Monthly Archives: July 2017



31ecj3pv+6L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Ann Kingman recommended this one on a podcast, not her own, of course, she was a guest on Episode 15 of Book Cougars. She said it was like nothing she’d ever read before. I was pretty sure I was going to love it, from Ann’s brief summary, and I was not disappointed. It actually did remind me of another book I loved, about a deteriorating marriage, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. The two books are similar in tone and humor, but very different in structure. I marvel at Wang’s story arc, because it’s so not linear, and consists of somewhat random thoughts strung together in a way that makes perfect sense and renders the characters fully dimensional, real and engaging. Wang explores the dysfunction of her family frankly and gently, never descending into whining about all that her parents got wrong in raising her. Her wry humor lightens a story that could otherwise be maudlin, but somehow never is. The ending was gasp-worthy for me, in a small way. I wasn’t expecting it, and it took me a while to process, but what a satisfying way to tie things up!

The unnamed narrator is a PhD candidate in Chemistry at Harvard. She has reached the  point in her research where she needs that spark of inspiration that leads to the fundamental truth of her work. When it doesn’t come, and she begins lying to her parents about it, things become strained with her significant other, too. Eric’s story is the reverse of hers, having completed his degree with little stress. When Eric secures a teaching job at the University of his choice in Ohio, the narrator has to decide whether or not she will accompany him there. At this juncture in the story, the narrator is only able to express her true feelings to Eric when he is asleep. “Please stop just for a little while and let me catch up, she whispers,” in a heartbreaking nocturnal soliloquy. Ultimately this is a story of a young woman’s quest to find herself, her passion, and her self worth. I loved her, the way she viewed the world, and the way she expressed herself: a brilliant, quirky, witty woman. This excerpt is a vignette into the workings of the narrator: “But it is the Chinese way to not explain any of that, to keep your deepest feelings inside and then build a wall that can be seen from the moon.”

Since I have been commenting recently on book covers, I’ll continue in that vein by saying that while I love this one, it would have worked better for me if the atom’s orbit had been at the figure’s heart on the graphic of the woman, because the resolution to the narrator’s problem came not from the knowledge in her head, but from listening to her heart.


There’s a lot of beauty in this book; the writing, Eric’s devotion to the narrator, passion about chemistry or teaching. But the beautiful and endearing thing in the story is the dog. When Eric and the narrator first moved in together and talked about getting a dog, there were so many questions; what kind, big dog, small dog? The narrator did not have a preference. “How about just adorable?” so one day Eric brought home a 45 pound goldendoodle. A dog who loves people, but is afraid of everything else: the hairdryer, an empty box, the fan. If he was never groomed his hair would continue to grow and he’d look like a blond bear. Adorable!



Spicy burrito! Eric’s favorite food. Another thing Eric got right in my humble opinion, as Mexican is among my all time favorite foods.

Spicy Bean and Cheese Burrito

1 T vegetable oil
½ C yellow onions, diced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 T pickled jalapeno, drained and chopped
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp chili powder
2 15 oz cans pinto beans, rinsed
¾ C Mexican beer
1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes, rinsed
2 C corn kernels, rinsed and drained
1 tsp salt
4 large flour tortillas
1½ C shredded Monterey Jack jalapeno cheese
sour cream (optional garnish)
guacamole (optional garnish)
Salsa (optional garnish)

In a 12” saucepan, saute onion in oil for about 5 minutes until soft, not brown. Add the garlic and cook until golden, about a minute. Add jalapenos, cumin and chili powder and stir to combine. Add 1 can of drained pintos and cook, mashing the mixture with a potato masher until most of the beans are mashed. Add the second can of pintos, and the beer and continue to cook until thickened, mashing more beans, but leaving some whole beans in the mix, about 10 minutes. Stir in the corn and tomatoes, stirring until heated through, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

Warm the burritos in a non-stick skillet, about 30 seconds a side. Lay the tortillas on a work surface. Sprinkle the cheese in the center and spoon a heaping ¼ cup of bean mixture on top. Places several rounds of jalapeno on top of bean mixture, to taste. Fold the tortilla burrito-style. Heat the nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Place the burritos folded side down in the skillet and cook until browned, about 1 minute on each side. Serve with preferred garnishes.



