Monthly Archives: May 2017

THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE: BOOK COMMENT

The Women In the Castle
Author: Jessica Shattuck
Publisher: William-Morrow, 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 353 pages
Source: Library copy

This novel brings us a story of three women and their children during and after the war and is important for a number of reasons. Let’s highlight two. First it is a wonderful and compelling story. Second it brings the reader new perspectives: Germans from different experiential and cultural backgrounds and their lives during the years from 1938-1991.

For the first time, after many historical tales of World War II, this reader was in Germany with Germans during and after the war. What happened to these women? What did they do? What did they see? Who did they love? The story is mesmerizing. One is swept into their lives and the multiple viewpoints bring the story to life with a truth and understanding not often experienced in the plethora of World War II novels published over the last years. The pain, suffering, courage and difficult decisions are so very real. And then there is the romance of the castle!

Also fulfilling for the reader, is how this writer has taken her characters into the future. All is not gloom and doom. The relationships of all the characters are written with clarity, kindness and understanding, no matter the horror they stood next to, nor the acts they committed. In this story courage is not one-dimensional.

The writing is magnificent. This reader cannot praise the book highly enough. It is perhaps the best novel I have read thus far in 2017.

READING MEMOIRS

Sometimes an author’s personal story grabs the reader and immediately takes her along on an unstoppable ride. We all love memoirs like that.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading several memoirs with the help of Mary Karr’s the Art of Memoir. She’s the author of Liars’Club, Lit and others so gripping a reader could not put the books down.

Karr tells us “Great memoirs sound like distinct persons and also cover a broad range of feelings.” Currently I’m reading her chapter on voice. The voice of a memoir writer must confess where he or she is morally adrift or worse, across a line into the country of wrongdoing.

I’ve already commented briefly in past posts about Diane Rehm’s memoir On My Own. Below are the others I’ve been reading with comment. And here is a disclaimer. Perhaps this is too many memoirs at once. I feel a bit like my head is always dipping below the surface of these others’ stories; I’m gurgling underwater.

Cork Dork
Author: Bianca Bosker
Publisher: Penguin Books 2017
Genre: Memoir
Paperback Edition: 307 pages
Source: Personal copy.

Cork Dork jumped off the bookstore shelf into my arms. What a title! How fun I thought to read about wine and becoming a sommelier. What was that journey like? Love to read about learning? Or so I thought.

And Bosker’s voice has the bizazz of a magazine writer. She can introduce the reader to an upscale wine freak and render that person so absurd the page holds one’s interest. Her honesty about her wine tasting keeps the pages turning. One thing the reader learns is that evaluating wines objectively may not be possible. As the information drones on, some of the romance associated with wines drifts away ––especially for those of us who drink under $20 bottles and thing we’ll get something great at $25 or $35 dollars.

The Return
Author: Hisham Matar
Publisher: Random House 2016
Genre: Memoir
Hardcover Edition: 239 pages
Source: Library copy

This winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize was near the top of my library list. It became available before some other non-fiction I had requested; perhaps that was a clue that the reading is not easy. This reader cannot fault Matar’s voice though it is restrained and concerned with politics and violence he almost seems to relish. His homeland is Libya. His father, a prominent critic of the Qaddafi regime, was kidnapped when he was 19. But the personal voice is not as strong as the restrained, professional voice. He describes the Libyan landscape with loving detail and nostalgia. The rhythmic and musical quality of his prose is indeed welcoming to read. The time-line of his tale is not linear. As is so popular in recently published books, the story constantly moves about in chronology and in place. If a reader is less familiar with the world events in a certain part of the world and with the culture, this adds to difficulty in easily understanding the effect of events, personal and global.

Any recommendation of these memoirs from me is guarded.
If your thirst for wine is insatiable?
If you are deeply interested in Libya: politics and people in recent times?
Or, if you are looking to read more in this genre?
Either of these may satisfy.

LEARNING THERE IS JOY IN OPTION B

It’s not that easy. Sheryl Sandberg didn’t say it would be. It’s bittersweet, sometimes the bitter bites stronger than the sweet can soothe, but making joy of life is our job.

