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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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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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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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A Simple Tale about a Girl, and Adult, and a Robot.

The Search for WondLa is definitely one of my favorite books ever.

It describes the dangerous journey that Eva Nine–inspired by a picture of a girl, an adult, and a robot with the strange letters Wond   L   a       printed at the bottom–takes to try to find other humans. Set on the planet Orbona a thousand years in the future, a girl (Eva), a robot (acronym: MUTHR), and an alien (Rovender Kitt) must face a bounty hunter, deadly mantis-like giants, and many other dangers. Eva will learn from Rovender things such as how Orbona came to be and about its inhabitants. There are several times when Rovender says that he must go back home to his tribe, where he is unwelcome. He tells Eva that he must reconcile himself with them. Eva never knows when he will leave, and neither will YOU until you read the book.

This is a great book for ages 9 and up. It has a few hard-to-read words in it, but I caught on pretty quickly. I hope you do too. I probably cannot describe how much I love it in words. Tony DiTerlizzi has created a gem which will especially be enjoyed by science fiction and fantasy fans, but by everyone else, too! Written very well, The Search for WondLa will keep you hooked for hours, as it did me (we had a two hour bus ride and I was reading the whole way!). Tony has done a great job on an absolutely amazing story, which I TOTALLY LOVE!!!!!!!!!

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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In a Nazi Eden

In the Garden of Beasts

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Within the confines of an immaculate well-manicured garden–a manmade Nirvana of sorts–there is a deceptive freshness to the grounds that artfully conceal a whisper; a testimonial whisper, perhaps, that becomes audible only after its listeners have deeply suffered. This garden’s whisper is an eerie foretelling  of predator and prey rising to tread upon the same blood tainted hunting lands that royalty once claimed as their own. Welcome to Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, where life in Berlin’s bountiful Tiergarten is thrumming with breathtaking vivacity.

Erik Larson introduces readers into a faux paradise when monsters have barely begun to show fangs. As Larson skillfully retells it, his two main protagonists enter Berlin with rose colored glasses. Newly elected ambassador William Dodd is sent to Berlin, where Hitler is still preparing to claim his throne. The frugal ambassador and his promiscuous daughter Martha are initially oblivious to Hitler’s predatory nature and the mounting tensions of the political world they are entering.Young Martha Dodd–swept off of her own feet by the exoticness of a Germany in the midst of a radical change, doesn’t waste time sweeping loyal gents off their feet. This roaring filly has no shame in her game, causing quite a few scandals. 

While Martha is getting her groove on, ambassador Dodd struggles for peace of mind. Still a history professor at heart and a man of patriotic bearing, Dodd grapples with his duties as an American representative in Berlin. Yet Dodd is not incompetent. Initially a naive romantic, in love with a Germany long since past, he eventually emerges as a man ahead of his time, a man that doesn’t mind ruffling tail feathers when he cracks down on the copious amounts of money American representatives spend on lavish living.

Gullible or not, for the Dodds and hordes of others in Germany, the political grounds they tread upon are already shifting toward fascism. You enter into this dark orchard through the eyes of Dodd; foreknowledge of the horrendous slaughter yet to come is surreal and spine-chilling. Readers will find themselves frustrated with the American isolationist approach to this festering madness.

For as Larson reveals, there is a tussle in the U.S. over whether or not America should trifle with such ‘European skirmishes’. Roosevelt initially goes with the flow, taking the polls as the people’s voice, and mostly leaves those in Germany to deal with their own monsters. Privately, President Roosevelt and a few others are not keen on taking a step back, especially when Americans visiting Germany are being  flayed open for refusing to jump on the bandwagon 

Espionage escalates; the Dodds and other American leaders put their listening ears to the ground. The increasing chaos taxes the ambassador who faces relentless spying.  As being watched steadily creeps into every molecule of Dodd’s atmosphere, he gradually becomes repulsed by Hitler’s Berlin. Psychotic sociopaths move in for the kill on every front. Dodd shrugs off the politics back home, and attempts to warn his country of impending doom. His warnings go unheeded, met with only closed lips and inaction.

Though the silenced Dodd presses forward to do the little limited weaponry will allow him, Martha continues to take on Germany with arms wide open. The veil of a fresh new world being reborn is ripped from her in a matter of moments when a blood purge begins. She witnesses friends and lovers suffering excruciating shame; some commit suicide just to escape the insanity of Nazi reality. A number of people that she and her family regularly wine and dine are hunted down solely on the paranoid suspicions of Hitler. For Martha such a cannibalistic hunt comes as a shock.  

