Are you bad in bed, or just bad in the kitchen?

In Date Night In, blogger and former pastry chef Ashley Rodriguez shares her secret for a happy marriage: once a week, she and her husband Gabe put their three children to bed early and enjoy a leisurely dinner together at home. Rodriguez meticulously plans these date nights, from pre-dinner cocktail to dessert, and uses these meals to reconnect with her partner and luxuriate in some adult time together. The cookbook is a collection of twenty-five of these special evening menus, organized by season. Each date is accompanied by a short essay about Ashley and Gabe’s relationship and meaningful meals in their courtship and marriage. Large, attractive photos of dishes and ingredients help to whet the appetite.

As someone much more likely to read a cookbook than an advice book about “nourishing my relationship,” I must admit that my first reaction to reading the “date night in” concept was pretty negative. “Oh great,” I thought. “We finally got that whole family dinner thing under control and now I have another thing to feel guilty about not doing properly. Who has time to prepare an elaborate meal for two each week, between working, running errands and just ensuring the kids don’t starve to death?” I also found the descriptions of Rodriguez and Gabe’s evolving relationship to be rather cloying. From their matching tattoos to his “artistically crafted facial hair,” to the beautifully lit photos of them gazing lovingly at each other, I was a little underwhelmed. Rodriguez’s propensity to say things like “Perhaps he was just loving me well by letting me make him this cake” didn’t help matters much. At one point she chases down an older couple (friends of friends that they had never met previously) to invite for dinner so that she can grill them about how they achieved “a marriage that had maintained joy.” I am all for working on one’s relationship, but Rodriguez seems to take this to another level. She describes how thrilled she is when Gabe surprises her with a Enneagram personality test, so that they can spend the evening filling out a questionnaire and further analyzing their innermost thoughts.

But enough about the relationship therapy, how is the food? Rodriguez does a good job of outlining the steps required to pull off an entire meal, providing a shopping list, timeline for completing some steps up to a few days in advance, and outline of common pantry items required to complete the date. Each recipe usually makes two generous servings, occasionally with leftovers. Her background as a pastry chef shines in some very nice desserts: the chocolate chip cookies finished with sea salt have already made the rounds of the internet (Rodriguez’s blog is called “Not Without Salt”) and are fantastic, chewy and salty and irresistible. Salt also plays a prominent role in a dark chocolate brownie with peanut butter frosting, which is rich and turned out perfectly. I also liked the simple but effective appetizer of heated dates, warmed in olive oil and again finished with sea salt.

These are painstaking meals, with few corners cut. Thai vegetable curry features homemade green curry paste with over a dozen ingredients. The evening meal of hamburgers requires baking homemade buns the day before. The “movie night” date involves drizzling a maple and brown sugar toffee over peanuts and fresh popcorn. A from-scratch version of confetti birthday cake (a gourmet version of the kind that comes from a mix with multicolour chips) requires melting and colouring white chocolate to make the rainbow chips to be included in the icing and batter. The cake was quite delicious, with a sturdy crumb, but I had less luck with the icing, which seemed to have odd proportions and was far too soft to effectively ice a layer cake. For the most part, however, the recipes are clearly described and not daunting, even for less experienced cooks. Rodriguez breaks down even complex tasks like making caramel (for a fantastic tropical-inspired sundae with toasted coconut and caramelized pineapple over vanilla ice cream). I broke the rules of date night in and served this to our whole family, and the kids have demanded it ever since. Rodriguez also has some clever tricks up her sleeve: the recipe for homemade cream soda is dead simple but devastatingly good. As she notes, “this is the sort of recipe that does wonders for your kitchen cred.”

On the savoury side, the honey and sriracha chicken wings were top notch, spicy and sweet and hard to resist. Rodriguez also carefully considers the side dishes and garnishes for each meal. The wings are paired with a wedge salad with bacon blue cheese dressing. Fried chicken is paired with a salad of pickled vegetables and goat cheese. The quick pickle of beets and carrots, made the day before, gave this salad a vibrant crunch and acidic bite to nicely balance fried food. Rodriguez wields a large cast-iron skillet very effectively, making everything from braised citrus pork chilaquiles (sort of like a decadent version of nachos covered in shredded pork and tomatillo salsa) to chicken roasted in butter and herbs.

So in the end, I was won over by the recipes.   The seasonal menus are a nice touch, from the meal of fontina and tomatoes roasted over an open fire in summer to the hot milk punch of cream and bourbon to sip in winter. The “theme” nights like breakfast for dinner featuring orange screwdriver to drink and sausage patties with eggs, or the Flemish Feast of Belgian fries and beef stew with waffles for dessert, are a fun way to elevate everyday cooking with just a bit of extra effort. And despite my initial misgivings and perennial sarcasm, Rodriguez’s assertion that we should make time to regularly celebrate the ones we love over a good meal is a good one. These are tempting and thoughtful menus that may just inspire you to enjoy a date night at home once in a while.

Sarah Elvins is a historian living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She cooks, bakes, knits, reads, runs and nags her three children in her spare time. Sell your books to Powell's indiebound


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Of war, grief, love, and other well-known plot devices

While reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North I found myself repeatedly imagining Richard Flanagan walking into his agent’s office and pitching the novel. After my fantasy Flanagan finishes his synopsis of the plot—a rural Australian doctor is captured by the Japanese during World War II, taken into a POW labor camp that is building the ill-fated railway across Burma, before returning to home, and facing all of the complex psychological issues that any survivor of intense trauma faces—Flanagan’s agent sarcastically begins to list all of the novels and films that have covered the same general thematic and historical territory. Flanagan’s agent then tells him it’s a stupid, clichéd book to write, and to find a new plot. Fantasy Flanagan stomps out of the agent’s office, swearing to write his novel. My fantasy then cuts, dramatically, to ten years later: the Man Booker Prize—and the £50,000 prize that goes with it—has just been awarded to one Richard Flanagan. Cut again to the agent’s face, falling in disbelief, as Flanagan’s novel, in montage, flies off the shelves all over the English-speaking world, and begins to be translated into several additional languages as well.

