Creative folks amaze me. I mean, how can they come up with ideas out of nowhere that just knock you over with adorableness? My creativity is limited to “Hey, I wonder what would happen if I put tiny chocolate chips in the cookie dough instead of the regular-sized ones???” and coming up with excuses when my husband calls me and he KNOWS I’m in T.J. Maxx yet again. That’s about all the creativity I’ve got.Thank goodness I have friends and family who practically are oozing with creativity, so all I have to do is relax and enjoy. Take my four-woman book club. Three of our members prepare thoughtfully themed meals with fun decorations and appropriately chosen wine for our sort-of monthly meetings, and one of our members does not. Draw your own conclusions. Needless to say, book club was NOT at my house for our recent “Life of Pi” dinner and discussion. With her usual flair, our hostess went all green and tropical with the decor (loved the leafy chargers!) and served us delicious seared tuna, veering away from the book for a Mardi-Gras dessert of king cake and bread pudding. (Full disclosure: She had a friend bring back the king cake from a New Orleans bakery but was disappointed because, she said, it tasted like a gas-station cinnamon roll. Luckily, gas-station cinnamon rolls are pretty much tops on my food list so I was happy.) As for the book, we all agreed that the writing was graceful and lyrical made us feel as if we were there with Pi and Richard Parker. On the other hand, we were confused about parts of the plot and what it all was supposed to mean. WERE we supposed to pick which story was real? WERE we supposed to question Pi’s sanity? CAN bananas (thank you, Gwen Stefani, for guaranteeing I always can spell “bananas”) truly float? And what’s with the person-eating island, anyway? Surely that had some allegorical/mythological/philosophical threads we were not picking up. We didn’t come to any conclusion but had a fun time, anyway. As always. And now I just realized that our next book — my recommended pick of “The Dressmaker,” by Kate Alcott — is about shipwrecks and lifeboats, too. But no tigers.
In my four-woman book club, we rotate host duties for the
monthly whenever-we-can-get-together meetings. The hostess chooses the book and decides where to meet — usually her house — and what kind of food to have. Because reading and eating are some of my all-time top favorite things, I’m not ashamed to admit that when it’s my turn to host, I usually choose books I know I can get a great menu from. And I hit the jackpot with my most recent pick, “Suite Francaise,” by Irene Nemirovsky. This is a powerful unfinished work about the German occupation of France during World War II. Nemirovsky, a well-known writer at the time, was from a wealthy Ukrainian family that fled the Russian Revolution when she was a teenager. The family settled in Paris, where she married and had two daughters while building her career as a major novelist. Because of her Jewish heritage, the French government refused to grant her citizenship in 1938, although she converted to Catholicism the next year. As the Germans approached Paris in 1940, she and her husband, also a Jew, fled with their children to a French village. Nazi control made life for Jews increasingly dangerous, and she sent her children to live with their nanny. She was arrested in July, 1942, at age 39 and gassed at Auschwitz, where her husband was sent and killed a few months later. The amazing thing about this story is that while watching her life and her family and her country — all the things most precious to her — destroyed all around her, she was writing a novel about it. “Suite Francaise,” made up of three novels of a projected five, follows fictional French characters as they are faced with the same unbelievable and unbearable circumstances Nemirovsky herself was facing at the exact same time — and, of course, without knowing the ending. You MUST read this book. It’s that good. And, since it’s about France — even France at war — there naturally are some excellent food references. I had great fun shopping for and putting together a menu: Shortbread, cream puffs, chocolate truffles, bread, cheese, olive oil and herbs for dipping, peach jam, sliced apples, cold sliced ham, mustard, pistachios, oranges, grapes, French-press coffee, French wine, Perrier and some little wine biscuits I found in the TJ Maxx food section — the best place for affordable gourmet. Impressed? Don’t be — the most I had to do to get this food on the table was open boxes and packages, although I did actually slice up the apple. I think. But for dessert, I actually made a cherry tart by my very own self. It smelled delicious while it was baking. How did it taste? Well, let’s just say that plenty of homemade vanilla-flavored whipped cream covers all mistakes.