Yes, I wish Jerry were here to plant more bulbs and flowers along our front walk. Yes, I wish Michigan spring came sooner and with more oomph. That’s not likely to happen. But I’m enjoying the first blooms along the front walk. Jerry planted these Iris and the purple explodes reminding me the joy I feel that I have them and that he was here to plant them.

PAULETTE’S MARCO POLO SALAD OR SOMEONE’S IN THE KITCHEN WITH DAYTON’S MARSHALL FIELD’S HUDSON’S

Recently I was able to reconnect with a dear friend. Such a joy it was!! She brought me a treasured gift, a well-known Michigan cookbook Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dayton’s Marshall Field’s Hudson’s. It contains much-loved recipes well known in our area (Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota) because these dishes were served at the department store restaurants and became favorites throughout the region. I had seen this cookbook over the years but had never had the pleasure of owning it. I am beyond thrilled to add it to my collection.

So many recipes such as Maurice Salad, Gazpacho, Chicken Pie, Seafood Louie, Apple Praline Pie with marvelous photos grace its pages. The soup section is marvelous! I call the recipes in this cookbook sophisticated Midwestern food at its best.

The first one I tried was Marco Polo Salad. This one was new to me and completely intriguing. In spite of that, I put my own spin on this salad by changing a few ingredients.

Paulette’s Marco Polo Salad
Adapted from Hudson’s Marco Polo Salad

8 oz spaghetti, cooked according to package directions
¼ cup red wine vinegar
2/3 cup olive oil
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ pound Jarlsberg or other Swiss cheese, cut into thin strips.
6 oz. marinated artichokes, drained and coarsely chopped
6 oz. jarred red peppers cut into thin strips
½ cup sliced pitted kalamata or black olives
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and Pepper

Place cooked spaghetti in a large bowl and let cool slightly. Toss spaghetti with the olive oil, vinegar, parsley and spices.

Add remaining ingredients and mix well.

Chill thoroughly.

Add salt and pepper at serving time and top with additional grated parmesan cheese.

Inviting and tasty! I overdid the garlic a bit because I misread the recipe. But if you like garlic, you might want to do the same.

This can serve as a main dish or a great accompaniment to all sorts of summer menus.

EMILY RUSKOVICH ON WRITING IDAHO

As serious readers we like to believe we expect writers to challenge us. Why then am I surprised when I meet up with a read forcing me to work and to struggle for understanding in order to unlock the mysteries. Emily Ruskovich does just that with her debut novel, Idaho. As I searched the internet for some help with this book I found an interview with Ruskovich by Michelle Lyn King posted on electricliterature.com. What follows are a few excerpts from the interview along with my thoughts. The interview appeared on electricliterature.com. (Isn’t that a cool title for a website? I plan to sign up.)

Ruskovich grew up in Idaho. She says ”the story and the setting feel inextricable from each other.” There is little doubt that she knows Northern Idaho and what it is like to live in that part of the country in contemporary times. Never for a moment does the reader doubt the authenticity of the characters or the setting she creates, no matter how strange circumstances may seem. In the interview she also talks about her writing process, the setting and the time, her research, rhythm and read-aloud. No element is stronger than the rhythm of her writing.

The story stretches from 1973 to 2025 and is told in short chapters, vignettes or scenes with certain characters. These are not placed in chronological order. The time period of the scene is always clear but the relationship of events may be less so. The prose is lovely but relationships: emotional and time/place can be confusing. Always, the reader wonders about the circumstances between different characters. This is important to the story. Ruskovich says “I think a nonlinear timeline,….more closely mimics the way memory works.” This reader understands what she is saying, but that is true when one knows the whole of a story. The reader does not have that knowledge, but learns the story in bits and pieces. Imagine working a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box to guide you.

Ruskovich says she began with a short story. Next she wrote from the perspective of one of the main character’s father who suffers from dementia, one of many tragedies the author addresses with her story. She says beginning with this minor character “the structure of the novel really opened up. I suddenly had a lot of freedom to explore.” She writes from the perspective of many different characters. The childhood scenes in the novel ring especially true, perhaps because the author was also a child in northern Idaho in the 1990’s.

