Monthly Archives: September 2016

You Will Know Me



This is my first book by this author and I have to agree that she was masterful at making me want more, propelling me through the novel at a fast pace. Listening to an audiobook is not my favorite way of experiencing a book, and it is no fault of the author that I did not like this particular narrator’s interpretation and delivery, but in spite of that, I kept at it because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. This story of the Knox family’s journey to the Olympics through daughter Devon’s gymnastics was a peek into the world of competitive sports. Jealousy, back-stabbing, politicking, undermining, and gossip-mongering all appear in abundance- not unlike any other organization-only magnified in intensity because so much was at stake. The novel explores the ambiguity of desire: is it the child’s wish to become an Olympian, or do the parents subtly force their desire onto the child to the degree that she learns to believe it is her heart’s desire only, and not her parents’? No matter how the parents answer that question, it remains unclear how can they ever be truly sure. Another central issue is the lengths to which a parent will go to protect their offspring. As Katie, Devon’s mother, reflects, “So many things you think you’ll never do until you do them.” A book group could have a great discussion about who the exemplary parents were in this story- that is, assuming there were exemplary parents! On another note, having just watched the American gymnastic team achieve gold at the Rio summer Olympics, the sacrifices they made to get there are so much more apparent to me having read this book. I hope they are grounded enough to cultivate true friendships, because it those relationships that are so important to lifelong happiness and well-being.

Finally, the character I found most interesting was Drew, Devon’s younger brother. (Although I must say I HATED the lisp and tone the narrator adopted for his voice, again, not the author’s fault.) Drew, always the bystander, always pushed aside because the family focus was on Devon, spent his younger years in her shadow. And yet, he processed all of that and what it said about his family, and still was himself. A truth teller, quietly affirming what he knew, even though his parents never really listened to him. The story I’d like to read is his. How he grew up after Devon won the Olympics, (assuming that she did, of course) whether or not he went to college, what he studied, what kind of man he became. If I have ever have the opportunity, that’s what I’d ask Megan Abbott to write.


After a lifetime of practice and sacrifice, the strength and artistry of an Olympic gold performance is a beautiful thing. Rio 2016: Simone Biles’ gold medal-winning vault.


The story begins at the BelStars boosters’ Polynesian party after Devon won her first regional championship title on the vault, and qualified for Elite Qualifiers in six months’ time. Throughout the book, the characters, especially Katie, Devon and Drew continue to reflect on how things changed that night, and for one of them, a life-changing revelation happened. The key element in that party, (as perhaps one can generalize alcohol to most parties) was the mai tais. In honor of that memorable   night, the original Trader Vic’s mai tai recipe from 1944:

makes 2 drinks

4 oz Bacardi rum
1 oz orange curacao
½ oz simple syrup
1 oz orgeat syrup
1½ oz orange juice
1½ oz pineapple juice
juice of 1 lime

Mix all ingredients in a shaker and pour over glassed ice. Float dark rum on top. Parasol optional (but fun!). If you can find it, Trader Vic’s Mai Tai Mix is fabulous, but only available, to my knowledge, online. And it’s pricey, but worth it, if you like mai tais.





The Reluctant Fundamentalist



Although this book was published in 2007, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was a motion picture directed by Mira Nair, starring Liev Schreiber, it did not come to my attention until I began listening to book podcasts several years ago. Consequently it had been on my TBR list for at least two years when I came across it in a used bookstore. I needed something short (it is 184 pages) and different (about Islam) to read between two ponderous books, when I found this book on my shelf.

This is a disturbing book. I will reveal no spoilers, but there is one line in it that affected me as though I had been struck, and it has stayed with me, and probably will stay with me into the immediate future. Four words. But as a westerner and an American, one very short, scary sentence.

The story is narrated by Changez, an American-educated Pakistani man who holds a powerful job in a valuation company in New York City after graduating from Princeton. He is living the American Dream. Fast forward to 9/11 when everyone’s life changed, although, admittedly some in more profound ways than others. It is from that point on that Changez’s values become clear to him.

This book has caused me to think anew about how countries in the Middle East view America and to reconsider the historical narrative that is our legacy. Looking at America from another perspective suggests an alternate interpretation of the military and diplomatic actions our government has taken. Looking forward, I wonder if I will view American foreign policy in quite the same way and hope that our leadership can find a way forward in that region, with strength and compassion, in an effort to diffuse a forever more volatile political climate where American intervention is frequently unwanted.


