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Life is sort of weird right now.  I’ve been serving on a jury since last week.  My new routine is wake up, take the D train to the Yankee Stadium stop and report to the Bronx Supreme Court.  On Sunday, I’m running a half marathon.  My dreams have been filled with the worst case senarios.  I show up without my bib or without running shoes or worst of all with no idea why I am there.  My life could use a little normalcy right now, before I start thinking of “juror” as my new job title.  It’s times like these that baking therapy helps.

Recently, I stumbled across A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenberg’s memoir-cookbook that is just incredibly lovely.  Remember when I made some pancakes from it?  Mmmm I have to make those again soon.  Anyhow, the banana bread recipe in that book had been in my recipe queue for ages and was beginning to sulk and fret and beg that I make it.  This is the post on Molly’s Orangette blog that the recipe originally appears in.  I love Molly’s description of the bread, it is probably close to the description in her book but the recipe in the book is slightly different.

Well I am here to tell you, if you ever happen to find yourself let out of jury duty early on a rainy March day during which you were vexed by race anxiety daydreams, this bread will do the trick.  This bread was a miracle worker for my mood.  Ok, so it’s not bread.  It’s cake.  Let’s just lay that out there right now.  If you eat it for breakfast, as I definitely did, don’t try to kid yourself–you are eating cake for breakfast.  But I’ve made my peace with that, and so should you.

Here is Molly’s recipe, my substitutions are noted:

6 tbs unsalted butter, melted

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour ( I used 1 cup whole wheat plus 1 cup white flour)

3/4 cup granulated sugar (I used 1/2 cup sugar)

3/4 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips)

1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger

2 large eggs

1 1/2 cups mashed ripe bananas (about 3 large bananas)

1/4 cup whole milk plain yogurt (all I had in the house was raspberry yogurt from my CSA, it worked great!)

1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan with butter or cooking spray, and set aside.  Make sure to melt butter first (in the microwave) and then set aside to cool.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt.  Add chocolate chips and crystallized ginger, mix to combine.

In a small bowl, beat the eggs lightly then add the banana, yogurt, melted butter, and vanilla.  Mix well.  Pour this mixture into the dry ingredients and stir.  Molly stresses not to overmix….although the batter will be lumpy, you don’t want chunks of flour.  Pour batter into the pan you prepared and pop it in the oven.

Bake until the bread is golden and firm in the center.  This takes about 1 hour.  Cool the bread in the pan 5 minutes and on a wire rack until completely cooled off.  I ate it all before I had any to freeze, but Molly says it freezes very nicely as long as you cool it completely first.

Enjoy!

Oh, and a little jury duty humor to brighten your day, you’re welcome!

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Book Club Roundup

I just spent a long weekend in Boston where I lived for a year.  It was really a fantastic little get away from New York.  I love this city, but sometimes it gets to you and even going to visit another city can be a relief.  I sort of decided that you can have a somewhat better quality of life in Boston, but New York is a more interesting city to live in.  So for now I guess I’m choosing the interesting one 🙂

During my visit, I stayed with a friend from my JVC year and I got to visit with other friends and see the (now very grown up) kids I used to work with at the after school program.  I also had lots of reading time on my four hour plus bus rides back and forth between cities.  I realize that I haven’t mentioned my book club in a while….for some reason most of my postings here have been about cooking.  I wanted to do a quick review of a few books I’ve read over the past few months.  Just something brief to whet your appetite–if you are interested in them, I suggest you pick them up (or you could always ask me to to borrow them!!).

 The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I can’t say enough about this book!  If you haven’t read this yet, go out and get it!!  This book is told from the perspective of three women living in Mississippi during the 60s.  Two of the main characters  are black maids that practically raise the children of the local white families and the other main character is a young white woman who is anxious to find out the truth about what happened to the maid who raised her.  There is much more to this book than just that basic description–race relations from several perspectives, all kinds of female friendships, struggles, successes, sadness.  I loved the plot and the characters–both developed in such a thoughtful way and I came to feel that knew the places and people intimately.  Often I don’t care for either the plot or the character development but here, Stockett definitely didn’t let me down!