Regarding research, some of the scenes take place in a women’s prison. The author states she did look up statutes regarding the murder of a child in Idaho. She especially recommends the book titled Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System by Silja J.A. Talvi as very informative. She visited the Women’s Correctional Facility in Pocatello, Idaho. How does a woman or anyone incarcerated protect their inner life when they are in prison. This is one of the issues this author explores.

Absence, isolation, disconnections are major themes in this story. This seemed to this reader to be different from many works of fiction, at least those I’m likely to read. In real life we love and live for those loved ones, and yet we seem not to notice that we are aware of only parts of our experiences and only parts of what others are living.

It’s possible that one of the things that drew me to this story was to try to achieve some level of understanding for families that find themselves responsible for the death of a loved one. And then the characters that surround them strive with everything they have in them to cushion the pain of life for those around them. What comes of that? It seems to follow then that the narrative voice of this novel is poignant, honest and effective. Not only is it effective but beautiful in its rhythm, also dense and slowly paced, never for a moment dishonest.

If the foregoing sentences seem somewhat disconnected, I can only say they mirror the reading experience. As I finish the last thirty pages of this novel, I continue to struggle to make meaning of the prose, the story, and the ideas. One definition of reading is “making meaning.” That is what the reader must do when reading this novel.

Idaho
Author: Emily Ruskovich
Publisher: Random House, 2017
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 305 pages
Source: Personal copy

Sincere thanks to electricliterature.com and Michelle Lyn King for her exploration of this writer and her novel. You will love the detail that the interviewer explores. I hope that you will be able to access this interview online.

READING REPORT

I have until about mid-May to report back on my reading commitments checklist posted on April 15. And mid-May has arrived!

Several blog readers wondered how I did with my reading goals shared in mid April. Publishing the goal did help motivate me to more reading and to sticking with books I hoped to finish. Thanks for egging me on.

Here’s the list of spring reading for the April/May month that I announced as a goal.
1. Walt Whitman’s long poem “When Lilacs In the Dooryard Bloomed” Yes. I read this. I usually love Whitman but this one did not especially speak to me, historically or personally.
2. The Cross, third volume of the classic Kristin Lavransdatter. Such a great read. You know how I feel about this one if you read the Book Comment posted on the home page on May 3, 2017.
3. The Age of Grief, a novella by Jane Smiley. This story is apparently set in a dentist’s office. Since I am spending plenty of time in that place this year, I set this one aside.
4. Frog and Toad are Friends. By Arnold Lobel – Oh this is a breath of spring. I was reminded just how special Frog and Toad books are! Instead of sending this to my young granddaughter for her birthday, I’m saving it so I can read it to her when I see her. I expect both of us to be delighted anew at the tales of these two friends.

In addition I listed several books I expected to finish.
The novel Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. I hope to finish this novel soon. It is dense and difficult read; but the only fiction I am presently reading. You will hear more about this one.
On My Own, a memoir by Diane Rehm on going forward after the death of her husband. I finished this one which was overshadowed by Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B.
Also on the list: Evicted by Matthew Desmond. Actually, I have finished this nonfiction book about housing in an American city. I had planned to read a section at the end of the book in which the author explains how he conducted the project that produced this book. It has been highly praised by many and I think with good reason.
And Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. So far I have read only half of this book. It examines the justice system in America and was named one of the 100 notable books in 2014 by the New York Times Book Review. At present it will stay in the non-fiction basket of books to be finished or not yet read.

During these past four weeks I also read The Dinner by Herman Koch, a novel on the list for one of my upcoming book club meetings. And as I said above, I was entirely captured by Option B. Also I read and commented on for the blog, the novel The River of Kings. Currently I have started reading two memoirs: Cork Dork and The Return. More about those in an upcoming post.

With one or two notable exceptions, this has been some rather heavy reading. I’m looking for recommendations for lighter reading. I hope to hear from you!

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY

I am grateful for the blessings of so many men and women in my family’s life who carry on friendship and parent-like duties with love that touches my immediate family. You all enhance the quality of my life and the life of our family members.

To my friends, daughters, granddaughters, sisters, nieces, cousins, aunts, mother grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, I salute you. Family history and the circle of friends and family help me toward resilience and living a better life.