One of the revelations that Changez has when he returns to Lahore after 9/11 and the arrival of American troops in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s next door neighbor, is that he had been conditioned to look at things as an American. As he puts it when talking to the American in a Lahore cafe, “I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but that particular type of entitled and unsympathetic American who so annoyed me when I encountered him in the classrooms and workplaces of your country’s elite.” Once Changez recognized this in himself, he felt the depth of his youthful impressionism, and could once again begin to appreciate the enduring beauty of his country’s rich history as reflected in the architecture and the grandeur of the Mughal art in his own home town. In that spirit, I searched and found the Wazīr Khān, a Mughal era mosque in Lahore. The mosque was completed in 1642 during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It is the most ornately decorated Mughal-era mosque with intricate faience tile work and interior surfaces that are almost entirely embellished with elaborate frescoes, as you can see from the images below.


From Pakistan Insider;

From Muhammad Ashar  CC By – SA 3.0



Changez orders for himself and the American in the Lahore cafe where they meet. When the food is delivered to the table, we know  only that there is yoghurt, chopped vegetables, and kebab, which the American approached enthusiastically. In researching Pakistani recipes, I kept reading  how much people like Seekh kebabs, prepared with minced meat with spices and arranged on skewers. The kebabs can be cooked in a Tandoor or grilled, and since I had no Tandoor, I grilled them on the griddle on our gas stove. The kebabs made a great sandwich in naan with the chutney- especially good the next day using the leftovers. Seekh kebabs are part of the traditional Pakistani diet, they say. They are well worth the effort and will be made again in this household. Delicious!

Chicken Seekh Kebabs

1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp coriander seed
1 lb. ground chicken thighs (grind in food processor)
2 T finely grated onion
2 T chopped fresh cilantro
1 T freshly minced garlic (about 3 medium cloves)
2 tsp finely diced green chilies (about 2 whole chilies, I used jalapeño)
1½ tsp finely grated ginger
1½ tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp kosher salt
¼ teaspoon garam masala

6 wooden skewers, soaked in water for at least 30 minutes prior to use.

Place cumin and coriander seeds in a cast iron skillet over medium heat and toast until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, and grind into a fine powder.

In a large bowl mix together ground cumin and coriander seeds, chicken, onion, cilantro, garlic, chilies, turmeric, salt, and garam masala until chicken is evenly seasoned.

Form meat mixture into 6 skewer-length cylinders on a baking pan or tray. (I did not use the skewers.) If using skewers, press one into the chicken cylinder and form meat around the stick. Repeat with remaining meat. Place chicken (both skewered or unskewered) in the freezer for 20 minutes.

Remove the chicken from the freezer and carefully transfer to a hot grill. Cook until the skewers are brown all over and are cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a serving tray, let rest for 5 minutes, then serve immediately with green chutney.

Cilantro-Mint Chutney (Green Chutney)

2½ tsp chopped fresh ginger
3 scallions chopped
½ C (packed) fresh mint leaves
½ C (packed) fresh cilantro
1 T fresh lemon or lime juice
1 jalapeño chili, seeded, chopped
2 T (or more) plain yogurt
½ tsp salt (or to taste)

Place ginger into the bowl of a food processor and process until coarsely chopped. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add scallions, mint, cilantro, yogurt, jalapeno, lime juice, and salt. Process to a textured paste similar in consistency to pesto, adding water to adjust the consistency if desired. I used a small food processor that worked quite well with these ingredients.



Seating Arrangements



This was a highly anticipated debut novel written in 2012, and had been on my TBR list because of recommendations from multiple trusted sources. Searching for a readily accessible audiobook on my library’s website to help me achieve a 6th Bingo on my summer reading card, I put a hold on this book. However, the format I ordered was ebook, not audiobook, so I read it today on my phone. (I’ll still get the Bingo because it satisfies the square “by any Booktopia author.”)

The writing did compel me to keep reading, so it succeeded for me on that level. As a social commentary on the lives of “WASPs” (Shipstead’s designation, not mine)- not so much. The main character, Winn, was less of a “winner” than he initially appeared to be, unraveling in an unbelievable series of improbable events. Why would  a conservative middle-aged man suddenly, with no past history of such behavior,  wantonly risk losing everything that he held most dear? Although in truth, one only has to give a cursory glance to the daily news to find multiple reminders of lives in ruin consequent to some life-changing, perhaps fleeting, act of passion, or simple bad judgment.

Dominique, a long time friend of Winn’s daughter, had returned to Waskeke island for Daphne’s wedding, carrying the images and impressions of the Van Meter family she had formed during her association with them when she and Daphne attended Deerfield, a private prep school in western Massachusetts. Dominique’s parents were Coptic doctors from Cairo, so, due to the distance from home, Dominique spent her breaks from Deerfield with the Van Meter family, way back when she was a lost foreign teenager in a strange new culture. Biddy Van Meter, the matriarch, had been a kind and loving mother-figure in those days and Dominique continued to feel a special fondness for her. It was unsettling to Dominique, that her adolescent impressions of the family could have been so wrong. In a passage exemplary of Shipstead’s beautiful writing:
“Dominique was ready to leave Waskeke [the Van Meter oceanside summer retreat]. Spending so much time with the Van Meters was like returning to a cherished childhood home and discovering that either her memory had been wrong at the time or time had taken its toll and the place was not magical or special at all, but ordinary, flawed- a revelation doubly offensive because it made a certain swath of past happiness seem cheap, the product of ignorance.”