It didn’t happen that way, of course. Flanagan’s agent, whoever s/he might be, was likely perfectly supportive the entire time, and probably spent the twelve years that Flanagan took to write the novel just wishing that he had hurried up a bit. But I like to picture it this way, simply for all of the times I’ve heard the illiterate and the ignorant dismiss a film or a novel as passé. ‘That’s been done,’ or ‘that sounds an awful lot like. . .’ or ‘Proust covered that territory years ago’ says some under-read graduate student at a party where cold-cuts and squares of bland cheese are being served. Likely these people just need the opportunity to tell us how well-read they are; sounding like you’re not easily pleased by new work is a good way to telegraph your own intelligence (or, perhaps, more likely, your screaming insecurity). Flanagan’s novel, to my mind, demonstrates that it’s not the originality of the plot that matters, but how a story is told that determines its ultimate aesthetic success. Flanagan tells us a love story, he tells us a story of war and torture, and he tells us about the grief that follows these events. Along the way, he manages to tell us something about art. Everything in The Narrow Road to the Deep North been done before—even the title is an outright theft—but rarely have these things been done this beautifully.

The novel is a primarily a love story, although the three different love stories of the novel take very different forms, and reminds us of the strange and diverse conditions that love flourishes under. In the opening section of the novel the young doctor Dorrigo Evans falls in love with his uncle’s young wife Amy. Flanagan perfectly describes the contradictory turmoil and transcendence of falling in love, but these richly erotic scenes also serve as a back-drop for the very different kinds of intimacy that follow in the rest of the novel. In the second section of the novel Flanagan overwhelms the reader with grotesque scenes of PoWs building the Burmese railway as slave labor for the Japanese. These scenes deliberately focus on the male body in a way that would otherwise be erotic; in doing so the scenes capture the masculine intimacy that can develop under circumstances of extreme duress. These men love each other, and that love makes the scenes of pestilence, torture, and death excruciating and lovely. In the closing section of the novel, our hero—who has spent his life cheating on the wife he married in fit of traumatic apathy following the war, and largely ignoring the children he has fathered with her—risks his own life to save his small, neglected family from a raging forest fire. As they drive away from the fire, the doctor and his wife find intimacy, arguably for the first time in their decades-long marriage, and the children get a glimpse of the man who is behind the image of the Australian war hero Evans has been turned into. A favorite scene of mine involves a Greek restaurant owner giving an impromptu dinner to a group of recently returned Australian war veterans. I’m not the writer that Flanagan is–I cannot give you all of the details without sounding maudlin–but trust me: Flanagan gorgeously portrays one of those odd, but fated moments in any human life when a perfect stranger gives you exactly the compassion and understanding that you need. Rarely, if ever, do people say ‘I love you,’ in this novel, and yet the story is suffused with scenes of profound love.

Perhaps because the novel is so grounded in love, it also manages to pull off a compassionate glimpse into post-war Japan. Given the subject and setting of much of the novel—the so-called Japanese ‘death railway,’ for which Japanese officers were later tried for war crimes—it would have been easy to fall into the kind of all too easy racism that accompanies quite a bit of war fiction. But the novel also avoids the kind of artistically dead, politically correct antidote to that realism, which inevitably tries to give its readers deeper motivations for the inhuman and sadistic actions of war criminals in an effort to humanize them. Perhaps it was because I’d reread Eichmann in Jerusalem a few weeks before beginning to read this novel, but I couldn’t help but think that Flanagan’s novel was the perfect accompaniment to Arendt’s meditation on the ‘banality of evil.’ The Japanese officers of this novel are victims, but not the victims of abusive parents, or even of an evil overarching ideology. These individual officers are too weak—as are most of us—to do much of anything except survive the current circumstances of their individual lives. In this sense the Japanese torturers and slave drivers share the same emotional space of the Australian PoWs that they were abusing; the war itself is twisting all of these lives beyond recognition. By the time the Americans arrive on stage in the late scenes of the novel and begin to try these Japanese officers for ‘war-crimes,’—shortly after the Americans themselves have dropped atomic weapons on hundreds of thousands of Japanese non-combatants— the very concept of a ‘war-crime’ has been reduced to all of its offensive absurdity.

The novel also returns to one of Flanagan’s great preoccupations, which is the transcendent nature of art itself. The title is borrowed from the great Japanese Edo-era work of haiku and travel writing, and throughout the novel allusions are made to Tennyson’s great dramatic monologue of post-war malaise, “Ulysses.” Within the novel, a PoW draws beautiful cartoons of the railway and the camp where he eventually dies. Poetry is more than mere representation in the novel; it is more than merely a coping technique for these men broken by hellish circumstances. Poetry—and art itself—is human meaning; creative expression renders those executing, embodying, and remembering art more human, more real, rather than the other way around.

The novel has had its detractors. Michael Hoffman, of the London Review of Books thinks that everyone who likes the book has all of the intelligence of a too easily swindled, slightly drunken tourist. His complaint, at least as near as I could discern through the thick, unnecessarily patronizing attitude: Flanagan occasionally tries to write about moments when a character has an emotion and its contradictory emotion (love/hate) at the same time. Also, Hoffman thinks there were too many adjectives and similes. And sometimes the adjectives were—gasp!—in slightly the wrong place. Anthony Grayling, of the Booker committee that gave Flanagan his life-changing prize, argued that Hoffman’s less than generous review must have been written on a ‘bad haemorrhoid day,’ and that Hoffman apparently could not ‘see quality when it hits him in the face.’ I suggest you read the novel for yourself so that you too may take part in the literary war being waged on high by these two gods of English letters, who reach for childish insults and patronizing attitudes first, and reasoned argument, well, apparently, never. Along the way you might just read a fantastic novel.

Nathan Elliott teaches online English courses for a college in Georgia while residing in Newfoundland. He also, occasionally, tries to write.

