Monday, February 28, 2011

Mailbox Monday

Thanks for joining me for Mailbox Monday! MM was created by Marcia at The Printed Page, who graciously hosted it for a long, long time, before turning it into a touring meme (details here).

The Library of Clean Reads is hosting in February.

I ended up with a fun selection of books last week:

The Leaves of Fate by George Robert Minkoff, the third volume of his In the Land of Whispers trilogy about Jamestown and America's earliest days.  I understand that this one is good on its own, but being the completist that I am, I'll have to get the first two, The Weight of Smoke and The Dragons of the Storm

Murder in the Library of Congress by Margaret Truman, because I am on a vintage mystery jag.

Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes, because vintage espionage is part of the same jag.

The Biographer's Moustache and The Folks That Live on the Hill, both by Kingsley Amis.

Karen Brown's Germany: Exceptional Places to Stay & Itineraries, to help me plan a trip to Bavaria.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Review of the Day: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall is as rich in texture and detail as the sumptuous tapestries Henry VIII hung in his palaces. Hilary Mantel tells the historical story of Henry's early reign and break from the Catholic Church from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from obscure beginnings to work for Cardinal Thomas Woolsey and then Henry himself.

The focus of the story is the political, religious, and Parliamentary maneuvers endeavored so that Henry could annul his marriage to Katherine, with whom he had a daughter, Mary, but no son. The machinations in themselves are interesting, involving diplomatic missions to France to get the support of the French king, court intrigues, assassinations, and imprisonment of political enemies.

What sets the book apart is Mantel's delving into the ideas behind the machinations. Henry's efforts to wrest power from Rome occurred during the religious upheaval of the Protestant reformation, but Henry himself was no Protestant. He belived Martin Luther and his followers to be heretics and opposed publishing the Bible in English. He didn't want to start a new Church; he just wanted to be head of the Catholic Church in England. But Protestant ideas were in the air, and Mantel weaves them into the story, presenting Cromwell as a Lutheran sympathizer and others within Henry's inner circle as ardent believers.

Another idea Mantel explores is the role of England's Parliament in the monarch's affairs. It was during the reign of Henry and the other Tudors that England's Parliament coalesced into its modern form. Henry used Parliament to ratify and thereby legitimize his decisions. Mantel looks at the political theory behind these events, offering an understanding of where they fit on the political continuum from total control by the Church to constitutional monarchy.

This blending of ideas and action make Wolf Hall fascinating. The addition of myriad details of daily life in the early 16th Century, the fact that so many characters shared first names, and Mantel's technique of overlapping conversation with the speakers' mental observations make the story hard to follow on occasion. But just as it is not necessary to trace a single thread in a tapestry to be dazzled by the overall creation, Wolf Hall is no less a masterpiece for getting a little tangled now and then.



(If you would like your review listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)


Wolf Hall won both the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was my Booker choice for the 2011 Battle of the Prizes, British Version.  There is still plenty of time to sign up for the challenge, which doesn't end until January 31, 2012.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Review of the Day: 365 Thank Yous

A few years back, John Kralik found himself in a bad spot. His law firm was struggling, his health was poor, his marriage existed only on paper, his girlfriend was going to dump him, his adult children weren’t speaking to him, and he was 40 pounds overweight.

Out for a lonely hike on New Year’s Day, Kralik had a sort of last gasp idea to try to make his life better by being grateful for what he had instead of focusing on everything going wrong. Inspired by a polite note from his girlfriend – and a box of unused office stationery – he decided to write 365 thank you notes as a way to make him concentrate on the good in his life.

365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life is the result of Kralik’s experiment. He hand wrote thank you notes to his children, his clients, his employees, his friends, his doctors, and even his Starbucks barista. His life changed profoundly for the better. Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that Kralik was in a much better position at the end of his project.

His story is a little bit “power of positive thinking,” but much more analytical and far less saccharin than the premise may suggest. Good things happened to Kralik when he wrote his thank you notes, but it is clear that it was the efforts behind the notes that caused the changes.