To my sons and grandson, to those who help take care of my sons, I also equally salute you. And to my father, always helping me out of some bit of trouble, to my husband the rock of our family, to my brother who put up with more than any human should from me over the years, to other brothers in the extended family and nephews, to my grandfathers who helped me grow into the person I am today, a salute is simply inadequate. I have been aided by so many men and women, both family and friends. My salutes of gratitude and my hugs include all in-laws and extended family.

I began a list, so long and I did not want to leave anyone out, so I abandon the list, but not my gratitude to each of you.

I hope you will all continue to look to each other for aid and assistance. Mother’s Day is a day of true joy as we think on the reality that it takes a village not only to raise a child but to keep humans living in a way that we were meant to live. Certainly it takes a village to keep this woman going. Love and hugs to you all!

With Thanksgiving to God, we celebrate Mother’s Day!

OPTION B: BOOK COMMENT

OPTION B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy
Authors: Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf, 2017
Genre: Non-fiction, Self-help
Hardcover Edition: 176 Pages
Source: Personal copy

Sheryl Sandberg’s voice is comforting and pragmatic. She may be the best help a reader will ever have for living life. She teaches us more than how to deal with grief and trauma. She teaches us how to adjust attitude and actions to live a more satisfying life.

Yes, this book is for those who have recently lost someone very dear to them but it is for everyone. She teaches readers about resilience, how it comes from within. How can we cultivate the ability to bounce forward and find joy? Along with co-author Adam Grant, she writes openly about her own life. She also relates many other people and programs who have assisted their fellow humans in finding compassion and going forward with courage. The ideas presented are never boring, never pie-in-the-sky, always doable.

This reader recommends this book for everyone. I soaked it up, writing copious notes, underlining, keeping a journal as I read. This book is literally changing my life. Other than the Bible, I can’t say that about any other book I’ve ever read of any genre. Lately, no one can speak to me without hearing how great this book is, how grateful I am to this woman. I recommend different chapters for different people, but my personal favorites are Chapter 4: Self-Compassion and Self-Confidence. Grief can steal one’s confidence. It’s surprising but true. And also Chapter 5: Bouncing Forward. My favorite image. Some of the bumps hurt, mightily.

Randomly, here are some of my notes:
Take back (experiences from the past you still wish to own)
How do my actions make others feel?
The importance of family history in creating resilience.
It’s up to me to stay calm on my own.
Survivor guilt is the thief of joy
The ability to listen to feedback is a sign of resilience.
People can build hope together.
Just be yourself.
Be kind to yourself. Help your children be kind to themselves.
A mistake need not be pervasive or permanent.

What is Option B? Sometimes your first choice, Option A, is not available. Make the most of Option B. Bounce forward. Find joy. This does not deny trauma and pain. It is a way to work through the tough things life throws our way, a strategy to build joy into our lives.

She is not preaching. She is living! Please join her and lift your life, facing the adversity, bouncing forward and finding joy. This book is riveting. It is certainly the first time I have ever been happy reading about grief, loss, mistakes and failure. The words and experiences in this book are grounded in reality, caring and kindness. I suggest it will help you be your new possible self!

THE DINNER: BOOK COMMENT

The Dinner
Author: Herman Koch
Publisher: Hogarth (2009)
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Paperback Edition: 292 pages plus Reader’s guide, Author Essay and Conversation Source: Library copy

In the opening line of her New York Times Review of The Dinner, Claire Messud stated “North American readers care inordinately that fictional characters be likable.” This reader is one of that group she is referring to, and so this book was a tough read since none of the characters are likeable. The unreliable narrator, Paul Lohman, exhibits shallow and small-minded characteristics and one might lengthen the list. Fiction with dark twists and turns, filled with questionable characters seems especially popular of late. Examples might include Gone Girl, Before the Fall, Girl on the Train. Book marketers call these psychological thrillers.

What Ms. Messud refers to as “carefully calibrated revelations” could be viewed as manipulation by author. Should Paul Lohman be excused his unpleasant nature when two-thirds of the way through the book we learn he has a mental illness, never named? Oh, and his wife spent time in a hospital with a serious illness, also never explained. Apparently, she is now fully recovered. Ms. Messud may think this makes Paul Lohman more interesting. Since it is not explained and the revelation has been withheld through much of the book, a reader is uncertain what to think. Pity may be appropriate , but….. most of the characters are thoroughly unpleasant by the end of this story. Kindness does not live in the world of author Koch or this story. Alas, that may be the point. Kindness has left the world and that is not a good thing. This reader knew it was in short supply so why read this book to have the point hammered?

