To be honest, I’ve been too busy reading, grading, eating tacos, and obsessing over Tom Hiddleston (specifically in Crimson Peak) to do much of anything for fun, much less do anything around here in blog-land. I HAVE been cooking enchiladas and freezing tomato sauce and making pies, but haven’t been writing about it. The other thing I HAVE been doing is reading. As you know, more than half of my reading is for work and that’s largely been a repeat of this post this semester. But here are a few new additions and a few fun reading suggestions. Also, here’s my Amazon wish list if you’re curious about what’s coming and what I want (Christmas is coming, after all.)
This book is the height of creepy, but is also so beautifully written that you get hooked on the words and just want more and more and more. For German readers, this is an excellent time to brush up on some fairly arcane vocabulary. For English readers, ditto. I love the catalogue of strange olfactory words and the idea that a whole book is devoted to the sense most frequently neglected by literature makes me really happy. Go and read it, but don’t rush it. This one should be savored.
An early human thriller. Robinson takes us out of the future we’ve come to expect from him and plunges us deep into the past to explore the meaning of humanity, our relationships with our environment, and the other-than-human inhabitants of it, love, sex, and family. It’s a beautiful read, but more meditative than some of his other books. It’s tied to the seasons and feels as if you experience each day of the years in the book, in both a really really good way and a less good one. Not a page turner throughout, but really, really powerful.
Abbey: The Monkey Wrench Gang
Similar in pace to Shaman. I loved this book, but I think it could have been shorter. It’s an excellent way into the mindset of radical environmental activism, without painting it too positively. It’s very possible to simultaneously hate and root for crazy, mad Hayduke and all of the others. (Also, I challenge you not to picture him as a young Hunter S. Thompson, possibly played by Johnny Depp – or as Zeke Brenner.) Also a lovely ode to the canyonlands of the American Southwest and strangely reminiscent of a picaresque novel.
Peters: Crocodile on the Sandbank
Light, fluffy, and thoroughly enjoyable. For fans of Agatha Christie who always wished Miss Marple were as cool as Miss Fisher.
Not light or fluffy, but strangely satisfying. This isn’t the first time I’ve read it. Rather I revisited it while teaching “Das Mädchen mit der Eidechse” in a class this semester. I didn’t love Der Vorleser (The Reader) in the way that many others did, but I think that Schlink writes a mean short story. These grapple with German history and its effect on contemporary life and love, sometimes in really ponderous intimate portraits of (generally pretty dysfunctional) relationships and sometimes with the feel of a Krimi.
All about paranoia and the surveillance culture in East Germany. This is a first-person stream of consciousness narrative that makes you feel like you’re being watched and like you want to watch back. Not the easiest read, but well worth the effort.
Your standard fascist parable. This time we have a magician (instead of Mussolini) terrorizing a beach town, all told by a German fish out of water. Gripping, upsetting, and beautifully written.
This book is a really moving account of political upheaval in Haiti, unjust immigration systems in the U.S. and a family’s history caught between the two. Danticat writes beautifully and compellingly. It’s hard to read, but also hard to put down. I recently had the chance to chat with Edwidge in person and she is also completely lovely. I’d recommend reading everything she’s ever written, post-haste.
If you’re a fan of science fiction, post-apocalyptic narratives, water politics, dangerous journalism, intrigue, and survival stories, this book is for you. It’s a super-fast read and utterly addictive. That being said, it’s also reasonably gory and very upsetting. I’d recommend reading it after a brief review of the geography of the Colorado River, reading some news articles about water in California, and maybe watching Mad Max (again). I look forward to and dread in equal parts the inevitable film version.
Some fantastic short stories, in case The Water Knife didn’t make you worry enough about the future. The title story is fantastic, with shades of Wells’s Eloi frolicking in New York and the fight for humanity’s survival happening in the sewers. It’s unsettling and exceptionally readable. I’ll be teaching “The Tamarisk Hunter” in one of my courses later this semester.
I have a lot to day about this. I read Cloud Atlas a while ago and LOVED it. The history there is that Cloud Atlas came out while I was living in Germany after college. I read the first few pages and flipped through it a few times in a few countries and was thoroughly irritated by what seemed to be a huge artifice and just general literary faffing about without a whole lot of heft behind it. It seemed like the kind of book that has fantastic design (which it did!) to cover up a lack of content within (FALSE). Anyway, long story short, I was enchanted by the links between the sections. While they didn’t appear connected in the beginning, the network of meaning developed throughout and was really intricate by the end. It didn’t wrap anything up into especially neat packages, but was immensely satisfying.