For example, Kralik decided to start with what he thought would be an easy note – one thanking his older son for his Christmas present. But when he went to send the note, Kralik realized that he didn’t have his son’s address. They were so estranged that he didn’t even know where his son lived. He had to call for the address, which led to his son inviting him to lunch, where his son finally paid him back $4,000 he had borrowed. It was the effort of reaching out to his son that lead to the beginning of a reconciliation, the elimination of Kralik’s resentment over the money, and, incidentally, the easing of some of Kralik’s financial stress. It was the thank you note project that set the ball in motion.

The book is filled with similarly encouraging anecdotes. Each will hit readers differently, some inspiring more than others. One that caught this lawyer’s attention was about how writing notes to clients who paid their bills on time forced Kralik to assess which of his clients were worth keeping and which needed to be cut loose -- an important business lesson for any professional.

All in all, 365 Thank Yous is a terrific, uplifting book that reminds us all to really focus on the good in life and to express our gratitude in simple, sincere ways. If it also promotes a proliferation of handwritten notes, I’m all for it.

If you would like your review of this book posted here, please leave a comment with a link and I will be happy to list it here.

I send a big THANK YOU to my law partner Mark O'Donnell for giving me this book.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Opening Sentence of the Day: The Indiscretions of Archie

"It wasn't Archie's fault really."

-- The Indiscretions of Archie by P. G. Wodehouse.

Snow is falling here in Portland.  This is definitely the weekend to tuck in with a funny Wodehouse classic.

Overlook Press is reissuing Wodehouse's books in a spiffy edition all with these bright, graphic covers.  I have about a dozen of them now and plan to collect more.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Venice Book List: Bella Città; Bellissimi Libri

Venice is at the top of my armchair travel destinations. It is such a magical city. I love to be there. I love to think about it. And I love to read about it.

This is a list of books about Venice, including fiction, non-fiction, and cookbooks. It is not a comprehensive list. These are the books about Venice that are on my TBR shelf now (in blue), on my wish list, or that I have already read (in red).

There is a much lengthier list of Venice books on a great website called Fictional Cities, along with lists of books about Florence and London. 

Any suggestions? Please leave comments.

The general list is in alphabetical order, by title. Following that is a list of mysteries by Donna Leon featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, all set in Venice. The lengthy series is listed in publication order, starting with the first book in the series.


Alibi by Joseph Kanon (novel)

The Aspern Papers and Other Stories by Henry James (short stories)

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt (non-fiction)

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan (novel)

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (novel)

Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier (short stories)

A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich (non-fiction)

The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (non-fiction) (reviewed here);

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (novel)

Locations by Jan Morris (non-fiction) (reviewed here)

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (play)

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro (short stories)

Serenissima by Erica Jong (novel) (reviewed here)

The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin (non-fiction; abridged)

Stone's Fall by Iain Pears (novel)

Stone Virgin by Barry Unsworth (novel)

Temporary Kings by Anthony Powell (novel)

Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark (novel)

A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi (non-fiction)

A Traveller's Companion to Venice, edited by John Julius Norwich (non-fiction)

Venetian Affair by Helen MacInnes (novel)

Venetian Holiday by David Campbell (novel)

Veneto: Authentic Recipes from Venice and the Italian Northeast by Julia della Croce (cookbook)

Venice Observed by Mary McCarthy (non-fiction)

The Wings of the Dove by Henry James (novel)

The World of Venice: Revised Edition by Jan Morris (non-fiction)


Death at La Fenice

Death in a Strange Country

Dressed for Death

Death and Judgment

Acqua Alta

Quietly in Their Sleep

A Noble Radiance

Fatal Remedies

Friends in High Places

A Sea of Troubles

Willful Behavior

Uniform Justice

Doctored Evidence

Blood from a Stone

Through a Glass, Darkly

Suffer the Little Children

The Girl of His Dreams

About Face

A Question of Belief

Drawing Conclusions

NOTE: Last updated December 28, 2012.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Teaser Tuesday Two-fer

"He thought intelligence a function of the individual and that groups of persons were intelligent in inverse proportion to their size.  Nations had the brain of an amoeba whereas a committee approached the condition of a trainable moron."

