I was really excited to pick up this new foodie novel from the library. I enjoy reading fiction and watching movies set in restaurants, and with Michelle Wildgen’s background in food writing, I thought it would be a great book. Instead, I found myself skimming chapters and skipping ahead. On the positive side, the food writing is pretty great. Her descriptions of dishes are mouthwateringly delicious and I could picture the inside of the restaurants from her visual descriptions. But the plot is luke warm. Two brothers who are restaurant partners are challenged when the third brother decides to open a new restaurant across town. There is an undercurrent of sibling rivalry, a few forbidden romance scenes, and day-to-day patter of restaurant business stress. I kept waiting for something big to happen, and it did not. I would say Bread and Butter is an appropriate title. It was certainly no Lamb’s neck with Jerulasem artichokes, broccoli rate and gremolata, even if that is the new restaurant’s signature dish.
I did not read The Silver Lining Play Book by Matthew Quick, but loved the quirky movie characters enough to order this new novel from the library after reading a little bit about it. The first chapter is a letter to Richard Gere written by thirty-eight year old protagonist Bartholomew Neil, and I almost quit when I paged ahead and realized that all of the chapters are written as letters to Richard Gere. But I stuck with Bartholomew because something sweet and innocent and troubled about him reminded me of the protagonist Christopher in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Bartholomew is trying to heal following the loss of his mother, who he cared for, from cancer. Following her death, the priest who has been visiting the family for years moves in, complicating Bartholomew’s life, which has already been complicated enough by the grief counseling sessions he has to attend. At counseling he meets “F-bombing” Max, the brother of the Girlibrarian that Bartholomew has already fallen for. The novel ends with a zany road trip and an awkward, fragile sense of closure for all of the characters. The layers of Catholicism, Jungian psychology, philosophy of Dalai Lama, fear of alien invasion and feline worship make for a much smarter book than I anticipated. In the end, Bartholomew’s mother’s advice, that we must believe in the good luck of right now, rings true.
This is our book club selection for April, and I think there will be plenty to talk about. I was glad that I knew nothing about the novel when I began it, and maybe even a little glad that – once again – I had accidentally ordered a large print edition with a different cover from the one above from the library. So, I hadn’t noticed the chimpanzee hanging from the tree. I hate to spoil things! Suffice it to say, Fowler’s novel is about separate family members attempting to heal from a great loss. The protagonist and narrator, Rosemary, is in college in the opening chapter of the novel when she promises the reader that she is beginning at the middle of the story. She flashes back to her early life with her “sister” was taken away without explanation when Rosemary was six years old, and the time shortly afterward, when her brother disappears. Her father is a psychology professor, and the passages of the novel that deal with Noam Chomsky, the psychology of happiness and solipsism make it a very smart book, indeed. One passage I bookmarked would be enough to keep a book club going all night – “And so we constantly infer someone else’s intentions, thoughts, knowledge, lack of knowledge, doubts, desires, beliefs, guesses, promises, preferences, purposes and many, many more things in order to behave as social creatures in the world.” I didn’t love the book, but it kept me thinking.
I received a digital review copy of this fascinating novel and will admit to being unable to put it down for about a week. The opening line is, “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.” Boy Novak is a teenager who has just fled from her abusive father when the narrative opens. She lands in a small Massachusetts town where she meets and eventually marries a widower named Arturo who has a daughter named Snow. Didn’t take much for THIS intelligent reader to assume that a character named Bird would be forthcoming. Sure enough, Bird is the name that Boy gives to the daughter she and Arturo have. But the novel is much, much more complex than this simple synopsis suggests. It is full of magical realism details and borrow heavily from fairy tales, especially Snow White. It tackles race and what qualified as “passing” in the late fifties and early sixties. It unmasks gender issues. Helen Oyeyemi is gifted, and this complex novel left me wanting to have a reading buddy to dissect its hall of mirrors with as soon as I put the book down.
My mother-in-law, Grandma Lackey, is a keeper. Almost everything in her home has a story – the furniture, the dishes, the bedding, the nick nacks. Even her canning jars have a genealogy. So, last summer, when it was time to gather my husband’s siblings together for a good barn cleaning, the stories began to surface along with the contents of every box.
Many of the boxes had come from her mother’s farm. Some contents had not seen the light of day for decades. And although it was hot, and the aim was to get rid of some things, Grandma Lackey sat in the center of the barn and directed.
In the end it was as much a redistribution of goods than a “cleaning”. We all went home with a trunk load of goodies. My inheritance was a pile of unwashed feed sacks and dish towels. Everyone assured me I could “do something” with them.
