Tag Archives: Books Read in 2010

3: Super Natural Cooking

Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson

I’ve been reading Heidi’s blog, 101 Cookbooks, for a few years now. I must be particular when it comes to food blogs, because I’ve got a pretty short list of ones that I love and that I’ve stuck with for any length of time (in addition to 101 Cookbooks, there’s Rasa Malaysia, Simply Recipes, Smitten Kitchen, and Steamy Kitchen).

101 Cookbooks appeals because of Heidi’s photography, the way she puts each recipe in context (what inspired it or how it came about or who it was made for), as well as her recipes, which are frequented by salads, soups, bowls of grains and veggies—and baked goods, esp. cookies! (sounds familiar…)

She’s more granola than I am (not really going for the whole canola oil = evil thing), but in general, I’m on board with the fresh/unprocessed/whole foods approach. And why not? I grew up eating fruit and vegetables grown in our yard (my parents always had a garden), so this is all SOP for me. It’s why I can’t help but be amused that growing one’s own food is now trendy. It’s green! It’s organic! It’s zen! Uh, okay. Y’all know people used to grow their own food because it was cheap, right? A few packets of seeds (+ a lot of labor) and your freezer and cold room were full for a year.

We’ve been watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution the past few weeks, and it’s got me thinking a lot about the current tendency to frame people who grow their own food (or buy from farmer’s markets, etc.) as yupsters while framing people who eat fast and/or processed food as poor/rural, when not so long ago, it was reversed: people with money got to indulge in modern convenience foods, while people without had to grow & cook their own food.

The “revolution” in Food Revolution is essentially the attempt to get people cooking from scratch instead of relying on packaged convenience foods for every. single. meal. Not exactly radical—and yet, many people are upset/offended by the program. It’s gobsmacking imo, the lengths people will go to defend egregious food choices. My “favorite” was the commenter who posited that maybe the woman featured in episode 1 was deep-frying donuts and dipping them in chocolate and serving them to her kids for breakfast because that was the most budget-friendly choice available to her. Are you kidding me, person-who-actually-said-this? Ever heard of oatmeal? Neither do I buy that the woman was making donuts because it was “convenient,” as she claimed on the show. Let’s be serious. No one is deep-frying breakfast because it’s more convenient than eating cereal or toast. They’re doing it because Yum! Donuts!

It doesn’t matter how obvious or simple the suggested change is, someone always has an excuse why the bad choice has to be chosen. A good example is plain milk vs. flavored milk in the Food Revolution schools. None of the standard defenses of unhealthy eating make sense. No one can argue that flavored milk is cheaper than plain. Or easier to access. Or more convenient. But wait! They have to serve flavored milk because (drum roll) kids will drink more sugary milk than plain! As Jamie said, duh. And also: not if you don’t give them the sugary option.

It’s a bit ironic, because I think the target audience for Super Natural Cooking would be people who are already cooking, but who want to incorporate a wider variety of ingredients into their repertoire. But maybe the lesson is that you need to learn the basics of healthy eating before you can go on adventures.

It seems appropriate, given that 101 Cookbooks is built on the idea of recipes inspired by other recipes, that rather than making one of Heidi’s recipes, I share an inspired-by-Super Natural Cooking recipe. First, my basic muffin recipe (from ye olde flour cookbook):

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 1 egg

I always use this basic recipe, but every time I make it I add different stuff (spices, fruit, etc.), so it’s never the same muffin twice. With that in mind, I give you:

Blueberry Muffins inspired by Super Natural Cooking / 101 Cookbooks:
Blueberry Muffin

  • 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 6 tbsp dry demerara sugar
  • 3 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 cups blueberries (frozen, bought at farmer’s market last summer)
  • 1 cup skim milk
  • 1/4 cup walnut oil
  • 1 free-run egg
  • 1 tsp organic vanilla

To make: mix dry ingredients together. Add in berries. Mix wet ingredients together. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients. Stir just till everything is mixed. Spoon into muffin tin. Bake at 400°F for 18-20 min. Makes 6 big muffins.

Notes: The things that were different than usual were the types of flour, sugar, and oil used.  Our regular grocery store has started to carry more variety in such staples (nice side effect of the whole green/organic trend). I decided to try whole wheat pastry flour because Heidi said it was less-heavy than regular whole wheat (it was). The walnut oil I had, but I’d mostly been using it for salad dressing.

Typically I’d use: unbleached all-purpose flour, white sugar, and canola in muffins (I know, gasp, right? ;-)). Since I was trying out the new flour/sugar, I decided to use a different oil as well. The other ingredients are all what I normally  use.

The extra half-cup of berries I threw in because it didn’t seem worth it to stick them back in the freezer made them very-berry. I think next time I’ll try 1 c. whole wheat pastry + 1 c. unbleached all-purpose to experiment with texture.

Tip 1: Freezing berries is easy. (And also cheap, if you buy in season.) Wash berries. Place in single layer on cookie sheet. Freeze. Once berries are frozen, scoop them into a plastic container, and stick them back in the freezer. Done.

