Literary Eats: At Home on the Range

While unpacking boxes of old family books recently, author Elizabeth Gilbert rediscovered a dusty, yellowed hardcover called At Home on the Range, originally written by her great-grandmother, Margaret Yardley Potter. Having only been peripherally aware of the volume, Gilbert dug in with some curiosity, and soon found that she had stumbled upon a book far ahead of its time. Part scholar and part crusader for a more open food conversation, Potter espoused the importance of farmer’s markets and ethnic food (Italian, Jewish, and German), derided preservatives and culinary shortcuts, and generally celebrated a devotion to epicurean adventures. Reading this practical and humorous cookbook, it’s not hard to see that Gilbert inherited her great-grandmother’s love of food and her warm, infectious prose. The excerpt below, from the chapter entitled "Egg Yourself on in Emergencies," is, in my opinion, one of the most perfectly perfect things written. Ever.

The second inexpensive assistant to have in your icebox for quick meals is cold boiled potatoes, dull as it sounds, but their variations are almost as endless as those of eggs.

Hashed browns are my first thought, probably because I spent most of my young summer days on the New Jersey coast and a plate of crusty potatoes, soft inside and turned omelet-fashion from the sizzling pan always brings back memories of numerous fishing picnics and I can almost smell the driftwood smoke and see the sun setting over the water. The party generally consisted of three or four young sportsmen and the fortunate (so we thought) girls of their choice, and we started early and eagerly planning and providing food for our Izaak Waltons.

First, we’d have two stuffed eggs apiece, made as I have told you, each half carefully clapped onto its mate and the whole wrapped in wax paper. Then a quart jar or so of whole peeled ripe tomatoes and a smaller one of sharp French dressing, thick with slices of onion and chopped celery, and perhaps a washed, chilly head of lettuce, well wrapped. One of the embryo housewives would produce a cake or a pie, for in those days girls thought their swains were impressed by their culinary skill, and with a great paper bag of cold boiled white potatoes and a pound or two of sliced bacon we were ready to go, accompanied by rattling frying pans, plates, cups, cutlery and a coffee pot.

A trip by canoe or sailboat to the beach, and the boys busied themselves building a fire and then vanished with their fishing rods while we got ready for their return in what we felt was a truly domestic fashion. Coffee and water were measured into the big pot and set aside. The tomatoes and dressing were put in a shady, cool place, bread was sliced and buttered, and all hands began peeling and dicing the potatoes. At dusk, just before we expected our fishermen back, we started all the bacon frying and then put the brown slices to drain on a bit of paper. Some of the grease was saved for the fish that seemingly never failed to appear with the boys and into about ½ inch of the grease that was left went the diced potatoes and a few pieces of chopped onion and lots of salt and pepper. The whole mass was well pressed down into the hot pan and then moved to a “medium” corner of the fire, there to remain for about half an hour.

When the fishing had been unusually good and we needed no extra meat, the bacon was broken up in the potatoes just before we served them, otherwise it went in between our buttered slices of bread. How good the ice-cold tomatoes with their spicy dressing tasted with the broiled fresh fish we basted with the bacon drippings, and how we argued over who should get the last crumb of brown potato before the pan was taken to the edge of the beach for its scrub with sand and sea water! Then big cups of strong black coffee and huge pieces of cake or pie and, while the sun set, someone stirred up the fire and a young voice started 'Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee' or maybe a newer song like 'By the Beautiful Sea.' Is it any wonder I like hashed brown potatoes?

But even without my memories, try them made just the same way on a prosaic stove. Let the boiled potatoes be cold and dry and have the bacon grease and skillet hot. For home consumption a few chopped onion tops or chives are better than the lustier sliced onion, and a dusting of chopped parsley makes them more delicate. The finished product, with some of our faithful poached eggs resting on top and the bacon curled about the edge, is a one-dish luncheon that any man, particularly, will relish. Sliced tomatoes in sharp dressing just like that made at the picnic, hot coffee, gingerbread from a good package mix, topped with marshmallows when it’s half baked, fruit—and how long has it taken you? Not more than half an hour, including setting the table.

“At Home on the Range” by Margaret Yardley Potter. McSweeney's, March 2012



Literary Eats: Show Boat

showboatDid you know that the notes in the refrain of “Cotton Blossom” are the inverted notes of the refrain of “Old Man River.”  Go ahead, sing it in your head:  Cot-ton Blossom……Old Man River.  See?  Now good luck getting that out of your head. We're speaking, of course, of the musical Show Boat, which was based on the novel of the same name by Edna Ferber.  I took a compilation of five of her novels out of the library, because I actually wanted to read Saratoga Trunk.  But Show Boat was there and it won the mental coin toss and I read it first.  I hadn't read anything by Edna Ferber before and was just blown away by her writing.  Her sentence structure and cadence make the paragraphs read like songs.  And her sensory descriptions are beyond everything.  You don't read Show Boat, you see, hear, smell, feel, touch and eat it.  The food was unbelievable!  So much so that I felt compelled to dust off "Literary Eats" and share some of these passages.

Begin with how the mischievous and Gallic Captain Andy Hawks convinces his staunch, Puritanical wife Parthy of his plan to buy the Mississippi river show boat Cotton Blossom:

"'...And will you look at the way the kitchen looks, spite of 'em.  Slick's a whistle.  Look at the stove!'  Crafty Andy.

Parthenia Ann Hawks looked at the stove.  And what a stove it was!  Broad-bosomed, ample, vast, like a huge fertile black mammal whose breast would suckle numberless eager sprawling bubbling pots and pans.  It shone richly.  Gazing upon this generous expanse you felt that from its source could emerge nothing that was not savoury, nourishing, satisfying.  Above it, and around the walls, on hooks, hung rows of pans and kettlesof every size and shape, all neatly suspended by their pigtails.  Here was the wherewithal for boundless cooking.  You pictured whole hams, sizzling; fowls neatly trussed in rows; platoons of brown loaves; hampers of green vegetables; vast plateaus of pies.  Crockery, thick, white, coarse, was piled, plate on plate, platter on platter, behind the neat doors of the pantry.  A supplementary and redundant kerosene stove stood obligingly in the corner.

'Little hot snack at night, after the show,' Andy explained.  'Coffee or an egg, maybe, and no lighting the big wood burner.'

There crept slowly, slowly over Parthy's face a look of speculation, and this in turn was replaced by an expression that was, paradoxically, at once eager and dreamy..."

The boat is bought and a new life begun.  Parthy is slow and reluctant to embrace it, but Andy is in his element, and so is his French lineage:

"Certainly it was due to Andy more than Parthy that the Cotton Blossom was reputed the best-fed show boat on the rivers.  He was always bringing home in triumph a great juicy ham, a side of beef.  He liked to forage the season's first and best:  a bushel of downy peaches, fresh-picked; watermelons; little honey-sweet seckel pears; a dozen plump broilers; new corn; a great yellow cheese ripe for cutting.

"He would plump his purchases down on the kitchen table while Queenie surveyed his booty, hands on ample hips.  She never resented his suggestions, though Parthy's offended her.  Capering, Andy would poke a forefinger into a pullet's fat sides.  'Rub 'em over with a little garlic, Queenie, to flavour 'em up.  Plenty of butter and strips of bacon.  Cover 'em over till they're tender and then give 'em a quick brown the last twenty minutes."

It's a magical, fantastic life for Magnolia, Andy and Parthy's precocious daughter.  She has the run of the ship from bow to stern, from stage to dressing rooms, from the captain's wheel high above, to the kitchen far beneath, and it's here she spends some of her happiest hours:

"Magnolia liked to loiter in the big, low-raftered kitchen.  It was a place of pleasant smells and sights and sounds.  It was here that she learned Negro spirituals from Jo and cooking from Queenie, both of which accomplishments stood her in good stead in later years.  Queenie had, for example, a way of stuffing a ham for baking.  It was a fasincating process to behold, and one that took hours.  Spices - bay, thyme, onion, clove, mustard, allspice, pepper - chopped and mixed and stirred together.  A sharp-pointed knife plunged deep into the juicy ham.  The incision stuffed with the spicy mixture.  Another plunge with the knife.  Another filling.  Again and again and again until the great ham had grown to twice its size.  Then a heavy clean white cloth, needle and coarse thread.  Sewed up tight and plump in its jacket the ham was immersed in a pot of water and boiled.  Out when tender, the jacket removed; into the oven with it.  Basting and basting from Queenie's long-handled spoon.  The long sharp knife again for cutting, and then the slices, juicy and scented, with the stuffing of spices making a mosaic pattern against the pink of the meat..."

Magnolia meets Gay Ravenal, a professional gambler who turns actor, but never loses the itch for the game.  After they are married, he convinces Magnolia to move to Chicago with their daughter Kim, where their life is dictated by whichever way the Ravenal luck runs.  Where fortune goes, the food follows.  "If the Ravenal luck was high, [breakfast] was eaten in leisurely luxury at Billy Boyle's Chop House between Clark and Dearborn streets." 

"In came the brokers from the Board of Trade across the way.  Smoke-blue air.  The rich heavy smell of thick steaks cut from prime Western beef.  Massive glasses of beer through which shone the pale amber of light brew, or the seal-brown of dark.  The scent of strong black coffee.   Rye bread pungent with caraway.  Little crisp round breakfast rolls sprinkled with poppy-seed.

This is 1870s Chicago, before it "got civic" - young, raw, bustling, coarse, when:

"Calories, high blood pressure, vegetable luncheons, golf, were words not yet included in the American everyday vocabulary.  Fried potatoes were still considered a breakfast dish, and a meatless meal was a snack."

We learn of the culture of the professional gambler, and of Chicago's numerous gambling establishments.  Gay Ravenal favors Mike McDonald's "The Store", and who wouldn't:

"Ravenal might interrupt his game to eat something, but this was not his rule.  He ate usually after he had finished his play for the day.  It was understood that he and the others of his stamp were the guests of McDonald or of Hankins.  Twenty-five-cent cigars were to be had for the taking.  Drinks of every description.  Hot food of the choicest sort and of almost any variety could be ordered and eaten as though this were one's own house, and the servants at one's command.  Hot soups and broths.  Steaks.  Chops.  Hot birds.  You could eat this at a little white-spread table alone, or with your companions, or you could have it brought to you as you played.  On long tables in the adjoining room were spread the cold viands - roast chickens, tongue, sausages, cheese, joints of roast beef, salads.  Everything about the place gave to its habitués the illusion of plenty, of ease, of luxury..."

Luck continues to dictate the room and board of the Ravenals, such as at Cardinal Bemis' famous place on Michigan Avenue:

"He would ask suavely, 'What kind of a dinner, Mr. Ravenal?'  If Gay replied, 'Oh - uh - a cocktail and a little red wine,' Cardinal Bemis knew that luck was only so-so, and that the dinner was to be good, but plainish.  But if, in reply to the tactful question, Gay said, magnificently, 'A cocktail, Cardinal; claret, sauterne, champagne, and liqueurs,' Bemis knew that Ravenal had had a real run of luck and prepared the canvasbacks boiled in champagne; or there were squabs or plover, with all sorts of delicacies, and the famous frozen watermelon that had been plugged, filled with champagne, put on ice for a day, and served in such chunks of scarlet fragrance as made the nectar and ambrosia of the gods seem poor, flavourless fare indeed."