Larson takes readers on a haunting journey to a time and place where nothing is at it seems. Though the Dodds’ surroundings appear heavenly, the air becomes so heavy with horrific truths that readers may find themselves shouting for the Dodds to wake up and run from the monsters within and without In the Garden of Beasts.

Amber Cooper is a college student from Social Circle,GA. When not wracking her brain with her studies, she enjoys reading, discovering life, and storming baseball fields with her two boys.

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Don’t be a willful barbarian: listen to some Bach this weekend.

J.S. Bach: The Learned Musician

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Biographies of great artists or writers are my favorite histories because they allow us who today cherish their works to see them not only in the context of the artist’s personal development but also in the context of the times and the local conditions that may have occasioned their genesis. When I began, a couple months ago, obsessively listening to Jesu, meine Freude, a motet by Johann Sebastian Bach, every morning on my way to work, I didn’t think it would lead to picking up Christoph Wolff’s biography Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. Wolff’s biography, weighing in at about 600 pages with notes, musical examples, appendices, bibliography, and indices, is a heavy weight read, and only devoted lovers of Bach and baroque music need apply. Why anyone would shirk cultivating such a devotion or resist the enchanting complexity of his music I cannot understand. Willful barbarism? Whatever the reason, Wolff’s tome nicely serves as a stepping stone for the amateur who does aspire to connoisseurship.

I don’t consider myself accomplished in music or very knowledgeable about music history and theory. I played in high school band, received some voice instruction in college, and sang with choirs there and at different times in my adult life. I’ve dabbled with piano and guitar. So I know some basics and most definitely fit into the category of amateur. I listen to the St. Matthew’s Passion every Lent and have my favorite movements, but by no means am I deeply knowledgeable about the entire body of Bach’s compositions. Nor did I know anything much about his life before reading this book. I mention these details about my own background to encourage any other listeners and dabblers out there. Pick it up and not only will you overhear a great music scholar wax eloquent over counterpoint and coloratura, but you will discover the rich fabric of life in 18th century Germany as a professional musician, subject to king, court, and councils.

To be sure, Wolff assumes a certain proficiency in musical vocabulary among his readers. The uninitiated may benefit from keeping a musical dictionary handy and those seeking a fluency in the language of musical analysis would do well to read this book while listening to recordings of the pieces for illustration and education. Wolff offers frequent discussions of this cantata and that sonata, in the service of illustrating not only a predominant technique of a particular stage of the composer’s musical development but also the relationship between Bach’s music and the larger European context, with its varied styles and trends. The reader learns to distinguish French, Italian, North German, and Netherlandic points of contact, but especially so in relation to the biographical details of Bach’s journeys, appointments, or personal acquaintances.

For example, we learn that early on, the young organist made a 250 mile trek by foot to hear the famous organist Buxtehude. With scant biographical data, Wolff must construct “plausible sequences of events” for this episode and others, using anything from the rare letter to communion records, from town council proceedings to invoices. Next, probable scenarios are brought to bear deftly on his musical development, such as when Wolff, after a musical analysis of Bach’s early organ compositions, speculates on their original use and their relation to the 250-mile pilgrimage. Later, Wolff will point out the relation of his musical compositions to specific organs. One is impressed in these discussions, aided by photographs, with the imposing character of an organ both as an architectonic environment for music and the most complex machine of the time.

This emphasis on the physical limitations of music making is also reflected in discussions of the physical transmission of music during the time. This is most helpful in shocking us out of our 21st century digital assumptions, where instant and simultaneous access to music is the norm. We little think, for example, how important personal libraries or collections were. Their physicality is obliterated in digital space. But Wolff emphasizes Bach’s lifelong use of hand copied scores—based on the predominant practice in his Latin school education of copying exemplars—for his adaptation of various musical influences. So we have an episode reported of Bach secretly copying by moonlight one of his brother’s handwritten copies of a Pachelbel composition—an early example of pirating. And one episode that illustrates reliance on personal contacts is when the Weimar Duke’s half-brother, an accomplished musician, travels to Amsterdam to meet a blind organist and returns with Netherlandic compositions for the Weimar library, which then becomes a point of contact for Bach’s development.