So, of course I picked up The Bone Clocks as soon as it came out in paperback. It started a little slow (not unlike Cloud Atlas in that way, but more upsetting right off the bat), but picked up pretty quickly. It had the same beautiful arc through the sections that I grew to love before, but it has a much more unified plot that made it both more riveting and less satisfying. Generally it felt like a much more exciting book than Cloud Atlas, but considerably less virtuosic. All that means that I’ll recommend it with much LESS reserve and to a wider audience than I did that other book. It’s wonderful.
(Also, maybe you’ve heard – David Mitchell keeps recycling characters and referring to himself and his work in his books. I haven’t decided whether this is really cool or too hipstery to bear. Or maybe he’s weaving a whole universe of characters and stories and it’s going to continue to be AMAZING! I look forward to finding out.)
I recently read this for the first time (prepping for a class) and was utterly blown away by the force and the style of the narrative. It’s dark, no doubt, but as a document of the horrors of war it’s indispensable. What’s really remarkable is that it works really beautifully as a piece of literature and not just as reportage. One particular moment conflates gorgeous classic Romantic imagery with the sights and sounds of the front. The smoke rising from the enemy’s guns turn into the meandering clouds floating across an innocent blue sky. Go read it and tell me it doesn’t make you a hardcore pacifist.
And now for something completely different:
Danticat: “A Year and a Day”
This isn’t a book, but rather an essay Danticat wrote a year after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. It’s really important to know that Haiti is still recovering from this disaster and to remember all that goes into making a disaster like this as destructive as it was (both physical and economic casualties and in cost to human life).
And here’s the limit of my nerdy suggestions. None of you are going to follow this recommendation, probably, but it’s pretty fascinating. In the late 80s, Iben Browning predicted a massive earthquake for the New Madrid Fault in Missourri to happen in December of 1990 (ruining my birthday party that year). What ensued was major hysteria, earthquake drills, canceled school, classic doomsday preparations (bottled water, milk, bread, etc.) and a lot of media coverage. Oh, and also Uncle Tupelo wrote a song about it. (You’ll know Uncle Tupelo as a band that featured Jeff Tweedy pre-Wilco.)
ANYWAY. This USGS Circular (available as a free pdf or on paper for, like, $5 shipping and handling) assembles all the documents – Browning’s speeches and writings around the prediction, the media’s frenzy, various scientists’ responses debunking Browning, and some fantastic documents of earthquake sales, etc. It’s a fascinating slice of history. Go and read about it.
If you’re like me, you’ve got tomatoes coming in like crazy from the ever-so-slightly-too-many tomato plants you set out in spring, imagining that tomato time would never come. And maybe you, like I, have friends who share their bounty with you as well, resulting in a cascade of tomatoes of all shapes, sizes, hues, and tastes. And maybe you want to eat them all, but you’ve – SHOCK HORROR – grown somewhat blasé about caprese sprinkled with finely chopped basil and maybe a few crystals of fleur de sel. And maybe you simply don’t have time to can at the moment, winter’s lack of tomatoes be damned. (The despair and regret will come later, I promise.) And maybe you don’t have the wherewithal right now to cook a whole meal from beginning to end in one day after work.
Well, friends. I have a solution. This isn’t a recipe per se, but rather an accounting of a pasta so delicious, so delightful, so easy that you’ll want to eat it again and again and again. Do the following:
Lazy Tomato Bounty Pasta
Take a pile of cherry tomatoes (we all have too many of those right now, and put them in a casserole. Don’t slice them, don’t do anything to them except remove the stems and throw them in there. Chop some garlic (or, you know, smash it or throw it in whole – I don’t care) and add it. Strip the leaves from a good-sized spring of rosemary and toss them in for good measure. If you’re feeling REALLY fancy, you can chop the rosemary, but don’t you have better things to do? (Netflix, hot baths, reading for fun, staring blankly at a wall because you’re too tired to cope…) It’s probably a good idea to add some salt and pepper. Do add a few good glugs of olive oil and sort of slosh it all around until, you know, everything’s oily and the ingredients aren’t all in one spot. Stick in in the oven set at 400 for a while. Don’t even preheat it. Don’t set a timer. Just keep your nose turned on and check it in maybe a half hour or so. When the tomatoes are sort of falling apart and maybe starting to turn a little black on top (or, you know, earlier), pull out the dish and dump the tomatoes in a container or something until you have energy to use them. Resume your regularly scheduled activities (Netflix, etc. …).