A reversal of fortune could quickly put the Ravenals in a rooming house on "Gambler's Alley" where weak coffee and single eggs are made over a gas jet in the room, and Magnolia hoards the nickels that will allow her and her daughter a trolley ride to the park on Lake Shore Drive.  And then, just as quickly, the luck can turn again:

"It was no novelty for Kim Ravenal to fall asleep in the dingy discomfort of a north side rooming house and to wake up amidst the bright luxuriousness of a hotel suite, without ever having been conscious of the events which had wrought this change.  Instead of milk out of the bottle and an egg cooked over the gas jet, there was a shining breakfast tray bearing mysterious round-domed dishes whose covers you whipped off to disclose what not of savoury delights!  Crisp curls of bacon, parsley-decked; eggs baked and actually bubbling in a brown crockery container; hot golden buttered toast.  And her mother calling gaily in from the next room, 'Drink your milk with your breakfast, Kim darling!  Don't gulp it all down in one swallow at the end.'"

As their circumstances become more dire, the descriptions of food grow more meagre and infrequent, and after Ravenal's desertion and the decline of the river boat era, the food of bygone days becomes a dream.  But what a dream indeed...

Literary Eats: The Winemaker's Daughter

I am almost finished with The Winemaker's Daughter by Timothy Egan and it is an absolutely terrific story about the Pacific Northwest, in particular the Columbia River basin in Washington state; it's also about the immigrant experience, the Native American experience, the making of the Great Coulee Dam, forest fires, and winemaking. And food.  I mean these are Italians, how could it not?

In the kitchen, Angelo Cartolano is ready to cook.  He has picked zucchini flowers, filled a basket with three kinds of tomatoes, and brought wine up from the cellar.  The cutthroat trout are cleaned and iced.  Lamb shanks are marinating in Zinfandel, rosemary, brown sugar, garlic and lemon.  He pours wine and offers a simple toast.

"Beviam, beviam, beviam!"

Brunella holds the wine in her mouth before taking a longer sip.  Ethan sets his glass to the side.  "Wonderful," she says.  "It tastes like...heaven without a dress code."

Heaven without a dress code, I love that!

Angelo retreats down a hallway to a side pantry, where he keeps drawers full of flour and dried herbs, the ceiling draped in twined garlic and strips of oregano hanging overhead.

"What do you think of my father?" Brunella says, when he is out of earshot.

"Rustic," says Ethan.  "I can see where you get your passion.  Is there anything you two do not get excited about?"

"Is that so bad?"

Angelo returns, white flour dust trailing behind him.  He mixes the flour with eggs and water in a bowl and adds olive oil.  He takes moist balls of mozzarella and cuts them into one-inch sections, and dries the anchovies on a paper towel.  His left hand is badly gnarled and knotted, and it shakes uncontrollably, making it hard for him to finish.  Brunella folds her hand around his; it feels like a bag of marbles.  She helps him open the petals of each flower and pinch out the filaments.  They fill the insides with mozzarella and anchovies, add a dollop of honey, and press the petals until they are closed up again.  The zucchini blossoms are dipped in the batter and pan-fried until golden brown.

"Alora - fiori di zucchini fritti," he says, with a jack-o'-lantern smile, turning to Ethan, sweat dripping from his brow.  "My uncle used to make these in the camp in Missoula.  The highlight of the summer.  The guards thought we were crazy - look at the stupid dagos eating flowers.  Hah!  You do eat, don't you, Mr. Winthrop?"

Mr. Ethan Winthrop doesn't eat, actually, not even at the glorious party Angelo and Brunella throw a day later.  I want to have a party this summer and completely replicate this menu.  And you must come...

At dusk, Angelo announces that dinner is ready - a feast cooked over apple wood.  The pork loin has marinated in ginger, rosemary, garlic, wine and diced pears.  Angelo went to his big basement freezer two days earlier and retrieved venison steaks.  He has panfried them with mushrooms and sweet onions.  The red and white potatoes that Angelo has always grown - his reserve food, in case the world collapses - have become gnocchi di patate, doused in fresh-made pesto.  The Yakima corn is crisp and slightly charred, licked by fire.  And there are fist-sized Cartolano family tomatoes, bleeding juice, covered with basil, olive oil poured over them.  Louis Armstrong is still playing.  Angelo loves jazz, which he heard first in Bushwick and then in the camp at Missoula.  His uncle would never let anyone play Verdi, because it was what Mussolini liked.

"You see all this, Brunella," he says to his daughter, as they watch people load up on food, "and you wonder why I have to beg you to come home."

"You don't have to beg me, Babbo.  Stop with the guilt."

"What's wrong with our home, Miss Bigshot?  You tell me, and I will stop."

--The Winemaker's Daughter, by Timothy Egan, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004.

Literary Eats: The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien

I don't know how Oscar Hijuelos created a family of seventeen and made each member unique and memorable, but The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien is a masterpiece.

Nelson O'Brien is an enterprising Irish immigrant who travels to Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898, and there he meets his future wife, the sensitive, aristocratic, poetic Mariela Montez.  As they are en route to America in 1902, their first daughter, Margarita is born at sea.  The Montez O'Brien's settle in a in a small Pennsylvania town, where Nelson practices his photography trade and runs the Jewel Box Movie Theatre, and Mariela gives birth to thirteen more daughters and then, finally, a son.

As Margarita looks back on her long and full life, the novel recounts the lives, loves and tragedies of the Montez O'Briens and their always complex relations with one another.

I spotted this book on my basement bookshelves tonight and realized I am very overdue to read it again.  Quickly skimming through the pages, I wondered if there was something I could use for the Tuesday post, some good eats in the Montez O'Brien house.  And then of course I remembered:  Irene.

Better to consider the love of Irene, the seventh of the sisters, with her most elegant name.  Cherubic, good-natured, and chubby as an infant and as an adolescent (how she loved it when the butler García would show up with those bags of plaintains that they could fry to crispiness in a large cast-iron pan), she had always been lavished with many sweets and foods and with sisterly affection.  As she became a young woman, those beautiful features were swallowed by the moonlike roundness of her excessively fleshed-out face, and she lived for meals and was most happy to sit in her room eating one-cent sweets and spoonfuls of sugar or of honey, the idea of falling in love with a man never occurring to her except when she read magazines and would envy those young women whose boyfriends and husbands brought them chocolates.  She would daydream about love, not so much for the sweet kisses and embraces of a man, or the roses that romance was said to bring, but for the boxes of dome-shaped, swirl-topped Belgian chocolates with maraschino-cherry centers, marzipan delights, chocolates with coconut centers, chocolates stuffed with citron and nuts.

Mouth watering yet?  Anyway, at around age 20 Irene decides to find herself a man and to do this she goes on a diet, and understandably becomes quite unhappy.  Her father tries to help by giving her a bicycle for the sake of exercise, but this has no effect other than to bulk up her already hefty legs.  Then one day, out cycling, she collides head-on with a young man.

A young man as immense and porcine as herself, a fellow in a black top coat and schoolboy's beanie cap, whose pockets, as it turned out, were stuffed with sugar cubes and candies...When they had lifted up their bent bikes, they sat for a time under a tree, more or less pleased by each other's corpulence, as in this circumstance neither felt shame.  His name was Pokapoulos, a Greek fellow, and he lived in a nearby town, and was the son of a butcher, and he, too, confessed that he loved to eat...

He started to visit with the family, always sidling in through the door and bringing parcels of meat with him, to her father's delight - for Nelson O'Brien loved his steaks thick and juicy - and when he would stroll with her, or keep her company in the kitchen while she helped cook the evening's meal, he was always attentive and complimentary to her.  "My, but you look pretty tonight," he would tell her, and, as in a fairy tale, made her feel so happy that she began to forget about the troubles of the world...

When he ate with the family, tasting her cookery, his eyes would water with delight and he would look on her with nothing less than complete adoration.  And though it would be hard for any of the sisters to think that Irene and this fellow were acquainted with the romance of heated embraces, they, when alone, would engage in long bouts of succulent, tongue-swallowing kisses, tongues tasting of sweets and nut breads and steak, entwined and thick with the blood of appetite and the promise of an all-devouring consummation.  That would take place after three years of mealtime conviviality, during a honeymoon which they would spend in a country inn near Lake George, a Swiss-style chalet known for its view of the Adirondacks and attendant waterway and for its quail-stuffed pastries and all-you-can-eat dessert buffet.

(Gulp)...Check, please!

Literary Eats: Sleeping with the Enemy

Sleeping With the Enemy, by Nancy Price, is a terrific book that was made into a mediocre movie with Julia Roberts.  I know what you're thinking...but as Pandagirl's teacher would say, "Don't judge a book by its movie."  You should give this one a try. To summarize, Sara Gray Burney is desperate to escape an abusive marriage to her unstable husband, Martin.  She fakes her own death, appearing to drown in Manhasset Bay.  She leaves everything behind and flees to Iowa to begin a new life for herself, disguised in a wig and using the name Laura Pray.  In the three weeks between moving into her apartment and landing a job that pays well, she survives on a diet of oatmeal, beans, catsup and apples.  And library books.  One night, the man next door, Ben Woodward, invites her to dinner.

"Not a fancy dinner, I admit," Ben said.  "Just lasagna and a salad.  But I've got some fresh rolls and a cake."

Literally starving, "Laura" arrives for dinner, caught between wanting to hide her identity and enjoying Ben's charming attentions, and through it all, the food...the food...the food...

Sighing, she put on her slacks and a clean long-sleeved shirt and sandals.  A real dinner.  Her mouth watered for browned and steaming meat to chew...the crunch of vegetables...butter melting on hot bread.  She had learned to walk early or late enough to miss coffee and food smells wafting from open kitchen windows.

When she stopped thinking about a glass of wine sparkling with light and bubbles, or chicken in brown juice puddled with gold fat, she found she was beginning to put on lipstick.  She gave a low cry and ran to wash her face clean and put on no makeup but dark mascara and eyebrows to match her wig.

Sara eased her kitchen door open.  It was almost dark.  She pushed through the lilac path toward food and found she came out at Ben's back door.  No one could see her knock there.

"Come on in," Ben said, holding his kitchen door open.  Sara went through the kitchen fast, trying not to look at a bowl of salad, a plate of rolls.

The house was cool.  Sara's damp skin began to dry and her hunger was sharper.  There was wine on the living-room window seat, and some potato chips.  Ben held the tray out to Sara.  She bit her lip and took a wine glass and a few chips, as if her mouth weren't watering almost too much to talk.

Cool air and white wine, frothy with bubbles...the crunch of potato chips against her tongue...Sara sighed.  Ben Woodward lived here and wasn't afraid and thought she was crazy.  For a moment she felt safe with him - a stupid feeling for someone carrying danger with her like a secret disease.

Sara felt as thin as empty china.  She was eating all the potato chips while Ben talked about growing up in Chicago.

Ben asked nothing at all, not even when they were sitting at his old oak dining-room table.  The lasagna was hot and gilded with melted cheese.  Ben's tossed salad had Iowa summer tomatoes in it, thick crimson chunks drizzled with French dressing.  Every hot roll crunched brown and crusty at the edges.  Red wine sent lazy bubbles up the sides of Sara's glass.

Sara tried not to eat too fast or too much, polite as a stray cat that explores a house hesitantly, delicately, as if it does not need a home and may not come again.

Sara scraped dishes at an old sink like hers.  The drainboard needed bleaching.  Ben brought a chocolate cake from a cupboard.  Sara tried not to look greedily at his knife cutting through swirled, dappled frosting.

The knife cut through moist layers, leaving a light brown fringe of frosting at each level...Coffee glittered golden-brown into white cups, and its rich steam hung above it.

Sara was full now, and a little dreamy with wine.

