Three Books, Two Days, One Lake.

This is what my summer has been like so far:  Maine, Maine, Maine, Maine.

See, we just got back from a weekend at Little Sebago Lake with Keith’s family; they’ve been renting the same house for the past thirty years, and I’ve been going up for the first week in August for the past nine years or so.  This year, Keith and I only stayed for a weekend, but that didn’t stop me from taking part in my favorite lakeside activity: reading.

Wanting to be prepared, I brought more books than articles of clothing — it wouldn’t be possible to get to each one during the stay, but I’m a really moody reader and knew I’d appreciate the variety, even if it meant I wouldn’t make my way through even half the stack.  Here’s what I read:

Those Who Save UsI am fascinated by World War II, and so will greedily consume any- and everything related to it — including, I’m not ashamed to say, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which I’ll be watching later this summer.  Jenna Blum‘s debut novel Those Who Save Us both is and isn’t about the Second World War; it’s also about guilt, love and the relationship between mothers and daughters.

Since emigrating to Minnesota, Trudy’s mother Anna has never discussed her experiences in Germany during World War II with anyone, particularly her daughter.  Now a German history professor, Trudy begins interviewing other German Minnesotans about their lives during the 1930s and 40s.  What she records changes Trudy’s opinion of her mother irreversibly.

Those Who Save Us swaps its narrative back and forth between Trudy’s present-day existence and Anna’s past.  Normally, when I read a multiple-character stories I find myself drawn more to one individual than the other, but Blum writes both mother and daughter so compellingly that I’m unable to pick favorites.

It’s difficult to discuss much of the plot without giving everything away, but what I can elaborate upon is, albeit briefly, what Anna did to ensure she and young Trudy survived the harsh times of World War II Germany.  Unwillingly, Anna takes a lover: the Obersturmführer of Buchenwald.  To say their relationship is strained and tense is an understatement of absurd proportions — though the exact same words can be used to describe the dynamic between mother and daughter.  Happily, Blum allows her characters to earn their peace authentically; not once do their revelations — and, in time, the novel’s conclusion — seem forced.

The Best of EverythingI was talking on the phone with my friend Amee the other night; during our conversation I confessed that I’ve always wished I could stand on a street corner in New York during the late 1950s and early 60s, and just people-watch.

“Imagine,” I said dreamily, “women wore hats and gloves, and got their hair set…”

Women do all this and more in Rona Jaffe‘s groundbreaking first novel, The Best of Everything.  Published in 1958, the book is has influenced modern-day television shows as disparate as Sex and the City and Mad Men (a personal favorite).  Through the five fresh-faced secretaries featured in The Best of Everything, the reader gets an incredibly authentic view into a very distinct period of American life — especially considering Jaffe wrote the novel when she was in her mid-twenties and working as an associate editor at Fawcett Publications.

Under no circumstances would I call Jaffe’s work here literature, but I will enthusiastically refer to it as compelling and engrossing reading.  I will also say it was oddly prescient — the women in The Best of Everything find themselves embroiled in situations that my friends and I (and our friends’ friends, and theirs, and women everywhere) still encounter today: men issues, work issues, friend issues, parent issues.    Luckily, the creepiest part of the book — blatant, unabashed sexism — seems mostly outdated.

The Sweet Life in ParisOne day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, I’ll have a little walk-up in Paris, except we’ll call it a pied-à-terre, where I’ll live with Keith and our two dogs named Virgil and Geraldine, and I’ll wear stripey bateau-neck tops with quarter-length sleeves and dart in and out of bakeries and market stalls with my basket of groceries, and each night Keith and I will walk the dogs along the Seine.

You know what they say about girls being able to dream.

In the meantime, David Lebovitz‘s anecdotal cookbooky memoir The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious — and Perplexing — City will have to tide me over.

