Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

I liked Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking:  A Writer in the Kitchen.  But I didn’t love it, and I know it says more about me than about the book.  I’m not much of a cook, frankly.  I make good scrambled eggs, can roast some vegetables, and can make a decent grilled cheese.  I pretty much leave the rest of the cooking to my husband, who really enjoys the task (see?  I call it a “task”) and take solace in the fact that I enjoy baking and am good at it.41NSwNv9PfL

So I think someone who is more comfortable in the kitchen and has a more adventurous culinary spirit would appreciate this collection of food essays more than I did.  Laurie Colwin was a writer who lived in New York City and not only wrote about cooking for Gourmet magazine in the 1980’s, but also wrote five novels and three collections of short stories.  Sadly, she passed away from a heart attack at the age of 48.  Her writing has experienced a renaissance of sorts, particularly her food writing. (You can read an interesting article about how her essays continue to influence foodies now here.  The comments are particularly moving since her daughter responds to many who expressed their admiration.)

What I liked about the essays was the tone – she’s quite funny, breezy, and opinionated. She admits no formal training but more of a “let’s just see what happens” attitude to cooking, which is something I admire in people.  My husband has that.  She also consistently writes about cooking as a way to get people together and apparently was a great fan of casual dinner parties.  She writes in a way that conveys her sense of cooking as an act of love and service to her friends and family.  And yet my favorite essay was the one called “Alone in the Kitchen With An Eggplant.”  This one details her former one room apartment in which she cooked and hosted friends with a two-burner stove; essentially a hot plate.

When I was alone, I lived on eggplant, the stove top cook’s strongest ally.  I fried it and stewed it, and ate it crisp and sludgy, hot and cold.  It was cheap and filling and was delicious in all manner of strange combinations.  If any was left over I ate it cold the next day on bread.  

Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures.  Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest.  People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone.  A salad, they tell you.  But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.  

I looked forward to nights alone.  I would stop to buy my eggplant and some red peppers.  At home I would fling off my coat, switch on the burner under my teakettle, slice up the eggplant, and make myself a cup of coffee.  I could do all this without moving a step.  When the eggplant was getting crisp, I turned down the fire and added garlic, tamari sauce, lemon juice, and some shredded red peppers.  While this stewed I drank my coffee and watched the local news.  Then I uncovered the eggplant, cooked it down and ate it as my desk out of an old Meissen dish, with my feet up on my wicker footrest as I watched the national news.

She shares a recipe for bread that I intend to attempt as one of my 40 Challenges this year.  I’ve never made bread before but the notion is appealing and is pretty much like baking in my book.  Other than that, I wasn’t tempted to make any of her recipes, really.  For one thing, there’s a lot of beef, which I don’t eat.  She presented the recipes breezily but they seemed kind of complicated to me.  A lot of the things she liked to cook are not things I want to eat.  I grew a bit weary of her opinions as I read on, and I ended up skimming the last few essays.  I truly think that someone who enjoys cooking and feels intuitive in the kitchen would enjoy this collection, though.  Lots of five star reviews on Goodreads attest to that.  The rest of us would be satisfied with picking and choosing a few essays.

Have you read anything by Laurie Colwin?  Is there a food writer that you particularly like? How do you feel about cooking and/or baking?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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The Murder At The Vicarage by Agatha Christie

“My dear young man, you underestimate the detective instinct of village life.  In St. Mary Mead everyone knows your most intimate affairs.  There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

Fairly recently I was reminded that I’d never read a Miss Marple mystery, despite having read and enjoyed many of Christie’s mysteries featuring Hercule Poirot.  It’s one of those bookish oversights that I can’t logically explain.  My aunt was the first person to introduce me to Agatha Christie, when I was in high school.  She gave me a hardcover collection of five famous Poirot cases, and I was hooked.  This same aunt, however, prefers Miss Marple as a detective to Poirot, so why didn’t she give me Marple?  And why has it taken me 20+ years to get around to reading one with the clever spinster? Perhaps we’ll never know.

murder-at-the-vicarageIn any case, I’m glad I finally tried one.  This is the first featuring Marple, set in the fictional British village of St. Mary Mead.  I was surprised to find that Marple is almost a side character in the book, albeit a vital one.  The story is narrated by the Vicar himself, and the murder is one of those types where many in the village have a motive, and the victim is spectacularly unpopular. Colonel Protheroe is found shot to death sitting at the Vicar’s desk, and within hours we have two separate confessions from two probably suspects.