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Stone-age Dieting

The Paleo diet has gone from a fringe regimen endorsed by experimental seekers of the latest new thing to a relatively mainstream diet trend. For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, the paleo diet purports that we need to go back to our nutritional roots: the Paleolithic era. Adherents of the diet argue that civilization has encouraged humans to stray from biologically appropriate foods that “cave people” would eat: meat and vegetables, but no grains, no processed foods, few nuts, and no sugar. Early press coverage of the movement featured hipsters eating all-meat diets (often raw) in between extreme workouts involving kettlebells and sprints through the city streets, in an effort to regain the vitality of their hunter-gatherer forebearers. Nom Nom Paleo is a sign of just how far this movement has come. It is written by a husband-and-wife team, creators of a popular food blog with a legion of fans. Michelle Tam presents the Paleo diet as a way for families to eat healthier and reject the over-processed foods crowding supermarket shelves. The cookbook is filled with attractive photographs of finished dishes and stages in cooking, as well as funny, silly cartoons drawn by her husband Henry Fong showing the couple and their two children cooking and eating. Tam describes her own discovery of the Paleo path (“My Name is Michelle and I’m a Foodaholic”) as a working mother trying to improve her fitness level while working full time as a pharmacist and raising two small boys. The book makes the Paleo lifestyle slightly less intimidating and more approachable, and contains enough interesting ideas that even cooks not fully embracing the diet’s strictures – like me! – can find recipes worth trying.

In the beginning of the book, Tam outlines the “red light foods,” including all processed foods, dairy, grains, legumes, alcohol, and sugars, which are excluded from Paleo cooking. Even fruit is viewed only a “yellow light food,” good occasionally but prone to spike blood sugar levels. Nuts and seeds, which nutritionists and vegetarians routinely praise for their high protein and fibre content, here are said to require soaking, sprouting and dehydrating in order to make them ready for human consumption (Tam claims that nuts and seeds are something “nature didn’t intend for us to eat in large quantities,” which is a hard claim to either prove or disprove). All animal proteins, in contrast, are given the green light, although Tam does state that organic and grass-fed meats are preferable for ethical and environmental reasons. Vegetables, fermented foods, and healthy cooking fats like coconut oil round out the acceptable components of the diet.

I must admit that even after reading Nom Nom Paleo I remain skeptical about some of the nutritional claims of the diet. I have no doubt that Tam and Fong lost weight and improved their health by adopting the Paleo lifestyle. Cutting down on processed foods and sugar and cooking from scratch likely played a huge role in these changes. But this type of cooking requires a high level of commitment, one that is not realistic for many cooks and families. Swearing off not only gluten but all grains, dairy, alcohol, and most sweeteners would completely remake the pantries and daily dishes enjoyed by most North American families. To claim that rice and beans might actually be harmful and not suitable for human consumption, rather than nutritious, strikes me as the ultimate kind of first-world privileged selectivity. Similarly, a diet with so much animal protein is a luxury that most people around the globe could never afford. To be fair, however, Tam is never dogmatic about her approach and instead tries to emphasize the benefits of eating naturally occurring ingredients. And the frequent jokes and asides make Tam a likeable evangelist for this new style of cuisine.

There is no doubt that Tam is earnest about how this diet has transformed her life, but she also maintains that Paleo food can be delicious, so that adherents don’t feel like they are missing out on anything. So to an admitted Paleo skeptic, how were the recipes? On the whole, I found this a creative approach to cooking that provides some interesting new tricks for an old dog like me in the kitchen. The cartoons and clear illustrations accompany direct instructions for everything from searing meat to selecting kitchen tools. Tam is a master of coaxing umami – that elusive fifth, savoury taste alongside sweet, salty, sour and bitter – from dishes using mushrooms, fish sauce and miso. She includes a genius recipe for “Magic Mushroom Powder”, a powder of dried porcini mushrooms and spices that can be dusted on dishes for an extra blast of flavour. Other pantry staples including sriracha and mayonnaise get Paleo makeovers, and condiments like pineapple salsa, lemon honey sauce and remoulade further challenge any sense that the diet must be bland or monotonous. Not all of the substitutions are as promising. I understand that processed potato chips are a dietary nightmare (salt, fat and carbs – that’s also why they are irresistible). Tam suggests using kale, Brussel sprouts, apples and mushrooms to make chips, or prosciutto to make baked “porkitos”. While the instructions were clear, I have little reason to believe my kids will be sitting down in front of the t.v. with a big bowl of kale anytime soon. The riceless crab and avocado temaki rolls are rich, but to me would just be so much better with a little sushi rice slipped in.

The section on soups is dynamite, with a delicious and complex broth recipe using assorted beef and pork bones, mushrooms and ginger. The broth forms the basis of a delicious egg drop soup (West Lake Soup) or a spicy Mulligatawny variation. Also creative is a riceless fried “rice” that uses cauliflower in place of the ubiquitous carb. I made the variation with coconut milk and pineapple, which was tasty and quick (full disclosure: my kids, who usually love fried rice, were not fans). Tam’s Chinese background led her to experiment with classic dishes like walnut prawns, but she displays a well-travelled palate with dishes like Peruvian chicken with chili sauce, Korean short ribs and lamb chops with chimichurri. There is a very limited section of so-called “treats” that includes virtuous desserts like a pureed berry “soup” and a thoughtful essay about why Tam has decided not to attempt to recreate traditional baked goods or indulgences with Paleo-friendly ingredients and instead largely eliminated sweets entirely from her family’s diet. Tam and Fong’s self-discipline is admirable, but I must admit to feeling a twinge of sadness in reading that her two sons “literally dance around the house” on weekends when they are finally allotted a grain-free cookie or bowl of berry puree. Tam reassures readers that after a while those embracing this diet find their tastes shift so that they crave the clean, healthy flavours of the Paleo diet. She includes photos of the lunches she sends with her boys to school, including sandwiches where two pieces of roast beef act as the bread for a filling of mushrooms. These are colourful and creative but I still can’t help feeling like I would want to smuggle these kids a brownie once in a while.

Sarah Elvins is a historian living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She cooks, bakes, knits, reads, runs and nags her three children in her spare time.

