Monthly Archives: October 2016

Elizabeth is Missing



This mystery had been on my TBR shelf for quite some time, having been recommended on both “Books on the Nightstand” and “The Readers”podcasts. The tone of the book is launched in the prologue in the last sentence, “Elizabeth?” I ask. “Did you ever grow marrows?” Maud is the speaker here, a seventy-something year-old woman who is flirting with the complete isolation of dementia/Alzheimer’s, whose daughter, Helen, is helping her stay in her home by visiting daily, hiring help to check on her and cook for her, and by suggesting mnemonic devices to aid memory. Thus the sticky notes on the book’s cover. Maud has them everywhere – in her pockets, her purse, stuck to walls. They help somewhat, but frequently Maud will come upon one and not recall what it means or why she wrote it down in the first place.  Maud has become obsessed with the whereabouts of her friend Elizabeth. In attempting to sort out the mystery of her disappearance, she asks her daughter where Elizabeth has gone; she makes several unsuccessful attempts to walk to Elizabeth’s house, but gets lost; she calls Elizabeth’s son. Since the point of view in this story is primarily Maud’s, the reader doesn’t know the backstory, or what any of the other characters truly know about Elizabeth, or what they’ve told Maud. It is truly heartbreaking to watch Maud lose touch with her life and everyone in it. In that regard, Emma Healey has done a fine job of shining a light on what the internal life of an elderly person so stricken might be like. I began to experience my own degree of frustration with Maud when she ignored the advice of her caregivers, or perseverated on some detail. Imagine the frustration of her carers.

I love the way Healey placed clues very early in the narrative that were so unobtrusive as I read them, but so glaringly obvious as the mystery is solved. Very well-crafted.


Katy, Maud’s granddaughter, was dispatched by her mother to distract Maud, while  Helen takes care of some business Maud’s house. Katy has wisely chosen music of her grandmother’s youth to engage her. Unfortunately, though, Maud doesn’t like Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again.” She much prefers Ezio Pinza singing the Champagne Aria.” But Katy prevails. Here’s Maud’s preference.


Maud and her daughter Helen are having lunch at The Olive Grill. Reading the menu aloud is something Maud doesn’t seem to be able to stop doing, even though it yields eye-rolling and mimicking strangulation on Helen’s part. When she finds “Chorizo- stuffed Marrow” on the menu she asks Helen if marrows are fashionable again, not having seen one on a menu in many years. It turns out Maud had gotten to know Elizabeth in the first place because of some marrows. When they first met, Elizabeth described her garden wall, and Maud knew exactly where she it was because she remembered some marrows had been dug up there some sixty years ago. When Helen tells Maud she wouldn’t like chorizo, Maud gets distracted to the degree that when the waiter asks for her order, Helen has to order for them both. So, in deference to Helen, I have used Italian sausage instead of chorizo.

Cheese and Sausage Stuffed Zucchini

1 large zucchini (marrow)
12 oz spicy Italian sausage
½ C chopped onion
3 beaten eggs
Pinch garlic salt
1 C shredded Colby cheese
2 C cottage cheese
1½ C shredded Italian cheese blend
1 T Italian seasoning
½ tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
1 C chopped tomatoes

Preheat oven to 350º. Butter a baking dish (size is dependent on the size of the zucchini.

Saute crumbled sausage in a large, deep skillet. Cook over medium high heat until evenly brown. Drain and set aside.

Partially cook zucchini in the microwave on high for 5 minutes. Remove from the microwave and let cool for about 10 minutes. In a medium bowl combine the eggs, Colby cheese, cottage cheese Italian blend cheese, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper.

Slice the zucchini in half lengthwise,remove the seeds and blot dry with paper towels. Place both halves in the baking dish and sprinkle with garlic salt. Layer the sausage, tomatoes and cheese mixture in each half.

Bake in a preheated oven for 40 minutes. Then broil for 5 minutes to brown the cheese.


Chance Developments



It’s no secret that I love Alexander McCall Smith’s books. In addition to tickling my reading fancy, this one is a tactile delight. The picture above is a photograph viewed through a rectangular hole in the hard cover of the book which has been cut to frame it. There are four other photographs of unknown people that AMS selected to build his stories around. I’m also enamored of the concept of creating stories abut random strangers, having spent a considerable time in airports with my husband passing time by imagining biographies for the people we observe as we wait for our flight to be called. Then there was the joy of holding the book in my hands. At 5×7 inches, it’s a cozy fit. I love the photos, the feel of the book, and the messages contained within, all about love.