Ben leaned against his kitchen door and hunched his shoulders, turning his head back and forth to look at his dim kitchen as if pleased that they were in it together.  When she wished him good-night he smiled as though they had plenty of time, and he was happy and satisfied with whatever she had brought and whatever she would bring again.

So Sara stood closer to him in the doorway and smiled at him in the almost-dark.  He didn't try to touch her, but she didn't step away, and when she went through rustling lilacs she was smiling.  He was smiling, too, when he closed his kitchen door and stood alone where candles still burned.

--Sleeping with the Enemy, by Nancy Price, Berkley Books, New York, 1987

Literary Eats: Under the Tuscan Sun

This is cheating, yes, I know - I am not supposed to use armchair travel books such as Under the Tuscan Sun for literary eats.  But I'm on vacation and when I'm on vacation I read armchair travel.  And this is not about food so much as it is about the table, and Frances Mayes' vision of a table is so divine:

I have considered my table, its ideals as well as its dimensions.  If I were a child, I would want to lift up the tablecloth and crawl under the unending table, into the flaxen light where I could crouch and listen to the loud laughs, clinks and grown-up talk, hear over and over "Salute" and "Cin-cin" travelling around the chairs, stare at kneecaps and walking shoes and flowered skirts hiked to catch a breeze, the table steady under its weight of food.  Such a table should accommodate the wanderings of a large dog.  At the end, you need room for an enormous vase of all the flowers in bloom at the moment.  The width should allow platters to meander from hand to hand down the center, stopping where they will, and numerous water and wine bottles to accumulate over the hours.  You need room for a bowl of cool water to dip the grapes and pears into, a little covered dish to keep the bugs off the Gogonzola (dolce as opposed to the piccante type, which is for cooking) and caciotta, a local soft cheese.  No one cares if olive pits are flung into the distance...If the table is long enough, everything can be brought out at once, and no one has to run back and forth to the kitchen.  Then the table is set for primary pleasure:  lingering meals, under the trees at noon.  The open air confers an ease, a relaxation and freedom.  You're your own guest, which is the way summer ought to be.

In the delicious stupor that sets in after the last pear is halved, the last crush scoops up the last crumbles of Gorgonzola, and the last drop empties into the glass, you can ruminate, if you are inclined that way, on your participation in the great collective unconscious.  You are doing what everyone else in Italy is doing, millions of backsides being shined by chairs at millions of tables..."

"A Long Table Under the Trees," from Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes, Broadway Books, New York, 1996.

Literary Eats: Tolkein

As the quest intensifies in The Lord of the Rings, the food becomes scarce and descriptions of it even scarcer, down to water and lembas crumbs at the end.  While hobbits are food-loving creatures, once the Fellowship departs the Shire, meals are not described in great detail, only the comfort and sustenance derived from them.  Yet there are little treasures of domesticity to be found in the Old Forest...  

A door opened and in came Tom Bombadil.  He had now no hat and his thick brown hair was crowned with autumn leaves.  He laughed, and going to Goldberry, took her hand.

'Here's my pretty lady!' he said, bowing to the hobbits.  'Here's my Goldberry clothed all in silver-green with flowers in her girdle!  Is the table laden?  I see yellow cream and honeycomb, and white bread, and butter; milk, cheese, and green herbs and ripe berries gathered.  Is that enough for us?  Is the supper ready?'

'It is,' said Goldberry; 'but the guests perhaps are not?'

Tom clapped his hands and cried: 'Tom, Tom!  your guests are tired, and you had near forgotten!  Come now, my merry friends, and Tom will refresh you!  You shall clean grimy hands, and wash your weary faces; cast off your muddy cloaks and comb out your tangles.'

He opened the door, and they followed him down a short passage and round a sharp turn.  They came to a low room with a sloping roof.  Its walls were of clean stone, but they were mostly covered with green hanging mats and yellow curtains.  The floor was flagged, and strew with fresh green rushes.  There were four deep mattresses, each piled with white blankets, laid on the floor along one side.  Against the opposite wall was a long bench laden with wide earthenware basins, and beside it stood brown ewers filled with water, some cold, some steaming hot.  There were soft green slippers set ready beside each bed.

"In the House of Tom Bombadil," from The Fellowship of the Ring, by J. R. R. Tolkein, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London, 1966

Literary Eats: Anna Karenina

[Editor's Note - Yes, I know it was supposed to be Tuesday Great Literary Eats.  The second I turned out the bedside lamp last night I thought, "Oops."  Oh well, I'm still finding my stride here.] Anna Karenina, written by Leo Tolstoy, was published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877 in The Russian Messenger. I attempted reading it once and bagged after a couple chapters.  I think I was just too young (what the hell does anyone know at 26, really).  I also gave War and Peace a spin and likewise ran out of gas.  I think the problem there was the logistics of trying to read such an enormous book in bed; there's no comfortable way to hold it.

But I'm thinking I'll give Anna another try...if for no other reason than this:

As I was reading Anna Karenina, I discovered an amazing thing.  The food in that book is really great. There's a dinner that Levin has with some other guy, and everything is described. When you read it at two o'clock in the morning, and it's cold out, and you're in bed, all you want to do is go out and have that meal. --"Why I Love Cookbooks," from More Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin.

It is Oblonsky with whom Levin goes to dinner at the Anglia, and Oblonsky is intent on having Turbot (a species of flatfish).  But when they arrive at the restaurant, they are informed that the kitchen has just received a shipment of fresh Flensburg oysters.  This results in Oblonsky changing the entire game, and embarking on a new menu.

'Well, then, my good man, bring us two - no, make it three dozen oysters, vegetable soup...'

'Printanière,' the Tartar [waiter] picked up.  But Stepan Arkadyich evidently did not want to give him the pleasure of naming the dishes in French.

'Vegetable soup, you know?  Then turbot with thick sauce, then...roast beef - but mind it's good.  And why not capon - well, and some stewed fruit.'

The Tartar, remembering Stepan Arkadyich's manner of not naming the dishes from the French menu, did not repeat after him, but gave himself the pleasure of repeating the entire order from the menu: 'Soupe printanière, turbot sauce Beaumarchais, poularde à l’estragon, macédoine de fruits...' and at once, as if on springs, laid aside one bound menu, picked up another, the wine list, and offered it to Stepan Arkadyich.

'What shall we drink?'

'I'll have whatever you like, only not much, some champagne,' said Levin.

'What?  To begin with?  Though why not, in fact?  Do you like the one with the white seal?'

'Cachet blanc,' the Tartar picked up.

'Well, so bring us that with the oysters, and then we'll see.'

'Right, sir.  What table wine would you prefer?'

'Bring us the Nuits.  No, better still the classic Chablis.'

'Right, sir.  Would you prefer your cheese?'

'Yes, the Parmesan.  Unless you'd prefer something else?'

'No, it makes no difference to me,' said Levin, unable to repress a smile.

--From Part I, Chapter X of Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Penguin Books, 2000.

Levin, it should be noted, cares nothing for fancy fare.  He likes "shchi and kasha best," and he "ate the oysters, though white bread and cheese would have been more to his liking."  During dinner he and Oblonsky discuss the tribulations of their romantic lives - Levin wishes to marry; Oblonsky is married but wishes a dalliance.  If I may get my high school English on, I will say that Tolstoy uses both the conversation and the food to represent all that is wrong in Russian society:  the excessive, multi-coursed meals, the snooty waiter, and talk of adultery representing the aristocracy; the simple fare and true love representing the workers of the world.  Who will have their day.  And their desserts.


Literary Eats: Gone With the Wind

I was fiddling around with the idea of a regular weekly feature for the "readies" who come here.  I decided that Tuesday mornings will bring "Great Literary Eats" - spotlighting passages about food in novels.  The challenge for me is that I cannot quote the obvious; no reaching for books like Year in Provence or Like Water for Chocolate.  Too easy.  The idea is to find incidental feasts in literature, to find great food where you might least expect it. And what better way to start than with a girl who swore she would never be hungry again?

From Chapter XXV, Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, Macmillan & Co, New York, 1936:

Beyond Tara was the war and the world.  But on the plantation the war and the world did not exist except as memories which must be fought back when they rushed to mind in moments of exhaustion.  The world outside receded before the demands of empty and half-empty stomachs and life resolved itself into two related thoughts, food and how to get it.

Food!  Food!  Why did the stomach have a longer memory than the mind?  Scarlett could banish heartbreak but not hunger and each morning as she lay half asleep, before memory brought back to her mind war and hunger, she curled drowsily expecting the sweet smells of bacon frying and rolls baking.  And each morning she sniffed so hard to really smell the food she woke herself up.

There were apples, yams, peanuts and milk on the table at Tara but never enough of even this primitive fare.  At the sight of them, three times a day, her memory would rush back to the old days, the meals of the old days, the candle-lit table and the food perfuming the air.

How careless they had been of food then, what prodigal waste!  Rolls, corn muffins, biscuit and waffles, dripping butter, all at one meal.  Ham at one end of the table and fried chicken at the other, collards swimming richly in pot liquor iridescent with grease, snap beans in mountains on brightly flowered porcelain, fried squash, stewed okra, carrots in cream sauce thick enough to cut.  And three desserts, so everyone might have his choice, chocolate layer cake, vanilla blanc mange and pound cake topped with sweet whipped cream.  The memory of those savory meals had the power to bring tears to her eyes as death and war had failed to do, had the power to turn her ever-gnawing stomach from rumbling emptiness to nausea.  For the appetite Mammy had always deplored, the healthy appetite of a nineteen-year-old-girl, now was increased fourfold by the hard and unremitting labor she had never known before.

Tea (A Drink with Bread and Jam)

At four in the afternoon, everyone feels a little peckish but only the British have institutionalized this feeling.  Every year one English magazine or another carries an article about the decline of the tearoom, but teatime still exists and many tea shops serve it.  It is a perfect child meal since children and their caregivers tend to droop around four o'clock and need to be revived. --Laurie Colwin, "How to Give a Party," from Home Cooking.

I love going for tea and I don't do it as often as I like.  I went once with girlfriends to Tea at the Helmsley.  Another time I went with different girlfriends to Silver Tips Tea in Tarrytown.  I'm dying to go to Kathleen's Tea House in Peekskill, and dying an even worse death to go to Tea and Sympathy in the West Village.

Tea and tea party scenes in British novels have always appealed to me.  Many years ago when I remodeled my old childhood dollhouse, I turned the top floor into the nursery of my imaginations, searching high and low for the perfect round table and chairs on which a miniature tea party could be set.  Downstairs in the living room, a resin-cast maid pushed an elaborate tea cart for the afternoon guests.  I watch Pandagirl now set up her scenes in that dollhouse and tea always is a feature.

"And to prove it, I'll take you for a drive...for tea at the Resevoirs in Versailles." --Louis Jourdan, as Gaston LaChaille in Gigi.

One of the best cups of tea I ever had was in Bermuda.  Jeeps and I had just gotten engaged and we...wait a sec, back up, I have to tell you something:  he proposed to me in the kitchen.  No set-up, no preamble, no ruse.  In the kitchen.  One minute I was poking around in the cabinets looking for a little something-something, the next minute I'm sobbing on the linoleum floor with a diamond ring on my hand.  In the kitchen.  It was perfect.  Thank you, I just needed to say that.

So we took a little celebratory trip to Bermuda and explored the island end to end, as one does in Bermuda, on a scooter.  And one day it rained.  Poured. We were at the opposite end of the island from our hotel, soaking wet and starving.  We staggered into a small pub and ordered fish and chips and a pot of tea.  It hot and strong and sweet and everything I felt high tea should be.