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How ‘The Bone Clocks’ Destroyed my Book Review Blog

This is not so much a review, as it is a confession to my fellow reviewers, who tried to help me make this blog work this past summer and fall. Any review, by me, of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks must begin with the acknowledgement that I am a fan-boy of sort of the writer’s work. Over a decade ago, I discovered, in the “Briefly Noted” book review section of The New Yorker, a short paragraph about Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas. Something about the review caught my eye, and I sought out the novel. If my life were a movie, that little paragraph would signal the music swelling in the ‘meet-cute’ section of a rom-com, where I fell desperately in love with the work of a new writer. A few weeks later, while spending a quiet week on houseboat on a lake in British Columbia, I quickly devoured Cloud Atlas. Just as quickly I tracked down copies of Number 9 Dream and Ghostwritten, and I have spent every year since then anxiously hoping that a new David Mitchell novel would come out. I don’t reread much anymore, or at least, I don’t reread much outside of my professional obligations, but I have read Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green three times, and I will likely revisit his other novels again at some other point. It’s difficult to pin down what it is about Mitchell’s writing that I enjoy the most. He mixes genres in a way that my mind—all too meta—probably finds satisfying. He has a sense of humor that suggests he could write purely comic novels if he so pleased. Those sections of Cloud Atlas that are unapologetically science-fiction, are, to my mind, some of the best science-fiction that has been written. His nods in Black Swan Green to his patroness of the genre, Ursula K. LeGuin, strike me as enormously appropriate.

But beyond those reasons, it is likely Mitchell’s use of the human voice that I find most intriguing. At times I think Mitchell is the reincarnation of Robert Browning, able to create a living a human voice ex nihlo, as it were, and make his audience believe in the reality of that character. Within a few lines of a Mitchell novel, much as you might find in “My Last Duchess,” or “The Bishop Orders his Tomb,” a character comes to live before your eyes. What they are saying suggests everything about them: their body language as they say it, their personal history, their cultural history. The voice is the character, and you follow that voice for the sheer joy of following it.

So there it was, The Bone Clocks, last fall, delivered to me promptly after it was published, pre-ordered months in advance; the book I had been waiting almost four years to read. I’d read some advance reviews which were not kind: many seemed to think that Mitchell had fallen off his game. “It’s no Cloud Atlas” pouted one reviewer. Internally, the fan-boy in me pouted right back: “It’s not fair to chain an author to one piece of work for the rest of his life. Let the guy write some new things, for god’s sake, and don’t slam him for not writing the same damn thing over and over again.”

Still, I began reading somewhat more cautiously than I normally would. The opening chapter certainly did everything that I hoped it would: a teenage Irish girl, living in England in the 1980s, sprang to life before my eyes, boyfriend troubles and nagging Mother included. As the chapter closed, a surprisingly super-natural plot was also set up. The novel progressed through the decades, switching characters. Most of the chapters were nothing less than fantastic; favorite characters included a bad boy British novelist who seemed loosely based on Martin Amis, and a spoiled-rotten Cambridge university student. Mitchell, much like Browning, seems to be at his comic best when creating characters who have the dubious morality that all too often accompanies wealth and privilege. A lot of the other hallmarks of a Mitchell novel were there as well; there were sly allusions to his other novels, allusions that helped to suggest a larger universe in which all of the flotsam and jetsam of Mitchell’s mind exist. A sharp eye for current social trends, and the troubling places those trends might be taking us, was also present.

It all would have been good, perhaps, except for that one troubling chapter that just really sucked. Well, even then, it didn’t completely stink. It just didn’t quite work. And in as much as any artistic work must rely on the weakest links in its fictional chain to survive, it tore at the fabric of the whole. Why it didn’t work is difficult for me to say; I could say that the paranormal plot finally succeeded in stretching my suspension of disbelief too far, and I started looking behind the curtain at the ropes and pulleys that were making the Wizard of Oz appear. But why, exactly, did that chapter do that? Mitchell has taken me far into future dystopias; he has wrapped my head around paranoid, surreal Japanese mafia plots; he has made any number of fantastic and strange things living realities for me. Why did this weird chapter that seemed partially borrowed from a not especially inspired Harry Potter climax irritate me so much? To the point that the rest of the novel became somewhat difficult to swallow, and I snapped at family members who brought the subject up?

I was, in short, a disappointed little fan-boy. I needed to review the book for this blog, if for no other reason to keep providing content for the blog I had started. I procrastinated, not wanting to write the review. I tried to defend the novel to my wife; that very act is a sign of my pathetic defensiveness; she has never read Mitchell, and really couldn’t care less, and yet I harangued her with reasons we should all love Mitchell, bringing up the subject at completely inappropriate points during our dinner-time conversation. When my father sent me some texts asking about the novel, I sent defensive texts right back at him, typing in a manner—a manner that can really only be called shrill—typing into my cell phone that the critics were punishing Mitchell for being ambitious. December and January crawled by, and plumbing problems, work problems, Christmas, and any number of other petty concerns with life kept me from confronting the fact, in print, that I was a bit disappointed. Why take books this seriously? Why take any one author this seriously? The funny thing is that the very thing that would lead me to want to review books—a borderline obsession for fiction—is the very thing that killed it. I desperately wanted this book to be better than it was, and today, in a moment of clarity, it suddenly seems that I have been throwing a three-month fit about that fact. Fan-boys should not review the subjects of their affection. The Bone Clocks is still worth reading, by the way. That’s the ultimate joke here. You’ll read it, and you’ll probably like it, because you’re not anywhere near as emotionally invested in this book as I was before I even started reading it.

Nathan Elliott teaches composition and literature in Georgia while living in Newfoundland, using the powers of the internet. He spends the rest of his time consciously refraining from writing embarrassingly emotional fan letters to David Mitchell, Jess Walter, David James Duncan, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Sherman Alexie indiebound Sell your books to Powell's

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Stop snickering at British cuisine and tuck in

Jamie Oliver has grown from his “Naked Chef” days as a BBC wunderkind to an internationally recognized chef, restauranteur, and food advocate. It is now sometimes hard to remember a time when the concept of British cuisine was greeted with snickers rather than excitement, and brought to mind boiled veg and unseasoned meat rather than culinary delights. Oliver has been a big part of this transformation, and his latest cookbook continues his promotion of unpretentious, homey, and delicious food. I have cooked from a range of Oliver’s books over the years, and dishes consistently turn out, no mean feat for a “celebrity” cookbook. His newest offering, Jamie’s Comfort Food, offers 100 recipes, and many full-page photographs of preparation and final plates. These are indulgent, often time-consuming but generally not-too-technically-challenging dishes, perfect for casual entertaining or a special family meal.

