The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker.

A little fact about me: I like the end of the world. Always have. It’s not exactly something I’m looking forward to, per se — no zombie attack cardio training here — but I appreciate the apocalypse in fiction. It’s an excellent backdrop for drama, which isn’t to say that end-of-the-world stories are always well-written. When they are though, they can be the stuff of truly awesome nightmares, a pretty high compliment from me.

Another little tidbit of Nayiri info: one of my favorite kind of stories to read is the coming-of-age tale. Regardless of whether it’s a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird, a “modern” classic à la Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, an instantly-influential novel like The Secret History, a super-trendy title like The Perks of Being a Wallflower… I love them all. The idea of capturing a very specific time in which a character experiences a major chance that influences the rest of his or her life is fascinating to me, and when those stories are successful, it’s heartbreaking and heart-bursting to read.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Walker Thompson -- 10thirtyThe thing is, Karen Thompson Walker‘s much-hyped debut novel The Age of Miracles is neither here nor there, in terms of success. There are some surprisingly lovely moments, a great amount of creativity, and a whole boatload of schmaltz.*

First, the synopsis: one morning, the world’s rotation inexplicably slows, and eleven-year-old Julia narrates what should be a tumultuous time. Both the days and nights grow longer, quickly reshaping civilization’s reliance on a twenty-four-hour day — “We would fall out of sync with the sun almost immediately. Light would be unhooked from day, darkness unchained from night.” In spite of this, the beginning of a new era, Julia admits a truth: “But no force on earth could slow the forward march of sixth grade.” So we learn of friendships’ end, training bras, crushes on boys. We remember that youth can be lonely, that parents can disappoint, that feeling included can be everything. We experience all this as birds fall from the sky, neighbors grow sick, scientists speculate the cause of “the slowing,” and food sources diminish. It’s not that Julia — sensitive, observant, intelligent Julia! — doesn’t care or isn’t aware of the changes in the world, it’s more that her focus is on navigating her way through a time of dance parties and growth spurts: “Some girls were turning beautiful… I still looked like a child.”

This is what I like, what I find interesting, how a protagonist deals with and interprets something as universal as growing up against a creative and unique backdrop. I don’t need to know about the so-called science behind scorchingly-hot days and frosty nights. Julia wonders why whales are beaching themselves by the thousands on her Southern Californian shores, why it’s suddenly so hard to kick a soccer ball into a satisfactory arc, why earthquakes have begun pummel Kansas, and I do too… until Julia’s gaze turns to skateboarding Seth Moreno, object of her affection.

(An aside: Seth Moreno just may be as perfect a name as Jordan Catalano, or Marcus Flutie.)

The Age of Miracles, from the SFGate -- 10thirtyI’m all for young love and first love and, heck, love in general, but unfortunately this is where things can often get exceedingly sentimental. I’m sorry to say that Ms. Walker overindulges in mawkishness. To be fair, it takes her a while to get there, but once she gets going… watch out. There is a specific scene that I can’t discuss, primarily because Ms. Walker chooses to revisit it and use it as the finale of her closing sequence — man, oh man, if only I could talk about it. Let me say this: it reads as though it is designed specifically to cause a tightening in the audience’s chest and a tearing of their eyes. It reads as manipulative. It reads as cheap. It reads as formulaic.

What legitimately burns is that Ms. Walker is a talented writer. There are many passages that are elegant, and stunning, and magnetic. There are descriptions that cause the reader to pause and say, Oh, how fine. The trouble is there are just as many passages that cause that same reader to pause and roll her eyes and say, Oh, jeez. And because the last note Ms. Walker leaves us with is maudlin, that commercialized shade of sickly blue can’t help but color the rest of the novel.

Second photo from the SFGate.
* Don’t believe me? Check out the schmaltzy book trailer.

The Day I Read A Book.

A continuation of the books I read in 2011.  Read about April.


