Monthly Archives: September 2019

Machines Like Me


9780385545112.jpgWhen I first heard about this book, it didn’t particularly interest me, but I knew that I would read it because it’s by McEwan. Now I wish I hadn’t waited so long. The protagonist Charlie Friend came into some money when his parents’ home was sold. With that money, he purchased “Adam,” a synthetic human, one of 25 made world-wide. Fresh out of the box, Adam looked remarkably real, although inanimate because he needed a sixteen hour charge to get up and running, and then had to be programmed with characteristics of his owner’s choosing. At this juncture, Charlie opted to bring his neighbor, Miranda, closer into his sphere by asking  her to choose half of the characteristics, which were completely concealed from Charlie. Given several days to acclimate Adam, the relationships among the threesome grow and the consequences of their interactions makes for some interesting action. The setting is an alternate 1980’s London, where history has been rewritten. JFK survived in Dallas, the Falklands was a raging success, and Alan Turing was still alive. For some reason that seemed to me to be the most audacious rewriting of history on McEwan’s part (The Turing bit). There’s a lot of history in here and also a lot of computer science, most of which was lost on me, but this story did what this author does so well, and that is cause the reader to examine her own values, prejudices and ethics in several spheres of human interaction. The book was a fascinating, if not frightening peek into the not-so-distant future.

THE BEAUTY: Miranda’s father lived near Salisbury Cathedral, and Charlie commented on its beauty, prompting me to find and admire this picture:

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THE FOOD: When Charlie brought Adam up to his flat that first day, he was so excited that he made himself a simple cheddar and pickle sandwich, not wanting to invest any time in cooking. I have since learned that this is pub fare in England. A little research clued me in to the brand of pickle that this sandwich should be made with, and it’s more of a chutney than a pickle. Fortunately, the British Shop in Newburyport carries Branston pickle, the quintessential chutney for this sandwich.

Cheddar and Pickle Sandwich

English cheddar cheese
2 pieces of sandwich bread
Branston pickle

Place slices of cheddar on one piece of bread. Spread Branston pickle on top of cheese and cover with the other slice of bread. Cut in half and serve.



I loved the English cheddar, and will look for it again. The Branston pickle is an acquired taste, and while I didn’t hate it, it’s not something I’m dreaming about.


A Spell of Winter


408888.jpgSimon, formerly of The Readers, recommended this book. It was the first ever winner of the Orange Prize in 1996, although it is now called the Women’s Prize. It is a gothic novel, which is not something I usually read. Gothic literature contains death and decay, haunted homes or castles, family curses, madness, powerful love and romance, and ghosts, or vampires. While there were no vampires here, the ghost wasn’t a ghost at all, simply an absent  family member, albeit an important one. Cathy and Rob are teenage brother and sister, two years apart, living with their aging grandfather on a rundown estate in the English countryside. The siblings know very little about their parents, only that their mother deserted them and lives somewhere on the continent and their father is in a sanitarium. Under the circumstances it’s no wonder that Cathy and Rob forge a close relationship. Even thought I could sense where the plot was heading, I was still surprised when it happened. The historical context (1914) intervened as Europe entered WWI, and things changed for everyone. The kindly servant Kate went back to Ireland. Rob left for the war, and Cathy found a way to eke out a living on the estate, learning to plough and mend fences and live off the land as she cares for her grandfather. I didn’t anticipate the ending, but I was very happy with it. If all gothic novels end this way, perhaps I’ll read some more!


Catherine had so much knowledge of the natural world and her descriptions of her surroundings were loving and observant. She could name the many flowers in the countryside and knew the special uses for each one. Every time she mentioned a wildflower, I looked it up to have a visual. These are just a few of the ones mentioned in the book.