If you’ve not read Lebovitz’s blog, start reading it now.  It’s funny, observant and full of fool-proof recipes — and his book is more of the same.  My only complaint, for lack of a better word, is that Lebovitz’s choice of chapter-concluding recipes don’t necessarily pertain to the tales he spends the previous pages telling, which isn’t a bad thing, of course.  I just wanted a bit more continuity.  Though with instructions on how to make a plum and raspberry clafoutis and pain d’epices au chocolat, I’m kind of a jerk for being so nitpicky.

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Dining Out in Maine: Primo.

Primo logoOn our second night out in Maine, we drove to Rockland for dinner at Primo.  Like Francine, Primo is located in a renovated house, but this time the house in question is a restored Victorian on one and half acres of working farmland.  In a way, it’s like the old L’Espalier, but with a farm-to-table spin; about eighty percent of the current menu at Primo comes from the restaurant’s own gardens.  Apparently the gardens are expanded each growing season, and right around this time of year, the piglets are brought in; come fall, they’ll provide the kitchen with prosciutto, pancetta and other salumi.  During our trip, Keith and I were a bit too early for a piglet visit,  much to my disappointment, but that didn’t prevent us from enjoying our meal.

Primo 1I was still riding high on my shellfish craze, so once I saw the appetizer of “oysters two ways,” I put ($13.00) down my menu (in spite of the fact that a little bit of me truly hates menu items that are two ways or three ways, or — even worse — things like duets).  Way one (bottom right corner) was roasted with wild leek butter and tomatoes, and way two (bottom left corner) was alluvium with lovage and white balsamic vinaigrette.  Both, as you can see, were served on ice, and even though I clearly read the word roasted in the description, still I was surprised to feel the heat of the roasted oyster on my tongue.  That isn’t to say I didn’t like it, of course; in fact, in my opinion, it surpassed its stunningly briny and tangy counterpart, which I would have gleefully traded my three cold oysters for three more roasted.

Primo 2I went with one of the night’s specials as my main; it was a veal chop with potato “risotto” and roasted vegetables ($32.00).  (Allow me to take a moment to say I also dislike things in quotation marks like faux descriptives.  It’s a peeve.)  Regardless of how unPC it is to admit this, I must express how much I love veal, the main reason why I ordered the last chop Primo had that night.  Keeping this in mind, imagine how disappointed I was to receive a chewy, underseasoned piece of meat.  Keith suggested I send my plate back for some adjusting; it’s something I’ve only done once and hated doing, so instead I focused mainly on the potatoes and vegetables, which were both very nice.

Primo 3When it comes to desserts, I normally like to keep things simple with a gelato or an ice cream, which is why I picked three of Primo’s offerings to finish off my meal: chocolate, mango and brandied pear ($8.00).  The chocolate I chose because, to me, no dessert is complete without some chocolate; this sorbet was so luscious and rich I wouldn’t have been surprised if our server had rushed up, apologizing that she had accidentally given me a custard.  The mango was a perfect balance of tart and sweet, but the true star of the plate was the brandied pear — honeyed, with the taste of brandy hovering at its edges.  Had it been possible, I would have asked for a pint to take back to the cottage.

With our checks came a few after-dinner sweets: passion fruit marshmallows and two different kinds of cookies.  I can only describe the marshmallows as perfect, so perfect in fact, that I quizzed our server relentlessly on the chef’s technique until she ushered Keith and me into the kitchen to find out for ourselves.  The secret, it seems, is in whipping the egg whites.

Though I found my food was a bit uneven, I still think Primo is a lovely place to spend an evening, stretching the night out over a series of courses.  As we were leaving, Keith and I climbed the tall and narrow stairs to the bar on the second floor.  It’s a very relaxed and laid-back environment with some exciting food on the menu, making the two of us wish that we had more time in our week for a return trip.

Primo
2 South Main Street
Rockland, Maine 04841
207.596.0770
primorestaurant.com

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Dining Out in Maine: Francine.