  • By the time I got around to reading it, I’d forgotten all of the reviews of Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge.  I’d forgotten that Ms. Strout’s work was more anthology of related stories than novel, that the setting was a small New England town in coastal Maine, that the titular character wasn’t in fact the main character after all.  Worth the read, but it’s up to the reader to decide if it’s worth the hype.
  • The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber is an absolutely terrible novel that everybody in the world should read.  I mean, it’s about a pack of way-more-intense-than-werewolves wolves living, hunting and killing in 1970s New York City and the two police detectives that are tracking them down.  Oh, and I should mention that parts of the story are told from the point of view of the wolves.  So awesomely bad.  One of my goals for 2012 is to get my hands on a copy of the film adaptation.
  • Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table, a Collection of Essays from The New York Times edited by Amanda Hesser is pretty self-explanatory.
  • So is, in a way, Elizabeth Graver‘s The Honey Thief, as it is about a thief of honey, but imagine how boring a story it would be if that were it as far as plot were concerned.  The novel is about mothers and daughters, religion, inheritances and friendships, as well as honey.
  • I purchased a copy of Room at Fully Booked in Manila; at that point in our trip, I had read all of the books I’d packed and The Wolfen off of Keith’s iPad, and was desperate for something to read, as I had three days in Hong Kong and a twenty-something-hour flight back to the States to get through.  I hadn’t followed the previous year’s hoopla surrounding Emma Donoghue‘s novel but it just so happened that Room‘s plot fit in perfectly with my kidnapping/crime obsession.  Though told from five-year-old Jack’s point of view, the reader quickly realizes that Jack and his mother live a grim and terrible sort of life: abducted at nineteen, Jack’s mother had gotten pregnant and gave birth in captivity, and all Jack knows of the world is the 11 x 11 room he was born in.  Though I sometimes find the use of children’s first-person narration in adult novels to be gimmicky, Jack’s perspective was unique and interesting enough to keep me reading.
  • After years of trying, Keith and I secured reservations at elBulli in November of 2010, and for that reason I was particularly interested in The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli by Lisa Abend, which chronicles not a year of elBulli so much as a year in the life of a stagiaire at elBulli.  It’s fascinating to learn of all their backgrounds, interests, successes and failings, regardless of whether or not you’d eaten at the restaurant or not.
  • I should’ve kicked my kidnapping kick before reading Still Missing, as I found the abducted narrator of Chevy Stevens‘s novel to be both irritating and without redeeming factors.  Skip it.
  • Laura Lippman‘s I’d Know You Anywhere is also about kidnapping, is leagues better, and ultimately forgettable.


  • I hadn’t read any Nick Hornby in years; it was only Juliet, Naked‘s availability at my local library that made Mr. Hornby’s most recent novel my first of his to read since About a Boy.  Funny stuff, this, and a must-read for those who have music nerds in their lives or who are self-aware music nerds.
  • My book club needed something to read, so I recommended In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff, simple because I already had it out of the library and had just started the book the same day.  The mystery takes place in turn of the century New York — a genre, historical period and location that the ladies in book club all love, so for that reason it was it good fit.  The main character, a detective with a tragic past, transfers out of a gritty and corrupt New York City precinct to sleepy, quiet Westchester County.  Instead of finding tranquility, he’s face-to-face with the most brutal murder he’s ever seen.
  • I’m not going to lie, I read Getting the Pretty Back: Friendship, Family and Finding the Perfect Lipstick by Molly Ringwald only because I was on a Breakfast Club kick.
  • Sue Miller’s The Lake Shore Limited is told from the perspective of four characters, a writing technique that I as a reader and a writer really enjoy.  Sometimes it can be done beautifully (In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, for example) but more often than not, this is done in a mediocre fashion.  Ms. Miller is a fine writer, and she tackles this well, but I didn’t find any of the four characters to be unforgettable.
The Day I Read A Book” by Jimmy Durante.

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.


  • 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.

Rainy Days + Mondays Always Get Me Down.