-- Bech: A Book by John Updike.

This is a novel-in-short-stories about a fictitious American novelist named Henry Bech. It is the first of a trilogy, followed by Bech is Back and Bech at Bay
This has renewed my faith in Updike after my somewhat disappointing run in with The Witches . . . and The Widows of Eastwick a few months back. 

"In most places and at most times, appreciation of savor in food has usually gone cheek by jowl with appreciation of beauty in women. The pleasures of the table have a natural affinity with the pleasures of the bed."

-- The Food of France by Waverley Root.  Well said, Waverly. 

While not given much to anecdote, Root does occasionally offer this kind of amusing generalization in his comprehensive account of the regional foods of France.

This is on my French Connections list and is the first book I am reading for the Foodie's Reading Challenge. It will also count as one of my Chunkster Challenge books, coming in at exactly 450 pages, plus an introduction.

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading, where you can find the official rules for this weekly event.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Happy Birthday, George Washington!

The story of Washington chopping down the cherry tree loomed large in my childhood, but I never think of it as an adult. It took me a minute to think why a hatchet symbolizes George Washington.

Mailbox Monday

Thanks for joining me for Mailbox Monday! MM was created by Marcia at The Printed Page, who graciously hosted it for a long, long time, before turning it into a touring meme (details here).

The Library of Clean Reads is hosting in February.

I got two books last week:

Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption by William Cope Moyers.  The author is the son of Bill Moyers and a former journalist himself.  He struggled with drugs and alcohol for years, before getting himself cleaned up.  He now is the vice president for external affairs at Hazelden Foundation, which provides addiction treatment and recovery services across the country.

I saw Moyer speak here in Portland last week.  He is an ardent speaker who told his story with animation and humor. Hopefully the book will be just as good.

Maps and Shadows by Krysia Jopek.  This is a novel based on the WWII experiences of the author's relatives, who were sent to Siberia from Poland during the war, then spent years drifting around the Middle East and Africa before reuniting and moving to America.  It looks terrific and I am going to turn to it soon.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Vicarious Opening Sentence: Sunken Klondike Gold

"If you travel to southeastern Alaska by water, your route will likely include Stephens Passage, a part of the Inside Passage between Skagway and Juneau."

Sunken Klondike Gold: How a Lost Fortune Inspired an Ambitious Effort to Raise the S.S. Islander by Leonard H. Delano.

It's actually my husband reading this book, which is why this is a "vicarious" opening sentence.  He nabbed it off my stack of Guilt List books the day it arrived.  It is just his kind of book -- a real life adventure story about sunken treasure, chock-o-block with photos of the salvage operation and historical pictures of the Klondike Gold Rush and people involved in the ship's sinking.

From what I observe, he loves this book. For one thing, he keeps exclaiming while he reads, "I love this book."  Other clues are: "This is a terrific book!" "These pictures are amazing!" And, "What a story!"

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Review of the Day: 99 Novels

99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 by Anthony Burgess.

It was the arrival of 1984 (the year, not the book) that inspired Burgess to compile a list of what he considered to be the 99 best novels published since 1939. He explains his inspiration in the introduction:

For thirty-five years a mere novel, an artifact meant primarily for diversion, has been scaring the pants off us all. Evidently the novel is a powerful literary form which is capable of reaching out into the real world and modifying it. It is a form which even the non-literary had better take seriously.

Why he chose to include only books published since 1939 is a little less clear. Burgess says only that "it is more poetic to begin with the beginning of a world war and to end with the non-fulfillment of a nightmare." His book choices, like his timeframe, are his alone. He chose books that brought him reading pleasure, but also "concentrated mainly on works which have brought something new – in technique or view of the world – to the form."