While some of Oliver’s other cookbooks recently have been directed at novices, this one is more for competent home cooks who might want to embark on an ambitious cooking project in order to bring something showstopping to the table. He revisits and adds a twist to some classic British dishes: the pub favourite toad in the hole is accompanied with a separate pan of Yorkshire pudding and rich onion gravy. Oliver promised that this dish for eight could be produced in an hour, and we managed to get this on the table on a weeknight, no problem. North American cooks may be less familiar with dishes like “Mum’s Smoked Haddock,” but Oliver’s gigantic shepherd’s pie or winter’s night chili with chickpeas are sure to be a crowd pleasers.

He offers clear and detailed instructions so it is not too intimidating to tackle brining and then southern-frying chicken, or fiddling with choux pastry to make chocolate profiteroles. Multi-stage recipes like beef Wellington are accompanied by a two-page photo spread that does not include written instructions but nicely provides a sense of how things should look at crucial moments (sadly, my own beef Wellington was a little less pretty but still very tasty).

Even so, projects like the chicken shawarma might require getting a group of friends together to cook – and I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing. Oliver describes building a firepit, threading sixteen marinated chicken thighs on skewers, and turning them over the heat constantly for over an hour. Meanwhile, another part of the firepit is devoted to cooking homemade flatbreads. The final dish, with hummus, tabbouleh, and pickled vegetables, looks delicious but I imagine that this would be a dish I made once a summer, and only when I had some other willing cooks on hand.  And Oliver kind of lost me in describing making kielbasa using a smoker fashioned out of a garbage can. I tried to imagine drilling holes in the can, finding oak logs that I would then burn into cinders, regulating the heat and smoke and finding a dowel to hang the sausages…not to mention stuffing 10 feet of sausage casings with a pork shoulder that I ground myself. Oliver says that this would take 4 hours to complete, but I could see this stretching into a weekend of smoky haze (and admittedly, probably very delicious sausage).

Beyond traditional English fare, Oliver includes a range of dishes reflecting the ethnic and immigrant communities that are vibrant contributors to the food scene in Britain. Pho, chicken satay, ramen, Egyptian kushari, Indonesian nasi goreng, and black lentil daal are all large, comforting and homey dishes designed to leave a group of diners (including both adults and children) full and happy. At the back of the book, a nutritional breakdown for each dish including calories, fat, carbs, and sugar reveals the only drawback of these indulgent dinners. Note to self: go for a run the day we make the overnight roasted pork shoulder (966 calories). But while some of the dishes are clearly intended to be occasional treats, Oliver also includes recipes for simple, pleasing dishes like bacon sarnies or heuevos rancheros, so that you can whip up a comforting dish in a hurry if necessary. I wouldn’t say that presentation is Oliver’s strong suit – anyone who has watched his television programs knows he is a fan of smearing food on a large board and plonking into the middle of the table for people to “tuck in” – yet many of the photos in this book inspire you to take on a project like making homemade gnudi (a ricotta ravioli with no pasta coating) or the chocolate, orange and sponge Jaffa layer cake. Oliver includes some recipes for drinks and treats like salted caramel ice cream. This is an attractive, wide-ranging cookbook that will offer inspiration for entertaining and shows just why Jamie Oliver remains such a force in the food world.

Sarah Elvins is a historian living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She cooks, bakes, knits, reads, runs and nags her three children in her spare time.

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Why you should be reading about Nazis during Christmas.

Adolf Hitler, the Nazi Party, the Holocaust, and the rise of the Third Reich have left humanity with a number of seemingly impossible moral questions. Evil on the scale of Hitler, carried out by an organized, industrialized, seemingly enlightened country, left the planet reeling in the decades that followed the war, and we, as a species are still dealing with the moral and intellectual aftermath: America’s military intervention in several international crises in my own lifetime seem to have been at least partially motivated—or justified—by the desire the avoid the kind of moral paralysis demonstrated by the Allies in the early days of World War II. The specter of Neville Chamberlain, as much as Hitler himself, has been repeatedly used to goad us into action. Of all of these problems, Hitler himself may be the easiest to solve: a broken, bitter man, turned sociopathic by either circumstances or nature, is not necessarily in and of itself an unusual circumstance, as the occurrence of serial killers and serial rapists would indicate. The real moral conundrum of the twentieth-century—as Hannah Arendt began to realize while attending the trial in Jerusalem of a mid-level Nazi in 1961—lies in a much more unassuming, even banal figure: Adolf Eichmann.

For when we consider Eichmann, as Arendt asked us to do in a series of New Yorker articles later turned into this book, we get at the heart of the Nazi difficulty. We are no longer asking the question, “Why did Hitler exist?” or “How do we keep another Hitler from happening?” We are asking “How, and why, did Hitler manage to get control of a major democratic European country, turn it into a massive war machine, come to control most of Europe, and turn the state apparatus into a bureaucratic tool for destroying Jews, Gypsies, and other groups? How was a madman allowed to destroy the centuries-old European Jewish culture in the matter of a few short years? Why did much of Europe and North America remain complacent, even complicit, for so long? Why did Germany so readily accept someone so clearly mentally ill as their leader for so long?” Even more complex moral and intellectual questions begin to emerge: “Why did so many Jewish people go so willingly to their own slaughter? Why did the Jewish leadership in many European communities act in concert with Nazi officials?” These last questions are the most charged, and in asking them, Arendt opened herself up a controversy that has not fully died down since she published the articles, and the subsequent book.

Eichmann forces these questions on us, because most of us, encountering a similar man in our everyday lives, would not consider ourselves to have met a moral monster. Arendt’s book leads us to believe that we do, in fact, meet the moral equivalents of Adolf Eichmann on a regular basis. We work with Eichmann, we are related to Eichmann, we may be Eichmann, depending on the situation. Eichmann was a loving father and a decent husband (by the standards of the time). He did his job—at least most of the time—to the best of his ability, and followed the orders and dictates of his superiors according to the best understanding of his own conscience. He wanted to advance in the ranks of his own society, but he did not have delusions of world-conquering grandeur. In the early days of the war, he worked hard to find the Jewish people a new home, one where that endlessly displaced people of Europe—suddenly made a problem by the Nazi party’s paranoid immigration policies and the pseudo-science that informed Nazi anti-Semitism—could “get some firm ground under them.” Eichmann read Zionist classics, and entered fully into the problems the diaspora had faced. When Adolf Hitler proposed the ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish question,’—namely physical extermination—Eichmann grew increasingly depressed and despondent in his job. His moral judgment was at least sharp enough to realize that organizing massive deportations of people to death camps put him in questionable moral territory.

