The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Happy New Year! I’ve been horrible and haven’t updated at all. I’m currently four books behind. I’ve been snatching up quick reads and devouring them, so that in combination with my natural-bred procrastination skills has led to a staggering to-write pile.

I found this book recommended by someone I like. I looked it up on Amazon and became very intrigued, then I saw that it was available right at my own library and I went by the next day to snatch it up. I don’t know what it is about this book that made me want to put it in front of everything else on my list, but I don’t regret it.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is about a little girl named Rose who, on her ninth birthday, discovers that she possesses an unusual talent: she can feel in her food the emotions of whoever made it. The first time it happens is when she tries a bite of the lemon cake her mother made her for her birthday and was flooded with sadness and hopelessness- feelings she never knew were hiding under her mother’s calm, even cheerful facade. Naturally, she can’t tell anyone about this. Who would believe her?

Rose grows to dread meals, especially food made by her own family. She hunts out pre-packaged junkfood and frozen dinners, anything made in a factory with as little human contact as possible. Meanwhile, her family environment is a bit rocky. Her father is supportive, but distant, her mother seeks help outside the family, and her brother is the biggest puzzle of all. Wonderfully smart at things like science, he has difficulty- and no real desire- to fit in.

The only person Rose can talk to is George, her brother’s best friend, who inexplicably believes and even encourages her when she tells him about her bizarre talent.

This book was fantastic. It was one where I had to stop every twenty pages just to absorb how incredible it was. At the end of every chapter I thought to myself, just one more. It was so hard to put down. It was narrated by Rose, but with the hindsight and wry humor of someone looking back at herself as a child. The language was beautiful, and I found myself wanting to highlight the most well-spoken passages. There were even a few places where you kind of had to turn it all over and go, ‘huh?’

As the book progresses, Rose ages into her early twenties. She starts looking for ways to use her ability- rather than hide from it. She starts looking for good food made by happy people.

The ‘magic’ element in this book is very, very subtle, and it led me to wondering- could this actually be happening? Think for a moment, what if there were people who had these strange ‘superpowers’ that couldn’t be explained by science or medicine, but they keep it to themselves and nobody knows about it?

All in all, a fantastic book. It draws you right in and holds you tight and there was a little period after I finished it where I didn’t know what to do with myself. Give this one a read if you have a chance.

Published in: on January 8, 2012 at 9:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (and Psychonauts)

Note: If you don’t want to read me gushing about a video game (that you should play), just scroll down to the cover of the book, as always.

Hi, everyone. It’s a bit a while, hasn’t it? Let me tell you what’s been up.

As soon as I finished Peony in Love, I picked up a book that I actually owned, called The Alphabet Sisters, which was fanciful and girly and the kind of story that I would watch in a two-hour movie, but not a 300-page book. Still, because the 100-page mark was actually interesting, I made it to about 150 pages before deciding to drop it. And that took me about five days. Five reading days, I should say, because when I was perhaps ten pages into that book, my brother started poking me about playing Psychonauts.

I spent the next three solid days immersed in a complete video game trance.

Just to be clear: I am not a video gamer. This is not some hidden facet of my personality that I have never revealed to anyone, it’s actually not there. I so very rarely play video games, and when I do, I am so very bad at them. But Psychonauts was different.

(Yes, I am actually about to review this video game along with my book. Are you convinced that this is worth your time?)

Psychonauts is about a kid named Razputin (Raz) who breaks into a summer camp for kids with psychic powers. He’s run away from the circus where he was raised to learn to harness the innate talents that are shunned in his world, and to become a psychonaut- psychic soldiers that defend the government, basically. So, your job as the player is to take Raz through camp, learning all the psychic powers you need along the way.

Things don’t go as smoothly as you would hope. Within his first few hours at camp, Raz discovers a plot to steal the brains of the kids. So of course, he has to get them back, find out who’s behind this, and stop them. And learn all the psychic powers necessary for becoming a psychonaut. And since he snuck into the camp, the teachers called his dad, who’s now on his way to pick him up. So Raz has to accomplish all of this in one night.

It’s actually hard to explain this next part, even though it’s where all of the action of the game takes place: since this is psychic warfare, the entire thing happens in peoples’ minds. Specifically, crazy peoples’ minds. It just kind of turns out that way. Shortly after the “basic braining” tutorial level, Raz receives a little door that he can attach to peoples’ heads to enter their minds. Every mind is a completely fleshed out world, each animated differently, and each one works differently. The strategies that got you through Boyd’s mind won’t even touch Fred’s crazy. You have to progress through the minds of the crazy people to find the mastermind behind the brainstealing plan.