Dominique had believed that the privileged world of the “upper class” that she had been welcomed into as a teenager was immune to the banalities of life that beleaguered so many of the unfortunates not born to such refinement. Never having had that naive impression of the family, I didn’t feel the betrayal, only a lack of interest in their lives, and disbelief, that those with so much to lose, would behave so recklessly.


Fictional Waskeke has been compared to the island of Nantucket. I had the good fortune  in the mid 90’s, to spend a couple of days on Nantucket at the summer rental of a family friend. After a glorious day on the beach, my husband and I were treated to an amazing meal prepared by the 12 year-old son of our friends, who, we thought at the time, might grow up to be a chef, such was his interest in food. The dessert was an incredible concoction, assembled to look like a hamburger. It was a beautiful thing! Had this happened now, I would be able to display an image of it from my iPhone. The 90’s however, were the dark ages of technology when I relied on a device called a camera to capture such images. Whether I had even brought a camera, or remembered to use it, is information lost to the mists of time. So instead of that image, I call upon a natural one from that trip. After dinner, the six of us went out to the dunes to enjoy the nighttime scenery. Lying on our backs looking up into night sky, I beheld the Milky Way for the first time. Having lived close to urban areas all of my adult life, I had never been in a place where the night sky was dark enough for the majesty of the Milky Way to be fully evident. Naturally, a photograph can only partially evoke the grandeur of Mother Nature as one experiences it, but, look at the image below, compare it to your experience of the night sky, and imagine looking at this, surrounded by good friends, after a delightful meal, and tell me that’s not beautiful.



Winn’s father spent most of his leisure time at the Vespasian Club located on a hill near the State House in Boston, where vichyssoise was served everyday in the summer. As a potato lover, I have had a long and happy love affair with potato soup, although, I have always called it potato-leek soup, whether I served it hot, or cold. There is some question as to the Frenchness of this recipe. Julia Child maintained that it was an American invention, and Louis Diat, the French chef for the Ritz Carlton in New York in 1917 supports that view with his claim that he created it for his patrons after reminiscing about a soup his mother and grandmother made in his youth. He called it Vichyssoise because Vichy was close to his hometown.

Potato Leek Soup
Serves 6 to 8

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes,                           ½ cup dry white wine
peeled and cut into 3/4-inch chunks               6-7 C chicken or
4 C chopped leeks, white and light green               vegetable stock
parts, cleaned of all sand (2 leeks)                     1 sprig fresh thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper     chopped chives for
3 cloves garlic, smashed                                                garnish
3 T unsalted butter                                                       butter pats for
2 bay leaves                                                                         garnish

In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter, add leeks and cook on medium heat for 5 minutes, until leeks start to wilt. Add garlic and salt and pepper and cook another 5 minutes until fragrant and soft. Stir in the wine and chicken or vegetable stock, bay leaves and thyme sprig and cook over low heat, for 30 minutes or until potatoes are soft.

Discard thyme sprig and bay leaves. Transfer the potato mixture to a food processor fitted with the steel blade in batches to make a purée. Pour the purée back into the pot. Correct seasoning, adding more broth or water if the consistency is too thick. You could add ¾ of heavy cream as you heat up the soup, but it’s creamy enough for my taste without it. When ready to serve, place a pat of butter in the center of the filled soup bowl, sprinkle with a dusting of paprika and chopped chives. You might also like to serve homemade croutons. (Store bought flavors are too strong for this soup.)

If serving cold, refrigerate the soup for several hours before serving, eliminate the pat of butter garnish, and sprinkle with paprika, chives and croutons.

To make the croutons, preheat the oven to 400º and move the rack to the upper-middle position. Cut six slices of a baguette or ciabatta into ½ inch squares to make about 3 cups. Melt 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter. Combine the bread cubes, butter and salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl and stir to coat evenly. On a baking sheet lined with parchment spread out covered cubes  in a single layer. Bake until golden and crisp, 8-10 minutes, turning once halfway. Remove from the baking sheet to cool. Store up to 3 days in an airtight container or plastic bag. They are worth the effort.