My four-woman book club was at my house the other night, and I’m so glad because it’s only when company comes that I look at our ratty salsa-stained napkins and think, “I really should buy new ones,” and then of course it’s just a baby step to buying a new tablecloth because you simply cannot put old napkins on a new tablecloth and naturally then you need new coasters because the old ones just will not do and before you know it you’re lugging two big bags out of Target and thinking, “But I just went in for some new napkins” — which, we all know, is Target’s Master Plan to Take Over the World. Or, at least, to make a dent in my bank account. I was practicing what to tell my husband (the on-the-defensive offense of “How can you ask me if I just bought these? I’ll have you know I take our household budget very seriously and I can’t believe you think I’d just go out and buy some new things. And furthermore …” was a possibility) but so far he hasn’t noticed, so I figure I’m safe. Or maybe I should just come out and tell him. Sort of like the other morning when I was at Older Daughter’s house with 3-year-old grandson Capt. Adorable while she and my son-in-law were out. I was puttering and didn’t notice that the Captain had gleefully unrolled a whole roll of paper towels in the hallway to “make a sled.” Yikes. I knew this contravened a Mommy rule and I wasn’t anxious to have another — another! — black mark on my grandmotherly babysitting record. “Uh-oh,” I said, as unsuccessfully tried to re-roll, “what happened here?” With that innocent look of “What? Who? Me?” that’s perfected so early, the Captain shrugged and said with no irony whatsoever, “The paper towels got long, Kacky.” Brilliant! Genius! Our ticket to redemption! It wasn’t a lie because that’s exactly what happened. “Right!” I said. “That’s what we’ll tell Mommy when she asks what happened.” We practiced a couple of times and I thought all was well, until Mommy came home and the Captain forgot his lines at the crucial moment: “I’m sorry, Mommy. When Kacky wasn’t looking, I took the paper towels and rolled them out in the hall.” Ouch — a double whammy of confession and implication. But it wasn’t so bad, since both the Captain and I escaped with only a stern warning look. And of course we talked later about the importance of always telling Mommy and Daddy the truth — and leaving Kacky out of it.
Isn’t this the prettiest and most relaxing bedroom ever? I stayed over at a friend’s recently after a particularly energetic book-club meeting (we kept toasting the fact that the hostess’s husband had not set himself on fire when the gas tank ruptured as he grilled our dinner). My friend graciously put me up for the night, and I promise it was like staying in the coziest bed-and-breakfast inn ever. I did not want to leave. I love her color scheme of white with blues, pinks and oranges — it was cool and summery and so clean and fresh. And can you get a close-up of the bedside tables? How cute is that? My friend — oh, let’s call her “Susan,” for no reason whatsoever — loves color and design and knows how to make it all come together. Plus, she’s an excellent shopper and always finds the bargains everybody else passes up. I’m definitely going to have to come up with another excuse to stay here again soon. When’s the next book-club gathering?
My friend Susan is the most amazing cook and hostess ever. Our four-woman book club met at her house this past week and she served us a meal so healthy and delicious we didn’t want to stop eating long enough to discuss the book — which was Winter’s Bone, by the way, and excellent. Susan started impressing us with bruschetta (roasted garbanzo beans, onions, tomatoes and other fresh veggies on grilled bread) and then went on to a cup of chicken soup with pita-chip croutons. Entrees were beautifully grilled salmon steaks with roasted potatoes and vegetables. And then there was dessert. And I know you’re thinking when you look at this ice-cream delight, “But I thought this was a healthy meal.” It was! Susan, with her shopping skills, found these low-fat and 140-calorie ice-cream sandwiches from Skinny Cow and topped them with heart-healthy walnuts, strawberries and blueberries. I’d never had any Skinny Cow products before since I tend to walk very fast past the ice-cream aisle at the grocery to prevent being irresistibly drawn to the Ben & Jerry’s section, where I usually stand there with the cooler door open wondering how many calories and fat grams Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream actually can have. (Denial. I’m in denial.) And I have to admit I’ve had unpleasant low-fat, low-calorie, low-whatever ice-cream experiences. Haven’t we all? But I’m telling you: Skinny Cow is good. And when it has the Susan seal of approval, you know it’s a winner.
I have to admit that I don’t know anything about Sweden beyond that Swedish muppet guy and the wonderful breakfast I order at the Original House of Pancakes in Birmingham’s Five Points that comes with powdered sugar, whipped cream and strawberries. (Now, that’s a breakfast.) Or I didn’t know anything before I got addicted to those internationally bestselling Stieg Larsson’s “Girl With …” books. If you haven’t picked these up, you’ve got to. And keep the coffee pot handy because that’s basically all they do in these books: Hack into computers, track down killers and drink endless cups of coffee. I can’t get enough. And luckily my food-loving book club read the first book in this trilogy — and extra-luckily our hostess for this meeting is our friend who specializes in creating marvelicious meals for the rest of us to enjoy. She went all out for our “Girl with the Dagon Tattoo” night and created a Swedish smorgasbord that I believe Larsson himself would have felt right at home with. We had smoked salmon, pickled herring, beets, potatoes, ligonberry preserves, pickles, cheese, sandwiches and of course coffee and cake for dessert. Oh my cookies. It was delicious, and she made us feel so special. We always nominate her for Best Hostess Ever and we threaten not to leave whenever she has us over. You’d think she’d learn, but we’re glad she hasn’t.
