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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Movie Night with Book Club.

My book club has gone through a string of heavy, rewarding and highly-involving books; when it was time to pick the next title, we all were craving something lighter. We still wanted to have the next plot somehow connect to the one that came before it — Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara, was, amongst other things, about the relationship between brothers and sisters, so when someone brought up Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews we laughingly agreed that it would be a good fit. We decided not only to read the book, but to also watch the film adaptation. Only two of us had read the novel before (neither Heather nor Melissa could really remember the details), and none of us had seen the movie, so we thought it would be a perfect departure from our reading record, which has included such titles as The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company by Brian Hall, both densely-written books.

You just try and tell me that my book club isn’t the best ever.

I’m too young to recall the hoopla surrounding the book when it was first published in 1979, but I distinctly remember seeing copies for sale in the book aisle of ShopRite when I was a kid; its cover art completely drew me in, even though I had no idea what the story was about. There was an illustration of a house, and in one of the topmost windows was a cut-out — as if it were an actual window — through which I could see the picture of a blonde girl. (Honestly, I thought it was the coolest thing.) When I flipped open the cover, the second page revealed the blonde girl surrounded by a blond boy and two younger golden-haired children. Behind the four of them was an ominous figure approaching them from out of the shadows; all five had pallid skin, leading me to think at that young age that this was a scary book, possibly about vampires.

I was wrong, on both counts.

There is nothing scary about Flowers in the Attic, except perhaps Andrews’s unnecessarily abundant use of punctuation and her inability to write not only realistic dialogue, but a believable narrative in general. Here’s an example from the very beginning:

“Yes, Momma, I know exactly what you mean,” Christopher piped up. “You did something of which your father disapproved, and so, even though you were included in his will, he had his lawyer write you out instead of thinking twice, and now you won’t inherit any of his worldly goods when he passes on to the great beyond.” He grinned, pleased with himself for knowing more than me. He always had the answers to everything. He had his nose in a book whenever he was in the house. Outside, under the sky, he was just as wild, just as mean as any other kid on the block. But indoors, away from the television, my older brother was a bookworm!

For those of you are unaware, Flowers in the Attic is the story of the four Dollanganger children: Chris, Cathy, Cory and Carrie. At the beginning of the novel, which spans three years, Chris and Cathy are fourteen and twelve respectively, while fraternal twins Cory and Carrie are five. When their father is killed in a car accident, their mother Corrine moves them to her childhood home in Virginia, which isn’t so much a house as it is a sprawling mansion. Upon arrival, the children learn that Corrine’s parents have exiled her from the family for marrying her half-uncle; in order to get back into her father’s good graces — as well as to lay claim to her inheritance — Corrine conspires with her mother to hide the four children in an unused portion of the manor while she sweet-talks her father. The novel gets its title from the playground the Dollanganger children make for themselves beneath the mansion’s eaves, since they are locked into a room with attic access and are forbidden to leave. Over the years, Cathy and Chris become increasingly attracted to each other, even going so far as to, um, consummate their relationship.

It would be a flat-out lie to say that any of us enjoyed the book, though I do know that we all burned through it; Amanda says it was because she just wanted it to be over already. Even so, we were determined to watch the movie version when we met up at Heather’s adorable new house.

Before we assembled ourselves onto the vast sofa (which we kept on referring to as “the party raft”), we had to get down to the serious business of food prep. After all, in our book club, what we eat is just as important as what we read… one could even argue that it’s even more important, in some cases.

While Stephanie rolled out the crust for two pizzas (rosemary, red potato and smoked cheese; eggplant and goat cheese), Heather fried up some squash fritters, which she served alongside a zingy mustard dipping sauce. Darlington had baked some scallion-and-cheese biscuits, Melissa had made a mixed-berry pie and Amanda provided the drinks. Earlier in the week I had volunteered to make a mac and cheese because I had a craving, but I had been hankering for a specific version: my aunt’s.

(My aunt Hasmig is my father’s sister, meaning she spends her time hanging out on the Lebanese and Armenian branches of my family tree. The thing is, I was raised to address her with Tagalog word for aunt, which is Tita. But none of that matters though, because her mac and cheese is neither Armenian nor Filipino. It’s just tasty and, better still, can be eaten with your hands once cooled and cut into squares. This isn’t, of course, to say that you can’t use a fork and knife, but what I want to know is why would you?)

When we were settled on the raft with our heaping plates and overflowing glasses, it was movie time. For a while, we kept shouting out derisive commentary to drown out the dialogue — yes, the film is that awful — but after a time we stopped doing even that. In fact, half of us fell asleep; I think I might have been the first to close my eyes, come to think of it. None of this stopped us from looking up factoids about the film afterwards — Kristy Swanson won the Young Artist Award for Best Young Actress in a Horror or Mystery Motion Picture, the exteriors were shot at Castle Hill in Ipswich — and it’s certainly not going to prevent me from reading the sequels. As terrible as Flowers in the Attic was, I just need to know what happens, the same way I just have to finish an open bag of Milanos: it’s unhealthy, irresistible and very regrettable indeed.