It’s completely brilliant.

Now here’s the thing: if you’re like me and not exactly compatible with video games, that’s okay! For the most part, this game is very playable. I beat almost the entire thing all on my own, with no help from my brother (the part at which he did help me was actually where he was watching me play and asked me to let him give it a shot. I did not, in any way, beg for his help, as I have in the past). The very end was the hardest part. If you’re interested, Yahtzee actually praised the game in a very entertaining review of his. He’s a bit more articulate on what makes this game so good.

Lastly, I will say this: Psychonauts is fifteen hours of gameplay, and I beat the entire thing in one weekend. And I wanted more. I would have gladly atrophied in front of it if it had been four times that length. I did not want this game to end. I have to admit that I don’t get that feeling from books quite as often as I would like. Even when I really, really love a book and end up recommending it to everyone I talk to, I’m usually not too torn up about it finishing it. With Psychonauts, I didn’t know what to do next.

Actually, now that I think about it, I can guess why that is. With books, I always know what I’m going to do next. There will always be more. I usually have my next one checked out well before finishing my current one. Psychonauts made me love gaming, but after I was done, there was nothing else to do. It took me about a day of doing absolutely nothing to get over it. In retrospect, this might have been what condemned The Alphabet Sisters.

I’m not going to become a rabid gamer. But seriously, if you’re going to play just one video game all the way through, let it be Psychonauts. For me.

This one I first heard about in an ad for Audible (distributor of audiobooks) that preceded an episode of The Moth, and the title so intrigued me that I actually managed to not forget it for the entire hour long car ride to Poland and then look it up. Then I put it on my list to check out later. I even checked my library’s online catalog to make sure they had it. Still, it’s been a couple of months.

This book is a (foodie) memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton about how she kind to accidentally became a cook and suddenly found herself opening a first-class restaurant in New York City. Her story, from the get-go, is completely fascinating. She had the sort of childhood that only exists in novels. Her mother was a very elegant French woman, and her father a very vague, outlandish gentleman. She grew up the youngest of five children in a very small town in Vermont, living in an old silk mill converted into a house. The mill rested on several acres of land through which the children ran barefoot all day, every day, when not at school. Several times a year, their father would through big, festive parties and lamb roasts and events. It was almost magical.

Then, when she was thirteen, out of nowhere, her parents split up. Somewhere in there, she and her older brother, Simon (fifteen), were temporarily forgotten about, and left to fend for themselves. Gabrielle fell into a bad crowd (in more than one way), and began taking waitressing jobs and lying about her age. She learned how to cook the food left in their house, and the vegetables that grew every year in the garden her mother had left behind. As she got older, she calmed herself down and started taking respectable jobs- more often than not landing in a kitchen.

And that’s how one begins. A few times, Gabrielle got tired of her place in the kitchen and started to travel. Somehow, she always ended up back where she started, slightly changed. She would go to strange places and try their foods, going after the experience of eating a slice of warm mozzarella and a baked potato in a Dutch bakery that sells drugs legally. Later, when she returned to New York, it was these feelings, from all over the world, that she longed to recreate in her restaurant. It actually reminded me of The Gourmet Rhapsody, in a way, as that book was like a concentrated look at all of the different, most memorable meal experiences he’d had in his life. I think that Gabrielle Hamilton would like The Gourmet Rhapsody.

Gabrielle did go on to open the five-star restaurant Prune. It’s so well known that if you type “prune” into Google, it will suggest “prune restaurant.” The website is worth a look.

She did also eventually get married (after several years as a lesbian) and have a couple of sons. At that point, the book became an exploration of family, love, and loneliness. Her marriage was unconventional at best, and she admits basically up front, and to her husband when he proposes, that she will probably never feel anything more for him than warm fondness. Much of the time, she can’t even muster that. It’s interesting to me that, though her home life was so unusual, she was still very capable of mothering her sons.

So, what I can say about this book: it is foodie, it is a very unusual story, the writing is good. It did drag a tiny bit at the end. But it was actually very readable, and I enjoyed it.

Published in: on June 7, 2011 at 8:04 pm  Comments (2)  
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My Life in France by Julia Child

Oof, I am beyond tired. I finished this book at 11:30 last night and then went straight to bed. I’ve had a long weekend. It wasn’t as restful as I usually like. Even though it was fun, I felt seriously drained at the end of the day.