It’s been a while, friends, but I’m back, and we have so much to catch up on.  I still have to tell you about my dinner at elBulli last November, and there are some pretty exciting things coming up (here’s a hint: I renewed my passport, and sent it out to get visas), and I’m trying to turn over a new leaf… I’m going to be sharing all of these things with you, and I’m determined not to go on another three-plus month hiatus again.

In the meantime, a few words of advice:

  • If you live in Boston and like seafood, go eat at Island Creek Oyster Bar.  Actually, scratch that — if you live and like to eat, come to Boston and go to Island Creek Oyster Bar.  If you’re still with me, order the fried oyster sliders (two per person, minimum), try one of the shell-less mussels appetizers, and get at least one glass of the Meßmer Riesling Halbtrocken 2008.
  • Get yourself a copy of Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi and start cooking.
  • Sharpen your knives.

I leave you this, in closing.  I know the title sounds depressing, but I don’t think it is at all.  In fact, I highly suggest singing along as loudly as you can, ideally while driving with the windows open.

A Whole Lotta Books, Recapped.

I’ve been back from Maine a sad many months now, so I suppose it’s well past time for me to discuss the books I read while sitting on the beach  for a week — I mean, I still have to tell you about the books I read in Spain, and Spain itself, and Thanksgiving… But first: I told you I’d get to these books, so here we go, in the order I read them.


I’ve seen Blade Runner more times than I can count, and yet I’d never read the book it was adapted from, Philip K. Dick‘s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Now, if you like science fiction, be it in book or film form, I really think you should put this at the top of your library queue — assuming you’re like me and haven’t already read it.

As in Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in a dystopian near-future in which protagonist Rick Deckard is an android hunter.  As with most novel-to-film adaptations, a lot of the original thematic elements were jettisoned  and never appeared on the big screen; while I do love me some Blade Runner, these elements are what make the novel so interesting.  Deckard ponders religion, struggles with his humanity, questions what I can only classify as substance addiction and has an extramarital affair.  All of that is fascinating stuff, and when Mr. Dick includes commentary on status, materialism and Life Itself, it’s like whoa*.


I really wanted to love The Gastronomy of a Marriage: A Memoir of Food and Love by Michelle Maisto.  I mean, it’s about food and love; it says so right in the title, and I happen to enjoy food and am in love…  Seems like a perfect fit, no?  So why did I feel like it was more about food and, well — the phrase that comes to mind is passive-aggressiveness

Here’s the premise: Ms. Maisto and her fiancé Rich are getting married.  She’s a pescatarian Italian who loves rich meals; he’s a meat-eating Chinese who favors more delicate flavors.  She’s casual about food.  He’s fastidious.   She likes her peanut butter chunky.  He likes his smooth.  They must compromise.

I’m lucky to live with someone who doesn’t care where I keep the ketchup (in the fridge, though Rich prefers the pantry), but that doesn’t mean compromise isn’t part of my daily life.  It is, of course.  But is it worthy of a memoir?  Yes, there is more to this book that just compromise, but only barely, and not enough to give any sort of readerly satisfaction at its conclusion.  Not to mention Ms. Maisto’s description of Rich isn’t the most flattering — he comes across as condescending and belittling, especially when it comes to preparing dinner — and while I doubt that was her intent, I wasn’t able to look past it.

I do like the cover, though.


It’s been a while since I’ve read a debut novel as cinematic as Daryl Gregory‘s Pandemonium.  I’ll get to the storyline in a bit; I just want to take a moment to reiterate how visual the writing is, and how clearly Mr. Gregory paints the proverbial picture.

Del Pierce lives in a world where demons exist.  There’s the Artist, who uses whatever materials there are at hand to depict the same country scene.  There’s the Truth, hunting malfeasants with his .45s and fedora.  There’s also the Hellion, who likes to possess young boys, and who last surfaced about fifteen years ago in a young blond boy…

Did I mention Del is blond?

To say Mr. Gregory is an ambitious storyteller is the most incredible understatement.  To say that he’s a writer with a dark sense of humor is an oversimplification.  He’s all of these things, undeniably, but he is, most importantly, clever — which is why this novel stays entertaining to the very end.