One of the most famous tea parties in literary history is in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the chapter entitled "A Mad Tea-Party." But guess what?  Nothing at the table is described.  This is it:

'Have some wine,' the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea.

The rest is rapid-fire dialogue consisting of riddles and non-sensical non-sequiturs that eventually drive our young heroine to distraction and away from the party.  We don't even get a bite of bread-and-butter.  Feh.

The Mary Poppins books by P. L. Travers, feature another famous tea party: the one on the ceiling.  In the movie this takes place at the home of Uncle Albert, played by Ed Wynne.  In the book, Mary's uncle is called Mr. Wigg, and he gives very specific instructions on how tea is to be taken:

'It is usual, I think, to begin with bread-and-butter,' he said to Jane and Michael, 'but as it's my birthday, we will begin the wrong way - which I always think is the right way - with the Cake!'

And he cut a large slice for everybody.

'More tea?' he said to Jane.'

--"Laughing Gas," from Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers

Mary Poppins, naturally, has her own idea of the perfect tea party, as described in the chapter , "The Day Out," where she and Bert hop into the chalk picture for an outing:

So, still admiring themselves and each other, they moved on together through the little wood, till presently they came upon a little open space filled with sunlight. And there on a green table was Afternoon Tea!

A pile of raspberry-jam-cakes as high as Mary Poppins's waist stood in the centre, and beside it tea was boiling in a big brass urn.  Best of all, there were two plates of whelks and two pins to pick them out with.

'Strike me pink!' said Mary Poppins.  That was what she always said when she was pleased.

So Travers gives us a few more particulars of the food served at tea-time.  But check out the loving and lavish detail C. S. Lewis provides when describing the tea party shared by Lucy and the faun Tumnus, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

And really it was a wonderful tea. There was a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them, and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake. And when Lucy was tired of eating, the Faun began to talk. He had wonderful tales to tell of life in the forest...

Notice that toast alone makes up three courses of this tea party.  Sardines on toast does nothing for me, however my boss is English and swears by baked beans on toast.  My team gave her some serious razzing about it but she held her ground and insisted it is comfort food of the highest order.  However, quality baked beans are the key: they must be Heinz vegetarian, served up on white toast topped with sharp cheddar.

Baked beans have a very different memory for me:  in my childhood, my mother worked late hours at her dance studio, and quite often it was my father who made dinner.  He was no slouch in the kitchen and had a solid repetoire of main courses.  But often he was tired after a long day and the evening commute, and so dinner would be a lite fare of scrambled eggs, with Heinz baked beans served on the side.

For the ultimate in tea party descriptions, and for British food in general, nothing beats the mealtime passages in the novels of Rosamunde Pilcher.  Here's one of my very favorite scenes from my very very favorite book, Coming Home:

They sat, Molly Dunbar and her sister-in-law Louise Forrester, on either side of the hearth, with a folding tea-table set up between them.  This had been laid with an embroidered linen cloth and the best china, as well as plates containing sandwiches, an iced lemon cake, hot scones spread with cream and strawberry jam, and two kinds of biscuit - shortbread and chocolate."

'How,' [Aunt Louise] now asked Judith through a cloud of cigarette smoke, 'did the Christmas Party go?'

'It was all right.  We did Sir Roger de Coverley.  And there were saffron buns.' Judith eyed the tea-table.  'But I'm still hungry.'

'Well, we've left plenty for you to finish up,' said Molly.  Judith pulled up a low stool and settled herself between the two women, her nose on a level with all Phyllis's goodies.  'Do you want milk or tea?'

'I'll have milk, thank you.'  She reached for a plate and a scone and began to eat, cautiously, because the thick cream and strawberry jam were spread so generously that they were liable to squidge out and drop all over the place.


Archived Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 5, December 1998

Cupid & Diana, by Christina Bartolomeo
Diana Campanella, a decidedly '90s woman with a penchant for early-'50s fashion, can't help but wonder if there isn't more to life. True, making the switch from her dull government job to ownership of a vintage clothing shop has been a personal victory. But the shop is about to go the way of the corset, and Diana's bank balance is dangerously low. Meanwhile, acting as referee between her head-butting sisters (a professional lingerie model in one corner, a perfect Catholic housewife in the other) is intolerable at best. And lawyer-fiancé Philip--handsome, well-dressed, a veritable Clark Kent with a bankroll--provides Diana with stability, security, and a notable shortage of profound passion.
Enter one Harry Sandburg, a displaced New York lawyer with a five o'clock shadow and a rumpled suit to match: "He had the sort of sweet and sad smile some Jewish guys have. It radiated a wry self-deprecation in which there was nothing humble or cringing." Harry is witty, wise, and utterly endearing. To make matters worse, their fervent lovemaking is enough to peel paint from the walls--a fact Diana learns one sweltering evening after a little too much Chianti and meatballs. Profound passion? Yes. But Harry's staying power is questionable, and Diana isn't getting any younger. Amidst mounds of manicotti and family feuds, vintage Roxbury suits and dreary Washington, D.C., political events, Diana struggles to choose between what she should do and what she truly wants. Funny, warm, sophisticated, and intelligent, Bartolomeo's debut is a keen romantic comedy packed with both fictional and fashionable delights.
A Cup of Tea, by Amy Ephron
Ephron's tragic little novel is an elaboration of the Katherine Mansfield short story of the same title. The setting is New York during the first year of U.S. involvement in World War I. Rosemary Fell is a pampered and protected young lady, engaged to marry the ever-so-suitable Philip Alsop. One day, Rosemary comes upon a young woman who has obviously fallen on hard times. Out of a sense of noblesse oblige, Rosemary invites this person--Eleanor Smith--home for a cup of tea. Philip happens to drop by, and a shared glance between him and Eleanor sparks what later flames into an affair. Philip enlists, and his orders to embark for overseas mean that his marriage to Rosemary has to be moved up, but his departure for Europe leaves behind a pregnant Eleanor. Despite being thought killed in battlefield skirmishes, Philip returns home to New York, but no happy ending is to be had. In fact, the under-developed ending left me a little flat.
Midwives, by Chris Bohjalian
From the day back in the '60s when Sibyl Danforth stepped forward in an emergency to help a pregnant friend give birth, she fell in love with the birthing process and dedicated herself to a calling as a lay midwife in rural Vermont. But as her obstetrician daughter, Connie, points out, Sibyl never bothered to obtain certification from the American College of Nurse-Midwives. Still, neighbors who wanted to have their babies at home felt comfortable calling on her. Among Sibyl's patients in 1981, the year Connie turned 14, was a minister's wife named Charlotte Bedford, a fragile woman whose incredibly difficult labor led to a stroke and what appeared to be Charlotte's death. Prevented by a heavy snowstorm from getting Charlotte to a hospital, Sibyl frantically tried to save the baby's life by performing an emergency cesarean on the presumably dead woman. Only after Charlotte is carted away does the question arise: Was the woman actually dead when Sibyl cut her open?
Narrating this superb book, Connie re-creates that terrible year when the state's attorney, Charlotte Bedford's family, the local medical community, and even members of the Danforths' small hometown seemed to conspire to put not just Sibyl but the entire practice of home birthing on trial. Connie, fearing witch-huntstyle reprisals, eventually broke the law to protect her beloved mother's freedom. But the question remains: Did Sibyl kill Charlotte for the sake of her baby? A fantastic and informative read.  The courtroom action was tight and suspenseful, but the moments of quieter, “human” action were just as compelling.  I couldn’t put it down.