Koch structured this novel around a dinner at an upscale restaurant attended by the brothers and their spouses supposedly to talk about their children. One of my notes indicates: p. 235 and these people are still not talking about their children. This reader missed it if these two sets of parents ever tried to seriously problem-solve with the welfare of their children in mind. That Paul Lohman even cares if his brother continues as Prime Minister when he has the terrible nature of his son’s actions to consider seems totally ridiculous. The strong pull of sibling rivalry even into adulthood is, in this case, overriding everything. And the “who knows what and when”, always part of this plot seems only to confuse.

Ms. Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, may find this novel highly readable. Many will not. Somehow the absorption of the adults with their children seemed less to do with love, than with keeping the adult’s lives in a place they are comfortable, not wanting to lose face, not wanting to be thought less of by their peers. The horror of what their sons have done by murdering a homeless woman, if not with intent certainly with carelessness, lack of kindness or caring, seems to escape them. They appear to exist in an alternate reality.

Many readers see the theme in this book as “a parent would do anything to help their child.” Yes, most parents in a similar situation would go to great lengths. That is a given. These parents are even more incapable than their children of thinking of others. It is difficult to refer to them as adults, an unpleasant aspect of this read. If this theme interests you I suggest a novel by Rosellen Brown titled Before and After (1992). It became the basis for a movie of the same name starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson (1996).

A movie based on this book is now playing. Even with actors Richard Gere and Laura Linney, two favorites, the movie does not beckon. Two of the adjectives on the cover used to describe this book are nasty and shocking. They are accurate because it is shocking to believe that nasty characters like this are worth reading, thinking or talking about.

THREE FOOD TRENDS MAKING ME CRAZY

All right! I’m already crazy. And I admit that this pinched nerve pain I have had since February doesn’t help. I can’t cook much, although I promise I’m making a special recipe to share with you very soon. Finally I have all the ingredients on hand.

Back to being crazy – and as many of you know, I’m having a year’s worth of dental work, so I’m missing a few teeth, makes even eating crazy. Still here are some food trends that are crazy laughable as far as I’m concerned. They are often so over-the-top they detract from the taste of the food.

#1 Over Arrangement of Food on the Plate.
Each piece of food is carefully placed. One looks at the plate and hesitates to move anything, much less toward one’s mouth. The white space not the food may capture one’s attention. Often the higher the tower the better and even an ordinary meal is implied to taste better if piled high, one ingredient on top of another.

One example: Stacked Chicken Tostado Salad p. 53 of May Rachel Ray Every Day One bite and the whole pile will collapse. No doubt it will still taste good. (pictured at top of the story.)

#2 Originating as Far from the U.S. as Possible.
Whatever happened to American Food? Oh dear, I sound like a fuddy-duddy and the word fuddy-duddy only confirms it.

Example from Hanoi. Spiced cha ca fish with noodles and herbs in a lettuce wrapper. P. 28 May issue of Food and Wine. Cha Ca is fish fillets with ginger, turmeric and other herbs. Tumeric-Marinated Swordfish with Dill and Rice Noodles.

# 3 Throw Everything In a Bowl

Will it taste better because it is served in a bowl? I know, it won’t run all over the table trying to escape your fork.

Example: Shrimp and Okra Bowl p. 22 June 2017 Cooking Light
Cornmeal, okra, bell pepper, honey shrimp, tomato, onion, parsley, celery red wine vinegar and if you wish Fresno chile – into a bowl. Something like gumbo. Does this sound good to you. If yes. I’m out voted.

I’ll admit that travel is big and food is an important part of any travel experience. But sometimes I feel like foreign food has taken over. And, where to find all the ingredients?

This Crabapple is signing off. Let’s hope we hear very little from her in the future!

Thanks to Southern Living, Bon Appétit , Food and Wine,and Rachel Ray Every Day for being trend setters in food writing.

If you try one of these dishes, do let us know! All opinions welcome.