Book Club Goes to Tanglewood.

TanglewoodMy book group likes connecting previous books and themes to our current reading.  Even more than that, we love a good field trip… which is how we ended up at Tanglewood for its annual celebration, Tanglewood on Parade.

Our being there wasn’t as arbitrary as it seems; last year we read three books that somehow revolved around Abraham Lincoln — The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrall, Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, and Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon* — and the concert featured Lincoln Portrait, Aaron Copland‘s composition commemorating the sixteenth President.  Interspersed in the music are some quotations from Lincoln, which were read that night by Deval Patrick, while the Boston Pops played.

Fireworks, 1The evening’s finale was Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture, replete with canons, and followed by a spectacular fireworks display.  It was my first time seeing non-televised fireworks — which was quite exciting, particularly since we happened to be sitting very close to where both they and the canons had been set off.  I don’t think any of us in my book club were expecting either canons or fireworks; indeed, when the first shot banged out during the overture, more than one of us screamed in fright and surprise.

In spite of the amazing fireworks and canons, my personal favorite piece of the night was Tributes: For Seiji, which was written as a gift for Seiji Ozawa by John Williams to honor Ozawa’s twenty-fifth years as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Ozawa held this position for four more years after that).  I thought it was brilliantly moving.**

Picnic, Thigh + WineAnother thing about the night that I found brilliant were other people’s ability to glamorize something as prosaic as a picnic.  Apparently it’s something of an established practice to pack a picnic to Tanglewood, especially if you’ve lawn tickets to a concert.  Our book club decided to follow tradition, toting in a mushroom tortellini salad with marscapone, corn on the cob with feta-mint butter, black bean and corn salad, mixed berries with brandy syrup, a berry buckle and several bottles of wine.  We blindly set up our spread by the pale light of the distant stage, observing as we did several of our neighbors’ citronella-scented candelabras, cut-crystal wineglasses and tables adorned with flower arrangements.  Honestly, such accoutrements were the norm.  We stood out (sat out?) by having mismatched blankets and no chairs — though our hurried discussion of this past month’s book might have also had something to do with it.

Lost City RadioWe had read Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón; it’s the story of insurrection in an unidentified South American country, and how lives are changed as a result.  The main character hosts the nation’s most popular radio show; each week, Norma reads an ever-expanding list of missing people.  As a result, listeners are reunited with their loved ones, though, ironically, Norma still searches desperately for her own missing person: her husband.

The aspect of the novel that I thought the most interesting was something quite small — the fascistic government that emerges after the war renames all populated areas with numbers.  The larger the city, the smaller the number.  To speak a city’s name rather than its number is highly punishable.  I found this tiny little detail fascinating.

In general, it seemed we had mixed feelings on Lost City Radio, but I can’t say for certain, as we were more focused on the evening’s music than on the book.  Please don’t blame either the novel or book club for that.  Not much could compete with canons, fireworks and the symphony — not even our appetites.  Which is really saying something.

* This is a little geeky of me to admit, but I kinda love how these three authors all have double Ls in their surnames.
** I should mention, I think, that I was raised almost entirely on classical music, and my love of it might also be interpreted as a little geeky.
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Sunday Brunch with Book Club.

I’ve got to say, book club was definitely one of my better ideas. I don’t normally toot my own horn, but in this case toot toot toot. When else would I be able to get together with a bunch of chatty, intelligent women about Mormons, murders and Massachusetts poets? More importantly, however else could I possibly be able to make as good an excuse to basically bake and eat and ton of buttery, rich food?

I had agreed to host our get-together, but it was so very hot, and the idea of turning on the oven or the stove was starting to stress me out. I did cave in and do some baking the night before, after the sun had set because I knew I wanted to serve some scones — since they are both easy and delicious; I adapted a basic recipe for an orange-rhubarb as well as a chocolate-cherry. Earlier in the week, I had dug up an old issue of Gourmet, from which I had pilfered a recipe for a really simple crumb cake that I knew I could throw together with great results. To cool us down, I chopped up some citrus and mint for a refreshing salad.

This month’s choice was a piece of nonfiction from author Sarah Vowell. Called Assassination Vacation, the book follows Vowell and a few of her family and friends on a series of road trips visiting sites related to the nation’s first three presidential murders. With her distinct style, Vowell not only guides the reader back to the times of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, but also details the truly surprising thread connecting them all.

Please note: when I say “distinct voice,” I am not only referring to Vowell’s vivid style of writing; she literally has what could only be described as an extremely recognizable voice, one that can often be heard on NPR as well as in The Incredibles (she’s Violet Parr).

In the end, we all seemed to like Assasination Vacation. It’s peppered with humorous anecdotes, Vowell’s musings on history and interesting excerpts from interviews the author conducted during the course of her research. Not only that, but Vowell’s depiction of her charming group of chauffeurs is so funny; an avid non-driver, she is completely reliant upon a combination of public transit, mass transit and friends and family to help her reach to her far-flung destinations. I think our collective favorite of her travel buddies was Vowell’s then-three-year-old nephew Owen, whom she writes about quite fondly. Take this, for example:

…[My sister Amy] phoned me, saying, “I asked Owen what he wanted to do today and he said, ‘Go look at stones with Aunt Sarah.’ Do you know what he’s talking about? What these stones are?”

I do. “He means tombstones,” I told her. “When you were off parking the car at the cemetery in Cleveland, Owen and I walked around looking for John Hay’s grave. Owen climbed on top of it and hollered, ‘This is a nice Halloween park!'” (That’s what he calls cemeteries.)

Here’s another description of Owen, one I personally love:

He’s truly morbid. When he broke his collarbone by falling down some stairs he was playing on, an emergency room nurse tried to comfort him by giving him a cuddly stuffed lamb to play with. My sister, hoping to prompt a “thank you,” asked him, “What do you say, Owen?” He handed back the lamb, informing the nurse, “I like spooky stuff.”

Now that’s my kind of kid.

(Incidentally, Stephanie suggested that book club volunteer to drive Vowell around for the next topic’s researching. So, if you’re reading this, Ms. Vowell, there are six food-loving book groupies in Massachusetts willing to give you a ride.)

Jam Crumb Cake, from Gourmet
Makes six to eight portions

For the cake:
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 ¾ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ stick unsalted butter, melted
½ cup milk
1 large egg
½ cup raspberry jam or preserves (I used half strawberry, half raspberry, since that’s what I had in the fridge.)

For the crumb topping:
¾ stick unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Generously butter a nine-inch square or round cake pan. Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Whisk together butter, milk, and egg in a large bowl, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined. Pour batter into cake pan. Dollop jam all over surface, then swirl into batter with spoon.
  2. Whisk together butter, sugars, cinnamon, and salt until smooth. Stir in flour, then blend with fingertips until incorporated. Sprinkle crumbs in large clumps over top of cake.
  3. Bake cake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean and sides begin to pull away from pan, about twenty-five minutes. Cool in pan on a rack five minutes.