The Lazarus Child, by Robert Mawson
On her way to school, Jack and Alison Heywood's seven-year-old daughter, Frankie, is hit by a truck and sent into a deep coma. Her 12-year-old brother, Ben, who witnessed the accident, is so traumatized that his hair turns white and he becomes nearly catatonic. The medical establishment offers the Heywoods no hope of a cure for Frankie and little help for Ben, whose guilt prompts him to attempt suicide
In desperation, Alison turns to Dr. Elizabeth Chase, a genius neurologist who operates a highly experimental clinic for coma victims in Virginia. Chase, whose own brother died in a coma, is intrigued by Ben's apparent knowledge of what Frankie is experiencing while she is unconscious.  His reports that she is fully active in a beautiful world we can't see, tally with Chases suspicions that her coma patients communicate with each other in some sort of “joint plane of awareness”.  Welcoming the Heywoods to her clinic despite increasingly threatening attacks by fanatics, the Defense Department, and the local D.A., she urges Ben into her world of the collective unconscious to find and rescue his sister. In the end, Chase must join her young hero in this video-gamelike universe where archetypal characters offer vital provisions and “magic” tokens to help seekers.
It was a good read, an interesting concept - I liked it, but there were times when just too much was going on.  The strained marriage of Jack and Alison; Ben’s trauma; Dr. Chase’s motivations; the dream-sequence narratives of Frankie’s experience; sub-plot layered upon sub-plot until the sandwich was just too big to get your teeth into.  I’d rather Mawson had picked one or two of the ideas and developed it fully. The ending was kind of vague.  Still, an enjoyable read.
Miriam’s Kitchen, by Elizabeth Ehrlich
An assimilated Jewish woman’s attempt to embrace the religioius traditions of her ancestors results in this beautiful book. The memoir traces the deepening relationship between Ehrlich and her mother-in-law, Miriam, as well as Ehrlich's memories of her fiercely left-wing family in the inner city of Detroit. Both families celebrate their Judaism through food, drink, ritual, prayer and family ties. Ehrlich's views on Judaism shift as she travels the road to middle age, first as a young girl, then as a young adult, next as a new wife and, finally, as the mother of three young children. Along the way she explores such complexities as Miriam's memories of the Holocaust and her native Poland, the challenges of managing a kosher home, and the joys and regrets of interfaith unions.
Rich with love, lore, memories, cooking tips and recipes.  Outstanding.  My favorite.
Land Girls, by Angela Huth
During World War II, young English women left the cozy world of traditional female jobs for exhausting agricultural labor so that male farm workers could take up arms. Agatha, Stella, and Prue are from distinctly different backgrounds and social classes, but genuine patriotism for their country binds them together. Pushed beyond their imagined limits, they all achieve what their culture has denied them as women: adventure, physical challenge, and personal growth. As ordinary citizens fighting for their country the best way they can, they transform themselves into women of honor, courage, and stature, proving themselves more noble than the highest generals.
With her attention to physical detail and human emotion, Huth manages to make the mundane, day-to-day lives of the Land Girls interesting.  It’s a quiet book; the action doesn’t jump out and scream at you, the war is far away, the joy is in the characters.
Wives of the Fishermen, by Angela Huth
Anatomy of a friendship.  Myrtle Duns, harbors a loving heart, a forgiving disposition, and a keen mind.  She and Annie Macleoud have been friends ever since kindergarten, but while Myrtle is steady, beautiful Annie is selfish, frivolous, and notoriously flirtatious.  Despite their differences, though, the two are close and loyal friends: Myrtle appreciates Annie's exuberance that lightens even the darkest of days, and Annie relies on Myrtle's good sense. Now married, like all the village women, the two women face the fear of death daily as they play cards and drink tea while their men are away fishing.
As she waits for husband Archie's return, Myrtle recalls the best and worst moments of their friendship: their joyous childhood pranks and the hurt when she learned that Ken Macleoud, the boy she yearned for, was in love with Annie. Later, Myrtle married Archie, a man every bit as good as she, and Annie, jealous, shortly married Ken, whom she didn’t love, and had a daughter, Janice, a girl the childless Myrtle loves as her own.
After Archie's death in an accident at sea, for which Ken and Annie are indirectly responsible, the friendship begins to fray. Myrtle forgives Ken and Annie, but Annie's subsequent behavior, her confessions of long-concealed envy, and her vituperative accusations are no help.  Finally, the closeness ends when Myrtle glimpses the 14-year-old Janice trying to seduce the man Myrtle’s just beginning to love. Virtue, though, does indeed have its own reward as a new love and life await Myrtle.
The Inn at Lake Devine, by Elinor Lipman
In the early 1960s, a Massachusetts family suffers a polite awakening. Inquiring about summer openings at a Vermont inn, the Marxes receive a killingly civil response, which ends, "Our guests who feel most comfortable here, and return year after year, are Gentiles." Apparently the Marxes are not quite as ideally average as they thought, at least on the basis of their surname.
Natalie, the youngest Marx daughter, will literally spend years responding to this rebuff.  At first she taunts the innkeeper, Ingrid Berry, by phone and mail, stressing by exaggeration that a system which welcomes WASP wife-murderers but not famed convert Elizabeth Taylor is both unfair and inane.
The next summer Natalie manages to engineer an invite to Lake Devine, coming in on the coattails of Robin Fife, a good-natured, none-too-swift fellow camper whose family are regulars at The House of Devine.  By the end of her stay, Natalie is fed up with the Fifes' relentless good will and Mrs. Berry's covert ill will.  All in all, she is relieved to return to firm social ground, and doesn't devote much thought to her "Gentile ambitions" for the next 10 years.
A letter about a camp reunion, however, brings Robin back into the picture, and Natalie is again invited to Lake Devine--this time for her campmate's marriage to the eldest Berry son.  There the unexpected happens, in the form of a horrible accident, and also in the form of love, as the younger Berry brother, Kris, and Natalie lock eyes and hearts.
A really nice, light read wrapped around social commentary, personal identity, and food.
Lost in Translation, by Nicole Mones
Alice Monnegan moved to China after college, and now, known as Mo Ai-Li, makes her living as a translator for visiting businessmen and other Americans.  At 36, Alice is still unable to forgive her politician father for breaking up her only serious romance, a decade before, with a Chinese student.  She often picks up Chinese men for one-night stands, as if to defy her father's racist beliefs, but in truth, Alice is devoutly enamored of all things Chinese.
Alice's life begins to change when she gets a job helping an American professor search for the whereabouts of a great archaeological treasure: the bones of prehistoric Peking man, which disappeared following World War II.  As Americans and Chinese scientists travel to northwest China, where the remains were last seen, Alice falls in love with one of the Chinese members of the team. Alice realizes that she must accept her past and who she really is in order to come to terms with both her father and the man she loves.
The key to the novel's success is Mones's in-depth knowledge of China's culture, history, and politics. The question of cultural identity is at the core of her tale, and she skillfully weaves various aspects of Chinese life -- from ancestor worship to the Cultural Revolution -- into the personal relationships of her characters.  By novel's end, readers have discovered a great deal about archeology, China, and most especially about the unmapped territories of memory, desire, and identity.  Very entertaining and interesting.
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, by Richard Zimler
In 1496, Jews living in Portugal were dragged to the baptism font and forced to convert to Christianity.  Many of these "New Christians," in secret and at great risk, persevered in their rituals, and the hidden, arcane practices of the kabbalists, a mystical sect of Jews, continued as well.
One such secret Jew was Berekiah Zarco, an intelligent young manuscript illuminator. Inflamed by love and revenge, he searches, in the crucible of the raging pogrom, for the killer of his beloved uncle Abraham, a renowned kabbalist discovered murdered in a hidden synagogue, along with a young girl in deshabille.
Risking his life in streets seething with mayhem, Berekiah tracks down answers among Christians, New Christians, Jews, and the fellow kabbalists of his uncle, whose secret language and codes both light and obscure the way to the truth he seeks.
A Song for Summer, by Eva Ibbotson
Ellen is a mystery to her family. Her mother and the aunts who helped raise her were all militant suffragettes and are now part of the Bloomsbury intelligentsia, while Ellen would much rather pursue the domestic arts and follow in the footsteps of her grandfather's Austrian mistress and housekeeper. In the spring of 1937, Ellen does so, traveling to Austria to become a housemother in an eccentric boarding school that specializes in the arts and serves as a haven for adults and children who have nowhere else to go.
Under Ellen's gentle, resourceful care, Hallendorf School begins to function with Victorian efficiency; even the once-atheist children start attending church. Meanwhile, sensible Ellen is thrown among a quirky mix of instructors: a Russian ballerina, a hysteric metalworks teacher, and an overly emotive drama coach. None of the staff, however, is as intriguing as the mysterious groundsman, Marek, who turns out to be a prominent Czech composer hiding incognito at the school to better facilitate the rescue of a Jewish friend from a concentration camp. Ellen and Marek's acquaintance grows into a deep friendship and then love, and an engagement ensues, taking the two to Marek's vast country estate. The Nazis, though, take revenge on Marek for helping with the escape of his friend, and mayhem breaks loose. Marek is believed lost, Ellen returns to London to marry an old admirer, and many of the Hallendorf children seek refuge at the Carr residence.

Will the two lovers reunite? Will the Allies win the war? A happy ending is, of course, guaranteed.  Fluff, but high-quality fluff.

Archived Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 4, August 1998

Magic, Merriment, Macabre and the Mediterranean
Under a Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, by Frances Mayes
Reviews have ranged from “A beautiful book overflowing with luscious imagery and warmth” to “Slightly over rated!”  From “Lazy, hazy, yummy read” to “Whiny and obnoxious - Martha Stewart in Tuscany.”  I loved it, but then again, I’m the type to take comparisons to Martha Stewart as a compliment.
In the same armchair-travel spirit as Year in Provence, only set in the Tuscan countryside of northern Italy, we follow Frances and her companion, Ed, as they purchase an old Italian farmhouse and renovate it to within an inch of their lives.
Frances Mayes reveals the sensual pleasure she found living in rural Italy, and the generous spirit she brought with her. She revels in the sunlight and the color, the long view of her valley, the warm homey architecture, the languor of the slow paced days, the vigor of working her garden, and the intimacy of her dealings with the locals. Cooking, gardening, tiling and painting are never chores, but skills to be learned, arts to be practiced, and above all to be enjoyed.
I loved it because a life like this is one I often envision for myself.  The slower pace, the simpler needs, and a culture that places so much emphasis on food and friendship and entertainment appeals to me.  The difference between Tuscan Sun and Year in Provence is that in Provence, I felt that obtaining such a life was possible.  There was no question in Tuscan Sun that Mayes had a lot of money to burn.
But one can dream…
The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth Von Armin
Enchanted April is a book (or movie!) for anyone who feels stiff, unloved, or used up - a restful, funny, sumptuous, and invigorating vacation for the mind and soul. It begins one cold, rainy February afternoon soon after the end of World War I when Mrs. Arbuthnot and Mrs. Wilkins come across an advertisement for a villa in Italy to rent for the month of April. Mrs. Arbuthnot, with the "face of a patient and disappointed Madonna," and Mrs. Wilkins, "her clothes infested by thrift," barely know each other, yet the fantasy of a wisteria-covered Italian villa sparks something in each and brings them together. They raid their meager nest eggs, find two more women - the formidable Mrs. Fisher and the unspeakably lovely but bored Lady Caroline Dester - to help defray costs, and set off for their dream of sunshine and beauty.
At San Salvatore, remarkable changes occur. Mrs. Wilkins becomes Lotty - intuitive, sensual, self-confident; Mrs. Arbuthnot loses her religious self-righteousness. Lady Caroline finds herself with "that really rather disgusting suspicion that her life till now had not only been loud but empty," while Mrs. Fisher starts to feel a "very odd and exciting sensation of going to come out all over buds."
Elizabeth von Armin portrays these transformations in wickedly dry British humor interwoven with descriptions of the lush, soul-stirring terrain of San Salvatore. The effect is refreshing, charming, and romantic
Blood Dance, by James William Brown
Brown takes a Greek island so small that it's ignored by all during WW II and makes it the setting not only for a story of passion, the past, and the invincible grip that a small community has on the individual, but a place where pagan beliefs still survive. The story is told from three different voices, beginning and ending with a commentary from the Women and Men, respectively. Like a traditional Greek chorus, they set the scene, hint at what's to come, and provide the concluding wrap-up.
Another voice is that of Katina, a refugee from Turkish oppression who came to the island as an archeologist and stayed to marry Grigoris, the last of a noble family. She describes her life as a young wife, widow, and mother of the beautiful and independent Amalia, whose friendship with a Scandinavian tourist precipitates the defining crisis. Like the tourist, Katina has never been accepted by the villagers, who resent strangers.  They jealously preserve the old ways and customs, some of which date back to pagan times.
Nikos, Amalia's island suitor and husband-to-be, takes up the story, adding his version of what has come before, followed by Amalia herself, who offers a few snippets of her own, including her reasons for marrying Nikos--the transcending one being her belief ``that love will come as a reward for waiting'' for enduring the losses of her father, her secret lover, and the Scandinavian who promised to take her away with him.
Corelli’s Mandolin: A Novel, by Louis De Bernieres
This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  It was funny, touching, frightening, maddening, emotional and descriptive. The writing was just terrific and the characters so memorable, especially since each chapter, like Blood Dance, is told from a different point of view,  including one chapter told from the eyes of Il Duce himself, Mussolini.
This novel, set on the idyllic Greek island of Cephallonia, follows the lives of its inhabitants from the peaceful days before World War II through the Italian occupation of the island into the present. It is funny, heartbreaking, and horrifying in its fictional testimony to the changes the war exacts on the townspeople.   If you ever needed proof that war is hell, this book will provide it.
The story centers around a family that includes a widowed, enlightened doctor working on a biased history of the island in his spare time; his clever, independent daughter; and Captain Antonio Corelli, a responsible but irrepressible officer of the Italian garrison who is also a musician and leader of the latrine opera club La Scala.
I really loved both Blood Dance and Corelli’s Mandolin and recommend them highly.
The Tattooed Map, by Barbara Hodgson
At one time, Lydia and Christopher were lovers as well as travel companions; now they are merely fellow travelers. While on a trip to Morocco, Lydia notices a small mark on her hand which begins to grow and spread in thin, tattooed lines that only she can see. Eventually, the marks reveal themselves to be a detailed map of an unknown land, and Lydia begins to understand that these marks, invisible to all but herself and a mysterious Moroccan man named Layesh, will lead her on a strange and perilous journey.
The Tattooed Map is Lydia's journal of the days and weeks leading up to her disappearance. Each page contains her daily experiences--her growing shock and fear as the map unfolds itself, her deteriorating relationship with Christopher, her conversations with strangers--as well as the memorabilia she collects along the way: maps and postcards, train tickets and postage stamps, lists of books she's reading and souvenirs she's bought--all pasted in the margins of the journal.
When Lydia disappears midway through the journey, her friend Christopher takes up the journal, using it first as a means of recording his search for her and then, increasingly, as a clue to her fate. A combination travelogue, mystery, and ghost story.
The Tattooed Map is a physically beautiful book.  The story becomes three-dimensional because each page is decorated with all the bits of scrap paper, momentos and jotted notes, which travelers often find cluttering their pockets and notebooks at the end of a trip.  I found that sometimes the marginalia was distracting me from the story; so I read through it again.  It wasn’t wasted time.