Each book, discussed in chronological order, gets only about a page, sometimes two, of Burgess's keen analysis. He briefly describes each book and a little about its circumstances, such as its historical context, how it fits in with the author's other work, or how it was received. He explains why he thinks it is significant and why he enjoyed it. Then he usually wraps up with a pithy little conclusion, such as, "The vitality of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning compensates for its faults of form," or "Written in the middle of the swinging sixties, it has a very clear vision of Western moral decay."

His mini-reviews are generally compelling. Some make you want to hole up with a particular book immediately; others engender respect for the choice, but little actual excitement. For instance, after reading 99 Novels, I am eager to crack the spine on The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark ("Brilliant, brittle, the production of a fine brain and superior craft"), but not looking forward to Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, a post-apocalyptic story written entirely in a made-up dialect ("This novel could not expect to be popular . . . [b]ut it seems to me to be a permanent contribution to literature").

It becomes apparent that Burgess was drawn to novels exploring the concept of free will. In particular, several of the books he chose deal with the exercise of free will in the face of religious tradition or political tyranny and suicide as an expression of free will. In discussing these concepts, Burgess doesn't avoid spoilers, probably because his analysis requires looking at the whole story. For those who enjoy the process as much as they payoff, this won't matter, but be warned.

The best part of 99 Novels is the introduction, in which Burgess expounds on the art of fiction, what he thinks makes a good novel, and the joys of reading. Filled with such gems as "BOOK can be taken as an acronym for Box of Organized Knowledge," and including a fervent apologia for popular fiction, this essay should be required reading for any bibliophile.


The list of 99 novels Burgess chose can be found here.  I've read several books because they were on this list and greatly enjoyed them.

If anyone else is reading the books on this list, please leave a comment on the list page with links to any related posts and I will list them there.


If you would like your review of this book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Opening Sentence of the Day: Because You Might Not Remember

You, for instance,
coming upon these words
not exactly by accident
or design.

-- from "Coincidence," the first poem in Because You Might Not Remember by Don Colburn.

I don't consider myself much of a poetry reader, but I do try now and again to fix that.  My friend Kirsten Rian, a talented poet in her own right as well as a teacher (and artist, and singer, and all-around Renaissance woman), helps by emailing a poem every Monday.

Now I have taken the plunge into this beautiful little book -- a "chapbook" although I don't know where the term comes from -- of poems by Don Colburn.  Last evening, over martinis, Hubby and I dabbled with reading a few out loud to each other (always good to spice things up now and again).

Our favorite was this one because it reminded us of neighborhood conversations we've had over the years:


Each year we gossip about the trees,
how the dull oaks browned before they burned
or maples and sycamores let go too soon,
their rioting a shade less vulgar this time,
the stolid dogwood late to catch fire.
When the curled wan papery beech leaves cling,
maybe deep into winter, we wonder what has ended
all that flourishing, what might last.
We remember drought, rain, frost,
the strickening wind --
whether it came or didn't come.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Opening Sentence of the Day: Bech: A Book

"Dear John,
Well, if you must commit the artistic indecency of writing about a writer, better I suppose about me that about you."

-- Bech: A Book by John Updike.

This is from the fictitious forward by Henry Bech, hero of Updike's novel-in-short-stories.  The stories, published between 1965 and 1970, tell of the exploits of an American novelist.  This is the first of a trilogy, followed by Bech is Back and Bech at Bay.

So far, this isn't like anything else I've read by Updike.  Bech seems more like a Saul Bellow hero.  I am enjoying the book tremendously.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I'm Famous!

I've been blurbed!

My review of The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt by Rulka Langer is quoted on the back of the reprinted edition.

This was one of my favorite books of 2010.  Subtitled "War Through a Woman's Eyes," it is a lively, personal memoir about the WWII German invasion of Warsaw.   

My full review is here. There is a hefty quote from my review on the back of the new edition, along with a glowing compliment from Alan Furst, author of Spies of the Balkans and other really good historical spy novels.

From my review:
An incredible book . . . thoroughly absorbing and quick to read . . . deserves a wide audience . . . would make an excellent book club choice, especially for readers who enjoyed  Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, The Diary of Anne Frank, or Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.