I Capture the Castle


31122                                        icapturethecastle

Dodie Smith is famous for the book One Hundred and One Dalmatians, later a Disney movie, but is also known as the most successful female playwright of her age. I Capture the Castle was first published in 1949 and has never been out of print sine then. NEVER been out of print! That is astounding to me. I picked it up during my birthday book haul because I had read that J.K. Rowling loved it. Dodie Smith wrote the script for a two-act play with ‘musical notes’ for a 1954 West End production. A 2003 film starring Romola Garai as Cassandra, Bill Nighy as her father, Rose Byrne as her sister and Henry Cavill as Stephen Colley was generally appreciated by the audience. Finally, in April 2017 a musical version was put up at the Watford Palace Theatre northwest of London to positive reviews.

The first line is often quoted as one of the most memorable novel openers, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” The journal keeper is seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and she’s in the sink because she’s found that sitting in a place where you’ve never sat before can be inspiring. As evidence, she confides that she wrote her very best poem while sitting on the henhouse. Cassandra is a bookworm and her father was a one-hit wonder of an author who suffers from writer’s block, so the literary references abound. The family lives in a run-down castle that is part of the estate of nearby Scoatney Hall, whose owner has recently died. Village gossip has it that the heir is a wealthy American, Simon Cotton. Simon, his mother, and younger brother Neil become intrigued with the genteel but impoverished Mortmain family, and Rose, Cassandra’s beautiful older sister decides that she will wed Simon. From this point on, the book reads rather like Shakespeare, where no one seems to be in love with the right person. As it is told from a teenager’s perspective and in a more naive age, the 1930’s, it is an endearing coming of age story with a supremely loveable character. I wondered if Cassandra’s warning to her family would go unheeded as in the Greek myth, but it didn’t play out that way.

Speaking of book covers, the book I read had the top cover. I wish it had been the other one because it so succinctly captures the gist of the book, including whimsy. The green one lacks imagination, and that is kind of insulting to this most imaginative book.


While Rose is in London, Cassandra goes forward with their annual Midsummer’s Eve celebration without her. Everyone else had someplace else to be, so Cassandra was utterly alone in the castle, except for the dog and the cat, Heloise and Abelard (of course). Just as Cassandra was beginning the rituals, someone called out to her. It happened to be Simon Cotton, the object of Rose’s affections. Having spent the day at Scoatney with the estate agent, Simon decided to pay a call on Cassandra and her father at the castle. When he realizes that its Midsummer’s Eve, he asks to be a part of the rites, as Rose had told him about the fun she and Cassandra used to have with them. When they were done and waiting for the fire’s embers to die down, a carpet of mist had crept in and mounted so high down by the moat that only the castle towers rose above it. The last of the day’s light faded as the moon rose, casting a silver light upon the mist. Simon, totally charmed by the view, wondered if anyone could capture the atmosphere in paint, then decided that Debussy could have done it in music. When Cassandra claims not to know Debussy’s music, Simon insists on taking her to Scoatney for dinner and a listen to Clair de Lune on the record player. This is Jean Efflam Bavouzet’s interpretation from Youtube.


Cassandra and Rose are dispatched to London to collect their deceased Aunt Millicent’s clothes. They have been given money for the train and taxis, and lunch. Laden down with furs they hadn’t known about, when they couldn’t quickly find a taxi, Cassandra persuaded Rose to go get something to eat first. They found a white table-clothed restaurant on Oxford Street, (la dee dah) where they finished off their modest meal with a treacle pudding.

Microwave Treacle Sponge Pudding
yield: 4-5 servings

½ C self-rising flour*
½ C sugar
½ C butter
2 eggs
3 T treacle or jam, if you prefer
1 T hot water
English custard or fresh cream

Cream the butter and sugar together with an electric hand mixer, then beat in the eggs and flour.

Grease a medium (roughly 1½ pint) bowl, and pour in the treacle. Microwave the treacle on medium power for 30 seconds, or until the syrup has melted.

Add 1 tbsp of hot water to the flour/egg mixture and mix in.

Pour the flour/egg mixture into the bowl with the hot syrup, cover the top of the bowl with Saran wrap, and microwave on full power for 3 minutes, or until done.
Note: Microwave wattages vary; please watch your mixture carefully to make sure it does not overcook in the microwave. Also make sure your saran wrap is microwave safe. Not all plastic cling wraps are safe for microwave use.

Leave the pudding to cool for 5-10 minutes, and then turn out onto a serving plate.
Serve with English custard or fresh cream, and a few summer berries.

*I didn’t have self-rising flour, but a google search had me add about a teaspoon of baking powder to cake flour and it worked fine, although I’d like to see if it would rise higher with the right flour.