The Dinner



What a disturbing book. I was reminded of Defending Jacob by William Landay, although that one was more of a page-turner. One of the main differences between the two was the way Jacob’s father looked back on his son’s past to consider whether or not he had missed clues about his son’s nature. Paul does this only sparingly, making this book more economical, not only in length and depth, but in character development. Yes, the characters are mostly unlikeable, but as Paul points out in his history class, were all the victims of all the atrocities in the world’s many wars nice people? Probably not. But the question for the reader then becomes, does that make them any less a victim? Did they, then, deserve their fate? And, disturbingly, it is here in the story where I truly began to understand Paul. There are several plot points that Koch is deliberately foggy about, including something that is wrong with Paul: a syndrome, an illness, a hereditary characteristic. Something. Also deliberately unclear is the reason for his wife, Claire’s sudden hospitalization. Did it have anything to do with Paul? After all, the incident was reported by Paul, not Claire, so we learn of it only through what he chooses to tell us. Ultimately, it is sometimes the characters to whom we can best relate, who seem the most normal, that are the ones to be most feared.


Having skimmed through the book several times now, looking for the beauty, I keep coming back to the notion of parental love. That should be the beautiful thing in this story. However, can something be beautiful and horrible at the same time? And is it really love that would make a parent do unspeakable things in order to protect their child? Or is it, instead, a way of protecting some extension of oneself? All good questions for discussion.


Serge and Babette and Paul and Claire have met for dinner to discuss their fifteen-year-old sons. Serge is a well-known politician, and his younger brother, Paul, is a high school teacher. The evening, told from Paul’s perspective, describes what went on during each course. Serge has chosen a trendy, pretentious restaurant where the portions are miniscule, the prices are exorbitant, and everyone knows and fawns over him. Paul describes Claire’s appetizer thusly: “The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness. Of course, I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but you have voids and then you have voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle. It was as though the empty plate was challenging you to say something about it, to go to the open kitchen and demand an explanation. ‘You would’t even dare!’ the plate said, and laughed in your face.”

One interpretation of this phenomenon is horror vacui, meaning “fear of empty space.” I know this because I saw it used at the DeCordova Museum last week to describe an artist’s approach to a particular canvas; was charmed by it; and vowed to my friend that I would work it into my lexicon in the near, if not immediate future. So there you have my explanation for this minor digression from the business at hand, which is, of course, identifying the context in the book for the recipe that I’ve selected.

When the manager approached their table as the appetizers were served, he said, “The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions’… he was at Serge’s plate now, pointing with his pinky.’ And these are chanterelles from the Vosges.” (The Vosges are a range of low mountains in eastern France near its border with Germany.) I love crawfish, and wondered where you would get them in Europe, as this story takes place in Amsterdam. Turns out, there is a species of crayfish (note the spelling) in fresh waters in France, throughout central Europe to the Balkan peninsula and north as far as the British Isles, Scandinavia and eastern Europe. In all of my reading, and touring in England, Italy, France and Greece, I had never come across crayfish on a menu or in a cookbook. This was a revelation that also charmed me.

Crawfish Salad with Tarragon Vinaigrette
4 servings

3 lbs. frozen crawfish, or three 1- 1¼ lb. lobsters, or 1½lbs. shrimp
2 shallots, minced                                     ¼ teaspoon pepper
1½ tsp chopped fresh tarragon            ¼ cup olive oil
1½ tsp chopped fresh parsley               3 T fresh lemon juice
¼ tsp salt                                                     2 T white wine or Champagne vinegar
1 lb. Bibb lettuce
garnish with fresh tarragon sprig

If using lobster, fill a large pot with enough water to easily cover the lobsters. Bring to a boil. Place the lobsters in the boiling water, cover, and cook about 8-9 minutes. Drain and cool. Break off large claws and legs. Crack claw and leg shells using a nutcracker; remove meat and set aside. Break off tails. Cut (using kitchen shears) the shell of the tail segments lengthwise on the underside. Pry open the tail segments; remove meat, and cut into ½-inch slices. Chill the lobster meat.

If using shrimp, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Put frozen shrimp in a colander, place the colander in a large bowl and cover the shrimp with cold water to thaw them. Let them sit for 10 minutes. They should be completely thawed before you cook them. Place thawed shrimp in boiling water, and  cook for about 2 minutes, or until shrimp turn pink. Remove shrimp and place in an ice bath until cool. Remove shells and chill the shrimp.

If using frozen crawfish, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Put crawfish in a colander and rinse them. If they have been previously cooked, they will only need about two minutes in the boiling water. If they are raw, they’ll need longer time in the boiling water, 5 minutes or until the shells are red. When cooked, place in colander and run cold water over them to stop the cooking process. Remove shells and chill the crawfish.

Combine minced shallots and next 7 ingredients in a jar; cover jar tightly, and shake vigorously.

Arrange lettuce on individual salad plates; top with crawfish, lobster, or shrimp and drizzle with shallot mixture. Garnish with a tarragon sprig, if desired.