In Other Rooms Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

This is an interesting book of short stories that take place in Pakistan.  I have to say that I didn’t truly love this book but it did hold my interest and some of the stories stayed with me a bit.  This may have been the first book I ever read by a Pakistani author and I was pleased to read something from a new voice.  I think I learned a bit about the complexity of life there–especially given that all most Americans know about Pakistan is in relation to terrorism.  It was really nice to get a sense of the people who live there.  I think this would be a good summer read since you can just read a little bit at a time, a chapter here and there.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

This book has been around for a while (published in 1997) and I saw the movie a few years ago.  I had wanted to read it since I saw the movie way back when but I was motivated to suggest it to my book club after visiting Carin back in February.  It is one of her favorite books and the actual mountain has had a pretty significant impact on her life…..it’s the place where her soon to be husband proposed to her (how much more romantic can you get?!).

I was definitely not disappointed–although perhaps some fellow book clubbers were 🙂  The book is a challenging one, that is for sure.  Don’t start digging into this if you are looking for an easy chick-lit, beach read! This is much more a work of great literature than a best seller trendy paperback (not that there is anything wrong with those books, they have their place!!).  Despite the challenge, I loved this book.  I think the minor difficulty is worth it!!  If you enjoy nature and a love story that is not mushy, this could be your book.  Essentially, the story is a sort of re-imagined Odyssey that is set in Tennessee during the Civil War.  Ada and Inman met briefly before the war began and both struggle during the war.  Inman is a wounded soldier who ultimately decides to take his chances, leave the hospital,  and head back to home (by Cold Mountain). Ada is struggling to learn how to take care of herself and her farm after her father’s death, having been coddled and sheltered by him all her life.  Each chapter is a window into either Ada or Inman’s life as we learn of both their pasts and their presents.  Mixed into all of this, Frazier provides his reader with beautiful descriptions about the life of the local people, the countryside, nature, and animals of the rural South.  I could write so much more–I have many dog earred passages that I was very moved by–but I’ll leave it to you to discover the full pleasures of this novel.

And now, book club is on to American Taliban by Pearl Abraham.  I won’t say too much since I need to save it for the book club meeting next week, but this was a really interesting read.  It’s a pretty intense book and a lot happens very quickly in it.  In a nutshell, it’s an imagining of the John Walker Lindh story.  The main character is a different John but one who is a very young American who gets wrapped up in Muslim life and eventually gets involved with the Taliban when he travels to Pakistan to study Arabic.  I also think this one is a good summer read–easy to read and moves very quickly.

Hopefully these can help you figure out your summer reading list.  Any suggestions for me for my new book club book?  Happy reading!!

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(*Not my ideal boy.  My mother’s ideal boy. ) Well, not even really my mother but rather the teenage version of my mother.  You see, the copy of The Catcher in the Rye that I have was actually my mom’s copy when she was in high school.  That alone would make it special; however, it is practically invaluable to me because her personal notes and thoughts are penciled in it.  Yes, my mother inscribed the inside cover with, “Holden Caulfield is my ideal boy!”, in her curly, cursive, teen-aged handwriting.  Diving into the text, you will find other little notes she wrote, as well as the pencil markings of her favorite passages.

I just couldn’t let the death of J.D. Salinger slip by without mention.  Of course I am sure he would be appalled by a blog entry written about him, but I’m not here to write about him or judge his seemingly strange actions after he became successful.  I mean, I sort of understand why he would want to become so reclusive.  Heck, sometimes I want to run away to a farm and escape modern life altogether too.  I definitely don’t blame him for shunning the spotlight.  I do want to say that I am thankful for his writing (I was going to put his picture up here, but I read an article that reported how disgusted he was at seeing his picture over and over on the jacket of Catcher and so he asked the publisher to take it off!).  Anyhow, all this news about his death has unearthed my submerged affection for Holden Caulfield and Catcher.

I can’t quite decide if I love the book itself or if what I truly love is how much the book meant to me when I first read it.  I have trouble remembering if I read it before it was ever assigned or if my first reading was a required one.  Regardless of that point, I’ll never forget feeling that the book was somehow written just for me, just for the point I was at in my life.  Sure, my mom talked about how much she loved it–but I felt deep down, no one else out there could enjoy the book as much as I was enjoying it.  I remember so vividly that stage in my life (sophomore year of high school to be exact).  That was a year of teenage transitions–old friends falling away, picking up new friends, etc.  But I think it was also a time of self-exploration–I started writing poetry and really loved my English teacher (Ms. Perkins!!) who encouraged my writing.  Yes, it really was the perfect time to pick up Catcher, the perfect time to realize that there were young people (even if they were fictional) who had been through it all before me, young people who showed me it was ok if you didn’t want to become one of those phonies.   

I come back to the book often.  I used to have a tradition going of reading it once a year (which hopefully I’ll get back to).  I find that as I get older, different parts of the book resonate with me; different parts of the book help me figure things out that I happen to be going through at the particular place I happen to be in.  But always, reading my mom’s copy, it’s feels nice to know that she had been here too, in various stages of her life, and she turned out more than alright (undoubtedly with a little help from Holden).