Paris Out of Hand, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
This isn’t a story, it’s a travel guide.  It’s a very silly, whimsical unofficial travel guide through the Paris that is, that might be, and never was.  It’s a beautiful, little red book, very entertaining with it’s own hotel-rating method, exerpts from concierge guest books, and special guest commentaries.  Lots of illustrations and marginalia à la Tattooed Map.
For fun, for dreams and for lovers of Paris.
Magic and Macabre
These next three books could be categorized as “fantasy literature”, or “interactive reading”, or, as I prefer to put it, “pop-up books for adults.”  They take the illustration/marginalia concept of Tattooed Map one step further.  The result is a hands-on, touch-and-feel-and-participate fairy tale.  Marvelous graphics, rich textures, and soft subtle messages.  After reading the descriptions at, I decided to buy them for myself instead of borrow from the library.  They are beautiful books to own and give, as well as to read.
The Secrets of Pistoulet: An Enchanted Fable of Food, Magic and Love, by Jana Kolpen and Mary Tiegreen
“Far away in the remote, untraveled southwestern French countryside, there is a small village which contains two homes, an eleventh-century church, and a very special farm known as Pistoulet."
Thus begins The Secrets of Pistoulet, a charming and beautiful little book filled with food, magic, and love. Part fiction, part cookbook, this richly illustrated book possesses a collection of letters to be removed from envelopes, and recipes tucked into their own little pockets. Drawings, photographs, snippets of diaries, and mysterious maps decorate this tale of Mademoiselle J., who arrives at Pistoulet with a broken heart. There she is welcomed by the farm's tenants: Madame Claude; Monsieur Andre; the black dog, Marcel; and a chicken that lays golden eggs. Soon, such soul-strengthening dishes as Potage of Babble (guaranteed to cease excessive chatter), Potage of Passion (Cooks beware: this soup has been known to result in marriage proposals!), and Tart of Sunshine (sure to heat both body and soul) have Mademoiselle J. on the road to recovery.
The Legend of the Villa Della Luna: The Sequel to the Secrets of Pistoulet, by Jana Kolpen and Mary Tiegreen
The adventures of Mademoiselle J continue; after healing her broken heart at Pistoulet, she learns to open it once again to love and relationships.  While a  guest at a magnificent Italian seaside villa, Della Luna, Mlle. J. reaches out to a grieving man who has isolated himself inside a lighthouse after a tragic love affair.
The Griffin & Sabine Trilogy, by Nick Bantock:
(I) Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence.
(II) Sabine's Notebook
(III) The Golden Mean
The trilogy follows the correspondence between Griffin Moss, a graphics artist, and Sabine, a mysterious woman living thousands of miles away.  It seems that as Griffin draws in his London studio, Sabine can see his images in her mind’s eye.
You follow their relationship through beautifully-designed postcards with their hand-written messages.  Then letters on hand-painted stationery arrive, to be taken out of their envelopes and pored over.  This clever method draws you into the story, and it seems to be a sweet, romantic, transcendental affair between two long-lost soulmates…then it starts getting weird.  Love turns to infatuation, to obsession.  All is not what it seems.  The line is blurred between reality and fantasy.  Is Sabine real?  Is she a figment of Griffin’s imagination, or vice-versa?  Who is the potter and who is the clay?  Etc., etc., etc….

Open-ended, up for interpretation and extremely entertaining.  The whole trilogy is on my bookshelves, if you ever feel like reading someone else’s mail!  I know I will want to explore further the quirky art-fiction of Nick Bantock.

Archive Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 1, March 1998

Eva Luna, by Isabel Allende
Story of the life of orphan Eva Luna, from her impoverished beginnings, to her rise to fame and fortune, and all the incredible, nutsy, lovable, detestable characters she meets along the way.  The German immigrant.  The Turkish benefactor and his crazy wife.  The rebel lover.  It wasn’t The House of the Spirits, also by Isabel Allende, which I HIGHLY recommend, but still extremely enjoyable.  I love Allende’s writing: visual, sensual, imaginative, magical…I’ve heard it described as “fantasy surrealism”.  There were chapters when I felt like I could eat the words right off the paper, especially the parts about Rolf and the dalliances with his luscious German cousins.  A lot of fun.
Also by Isabel Allende: The House of the Spirits; Of Love and Shadows; Infinite Plan
The Visitation, by Sue Reidy
I took this out because it sounded hil-ar-ee-ous!  It really was a scream; it covered some very interesting subjects in a very comical way.
While other children in 1960s Chatterton, New Zealand, play cops and robbers or cowboys and indians, Catherine and Theresa Flynn play Martyrs and Suffering Virgins.  They pass their afternoons eagerly reenacting the torturing and demise of their favorite female saints.  Still, they are completely unprepared for the sight of the Virgin Mary, appearing to them in their lemon tree.  All Mary wants them to do, it turns out, is deliver a sealed, handwritten message to the Pope.  Awestruck, the two obediently pass the Virgin's letter on to their mother - who promptly turns it over to her sternly devout husband - who self-righteously opens and reads it before passing it on to the local priest.  Disagreeing with the letter's content (the Virgin wants the Pope to acknowledge the importance of contraception), Terrence Flynn alters the message to conform with his own and the Church's misogynistic doctrines.
The result, as this wacky family history would have it, is Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae forbidding the use of the Pill - an edict that forces Mary to reappear on Earth (with the girls as her witness) to initiate a movement intent on helping women control their own procreative destinies.  A movement longed for by Catherine and Theresa’s exhausted mother.  Eight children has taken its toll on Mrs. Flynn; she resents Rome treating her sex as breeding mares; resents that a group of men have the final say on childbirth and child-rearing; resents giving herself, body and soul, to the care of her home and family with so little rewards.  Most of all, she resents having to feel sorry for feeling this way.  There’s a very moving scene where she cannot bring herself to say an Act of Contrition when confessing these “sins” to her priest, and she walks out of the church.
Meanwhile, Theresa and Catherine go about their own very mortal lives- - experimenting with sex, falling in love with a long-haired cousin, a doctor's son, and whatever other target wanders into their path.  They struggle to “be good,”' whatever that means, in the face of their father's violent temper, their mother's depression, the local monsignor's failure to guide them, and the utter chaos of life in a houseful of Flynns.
I loved it.  It was laugh-out-loud funny, and a little tight-in-the throat poignant.  A really offbeat look at Catholic girlhood.
In the Land of Winter, by Richard Grant
Pippa Rede, a single mom and self-described witch, loses custody of her daughter after she is attacked by a number of gossiping, right-winged crusaders.  In this small Rhode Island (I think?) town, QROST is the buzz-word of the day, standing for Quasi-Religious Occult Sexual Trauma.  In other words, Pippa makes the townfolk nervous because she isn’t a Christian:  she prays to goddesses atop a mountain in winter.
When the paper prints attacks on Satanism, implicating Pippa, and an alarmist letter speaks of “ritual abuse”, Pippa’s daughter is deemed in danger and Pippa is deemed unfit to be a mother.  On the contrary, this indifferent witch is a great mother.  OK, she’s a lousy breadwinner, and has racked up more than a few weird relationships, but her daughter, Winterbelle, adores her.
Pippa’s misery at becoming childless leads to her becoming jobless and homeless.  One thing about hitting rock bottom – there’s no where to go but up.  Pippa gathers an eclectic and eccentric band of allies, among them a lawyer, a Native-American law school dropout, a teenage boy (step-son to the woman who started the whole breuhaha of persecution and in my opinion, one of the true witches in the story), a werewolf, a delivery man, and more than one witch.  Together they embark on a crusade to rescue Winterbelle, and Pippa, usually so accepting of what comes her way, discovers the strength of her own magic.
A modern-day fairy tale, with all the usual characters:  heroines and heros, prince charmings, fairy godmothers, wicked witches, elves and fairies.  OK, it gets “out-there” at times.  Like with the werewolf, you’re asked to believe in something you wouldn’t necessarily.  But, hey, it could happen…witch-hunts take on all sorts of disguises.
Also by Richard Grant:  Tex and Molly in the Afterlife. While wandering in the woods, Tex and Molly, two aging hippies, fall into a ditch and die, thus beginning the greatest adventure of their afterlives. Soon the couple finds themselves communing with ancient woodland spirits and battling genetic manipulation and a mega-corporation.  Sounds…interesting.
The Chin Kiss King, by Ana Veciana-Suarez
A tender novel about three generations of Cuban-American women who turn the brief life of a handicapped baby into a celebration of life and love.
There is Cuca, the grandmother and matriarch, long-widowed but still in touch with all her dearly departed ones, and mindful of their advice.  Cuca’s daughter, Adela, a compulsive Lotto player, who calls on her spirituality when it best suits her.  Adela was divorced while raising her only daughter, Maribel, and now has a long-standing affair with her best friend’s husband.  And Maribel, a career woman and compulsive housekeeper with no time or interest for her grandmother’s ghosts and her mother’s eccentricities.  Maribel, in fact, is a “stranger to risk and adventure”…except for that wild, passionate affair she had with Eduardo, the drug dealer.  The affair that has left the single mother of a severely handicapped child, Victor.
Victor is born with trisomy 18--an extra chromosome--and Maribel is told he won't live long.  In the months that follow, she at first fights to keep him alive, then eventually learns to accept what can't be changed as Victor begins to weaken.  Adela also joins the fight, discovering some surprising inner resources along the way.  And Cuca, keeping watch over the dying baby, is comforted by seeing all she had loved and lost “waiting for Victor, ready for him.”
A book about life, love, pain, mothers, women and letting go.  Tissues necessary.  And Xerox machine for the chapter on Cuca’s 8 life lessons.  I loved her scenes the most...
The Tree of Red Stars, by Tessa Bridal
Apparently this book began when the author jotted down some amusing memories of her aunts coming to tea.  It ended as an intense coming-of-age story set agains Uruguay’s transisiton from a democracy to a military dictatorship.
Bridal describes life in Montevideo through the eyes of Magda, a young woman from an upper-middle-class family who has lived a sheltered and secure existence--until the growing political unrest threatens to erupt even within her own wealthy neighborhood.  Magda recalls how, as the youngest in a distinguished family, she was brought up to be a young lady of traditional habits and interests.  But Magda also relates how she befriended the beggar Gabriela; listened as Emilia's mother talked of revolution; heard Che Guevara speak and was assaulted by the police in the subsequent riot; and admiringly watched Marco, a handsome young neighbor and soldier, attempt to help the poor.  Soon a member of the Tupamaros, she spied on the US and British, was imprisoned, then eventually released only with Marco's help.  But Marco, who had used his military rank as a cover for revolutionary activities, was finally arrested, and Magda fled the country.
Now Magda has returned to Uruguay, having learned that Marco is about to be released from prison.  Will they be reunited?  Will happiness last?  Read this amazing story to find out.
The Villa Marini, by Gloria Montero
Spanish immigrants in Australia?  Well, I didn’t know.
Marini Grau battles prejudice, a loveless marriage, and Australia's harsh natural elements to maintain her family's plantation, mold a life for her son, and fulfill her late father's Hispanic dreams.
When Mariano Grau arrives in North Queensland, Australia, with small daughter Marini in tow, he ends a journey that began in his native Spain.  In Cuba, he had grown sugar until the Yankees ousted the Spanish; then, still mourning the loss of his beautiful wife Guillermina, who died soon after Marini's birth, as well as the death of his first-born son, Mariano, he wandered the world until he reached Queensland.  There, he starts to grow cane as he did in Cuba, dreams of building a fine villa, and sends Marini to the local convent school.
It's in the convent that Marini, now 17, nurses a mysteriously ill Irishman, Dominic Moran, who's been rescued from Aborigine cannibals.  When her father is accidentally killed, Marini decides to marry the convalescing Dominic, the idea being that he will help her fulfill her father's aspirations.  Soon, Marini--a dynamo who cuts cane with the men, defies strikers by driving a locomotive, and faces down any male chauvinist who dares to question her--is rich enough to build the splendid villa her father dreamed of.  She is also the mother of an adored son, Joel.
Things are going too well, in fact, so of course they must fall apart: Dominic smokes opium; Marini has an affair with his brother Michael, who has moved in with them; she gives birth to handicapped Rosemary; and on the night they all celebrate Joel's coming of age, fate delivers the ultimate blow.
It was a little soap-operatic, but it read quickly and was entertaining.  The ending was a surprise.
The Conquest, by Elizabeth Chadwick
Love thine enemy, as the saying goes.   In The Conquest, a young Saxon woman suffers the harsh consequences of the Norman invasion of England.  After both her husband and brothers suffer violent deaths at the hands of the conquerors, Ailith temporarily loses her wits and attempts to take her own life. Thwarted by Rolf de Brize, a lusty, sympathetic Norman, Ailith agrees to assume the position of chatelaine of his English estate. Though she bears his child and spends many contented years as his mistress, she reluctantly realizes that the fundamental gulf that separates them is too wide to sufficiently bridge. When she discovers that Rolf has betrayed her both physically and spiritually, Ailith flees, bequeathing her young daughter a bitter legacy of love and loss.
Historical romance on a grand scale.  I found that I lost a little interest once the character of Ailith was gone.  I pushed on to see what would happen to her daughter, but it wasn’t like I was dying to find out.
Also by Elizabeth Chadwick: Daughters of the Grail.  Set in 13th century France, focusing on a descendent of Mary Magdelene.  Haven’t read it but sounds pretty neat…
A Stone Gone Mad, by Jacquelyn Holt Park
Difficult (for me) story of a girl trying to come out of the closet in the 1960s.  Fifteen-year-old Emily Stolle of White River, New Hampshire, first recognizes that girls turn her on when her big sister's best buddy, Mattie, starts meeting her for trysts on the terrace behind Emily's house.  Alas, Dad (a widower who keeps his distance from his daughters) and straight-laced sister Sheila stumble onto the pair, resulting in a boarding school for Emily and a further breakup of the already fractured family.  It's the Fifties, so Emily tries to bury herself in the trappings of adolescent sexuality. But in college her urges resurface and are played out with a friend who retreats from Emily once the two of them achieve consummation.  Then it's off to beat New York, where Emily studies English at Columbia and defeatedly accepts the fact that she's a lesbian, frequenting downtown gay bars with names like Circle 3, The Naughty Angle, and Pandy's.  It takes a few unsatisfactory relationships before she finds a woman she can love.  Still, Emily can't bring herself to tell her friend Lillian--the only person from her past who means anything to her--that she's gay. But then Lillian admits she has terminal cancer, and that opens up Emily's floodgates at last.
I found it difficult because it was so heartbreaking.  Besides Emily’s wondering if she is sick or mentally ill, and her painful attempts to “cure” herself, there are the estrangements:  first her family – her father sends her away, and her sister refuses to allow contact between her daughter and “perverted” Aunt Emily.  Then her friends distance themselves; throughout Emily’s repeated bouts of depression, friends beg her to confide in them, whatever it is, they will understand.  So she confides.  And they either flee in denial or retreat in homophobic horror.  Her one true champion, Lillian, is kept in the dark the whole time…A review from wrote “ …a tangled mess of finding and defining oneself according to one's understanding of society's rules.”
It got my feelings in a tangle.  I couldn’t say if I liked it or not, but it stuck with me for a long time, afterwards.  I guess you could say it upset me in a way.
The Characters of Love, by Susie Boyt
A short novel of obsessive love.  Another one that I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not, but I thought about it for a while after I’d finished reading.
Nell Fisher’s 11th birthday party is interrupted by the sudden appearance of her father, Richard, whom she hasn’t seen in nearly a decade.  Richard, a cool and detached psychiatrist, has recently become interested in the field of child psychology, and in doing so rekindles an interest in his daughter.  He begins to “woo” back Nell by meeting with her every Wednesday for tea.  He wins, at first, her adolescent awe, then her trust, and after a few years of the father-daughter ritual, her heart.  Richard then announces, rather abruptly, he is leaving the UK for a job in the States. 
Bewildered and betrayed, Nell pines for her father as she enters college.  She develops a crush of epic proportions on her tutor/father-figure, the distinguished drunkard/melancholy poet Bill Marnie. The crush evolves into a obsessive fixation which both Nell and Marnie translate as love.  Surely it must be love:  Nell is sick to her stomach at nearly every encounter with Marnie, just as many of her Wednesday tea-times with Richard ended with her throwing up.  That’s love, right?
Marnie proposes marriage but then, afflicted by a recurring mental illness, suffers a total breakdown, which in turn throws Nell into a near-catatonic tailspin.  The book ends quite suddenly, with Richard returning to London, and an implied therapeutic resolution to Nell’s problems.  I couldn’t really tell what the implications were, actually. 

