puff space between each mound of dough.
  5. Slide the baking sheets into the oven, bake for 15 minutes, then rotate the sheets from top to bottom and front to back.  Continue baking until the puffs are golden and firm, another 10 to 15 minutes.  Serve the gougères piping hot as soon as they come from the oven.

Note:  You can shape the gougères and freeze them for up to 2 months before you bake them.  There’s no need to defrost the frozen puffs, just bake them a couple of minutes more.

* We’re planning a book club bachelorette party.  No one’s getting married — we just think it’ll be fun.  And funny.

Intro.

Hello, and welcome to my blog. This isn’t my maiden voyage into the blogosphere (really, is there a more ridiculous word out there than this?) but it is my first solo go of it. I’ve decided to blog because I like writing and I’m trying to get back into the writerly swing of things, which is truly difficult, I think, if you’re neither in school nor on a deadline. These both apply to me.

Anyway, I think the key to this whole blog-writing thing is to narrow your focus, which is why I’m going with three things I like to do the most — eat, read and travel. The first two happen to also be the things I do the most, aside from involuntary actions such as breathing and pumping my blood to my heart and etc, so I figure it will be (or should be) easy for me to keep up-to-date.

For example, this year I’ve already read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion; the unabridged Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy; Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table by Ruth Reichl; The Best Food Writing 2004 and The Best Food Writing 2005, both edited by Holly Hughes; Loverboy by Victoria Redel; The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs; A Genius in the Family: An Intimate Biography of Jacqueline du Pré by Hilary and Piers du Pré; and Toast by Nigel Slater. I’m also doing something I hate to do, and that’s read two books at once. I’ll let you know more about them (such as titles and authors) once I’m done.

I didn’t think my dining out experiences for 2008 would be nearly as long as my book list thus far, but that was before I went through my calendar and tallied it all up: Evoo, Gargoyles on the Square, The Paramount, Addis Red Sea, The Blue Room, Zöe’s, Strawberry Place, Peter Luger, Tavern in the Square, and The Barking Crab. To think, that list doesn’t even include the lunches we have brought in once a week at work.

However, I can say with absolute certainty that my travels for 2008 aren’t nearly as extensive; all I’ve done is visit my parents in New York, and I don’t even know if that should count. Regardless… Travel is something I love to do, and often. And the next time I do, I’ll write about it.

Basically, that’s what this blog boils down to — eating, reading and traveling. Writing too, I suppose, so maybe I’ll write about that as well. We’ll see.

Happy eating/reading/traveling/possibly writing…!