Next day, come home from work with a bit of a chip on your shoulder that it’s already evening and you have to start the whole thing over again in the morning. Flop on the couch and start to ask your long-suffering partner what on earth you’re going to eat for dinner, then REMEMBER YOUR GORGEOUS ROASTED TOMATOES. While you’re putting on pajamas, have your long-suffering spouse (or dog or whatever) put on a pot of water. Ideally, you’ll also have a good friend who brought way too much fancy prosciutto to a party and left you with the leftovers (precioussssss…). If you do, congratulations: you’re living your very best life. Take a few slices of that prosciutto, slice it up really thin and throw it in a pan. Let it get all melty, then all crispy – DON’T LET IT BURN. PROSCIUTTO IS PRECIOUS. Dump it out on a plate and throw some white wine (preferably cheap, refrigerator stale, and already open) in the pan with the gorgeous roasted tomatoes and let it come up to a nice bubbly temperature. Then curse yourself for not having already put the pasta in. Put the pasta in the water, salt the living daylights out of the water and wait for the noodles to be done. (I used penne. Anything would work.) When they are, save some of that lovely salty water before you drain the pasta. Throw the tomato “sauce” in with the pasta, stir it all up, add a splash or two of the pasta water to bring it all together, then throw in a bunch of grated parmesan and DON’T FORGET THE PROSCIUTTO.
Stir it all up and eat. You’ll thank me.
There won’t be leftovers. Don’t be silly.
**P.S. I was too lazy even to take a mediocre picture of this pasta. Deal with the above glamour shot of a Cherokee Purple tomato from my garden.**
It’s been a long time since I posted about food, hasn’t it? (In fact, it’s been since JULY 2013, just before we moved. And that was a salad, so it only barely counts.)*
There are reasons for my relative non-foodness of the last two years. In no particular order, these include but are not limited to:
- Moving into a house that takes up a lot of my creative energy (repairs, decorating, etc.)
- Gardening instead of cooking anything interesting (i.e. weeding for 6+ hours and then being to hungry and tired to do anything but pick up tacos for dinner)
- The availability and quality and price of the aforementioned tacos
- Oh, and starting a new job that has the potential to be all-consuming (two years in it’s still keeping me very, very, very busy)
- General malaise and inertia (once you stop cooking frequently/trying new things, it’s HARD to start up again)
With this and everything else I haven’t mentioned, it’s felt a little like I lost my mojo. But the last couple weeks have been better. I’m hoping that I can sustain this cooking streak once the new semester starts. I know I’ve mocked them in the past, but might it be time to make MEAL PLANS? Ugh.
What’s inspiring me these days is a bounty of gorgeous produce (both my own and the amazing offerings at our local farmer’s market) and our new little town’s total lack of Indian food. So I’ve semi-regularly been turning to a favorite cookbook – Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries – to make my own Indian feasts. It’s scratching the itch, for sure, but is an entirely different matter than the way we used to eat Indian – namely the way we now eat tacos.
Things to know about this book: It’s fantastic and the introductory pages about ingredients and techniques are invaluable. However, be warned: if you’re a fan of Indian food without an Indian restaurant around, it may feel like this book throws down the gauntlet. It taunts me from the kitchen saying, “go on, you know you want to make ALL SIX HUNDRED AND SIXTY OF MY DELICIOUS, DELICIOUS CURRIES.” And honestly, I really want to. I’ve even thought of taking a left turn with the blog and just cooking my way through the book. Like instead of Julie and Julia, Darby and Raghavan? I’ll attempt to resist.
Tonight I made two fantastic (if I say so myself) curries – one carrot focused and one eggplant focused. Other necessary background for this blog post. As anyone who lived in the Boston area while I did knows, the late, great, much-mourned Tamarind Bay in Harvard Square used to make what I called “THAT EGGPLANT THING.” I *think* it was called Baignan Bhartha and I’m pretty sure the description on the menu included cashews and spices. All I know is it was a DIVINE dining experience. When I heard Tamarind Bay had closed just before we went back to Boston for a visit, I was crushed.
ANYWAY, that epic ideal is what I’ve been chasing. Let’s be clear. My Eggplant Thing tonight was not the same as THE Eggplant Thing, but it was damned close. Nearly as good, if not exactly similar.