And yet, he continued to perform his job. And in doing so, he did what much of Europe did during this period: they obeyed clearly morally questionable orders, rather than listening to their own individual conscience. Perhaps even more terrifying, Arendt proposes, Germans, and many of the countries and peoples who came under their control learned to distrust their own human conscience, seeing the clearly moral option instead as a moral temptation, one to be avoided and suppressed in the morally topsy-turvy world that Hitler and his loyal henchmen had created. When Eichmann obeyed and implemented the dictates of the Final Solution, he was, in many ways, being a good person by his own moral light. For trusting yourself to the moral and intellectual consciences of your superiors was seen as being moral. Eichmann, throughout his own trial, claimed he had a clear conscience, and the Israeli psychiatric experts who examined him proclaimed him to be perfectly normal. In order to be a Nazi murderer, one need not be a psychopathic madman. In the figure of Eichmann we learn that in order to be key in organizing the transportation and execution of millions of Jews, one need only be too complacent to fight the prevailing moral fashions. One need only be a little too interested in advancing one’s career (for the sake of your family, of course). One need only want to be able to do your job, and be left in relative peace. You only need to desire not to have to think too much about the moral aspect of the job you are involved in, or perhaps be a bit too eager to let yourself off the moral hook for the institutional actions in which you are helping to bring about.

The words ‘Nazi’ and ‘Fascist’ are tossed around far too easily these days; political disciples of both major parties enjoy the cheap moral satisfaction that comes with implying that the current president—if he is of the opposite political persuasion—is the reincarnation of Hitler. The analogies are weak and silly at best, and, at worst, are harmful to a true understanding of the evil that caused so much destruction in the middle of the twentieth-century. These questions also keep us obsessed with charismatic leaders, finding moral blame and praise to give them, according to how much we agree with their policies. We get to feel like ‘good people,’ in praising, or condemning, the actions of remote leaders who have little bearing on our own lives; we simultaneously get to get on with our own jobs, our own little lives, advancing our own careers, loving our families, and ignoring whatever institutional evils we may actually be helping to engender.

This may seem like a strange book to review, or even recommend, right in the middle of the winter holiday season, when our thoughts are supposed to turn to lighter, pleasanter subjects. I’ve read this book, in various formats, three times in the past three years—I’ll be teaching in in the spring—and I’m surprised at the moral optimism I often gain from reading it. The quality and clarity of Arendt’s moral vision—not to mention her complex, but clear prose—is reassuring in a world that still seems all too determined to rush headlong into moral madness. If you want reassurance that moral clarity is at least possible, even in the face of mind-numbing evil, then this book may prove to be an oddly appropriate holiday choice.

Nathan Elliott teaches composition and literature in Georgia while living in Newfoundland, using the powers of the internet, and worries about the institutional evil he participates in by doing so. 


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Jewels, Cleopatra, and Kid Detectives: what more do you want?

In a book full of suspense, mystery, friendship and fun, Lexi McGill, her brother, Kevin, and Kim Ling Levine try to solve the robbery of what has been called “the find of the century.” They’re in for a big surprise! After the discovery of jewels, possibly dating back to Cleopatra herself, the Cairo Museum ships them over to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Within twenty-four hours they have disappeared from the museum.

While their father and his new wife honeymoon across the Atlantic Ocean, Lexi and Kevin McGill have hopes of spending a restful summer with their Aunt Roz. When Lexi overhears two suspicious men in the Whispering Gallery talking about “burying the jewels”, she listens closer. She hears something about “under the grand…”, and “take care of the moles”, which are clearly the homeless people who take shelter in the abandoned station under Grand Central. After that, the only other words that she hears are “shoot”, “needle”, “park”, and what sounds like “oval disk”.

And then there’s Kim Ling, Aunt Roz’s neighbor. A blooming journalist, she immediately befriends Lexi, who is not so confident about the black Lincoln van parked across the street. Did the burglars, or whoever they are, follow her home?

Who is Benjamin Deets? Why did one of the men in in the Whispering Gallery have inky fingers? Will Lexi get the $250,000 reward? Who are the mysterious men? Where are the jewels? Well, if you want to know the answers to these questions, There’s only one way for you to find out! Read this amazing mystery by John J. Bonk.

Bonk has been a musical comedy performer, but he turned to writing and now describes himself as “performing on the page.” His other books include Dustin Grubbs: One-Man Show, and the sequel, Dustin Grubbs: Take Two.

Madhattan Mystery is a great book with a funky twist at the end, and another funky twist at the very end!

Emmet Ebels Duggan just started the 4th grade in Evanston, Illinois. When not playing baseball, he likes to spend his time solving algebra equations and reading.

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Is your pie crust recipe falsifiable?

The art of cooking is actually the science of chemistry, and chemistry demands proof by way of experimentation. This textbook-style cookbook by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated and Guy Crosby provides it. Not just for the Alton Browns among us, it is for anyone who has despaired over a rubbery pot roast, has wondered if there is an easy middle ground between ‘crunchy’ and ‘grey’ when it comes to broccoli, or dares to hope that the surface of homemade cheesecake might not have to resemble a meteor-struck landscape with its indentations and cracks. There is surely something for every devoted-but-not-infallible cook in this hefty, surprisingly reasonable (under $30) volume. The book explains fifty separate concepts (e.g. ‘Concept 13: Salty Marinades Work Best’) that cover the effects of heat, moisture, time, fat, sugar, acid, and salt on food along with instructions on how to manipulate these variables to the most delicious effect. The presentation of each concept adopts a common formula: a page-long discussion of the science, a description of a test-kitchen experiment in which identical ingredients are treated differently, and the results. For example, we learn under Concept 13 that, among other things, salt ‘restructures the protein molecules in the meat, creating gaps that fill with water to increase juiciness’; an experiment involving the comparison of a plain, baked chicken breast with other breasts marinated in four different sauces (wiped off before baking) follows; and the conclusion is made that marinades add very little flavour, but salt improves texture. Recipes employing the concepts follow. Illustrations, charts, and photographs drive home the importance of ingredients, temperature, and time in cooking, often forcefully: a lumpy, sugarless sherbet looks positively grotesque next to the smooth creaminess of its well-sugared counterpart; a delicate omelet crushed beneath a two-pound weight demonstrates the value of using butter by stark comparison with its resilient, weight-lifting, butterless sibling.