It felt very classically British and cozy, with all the gossipy spinsters contributing tidbits to the police investigation, as well as the Vicar himself dipping his toe into detective work.  I very much enjoyed the tone and humor of the book, finding it recalled my beloved Barbara Pym at times.  The Vicar’s wife, the much younger Griselda, is especially funny.  He asks her at the beginning of the book what she’s got scheduled that day, and she replies,

“My duty,” said Griselda.  “My duty as the Vicaress.  Tea and scandal at four-thirty.”

“Who is coming?”

Griselda ticked them off her fingers with a glow of virtue on her face.

“Mrs. Price Ridley, Miss Weatherby, Miss Hartnell, and that terrible Miss Marple.”

“I rather like Miss Marple,” I said.  “She has, at least, a sense of humor.”

“She’s the worst cat in the village,” said Griselda.

My only complaint is that this was a very slow read for me.  It took me a week, and my paperback edition is only 230 pages long!  I voiced my issue with a regular library patron who enjoys Christie and she said that the Marple mysteries do unfold at a slower pace than the Poirots.  I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly possible.  Or perhaps it’s just this particular title.  Any of you Christie fans care to weigh in on that one?

Despite the glacial pace, I did enjoy it.  There’s some clever misdirection by the master mystery writer, and I (once again) did not guess the murderer.  The Vicar and Vicaress were charming, and I found that Miss Marple grew on me as the story progressed.  She is indeed a “shrewd” character, as the Vicar describes her.  As all great amateur detectives are, she’s a keen observer of human nature, yet I found her to be humble as well – something I don’t think I can say of Hercule Poirot.  I am most definitely going to try another one in the series and see how I like it.  There are still many other Christie mysteries I’ve not yet read.  I find myself reaching for these when I’m stressed or in a weird reading mood. They’re dependably entertaining and serve as palate-cleansers.  No matter who the detective is, there will always be a place for Agatha Christie in my reading life.

 

Juliet Takes A Breath by Gabby Rivera

I really enjoyed reading Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath.  Several bloggers I follow had  recommended this coming-of-age novel and I thought it would be a good pick for my goal of reading more LGBTQ authors in 2017.  What I didn’t anticipate was what a lively, energetic voice the character of Juliet would have.  I didn’t anticipate the extent to which I would identify with Juliet, despite not being Puerto Rican or a lesbian. This novel truly was a breath of fresh air.28648863

The bones of the story is this:  Juliet is a freshman in college, and she’s just come out to her close-knit family in the Bronx the day before leaving for a summer internship in Portland, Oregon.  She obtained the internship with feminist author Harlowe Brisbane by writing a beautiful, funny, soul-baring letter to her, which the book opens with.

I’ve got a secret.  I think it’s going to kill me.  Sometimes I hope it does.  How do I tell my parents that I’m gay?  Gay sounds just as weird as feminist. How do you tell the people that breathed you into existence that you’re the opposite of what they want you to be?  And I’m supposed to be ashamed of being gay, but now that I’ve had sex with other girls, I don’t feel any shame at all.  In fact, it’s pretty fucking amazing.  So how am I supposed to come out and deal with everyone else’s sadness?  … You did this to me.  I wasn’t gonna come out.  I was just gonna be that family member who’s gay and no one ever talks about it even though EVERYONE knows they share a bed with their “roommate.”  Now everything is different.

While Juliet is in Portland she is dealing with the emotional fallout of her coming out to her family and also trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with her first girlfriend. She’s researching forgotten feminist heroines for Harlowe and learning new terms like “PGPs” (preferred gender pronouns.) She smokes weed and drinks soy milk and flirts with cute baristas and librarians.  She learns that while her idol may be an expert on feminism, she is still clueless when it comes to dealing with her white privilege.