This weekend there was cake- we made a 12-inch and a 10-inch and stacked them, frosted them, decorated them…. It looked very nice. I was, you know, mostly pleased with how it came out. I’m still annoyed that the frosting coat isn’t coming out smooth, but our cake this week was moist and dense and tasy, and we fed it to a large number of people. The difference this weekend is that, on Saturday, I had friends over to keep me company and observe the process and all the work that goes into Cake Day every week (I’m not actually sure people understand how many hours of sheer labor are put into this project), and they stayed the night so they could watch me complete the decorating the next morning, and then eat cake and join the party later. We had a good time, and it was fun- there were lost of teenagers and youths, so we played games in the yard while the adults (and some of the youths who refused to participate) watched.

Then around five, I was more-or-less ready to be in a completely empty, quiet house and read, but half the crowd was hanging around to watch a movie. So I separated, found someplace quiet to read, and felt tired. They were finally gone by around 7:30, and at that point I just gave up for the night. I wasn’t doing anything. I wasn’t even migrating to Gardiner, as I usually do on Sundays. It became one of those nights where you just want to sleep in your own bed, you know? I’m sure you know.

Instead, I watched two episodes of Doctor Who and read the last twenty pages of this book.

Then I overslept thirty minutes this morning. Dammit.

My Life in France is Julia Child’s memoir. My third memoir in a row- I never realized how much potential this genre had, but it’s completely fascinating.

Some background. Julia Child was born on August 15th in 1912 and grew up in Pasadena, California with absolutely no interest in cooking. She went to Smith College, and more or less spent the first thirty years of her life being taken care of and with very little direction. Her father was a very devoted Republican who expected her to marry a devoted Republican and continue exactly the life he had expected of her. Instead, she married Paul Child, whom she met while doing government work in China in her early thirties. They were married when she was thirty-five, and then they traveled together, he doing government work, she having fun, looking for projects, and being there for him. This is when she first visited France.

Her love for the cuisine was immediate. Her first meal in France, right off the plane, was sole muniere. It wasn’t long after that first day that she enrolled in the Cordon Bleu cooking school, under the tutelage of chef Max Bugnard. Here’s a picture of them together:

If you’ve seen the movie, you probably just did a double-take. The book is riddled with pictures of all of the main characters (except for Paul, because he was always behind the camera), and it suddenly becomes clear what an effort the casting people put into finding actors who really looked like these historical characters whom they were portraying.

Soon after she graduated from the Cordon Bleu (or perhaps soon before.. hm) Julia met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, two French cooking enthusiasts who were attempting to write a cookbook for Americans who liked French food. They had had many problems with publishing, though, and finally asked Julia to help them, both with the cooking and developing of recipes, and as a sort of American eye on their French techniques. Delighted, Julia threw herself head-first into what became something like a twelve year project of research, developing, testing, traveling, and writing. She absolutely loved it.

That’s the beginning, anyway. I feel like I can’t spoil you on this because it’s all history, and everyone knows that her book was ridiculously well-received, and that she got a cooking show out of it- right in the early days of television, too. But it was so interesting to read it in her words, to see her reflections on the way things had gone.

As memoirs go, I’ve noticed that they tend one of two ways (note that I’ve read several memoirs, but I haven’t really read a lot of memoirs, and this is just my observation). They can either have a very storylike quality, and read like a novel- Julie & Julia, or Lunch in Paris, for example- or they can read like someone telling their story, which is what this was like. Julia narrated her story as a methodical series of points, this led to this which happened on this date here, etc. Kind of like a history, only to each event she added much description and commentary. It was a colorful, fun, and wonderfully enjoyable read!

Here’s something else: Julia wrote this memoir when she was ninety-one. She wrote it with her great-grand-nephew, actually, and died before she could see it published. But at ninety-one, she was still able to supply an entire book of memories- very specific ones, with dates, locations. She remembered everything on the menu on a particular day. It’s amazing how solid her mind must have stayed. Pictures and letters tell so much, you know, but you couldn’t have created a book like this without real memories behind them.

On the other hand, Julia was literally creating this book at the end of her timeline. In the epilogue, she wrote about how age was coming on them. She said that she and Paul (who was ten years her senior, even) had reached that time of life where people they had known for years were starting to slip off into the “Great Blue Yonder”. She wrote about Simca, who was a fighter, finally succumbing to illness, and her brother- and sister-in-law both dying of cancer. The final passage of the book was very heavy. You could tell how she felt on this matter- she had lived a long, very full life, even without children (which she did lament, in a few places), but now all of her loved ones had passed on, or were too old to visit her. It was sad, but not tragic.

All in all, I found her story very inspirational. Here is a woman who managed to take life and, even starting late, turn it into something with endless joy, adventure, and good food. Rest in peace, Julia Child.