Thanks to the concepts, hockey puck hamburgers have been forever banished from my repertoire and eating pork chops is no longer a marathon of chewing. My holy dread of salting dried beans before cooking them has been exposed as mere superstition and I am now a convert to the school that expounds soaking beans in weak brine. I have learned why my potatoes sometimes go green and that resting my pancake batter for 10 minutes before frying makes them better (this is true even when I use my old recipe instead of the one in the book). Every recipe I have tried has been good, many of them very good, and some of them even great: the pizza dough, a revelation of simplicity and deliciousness, has rescued my pizza stone from lonely disuse. Pesto, once a dark and slimy disappointment, has returned to me green and pungent. ‘Chicken en cocotte’, which is a chicken, an onion, a carrot, a stick of celery, and a few garlic cloves baked in the oven for two hours at 250 F, the sort of recipe I would have formerly imagined as promising little except salmonella, is as well-cooked and succulent as promised.

I will not spoil the excitement of discovery for everyone else by listing other winners. Yet all is not perfect. Since it is more of a cooking book than a recipe book, it rewards the one who reads from front to back rather than flipping pages. The index is unwieldy; finding recipes a second time can be a frustrating experience. Readers will soon notice that ‘ultimate’ and ‘classic’ vie for the position of Favourite Descriptive Adjective in recipe titles. This, along with the science-as-panacea aura to the title, sometimes promises more than is delivered. The ‘Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie’, for example, which involves browning the butter, several rounds of ‘resting’ the batter, and an orphaned egg white, is merely good enough. In the editors’ pursuit of ‘chewy’, they have provided instructions on how to make a homemade cookie that approximates nothing so much as a high-quality store-bought cookie. Is this an irony or an intention? The instruction to make cookies as big as dessert plates suggests the latter. Whose grandmother ever made chocolate chip cookies bigger than the palm of a child’s hand? It is in fact at these collisions of science and nostalgia that the book falls down. It is at its best when it explains why some traditional recipes or preparations are so pleasing; for example, the fantastic recipes for breads imitate Italian and French baking with their few ingredients, wet doughs, long rises, and hot ovens. The book is least successful when it attempts to make ‘ultimate’ dishes that have long been much simpler (and more delicious) by the addition of complicated steps, many dirty dishes, and little bits of lots of ingredients. The recipe for pie crust, for example, involves butter, shortening, vodka, and a food processor to gain the effect that (in my humble opinion) could be gained simply by using lard, water, and your fingers.

Still, this has become the book that I consult the most frequently for method even when I do not follow the recipes: the results of my old favourite recipes have been improved in countless ways, often by things that I formerly dismissed as inconsequential, such as letting a bread dough rest for a few minutes or adding the salt at the penultimate stage or altering the oven temperature by 25 degrees. Although it is not worth the time or effort to yield to it in every instance, science does indeed have much to offer the art of cooking.

Pauline Ripat brines beans in Winnipeg, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

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Blowing up the George Lucas Canon (In a Good Way)


A New Dawn is the first Star Wars novel to excite me since High School. They are pedestrian at best in their writing, and I always had better books to read. However, this novel, and the cartoon Rebels featuring the same characters, are the first introduction to the new post-Lucas Star Wars universe under Disney. As The Empire Strikes Back (and the Clone Wars, and Knights of the Old Republic) prove, Star Wars is best the less George Lucas has to do with it. As an unrepentant fanboy, I couldn’t wait to see what was in store.

A Note on Star Wars Canon

For those of you who don’t care, skip this section. But Star Wars canon (or, more accurately, its demise) was a big reason for my excitement about this book. I used to work for a gaming company that published Star Wars material, and canon mattered a great deal.

All Star Wars information ever presented publically in anything was put into a database known as the Holocron and assigned one of five levels of veracity. Each level of canon superseded the levels below in legitimacy if there were contradictions. The most recent versions of the films were the ultimate canon (G-canon, IE George canon). That meant yes, Greedo still shot first.

The whole canon idea was a valiant, well-intentioned mess.

Disney did away with canon. They announced the movies and Clone Wars cartoons were immovable objects, and put all previous material under the “Legendary” heading. New books, movies, shows, comics and games will be coordinated. That means boo, no Heir to the Empire, yay, no Vector Prime and double yay, no more canon chaos. Everything new is planned and holds equal weight in Star Wars history.

If you skipped the above section, you had a significant other way before I did.

The (Spoiler Free) Plot

A New Dawn takes place twenty years after Revenge of the Sith. The Jedi have been hunted to near extinction and the Republic has fully transformed into the Galactic Empire. Kanan Jarrus, a Jedi padawan who escaped death during the purge, is now a sarcastic drifter plagued by the death of the entire Jedi order. He survives by hiding his Jedi skills and never forming attachments, moving constantly from job to job. On the distant mining world Gorse he encounters a Twi’lek pilot named Hera who is gathering intel for the nascent Rebellion. She follows the cyborg Count Vidian, an Imperial bureaucrat dispatched to squeeze every resource from Gorse for the new Imperial armada. Vidian’s tactics against the local populace are brutal, and soon Kanan and Hera lead a small group of locals to save the planet and thwart Vidian’s plans.

The Verdict

The prose itself is unassuming and straightforward, which is to be expected. But I don’t consume Star Wars to appreciate the art. I consume it for the adventure, the grand sweep of a space opera in a galaxy far, far away. To my glee, A New Dawn delivers as promised.

Kanan and Hera are both well fleshed-out characters with clear motivations and backgrounds. Both, but Hera in particular, are mysterious enough that the cartoon has ample room to expand. Kanan plays the rogue well, trying to remain flippant and aloof while unable to hide his altruistic bent, or shed his inner pain. His struggle to obscure his Jedi abilities struggles with the reader’s wish to see him throw stuff around with the Force and whip out his lightsaber. The two protagonists are robust enough that I can forgive the “unrequited love interest by the boy” relationship stereotype. The characters stand well on their own.