Raghavan Iyer’s Grilled Eggplant with Peas and Butter (with tweaks)
Baingan Mutter Makhani
- 2 1/2 pounds eggplant (for me, that equaled 5 small ones)
- 2 cups frozen peas
- 1 t kosher salt**
- 1/2 t ground turmeric
- 6 T butter
- 1 large red onion, halved and sliced very thin
- 1/4 c slivered almonds
- 1/4 c golden raisins
- 1 T garlic paste (homemade and frozen)
- 1 T ginger paste (ditto)
- 3 fresh green serrano chiles (stem removed and halved lengthwise)
- 2 T tomato paste (I might use less in the future)
- 1/2 c half and half
- Preheat your broiler on high. Arrange the whole eggplant(s) on a cookie sheet and savagely stab them with a fork in a few places. Broil until evenly blackened and blistery. This took about a half hour for me, turning the eggplants every 5-8 minutes.
- Remove the eggplants and put in a covered bowl to cool and release some juices. When they’re cool enough to handle, remove the stems and skins, throwing the flesh back into the bowl with the juices they released. Then mash them up. Iyer recommends a potato masher or hands. I used a fork and was happy with the resulting texture.
- Stir the peas, salt and turmeric into the eggplant
- Throw 2 T of butter into a large pan on medium heat and cook the onion, almonds, raisins, garlic, chiles, and ginger until caramelized and dark brown. Iyer’s technique for this is genius and I quote it here: “Stir, cover the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is caramel-brown with a deep purple hue, 15-20 minutes. (The steam will rise, gather under the lid, and drip back into the skillet, providing enough moisture to prevent the onion slices from blackening but not enough to step the onion, making for a perfect balance to create that honey-rich flavor.) A NOTE: If you use garlic and ginger paste, like I did, it will be much more likely to burn. Just stir a little more frequently and deglaze aggressively in the next step.
- Add 1/2 c water to the pan and scrape the pan with a wooden spatula to deglaze. Dump all of this into a blender or food processor. Add the tomato paste. Blend it up until it’s basically smooth and brownish-red. Be sure you scrape down the sides at least once, so it’s all uniformly blended.
- In a clean pan (or the same one, washed and dried), heat another 2 T of butter over medium. Cook the mashed eggplant/pea mixture uncovered until the moisture is mostly absorbed/evaporated. You’ll want to stir relatively frequently, but don’t be afraid to spread it out and let it sit for a few minutes in between. This will take 10-15 minutes. At some point you’ll see a marked change in texture and (I thought, anyway) in quantity.
- Add the beautiful brown-red onion and tomato paste and stir it in thoroughly. Add the half and half and stir to combine. Simmer for a few minutes to marry the flavors, then add MORE BUTTER. I made a well in the middle of the pan and melted the butter directly on the surface of the pan to speed things along a bit.
- Serve with or without rice or naan. Or just stand over the stove and shovel it into your mouth. That would work too.
*By the way, just even looking back at that post made me all misty-eyed, missing those wonderful girls.
**I find that all the recipes in Iyer’s book are tuned SLIGHTLY too salty and too spicy for my taste. I always dial back the chile and use around half the recommended salt during cooking, then adjust at the end. This recipe originally wanted 1 1/2 t salt. I added just shy of 1 t and a pinch or two at the end.
Maeve Brennan is, without a doubt, a stunning writer. But The Visitor is, also without a doubt, one of the most depressing things I’ve ever read. Don’t read in winter, at night, after a breakup, before a family reunion, or, possibly, even when alone.
Seriously, it’s a beautifully written, heart-wrenching family story and well worth reading.
… which is even more depressing than The Visitor. This one was described to me as “the new Joyce” and “life-changing.” This book was amazing, no doubt. The stream-of-consciousness narrative was hard to read – this is not a beach-read, but really transformative. The book is full of insights about family, faith, and gender and delivers an emotional gut-punch. Read it, but have something light on hand for afterward.
Which is why I turned to this. It’s a detective novel, but exceptionally well written. The story is really compelling and the characters fully realized and believable. It’s written in the first person, which I usually find distracting, but I think French does a fantastic job of not making it heavy-handed. Partly this comes from the sense of humor underlying the story and the way in which French plays with detective tropes and stereotypes. It’s a hard-boiled novel in the classic tradition, but also pokes fun of that tradition. It’s a page-turner. Go read it.
This is the follow-up to In the Woods and I read it because I needed more of In the Woods, but had finished it. All the above applies here, but with the focus on a new character and a really innovative case. It’s amazing and totally unexpected. Needless to say, you’ll be seeing more of Tana French in this space. Not right away, though. I need to ration them.