Published in: on May 2, 2011 at 9:42 am  Comments (2)  
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Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard

Today has been eventful. I spent the earlier part of the day in Portland, sitting quietly in Mom’s office waiting for her to be done with work so that we could go to William-Sonoma at the mall (I’ve never been there). A Chinese woman talked us into buying very sparkly hairpins from a kiosk. Then we drove home and, on the way, stopped to pick up my bike from the shop. I rode that the rest of the way home, stopping for a short time to visit my newest friend, Pauline, who is 86 and lives down the road from me. She’s a very sweet lady and her kids don’t visit her, so I do instead. After that I biked to the library, but halfway there I realized that there was something very wrong with my bike. The tire was on loose. As soon as I tried to take it up a hill, it tilted and started rubbing against the frame. I was pissed, and I walked the bike the rest of the way to the library. It’s there now, locked to the bikestand, until we can borrow someone’s truck and pick it up.

This was all very stressful because my plan was to got the library via bike and return via bike and for the entire excursion to take no more than an hour, since I had two hours before I had to meet with my teacher and go meet my observing expert for my astronomy class. I got my brother to pick me up from the library, and half an hour later I was in Readfield with my teacher and we were on our way to Norridgewock, which is a good hour’s drive or so.

For those who don’t know, I’ve been taking an astronomy class this semester and it is finally drawing to a close. This class has been completely kicking my butt and I have not enjoyed a second of it, and now it’s almost done. Tonight I went to meet a local expert who has a private observatory and I had to prove to him that I could find constellations and things… I actually did much better than I thought I would do. Looking in the night sky, I was able to find Ursas Major and Minor, Leo Major (Leo Minor is an annoying bugger who continuously evades me), Corvus, Auriga, Cassiopeia, Corona Borealis, Bootes, and Hydra. Kind of. Hydra snakes across the entire annoying sky and I personally find it almost impossible to follow, especially with light pollution.

I am so tired.

Now, this past week has been school vacation for us here in Maine, and I haven’t baked that much because I’m trying to be good or something, but I’ve been in a very foodie mood anyway, which is likely why I got through this book so fast.

This one’s been in the pile for at least a couple months, I think. I bought it at the same time as I bought Cleaving, if that helps you put it in perspective. I was in a very foodie mood that way as well, which of course made me daring enough to buy a book I’d never read before. Gasp!

I know.

Not only another foodie book- but another memoir as well! I’m getting predictable or something. But actually, as I read this one, I was kind of stunned by how amazingly relevant it was to my life.

I just turned on my hyper playlist to wake me up enough to get into this review. Okay, here we go.

I really enjoyed this book, but it’s not one I’ll recommend to people because it’s very slice-of-life with no real plot. It’s about this woman, Elizabeth Bard (yar), who took a trip to Paris one summer, had lunch with an attractive French man, and then never left. Okay, she did leave, but ultimately she wound up in Paris, married to her attractive French man. From this point (page four or so), the book is about an American adapting to living in Paris- getting to know France, as she says, one meal at a time.

Is it ironic that I keep reading foodie books about food I can’t pronounce?

My current life’s goal is to live in Ireland- there’s even a culinary school there I want to go to, that I need to save the money for- and more than one person has kind of looked at me funny when I explained that situation. Ireland is not exactly known for it’s haute cuisine. I sort of brush them off and say that gourmet food exists everywhere, but as I was reading this book I was kind of like, “This, this is why I don’t want to live in France.”

Now, that’s not entirely fair, since I had nothing against France before I read this book and I still don’t, but it definitely doesn’t seem like the place for me. Artsy, sure. Foodie, duh. But also kind of…. elitist. And this is the part where I mention that I personally have never been to France and my only experience with true French people was unbelievably pleasant and wonderful, but this is the impression that I got from the book, which is what this space is for talking about.

Elizabeth’s husband, Gwendal, explained to her that when he was in grade school and he told a teacher what he wanted to do when he grew up, that teacher told him that the job was impossible to get and would not make much money anyway, and actually told him he couldn’t do it. Gwendal, raised French, chose another job with which he would be able to earn more money, leaving his dream behind. To an American raised with a “follow your dreams” attitude, even if those dreams lead you to a wacky culinary school in Ireland, I actually couldn’t believe that teachers would discourage children from what they want to do.

Another thing about France is that the women there are very petite and healthy and if you’re big-boned, they think you’re fat. That was the response Elizabeth got, anyway, and she explained that she had never even had body issues in America, the country geared towards helping teenagers develop body issues and eating disorders. Even if I were to turn my lifestyle completely around and love all of the fat on my body, I would not be skinny enough to not have French women look down on me, and I definitely don’t need that kind of pressure all the time.