Count Vidian is not your stock “more machine than man” villain, either. At first I recoiled at him being an efficiency administrator (horrors of Episode One “trade disputes” and other boring conflicts still haunt me), but when his first act of efficiency is to beat an incompetent middle manager to death in front of his stormtroopers, my fears evaporated. He embodies the terror of the Empire in all its dark, ruthless glory. His backstory and motivations also lend him an element of sympathy, which all good villains need. When other rival players in the Empire start back-stabbing him for their own gain, at times you root for Vidian to prevail–even if prevailing means he blows up an entire planet.

The supporting cast is just as engaging. Not only do the two protagonists’ accomplices stand well on their own, they also represent archetypes of the galaxy’s rebels. Some are more than willing to fight, some only do so when the Empire wrongs them, and some are forced into rebellion and are reluctant to the very end. The characters in this book are a microcosm of the Rebellion itself. Those on the side of the Empire serve as the same, from ambitious captains to government stooges to leaders not afraid to betray a rival for their own gain.

All this works within an adventure yarn that never slows down. This is a page turner, moving swiftly from crisis to crisis in every storyline. It also maintains a gritty and dark edge that I found welcome. The ever-present Empire is always spying to catch dissidents, always preparing to crush opposition, always there to enforce its will. The novel portrays the forces of evil in a more deadly light than any of the Star Wars prequels did.

Star Wars: A New Dawn is no scholarly piece of literature, but it has no aspiration to be. It’s a fun, fast-paced space adventure in a galaxy desperate for a refresh. It checks all the boxes that a Star Wars story needs to. If this novel is the blueprint for things to come, this galaxy far, far away is getting brighter and brighter.

William Reid Schmadeka is a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home father of three. When not writing, editing or reading sci fi and fantasy (or changing diapers and cleaning up after a toddler), he loves cooking and playing board games.

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Star Wars, The Wonder Years, and what went wrong with your parents: Min Kamp’s prequel.

Boyhood Island begins with a scene from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s childhood that he can’t possibly remember. He is an infant, and his parents, still quite young, are arriving at the place that will serve as boyhood home until early adolescence. The scene lasts only a few pages, but its inclusion in this novel is a reminder to the reader, and perhaps to himself, that this book is not autobiography, or even memoir. We are reading a novel, a novel generated by the materials of the novelist’s own life, but a novel all the same. This may be nonfiction, but Knausgaard is imposing an arc on his own life. In the vocabulary of silly American movie blockbusters, this volume is the prequel. Or in the parlance of the golden age of Hollywood, this book functions as a giant flashback.

Narrative regression—whether in Star Wars or in high literature—usually functions in the opposite way to our usual understanding of narrative. We have been given the ending, now we are going back to the beginning, with the ending in mind. Such a beginning, in many cases, only has narrative value if we know the ending. Otherwise meaningless incidents take on narrative significance. Small gestures, a word said in anger, a lost swimming cap, a glass of wine too many, are all freighted with the knowledge of what will happen twenty, thirty years later. In Aristotle’s classic understanding of the beginning, middle and end of any story, these beginnings become the middle, or even in some rare cases the end. And thus Knausgaard puts his beginning squarely in the middle of his own autobiographical arc.

Perhaps Star Wars comes to mind, however bizarre a connection that might be, because we discover in Book 3, that, much like George Lucas’s space opera, My Struggle is a six-volume meditation on the Oedipus Complex that began in medias res. A Death in the Family covered the gruesome death of Knausgaard’s father from alcoholism in its purest, most suicidal form. That novel  hinted at his father’s abuse of his sons, his near near manic need for control. Book 3 takes us back to those moments when a television becomes the battleground to maintain ironclad domination over a small boy. Sons mount their defiance in the only way that they know how, using only the petty, yet strangely vicious weapons afforded to offspring. The mother is a warm  presence, and as readers we long for the absence of the father so that we can enjoy her comforting embrace in peace.

The novel should not be understood only in these overly earnest terms, however: I laughed long and hard while reading this book. Much of the book can be understood as a coming of age story of the artist, a Küntslerroman, and a hilarious and beautiful one at that. Knausgaard does not shy away from the most embarrassing moments of his own childhood. A good chunk of the novel is about his kindergarten year, and he captures all of the hilarity of such an early age. First encounters with porn, first girlfriends, his own self-satisfaction at his literary skills in elementary school: much of the novel reads like relentless self-mockery. He also perfectly renders the intensely sensual world that children live in, the way that their lack of clearly developed social priorities allow them to be in the physical world in a way that adults—with their constant social preoccupations and anxieties—rarely can. The pop-culture antecedent in the English speaking world is The Wonder Years, but Knausgaard writes with a white-hot honesty that that sticky-sweet piece of sitcom nostalgia was never able to achieve.

Layered among these aspects of the novel is a meditation on a profound generational split. The radical shift between the World War 2 generation (Knausgaard’s grandparents) and the Baby Boomers (Knausgaard’s parents) makes for a haunting leitmotif within the novel. Especially on Knaugaard’s mother’s side, we see an earlier, more rural, agrarian community that put a lot of emphasis on the extended family. Knausgaard’s parents, for good and for ill, are moving into the consumer-based culture that framed much of the boomers’ early adulthood. Neighborhood developments replace farms, nuclear families replace extended family, and work animals are discarded in favor of pets. Knausgaard is only a few years older than myself, and like much of my generation, he seems to be reaching middle-age, looking at his grandparents and parents, and asking “What the hell happened?

Before I read Knausgaard’s work, I was tempted to dismiss My Struggle as a bizarrely ambitious work of utter narcissism, a self-indulgent hymn celebrating everything that was wrong with my generation and the one that came after it. After having read the first three volumes of Min Kamp, I’ve come to the conclusion that these books are an important and honest look at our current age, and at my own generation. Knausgaard’s own life might be the canvas, but our social zeitgeist is what is actually being rendered. We stand on the cusp of a new age, and Knausgaard’s alchemical blend of the elements of autobiography and fiction may be the perfect artistic herald. Much like the Romantic poets anticipated and participated in an age of revolution, upheaval, migration, chaos, and backlash, Knausgaard’s narrative art provides perspective on an age when we are reconceiving the concept of the individual self yet again.

Nathan Elliott works in Georgia, lives in Newfoundland, and spends much of his time taking care of a small, beautiful boy. 

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