A well-written, complex portrait of a troubled woman, but a lot of loose ends left dangling at the end.  I guess that’s why I kept thinking about it later.

Archive Book Nook News: Vol I, Issue 3, August 1997

Chasing Cezanne and Anything Considered by Peter Mayle
You’ll notice I find one author and read him or her to death…
OK, I think I’ve figured out Peter Mayle’s style:  Start with England or America.  Add one out-of-luck or down-at-heart bachelor with a heart of gold and cosmopolitan tastes.  Add a believable reason to go to the south of France, throw in a girl and some lunch and some sort of scam.  Let the adventure begin.
Both Cezanne and Anything follow this pattern (in Cezanne the scam involves a stolen painting; in Anything Considered it’s the truffle industry at stake), but Mayle writes so wonderfully, so wittily, so deliciously, who cares?  The adventure and situations are believable, but you know it will turn out right in the end, in time for the next meal.  I find reading one of his books as gratifying as taking a day off from work.
Army of Angels by Pamela Mercantel
A novel of Joan of Arc.  What Mercantel tries to do is not write of Joan of Arc, the saint, but of Jehanne the Maid, the girl.  Who was the person, the human being behind the legend?  Who or what were the voices she claimed to have heard all her life, the voices that encouraged, drove, and helped her win France from the English?  Who were her family?  Her friends?  And why, why, in the end, was she forsaken and betrayed to the enemy?
For me, Mercantel succeeds, and it’s a beautiful, incredible story.  I love historical fiction, but I had trouble staying with this one…because I knew what was going to happen in the end.
Patchwork by Karen Osborn
This was pure hidden treasure…it fell off the bookshelf when I was reaching for something else.
In a saga spanning three decades, two sisters and the daughter of a third recount life in a rural South Carolina mill town.  Sounds simple, but it’s a beautiful, moving, complex drama of women, sisters, daughters, mothers and grandmothers.  It’s about circumstances and choices, set against the grueling work conditions of the cotton mills.  There is Rose, the eldest, the wise and steady one, married with children and managing to plod along, keep her life going, keep the family ties from unraveling, and keep her faith in God.  There’s fly-by-night Lily, married to the mill-boss but unable to keep her hands off her first husband Charlie.  Julie, the youngest, who marries above her station to the town banker and is then institutionalized for attempting to murder her baby.  And Sylvia, Julie’s daughter, taken in by Rose and smitten by Rose’s son Benjy, unaware he is her own cousin.
The title is perfect; Osborn has pieced a quilt of female voices, each unique and compelling.  It’s not a dramatic story, but I couldn’t put it down.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
This book weaves difficult themes--justice, racism, the weight of memory--into a seamless, sensitive narrative.  Set in a small town on an island in Puget Sound in 1954, the story revolves around the trial of a Japanese-American accused of murdering a white fisherman he had known all his life.
This is a very dramatic story.  Not only for the resolution of the murder case, but for the  flashbacks to the forceful interning of the Japanese residents during World War II; for the tender coming-of-age love affair between a white boy, now the editor of the local paper, and a Japanese girl, now the wife of the accused man; and for the shifting trust and enmity between the two communities.  But the drama is quiet, gentle, meditative, like the warm rains that fall in Seattle.  It has lyrical, beautiful language, and powerful, almost cinematic imagery…I know I’ll be looking for the movie in a few years!
Renaissance Moon by Linda Nevins
Tale of a beautiful scholar whom the cold moon goddess Artemis drives mad.
Selene is the daughter of Professor Sterling Alva Catcher, a Greek scholar at Cambridge who holds moonlit rites to Artemis and tells his students that the pagan Moon Goddess is the true goddess of mankind.  Selene knows that as a baby she was offered to the goddess, and she grows up hoping to be an initiate as loyal as her late father. At first she has an active sex life, but then takes a vow of chastity; her hatred of men eventually grows into a mania, poisoning her life.
When the legends that have shaped her view of the world erupt and spill over into her personal life, Selene, who has an obsession for Italian Renaissance paintings, becomes a bloodthirsty pagan whose newfound attitude colors her interpretation of Christian art.  She publishes some impressive works on Annunciation paintings of the Italian Renaissance, coming to believe that the Virgin Mary is an incarnation of the Moon Goddess
I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.  It only gave the slightest taste of the myths of Selene-Artemis-Hecate, known as the triple Moon Goddess of the Greeks, which is the part I was expecting more of and looking forward to.  Also it keep me from truly understanding what motivated Selene.  After a while, I found the whole thing a little dark and disturbing.  I’m interested in goddess religion and mythology, but this was a little too cultish for me.
Linda Nevins also wrote Commonwealth Avenue.          
After years of being a film production assistant, Zoe Hillyard's big break comes with the assignment to work on a movie set in 1890s Boston. Returning with reluctance to the city of her childhood, Zoe is confronted by the secrets and familial rivalries of the Hillyard mansion on Commonwealth Avenue.  The book moves between the events of present-day Boston, and excerpts from Zoe’s grandmother’s diary.  The attention to detail which bogged down Renaissance Moon, works beautifully here as Zoe uses the Commonwealth Avenue mansion to design her movie, The Gilded Age.
Serenissima by Erica Jong
(This, I believe, is the original title, and was later released as Shylock’s Daughter)
Jessic Pruitt is a popular Hollywood actress who has come to Venice to be a judge in the Venice film festival.  She begins receiving roses and sonnets from an unknown admirer who beckons her to leave the narcissistic present and enter an enchanted past.
Jessica goes deeper and deeper into Shakespeare (with heavy allusions to the Bard’s Merchant of Venice) and the history of the city which the Venetians call “la Serenissima”.  While exploring the Jewish ghetto of Venice, Jessica suddenly finds herself transformed into a Venetian Jewess of the sixteenth century.  And who does she meet but Will Shakespeare himself, come to Italy to escape the plague in England.  Jessica experiences the great sensual love she has always been seeking, a love that history decrees cannot last, except in the timeless world of poetry.
Interestingly, when I took this out of the library, there was a piece of paper taped on the inside jacket titled “readers comments”.  Here’s what our anonymous guest critics had to say:  “Great fun!”  “Enjoyed every minute”  “Unfortunately, rather boring”  “Waste of time.  Read ¼ and returned book.”  “Extravagant and too fevered, but wonderful, too.”
Well, I wasn’t too fazed by the mixed review because I know Jong is not for everybody, but she’s always been high on my list of favorites and the story sounded interesting (appealing to my interest in Italy, etc.), so I took it out.
Good Grief!  What a disappointment!  I mean, it wasn’t pathologically boring, but it wasn’t the Jong I know and love.  Usually I can’t put her work down; I had to press to keep going with this one.  I think she got a little over her head.  She’s so earthy in her writing, that once she delved into the Elizabethan speech of the 16th century, it sounded ridiculous and cliché.
If you want vintage Jong, stick with Any Woman’s Blues or Parachutes and Kisses.