So thank you J.D., thanks for Catcher.

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Bravo, Jane Austen

[Just wanted to say a hello to anyone new reading.  I’m excited to have new followers and appreciate you stopping by.  Feel free to comment and to forward posts along to friends!]

I can actually remember the moment I stopped reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when I had the first go around.  In middle school, upon learning that this novel was revered by so many readers I knew, I decided to take it up.  However, at a certain point, I encountered this language: “the former….the latter….”.  I just couldn’t grasp which one was the former and which the latter!  The language was just too hard.  There I gave up and never looked back.  That is, I never looked back until a few months ago.  At book club one night we got to talking about Jane Austen.  Again, my fellow readers spoke with a sense of awe and wonder regarding Pride and Prejudice.  I felt left out!  I realized then that I had to go back and try again.

I think that my resistance to picking the book back up after all these years stemmed from more than just the antiquated phrasing.  I resisted because the book is so cloaked in this awesome reputation.  Everyone raves about it!  Honestly, I was a little intimidated.  Part of me also thought that a book written so long ago would be unreadable, stuffy, and outdated. 

Boy was I wrong!!  If you haven’t read this novel, or if it’s been a while, I urge you to pick it up.  I’m actually not finished with it yet–I have about a quarter left–but I just had to write about it here.  Each time I open the book, I’m blown away by the humor, the wit, and the (prepare yourself) relevancy of Pride and Prejudice!  Bravo, Jane Austen for writing a novel whose plot line and characters can stand the test of time!

Let’s start with Elizabeth. I wholeheartedly love her.  What a smart, strong, independent, witty young lady she is.  I just adore her relationship with her sister Jane.  Especially touching is to read about their affection for one another when they are apart–since they don’t have cell phones and email they rely on letters.  How nice to communicate only through letters, there is the necessity to wait and be patient, not like the super-instant gratification we have today.

I get such a kick out of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s relationship.  Recently I have found myself cracking up on the subway while reading about Mrs. Bennet’s antics!  She is really very silly and so obsessed with material things and getting her girls married off.  But that really isn’t such a dated character type is it?  I think we all know women out there who unfortunately still act that way.  Oh and reading about Elizabeth’s younger sisters is funny too–what silly young girls who couldn’t be more different than Lizzy and Jane!

Above all though, I am utterly enjoying the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy (or at this point the lack of relationship–I have faith though!).  The two both had their misconceptions, their prejudices, about each other, but oh how they each regret those former feelings.  There are so many scenes with these two that I just want to yell–tell each other how you feel!!!–but I guess they didn’t do it that way back then.  How about the part when Elizabeth is with her Aunt and Uncle and they go visiting Pemberly under the assumption that Darcy isn’t there…..then all of the sudden the two meet outside……I love that scene.  The awkwardness of running into that person you are quasi-romantically involved with at just the worst possible time–this is not an outdated concept!

Overall, what a classic and timeless critique of popular society and dating rituals.  What would Jane Austen think about today’s dating world–what with all the texting and IMing and facebooking??  I guess we’ll just have to imagine.  Thank you Jane Austen and thanks to book club for getting me to pick the novel back up again!

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Time Travel

Sometimes, I time travel.  It’s no secret and it doesn’t involve any special ability.  I guarantee you do it too.  After all, how often do you find yourself—at work, on the train, out walking—and instead of being fully present where your feet are, your mind is moments, months, years behind or ahead of where you are in time. Last week, I finished The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and I’ve been haunted by it. I’m going out on a limb here to say it might make the list of my top 20 favorite books (although I have no actual list).  I just can’t stop thinking about time travelling and how I think we do it all the time, just not physically. 

Part of being human, as opposed to being some sort of other animal, is the blessing and curse of having a memory.  It is so easy to let our minds wander, to time travel.  When work is a little boring or you miss someone who is no longer in your life, when you hear a song or see a sight that is tied to a memory, down the rabbit hole you go.  It can’t be healthy to live in the past, but it sure is lovely to transport yourself from time to time.  All that being said, after reading this book and learning about Henry and Clare’s experiences, I wouldn’t want to physically go back.  I’ll settle for the ability I already have.

If you haven’t read Time Traveler’s Wife, what are you waiting for?  If you are anything like me, perhaps you heard a lot of hype and are hesitant (I sometimes purposefully don’t read books that are super popular and have a lot of hype around them).  But then my mom read the book and raved about it and sent me back to the Bronx with it from one of my trips between CT and NY.  It sat on my shelf for a bit while I took care of book club related books.