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Top to bottom, left to right: speedwell, rock rose, kidney vetch, wild thyme


Catherine was self-sufficient during the war, managing the fields until she could no longer keep up with the work, or afford to pay for help. She fed herself and her grandfather by bartering with the neighbors and growing herbs in her garden, that she and the wizard, a local man man skilled in preparing herbal medicines, used in their concoctions. One of the herbs she grew was sage. Sage is high in antioxidants, and may support lowering blood sugar and cholesterol levels. The Latin word for sage, salvia, stems from the word “heal.” When sage is burned it releases negative ions which puts people in a positive mood. It is used by Native Americans to smudge their domiciles, spreading smoke from the burning sage to release negative energy. I used a sage tea as the centerpoint of an afternoon tea, including some savory and some sweet snacks.

IMG_1334Pictured are the savory snacks: spanakopita, mini quiches and salmon toasts, and of course, the sage tea. Not pictured are the sweets: madeleines with homemade raspberry jam.

The Ditch


UnknownRobert Walter is the popular mayor of Amsterdam, married to Sylvia, father of Diana. Robert, the narrator, makes a point of pointing out the prejudices that Dutch people have about people from “the south,” which is where Sylvia is from. He claims that “those” people have a history of temperament, hot-headedness and taking matters into their own hands, rather than let the local agencies deal with dispute or crime. These prejudices keep coming up as the book unfolds. The central plot line introduced on page 1 is Robert’s suspicion that his wife is having an affair with a “green” alderman. I’m not sure if this is tongue-in-cheek, but Robert maintains that climate change is the current day Fascism, and he declaims about it for several pages. A subplot is Robert’s best friend Bernhard’s foggy scientific theory about the infinity of the universe and the mystery of death. Another is his ninety-plus year-old parents’ plan to end their lives at a time of their choosing in order to go out while they are still in possession of their faculties and relatively healthy. He has been instructed on what to do, and must be prepared for the call when he receives it, even though he has no idea when that will be, except that it is in the imminent future. 

In the end I had to reread the epilogue, and I’m still not sure what happened. Did Sylvia have an affair? Did her brother know if she did? Did Robert ever hear from Bernhard?

The best part of the story for me was when Robert, who was in the habit of relaxing in the garden, was sitting out there taking in the scenery shortly after his mother’s funeral. A female finch (I guess he could tell by her coloring) lighted on the back of a chair at the the table where he was sitting. She looked him squarely in the eyes, and sat there for a period of time that seemed unusually long to him. Thinking of his mother, he wondered…


At one point, Robert was invited to lunch with the director of the Rijksmuseum. The first half hour consisted of a crash course in art history, obviously a warming up for something else. The something else came as the second bottle of wine was poured. “The pictures of President Obama in front of The Night Watch were seen all around the world,” the museum director was saying. “Fantastic free advertising for the product Amsterdam. Why not make use of that? A cookie tin and a t-shirt with Obama and The Night Watch as a background. Who wouldn’t want to have one of those?” When Robert expressed concern over using the image without the president’s permission, the director, jumped on that, noting that there had appeared to be a definite chemistry between Robert and Obama, and wouldn’t Robert contact the President to get his permission? The director said he certainly wouldn’t ask the prime minister to do something like that!


The food is actually the drink. One night Robert was alone in the garden, smoking a cigarette because both his wife and daughter were out, when his daughter Diana surprised him. When he commented on the cigarette, she admitted that she’d known he’d started smoking again since Christmas. He invited her to join him and asked her to bring the bottle of Grasovka from the freezer, and during the conversation that ensued, she told him she had just broken up with her boyfriend. A very sweet father/daughter moment.

Grasovka is a Polish vodka infused with the flavor of bison grass that grows in the Bialowieza national park on the border between Poland and Belarus, where Europe’s last bison still graze.

Grasovka wasn’t available locally, so I used, instead, Zubrowka. At first we tried it chilled stright up to taste the uniqueness of the bison grass flavoring. Then I served it on ice with Stella Artois Cidre, for a refreshing summer cocktail.




There was even a strand of bison grass inside! A deliciously different flavor.