More lapsing for this totally irregular feature. March and April were not the easiest months ever. Alas, sheer exhaustion and course reading and grading kept me from doing much fun reading at all. However, work reading was also really, really fun this semester. Here’s what it looked like:
I’ve never been a Kurt Vonnegut fan. I always lumped him in with Kafka and Salinger and the other whiny men authors that all the teenage boy nerds I was friends with in high school liked – i.e. NOT FOR ME. This is, to my shame, the only book of his I’ve read. What’s funny is I spoke with him more than once while he was a writer in residence at my college and I really liked him. I saw him speak publicly a couple times and found him witty and intelligent. And yet, I didn’t read him. Anyway, fast-forward to last year when I was conceiving of the Sci Fi class I just finished teaching – everyone recommended this book to me. And, boy, were they right.
This book is engaging and funny and strange and very, very challenging. It imagines the serendipitous path that evolution will lead humans down over the course of the million years after a mass extinction event wipes out almost all humans. BUT! Galápagos is not your standard post-apocalyptic fare. It’s witty and sarcastic and rambly and really fun to read. Highly, highly recommend.
I already wrote about this last year, but it warrants mentioning again. It’s a book that really does bear rereading. Also, I interviewed Kim Stanley Robinson with a couple of my students this spring and he’s delightful. Go buy his books.
The love I have for Margaret Atwood is deep and abiding. Know that. This is the second book in her MaddAddam trilogy and follows the faith, actions, and movements of a small apocalyptic environmental religion as they brace for the “waterless flood.” It features a canon of environmental saints, hymns to the greatest and smallest creatures and religious justifications for both maximum handwashing and minimum showering. I really really love it and highly recommend it, but I think that Oryx and Crake is probably the best of the three in this trio. Start there, continue to this one and prepare to be somewhat disappointed by the third, MaddAddam.
I’ve read this one before, but thought I’d mention it here. It’s a good mystery and well suited to those brushing up rusty German or just learning to read German novels for the first time. Set in Switzerland just after World War II, it follows the convoluted investigation of a policeman’s murder and features political intrigue both local and international. I haven’t read it in English, but I assume it translates well. Good beach reading, maybe?
For work, but also for fun:
One of my students wrote a truly stellar thesis largely on this book. Until now, I had only read Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson and have always suspected I’d love every word she writes, but this confirmed it. This is a wonderful, visceral, funny, and strange feminist novel of love and relationships and loss. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and moments from that book will stay with me for a very, very long time.
This one had been on my list since it came out (TWELVE years ago), but who ever has time for a 1,000+ page novel? Well, another of my students wrote a thesis in which this book featured prominently, so I was on the hook to read it. And thank GOODNESS I had to read it. What a wonderful, beautiful, fully realized strange other world this book inhabits! I’m not going to lie: there were times when I thought hundreds of pages could have been cut and nothing would have been lost, but the last hundred pages or so demonstrated the necessity of every word that came before! Immensely satisfying. Also, it’s about to be a BBC miniseries, so you REALLY should read it before watching. Really. (Also don’t skip the footnotes.)
This one is different to everything above. Non-fiction, environmental(ist) writing. The subtitle is “Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World,” which tells you just about everything you need to know. I was just discussing yesterday how the writing is a bit grating (it constantly seems to shout “I TOLD YOU SO”) but that the optimism of the message is a relief after reading a lot of doom & gloom environmental hand-wringing (which is also totally valid and right). Basically it proceeds from the assumption that any proposed pre-human environmental baseline is false and that the constant demonization of “invasive” species and attempted preservation (via intensive intervention) of “pure” ecosystems is unproductive. It’s aggressively non-anthropocentric, which is a good thing, but I always worry a bit about factions in the movement. Can we really afford the amount of infighting that things like non-native species inspire? Anyway, it’s a good thought-provoking read and it IS nice to see a young woman making such a forceful intervention in the environmental discourse. </endacademicese>
Finally: Summer is here!
I have a whole big program of reading planned for the summer – some for work, some for fun, some for my own edification. If you have recommendations, leave them in the comments! Categories I’m especially interested in:
- Awesome, mind-blowing books by women (e.g. Wide Sargasso Sea, anything by A.S. Byatt)
- Literature dealing with/set in/about Ireland
- Really great contemporary German literature
- Really great literature dealing with the environment
- Non-fiction that’s as engaging as The Orchid Thief (No substance abuse memoirs, please. I’ve read enough of those.)
Spring is under way here in the Inland Northwest – bulbs are up in a major way, cherry trees are blooming, forsythia is out gangbusters. That means I should already be gardening at least a little bit, but I’m only dreaming at this point. With that in mind, here is a peek at some of the highlights from last year’s garden.