This book is just a great, unique story.  Henry has the ability to travel through time (but not necessarily when he wants to) and Clare is his wife who must wait for him when he is gone.  They meet when she is young and he is old—he spends much of his married life with her time travelling to the past to meet her as a young girl.  This means that when she is 18 and he is 20 she knows him and loves him deeply, but he knows nothing about her because he has not met her yet in the present (only when he is in his 30s does he meet her as a girl).

Ok, stay with me here! My mother’s advice to me: immediately suspend your sense of disbelief and do not waste time questioning why or how Henry can time travel, just jump right in.  Please heed that advice.  I have talked with others who have read this book and many had difficulty with the how’s and why’s.   

As for some surface aspects of the book, I love the quotes about love and time that mark beginning of each new section of the book.  I loved figuring out the dates of the time travel vs. actual time and the ages of Henry and Clare—I’ve heard that some people didn’t like that or found it confusing.  I thought it kept things interesting and I found it to be a sort of enjoyable puzzle to solve.  I also enjoyed the settings.  I haven’t been to Chicago but I felt transported there.  I’ve also never been to Michigan but I felt as though I knew Clare’s family home and the land surrounding it.

Also, Niffenegger’s method of writing the story from both Clare and Henry’s points of view was fantastic.  I felt that the characters were complex and deep and I appreciated the back and forth—hearing the story from a male and female voice. I was just amazed at Niffenegger’s ability to write so convincingly through both voices.

This book is so many things—part science fiction, part tragedy, part mystery—but above all, it is a love story.  But it isn’t a mushy-gusy or unrealistic kind of love (ok, so except for the fact that Clare meets Henry when she is in grade school and he somehow travels through time).  Their love is real and intense.  It is a kind of love that I believe only grows out of the struggles and difficulties partners experience in relationships.  Niffenegger’s portrayal of Clare and Henry’s love does not gloss over the gritty reality of their married life; yet it is this grittiness that makes their love beautiful, deep, and true.

Please go out and read this book!  You won’t be disappointed, I promise.

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Toujours Bon Appetit!

One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; one of lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed. –Julia Child

Last night I finished Julia Child’s book, My Life in France.  Whenever I mention the book, people first think of the movie Julie & Julia, but perhaps that is a shame.  While it is true that I did not know about Child’s book before the movie, this book contains so much more beauty and life that the movie ever could!  This book is one that will stay with me for a long time and I encourage you to go out and read it, whether or not you saw the movie.

I have always loved travel writing–books about living abroad and travels.  I absolutely adored Peter Mayle’s series of books about his life in France; it begins with A Year in Provence, moves into Toujours Provence, and ends with Encore Provence.  I also love France; I was fortunate to travel there a bit during college and visit some lovely friends living in Provence at the time.  So it comes as no surprise that I could not put Julia’s book down!!  The book chronicles much more than just her life in France–I would consider it almost an autobiography.  She touches on her childhood, her family, her first meeting Paul (her husband), and their early marriage before they move to France.  Of course she writes extensively about her time in Paris where she first learned to cook (not until her late 30s!!) but then she continues on about life in Marseille, France; Bonn, Germany; Oslo, Norway; Cambridge, MA.  She describes her rise to fame–a happening that surprised her just as much as anyone else.

I simply loved everything about this book.  Her descriptions of food vary between mouth-watering to outrageously gross sounding and everywhere in between.  Some of the descriptions of the strange meats and animal parts the French eat were very weird to me, but it was still fascinating to read about.  I appreciated her descriptions of buying food from outdoor markets or from the artisans who made the cheese, bread, sausage, etc.  I wish we all could shop that way!!  This passage in particular about the attitude toward food resonated with me:

This is the kind of food I had fallen in love with: not trendy, souped-up fantasies, just something very good to eat.  It was classic French cooking, where ingredients have been carefully selected and beautifully and knowingly prepared….food that tastes what it is.

 I also love reading about Julia’s many relationships–with Paul, with her co-author, with the multitude of characters she meets in Paris and elsewhere.  Her descriptions of the countryside are heavenly and caused me to fantasize about jumping on the next plane to the south of France!  But overall, it is Julia’s voice that makes this book a sheer pleasure to read.  Julia’s sincerity, essence, and joy for life seep through every word.  I felt as though I got to spend a few days enjoying her lovely company.  I also took heart that one need not become a success overnight–good things come with time, step by step.  For Julia, the fame and fortune were just a wonderful by-product of following her heart and doing what she loved–cooking.  A wonderful, inspiring read that I utterly enjoyed….as Julia would say, bon appetit!!