Of course theoretical discussions about the music come out of a well-organized narrative that doesn’t neglect the broader details of Sebastian’s—yes, we learn to call him this early on—personal and professional life. Each of the twelve chapters follows him from city to city, or position to position, depending the length of his appointments. I have a special weakness for perusing maps, so I was happy to linger over the contemporary engravings, watercolors, or maps of each city. And I referred to the “Places of Bach’s Activities” map in the Appendixes section constantly. In total, the book contains 43 illustrations that include portraits, churches, organs, palaces, hand-written musical scores, and even floor plans of his townhouse in Leipzig—all of which enhance our imaginative immersion into the personal and political backdrop. Tables organizing Bach’s works or listing his ancestors, relatives, and descendants recap Wolff’s discussions for easy reference later.

As a Lutheran myself, I was interested to follow Bach through the varied politico-religious divisions in Germany and read about the Lutheran liturgical practices of the time. Sunday mornings you might find me perusing the hymnal during particularly long sermons. I love the hymnal because it’s such a repository of Christian tradition and musical forms—with multi-lingual notes–as well as a nice compendium of English hymn poetry for a church that has replaced the King James Version with the very unpoetical NIV. Admittedly, my Lutheran hymnal is heavy on the German chorale, but this is a help when studying Bach, who did so much with the old school Protestant hymns, especially those of Luther’s time. Again, for the liturgically uninitiated, Wolff provides a liturgical calendar for easy reference. Interestingly enough, Bach’s life provides plenty of illustrations of the tripartite confessional landscape (Lutheran-Catholic-Reformed) of the times. While he remained a lifelong and pious Lutheran, and served as Cantor and Musical Director of Lutheran Leipzig from 1723 to his death in 1750, he had served as Capellmeister to a Reformed prince for five years prior to this and while in Leipzig dedicated his first Kyrie-Gloria mass to the Catholic Saxon prince there, whose coronation as King of Poland was later celebrated in Leipzig in a bi-confessional service.

Throughout we find many examples of Bach the professional in conflict with his employers, whether duke or burgomaster. He even spent a month in jail over a conflict with the Duke of Weimar. I came away with a picture of a man who in every circumstance zealously guarded his artistic prerogatives against professional constraints and keenly sought out better opportunities for himself and his family when such positions offered more artistic freedom and also more money. Wolff doesn’t hold back on the financial details, including even such piquant details as the allowances of beer and firewood delivered as part of Bach’s salary.

Wolff’s biography, for the most part, doesn’t dwell on the common idea that Bach’s music is a culmination of all Western music styles preceding him (Bach the conservative); rather, it emphasizes Bach’s innovations and contemporaneity: his interest in and perfecting of emerging styles all over Europe, his lifelong reputation as a keyboard virtuoso, his involvement with the details of organ construction, his interest in developing and using new instruments (like the pianoforte) and playing techniques, such as five finger keyboarding, and his ever-evolving expansion of the science of harmony and counterpoint.

Jason McBride is a father of three, a teacher, and a Lutheran who lives in Indiana. At least, I think that’s accurate. He didn’t get me his two sentence bio, probably because he’s actually trying to do extremely irresponsible things like take care of his children and make a living. 

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Swooning over Norwegian Autobiography

 My Struggle, Volume 1

My Struggle

While doing some poetry readings at a literature and music festival this summer, my wife became friendly with a Welsh poet who is rising on the UK scene. At some point they both discovered that they shared an affinity for the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. By my wife’s own admission, two serious women—published books of poetry, multiple advanced degrees, and years of reading tons of books between them—giggled like schoolgirls over Knausgaard’s prose, both confessing to a kind of literary crush. The Welsh poet—who I’ll leave nameless—had actually been backstage with Knausgaard at a reading! Can you believe it!? On telling me this when my wife returned home, I rolled my eyes in a way that can only be called theatrical, and wondered not so quietly if their fascination really had absolutely nothing to do with Knausgaard’s craggy rock-star good looks.

Knausgaard

What, exactly, explains the appeal of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume work on his own life? How, exactly, did this writer convince someone to publish six doorstop worthy books on his own life? How did he then begin to command the kind of enthralled audiences he has both in his native Norway, as well as all over much of the literate world (the books have been translated into at least fifteen languages since 2009) without getting tarred and feathered as the most shameless narcissist since, well, Narcissus? As if that wasn’t enough, he gives the work a title that—in Norwegian—deliberately evokes Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Yet my wife’s reaction is shared by no less a literary heavyweight than Zadie Smith, who likens the books to a drug addiction.