I don’t know how I ended up borrowing  Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs from the library, I really don’t.  Certainly no one I know recommended it to me.  Perhaps it sounded a bit more interesting than it was?  I honestly can’t remember.  What I do remember, unfortunately, is the plot; since I wouldn’t suggest this book to anyone ever, I’m going to basically ruin the entire storyline for you here:

A single mother who is jaw-droppingly beautiful but doesn’t know it runs a yarn shop on the Upper West Side.  She has an unrealistically and irritatingly precocious preteen and a lot of friends.  They all knit.  Her babydaddy reappears, having had an epiphany and realizing that he can’t live without her or his bastard child.   They fall back in love.  Her life finally feels complete.  Then she suddenly contracts cancer and dies.  Everyone is sad.  The end.

I wish I could say I made that all up, but alas.  Do not read this book under any circumstances, including duress.  You will never get that time back.


I so enjoyed Pandemonium, which was from Keith’s pile of books, that I picked up The Devil’s Alphabet as soon as he put it down.

In his second novel, Mr. Gregory’s protagonist is the seemingly-normal Pax, who lives and works in Chicago at a restaurant job he’s not too psyched on.  When he receives word that his childhood best friend has committed suicide, Pax returns to the hometown he fled at fifteen.  His is not the everyday small-town-boy-running-away-to-the-big-city story, of course; Mr. Gregory is far too creative for that.  No, turns out Pax left the backwoods of Tennessee because, one strange day, almost all of his town’s inhabitants were struck by a strange disease which caused them to change.  Some became impossibly-huge “Argos,” some hairless magenta-skinned “Betas,” some incredibly obese “Charlies.”  Pax, on the other hand, became a rare “skip,” one of the few townspeople who were unchanged and soon skipped town.

What could’ve simply been a unique spin on a you-can’t-go-home-again story changes (ha ha) into a mash-up of genres sci-fi, mystery and political thriller, to name a few.  Mr. Gregory doesn’t stop there, throwing in some commentary on religious zealots, drug use and the father-son relationship.  It all sounds crazy, I know, but what’s really crazy is that it all works.


While Marcella’s been trying to get me to read Dan Chaon for what seems like years, I never remembered to check any of his books out of the library until recently.  Let me warn you of something, before you too go out and borrow Await Your Reply:  this is a bleak story.  Do not read it if you are in search of something uplifting, or happy, or have trouble being depressed.  If you are one of those people, this book is not for you.

If you’re not… go for it.

(Oh, I should add that if you have an aversion to violence, try another novel.  The first few pages of this one heavily features a severed hand, and the young man it belongs to.)

Await Your Reply is the story of three stories.  One follows a high school senior who leaves town with her enigmatic history teacher.  Another follows a loser of a guy in search of his mentally-ill twin brother (who may or may not have killed their mother and her husband).  The third, of course, follows the owner of the severed hand.

If these three plotlines seem incredibly disparate, it’s because they are.  You can try to sort out how they interconnect, but if you do, forget about things like continuity and time periods; Chaon jumps all over the place.  What’s kind of amazing, though, is that it all makes sense in the end, and that the three stories tie together in a way that’s almost ingenious.  Depressing, but ingenious.


I actually got a little tired of being depressed — who’d’a thunk it? — so to lighten things up, I turned to some adolescent fiction with The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly.  It’s actually a really cute story, one which could’ve easily been a run of the mill girl-doesn’t-fit-in-with-her-family-and/or-town plotline.  Instead, Ms. Kelly threw in some historical and science-related twists into her novel; these details are what made Calpurnia and her story interesting.

Callie — who got stuck with the trickier name, Calpurnia in 1890s Texas, or me in 1980s/1990s New York suburbia? — has a hard time living with her prim-and-proper mother as the only other female in a house full of boys.  One of eight children, she’d rather spend her time with her naturalist grandfather than cooking, doing needlework and practicing other genteel arts.  When Callie and her grandfather make a discovery, she gets the feeling that her life is going to change…  but does it?


