Monthly Archives: November 2013




“Every story would be another story and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.” Eudora Welty.

Sometimes the sense of place in a novel is so powerful, the reader is happily planted in the midst of sights, smells, sounds, and does not want to leave anytime soon. The language and skill of the writer in creating time and place makes the reader believe the story. The right details make a successful setting.

In the novels named here setting is an extraordinary component of the tale. Brief quotes give you a taste of how the writer creates a world for the reader to enter. Some of these novels are not best known for their settings. But I promise you, that each will convince you that you are in a place you never before knew or appreciated, and yet you will feel like you know that place, like you have actually been there, even if it no longer exists except upon a page.

1. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (1971)

“At the turn a battered live oak leaned on limbs that touched the ground on three sides.” From New Almaden

Each section of the story is a different location in the American West seen through the eyes of a young woman from the East. Grass Valley, New Almaden, Santa Cruz, and Leadville to start, places in California, Colorado and Idaho.

2. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (1997)

“All the elements that composed it suggested the legendary freedom of the open road: the dawn of day, sunlight golden and at a low angle; a cart path bordered on one side by red maples, on the other by a split-rail fence; a tall man in a slouch hat, a knapsack on his back, walking west.”

Sometimes, I think, there is no place I’d rather be than the Smoky Mountains and the American South during the Civil War. That’s a reader’s luxury. In real life it was mostly a devastated and cruel place. How the characters were able to deal with that devastation and cruelty in such a beautiful place is a wonderful gift to the reader.

3. English Creek by Ivan Doig (1984)

“That month of June swam into Two Medicine country.”

Here the reader visits Northern Montana sheep country before the Second World War. This reader went back to the same place for three books and I would like to go again.

4. The Girl With The Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevelier (2001)

“I came to love grinding the things he brought from the apothecary–bones, white lead, madder, massicot–to see how bright and pure I could get the colors. I learned that the finer the materials were ground, the deeper the color. From rough, dull grains madder became a fine bright red powder and, mixed with linseed oil, a sparkling paint. Making it and the other colors was magical.”

This author creates a central character with keen powers of observation who serves as a guide to life in the seventeenth century Dutch household of a painter.

5. Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving (2009)

“For a frozen moment, his feet had stopped moving on the floating logs in the basin above the river bend; he’d slipped entirely underwater before anyone could grab his outstretched hand.”

In the lumber camps of New Hampshire in the 1950’s, I felt the icy wind and water and the dense growth of the forest so keenly that I appreciated the cookhouse scenes to warm me up. But given that, the land of Twisted River and other locations in this book are places I could visit again and again. Whether in a lumber camp or a Boston restaurant kitchen, the reader is completely in that place.

6. Martha Quest by Doris Lessing (reissued 2001), the first of the Children of Violence series.

I remember being transported and set down in a farm in Rhodesia, a place I knew little about and had never even seen pictures of, at the time I read this. Doris Lessing has recently died and you can honor a brilliant and memorable novelist by reading one of her books.

7. The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin (2012)

“They climbed through cold-embittered forest and sought respite in bright meadows thick with wildflowers and insect thrumming.”

The reader finds respite from the rigors of this tale in this valley in the Oregon Territory at the turn of the twentieth century. It is, in part, the contrast of violent acts with the comforting surroundings of an apple orchard that make this book great.

8. Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen (2008) originally published as a three volume trilogy in the 1990’s, now revised and combined in one volume.

“ In his old cabin lighter up Caxambas Creek, Lucious Watson sat straight up in the shard of moonlight, ransacking torn dreams for the hard noise that had awakened him––that rattling bang of an old car or truck striking a pothole in the sandy track through the slash pine wood north of the salt creek.”

The Florida Everglades at the turn of the twentieth century are angry and raw. In this novel there are many moving passages about the land that strike love and fear for the reader. The tale rises out of the land like humid air and animal noise. Sometimes the reader feels as if another breath will not come, and yet this is a book I hope to read in its new form.

9. The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar (2007)

“When they gazed at the sea, people held their heads up and their faces became anxious and open, as if they were searching for something that linked them to the sun and the stars, looking for that something they knew would linger long after the wind has erased their footprints in the dust”

The reader is thrust into the everyday life of modern-day Bombay India. I almost believed I had seen the city with my own eyes.

10. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. (2010)

“At New Year’s he had given Anne a present of silver forks with handles of rock crystal. He hopes she will use them to eat with, not to stick in people.”

The reader walks beside Thomas Cromwell through the courts of Henry VIII and in the countryside of England in 1520.

Isn’t that what readers love, to walk beside a character, to view the story close-up?

I chose these books because in each case, though only one was read in the last six months, I remembered the settings and their importance to the story. I hope you will choose to read at least one of these books. Excellent depiction of setting makes a reader truly love a book because he/she travels there in the imagination of the mind.




Happy Thanksgiving wishes to all readeatlive blog readers and your loved ones. Wishing you good times. I’m thankful for each and every one of you! Enjoy whatever this holiday holds for you. If you are enjoying two holidays in one, you are indeed fortunate.





Last week my husband and I managed to be some of the first customers in the door for breakfast at Ellen’s. Eating at Ellen’s is a tremendous treat, and soon, some of the greatest food I’ve ever eaten anywhere was set in front of us, and we began to savor it. Ellen’s is a place we go to fairly often, but not often enough. If there is a better restaurant experience, I don’t know about it.

I took time to enjoy shrimp and cheese grits with bacon and poached eggs on top. My husband ate cinnamon raisin walnut French toast, his usual favorite. He couldn’t not eat that sweet crunchy goodness. I shared the grits, and he rated the dish a fourteen on a scale of one to ten. The grits were creamy and cheesy, topped with lots of sautéed shrimp and bacon and a perfect poached egg. The bacon they used yielded top quality flavor. The egg blends into the grits as you eat and….. well, it is just a heavenly combination.

He also says the house blend coffee is great. Oh, and he loved his French Toast, as always. I had a bite and there is no doubt why it is his favorite, or one of them anyway.


There’s a rack of unbeatable baked goods and a counter of pastries, muffins and desserts. The cookies are huge. The muffins are the best I’ve ever tasted. The glorious desserts are so inviting they hurt your eyes. These are all artisan house made, and I never go home without a treat of one kind or another.


The menu includes more breakfast good-to-eat food than you can imagine. And they serve lunch too. We headed out with a turkey avocado pita to get us through the day-long swim meet that was our next stop. It was stuffed with fresh avocado, lettuce, tomato, cucumber and sprouts along with tasty turkey. (I opted out of the onion)

Credit where credit is due. Sylvia Rector of the Detroit Free Press wrote a great piece in the Nov. 14 “Play” section on Shrimp and Grits. Grits are a favorite of mine. I decided to do a series on grits for this blog. This is the first item. Look for future grits posts on the food page.

Everyone at Ellen’s was so very gracious to us, taking time from their busy duties to chat and allow pictures. I was extra giddy with how much I love the place and how good the food tasted and my concentration on what I might write, the information I needed, and taking pictures was somewhat compromised.

You must find a way to get to this place and enjoy the magnificent food they serve. The staff is as warm and welcoming as the food. If you can’t be there soon because you live in another state or another county, believe me, this is a place to put in your dreams.

For the locals. Where is this wonderful place?

This wonderful place is located at 2495 Orchard Lake Road in a small strip mall in Sylvan Lake, Michigan. They have a very good website They also do catering and wedding cakes. When I say everyone at this place works hard, it is not a cliché but a fact. And they do it with smiles and kindness.

By the time we left that morning, the restaurant had filled with customers. Ellen, George, and the staff thanked us for coming in, but my goodness, they deserve the thanks. Satisfying, delicious food like they prepare and serve is something to be truly thankful for, and never to be taken for granted!

Chef-Owners George and Ellen

Chef-Owners George and Ellen



The Light In the Ruins
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday (July, 2013)
320 pages

This novel is a good read! I thought it even better than his recent Sandcastle Girls. I especially liked the twist and turns in the plot and the multiple voices. It is well structured with plenty of suspense. The characters in this story are interesting. They resist the ordinary.

I’ve enjoyed several of his books. I’m a fan. Skeletons at the Feast and Midwives are two favorites. His next book is expected out in summer of 2014: Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.

The January issue of Writer’s Digest includes an interview with Mr. Bohjalian. He has some writing tips that, as a struggling writer, I find helpful. He also has something to say to us as readers.