The third and final thing is that, in all of the books I’ve read about French food, this is the first one where the cuisine has actually seemed intimidating. It’s been unfathomable, unpredictable, even baffling, but this is the first book with recipes that I actually felt incapable of succeeding with if I really tried, you know? I mean, I could probably punch out an aspic, with a little effort. I would never want to, but the process makes sense to me. In this book, there were a few recipes which I would like to try, but for the most part every meal in this book is a big ordeal for a bunch of people really meant to impress.

I’ll try these, at some point- if I really want to be able to cook, I can’t run away from every recipe free of pasta and shrimp. Try new things! Yes. Tomorrow. Because I am very tired tonight.

This was a very good book for people interested in other cultures, and food, and love. And also moving to a new country. Like I said, relevant to my life, more than a little. Goodnight, all.

Published in: on April 23, 2011 at 12:48 am  Comments (11)  
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The Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery

This week has been pleasant but uneventful. And true, it is only halfway over. I’m acquiring new books at a dangerous pace, putting in more orders at my local library while ignoring the pile of books that I own- which is growing- and then picking up stray books that catch my eye. I was at a school in my dad’s district today, waiting in the library while he was at a meeting, and I picked up a new one that my little sister found. Now I need to finish that one in time to give it to her on Sunday! It looks quick, though, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

And I actually have nothing exciting to put in this space. Nothing’s changed, nothing’s happened. This is what you get when I write two reviews in one week!

The Gourmet Rhapsody? Why, that sounds like… is it… yes! It is! A foodie book! So here it is: I, Brigid Chapin, am a serious foodie. I love to cook and to eat, dinners and desserts, I love to read about food and cooking and I love challenging recipes. To me, the culinary arts are exactly that: an art! I can express myself and de-stress through cooking just as easily (perhaps easier) than through a painting or origami model. You might have already gotten this impression, or I might have already stated it outright (I don’t remember), but now you know for sure: I am a foodie, and there will be many foodie reviews in my future. And I look forward to them!

This particular book is written by the highly-esteemed (by me, at least) Muriel Barbery, who wrote another book I’ve already reviewed on this site- The Elegance of the Hedgehog. This book is about a dying food critic, Pierre Arthens, who lives in the Rue de Grenelle- the same hotel, featuring some of the same characters, as in Elegance. In fact, the two books ran on a parallel timeline- perhaps a quarter of the way through Elegance, Monsieur Arthens’ dies in the apartment below Paloma; when his wife leaves the hotel, the room is free for Monsier Ozu to move in. It adds a level of thrill for me to read of Pierre on his deathbead and know that Paloma is overhead, recording her Profound Thoughts.

Pierre, dying, is well into his sixties (it gave his exact age at one point but those are the kinds of details I don’t hang on to well- and it wasn’t entirely relevant) and dying of heart failure, and with his entire life surrounding him (not literally- he doesn’t want to see his kids) he spends his dying hours trying to recall a particular flavor, that which he tasted at one point in his life and has been unable to forget, which he now craves with a primal lust. The book is structured such that every other chapter is narrated by Pierre as he recalls some delicacy he’s sampled in his life. Some are dishes prepared by master chefs- sushi prepared by one of the most esteemed sushi chefs in the world; others are the essence of simplicity- a picnic he stumbled upon while trying to find a different address, where he was invited to stay and be fed. Buttered toast, whiskey, mayonnaise, fresh tomatoes- many more complex dishes prepared with careful affection by amateurs and bachelors. He sifts through the finest meals he’s ever experienced, trying to home in on that one flavor. That one item.

One thing that’s very notable is that the dishes weren’t all memorable for being delicious- some of the meals he remembers were not extravagant or enticing. On several occasions it’s the company that makes the meal. Pierre is a food critic who realizes that it’s not food alone which causes a delectable meal.

One thing that can’t not be mentioned is the brilliance of the prose. Muriel Barbery wrote this book originally in French, and it was translated into English by Alison Anderson, and it is a brilliant, brilliant translation. I can’t imagine that a single element of the original text could possibly have been lost from this packed, powerful, deep novel. It takes concentration to read this book, or else you could miss something without even realizing it. The paragraphs are made of little things, like recipes- ingredients that form into the whole. Since so much of the book is spent describing dishes, and there’s actually no action in the book at all, you could miss a few sentences without being thrown completely off track. But if you miss just a few sentences, then you won’t understand what made this morsel so unforgettable, and that’s the entire point of the book!