My favorite story, the second one, was called “Angels in Italy.” Without giving anything away, in this story, the two main characters recall a conversation they had when they were teenagers about the existence of angels prompted by a sketch of a dove Harry made. Many years later, enjoying a lunch in Italy, they are reminded of the conversation because the room where they’re dining had angels painted on the ceiling. I tried to find images of what Harry referred to as “Della Robbia angels,” but I could only find ones that were sculpted, not painted. Google only takes me so far!


Harry’s family summers for two months each year on a mountainous peninsula on the western edge of Scotland. The driveway to their home is lined with rhododendrons, which Phyllis, Harry’s mom thinks are beautiful, but Struan, his father, calls them “Nasty things…A haven for midges. They should have left them where they found them-in the Himalayas.” Who knew? Rhododendrons are Nepal’s national flower. Although, the ecologist for the National Trust for Scotland, James Fenton,  wants the government to make getting rid of wild rhododendrons a top priority, making it the biggest ecological issue, in his opinion, in Scotland today, there is no denying their beauty. The wild rhododendron has adapted to the Scottish climate to the degree that it crowds out native trees and plants. So, beauty comes at a price.

from the website


Harry, a painter, spent some time in Florence  where he had been invited to lecture. While there, a wealthy patron from Pittsburgh invited him to lunch at her villa in the hills of Fiesole outside Florence. It was to be a simple Tuscan lunch, of six courses! When I Googled “Tuscan lunch” a menu from Giada DiLaurentis came up including four courses: bruschetta, Bistecca Fiorentina (marinated, grilled steak) white beans, and chocolate cherry shortbread cookies. While the bruschetta was prepared in a way I’d like to try, (brush oil on one side of sliced rustic Tuscan bread and grill; brush with the cut side of a tomato sliced in half: salt and serve), I really like the bean and kale recipe, so thank you, Giada and The Food Network.

White Beans and Kale

2 C dried white beans, such as cannellini
1 sprig fresh sage
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 T plus 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small bunch Tuscan kale, chopped
1 ½ tsp kosher salt
½ tsp red pepper flakes
½ C freshly grated Parmesan

In a medium Dutch oven, combine the white beans, sage, garlic, 2 tablespoons olive oil and 6 cups water (bottled preferred). Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook, partially covered, for 1 hour 20 minutes, stirring occasionally; the beans should be just tender all the way through.
Add the kale, salt and red pepper flakes to the beans and stir to combine. Cover the pan and simmer until the kale is wilted and tender, an additional 15 minutes. Stir in the remaining 1/2 cup olive oil and the cheese to finish.


Ordinary Grace



This is a coming of age story set in the summer of 1961 in a small town in the Minnesota River Valley. It is told from 13 year-old Frank’s point of view. Perhaps partly because of the setting, but in greater part because of the writing, the tone of the book  is like a hug. The word that comes to mind is “decency.” Oh, there’s prejudice and gossip and hierarchical society and people who do bad things, but that time period, after World War II when memories of the war had faded but were still present, was a time of most people doing the right thing, behaving decently. So it was with nostalgia that this book transported me back to my own childhood, as I had just turned eleven in the summer of 1961.  Krueger’s writing is direct, with great attention to describing the natural world as Frank and his younger brother Jake experienced it, and as I experienced it vicariously through them and my memories. Here is a passage I selected randomly on the first page I turned to looking for an example of what I mean:

“The sky had changed. The gray had deepened to the color of charcoal and the clouds had begun to boil. An erratic wind had risen and within its gusts was carried the sound of distant thunder from the west. We crossed the backyard and the pasture where the wild grass and daisies rippled as if the skin of the earth was alive. We skirted the Sweeney’s house where laundry hung on the line and I could hear the pop of bed linen snapping in the wind.”

 The book was evocative of the time period because of the many cultural references intertwined in the story. “Have Gun Will Travel” was a western TV show as was “The Ruthless Gun,” both of which the brothers watched.  Cars referenced were a 1955 Packard Clipper, a Studebaker, and a Pontiac Star Chief. Books and authors mentioned were Of Mice and Men and Ayn Rand. Then there was Sugar Pops, root beer at the drugstore soda fountain, Jell-o salad, “Surfside Six,” Kool Aid, Boy Scouts, fried baloney sandwiches, tuna casserole, “Public Enemy,” baseball games with the neighborhood kids until it got too dark to see the ball. And so much more.

