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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Breakfast at Good Enough To Eat.

good-enough-to-eatI’ve had breakfast at the Upper West Side’s Good Enough to Eat twice, and in two similar situations.  The first was something like two years ago — my friend Amee was visiting New York from LA and had a very small window in which we could meet, so small that it was an early breakfast or nothing.  This time around, it was Judy and Dorian visiting New York and Keith and I with the small morning window.  Both stories ended in the same way, with breakfast.

good-enough-to-eatTechnically, I decided to get a more lunchy than breakfasty meal, ordering a BLT ($10.50).   It arrived on toasted slices of whole wheat bread, which really served as vehicles for bacon more than anything else, as there was something like eight thick slices peeking out from between rounds of tomato and leafy lettuce.  While there was an overabundance of bacon on my sandwich, I’m sad to report the disproportionate amount of basil mayonnaise, which — to be completely truthful — was the reason why I selected the BLT over an omelet and biscuits.  Would more basil mayo have transformed this sandwich into something spectacular, as opposed to mundane?  It’s doubtful, but I’ve no way of knowing.

(Side note: when I pulled my camera out of my bag to photograph my meal, I was surprised to find that the LCD screen was completely shattered.  I made do by taking this shoddy, shoddy, shoddy picture with my phone, and upon returning to my computer hours later, the first thing I did was order a new camera.)

If you’re thinking of dropping into Good Enough to Eat for breakfast, keep a few things in mind — mainly, that you will have to wait.  By wait, I don’t simply mean for a table, though you will certainly do that as well.  What I mean to say is that after you finally have a seat and place your order, be prepared to wait for your food; in our case it was over half an hour.

good-enough-to-eat-cow

The upside of the restaurant is its atmosphere; if you’re going to have to wait, you might as well wait in a cozy environment.  The entirety of the small space is decorated in a country, farm theme with a mostly-cow motif.  In one of the two restrooms, for example, are stylized artistic portraits of cows; one is called Angus Warhol and the other Henri Mootisse.  Even if cows aren’t your thing, the friendly service will make your wait seem a little shorter.

Maybe.

Good Enough To Eat
483 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, New York 10024
212.496.0163
goodenoughtoeat.com

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Dinner at Momofuku Noodle Bar.

If there’s too long a line at Momofuku Ssäm Bar in the East Village, walk an extra five minutes or so around the corner to its sibling on First Avenue, Momofuku Noodle Bar.  The music is just as loud, the scene just as sceney, and the food just as lip-smacking.  It’s also a good deal cheaper, with large plates ranging from fifteen to twenty dollars, as opposed to Ssäm’s twenty to thirty.  Most importantly, you can get Chef David Chang’s not-to-be-missed buns at both spots.

momofuku-noodle-1When I say these buns are an essential order, I am not exaggerating.  If anything, they’re a revelation — soft steamed buns brushed with hoisin, sprinkled with scallions and layered with thinly-sliced cucumber, in the middle of which is the most glorious piece of pork.  The buns can be made with chicken or shiitake instead of pork ($9.00, regardless of protein), but I can’t see why anyone would want to have anything aside from the pork.  Honestly, I can’t stress how completely amazing it is; there’s impossibly tender meat under the most incredible strip of luscious fat.  Each bite of bun is an incomparable combination of flavors: sweet, fresh, crisp and just plain divine.

momofuku-noodle-2I went a different route than usual with my main course, ordering the sole vegetarian entrée from the restaurant’s menu: ginger scallion ramen ($11.00).  While the Momofuku ramen, with its three different pork preparations and its poached egg, is almost twice the size, the meatless dish is tasty in its own way.  The ginger scallion ramen is served warm and is tossed with seasonal vegetables.  In my case these vegetables were roasted cauliflower and cucumbers coated with a sweet and tangy dressing.  These were actually the high point of the bowl for me, even more so than the salty, nutty noodles (which, it should be said, were tremendous).

The restaurant’s walls are paneled in chunky slats of blond wood which play off the black ceiling, chalkboards and slate floor really nicely.  While most of the seats are at communal tables lined with squarish stools, I highly recommend getting a seat that overlooks the kitchen; from that vantage point, it’s possible to watch the chefs prepare each dish — and, of course, drool.

Momofuku Noodle Bar
171 First Avenue
New York, New York 10003
212.777.7773
momofuku.com/noodle

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A Bite + a Cocktail at Jazz Standard.

Just a few steps away from the 28th Street subway station is Jazz Standard, the jazz bar New York Magazine called “the best jazz club.”  It’s also below Blue Smoke, which Time Out New York named “best barbecue.”  The thing is, I can’t speak to either — my knowledge of jazz is limited to smatterings of bossa nova and “Take Five,” and barbecue is not my forte.  When I can speak to is the ambiance downstairs, the taste of a certain side dish and the Mingus Dynasty.

Judy, Dorian, Dennis, Keith and I swept past Blue Smoke entirely, heading straight downstairs for the nightly live music.  As a bassist and lover of jazz, Dorian had been looking forward to seeing a show since he and Judy had arrived for their brief stay in New York.  That night we were seeing Ming Dynasty, the seven-piece original Charles Mingus “legacy” band; the bassist even plays Mingus’s lion’s head bass, the scroll of which is carved to look like, well, a lion’s head.  Like I said earlier, I don’t know uch about jazz, but the band was thoroughly enjoyable, maintaining an incredibly level of intensity.  My favorite member of the Dynasty was its most adorable pianist, who fairly launched himself off of his stool with his energetic dancing.  I also liked the trombonist — why do players of brass instruments always look so surprised with each breath?

I was feeling a bit peckish and knew I’d need a snack before dinner; along with a cocktail called the Illinois Swing (Tanqueray, prosecco and lemon juice, $11.00) I ordered a side dish: roasted cauliflower gratin ($6.95).  Each bite was buttery, garlicky and salty, with a hint of lemon and something that I swear was nutmeg.  I found myself almost sucking on each crisp-tender piece to get all the juice out.

Unfortunately, Jazz Standard doesn’t allow photography during the show — which is when I was eating — so let my words describe the aesthetic of the place.  For me, the standout feature was the red upholstered wall behind the band.  It added an oomph to the matte gray walls ans black ceiling and matched the curved red banquettes.  If anything, it was like being in a comfy, secret den — that everyone should know about.

Jazz Standard
116 East 27th Street
New York, New York 10016
212.576.2232
jazzstandard.com

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