The pile sat in our garage until a few weeks ago, when I decided to throw them all in the wash and see what happened. Many were still stained and some had “age spots” that wouldn’t budge, but some offered definite potential for farm style aprons.
For the first apron, I took the printed sections of a Morton Salt sack to use as pockets on a striped utility apron. The striped fabric came from a pile of home decorating IKEA fabric that my son gave me for my birthday a few years back. It is very functional with the large pocket across the bottom. But, I saved the best part of the salt sack – the circular section – for a girlier apron.
On to the next sack! This was getting fun! The second Morton sack in good condition was laid out a little differently. I wanted to maintain the striping on either side of the salt emblem, so I went with another full apron style – this time using another IKEA utility weight fabric in classic red and white checks. I added a D-ring to the neck strap to make this one a little more adjustable.
The next sack presented double the possibilities. An elongated seed sack from the Coloumus, Ohio Livingston True Blue Seed Company featured the same design inverted on either end of the bag. A little research into the a Livingston Seed Company convinced me that although there were a little spots on this bag, it was a special Ohio treasure. Alexander W. Livingston (1821-1898) improved and stabilized the wild tomato for commercial use. Livingston’s True Blue Seeds were nationally recognized as highest quality. I wanted to use the whole bag, and cut it down the center, giving me two identical bags which would become center pockets on high quality cream linen apron fronts. To compliment the French blue of the Livingston emblem, I used more of the damask fabric for a bottom ruffle and long side ties that could wrap around for a front bow. Finally, I decided to used a bit of the valuable Cath Kidston fabric that I brought home from our trip to a England this fall. When I discovered my first Cath Kidston store, my husband couldn’t get me out of the place. I was thrilled to discover that her gorgeous floral prints could be purchased, and I brought home a little bundle of fat quarters and some tiny cloth covered buttons to match. This apron project seemed the perfect place to showcase these beautiful feminine prints. I made two florets from the Cath Kidston fabric, and one to pick up the blue from the ruffle and sashes, and sewed a button in the center of each flower.
Next up, a faded but still readable Domino Cane Sugar sack. This sack has horizontal red and blue stripes stripes on top and button, but as I carried it around Joann Fabrics, I was drawn to a light peachy print and complimentary light blue floral for this full length bib style apron. I made a small ruffle from the blue to attach to the base of the bag before sewing it to the peach skirt as a center pocket. The arm edges of the blue bib encase the continuous neck and side sides in this adjustable apron. Another fabric flower of the two cotton prints pops with the addition of a third bright coral fabric. This one turned out soft, feminine and functional.
I had used up most of the unstained, readable bags, but I still had a pile of nice linen tea towels. After some trial and error, I decided to use a full horizontal towel, rounded on the sides to accommodate a full blue and red ruffle around. I decided to add a pocket of the same fabric and trimmed the pocket with a length of antique red and blue print seam binding inherit from my grandmother that I have been saving for a special project. My grandmother taught me to sew – both on a machine and to make fancy hand embroidery stitches by hand. I lined the towel with 100% linen to give it a little more stability.
I call these Lackey Sack aprons to honor the legacy of my husband’s ancestors who have farmed in Ohio for five generations. In fact, these feed sacks originated on Lackey Road in Delaware County where my mother-in-law raised chickens!
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a review of the quirkiest and most refreshing love story I have fallen for in a while. Don Tillman is a genetics professor with autistic behaviors that have made it difficult for him to find a mate. He has developed The Wife Project, a multi-page questionnaire which should help those like him to filter out incompatible companions – ones who drink, smoke, show up late, mess the place up and bring chaos into calm spaces. Along comes Rosie Jarman, a disorganized bartender full of flaws who is searching for her biological father. Rosie and Don should be oil and water but she is able to switch his focus from finding a wife to finding her father, which results in The Father Project. One thing leads to another in this mad-cap, love-affirming novel. Simsion is an Australian author and I first saw this book on display in England where I learned that it was first written as a screenplay and the movie is set to film next year. You can even take the online quiz to see whether you are a Rosie or a Don. I was lucky enough to get an advance readers copy and I have already given it away. Give yourself a Valentine’s Day reading gift – it will delight!
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is a book I chose to read on my iPad this winter because its glowing screen can be read against the sparkly backdrop of the the Christmas tree in the corner of the room with no other lights on – if I get up the read when everyone else is asleep. A perfect book for a long winter’s night – 832 pages. Even the title suggests illumination.
The Luminaries is a saga – a story told and repeatedly retold by the myriad characters who lives criss-cross in the 19th century gold rush mining town of Hokitika, in New Zealand. One stormy night, a newcomer named Walter Moody stumbles into the first hotel he sees after suffering through a mind-jarring sea voyage that may have even caused him to see a ghost. Inside the warm hotel, he begins to overhear the secret conversations of 12 men who have come together on that particular night to unravel the secret that joins them. The reader learns a hermit is dead, a whore has overdosed, a young man and a significant fortune is missing and – the resolution to this tale is very, very far away.