Writing and Reading Tips from Chris Bohjalian:

• In order to write a novel you must be passionately interested in the topic.
• He calls Light In the Ruins his Romeo and Juliet. If you read it with that in mind, does it change your expectations?
• He begins a novel with a promise of what the book will be about and lets his characters and research show the way. Some novelists think it’s a bad way to work, but since I often work this way, I’m happy to hear him talk about it.
• The processes of research and writing overlap.
• He encourages all writers, even those who are unpublished, to approach strangers with questions to aid their research. Mr. Bohjalian says “in my experience we’re all a little narcissistic about our professions and love sharing information.” (p.45) I agree and offer the proliferation of blogs as evidence.

Bonus outtakes from the interview are available at Some of what he says may surprise you.

His general advice to writers is to write books you love to read. I would add similar advice to readers. Read books you wish you had written. I suggest that Light In the Ruins is a book you will love to read and a book you may well wish you had written.



Are you looking forward to seeing The Book Thief become a film?

What can we expect when one of our beloved books arrives on the big screen? The Book Thief opens this week in New York City and by the end of the month the film will be playing in Detroit.

Since it was published in 2005, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak has become a classic. It is an imaginative and creative telling of the power of reading in a dangerous time. The narrator of the story is Death. The heroine is a spirited young girl named Liesel. She lives in Germany during World War II. The book has been deeply enjoyed by many. It stands up to multiple reads.


Some advance information makes the film sound promising. John William’s score has been almost universally praised. We can have high hopes in that department. The film is directed by Brian Percival who directed many episodes of Downton Abbey. I loved Downton! Many reviewers have praised the performances by Sophie Nelisse as Liesel, and Geoffrey Rush as Hans Hubermann. The movie was filmed in Berlin, and I hope that means that it is visually authentic. Some have called it a compassionate film. I’m a fan of compassion, and if that is what the film delivers, I’ll be pleased.

On the other hand, I’ll not get my hopes too high. In the trailer Liesel’s hair is beautiful and books burn, but little else raised expectations. Apparently, the film is opening to mixed reviews. That may give all of us much to talk about. The New York Times was less than enthusiastic. No review I’ve read gave high praise. The fresh-faced beauty of the young actors as seen in still photos gives me pause. Will the movie be fantasy rather than reality? What will we see of war, deprivation, love, and courage?


Also on my mind. I loved the character Rudy in the book. How will he fair in the movie? It may be that the movie-makers got hung up on whether this was a movie for children or adults? But, if reading and writing are shown to be more important to humanity than fear and war, I know I’ll be applauding!

Children survive because of their resiliency and the adults that care about them. I hope we see that. I hope we see that the written word is valued. That’s what I expect this movie to deliver in a believable way. If it does that, I can’t wait to enjoy it.

Oh, and one more thing. I wonder who will voice Death?

If you see the movie, let us know what you think!



How do the kitchens of our great-grandmothers and their heirloom recipes connect with today’s cooking and eating?

I came across this recipe. I realized how old it was. I thought it would be fun for this blog. Perhaps I should have thought further. I spent time looking for family history and pictures. I discovered that even though I thought I was looking for a plump woman with a warm smile and curls, what I found was that Grandma Borst’s picture was of a very solemn woman who was not having her best day. The hours of prep for this post included more disappointments but also some nice surprises. Hey. That’s usually the way the world works.

Anna Maria

Anna Maria

Grandma Borst was my grandmother’s grandmother. Anna Maria DeNoyelles was born in 1819 in Rockland County, New York. Her father had a nice land grant. He was a cousin of Lafayette’s wife. Most of the other relatives were guillotined during the French Revolution. She married Nelson Borst and they first lived in Schoharie County, New York (the bread basket of the American Revolution) and then farmed in Peoria County, Illinois. One of their daughters was my grandmother’s mother. Grandmother Borst died in Peoria County, Illinois in 1901.



Back to the present. I decided that since the recipe was so old, I’d better make sure these ingredients would in fact make cookies. That was poor thinking because though some of the recipe was written in a hand I did not recognize, there were several additions in my mother’s handwriting. If she had made these cookies and I thought she had, then no further checking was necessary. She had saved the recipe. I should have known it would work.

Josephine (#2)

Josephine (#2)

Ah, but there was a silver lining. My granddaughter agreed to help me with the cookies. My daughter agreed to let us use her kitchen. My husband and grandson stopped off for a couple of ingredients we didn’t have on hand. At thirteen, my granddaughter is a wonderful cook and a dream to work with. How lucky could I get! I counted my blessings, and we gathered the ingredients, the pans, the utensils, etc. Granddaughter measures and runs the mixer like a pro.