Francine logoIn order to keep with our lazy, relaxed vacation vibe, Keith had scoped out some local restaurants for us to try during our stay in Cushing.  Our first stop during the week was Francine, set on a quiet residential street just outside the Camden town center.  It wasn’t quite warm enough to eat on the flower-framed patio, even with our layers and scarves.  Instead, we sat in the cozy dining room and checked out the menu, which changes daily based on the availability of local, organic produce.

Francine 1Since we were on the coast, it seemed only fitting — well, fitting and delicious — to try the rope-grown mussels ($12.00).  They arrived in a cast-iron skillet along with some lime quarters; underneath it all was a miniature pine bough.  I can’t recall having eaten something imbued with a pine-y essence before, but I can tell you it added a really nice woodsy-ness to the mussels; it complimented the zesty lime spectacularly.  I only wish that the dish skillet came with some bread to sop up the delicious juices.  The back of my spoon didn’t do it the same sort of justice that a hunk of baguette would have done.

Francine 2I stuck with my self-imposed shellfish trend for my main course, choosing the herb-roasted lobster with ramps, oyster mushrooms and bacon-mashed potatoes ($28.00).  Now, lobster’s all well and good, and this one was quite lovely, but in my mind the highlight of the plate was the produce.  The oyster mushrooms were creamy and delicious, and full of concentrated flavor, like the most intense soup.  The ramps were so fresh that it felt as though they had been picked moments before my plate was placed before me.  I wasn’t too crazy about the level of smokiness the bacon imparted on the potatoes, but that’s just me — I have smoke issues.  It’s just not my cup of tea.

Francine is located in what looks to be a converted house.  From the outside, it looks fairly conventional, with white siding and pleasantly weather-worn trim around the patio.  Inside, however, the dècor is an unpredictable mix of modern details and the traditional touches.  For example, we sat at an antiqued table beneath a frosted-glass window, our backs resting on bold graphic pillows.  The cuisine seems to reflect Francine’s interior design — classically influenced, but altogether something new.

Francine
55 Chestnut Street
Camden, Maine 04843
207.230.0083
francinebistro.com

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Maine Reading Round-Up.

Like I wrote on Monday, I got myself through almost eight books last week.  It was great — slinking around the boathouse, my quilt trailing behind me like a patchwork wedding dress, a book held directly in front of my face.  I purposely packed a mix of guilty pleasures and “literature,” though I’ll happily confess it was an uneven ratio.

The Time Traveler's WifeI started the week off with The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; the novel is the story of Henry, a librarian who has unwillingly and unpredictably traveled through time since he was a small boy, and his wife Clare, an artist who has known Henry since he materialized in front of her when she was six.  Interestingly, the Henry Clare first meets is in his forties; when the pair meet as adults living in Chicago, he has no idea who she is, though Clare has fourteen years of his friendship and love under her belt.  Niffenegger alternates between both characters’ points of view, helpfully listing the date in the present, Clare and Henry’s ages during that time, the date in the past that Henry travels to, and the couple’s respective ages then.  You see, Henry always finds himself back at the important moments in his life; almost all of those moments revolve around Clare.

It’s an enviably fascinating story that Niffenegger creates, but I kept on throwing the book down and complaining to Keith that the level of writing didn’t come close to matching the elegance of the concept.  Clare and Henry’s first-person narratives are so similar that I found it difficult to tell them apart, and the novel’s dialogue was frustratingly forced.  At one point, for example, characters actually lecture on The Music You Must Listen To In Order To Appreciate Punk, listing pivotal bands from the 1970s; it is incredibly preachy and awkward to read, and feels as though it is lifted directly off of the back of a compilation album.  Flaws notwithstanding, I kept turning pages, eager to learn what was going to happen next — something every writer I know dreams of  in their readers.  In that sense, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a complete success.