I’m not even sure how to review My Struggle, Volume 1. The typical review is supposed to summarize some relevant details, perhaps mention something about the writer’s past work, before evaluating a few of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. If reviewing fiction—especially mystery or thriller fiction—the judicious reviewer will avoid saying too much about the conclusion of the plot. As a reviewer, I am required to have given the potential book buyer enough temptation to try and read a good book, or enough discouragement to avoid a bad book, without having taken away whatever pleasures the book itself might hold should the reader decide to fork over hard-earned money to the book merchant and take the plunge.

Yet the book—is it memoir? creative-nonfiction? autobiography? or a novel?—makes me want to protect its narrative secrets. That alone—the fact that I just typed a sentence that included the phrase ‘narrative secrets’ in it—is nothing less than absolutely hilarious. For 90% of the book, possibly more, is centered around a handful of relatively banal days from the writer’s actual life. The book has no chapter breaks, and is very simply divided into two parts. Most of Part 1 is framed around one New Year’s Eve Party, wherein our teenage Norwegian hero tries his rural best to get as drunk as possible and talk to a girl he has a crush on. Most of Part 2 concerns a bleak week in the writer’s early adulthood cleaning his grandmother’s house after his father’s death. Yet he manages to pull this narrative witchcraft off to the extent that I’m worried that I might give something away, much the way that I might fret about accidentally revealing the killer while reviewing a mystery.

On top of that difficulty, it is also true that telling you more about what is in the book would be a bit like giving you a basic recipe for homemade bread to explain the pleasures of a loaf pulled fresh out of the oven: there’s no way that you will understand the appeal of My Struggle from reading about the yeast, the flour, and the water than went into making this book.

My own relationship with the book is a strange one, but perhaps will tell you something about the book. This January, while going through another round with bronchitis, my wife read sections of Volume 1 out loud to me while I laid in bed. I was amused by the writer’s descriptions of his boyhood. This man, I thought, is a good writer. He’s very funny, especially when talking about being in a school rock band in Norway in the 80s (the episode is full of “Smoke on the Water” and self-loathing, like much of the early 1980s). Despite that favorable reaction I was not compelled to return to the book. This summer, watching my wife get completely seduced by the series, I decided to give them another go while I waited for some books  to arrive at the post office. For the first few days I meandered through the text, a few pages after supper here, a few pages before going to sleep there. Around the end of Part 1 I began to get a whiff of what all the fuss was actually about, and found that I was really enjoying myself. I began Part 2 with a freshly open mind while trying to keep half an eye on my toddler son as he played on the beach one overcast morning. Within a few pages, I knew that I really must clear the rest of the day to complete reading the book. Some fifteen hours later, at around 3:30 am, having ignored wife and child for the better part of a day to bolt down over 200 pages, I came away from the novel–which is what I have decided to call it–somewhat stunned.

Had I just read the best thing since reading James Joyce’s “The Dead”? Had Knausgaard managed to evoke both Proust and Dostoevsky and compare favorably with them? Had a 400-page meditation on the death of a writer’s father just kept me completely enthralled? Could Knausgaard keep anyone enthralled, with anything? What in all holy hell was going on here? And for god’s sakes what was my wife doing sleeping at 3:30 am when there were books to discuss, damn it all!

I’m not ready to answer all of those questions just yet. But I will say that, despite about three hours of sleep, I practically skipped down the stairs to breakfast the next morning, vibrating with the urgent need to talk to my wife about the book. I was as crushed out as the rest of them. For the last week hardly a meal goes by in my little house without a pretty close discussion of exactly how Knausgaard is pulling off his literary high wire act. Now it is my toddler son rolling his eyes every time his parents bring up the Norwegian writer’s name again.

Perhaps there is nothing more to be said, good or bad, than this: at the end of breakfast that morning I demanded to know where my wife had stashed Volume 2 of My Struggle.

Nathan Elliott manages to teach in Georgia while living in Newfoundland, thanks to the power of the internets. He spends the rest of his time looking after a toddler, reading, riding a bike, and trying to write a little. 

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