Emergency Custard:
If you don’t have any custard powder on hand, you can mix up a batch using cornstarch, an egg yolk, milk, and vanilla essence. Mix 1 cup milk with 2 tsp cornstarch and bring to a boil while stirring. Remove from heat and beat in egg yolk and 1 tsp vanilla essence. Return the mixture to the heat, and continue stirring until it boils.

This was not as successful. I added some confectioner’s sugar to sweeten it, and that improved the flavor, but it never set like a custard should. We still spooned it over the pudding for the flavor, if not the texture.



Pictures of Hollis Woods


Picture of Hollis WoodsThis Newbury Honor Book is the third book in my recent reading that deals with foster children/orphans, or underprotected young adults on the fringes of social services. (Preceded by Invisible Thread and My Name is Leon.) Hollis Woods was abandoned as an infant with a note saying “Call her Hollis Woods.” She has an incredible artistic gift that allows her to see beyond what is visible to the eye. Everyone who sees her work recognizes the genius behind it, but to Hollis, it’s just a mode of communication that allows her to maintain an icy distance from those she encounters, while at the same time, expressing her inner thoughts and feelings, however hidden they are in her imagery. Her art is a release. When adults connect with Hollis through her art, her guard lowers, and there arises an opportunity for genuine human interaction. Whether or not she can submit to these moments is the struggle she faces in this book. Through straightforward, unsentimental storytelling, Patricia Giff introduces the reader to a variety of memorable characters, some of whom make the leap to true connection with this singular, gifted and lonely girl.

Hollis prides herself on being “a mountain of trouble,” which is kind of ironic since a mountain causes her a lot of trouble later in the story. When she is sent to Branches on the East Branch of the Delaware River to spend the summer with the Regan family, something softens within her, and she begins to want again. Izzy Regan, the mother, is nurturing and fun, and the father, whom Hollis calls “Old Man,” sees beauty in her that she didn’t know was there. Steven, two years her senior, is a worthy companion and playmate. They all welcome her into their family. But how boring would the story be if it was all just happily ever after?


I make it a point to never include spoilers in my blog posts, so some of you may think that I’m cheating in this section of the blog. But I’m going to do this anyway, because of the way it made me feel when I read them. The beauty in Pictures of Hollis Woods is the last two words of the book. If you’re going to actually read the book (you can easily do it in one sitting-164 pages), do yourself a favor and don’t go to the last page to read them before you’ve read the rest of the book. Their impact only works in the context of the story.


Hollis first meets Steven and his father, “Old Man,” at the bus depot. Hollis is parched from traveling all morning with no liquid refreshment. Steven announces that they are going to have lunch at the diner, and also says that his mom stayed in Branches baking a carrot cake. Holly was going to say, “I hate carrots,” but caught herself. Seeing how pleased the two of them were with the prospect of lunch at the diner and carrot cake for dinner, she didn’t have the heart to burst their bubble with her negativity, and besides, she really had to use the bathroom.

Izzy’s Carrot Cake*
Yields: one standard loaf pan (9×5-inch)

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
¾-1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ cup granulated sugar
½ C light or dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
½ C plus 1 T canola oil (or vegetable, safflower)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1½ C (about 2 large or 3 medium carrots, grated)
½ C pecans or walnuts, roughly chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 350º. Butter a 9×5-inch loaf pan.

In a large bowl sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and
cinnamon. Set aside.

In a mixer bowl fitted with paddle attachment, beat together eggs,
granulated sugar and brown sugar on medium-high speed until light and
fluffy, about 2 minutes. On low speed and with the mixer running, add the
oil slowly and beat until combined. Beat in vanilla extract until combined,
then turn off mixer. Fold in carrots by hand until combined. Fold in dry
ingredients just until combined. Don’t overmix. Fold in nuts.

Pour the batter into prepared loaf pan. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until a
toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Allow cake
to cool completely.

*I can’t say for sure that this was Izzy’s carrot cake recipe, but if hers was delicious, as I’m sure it was, then it could  have been this one. Even my carrot cake averse husband loves it!



My Name Is Leon


my-name-is-leon-9781501117459_hrThis has been on my list of books to read, although I’m not sure where the recommendation came from. What a heartbreaking story about Leon, a 9 year-old boy in foster care in Britain in the early 1980’s. Leon is a treasure of a kid. I liked him so much, I wanted to adopt him myself! There is a backdrop of racial tension between blacks and whites that finally erupts into riots in several cities, including London, and is an important part of the story. Leon loves his baby brother, and provided most of Jake’s care when he was an infant, because his mother, Carol, is frequently unable to take care of even herself. When Jake, a blonde, blue-eyed white child was adopted, Leon felt betrayed by all of the adults in his life who wouldn’t let him visit Jake. Leon’s foster carer, Maureen, is a wise and good woman, but also absent through most of the book due to a debilitating illness that kept her in the hospital for an extended period of time. Ultimately, however, this book is about the meaning of family- the one you make, not the one you were born with, necessarily.  All it took here to make one, was to assemble multiple people who love each other and are committed to one another during the good times and the bad. Families don’t necessarily look like what I grew up with in the 1950’s, and that’s great. The story stayed with me long after finishing the book.