The opening chapters of the book are ridiculously long – 40 pages plus. I almost gave up within the first 100 pages. Each chapter begins with a sort of old school italics chapter abstract. Skimming ahead to read a few of these, I quickly realized each of the twelve players would be recounting his own version of the mystery before any plot resolution got underway. I knew before beginning the book that that would be the case. I had read – and agree with the New York Times review that asserts, “It’s a lot of fun, like doing a Charlotte Brontë-themed crossword puzzle while playing chess and Dance Dance Revolution on a Bongo Board. Some readers will delight in the challenge, others may despair.” That, and the fact that the cover of the book, and the zodiac graphics between sections of the book, suggest that the phases of the moon and astrological shifts are Catton’s clever framework for the novel. Let’s just say – that was too much of a challenge for me. Although the chapters get shorter as the book wears on (the final chapters are each just a page), I was eager to see it end. I should have heeded my own promise not to get mixed up in books that require a character chart inside the front cover.
But I pressed on for a number of reasons, and in the end was glad that I did. One – I had read Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal in 2010 and enjoyed it very much. Two – Eleanor Catton is just 28 years old, the winner of the Man Booker Prize and a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. And three – when we were in England this fall, the coolest bookstore we visited , Daunt Books, had a full window display of The Luminaries.
In the end, the luminary construct of the novel was too confusing for me and somehow the literary quilt of the novel was a bit too heavy for comfort. But for a long winter’s night, Catton is an old school story teller and formidable young talent very worthy of your attention.
This year for Christmas, I gave my husband a book and a promise. The book was the The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book – Uncommon Recipes from the Celebrated Brooklyn Pie Shop by Emily and Melissa Elsen. The promise was that I would bake a pie a month throughout 2014. I even gave him a little pad of sticky tabs to mark his choices.
We have never been to the Four & Twenty Pie Shop in Brooklyn, and other than the fact that the book has awesome photographs, there was no special reason for selecting that particular pie book. The gift was really just a way of challenging myself to overcome my pie inadequacies. My husband grew up in a house where baking a pie was no more of an event than whipping up some scrambled eggs. In fact, he once told me this. My mother-in-law is an uncontested pie baking queen. For this reason, I shy away from baking pies. It seems like there will always be comparisons to her recipe. So bring on the pie challenge.
Half way through January and no pie had been selected until yesterday. He chose Cranberry Sage pie. One of the nicest features of The Four & Twenty book is that the recipes are arranged seasonally. He chose from the Winter section a pie that looked like Christmas dinner! What an appropriate place to begin.
Whole fresh cranberries, dried cranberries, and grated apple go into the filling, along with white and brown sugars pulsed in the food processor with some fresh sage leaves! The photo showed a modified lattice top, but I already had a single crust worth of pie dough waiting in the fridge from the Chicken Pot Pies I have made last week from another new cookbook. My son gifted me with Michael Symon’s Carnivore Cookbook for Christmas.
Similar to my mother-in-law’s recipe, this preparation called for two different oven temperatures. The pie starts baking on the bottom rack of the oven at 425 degrees, and then finishes on the middle shelf at 375. We could hardly wait for the pie to cool! It smelled amazing. We called some friends and invited ourselves over to share the first pie of the month. Who can refuse last minute visitors with warm pie?
The fruit filling wasn’t runny, the subtle flavor of the sage was surprisingly lovely and the egg and vanilla made it taste slightly custardy. Who can’t wait for February? Will it have to be cherry for President’s Day? I’ll keep you posted.
As an Etsy seller, I have had opportunities over the last year to make custom items for buyers all over the country. Through the conversation strands that Etsy provides, buyers can express special needs and propose an item that they would like to purchase. Through these conversations I have “met” some interesting people – some with very specific requests. The most interesting conversation was started by a buyer who had recently purchased two of my laminated cotton baby bibs. He was very happy with the quality of the bibs, especially the binding and neck ties. Apparently, he is not a fan of the velcro baby bibs he had been seeing in stores. He and his wife are expecting their first baby this winter, and he liked the old fashioned style of my bibs. In fact, he liked them so much that he proposed a project for me. Apparently, his family had an heirloom baby bib that had been worn by many cousins over the years. The bib lived at Grandma’s house, but according to him – kids used to fight over the opportunity to wear the bib. Unfortunately, when he and his wife got the bib out to have ready for their baby, the ties and some of the backing had frayed and disintegrated to such an extent that the bib was not usable. He wondered whether I could refurbish the bib if he sent it to me.