Tita Hasmig’s Mac + Cheese
Makes about twelve portions.

1 pound egg noodles
1 stick butter, plus one quarter
½ cup flour
4 cups milk (I use skim since that is what I drink, but if you can even use cream or half-and-have you want something richer)
1 pound mozzarella cheese
bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 375°. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook egg noodles according package instructions. Drain and set aside.
  2. While noodles cook, melt butter in a large saucepan. Gradually stir flour into melted butter and cook over medium heat; whisk until a roux forms, then stir in milk. Whisk constantly until combined and sauce is free of lumps. Add cheese and salt and pepper; continue to stir until cheese has melted completely.
  3. Grease the bottom and sides of a large Pyrex or oven-proof baking dish, then evenly distribute breadcrumbs across the surface. Add cooked noodles to cheese and stir to combine. Pour noodle and cheese mixture into the baking dish and sprinkle the top with more bread crumbs. Cut the last quarter stick of butter into pieces and scatter across the breadcrumbs. Bake until top browns, about thirty minutes or so. Let cool, and cut into squares.

Sunday Morning Brunch with Book Club.

Another Sunday, another brunch date with book club…

This time, we all gathered at Amanda’s apartment in Harvard Square to discuss Henry and Clara, which happens to be the fourth book we’ve read that somehow deals with the Civil War years. (The first three were March, Assassination Vacation and Afternoons with Emily.) By Thomas Mallon, this novel is the fictionalized account of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the young couple who had the misfortune of sharing Lincoln’s box at the Ford Theater the evening the President was assassinated.

Personally, I think this is a fascinating subject. After all, I have no recollection of ever, during any of my history classes, learning about the Lincolns’ box-mates. (Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t believe I even knew the President and First Lady had box-mates!) Not only that, something I also find extremely interesting is the fact that John Wilkes Booth became the first person to assassinate a president — if there were a club, I’m sure Leon Czolgosz, Charles J. Guiteau and Lee Harvey Oswald would elect Booth himself president.

Two other aspects of the novel that captivated me were the title characters — Henry and Clara — themselves. In addition to being lovers and spouses, the two were linked by another bond: they were stepsiblings. While not related by blood, their marriage was still thought of as extremely unconventional and even downright odd; their presence at Lincoln’s murder did little to elevate their status in society. In fact, Henry — already painted by Mallon as being somewhat unstable — was driven to insanity, and ultimately ruined both himself and his family. (It is a little tricky, writing about something that is a historic fact as well as an invented fiction. I keep wanting to write in present tense to describe the novel, but since it is so intertwined with that actually took place, I find myself writing in the past tense. Bear with me, please.)

Ultimately, everyone in book club seemed to like Henry and Clara very much… except for me. When the others spoke about the absorbing characters and intricately-woven plot, I thought about the lackluster writing and uneven pacing. Though I can certainly see the allure of the storyline, I still stood alone in disliking the novel.

What we agreed on, however, was a topic about which we all see eye-to-eye: the spectacular quantity and quality of food we assembled. This time around, we had some fluffy blueberry pancakes, a richly decadent quiche, sparkly mimosas and a mango-and-raspberry salad. My contribution was carrot cake (in cupcake form), made from the bunch I had received in my CSA box last week. Not only were they my first go at carrot cake baking, but also my first time at carrot cake eating. I’m pleased to say they came out quite well.

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting, from The New Best Recipe Cookbook
Makes ten to twelve portions

for the cake
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound carrots, peeled
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
½ packed cup light brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 ½ cups safflower, canola or vegetable oil

for the frosting
8 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1 tablespoon sour cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups confectioners’ sugar

  1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position; heat the oven to 350°. Spray a thirteen-by-nine baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper; spray the parchment.
  2. Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.
  3. In a food processor fitted with with the large shredding disk, shred the carrots (you need three cups). Add the carrots to the bowl with the dry ingredients and set aside.
  4. Wipe out the food processor and fit with metal blade. Process both sugars with eggs until frothy and thoroughly combined, about twenty seconds. With the machine running, add oil through the feed tube in a steady stream. Process until mixture is light in color and well emulsified, about twenty additional seconds.
  5. Scrape mixture into a large bowl; stir in carrots and dry ingredients until incorporated and mixture is streak0free. Pour into prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, thirty-five to forty minutes, rotating the pan from front to back halfway through baking time. Cool the cake to room temperature in the pan on a wire rack, about two hours.
  6. When the cake is cool, process cream cheese, butter, sour cream and vanilla in a clean food processor until combined, about five seconds, scraping down the work bowl with a spatula as needed. Add confectioners’ sugar and process until smooth, about ten additional seconds.
  7. Run a paring knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Invert cake onto a wire rack, peel off parchment and invert cake again onto serving platter. Using a spatula, spread frosting evenly over the surface of the cake. Slice and serve.