On top of that, Pierre was a world-renowned critic- he could only have become so by being both brilliant and perceptive. When he bites into a chunk of bread (the chapter on bread was positively mouth-watering), he doesn’t know just that it tastes good- he knows what it is, what combination of the senses it is that causes bread to be such a delight. And that’s what he articulates throughout his chapters, and that’s what’s completely irresistible to a foodie like myself.

The chapters in between Pierre’s reminiscences are occupied by the people whom he’s affected in his life- and very few have a positive word to say. There are opinions dropped by his children and wife, his nephew, the staff who have worked in his home, his mistress, even his cat! Oh, and Renee- one of the main characters of Elegance. I was truly hoping that Paloma would show up, just to drop a few paragraphs, but no such luck. Together, these voices form a second picture of Pierre: one of a man to whom food was the most important thing. His wife and children fell by the wayside (the former continued to love him; the latter despised him). He would go off on long trips away and return with nary a word to his abandoned family. Many of the people, after expounding on his lack of virtues for a page or two, would proclaim, “Let the bastard die,” or something along those lines. None wept for his departure (except perhaps his cat, whom I found to be a very interesting narrator).

Pierre didn’t give two shakes what people thought of him on his deathbed, he just wanted that flavor.

I, personally, really enjoyed this book. It’s probably a much more delightful read if you’re a foodie- actually, I don’t think you could read it if you weren’t a foodie. I borrowed my copy from my dad, who told me that he’s tried to read it more than once. It’s a heavy book, and you have to really enjoy reading about food if you want any hope of getting through it.

Published in: on March 30, 2011 at 7:43 pm  Comments (5)  
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Cleaving by Julie Powell

I don’t know about any of you, but I have been riding an inexplicable high for the past two or three weeks, I don’t even know. But it’s been fantastic. When you’re just annoyed for a long time, or angry or overtired (well, I’m still overtired), you kind of forget how amazing it is to just be happy because you can be. And today I’m even better for reasons that are too complicated to explain but you might actually know about them already.

I think it’s art that keeps me sane. You know when people talk about productivity, and they mean homework or chores or things that need to be done? Finishing all of my homework on time doesn’t make me feel productive, but creating something I can be proud of absolutely does. I’ve managed several accomplishments this week which have left me feeling pretty darn good. First and foremost, there’s the cake I decorated. There’s the super-tiny kusudama that took me half a week to make. I also learned two new origami forms this week- lotus and camellia, but I don’t have photos of those yet. On top of that, I’ve quite taken to watercolor. I love it! Oh, and I almost forgot- I made this video in collaboration with my dad. It’s his music over my photos.

Oh, and I’ve been reading.

Cleaving is the second memoir written by Julie Powell- authoress of Julie and Julia, which I read about a month ago and loved so much that I went out and bought this one before reading it. I was putting a lot of faith into this book, but I felt that I was in safe hands.

Julie is the kind of person who stagnates if she doesn’t do something challenging and fascinating fairly frequently. She explains it differently- she says that she feels urges that come from nowhere, and she and Eric have become used to them to the point where he’s no more than just mildly disconcerted when she decides that she wants to learn butchery, and then spends two month searching for a shop that will actually take an apprentice, and then finds a fantastic little shop two hours outside of Queens.

However, a lot has happened since the events of her first book. She’s not a nicer person. In fact, if you didn’t like her in the first book, well…. you might want to think twice before reading this one. She has an affair. This is what amazes me about memoirs; she speaks completely honestly (and sometimes crudely) about her passionate, torrid love affair with this other man she’s known since college, and what it does to her relationship with Eric (who somehow doesn’t leave her), despite the fact that both of these men are probably going to read the book.

The book begins right at the end of her two-year affair, where everything is on rocky ground but there hasn’t been an earthquake yet. When Julie gets her apprenticeship outside of the city, she and Eric agree that it would be best for her to rent an apartment closer to the shop, since she’ll be working ten-hour days. She does, they have their space, and she returns to her home in Queens two or three times a week, and now she has the butchershop.

I dare you to try and read this without falling in love with the Fleisher’s team. They’re the kind of people who are legitimately too amazing to exist in real life. All of the butchers are men, but there’s another woman who works the counter, and Josh’s wife, Jessica, owns the store with him, and she manages all the business. So there are other women around, but the testosterone kind of pools around the meat counter. There’s much goading and competing and joking and cutting and meat and it sounds completely fantastic, just a joyous space to inhabit. Fantastic.