At the top of the card the recipe is titled: Grandma Borst Ginger Cookies. The original printing gives the ingredients as 1 c lard, 1 c sugar, 1½ c molasses, 1 c buttermilk, 1 T. soda, 1 T. ginger, 1 t salt, flour. Then in my mother’s writing: +2 eggs, and 5 ½ cups written next to flour.

The lard our grandmothers used was different than what we might buy now. We used Crisco. We could have used part butter, or leaf lard.

Today’s buttermilk is also different than the buttermilk Grandma Borst would have used. We used Guernsey Buttermilk we purchased at the grocery store.

Molasses is available at stores. It is rich in iron and not as sweet as sugar. Unsulfured molasses is the best as is made from cane sugar. Darker molasses is a product of a second boiling. Possibly, Grandma Borst made her own molasses or bought from neighbors who did. I do not think the product was much different from what we buy today, maybe stronger and darker. I know my grandmother used molasses quite a bit in her cooking.



The book Joy of Cooking is a valuable resource. The section “Know Your Ingredients” answered some of my questions regarding lard and molasses.

Grandma Borst’s Ginger and Molasses Cookies

1 cup Crisco shortening
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 ½ cup molasses
1 cup buttermilk
1 Tablespoon soda
1 Tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon salt
5 ½ cups flour

Beat sugar and shortening together until creamy. Beat in eggs and molasses.
Combine dry ingredients and stir with a whisk.
Add alternately with the buttermilk.
Beat batter until smooth with each addition.

Drop batter from a teaspoon onto a greased cookie sheet or parchment paper over your cookie sheet. Bake about 12 minutes in a 350 degree oven.

Seven generations of women have made these cookies. Anna Maria, Josephine, Meta, another Josephine (my mother), Paulette, Cynthia, Claire. It clearly qualifies as an heirloom recipe. It is well over one hundred years old.

Now to finish the question we began with. How does the cooking of our grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers connect with cooking and eating today? Cookies are cookies and the process for stirring them up is similar whether it is 1883 or 2013. These cookies have a lovely soft texture, most likely valued then and now.

But today, many of us are not familiar with the taste of a molasses cookie. I call it a burnt sugar taste. The cookies were not a big hit with my 2013 family. I do remember that when I was a young girl at church suppers, older people valued molasses cookies and always exclaimed when they appeared.

Do tell us if you like molasses cookies or if you remember them from another time and place. Finding this recipe made me start thinking about them. I enjoyed the adventure they provided. I hope you did too.





There are stories that seem to demand that we stop, listen and say thank you.

There is a story in my family that tells of my great-grandmother, who when presented with a petition in the early years of the Twentieth Century supporting a woman’s right to vote, said, “Indeed! I will sign yes to that.” (They Came To North Tama by Janette Stevenson Murray p. 238.) She rose from her sick bed to attend to that task. It was one of her last acts, and in many ways a symbol of the courageous life she led.

In the nineteenth century Scotch community in Iowa that is the setting for my novel, women were often involved in business: making cheese and partnered in family enterprises. Some women attended high school in nearby cities, and even college such as Grinnell or Coe, located within a hundred miles of their home. We know that at least some among them were interested in community issues such as a woman’s right to vote.

I love to read about women who took the lead in past times in shaping our society. Then, and now, courage is required to work for social change. I’m especially interested in women who did this in rural settings.

Whether I am visiting in Arizona, Minnesota, or New York, I am likely to find interesting local history, and often some of it has to do with women’s efforts to support issues they felt important to their quality of life such as the right to vote. Rather than viewing these turn-of-the-century women as similar to the 1960’s female revolutionaries, we might see them as more interdependent and cooperative with their community. But there is little doubt that for many, voting rights for women was an issue dear to their hearts.

On a recent trip to New York, my friend gave me a book that examines women’s work in the 1890’s in this context. The book is titled Strength Without Compromise: Womanly Influence and Political Identity in Turn-of-the-Twentieth Century Rural Upstate New York. The author is Teri P. Gay. The book is available through and at In this book the author tells the interesting story of the Easton Political Equality Club.