This is a debut novel by someone who knows her way around the foster care system. De Waal’s mother was a foster carer, and Kit herself worked in criminal and family law, was a magistrate, sits on adoption panels, and wrote a training manual on adoption and foster care. The characters she has brought to life in this book are fully developed and multi-dimensional. I feel warm and fuzzy having been a part of their lives however briefly while I read about them.




When Leon first arrives at Maureen’s, she feeds him a bacon sandwich, also known as bacon butty, bap or sarnie in the U.K. When he finishes the first one, she makes another, and keeps feeding him until he’s full. Leon is unused to 1. being taken care of, and 2. having as much as he wants to eat. This was a harbinger of his future, although he didn’t know it at the time. When I was thinking about what food to include in the post, I immediately thought of the bacon sandwich, but then thought, “that’s pretty mundane,” so I did a Google search and found out that a bacon butty is a big deal in England. In a  poll, it was ranked the number one thing that people love about Britain! There are different ways to prepare it, with variations on the type of bread to use and whether or not to toast the bread, or butter it, but the one constant was that it had to be served with HP Sauce, also known as brown sauce. Too impatient to wait for an Amazon delivery, I decided to make my own. There were a myriad of recipes out there, so after extensive reading, (the reviews were very helpful in making corrections to the given recipes to nail down the flavor of the original sauce).  I combined several to come up with the recipe given here.

HP Sauce has a story. It was originally produced by HP Foods in the U.K., but is now produced by the H.J. Heinz Company in the Netherlands. It was named after London’s House of Parliament. The sauce was called “Wilson’s gravy” in the 1960’s and 1970’s after Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister. In an interview with the Sunday Times, Mary Wilson, his wife, said, “If Harold has a fault, it is that he will drown everything in HP Sauce.”

Too bad I don’t know anyone familiar with the original sauce to let me know how I did.

Bacon Butty Sandwich
Serves 2

4 slices Pepperidge Farm sandwich bread
6 slices of cooked bacon* (use more to suit your personal preference )
unsalted butter

Butter 2 slices of bread. Place 3 strips of bacon on each slice. Spread some HP Sauce on the bacon. Close the sandwiches with the other 2 slices of bread, cut and serve.

HP Sauce
Yield: 4 Cups

3 C chopped Granny Smith apples
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
¼ tsp cardamom
¼ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp cayenne*
2 tsp allspice
1 tsp pickling spice
pinch of black pepper
1 C dates, chopped
⅓ C dark brown sugar
1 T tomato paste
1¼ C malt vinegar
¼ C treacle (found at Whole Foods)
3 T tamarind paste (found at Whole Foods)
1 T oil for frying

Heat the oil over medium heat, add the onions and saute for 5 minutes until the onions are soft, but not browned. Stir in the garlic and spices and saute another minute to bloom the spices. Add the remaining ingredients and boil down until fairly thick, about an hour and 15 minutes. (I added water when the sauce got too dry.) When cooked, cool slightly and press through a fine sieve, discarding the remaining pulp. I put one cup in a pint jar for the fridge and froze the other three cups in individual containers to be used at a later date.

* When I tasted the sauce after it had cooled down, I thought it had too much heat, and decided to use less cayenne when I make it again. However, when I put it on the bacon sandwich the next day, it wasn’t too hot at all, so I would keep the recipe as is. The sandwich, simple as it is, is a keeper.