I love crime.

I like cops, I like thieves, I like con artists, I like people who pull heists, and as weird as it sounds I like serial killers.  I hope to never have to interact with anyone from the criminal world, cops included — I’ve never even gotten a speeding ticket and I plan on keeping it that way — but give me an interesting, well-written story about them and I’m hooked.  Which leads me to John Heidenry’s Zero at the Bone: The Playboy, the Prostitute, and the Murder of Bobby Greenlease.  The book follows the 1953 kidnapping of six-year-old Bobby Greenlease, the son of an extremely wealthy Midwestern family and whose $600,000 ransom was the highest paid in American history up to that point.  Mr. Heidenry tells the story in a very straightforward, journalistic manner; it would have been so easy to pulp it up — grifters, mobsters, femme fetales… so noir — but Zero at the Bone is so dark and bleak that relying upon stylistic crutches would have cheapened it entirely.


I’m a huge fan of the multi-character narrative, so I really appreciated that Liza Ketchum incorporated it into Where the Great Hawk Flies, a adult novel that takes place in 1780s Vermont.

In the book’s recent past, a British-fueled Indian** attack sent Hiram Coombs and his family running for safety and eventual resettlement in Connecticut, while Daniel Tucker and his family hid in a nearby cave; after the raid, they returned to rebuild their home.  After the Coombs decide to move back to Vermont, Hiram soon clashes with Daniel.  The root of the problem is heritage — Daniel, and his sister, are half Indian.  It doesn’t matter that the Tucker children are part-Pequot, considering that the ransacking tribespeople were Caughnawagas; Hiram and his mother openly fear and disdain the Tuckers regardless.

As someone who’s half-this and half-that, I like reading stories (fiction and non-fiction) about people dealing with  determining their cultural identities a bit more than most.  What I found incredibly interesting is that Where the Great Hawk Flies comes across a new story, and one that hasn’t been told, which is a pretty neat trick.


This summer I took a pretty fantastic Grub Street class with the excellent Christopher Boginski called “Six Weeks, Six Essays.”  Not only did we write an essay a week, we also read a selection of essays whose themes we responded to in our work.  One of those essays was the truly amazing “Weekend” by Amy Hempel — if you can find a copy, you must read it — compelled me to pick up At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, an anthology of her works.  Some of these pieces can be called stories, others essays, and others yet I’d classify as musings.  Regardless, what Ms. Hempel can do with words is unfathomable.  “In the Animal Shelter,” barely a page, will break your heart.


In case it hasn’t been made ridiculously clear by my “What I’ve Read” lists over on the sidebar, I like adolescent fiction.  I also like fantasy, so it makes sense that I would like The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge.

Ms. Hardinge accomplishes something with this book that I truly admire: she creates not only an entirely new world, but one that has its own complex set of rules.  On that world is the island of Gullstruck, where a tribe of people are keeping a dangerous secret behind inscrutable smiles.  This tribe is the Lace, and what they’re hiding is a girl.  She’s said to be a Lost, an oracle, and her young sister Hathin is her fiercest protector.  The tricky thing is, and there must be a tricky thing, that this oracle is a fake prophet, one the tribe has invented as a form of protection.  When this sham is put to the test, Hathin has to fight to save herself, her sister and her tribe.

It’s pretty intense stuff.


On the day before Lulu’s tenth birthday, her father shoots her mother, stabs her sister Merry and tries to kill himself.  Their father imprisoned, the girls are sent to live with one family member to the other until an aunt, tired of the sisters, deposits them in a group home for orphans.  The sisters eventually come to live in a foster home, but their lives don’t get any easier.  Lulu does all she can to separate herself from her murderer father, refusing to visit him or acknowledge the fact that he lived; as an adult, she doesn’t even tell her own daughters that he’s alive.  Merry, on the other hand, does all she can to make her father’s life easier, visiting whenever she can and trying to persuade Lulu to do the same.