I feel like the Book Blogger Queen for a Day!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Chunkster Reading Challenge

Wendy at caribousmom is hosting this fun challenge again this year.  The challenge sign-up post is here.

This one runs through January 31, 2011, just like my Battle of the Prizes challenges, the American Version and British Version.  Maybe I can coordinate if I find some fat prize winners.

Since I didn't reach my chunkster goal in 2010, I am scaling down a bit in 2011 and signing up for the "Chubby Chunkster" level this year.  That means reading four books over 450 pages long.

One idea was Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  I planned on that one being my "big book" for 2011, but now it looks like that won't happen, so maybe 2012?

My Reviews

The Food of France by Waverley Root (reviewed here)
Cathedral by Nelson DeMille (reviewed here)

NOTE: Last updated on December 3, 2011.

Teaser Tuesday: The Food of France

"Though Champagne plays an important role in the history of France it does not play an important role in the history of French cooking.  It presents indeed, the anomaly of being the only important wine region in the country which has not produced on its own soil an appropriate cuisine to accompany its wine."

-- The Food of France by Waverley Root.

This is a terrific book! It is easy to understand why it is such a classic because it is a comprehensive review of the culinary development of all the regional foods of France.  The first section, which I am reading now, is called "The Domain of Butter." How great is that? 

This is on my French Connections list and is the first book I am reading for the Foodie's Reading Challenge. It will also count as one of my Chunkster Challenge books, coming in at exactly 450 pages, plus an introduction. 

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading, where you can find the official rules for this weekly event.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day!

Mailbox Monday

Thanks for joining me for Mailbox Monday! MM was created by Marcia at The Printed Page, who graciously hosted it for a long, long time, before turning it into a touring meme (details here).

The Library of Clean Reads is hosting in February.

Last week was my birthday, so I got a couple of books for presents. I also got a couple for myself and a new release from Hawthorne Books.

The Chronology of Water: A Memoir by Lidia Yuknavitch (from Hawthorne)

Of German Ways by Lavern Rippley (one of my birthday presents from a friend who knew I would love it)

Weekends for Two in the Pacific Northwest: 50 Romantic Getaways by Bill Gleeson (from my mom for my birthday)

The Crime of the Century and Difficulties With Girls, both by Kingsley Amis (I got these for myself after my mom introduced me to, my new favorite book site).

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Review of the Day: Breathing Lessons

I could have guessed before starting Breathing Lessons that the book would involve an ordinary family in Baltimore facing problems in an awkward but genuine way and somehow bumbling through to a moderately happy and definitely realistic end. That description fits every Anne Tyler book I’ve read and it fits this one too.

Unfortunately, this book sticks close to the basic theme without the variations that made the others I’ve read more interesting. For instance, Digging to America applies the basic theme to immigrant families; The Amateur Marriage takes the story further, to a post-divorce phase; The Accidental Tourist takes the show on the road to Paris; and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant turns it around to the children’s perspective.

In contrast, Breathing Lessons is the basic story. It takes place in one day, when Ira and Maggie Moran drive to a funeral and, on the way back, stop to visit their granddaughter in Maggie’s attempt to reconcile their son and former daughter-in-law. In describing the events of the day, Tyler tells the story of the Morans’ courtship, marriage, and children’s lives. She does it with her typical and impressive authenticity.

My only problem was that Tyler’s authenticity seemed too typical. Stripped of the variations that livened up the other books, Breathing Lessons lacked a hook to grab my attention. If this had been the first Anne Tyler book I ever read, I would have loved it. But having read four others already, I felt like I was covering old territory with this one.


If you would like your review of this book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.


Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons.  It was my Pulitzer choice for the 2011 Battle of the Prizes, American Version challenge.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Review of the Day: Shipwrecks, Monsters, and Mysteries of the Great Lakes

Shipwrecks, Monsters, and Mysteries of the Great Lakes by Ed Butts.

This is a short book with 10 stories of Great Lakes adventures, including monsters sighted on these inland seas and a sampling of the 6,000 or so ships lost on the Great Lakes since the Griffon disappeared in 1679.