A month or so ago, I had read a short article in the New York Times about author Maeve Binchy‘s cottage on the Irish coast.  When I was in high school, I went through a Binchy phase, checking copies of her novels out of the library and devouring them.  It’s been years since then, and I hadn’t given Ms. Binchy a second thought until the Times piece, which reminded me of how much I used to enjoy reading about life in 1940s, 50s and 60s Britain.  So back to the library I went, picking up Silver Wedding, Echoes and Light A Penny Candle; I read them back-to-back.  Their plots are similar, but only in the sense that each focuses on Irish families.

In Silver Wedding, Binchy allocates a chapter per character; she uses this space to tell their sides of the story, which circles around a couple’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.  Regardless of whether the tale is told by their wayward daughter, the chic maid of honor, the priest who officiated the cermony or the couple themselves, Binchy gives her each of her characters a richly-colored history.

EchoesEchoes is set in the fictional seaside town of Castlebay, where Clare O’Brien  — yes, that’s two Clares in one week — struggles to make her family understand why she wants a better life than one resigned to running a shabby grocery store.  Her only way out is via studying and scholarships, so after years of hard work and the aid of her progressive schoolteacher, Clare escapes to university in Dublin.  There she reconnects with a childhood acquaintance, and soon falls in love.  Trouble is, he’s the son of the town doctor, and his snobbish mother has never liked Clare; she likes our heroine even less  once she gets pregnant.  This being both Ireland and the 1950s, Clare and the doctor’s son marry, which leads to even more troubles, the least of which is post-partum depression and infedility.

Unlike Silver Wedding and Echoes, I had read Light a Penny Candle years and years ago; still, I found myself surprised and engrossed in its pages.  It’s World War II; to avoid the trauma of bombings and shortages, Londoner Violet White sends her adolescent daughter to live in the Irish countryside with Maureen O’Connor, an old friend.  Soon Elizabeth White and Aisling O’Connor become the best of friends, and their lives forever bound to both London and the village of Kilgarret.  As they grow older, they together face the drama of boyfriends, sex, and family.

Now that I think about it, Binchy’s bibliography has got to be without a doubt my guiltiest of guilty pleasures, but let’s get one thing clear: her books are not even remotely trashy, no matter how scandalous I’ve made their plots sound.  They are written far too earnestly for that.

The Wednesday WarsI’ve got the weakest weak spot for adolescent fiction.  My love of Lois Lowry is well-documented, and I think I’ll be reading books geared towards young adults well into my sixties, especially if writers like Gary D. Schmidt keep on producing work like The Wednesday Wars.

The alliteratively-named Holling Hoodhood dreads Wednesday afternoons; it’s when the rest of his seventh-grade classmates get excused from school early to attend either CCD or Hebrew lessons.  The only lonely Presbyterian in his grade, Holling spends Wednesdays alone with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, who he is convinced hates him.  Indeed, Mrs. Baker is an imposing enough figure, and after she tries fruitlessly to pawn Holling off to a colleague, she resigns to actually, well, teaching.  The path Holling and Mrs. Baker take together isn’t a conventional one — sure, it’s paved with Shakespeare, but it’s also bricked with rats, surfaced with the Yankees (Holling lives on Long Island), and cobblestoned with the Vietnam War (it is the 60s).

Schmidt is clever with his narrative, confidently writing Holling’s thoughts and observations in a way which is both poignant and funny.  And I mean funny — there were times where I sat alone outside on the swing overlooking the cove, laughing my head off, much to the gulls’ confusion.

When it comes to books, I don’t discriminate between genres; I’ll read pretty much anything.  It doesn’t even need to be particularly well-written, though clearly that is ideal.  Sometimes, a compelling story holds more weight than the writing…  not that I’m saying quality of writing isn’t important.  It’s just that there are times where a plot can be so gripping that graceful syntax is secondary.