Also, one of the guys there was continuously trying to squick her out with something like pig cheeks and skin masks and things, and I was just sitting there going, “This is the woman who intentionally cooked and ate brains, who hacked through her own marrowbone, and who spent a week on an aspic diet.” She can not be grossed out.

Now, I didn’t like this book as much as her other. It was a little bit less readable, because she spent a long time discussing the ins and outs of butchery, and if you know nothing about the anatomy of livestock, it can be a little incomprehensible. I was also annoyed at her because I wanted her to stop texting her lover all the time (even after they broke it off, she would not leave him alone) and accept the complete wonder of a husband she had in Eric.

If you don’t know at this point, I’m a serious foodie and very impressionable. If I see a photo of a plateful of crepes (for example), I want to make crepes right now. This book has made me bloodthirsty. I, who can’t claim to vegetarianism but ingests a fair amount less meat than the rest of my family, have been craving something savory since I began this book. But cooking meat is intimidating. I’ve baked chicken, I sautee shrimp on a regular basis, but I really don’t cook with meat. Luckily, this book comes equipped with plenty of interesting recipes worth trying if you’re brave enough.

I’m going to start with liver. That’s been her constant throughout these books- I think liver is her favorite food. She first tried it for the Julie/Julia project, and she went on for about a page on how amazing liver was. Then, later on, Eric tackled it for her for her birthday, and she took the opportunity to again obsess over liver, and then, within the first four pages of this book she’s expounding on the joys of liver, and provides a very simply-looking recipe for how to prepare. So I’m going to try that. Does anyone here have a positive liver experience to share, as I go into this? My family has been slightly less than optimistic, but is willing to back me up.

Okay, it’s just about give o’clock, and my mom is about to get off of work. I have a pile of foodie books right next to me, but I feel like I should be spacing them out rather than thrusting them all upon you at once. So, I’m going to ask my mom to take me to the library and then to the store (for liver), and pick up some non-foodie books. Until then, folks!

The verdict on liver:
So the liver was made for dinner tonight. Mother genuinely didn’t like it, but Max genuinely did. I was somewhere in between. The taste and texture were unusual, and it wasn’t as amazing as Julie had led me to believe, but it also wasn’t terrible. Coming from someone who isn’t actually big on steaks, it’s something I wouldn’t mind making from time to time, just to feed myself and Max. Here’s the recipe that I used, in case any of you are curious:

Thin slices of liver- however many people you’re feeding. Should be about 1/2 inch thick.
Flour to coat
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil

Season your liver, then coat in flour and shake off the excess. In a frying pan over high heat, melt butter with oliver oil. Once butter has stopped foaming, place the liver in the frying pan. Wait until a golden-brown crust has formed, then flip it over so the same can happen on the other side. This will happen fairly quickly. Very quickly, actually. We didn’t have time to make any sides. Julie saws not to worry about undercooking- overcooking is “by far the worse fate for liver”, but you should also try not to make it raw, as mine was in some of the thicker places. Basically, if it’s crusty on both sides it should be mostly okay.

If any of you try this, let me know what you think.

Published in: on March 14, 2011 at 4:52 pm  Comments (3)  
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Julie & Julia by Julie Powell

You know what the thing is? I should really cut the bitching about all the work I have to do. Because it IS a lot of work, I DO always have SOMETHING waiting to be done, and EVERY bit of it is a drag, but I still have hours to sit and read and, today, cook. Appropriately, too.

Though actually, this week, following a few conversations with my mom about “after high-school plans,” I find myself REALLY looking forward to my gap year. Yes, I’m taking a gap year- but I’m graduating a year early, I feel like I deserve it, and I really don’t want to start college now. I want time. I want to go backpacking through Europe with five dollars to my name. Or something like that.

New resolution: embrace challenges. To me, this specifically means that when I see something completely kickass awesome online, I won’t go, “Wow, that’s cool. Whoever made this has some serious talent.” Instead, I’ll go, “I wonder how that was done. I bet I could do that- I have hands, don’t I?” Because, really, that’s all it takes. And some supplies. I need to stop being afraid of supplies I’ve never used before.

Yes, I am actually sickeningly optimistic right now. I really just want to finish school. In the meantime, I decided to reread a book I knew would put me in a good mood- I like it so much I actually purchased a copy.

Oh, another thing before I get started; my mom read my Alice review and told me, as I kind of already knew, that what I’m writing aren’t really reviews- they’re kind of details of my emotional reactions to the book. But frankly, I don’t feel the need to change that. If anything, it’s probably more interesting- call me a hypocrite, but I don’t even read that many review blogs. What I have here is more personal, and isn’t that a bit more enjoyable to read? Anyway.