Randy Susan Meyers‘s The Murderer’s Daughters sounds like a huge downer of a novel, but there are interesting and even uplifting parts.  The narrative switches between the sisters, something I personally enjoy but know irritates some readers (Keith), but it really works here.  The alternating narration gives insight as to how each young sister grew into the women they are, which I think is interesting regardless of whether such evolution is fictional or real.


So there you have it, the twelve books I read in seven August days.  Of course, now it’s December, and I’ve read something like twenty-five additional books since then, some of which I’ll be telling you about soon.  So please check back in later.

Coming up… my trip to Spain, and what I did there.

* Yeah, I just quoted Black Rob.  So?
** I have no idea what the correct term is here.  Indian?  Native American?  Aboriginals?
It’s actually a really cute story, one which could’ve easily been a run of the mill girl-doesn’t-fit-in-with-her-family-and/or-town story.  Instead it was

I Love Fall.

Call it what you want — fall, autumn, I love it.

Today was the kind of November day that makes me want to loop my favorite scarf* around my neck, wiggle my fingers into my gloves and take the dog out on a long walk, maybe to get some hot chocolate from Burdick’s.  Then maybe we, the dog and I, would walk down to the river and sit amongst the fallen leaves crunchy like potato chips — which the dog would probably eat — and read a book while the sun sparkles all golden and champagne-y.

(Do you know what I mean, about the autumn sun, and how everything gleams so radiantly when it’s shone upon?  It’s like almost every daytime frame in All the Real Girls.)

The sad thing is that while I do have a favorite scarf, some awesome gloves and a great love of Burdick’s hot chocolate, and while I am almost done with an incredibly well-written book, I am lacking the dog.  And the sun is setting now, so that candlelight brilliance is fading for today…  Alas.

Part of the reason why I love food so much — aside from its potential to taste so damn good — is how it makes me feel and what it makes me remember.  Char siu bao, for example, makes me think about my mother’s father, and his ferocious appetite, and how our trips together were structured around meals.  Hazelnut makes me think of Regensburg, and how when Keith and I visited, the entire city smelled of sugar because of all the gelaterias, and how I had the best cup of coffee one evening at our hotel‘s restaurant.

Fall and its cool air matches comforting food so well.  The warmth of that sunshiney sparkle comes through in my choice of food during these months: mashed potatoes, chicken soup, mac and cheese, shepherd’s pie, my mother’s spaghetti — which is actually her version of my Armenian grandmother’s bolognese, and a recipe I’ll share with you at another time.

Technically speaking, a bolognese is a ragù, so this dish is a great nippy night recipe.  You can use lots of different meats, if you like; I love lamb, but beef, veal, chicken…  pretty much anything would work.

Again, skipping taste, one of the nicest things about this is how most of the work is done by your oven.  While it’s in there, you can take the dog for that long walk in the clear, crisp early night, and when you return, with roses blossoming on your cheeks, you can step into a home that smells inviting and feels as snug as my favorite scarf.

Rich + Meaty Lamb Ragù, from the kitchn
Makes eight servings

2 pounds stew lamb, cut in chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 onions
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
3 tablespoons fresh sage
8 cloves garlic
1 big carrot, peeled
Olive oil
2 cups red wine
1 28-ounce can peeled whole plum tomatoes