What I really liked about this novel was the fact that we not only got to join Juliet on her journey, geographically and spiritually, but we also got to see a loving family grappling emotionally with her coming out.  There are some honest, wrenching phone conversations between Juliet and her mom, and she finds a safe haven later in the book with one of her aunts and cousins on a trip to Miami, FL.  I loved all the references to the music Juliet listened to – her description of Ani Difranco’s music absolutely cracked me up. (“Her music evoked images of Irish bagpipes and stray cats howling in heat.”) I loved seeing Portland through Juliet’s eyes.  I’ve visited the city a couple of times and could see Powell’s Books and Pioneer Courthouse Square in my mind.  I identified with Juliet in that I was once a fiercely feminist young woman in a conservative environment, eager to experience life in a more liberal place.  When I got to my small liberal arts college I, too, felt out of my depth with all the new-to-me terms and language people were using to describe themselves.  I liked seeing her wrestle with her lesbian identity, her feminism, and her brownness, trying to find a place for herself where the intersection of all three identifiers gets messy.  All sorts of characters in this book are earnestly trying to be good to one another, which is a refreshing tone in modern fiction.  It was funny profane, and sweet.  I think this book would be a lifeline to a young person trying to deal with their sexuality.  It’s an excellent pick for anyone looking to diversify and shake up their reading.  I’m glad I read it.

For a brilliant take on this book, check out Naz’s great review here.

Have you read Juliet Takes A Breath?  Do you have any other recommendations for a coming-of-age story or a novel by a LGBTQ author?  Have you ever visited Portland, Oregon?  Let me know in the comments.

A Friend From England by Anita Brookner

After reading Colson Whitehead’s dazzling, sweeping novel The Underground Railroad, I was in the mood for something smaller and more intimate.  I have it in the back of my mind (but not on my stated reading goals for the year) to read some of the books I already own.  So I reached for Anita Brookner’s A Friend From England, which I purchased last year at a used bookstore for $.75.  (What a steal!)

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The most 80’s cover ever?

It was a good choice.  Anita Brookner (who passed away last year, sadly) is a British author I discovered about nine years ago at the recommendation of a friend.  I have read nine of her novels including this one, and I consider her to be among my favorite authors, but she’s definitely an acquired taste.  Her novels (the ones I’ve read anyway) often follow a pattern.  There’s the main character, often a single woman, who is independent, quiet, solitary.  She is thrust into contact with a person or group of people wholly unlike her – gregarious, loud, or with family entanglements, for instance – and the growing relationship forces her to reconsider her life.  It’s not always a happy comparison, and I’ve finished more than one of her novels kind of bummed out.  Yet I can’t stop reading her!

First of all, she’s just a phenomenal writer.  Her language is so precise, so thoughtfully rendered, it’s just a joy to read.  Second, she burrows so deep into the minds of her characters that it leaves me with a pleasurable claustrophobia that I sometimes crave in my reading.  I want to know the characters, I want to try to understand them even when they can’t seem to understand themselves.  I want to feel that their thoughts and motivations ring true, and Brookner knows how to convey that.  And third, these books are quiet books about ordinary people and the workings of modern relationships. They are not epic in scope save the scope of the human heart and its yearning for connection.

880698So I haven’t actually written anything about this particular book, have I?  Well, essentially the plot is this:  Rachel, a single 30-something London bookstore co-owner, orphaned at a young age, is swept into the fold of a wealthy family and asked to be their daughter’s mentor/friend.  Heather, the inscrutable spoiled only daughter, makes a disastrous marriage and complications ensue for the entire family.  See? Not much there plot-wise, really.  But Rachel’s ordered, quiet life is completely upset by Heather’s refusal to accept her advice on how to live as an independent woman.  Rachel is forced to look at her own life and question her choices.

“Some of us have to work,” I said.  “Stay buoyant.  Stay purposeful.  Stay smiling, and helpful, and solvent.  People like us are braver than people like you will ever be.  And, frankly, I think I am light years ahead of you.  I know what I need, to be all these things, and clear-headed, and useful.  Women don’t sit at home anymore, you know, dreaming of Prince Charming.  They don’t do it because they’ve found out that he doesn’t exist.  As you should have found out.  I live in the real world, the world of deceptions.  You live in the world of illusions.  That is one of the differences between us.  Another one is that I don’t choose to go public every five minutes.  What I do is my own affair and nobody else’s.  Of course it’s terrible,” I said with some passion. “But you see, I’ve found out that there are no easy options.”

This wasn’t my favorite of the Brookner novels I’ve read.  It was a bit too much of a slow burn, only truly coming alive in the last third.  And the reason that Heather’s marriage falls apart is weirdly jarring.  But I liked it, and it provided just the type of reading experience I wanted, a quiet, slightly melancholy character study.  If you’re curious about Ms. Brookner’s books and want to know where to begin, I’d start with either Look At Me, Hotel Du Lac (for which she won the Man-Booker Prize) or Incidents in the Rue Laugier.