Archive Book Nook News: Vol I, Issue 2, June 1997

The Law of Love by Laura Esquivel (author of Like Water for Chocolate)
The story of a passion that survives from the fall of Montezuma's empire to the Mexico City of the 23rd Century. Azucena is an "astroanalyst," a sort of a highly evolved psychotherapist, who ministers to the karmically challenged.  As an enlightened soul, Azucena has finally caught the brass ring of reincarnation: she is allowed to meet her twin soul, her true love,Rodrigo.  But after one night of supreme passion, the lovers are separated, and Azucena must search for Rodrigo across the galaxy and through 14,000 lives.
The concept of this book is quite interesting – it’s meant to be a multi-media experience.  The secret to the past-life therapy is through music.  The book comes with a CD, and at certain points in the book, you are prompted to play the CD and experience the music as the character experiences his or her past lives.
Because of the CD accompaniment, this isn’t the most convenient book to read on-the-go, as I always am.  But I taped the music and took my Walkman along and it worked out just fine.  I’m not a huge fan of futuristic science fiction, but being tied in with past-life regression and reincarnation and Laura Esquivel’s zany sense of humor, I found it easy to follow her vision of the 23rd century and I really enjoyed the story, the music and the illustrations.  I liked that the book touched so many of my senses, one of the big attractions I found in Like Water for Chocolate (food does not play such a major role in Law of Love, however!). 
I can believe in the philosophy of paying off your karmic debts, of repeatedly coming in contact with the souls you have hated in past lives until you learn to contact them in love, all with ultimate goal of finding your true soulmate.  I also hope there will be such things as aerophones and crime-free societies.
And if you end up not really liking the book, you still get a nice CD of music…
Arranged Marriage by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
Divakaruni's book of short stories, Arranged Marriage, focuses on family-arranged matches, a centuries-old tradition in India. These stories about Indian immigrants to the U.S. show how the dislocations of immigration are making this tradition problematic.
I wouldn’t say that these are happy stories.  They are beautifully written and they evoke strong images, but the overlying feeling between the pages, to me, was of such sadness and despair and frustration for these women who exist solely for their husbands.  Women who from the day they are born are looked on as a burden, a dowry price, until finally they are married and subsequently the property of their husbands and in-laws.
Yet there remains a sense of pride, strength and courage in these women, and with some of the stories I felt hopeful at the end.  The woman whose husband is murdered decides not to go back to India, but rather to stay in the U.S. and find her own way.  Another woman is determined to sponsor and see her dearest friend safely to America, for the latter is being encouraged by her in-laws to terminate her pregnancy because she is carrying a female, not a suitable sex for a first child.
Arranged Marriage provoked many of the same emotions I had when reading Mists of Avalon, the utter inability to comprehend a culture or religion that is so unfair to women.  But the women each have a story to tell and I was glad to read them all.  And I hoped they would be all right.
The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. 
A magic realism tale on Tilo, a woman from India who is given immortality by the gods as long as she remains chaste. In her old age Tilo ends up California, running a spice shop and helping immigrants. One day enters Raven, a handsome American and Tilo transforms herself into a beautiful woman for a night of love. Now she must pay the price.
There is nothing like a story written by someone who really  knows her stuff.  In the same way the Passion Dream Book made me want to be an artist, or Like Water for Chocolate made me hungry, or the Sixteen Pleasures made me long to go to Italy and experience the art of Florence first hand, The Mistress of Spices got me itching to learn more about this mysterious Indian art, and delve back into my books on herbology and aromatherapy.
There’s such a wonderful duality to Tilo, the Mistress, because she is sage and wise and magical, but at the same time there is a poignancy to the sacrifices she has made to her powers.  Not only must she remain chaste in a sexual sense, but she must remain always detached, emotionally, to the people who come to seek her help.  She must never leave the store, never reveal that she immediately and instinctively knows their troubling situations; it is the people who must come to her and voice their problems, never the other way around.  Tilo’s conflict is not only with Raven, the American Indian with whom she falls in love, but to Lalali, the battered wife, Haroun the troubled chauffeur, Jagjit the young boy falling in with the dangerous gangs of Oakland, the falling-out between Ramu and his daughter Geegit because Geegit is in love with a Hispanic.  As Tilo is drawn deeper and deeper into the lives of these people, the spices speak to her less and less, and she is forced to take stock of her life and choose between her powers as the immortal Mistress of Spices, or to forsake all to be a normal woman in love, an ordinary woman with friends and a home.
I loved it.  Divakaruni writes so beautifully, with such simple words weaving together plot and characters.  She tells a wonderful story.
The Nun’s Story by Kathryn Hulme. 
Picking this up was truly a whim.  I had just seen the movie with Audrey Hepburn and loved it, and was curious as to how closely it followed the book.
If you are a reader who gets annoyed or distracted by side stories or tangents, this is a book for you.  Hulme writes briskly, sticking to the subject, moving things along…it’s as if she is using her simple, concise language as a metaphor for the nun’s life, because within the unadorned narrative is a rich, complex, emotional and bewildering tale…much like the character of Sister Luke.
It’s a very revealing peek into life in the convent, into the training of the Brides of Christ, and raises some very interesting questions and choices a nun must make.  Absolute selflessness, and Sister Luke’s own nemesis, absolute obedience.  Her desire to do good cannot be kept within the context of her vows; she cannot reconcile the nurse within her and the nun within her.
I thought it was a very engaging, powerful story, but again, it’s a matter of taste.  I just thought I’d throw it out there.
Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
I know at least 2 of you on my distro list will say it’s about time I got around to Peter Mayle, and I stand thoroughly chastised (thanks, Linda, for making me take it off your bookshelves).  I can’t believe I didn’t read this sooner.  In keeping with my books-about-food theme, this story is a feast.  I only wish it were called “Decade in Provence”.
This book made me so happy!  It was delightfully, wittily written, much like the style of Robert Fulghum, whom I love.  The plot isn’t complex, in fact it centers around day-to-day life, but the settings and characters and situations involved are described in such a way that you end up with a very in-depth look at Provencal culture.  And the food is out of this world.

Archive Book Nook News: Vol I, Issue 1, April 1997

“One True Thing” by Anna Quindlen.
A young woman is in jail, accused of the mercy killing of her mother. She says she didn't do it; she thinks she knows who did.
When Ellen Gulden first learns that her mother, Kate, has cancer, the disease is already far advanced. Her father insists that Ellen quit her job and come home to take care of Kate. Ellen has always been the special child in the family, the high achiever, her father's intellectual match, and the person caught in the middle between her parents. She has seen herself as very different from her mother, the talented homemaker, the family's popular center, its one true thing. Yet as Ellen begins to spend her days with Kate, she learns many surprising things, not only about herself but also about her mother, a woman she thought she knew so well.
The life choices Ellen and her mother have made are reassessed in this deeply moving novel, a work of fiction that is richly imbued with profound insights into the complex lives of women and men.
“The Geography of Desire” by Robert Boswell.
A love-triangle type story which takes place in South America.  Interesting characters and plot twists abound.  The hotel owner loves the bookstore owner.  The bookstore owner is a revolutionary on the run.  The guided-tour director is a gifted storyteller.  His son loves the bakery assistant.  The bakery assistant loves the hotel owner.  Her mother is friends with the bookstore owner’s mother.  I can’t say anymore without giving away the plot.  The ending floored me.
“Home Fires” by Luanne Rice.
Anne Davis has returned to the house where she grew up, trading her glamorous Manhattan lifestyle for a harsh winter on a wind-whipped New England island. Her marriage has crumbled in the wake of a tragic accident. Now she has returned to the home on Salt Whistle Road that has always meant shelter, security, family, and love. When she awakens one snowy night to a fire that roars through the old house, Anne escapes--but runs back into the blaze to save something so precious that it's worth risking her life for. It is that reckless act of blind desperation that sets a miracle in motion...
Incredible.  I highly recommend anything by Luanne Rice.  She is one of my very favorite authors and I have never been disappointed in her work.  She’s right next to Anne Rice on the shelves, and some of her titles are: Crazy in Love, Stoneheart, Angels all Over Town, and Blue Moon.
“Patty Jane’s House of Curl” by Lorna Landvik.
Maybe Patty Jane Dobbin should know better than to marry a man as gorgeous as Thor Rolvaag, but she's too smitten to think twice. Yet nine months into their marriage, with a baby on the way, Thor is gone. It's a good thing Patty Jane has her irrepressible sister Harriet to rely on--not to mention her extremely short, extremely rich almost-brother-in-law, Avel Ames.
It's been said that a good haircut can cure any number of ills, and before long the Minnesota sisters have opened a neighborhood beauty parlor complete with live harp music and an endless supply of delicious Norwegian baked goods. It's a wonderful, warm-hearted place where you can count on good friends, lots of laughter, tears, and comfort when you need it--and the unmistakable scent of someone getting a permanent wave . . .
This is one of those books that you wish would never end.  I loved the community of women centered around the hair salon, the love and support that just flows around their lives.
“The Sixteen Pleasures” by Robert Hellenga.
"I was twenty-nine years old when the Arno flooded its banks on Friday 4 November 1966. On Tuesday I decided to go to Italy, to offer my services as a humble book save whatever could be saved, including myself."
The Italians called them "Mud Angels," the young foreigners who came to Florence in 1966 to save the city's treasured art from the Arno's flooded banks. American volunteer Margot Harrington was one of them, finding her niche in the waterlogged library of a Carmelite convent. For within its walls she discovered a priceless Renaissance masterwork: a sensuous volume of sixteen erotic poems and drawings.
Inspired to sample each of the ineffable sixteen pleasures, Margot embarks on the intrigue of a lifetime with a forbidden lover and the contraband volume--a sensual, life-altering journey of loss and rebirth in this exquisite novel of spiritual longing and earthly desire.
“The Wood Wife” by Terri Windling.
A poet leaves his Tucson house and all his work to an artist in California.  She moves to Arizona, and through subsequent friendships and a romance, begins to discover the poet, his talented and disturbed wife, and the magic of the Arizona desert.  Does life imitate art, or art life?  Fantastic and gripping, you can actually feel the heat of the desert sun on the pages.
“The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Mom and I have been talking about this book for months.  It is the story of King Arthur told from the woman’s point of view.  So you are brought into the world of the Druid Priestesses and the threat they face from the rise and growth of Christianity.  You experience the legends of the Round Table, Camelot, the Isle of Avalon, Joseph of Aramithea and Glastonbury from the point of view of Morgan le Fay (Morgaine) and Queen Gueniviere.  We both found it fascinating and very, very compelling.  If you enjoy it, you’ll also want to read Bradley’s prequel The Forest House, and keep your eye out in June for the release of Lady of Avalon.
“The Passion Dream Book” by Whitney Otto
(Whitney also wrote How to Make an American Quilt.)
This story traces the lives of Romy March and Augustine Marks, both photographic artists, from 1919 to 1956, from the Hollywood Silent Film era, to the Harlem Renaissance, to the Montparnesse Artist Colonies, to England, and home again to San Francisco.  Romy is the descendant of the artist Guilietta Marcel, who encountered both DaVinci and Michelangelo in her Renaissance lifetime.
I thought it was delicious.  It made me want to be a bohemian.  It made me want to take pictures.  It’s a very beautiful and poignant love story as well, and thank God for happy endings (I won’t say any more than that).