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Book Club and Water for Elephants

At the end of May when I found myself school-free, I started reading again.  What I mean is that instead of reading scholarly journal articles I began again to delve into books that I picked out personally.  In fact, I began consuming books at an increasingly rapid rate.  Recently, I started wondering if the reading style I picked up during grad school (skim skim skim in order to retain only the most relevant information necessary) had carried over into my reading for pleasure.  During my studies it was important to use this method since I had hundreds of pages to read each week.  Now though, this style is taking away from my enjoyment.  Consequently, I am making a new effort to slow down and make each book last longer.  Two things are aiding me in this endeavor: one being the book club I am part of and the other being this blog.  Now that I am in a book club, it is important for me to savor every snippet of the books I read for the club so that I can wholeheartedly participate in our conversation.  Also, since I’ve committed myself to posting on this blog about the books I read, I will be forced to slow down a bit and really appreciate the literature I have in front of me.

For me this is a manageable and appealing task!  My love for the pastime of reading rivals my love for all my other hobbies combined.  From very early on in my reading career, I was hopelessly hooked.  I owe much of this love to my mother–where would I be if she hadn’t read A Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, or Little Women to me and my sister before bed so many nights?  As I have grown older and my mother has started to consider me her “fraughter” (that’s daughter + friend), our conversations almost always drift to books: those we have recently read and those we are hoping to read soon.  Almost every time I visit home, I wind up with a Mom-recommended book or two packed away in my bag.  I cherish the relationships I have had with the characters of well-loved books over the years and I am thankful to have this space to share the new books in my life.

In case you are interested in what I’ve been reading recently, I added a list of books I’ve read within the past three months to the blog.  Also you should check out Read All Day, the blog of a woman in CT who literally reads a book a day and then reviews them (there was an article about her in the NY Times this weekend also if you are interested). 

Most recently, I finished a book for our club meeting coming up tomorrow.  The book, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, is about the circus, but this circus is not the kind you went to as a child.  This is a Depression-era show that travels the country by train and performs under a big top tent.  Despite a strong opening, I was not enamored with this book.  I usually judge books according to how deeply immersed I become in the character’s lives and how much the book lingers with me once I finish reading.  Although Water for Elephants was an enjoyable read, it is not a book that will stay with me.

Told through a series of flashbacks, the book’s protagonist is a 90 year old man named Jacob who now resides in a convalescent home but who once worked as a vet for a circus. The flashbacks recount the story of why and how Jacob came to work for the circus, the development of his relationship with a performer named Marlena and a disaster that led to the end of the show. The prologue of the novel contains a snippet of the disaster, a stampede of the circus animals during which a murder also happens, and certainly piqued my interest.  However, I thought Gruen ultimately failed to sustain the intensity of the opening and I often felt somewhat bored.

Most interesting to me was reading about the day-to-day experiences the circus workers lived.  The imagery was rich and I give Gruen credit for the extensive research she performed regarding the circuses of that era.  Her detailing the enormous amount of manpower and endurance required of workmen and performers to pull off the show time and time again was fascinating.  The circus entailed the setting up of tents and cookhouse, the feeding of numerous workmen and performers and animals, the task of performing crowd control, the grand attempts at living a normal life on board an overcrowded train and much more.  Notably, the schism Gruen describes between the two types of circus employees (performer and workman) was an engaging theme. 

I also enjoyed many of the minor characters–Camel, a worker who becomes sick; Walter, the dwarf with a tough exterior but caring interior; and of course Rosie, the smart elephant who saves the day in the end.  But I sensed a disconnect between the younger and older Jacobs.  The older Jacob is just so ornery and unpleasant, though I sympathized with his situation–I realize that he was unhappy with where he was living and with his frail, aging body.  I felt that the essence of the younger Jacob was pleasant, caring, and loving.  I just did not see many ways that these essential qualities carried over into the older Jacob.  Also something about Jacob and Marlena’s relationship bothered me; perhaps it is in the way Gruen ties up the loose ends of the time between the end of the circus and present day.  The development of the relationship just seemed rushed to me.

All in all, Water for Elephants is an interesting and enjoyable read–just don’t expect to be bowled over by it.  Have you read it?  Let me know what you thought.  I’ve moved on to My Life in France by Julia Child and it’s lovely–I can’t wait to tell you about it!

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