Have you read anything by Anita Brookner before?  Do you enjoy quiet, character-driven novels or are you more of a plot-driven reader?  Do you read an author regularly who kinds of bums you out, but you can’t stop reading them?  (Okay, maybe that’s just me, ha ha!) Tell me in the comments.

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

My standards for a mystery novel are a bit lower than my standards for other kinds of fiction, but I have three main requirements:

  1. It holds my interest.
  2. Children don’t suffer in it (or at least I don’t have to read about them suffering.  If they’ve already suffered before I come in I may be able to handle it.)
  3. It doesn’t have a pun in the title.  (Those are not my thing, sorry.)

James Lee Burke’s The Neon Rain fulfilled all of my requirements.  I’d been wanting to read some new mystery authors lately, since I’m totally caught up on Michel Connelly and have read so much Ruth Rendell.  Many of our library patrons read mysteries, so it’s nice to be able to recommend things and have conversations with them.  I’d heard good things about Burke, and the setting (New Orleans and Southern Louisiana) appeals to me.

51t2zgy1ezl-_sx306_bo1204203200_At first I wasn’t sure I was connecting with the main character, New Orleans police detective Dave Robicheaux.  In fact, it took me until page 200 or so to decide if I liked both the character AND the book.  Usually I’d have abandoned something that I was so ambivalent about, but the week I was reading this was a particularly bad one for me, and my attention span was shot.  I couldn’t have read (or probably enjoyed) anything more literary or complicated.  Reading it felt like watching a police procedural show on television, and that suited my mood just fine.

Some words I’d use to describe this book:  atmospheric, vivid, violent, gritty, occasionally implausible, occasionally poetic.  Burke is a beautiful writer, especially when he’s describing the city or the bayou or Robicheaux’s emotions.  Consider this example, from which the book’s title is explained:

…the truth was that I wanted to drink.  And I don’t mean I wanted to ease back into it, either, with casual Manhattans sipped at a mahogany and brass-rail bar with red leather booths and rows of gleaming glasses stacked in front of a long wall mirror.  I wanted busthead boilermakers of Jack Daniel’s and draft beer, vodka on the rocks, Beam straight up with water on the side, raw tequila that left you breathless and boiling in your own juices.  And I wanted it all in a run-down Decatur or Magazine Street saloon where I didn’t have to hold myself accountable for anything and where my gargoyle image in the mirror would simply be another drunken curiosity like the neon-lit rain striking against the window.

We learn early on that Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic, and a Vietnam veteran, and these two things define and haunt him throughout the book.  He’s also a detective in the style of Connelly’s Harry Bosch – someone with a passion to help the wronged, even if it means ruffling the feathers of potentially corrupt fellow law enforcement officers.  The plot sets off with Robicheaux digging into the mysterious death of a poor, young, black prostitute in Cataouatche Parish outside of New Orleans.  Dave discovered her body in the lake while fishing.  The local officials don’t want to do an autopsy and are acting suspicious when he makes inquiries.  This sets off a long chain of events that is kind of confusing, honestly, but involves drug lords, arm smugglers, and local mafia guys.  Lots of graphic violence ensues.

Robicheaux makes some implausible escapes from death, which stretched credibility a bit, but I rolled with it like I’d go with a plot line from “Magnum P.I.” or another detective show.  The one thing that annoyed me the most about the novel was the romantic subplot. Annie, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed social worker who meets Dave when he’s in the middle of a sticky roadside situation with some crooked cops, stretched my belief even more.  On their first date, he nearly gets her tortured and killed by some very bad men who are hunting him.  I’m sorry, but I’d get as far away from a man with Dave’s proclivity for danger as soon as I could.  But this was a relatively minor detraction from a pretty good, otherwise well-written mystery.

I gave it three stars, and I like it enough to want to read the next one in the series to see if it improves.  When I give a novel a three-star rating, it means I liked it.  Didn’t love it, didn’t dislike it.  Mysteries are my literary palate-cleansers, my comfort reading even if they’re dark and a bit disturbing.  They don’t have to have soaring prose or powerful ideas.  They just have to feel mostly authentic to me, and they have to take my mind off whatever might be going on.  This one succeeded on both counts.