The Essex Serpent


61HINX3QoBL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_I waited a long time for this book, and wanted to love it because of a glowing review by a blogger I follow. I plodded, rather than flew, through the book. Still, there was much to love, and I find myself thinking about the characters long after finishing the book. Set in Victorian England, there are distinct Gothic overtones to the story, that enhance the setting: London and Colchester. In the city, Charles Ambrose, a wealthy aristocrat and friend of the main character, Cora, expresses compassion for the poor of Bethnal Green who were forced to live in sub-human conditions: ” Even animals in the zoo should have their cages cleaned,” he says nobly. Before you get all judgy, remember that this is the England of Charles Dickens, and disdain for the poor was based on the upper class belief that their squalor was due to a moral deficit, not economic circumstances that left them with few resources to compete for a chance at a better life. The other location, Colchester, is the oldest recorded town in England, having been referenced by Pliny the Elder in 77 BCE. Wow! The 500 year-old George Hotel, where the Ambroses stayed when they visited, has Roman cellars, and is still in operation. In spite of its history, when Cora left London for Colchester after her husband died, her friend, Katherine Ambrose chided her, “If you wanted the sea, you could have used our house in Kent: here it’s little but mud and marsh for miles and the sight of it would depress a clown.” I love these people.

Apparently 1890’s London was mad for science, and that is what drew Cora to Colchester, where she hoped to find a fossil of some unique creature that would insure that her name and discovery would be preserved in the British Museum. When reports of sightings of an elusive serpent reached London, Cora packed up her son, her companion, Martha, and her things, and headed off to Colchester. The serpent sighting is based on a real 1669 pamphlet, “The Flying Serpent or Strange News out of Essex.”

Charles and Katherine Ambrose, Cora’s dear friends, arranged for her to meet their friend, the Reverend William Ransome, who lived in Aldwinter, not far from Colchester. There is an immediate bond between the two, despite their nearly polar oppposite views of the cosmos. Cora’s faith is totally rooted in science, while, Ransome is a man of God, believing that if there is a serpent, its presence is a warning from the Almighty about the moral depravity of the community.  And yet, Cora finds his intellect a worthy match for hers, and she enjoys sparring with him about scientific evidence versus divine presence. Their common ground is their mutual love of nature. Perry’s best writing lies in those descriptive passages where the characters are outdoors. Nature frees their thoughts and their tongues, allowing them to connect on their walks in ways that don’t happen in the Reverend’s parlor. During one of their sojourns, they stop in a clearing to argue a point, when Will suddenly looks around and notices that the canopy of the trees has created a natural cathedral. Will feels his faith most in nature, while Cora feels most free and alive there.

My favorite part in the book is one of Cora’s letters to Will. She relates a story about a friend of her father who loved to amuse her with stories and puzzles when she was a child. Once he asked her if she knew two words in the English language which are spelt the same and pronounced the same but have opposite meanings. The word was “cleave.” It can mean splitting or adhering. In a lovely passage, Cora uses it to express her feelings for Will.

There is so much in this book that I think about and would comment on but for the fear that this post would rival the actual book in length. Suffice to say that I did love it. Also,  my confidence in the above mentiond blogger is confirmed, as his literary taste continues to match my own.


The book’s cover! So far it’s my favorite of the year. Designed by Peter Dyer for Serpent’s Tail, a division of Profile Books. Ltd., it is based on a William Morris design.


After an extended falling out between Cora and Will, she plans a midsummer party to mend fences. The foods mentioned were capons (just a roasted chicken, really), eggs (boiled, of course, this is Victorian England after all), ham studded with cloves (just had that at Easter), small potatoes, salmon, and tomatoes with mint – the last the most mouth-watering option, in spite of the fact that I’m not  big fan of mint. I could find no Victorian recipes, so I figured Cora must have improvised, as did I in the salad below.

Tomato and Mint Salad
Serves 4

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 small red onion, sliced thin
¼ C extra-virgin olive oil
1½ T white balsamic vinegar
1 clove crushed garlic
¾ tsp kosher salt divided into ½ tsp and ¼ tsp
2 heirloom tomatoes, sliced crosswise
½ tsp sea salt
¼ C loosely packed mint leaves

Put the crushed garlic in a small bowl with the olive oil to infuse
while preparing the other ingredients.

Slice the onion and place in a medium bowl of ice water to
mellow the pungency of the onion. Let sit for 10 minutes, drain
and pat dry.

In a medium bowl, toss the cherry tomatoes with a ¼ teaspoon
of kosher salt. When the onion is ready, add to cherry tomatoes and
toss to combine.

To make the vinaigrette, strain the garlic from the oil (I leave it in, because we love garlic) into a small bowl. Add the balsamic vinegar, ½ teaspoon of
kosher salt and black pepper to taste. Whisk to blend.

Arrange the heirloom tomato slices on a platter. Sprinkle lightly with sea
salt. Spread the cherry tomato mixture over the heirlooms, then
drizzle the vinaigrette over all. Garnish with mint leaves and serve.

After having the salad, I will use basil next time. Basil is a better pairing than mint for tomatoes according to my palate.

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