The Name of the WindThis isn’t the case at all in Patrick Rothfuss‘s The Name of the Wind, which is book one of his Kingkiller Chronicle series.  The story — that of a legendary musician/magician living under an assumed identity, and the past that has caused him to go into hiding — defines the phrase “page-turner.”  At one point during the week, I stayed up until well past three in the morning as too many exciting things were happening in the book, all preventing me from putting it down.

Rothfuss structures the novel interestingly.  The protagonist, Kvothe, is making a living as the proprietor of a backwoods inn; a traveling scribe realizes who the innkeeper is and convinces Kvothe to tell his story.  Kvothe complies, and so the book’s chapters then swing in and out of the present and past.  Obviously, Rothfuss isn’t the first author to pivot a plot through time, but what he does so cleanly is steadily build tension in both Kvothe’s first-person retelling of his own history and the third-person narratives that anchor that which takes place in the present — which is why you too will have a hard time taking a break from it.  Honestly, I can’t heap enough praise on this book, despite its terrible cover art.  If I can’t convince you to give it a whirl, maybe Publishers Weekly will; it listed The Name of the Wind as one of the best books of 2007.

Unaccustomed EarthMy friend Ben turned me on to Jhumpa Lahiri, though it took me a not inconsiderable amount of time to finally read The Namesake.  I still, embarassingly, cannot say the same of Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning anthology of stories, Interpreter of Maladies (though I will say vehemently that I put in a request at my library ages ago).  I did, however, get my hands on Lahiri’s most recently published book, Unaccustomed Earth.

Like Interpreter of Maladies before it, Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of stories; there are eight of them here, the final three of which are intertwined.  Is that trio the most memorable of the bunch because of it, because of their connection?  My answer to that, even if Lahiri gives the reader more pages to better understand the cardinal characters, is not necessarily.  Equally noteworthy is the smitten grad student infatuated with his new housemate, the daughter trying to reconnect with her widowed father, and the young girl remembering her parents’ circle of friends.

What’s fascinating to me is that while Lahiri tackles similar topics in her works — assimilation, Westernization, the push/pull of tradition — she does so in such a way that instead of seeming redundant, she gives her themes even more depth by expounding upon them.  It is as if Lahiri is gently awakening the reader by tenderly opening the curtains of each window in a house, until the entire building is flooded with a brilliant light.

So there you have it, the seven books I completed while in Maine.  The eighth, which I started in the boathouse’s bed and finished on the bus in Cambridge, was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.  It’s widely and rightly considered to be a modern classic, as Robinson’s deft prose tells the tale of the elderly Reverend John Ames as he painstakingly begins a journal of his life to pass down to his young son.  Robinson fully immerses the reader in Ames’s thoughts, slowing the pace to reflect that of an aging, rural preacher.  Gilead isn’t a fast read, but each page — each word — is worth your time.

The Official “Back from Maine” Post.

Cove's EdgeA week ago I was sitting on a swing that overlooked a quiet salt-scented cove; I had a book in my lap and a beer in my hand.  Today I’m sitting on my sofa, listening to the traffic rumbling by; my computer is warming my thighs and I’m drinking a Coke Zero.

What a difference a hundred and seventy miles makes.

Keith and I spent our week in Cushing reading, napping and making paseo to various ridiculously picturesque seaside towns like Belfast, Camden, Rockland, Rockport and Wiscasset — which happens to be home to two of the most perfect shops ever, Smitten and Rock Paper Scissors.  A visit to either is worth the drive north alone.  Unfortunately, neither store has a website, which could be considered good news for my wallet… though I’ve already mentioned to Keith that I might call Smitten and have them send me a few things, like a pair of their wonderful contoured-to-the-palm mugs.

While we had two fantastic meals out (at Francine in Camden and Primo in Rockland, more on those in later posts), I spend most of the vacation either curled up with a quilt or wrapped in my oversize wool sweater by the water, reading.  I tore through seven and a half books last week, which may be something of a record for me.  I’ll let you know what I read and my thoughts on those books in a bit.  I just wanted to drop you a quick line to say, Hello, I missed you, let’s catch up.