It is a quick and interesting read for adults.  It would be a great book to read with kids ready to learn history. All the adventures and mysteries would make learning about inter-coastal commerce, industrial development, and navigable waterways much more interesting.


If you would like your review of this book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.


I got this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.  I am making good progress on my list, but still have a few to go.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Opening Sentence of the Day: The Food of France

"As far back as the records go, the people of the land now known as France have thought of food in terms of its taste more often than in terms of its nutritive qualities."

-- The Food of France by Waverley Root.

This has been on my TBR shelf for way too long.  I am so pleased to finally read it.

It was first published in 1958.  I am interested to see if things have changed, food-wise, in France since then.  Certainly Michael Steinberger makes the case that is has in Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, which I reviewed here.

This is on my French Connections list and is the first book I am reading for the Foodie's Reading Challenge

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Opening Sentence of the Day: 99 Novels

"1984 has arrived, but Orwell's glum prophesy has not been fulfilled."

-- 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 by Anthony Burgess.

It was the arrival of 1984 (the year, not the book) that inspired Burgess to compile a list of what he considered to be the 99 best novels published since 1939.  I've been working on the list of novels for several years, but just now got around to reading the book. I wish I hadn't waited so long.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Teaser Tuesday: Death in a Strange Country

"It would have been easy for Brunetti to grow indifferent to the beauty of the city, to walk in the midst of it, looking and not really seeing.  But then it always happened: a window he had never noticed before would swim into his ken, or the sun would gleam in an archway, and he would actually feel his heart tighten in response to something infinitely more complex than beauty."

-- Death in a Strange Country (1993) by Donna Leon. This is the second in Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series set in Venice. 
Leon does a good but not great job of using the spectacular setting.  She has a few passages of soaring praise, like this one, throws in a lot of place names, and makes a few generalities about the people of the city, but she could do more.  Hopefully the later books in the series will better capture the spirit of the place.

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading, where you can find the official rules for this weekly event.

Opening Sentence of the Day: Death in a Strange Country

"The body floated face down in the murky water of the canal."

-- Death in a Strange Country (1993) by Donna Leon.

This is the second in Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series set in Venice.  I read the first, Death at La Fenice (1992), several years ago, but the series has only recently caught my attention again.

Venice is such a magical city.  I go through periods of enthrallment with Venice, which don't necessarily correspond to actual visits and usually only lead to extensive periods of armchair travel. 

I think I will make a list of Venice books. At the top will go The World of Venice by Jan Morris, still my favorite "travel" book ever, more of a biography of a city.

Any other suggestions?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mailbox Monday, Giveaway Winner, and an Informal Giveaway

Thanks for joining me for Mailbox Monday! MM was created by Marcia at The Printed Page, who graciously hosted it for a long, long time, before turning it into a touring meme (details here).

It was a lot of fun to host MM in January.  This week, MM moved to the Library of Clean Reads for February.

The winner of my final Mailbox Monday giveaway was Beth at The Crazy Life of a Bookaholic Mom ( pick #21).

Beth won an ARC of Bering Sea Blues: A Crabber's Tale of Fear in the Icy North by Joe Upton.  Thanks again go to Mary Bisbee-Beek, an incredibly diligent book publicist, for providing the bounty.


I got two books last week:

Honolulu by Alan Brennert. This is for my March Book Club.  It looks good.

Remembering the Power of Words: The Life of an Oregon Activist, Legislator, and Community Leader by Avel Louise Gordly with Patricia A. Schechter.  OSU Press was nice enough to send me this memoir, but I am sticking with my New Year reading resolution to eliminate, not add to, my Guilt List.  So if anyone is interested, leave a comment and I will pass it on to someone more appreciative.

Cookbook Library: Classic Spanish Cooking

Classic Spanish Cooking: Recipes for Mastering the Spanish Kitchen by Elisabeth Luard

I bought this book on impulse because the book itself is so tactilely and visually pleasing.  It is a thick, squat book, only 5" by 7" and 2" thick; filled with adorable illustrations; with cardstock-weight pages; and with two grosgrain ribbon markers, one orange and one brown. I wanted to eat the book itself, it was so pleasing to me.