  1. Pat the lamb chunks dry with a paper towel. Liberally coat the lamb chunks with salt and pepper and set aside. Peel and coarsely chop the onions, and chop the garlic. Chop the carrot into thin rounds.
  2. Place an oven-proof Dutch oven or heavy stockpot over medium-high heat, and add olive oil to cover the bottom thinly. When oil is hot, add the lamb and brown deeply. Do this in batches if necessary. Don’t worry about drying out the meat — you want it browned darkly for good flavor. (I usually brown each batch for at least 10 minutes, taking care not to crowd the pan. You want the meat to brown, not steam-cook.)
  3. When the meat is thoroughly browned, add the onions. Lower the heat, and cook slowly over medium heat for about 10 minutes or until the onions are golden. Add the rosemary and sage, garlic, and the carrots. Reduce heat to medium-low and sauté until vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add wine and continue to simmer until liquid has reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Crush the tomatoes in the can with a fork or back of a spoon, then add them and their juices to the pot. Bring to a simmer, then cover and place in a 275° oven for 3 to 4 hours. Alternately, put everything in a slow cooker and cook for 4 hours on high or at least 8 hours on low. (I have cooked this on low for up to 16 hours; it’s sublime when cooked that long!) The longer it cooks the more tender it will be. When ready to serve, go through with two forks and shred any remaining chunks of meat. Taste and season if necessary with additional salt and pepper.
  5. Serve over pasta with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.**
* This changes by the day, and the season.  Today is a fine-knit mulberry merino day.
** I like egg noodles here.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins.

If you haven’t read any of The Hunger Games trilogy yet, I envy you.  This means you can go out to your local bookstore to purchase it and its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay, and read all three in one fell swoop.  I don’t normally tell people what I think they should do, but I’m telling you this is what you should do.  I know I should be telling you wait a couple of days and buy Freedom by Jonathan Franzen instead, but who are we kidding?  I’ll read that sucker next year, when it’s in paperback and the waiting list at the library has dwindled.  I’m sorry, Mr. Franzen, I think you have a lovely reading voice and your writing is incredibly clever, but The Hunger Games can’t wait.

Mockingjay picks up a month after Catching Fire‘s cliffhanger ending; protagonist Katniss is living in the believed-obliterated District Thirteen, is coerced into becoming the face of Panem’s revolution, and learns that, as in the Hunger Games, she’s trapped.  Once again, she must figure out not only how she is going to survive, but also how she’s going to ensure the survival of the people she loves.  Devastatingly — and realistically — she doesn’t fully succeed.

And that’s part of the reason why I like Suzanne Collins: the woman is a mercenary.  She slices through her cast of characters, killing them off in what is not at all a flippant way.  Every death serves a purpose, and each one is a surprise.  Actually, the entire storyline is a surprise, and Ms. Collins’ ability to tell a captivating story is undeniably enviable.  You try writing a trilogy that’s both sentimental and graphically gruesome, all the while subtly threading through commentary on warfare, reality television and the media, politics, fashion, family values and sex, and then throw in some of the twistiest plot shifts ever.  When you’re done, get back to me.

In all honesty, I can’t write anything more about Mockingjay aside promising that it’s a ridiculously good read.  It’s just not fair to those who haven’t read it.  There are far too many reviews out there that, in my opinion, give away insane amounts of information.  (Putting the words “spoiler alert” or similar in the text is useless and stupid, by the way.)  So please, stop reading reviews right now — in fact, stop reading this post!  Pick up a copy of the book and read that, and then we can talk.

On Library Books.

I love the library. Growing up, I was the girl whose mother refused to drive in more than once a week. If I had been able to drive at seven — or see over the wheel, or reach the pedals, or drive stick — I would’ve gone down every other day.

Luckily, I don’t live with my mother anymore (though I still don’t know how to drive stick).  I can bring myself to the library as often as I like, and since I’ve gone a little crazy requesting titles that sometimes means a few days in a row.  I’m serious when I say “crazy.”  Let’s put it this way: the last time I went in, the librarian was surprised I was only borrowing five books.

Those five brought my stack of borrowed books up to twenty-three, all of which I lugged up to Maine with me this past week.  My goal was to get through half, and even though I didn’t, I came pretty damn close with eleven (more on those specific titles in a later post).

I’m not taking bets on how fast I’ll be able to read through my stack, but I will tell you that if I feel strongly about any of the titles, you’ll be hearing about it.

