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The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

January 21st, 2014 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Since Symon’s dough recipe made enough for another single crust pie, I opted for a Streusel Topping recipe from the back of the Four & Twenty book.

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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?

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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. Laminated Cotton Baby BibsHe 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.  IMG_9557

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.IMG_9572
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. 

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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.

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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!