As it turns out, it is also a great little workhorse of a cookbook.  It features 100 basic Spanish recipes, which is enough to liven up a few daily meals without being overwhelmed.  The idea is to provide the "core recipes that are the building blocks for traditional Spanish fare."  That is all I need.

The book also features Luard's charming little side essays about the culture and cuisine of Spain, where she lived with her family for many years.  She introduces most of the recipes with a general description and a few hints about the dish or how to serve it. 

For example, her recipe for braised lamb shanks (calderera de piernas de cordero) advises that you can leave it in a low oven, tightly covered, overnight and "it will come to no harm." That is really all I ask for when it comes to home cooking.


4 lamb shanks
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 tablespoon diced serrano ham or lean bacon
8 oz. small shallots or baby onions
1 large carrot, "chunked"
1 lb ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded, and diced
2-3 garlic cloves, crushed with a little salt
1-2 rosemary sprigs
1-2 thyme sprigs
1/2 teaspoon peppercorns, crushed
1 generous glass of dry sherry or white wine (about 3/4 cup)

1.  Wipe the lamb and season with salt. Preheat the oven to 300F. 

2.  Heat the oil in a roomy flameproof earthenware or enamel casserole that will just accomodate the lamb shanks in a single layer. Brown the meat lightly, turning to sear on all sides. Settle the shanks bone-end upwards.

3.  Add the remaining ingredients, packing them around the sides of the casserole. Bring all to a boil, cover tightly (seam with a layer of foil, shiny side downwards, if you're uncertain about the fit) and transfer to the oven.

4.  Allow to cook gently for at least 3 hours -- longer if that's more convenient-- without unsealing, unless your nose and ears tell you that the meat is beginning to fry, when you'll need to add a splash of water. The meat should be tender enough to eat with a spoon and the sauce reduced to a thick syrupy slick -- very delicious indeed.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Review of the Day: G

John Berger won both the Booker Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for G, his picaresque novel about the illegitimate son of an Italian merchant and an English intellectual. The plot follows the life and loves of the unidentified hero from his birth in the late 1800s through middle age.

So far so good. Then, like Berger, I have to switch to metaphor to describe the book: Imagine sitting at a table with a watchmaker as he demonstrates to you how to take apart and put back together a complicated watch. He explains each minute process in detail to make sure you understand every intricacy.

In theory, this should be interesting – seeing a master craftsman demonstrate his talents doing something you've always taken for granted (how a watch works) and making you think in a new way. But in reality, it is going to be tedious. The parts are tiny, it takes forever, and no matter how much he explains, you are never going to be able to track it all.

Now imagine that you have to sit there while this watchmaker takes apart and reassembles four or five different watches, explaining the process in the same excruciating detail.

Now, for watchmaker and watches, substitute John Berger describing G's sexual conquests – in excruciating detail, from seduction, through climax, to afterthoughts. Over and over.

Now – yes, it gets worse – add a third person at this table. Interspersed throughout the Don Juan episodes (sometimes interspersed in alternate paragraphs with no transitions and no punctuation to indicate dialog), this omniscient narrator drones on and on about the historic events that are the backdrop to G's adventures. There is a 19th century labor uprising in Italy, the early Socialist movement in England, the Boer War, the first airplane flight across the Alps, WWI trench warfare, and Italy's plotting to free Trieste from the Austrians. But G isn't actually involved with any of these events, so they never become more than a newsreel playing in the background. (Sorry to mix my metaphors – blame Berger.)

G has more plot than many an experimental novel. And, like reassembling a watch, it may involve genius. But I was more than happy to see it end.

(If you would like your review of this book listed her, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)

This was my "double-dipper" choice for the 2010 Battle of the Prizes, British Version.

The 2011 Battle runs from February 1, 2011 to January 31, 2012.  Sign up here, or click the logo.

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