I never saw myself in the business of heirloom bib reconstruction, but when he sent a picture of this lovely old flowered bib, I fell in love with the story. The bib arrived in the mail with a return postage envelope and I set out to resurrect the family favorite. The bib was a very lightweight flowered vinyl. I decided to rip off the old white binding and replace it with bright orange bias tape. To give the bib more stability and lasting power, I chose to back it with orange terry cloth. The crumb catcher pocket got a fresh lining of orange gingham oilcloth.
The bib turned out great! The buyer loved it and promised to send pictures of his child wearing the bib someday. But when I had the bib all deconstructed, I had made a paper pattern of it. I really liked the coverall design which makes the bib very functional. It is large enough to fit a toddler and would even make a good art smock.
This random customer inspired me to create an apron from this pattern from some laminated cotton I bought a while back and hadn’t used yet. It turned out so cute, but I had no idea what it would look like on a real baby. So – bring in friend with baby! I got baby Holden to model the bib on his first birthday.
He wasn’t very pleased with sitting still for photos, but the bib clearly fits him with plenty of room to grow. His mom likes the way the bib covers his pant legs when he is sitting. We tried the bib on Holden’s brother, Finn, who is five, and although it was a little tight through the arms, it still fit a five year old. I think this pattern is a keeper!
Before we travel, I always research the best independent bookstores in the areas we will be visiting. I figured that the Cotswolds in England would be so dotted with charming little book shops that it would be difficult to see them all. All of my research seemed to point me in the direction of Jaffe and Neale Bookshop and Cafe in charming Chipping Norton. We had no difficulty finding the place, as cafe tables sat in front of the building where large Books are my Bag banners hung in the front windows. The bookstore felt homey, with many nooks for reading throughout and even some comfy chairs scattered around. I would have gladly spent all day there, but we had an agenda for the day that involved visiting the nearby Hook Norton brewery in time for lunch.
I had been reading Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a perfectly appropriate novel to read while driving around the British countryside. I saw Joyce’s new novel, Perfect, on a shelf and carried it over to the cashier to ask if this new book lived up to the delight of Harold Fry. The woman I spoke with assured me that it did, but after I explained that I was an American on vacation who really did NOT need another book in her suitcase – that if I bought a book in England at all, I could only buy one – she took it as a challenge and recommended that perhaps I should consider Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black instead.
Now I was tempted. A signed copy of a book not yet available in the U.S. was worth considering, so I took the two novels to one of those inviting book nooks for comparison and consideration. I was zeroing in on a choice when I noticed that my husband was engaged in a conversation with a gentleman who he was leading my way. Alerted by his wife at the cashier’s station, Patrick Neale wondered if David was with the American woman who could only buy one book in the UK. He was personally interested in the choice I was about to make since, in addition to being the proprietor of the shop, he is the current president of the British Booksellers Association – and a fascinating person to talk with about books.
David and I chatted with him about his shop and recommended some of our favorite bookstores in American. We told him about our experiences as English teachers, how we were in England for the wedding of a former student, and our favorite books in general. When he finally got around to recommending my one book for purchase, he picked up a copy of Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life. I knew Barnes from his slim novel The Sense of an Ending , which I had read and reviewed in 2012. Neale described the novel as one with no single word out of place. He was suggesting Barnes new book – which was also thankfully slim for my suitcase.
Levels of Life is a three part memoir of sorts that begins with a section about hot air ballooning, moves into a consideration of the nuances of historical photography, and finishes with Barnes own grief suffered at the loss of his wife in from a brain tumor in 2008. It is a difficult book to recommend to friends because the last section sounds like it would be so depressing. However, the overarching premise of all three parts is “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” I was personally delighted to find mention of Dame Ellen Terry in the second section, which describes photographs of actress Sarah Bernhardt taken by the 19th-century photographer and inventor Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (later known simply as Nadar). Terry was Bernhardt’s acting contemporary and the subject of my undergraduate Independent Study thesis at The College of Wooster. The book’s pacing and its weaving of historical details and naturalistic descriptions reminded me of Annie Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams – two of my favorite essayists. In the end, it is life affirming rather than deflating. The metaphor of the hot air balloon and the precariousness of its flight carries the reader to consider many levels of living and loving. I put off reading the book – and writing this review – because I knew the experience would be difficult to describe for my readers. One day in my life several things were put together – the coincidence of finding the perfect Brisith bookstore, meeting the most charming British bookseller and being handed a deeply moving book that will resonate with me for as long as my photographs of my matchless vacation with my husband remain – and my reading life was changed.