So, who here’s seen the movie? I love the movie! The movie definitely puts a more pleasant spin on things than the book does. I’m getting ahead of myself.

Julie & Julia is a memoir by Julie Powell about the year she turned thirty, when she decided (rather spontaneously, actually) that she was going to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Volume I” in a year.

542 recipes.

365 days.

To put a spin on things- to document, to make it substantial- Julie decided she would write about her culinary forays on a blog, called “The Julie/Julia Project.” It took a bit of time, but it soon became a sensation, with regular followers commenting and discussing and giving input, and even making donations and sending anonymous packages and other creepy stalker things.

So, let’s talk about the movie: I saw the movie first, and I just went on a Julie/Julia bender. I read the book, watched a bunch of old French Chef episodes, watched the movie three or four more times, and more after that, and I’ll probably watch it again sometime this week. I don’t know what it was about the movie that got to me so strongly, but after reading the book I have a bit of a better idea. And if you’ve read the book, this might sound just a little bit ridiculous.

I find the story very inspirational. Reading it literally makes me want to get up and do things, and that’s happened both times. Just watch, Julie & Julia is going to become my feel-good reading material of choice. It’s ridiculous. Part of the reason it’s so crazy is because, from an objective standpoint, if you read the book, take in everything that happens over the year (because the movie was mostly about the food; the book is about the year, where food happened to play a hefty role), and the way she handles every frustration- she didn’t actually seem to be enjoying herself. Yet at the end, she attests that the experience, that Julia, has changed her life, and it’s clearly a mark of my naivety that I don’t entirely see how. My best guess is that she’s been inspired to better living, the same way I have.

You know another thing? She didn’t seem that likeable. I mean, she was by no means a horrible person you should hide your children from, of course she’s not, and she’s actually probably a fine person. I suppose what I mean is that I doubt she and I would get along as friends. Okay, this is absolutely not coming out the way I mean it to. She’s just very different than me, and if it had been me deciding to do an insane project while working an insane job at insane hours, the book would probably be a little differently. Actually, there would probably not even be a book, because I’m not as stubborn as she is and would have given up. She actually makes a point of this in several places, citing previous times in her life when she made terrible decisions and then refused to quit, despite being miserable, and everyone in her life urging her to just quit already. She’s very stubborn. She also whines a lot. But so do I. I think I’m going to end this trail of thought now, because it’s not serving the purpose I wanted it to serve.

Julie Powell is not a quitter.

Anyway, after reading this book- well, while reading this book, I very much desired to cook. I do like to cook, and bake, and I like food a lot (this book is more enjoyable if you’re a foodie) and especially chocolate. I have a massive sweettooth. In face, I’m pretty sure I have sweet teeth. Thirty-two of them, to be exact. And a bit of the tongue as well. So it was only fitting that I broke my kitchen vigil with this recipe for chocolate-orange cheesecake. Those came out of the oven, but I haven’t tried them yet. But it’s interesting, because when we were shopping for the ingredients we ran into several hurdles; we were missing exactly three of the eight components of this dessert: almond flour, orange extract, and coconut (which I actually passed up because I hate coconut). My mom took that moment to decide that this was probably a good time to return home, check the recipe, and maybe come back for ingredients later, but I didn’t want to. I said I could compensate for the missing ingredients, and so I did. Instead of coconut, I put graham cracker crumbs in the crust. Instead of almond flour, I used regular, with some extra brown-sugar to make up for the lack of sweetness. I bought two oranges and zested them. The batter tasted awesome. I do hope they came out well, you know, if only so I can be right.

See, I can blog about food, too.

Really, though, I love this book. I’m in a good mood for having read it. It was clever, funny, gross (one word: maggots), and I really have to mention here, but Julie Powell has a serious way with words! See, there’s something about writing which I’ve noticed; it’s not about bringing out your scariest vocabulary to give the idea that you’re one of the elite. There’s an amount of understatement that, when used effectively, lulls your reader into a zone of comfort so they don’t even realize how thoroughly your words are massaging their minds. It’s about choosing exactly the right word for exactly what you need. It’s a gift.

Everybody read this book. Watch the movie. In no particular order.

Next up: a classic, and a V-recommended. The library is one of my dearest friends.

Dear Julie: If you’re still in the blogosphere and you ever see this, please don’t take offense. I’m just a naive book blogger whose gimmick is saying the first thing that comes to her mind. Organization and reason aren’t part of the game. I really did find your book inspiring, and it caused me to make delicious cheesecake.

Published in: on February 4, 2011 at 10:49 pm  Comments (4)  
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