This is a terrific book, and I’m grateful to the friend who told me about it.


In thinking about the beauty in this book, I kept coming back to the word “decency,” and that led me to think about the art of Norman Rockwell. Isn’t decency really, a way of behaving in which one sees another person for who they are, shows respect, and treats the individual fairly?



There was a lot of food to transport me back to my childhood, but the one I selected was served after a funeral at the Fellowship Hall of the Methodist Church where Nathan, Frank’s father was the minister. The food was supplied by the female members of the congregation, and reminded me of the  “Church Ladies” I remember from our church, who showed up at the house of the family of the deceased with food and drink. They took care of all the details unobtrusively, and like phantoms, cleaned up the mess and were gone before the widow or widower remembered to thank them.

Congo Squares

⅔ cup shortening
2¼ C packed brown sugar
2¾ C all-purpose flour
2½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
3 eggs, beaten
1 T vanilla extract
2 C (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
1 C chopped nuts

In a saucepan, melt shortening over medium heat. Stir in brown sugar. Cool slightly. Combine flour, baking powder and salt; add gradually with eggs to shortening mixture. Stir in the vanilla, chips and nuts (batter will be very stiff).

Spread into a greased and floured 13-in. x 9-in. baking pan. Bake at 350° for 25-30 minutes. Cut into squares while warm. Yield: about 48 bars.




I loved the opening line of this book: “The christening took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” Although I didn’t know it at the time, it captures the tone of the story perfectly in its understatement and wry humor. The story is about the blending of two families and the relationships among them as they grow up or old or both. Patchett crafts these individual characters in ways that make them real, prompting me to take sides in my preference for one sibling over another. There are a lot of cultural references in here from the seventies, and having lived them, I enjoyed revisiting songs like George Benson’s “This Masquerade” and Lou Rawls’ “Nobody But Me.” One of the characters is an avid reader, so there are many books mentioned, including one that I’ve added to my To Read list called Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, in translation from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally.  Caroline, the icy sister shows her contempt for her reading sister Franny when she comments on all the money Franny is wasting on books. Franny assures her that no money was spent, as her books are all from the library. “Thank god for libraries,” Caroline responds condescendingly. There was another line that I found sad, and off-putting, although, having been used in reference to Albie, it certainly reflects his attitude toward school as a teenager: “The halls were silent and wide without the hordes of furious children and bitter, defeated adults.” I sincerely hope that this view is the exception and not the norm in our high schools today. Finally, as someone who has struggled, given up, struggled some more, and given up, with meditation, I especially enjoyed (Holly’s elderly mother) Teresa’s stream of consciousness narrative on her attempt to achieve one breath that was unburdened by thought when she meditates with the pros at her daughter’s Zen retreat home in Switzerland. It’s not just me. Meditation is hard.


alps-goats-switzerland-walking-via-francigena-ways-638x359   alps-goats-switzerland-walking-via-francigena-ways

On the drive from the airport in Lucerne to the Zen center where Holly lives, Teresa is overwhelmed by the clarity of the Swiss air and the majestic beauty of the Alps. As she rolls down the window of the Citroen (that she likens to a soup can), “I have to tell you, Holly, I didn’t understand until now. I mean, I’ve been happy for you, but in the back of my mind I was always thinking, “What’s wrong with Torrance?”  And this is when  they drove past two shaggy mountain goats on the road, no doubt waiting for Heidi and Grandfather to herd them back into the mountains.


As this book was about families, there was a fair amount of food mentioned, but it was pretty basic, like salad, asparagus, baked potato, steak. Toward the end of the book, Beverly has prepared onion dip to satisfy one grandson’s need for salt and caramel cake for the other’s need for sweet when they visit with their parents for the Christmas holidays. Since I am one who craves salt, the recipe choice was a no-brainer.

French Onion Dip

2 T olive oil
1 T butter
2 yellow onions (peeled, diced)
¼ tsp garlic powder
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
12 oz. plain Greek yogurt (or sour cream)
8 oz whipped cream cheese
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

To a large saute pan add olive oil and butter and heat over medium heat. Add onions, garlic powder, and Worcestershire sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Stir and cook for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook for 30 minutes, until onions are golden and caramelized. Remove from heat and set aside. 

In a large bowl, add the Greek yogurt and cream cheese, and mix to combine. Add the cooled onion mixture and mix to combine. Refrigerate until ready to use.