Tip 2: The Himalayan blackberry may be an invasive pest, but it’s also an excellent source of free fruit—as long as you’re willing to get a few scratches.

2: A Map of Glass

A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart

I finished this a few days ago on March 26 and I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to say about it [nb: it was “a few days ago” when I started the post!]. I feel like my remarks are likely to make it sound like I feel more negatively about this book than I actually do. In a nutshell: A Map of Glass was a pleasant (perhaps I should say pleasurable), but unsatisfying, read. It was pleasant/pleasurable while I was reading because Jane Urquhart is a lovely writer at the sentence level. The story just sort of washes over you. It’s cozy and delicious. Like curling up with a blanket and hot tea—and a book, of course—on the sofa.

It’s so pleasant that the fact it’s also unsatisfying doesn’t really hit you until you’re done. Or it could be that you were just waiting till the end, expecting the story to pay off eventually, and then it didn’t happen. Instead, you had the only firm ground in the story pulled away at the last minute, leaving you wondering if the entire thing was an illusion, a fabrication, and if so, what was the point?

Before we continue, you need to know this: A Map of Glass is structured in three parts. The first and third parts are set in the present. The second part is set in the past (and is supposed to be the reading of a set of journals):

“Eventually [Sylvia] gives Jerome Andrew’s journals, which contain a fictionalised account of his family, going back four generations to the genesis of his great-great-grandfather’s timber empire.” –The Guardian

The main characters are Andrew, who dies in the opening scene and is the alleged author of the journals read in part two; Sylvia, Andrew’s alleged lover, wife of Malcolm (a doctor with a messiah complex), and sufferer of unnamed “condition” (seems like autism/Asperger’s but treated as if it’s more Mysterious than that); and Jerome, the artist who (I think I can leave out the allegedly here…) found Andrew’s body.

There are also a bunch of characters in part 2, the section read from the journals, but that’s not the part that concerns me. That part (the filling in the sandwich, if you will) seems to be a fairly straightforward story about Andrew’s ancestors, which a lot of reviewers/readers seem to have enjoyed as a “novella” in the middle of the novel:

“In fact, a problem with Glass is that the present feels less urgent than the past.” –Powell’s

But I’m more interested in what’s wrapped around it…

Part of the problem is this:

“A year later, the dead man’s lover arrives on the artist’s doorstep, aiming not to find out how he died but to explain who he was, how he had lived, how they had loved. … When we first meet Andrew, he has Alzheimer’s and his failure to remember who or what he loved, while pathetic (in the kinder sense of the word), makes it hard to warm to him. Sylvia talks about him, but he fails to come to life, remaining unknown, distant. He’s more of an idea.” –The Telegraph

I think I was waiting the whole book for Andrew to turn into a person, but he never does. He’s just a name. Which is frustrating, because he’s the core of the book: he is what brings Sylvia & Jerome together; it is his journals we are supposedly reading. Oddly, it is the opening scene where his mind is absent that he is most present. We never do find out what he saw in Sylvia or she in him. In the present day sections, this could, I suppose, be chalked up to Sylvia’s “condition,” but in the journals we also never do get the part of the Woodman family story that links Andrew to his father and the rest of the clan, or Andrew to Sylvia for that matter.

So this is where the story feels rather hollow to me. Still, up till the end, I was taking the core elements of the story as they were presented, i.e.: Sylvia did have an affair with Andrew, and Andrew did write the journals. And that this relationship and Andrew’s death, has pushed Sylvia out of her comfort zone—as posited in this review:

“Sylvia and Andrew’s hidden love, which prompts her to redefine her relationship with the world, suggests that her grief is the wellspring for a more deeply examined life.” –The Independent

And then… near the very end of the book, Malcolm says that Sylvia imagined the affair. Screech. Rewind. If true, what does this mean? Jerome found Andrew’s body. Sylvia read about it in the newspaper. Sylvia not only imagined an affair with Andrew, but wrote an entire family history for him. Is this plausible? An imagined affair would perhaps explain the sketchiness of the details regarding their relationship, but what about the family history? Is that something Sylvia would do? It’s hard to imagine her thinking so much about Andrew’s ancestors when she has such a tenuous relationship with people (and even herself). But then you remember she’s not only steeped in her own family history, but also she volunteers at the local museum and that was where she learned about the hotel buried in sand. Hrm. Then again, Malcolm is not exactly a reliable source. Dude clearly has an agenda (though it’s unclear what that is—having Sylvia’s condition named after him, perhaps).

Ultimately, I decided that I have to believe in Sylvia’s version of the events, if only because not to would negate what I think is the best line of the entire book, and that is when Sylvia explains to Jerome her realization that after calling off their relationship years prior, Andrew re-instigated it not for any romantic reason, because he had forgotten that it ever stopped.

In the end, though, it does not matter, just as it does not matter that although I believed that he had returned  because—miraculously—he wanted to begin again, he had really returned because he had forgotten that we had ever stopped.