The women of that group were willing to address equal rights and women’s suffrage. Many women’s lives at that time were centered on home, family, marriage and motherhood, but politics, education and business were important to them, too. They combined these different elements of their lives in cooperative endeavors focused on creating a better life for themselves and their families. The women of tiny Easton used their bonds and their community to effectively influence for the rights of women. Whether producing plays, presenting speakers, making ice cream or decorating floats for parades, their collective actions made a difference. I’m grateful they persisted and today we take women voting as the norm. It is a right and responsibility all citizens of our country enjoy.

A post connected to this one can found on the Writing Page, “Where Do Stories Come From?” Most of us have family stories about our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents stepping up to take actions that influenced our present. This is an appropriate month to take a moment to say thank you.

Send us your stories. Say thank you to those who went before you.


Chicago World's Fair 1893


Chicago has always loomed large for me. My maternal grandmother talked of it often when I was a child. She had lived there at the turn of the century, studied opera singing, and with a friend had run a millinery shop on Wabash Ave. When I was quite small my father would board the train for cattle meetings in Chicago. It seemed to me that everyone had Chicago stories. By now, I have a few of my own. Though I don’t get there often enough, I imagine trips there in 2013 and in 1893.

Wouldn’t you like to travel back in time to the White City? The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 was a colossal event. Frederick Law Olmsted designed the lagoons and landscapes that transformed Chicago’s Jackson Park into the White City. As many as one in four of the country’s population at that time visited the fair during the six months of the exhibition, a celebration of cultural and industrial progress. Here, the Ferris Wheel was born, and it began to dazzle and mesmerize generations. You, too, can experience the wonder and possibilities of that time and place.

1. “Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair.” This exhibit continues through Sept. 7, 2014 at the Field Museum on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

2. The Devil In the White City by Erik Larson (2004). This book has become a classic thriller and a classic history of the fair. It came up in the conversation about thrillers last week as a favorite for some of us. It is not a novel, even though it reads like one. It tells the stories of two men, one Daniel Burham who was responsible for the fair’s construction and the other, a serial killer. Dreams and nightmares share the stage in this incredible book.

3. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: A Photographic Record by Stanley Appelbaum (1980). This book includes rare vintage photos and thoughtful text. There are other more recent books that include photos of the fair, but what readers had to say about this book convinced me to include it on this list. (It is the only book on the list I do not know well.)

4. Fair Weather by Richard Peck (2001) Peck is a Newbery Award Winner. He has written many delightful books for young people. I bought this one a number of years ago because I wanted to read about the World’s Fair. In this story thirteen-year- old Rosie and her family visit the fair.

5. Light From Arcturus by Mildred Walker (1935, 1995) Mildred Walker’s writing is something special. I could read Winter Wheat over and over. In this book, the author tells the story of a woman, whose life was bracketed by the 1876 Centennial Fair in Philadelphia and the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. This woman finds herself looking to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to give her life the direction and growth she feels she needs. She struggles with her own goals and her family’s goals. And though times and situations have changed, this is a challenge many families faced then and now.

“Pillars, smooth and beautiful as quietness, and the blue lake! How tremendous the buildings were––the only way they could be against that lake––and so white!….She couldn’t wait for the children to see them. She wanted more than ever to be a part of this fair” Light From Arcturus by Mildred Walker.

All of these books are available at Amazon and are likely found in many libraries. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair has continued to hold the interest of many Americans for over one hundred years. I have not yet visited the new exhibition about this famous event at the Field Museum in Chicago. I certainly hope to be there before next September. In the meantime, I’ll read about it.

After all, so many who shaped the Twentieth Century were inspired by this event. The young architect Frank Lloyd Wright created revolutionary designs influenced by the fair’s architecture. L. Frank Baum created the Emerald City and the mythical land of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz based in part on some of his World’s Fair experiences. The composer Antonin Dvorak wrote his New World Symphony after seeing the fair. George Ferris’s giant wheel gave so many thrills and led to a new era of rides and theme parks. Buffalo Bill and Lillian Russell were just two of the larger-than-life celebrities who entertained at the fair. Cream of Wheat, carbonated drinks, Juicy Fruit gum and hamburgers were introduced here.

The Devil in the White City or another of these books might be a good place to learn more about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Perhaps you will visit the exhibition at Field Museum during the coming year. Or, maybe you have already experienced the 1893 World’s Fair in your own way. Do tell us about it. We want to hear from YOU!