Oh, and here’s my new thing with reading: if I’m not captured by the end of the first page, the book goes back.  There’s just too many books out there to read, and sometimes I just have to act like a mercenary.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

I should warn you, I’m writing this while (still) sick so I’m not promising much coherence.  Oh, this sickness has nothing to do with this book or its content.  It has to do solely with the fact that I live with someone who kindly shared his germs with me.  That’s love, friends.


First thing first: I love animals.  I also eat meat.  Is this contradictory?  Should I, or do I, feel guilty for what I eat?  I mean, I also love tomatoes and I find few things in this world that can topple a perfectly ripe peach from its first-place spot in my heart, but I don’t experience any sort of shame whenever I bite into its flesh.  And yes, it is called flesh.  I don’t get squeamish about that either.

Second things second*: I will read anything.  This is not to say that I won’t give up on anything, but I’ll give any form of writing a shot.  Topics don’t matter.  Authors don’t matter.  If it’s compelling and written well, I’ll read it to the end.  If not, I drop it.  Sounds harsh, I know, but it’s a new stance I’m taking because the stack of books I’ve got in the wings far exceeds the amount of time I’m able to devote to reading.  Such is life.  Sometimes I break my rule and continue reading in order to get the author’s conclusion or see how the plot finally unfolds, but not always.

All right.  So here goes.

The book in question on this go round is Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.  I definitely read it to find out Mr. Safran Foer’s opinion on the whole damn thing, which he researched and wrote about because he and his wife were about to have a baby, and he felt responsible for what that child was going to eat.

Sounds good, yes?  It is responsible for anyone to care about what they eat and where it comes from, that isn’t my issue.  My issue is that Mr. Safran Foer doesn’t write solely about that.  For example, he delves his history as a waffling vegetarian, and how, as someone who never liked dogs in the first place, inexplicably falls in love with a dog named George, and how, as a dog owner, he has a greater appreciation of the animal, even though he will never know what is going on her head, and that, by the way, people in other countries eat dog, so why don’t we?

While some of his argument is interesting and is well-written, some of it is superfluous and irritating.  Do we really need a “classic Filipino recipe” for stewed dog?  And no, by the way, I’m not citing this because half of me has relatives who may or may not have eaten Benji, but because it’s unnecessary.  I would’ve found the instructions on how to make Chinese-style braised puppy not only gratuitous, but also sensationalistic; the recipe is included to get a rise out of the reader, and that is a cheap ploy.  I don’t buy into the argument that Mr. Safran Foer is writing here in a  Swiftian, A Modest Proposal-esque fashion either.  Mr. Swift wrote satire as a means to insult the powerful; Mr. Safran Foer writes here for shock value.  If I had borrowed the audiobook of Eating Animals and Mr. Safran Foer were reading his own words on the recording, I would say that is tone is smug.  And that self-satisfied vibe wholly pervades the entirety of Mr. Safran Foer’s “introspective” sections of the book.

How I wish Mr. Safran Foer had spent his time exclusively writing about the American meat industry and its impact on the global state of the environment and that we as consumers have an obligation to eat out meat responsibly.  All of that I find interesting.  All of that I thought was well-written.  Give me more facts about how the animals we eat have been bred strictly to die, having done nothing with their lives other than produce significantly more meat than their predecessors.  Tell me how “efficiency” has made meat more economic, and how it is cheaper to kill worthless male chicks** than keep them alive.  Explain the ridiculousness of our country’s legislation in regards to our food.  I want to learn about that.

Everything else, however…

I’m intrigued to know the true cost of my food, and the implications of what I eat.  We cannot deny that in order to eat meat — be it pork, beef, poultry, seafood or game — an animal is killed.  In the same vein, we also must address the fact that, within an international culture that demands meat on its plates, animal husbandry is a necessity.  There is simply no way that tomorrow (or in the next year, or in the next decade) every single meat-loving person on this earth will decide to exclusively consume responsibly- and humanely- raised livestock.  People simply can’t afford it.

* Who knows if this is a viable phrase, but I’m using it.
** Aha, an arena in which the female is more valued than the male!  How nice.