O.M.G.

In retrospect, I think the parts dealing with Andrew losing his memory are the strength of A Map of Glass—and by extension, the linking of this personal/total loss of memory to the loss of knowledge/memories of one’s history/past—but I wonder about the choice of Sylvia as a filter, as well as the choice to call into question her reliability as a narrator.

More:

[ETA: I forgot to say where I got this book! I actually was at a loss at first; I couldn’t remember where I picked it up. But then I flipped back to the first page and saw the price marked in pencil. So, as it turns out, it was another used find from The Bookshop.]

1: Secret Son

Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Secret Son

I have a basic policy of trying to read books written by bloggers with whom I have interacted.  I don’t really know these people, and perhaps it is a form of wanting a connection with the famous (used loosely), but I find it interesting to see how their writing works in long from as opposed to blogging. —From review of Secret Son at Collected Miscellany

For several years now, I’ve taken to scanning the shelves each time I hit a bookstore, looking for books by people I’m familiar with via their blogs (or forums). Partly it is wanting to see how book-form writing compares to blogging. And partly it’s my way of supporting fellow writers whose writing I have enjoyed for x years. Should I ever complete and publish a novel, I would hope my fan (I do have one!) would do the same.

Anyhow, it’s often easier said than done.* Want Dan Brown? No worries. Want Laila Lalami or Tayari Jones? Er…  So let me tell you, I was shocked when I saw Secret Son on the shelf in the Chapters on Robson in December. One copy. Hardcover. Y’all know I never buy hardcovers unless they’re on the remainder table. But then, in continuing to browse, more shock! I also found Jaden Hair’s Steamy Kitchen Cookbook and Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Cooking. So then I decided it must be my day and bought all three. Solstice prezzie to self! Hurrah!

Cookbook reviews to follow. For now, Secret Son.

I’ve read Laila Lalami’s blog for a long time. Since back when it was called Moorish Girl. Since before she published her first book (Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which I have yet to find), when she was just another book blogger. One of the the things she’s written about is her decision to write in English (her third language). Part of it is that English is not fraught with the connotations that Arabic and French have for her. But as well, she’s writing for a predominantly English-speaking audience. I think translations can sometimes have the effect of erasing the language difference, i.e. you forget that you’re reading a translation and impose your own language-view on the text.

Here are excerpts from a couple reviews:

“Secret Son” gives us an insider’s view of the underlying turmoil of Morocco, access we probably wouldn’t have if she had written in another language. But something has been lost in her attempt to bypass translation: perhaps it’s the cadences of the inner courtyards of her upbringing. Her English prose, although clean and closely observed, lacks music, and her similes can be predictable, as when Youssef’s half sister, returning from California to Casablanca, feels “like a fish that had been taken out of water and put back.” —New York Times

Lalami’s portrayal of indecision, abetted by her characters’ plainly outlined conflicts, lacks tension. When she does successfully transcend her own stylistic shortcomings, which happens in two scenes that revisit key events from different characters’ perspectives à la Rashomon, such structural cunning is deadened by the same rhythmless style, where rage is always “blinding” and a character’s regret is expressed by the narrator’s asking, “What had he done with his life?” —Quarterly Conversation

What these criticisms of her writing style seem to be missing is that she’s made a deliberate choice to write that way, and I think it’s an important one. The way it’s written, to me, is designed to not let the reader slip into the mistake of thinking that the characters are native English speakers. It’s written the way a non-native English speaker, who is fluent in English, but for whom writing in English is still not the main way they communicate, writes in English. It’s one of the first things I noticed. Of course, the story is being told about the characters, but still, I think taking this approach of writing like the characters would in English makes sense because you don’t lose the sense of them being Moroccan.

The other thing is that its written in close third person. Multiple povs, yes, but close third. It’s not omniscient. Which means the writer is limited to what the characters know. She can’t break into a soliloquy on the Moroccan condition. So true, it’s not a “big” novel; it’s an intimate one. It’s looking at the world from the perspective of the characters, not looking at the characters from the perspective of The World. I actually loved the scenes that were seen from the perspectives of two characters, seeing the subtle differences between their remembrances. Really important for a novel so focused on truths and lies. I liked the ideas explored here: identity/family, dual loyalties, the old “education will set you free” trope ;-), choices (or lack thereof). I like that while the characters’ secrets are revealed, their problems aren’t solved.

It did seem like the pacing really sped up in the last quarter or so of the book, and I was wishing it would slow down a bit. But I’m going to have to think about whether or not that is a flaw or not. Although it felt like there was a rush to the ending, I can see how that might be intentional, designed to mimic how the MC, Youssef, was feeling.

Other Links:

*Yes, I’m fully aware I could just order from Amazon. However, one of my great pleasures dating from pre-internet life is haunting bookstores new and used, looking for somewhat obscure titles. Nothing beats the heart-skip you get when you see a long sought-after book sitting on the shelf in front of you. Buying online does not provide the same thrill.