Sound good?

*Photo from Cove’s Edge, where we stayed.  We were too relaxed to take our own pictures.

Away, and an Apology.

MaineI know I haven’t been around as much lately, but I’m hoping your patience with my absence will hold a little while longer.  I’m heading up to Maine for a week — we’re renting a cottage on a cove in Cushing.  I’m really looking forward to it: reading in the porch swing, picking interesting stones from the rocky beach, falling asleep while smelling the sea air…  I won’t have Internet access while I’m away, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty to report when I get back!

Map from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas.

Dinner at Street + Co.

Earlier this year, Keith and I took a mini-vacation up to Maine for a long weekend. We stayed at a B+B in Ogunquit and made the rounds to the area restaurants we had read or heard were not-to-be-missed. While we squeezed in as many stops as possible (555, Arrows, Duck Fat, Fore Street, MC Perkins Cove) there are only so many meals in a day. We knew more trips would have to be made in order to hit the other spots on our list, so when we were driving back from the lake we decided to detour into Portland for dinner at Street and Co.

A part of Fore Street’s “family of restaurants,” Street and Co. focuses almost exclusively on fresh fish and seafood and is located on Wharf Street, a cobblestoned pedestrian-only stretch of the Old Port that’s lined with boutiques and places to eat. Even though it was early on a weekday evening, the restaurants all seemed very busy; in fact, there was over an hour’s wait for indoor dining at Street and Co. Keith and I lucked out though — we just so happened to walk in as a couple was finishing up their meal at the bar, so after a brief wait we were able to sit down and go through the menu.

We decided that we would share a bite-sized tapa of sorts, along with an appetizer, before ordering our entrées. For our first course, Keith and I chose a small plate consisting of a dollop of soft goat cheese over slivers of red pepper and sautéed onion. Though it sounds incredibly plain, the flavor was anything but. The creamy goat cheese combined with the warm peppers and onions was fantastic — just great, straightforward food. We had to ask for more bread, which was wonderful in its own right, in order to swipe the dish completely clean.

For our second course, we decided on the crabmeat sautéed in brown butter. Served in with sautéed mushrooms and nestled in between two layers of puff pastry, this too was superb. It’s easy for a cooked mushroom to overpower a dish with its earthy taste, but that was most definitely not the case here. The mushrooms were a great compliment to the shredded crab, balancing delicate and nutty flavors really well. The puff pastry — well, let’s just say that if I had my way and health wasn’t a factor, foodstuff enclosed in puff pastry would be a larger part of my diet.  If I had to make one complaint, it would be that the dish leaned a bit towards the salty side, though that honestly didn’t bother me as I tend to enjoy salty food.

It should come to no surprise that I was once again indecisive when it was time to select an entrée.  One of the night’s specials — a fisherman’s stew made with tomato and saffron — sounded so very appealing; then again, so did the scallops with Pernod and cream.  In the end, it was the bartender who decided for us, telling Keith to order the stew and me the scallops.  Though I did steal a few bites from Keith’s plate and thought it was tremendous, I’ve got to say that my scallops were beyond amazing.  At one point, I nudged Keith and said, “I want to live in this pan.”  (Imagine: what a delicious little house I could make inside a broccoli stalk, what a lovely hike I could have over black barley mountains, and what great swimming amongst boulders of scallops.)   The cream and anisette combined to make a luscious sauce for the scallops — I not only cleaned my plate, but used my knife to scrape off the vaguely burnt bits.  It was that good.

If I could change one thing about Street and Co. it would be this: the location.  Sure, Portland isn’t that far a drive from Boston, but that doesn’t change the fact that I want to pick up each of the restaurant’s corners, fold it into a tidy little square and put it in my pocket.  That way, a meal as great as this would always be within reach.

Street and Co.
33 Wharf Street
Portland, Maine 04101
207.775.0887

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