I’ve read/am reading/am trying to read a couple of books that folks are buzzing about lately, and I’m not sure if I like them or not. (SPOILER ALERT: I never want to warn anybody off from reading one of my posts, but if you don’t want to know specifics about either one of these books, tread cautiously.) I’d heard talk, of course, about Stieg Larsson’s “Dragon” book that seems to have taken over the world and somehow I thought it was one of those woman-journeys-to-exotic-locale-to-find-her-true-self (sort of an “Eat, Pray, Get Tattooed” experience) but of course that is waaaay off. We’re reading it in one of my book clubs, and I think I like it. I really dig the Agatha Christie-like mystery part and I love all the coffee-drinking and sandwich-eating those wacky Swedish people seem to do. But the overriding theme of … well, evil and unspeakable violence is disturbing. As it should be, I know. And then there’s the background story of Larsson’s politics and journalism career, which adds a whole other layer of complexity. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this book. On the other hand, I know exactly how I feel about the darling of the post-post-modern or whatever crowd, Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad”: Bored. And confused. I just don’t get it. Am I supposed to care about these people? I keep picking it up and trying to read it because I know I should — it keeps getting fantastic reviews — but then after a few pages my attention wanders and I wonder if it’s time to feed the cats or water the plants or do something else more interesting. Like find another book. Or am I just not cool enough to appreciate “Goon Squad”? That seems more likely.
In January, one of the members of my four-woman book club wanted to read something about Haiti since we all had to embarrassingly admit ignorance about this earthquake-ravaged country. She suggested “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Kidder and now I’m suggesting it to y’all. Read this book and you’ll be like us: Beginning to understand the Haiti story that’s behind the headlines. “Mountains” is a non-fiction look at Paul Farmer, a brilliant, charmistic and compassionate Harvard-trained doctor and anthropologist who’s moved by the plight of Haiti’s poor. Farmer helped establish a community-based health project in 1983 in Cange, in Haiti’s Central Plateau near Port-au-Prince where an internationally financed dam had obliterated the peasants’ land and way-of-life — reducing them to less-than-subsistence. Farmer’s initiative, Partners in Health, has grown into a world-wide non-profit organization and Farmer is a recognized global authority on poverty-related health issues. Kidder’s book traces the development of PIH but focuses on Haiti. You’ll learn about the daily lives of its peasants and the almost unbelievable obstacles they face just to provide human basics for themselves. You’ll find out about Haiti’s history and culture and way of life — and you’ll come to respect and appreciate and be amazed at how the Haiti people survive. Learn more about PIH and its work in Haiti at http://www.pih.org and author Tracy Kidder at http://www.tracykidder.com/. Farmer’s Wikipedia entry has lots of good information, too, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Farmer.
Was I the only one underwhelmed with Elizabeth Kostova’s newest, “The Swan Thieves”? Her first book, “The Historian,” intrigued me so I couldn’t wait to dive in to Swan, but … meh. It’s about a somewhat famous painter who attacks a painting in a New York museum and then refuses to talk. His psychiatrist takes on the project of trying to figure out why the artist did that — and we get to tag along. There are various narrators and voices as the doctor digs into the artist’s past, including both the painter’s wife and his girlfriend plus a mysterious woman the artist obsessively painted portraits of. Turns out the mystery woman was an English artist who lived more than 100 years ago. We learn her story in the book through love letters between her and her husband’s much-older uncle, and if Kostova had just stuck with that narrative and lost about half of Swan’s almost-600 pages, she would at least have ended up with something halfway entertaining and satisifyingly dark and Gothic. But, sadly, she didn’t. It’s hard to keep up with who’s saying what, the characters are practically indistinguishable from one another and I kept having to ask myself, “Now, why am I reading this again?” Plodding, slow and tedious are the words that come to mind. But the bottom line is that Kostova never convinced me I cared about any of these people. An artist ripped a painting — so what? He was supposed to be this charismatic always-center-of-attention type of guy who everybody immediately fell in love with despite the fact that he harbored this deep and tragic secret, but I wasn’t feeling it. I’m sure there were supposed to be all sorts of subtle sub-texts and multi-layered themes about art and psychiatry and obsessions and love, but I mainly just wanted to get it over with. I know, I know — Kostova is a gifted writer who layers complexities upon complexities and excels at rich detail and historical interweaving. Shrug. If she can’t make me care about her characters, then I am not impressed.
This past week, my four-woman book club had our November meeting at my house with the book “The Space Between us” by India-native Thrity Umrigar. We had just finished “The Help,” about black maids and the white women they worked for in Jackson, Mississippi, during the 1960s Civil Rights movement, and “The Space Between Us” is much the same story — privileged upper class women and lower-class servants. However, “Space” focuses more on the relationship between two individual women and what happens when that relationship is tested. We all loved this book for the insight into Indian culture and the stories of struggle, love and loss the two women main-characters endured. Highly recommended. And because book club is just us four friends, whoever is hosting usually tries to find some favors and cook a dinner that goes along with the theme of the book we read that month. Luckily, for my turn I found three oh-so-cute enameled trinket boxes from India at the World Market in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. And for cooking, I turned to Indian chef Madhur Jaffrey’s “Easy East/West Menus for Family and Friends.” Okay, I didn’t actually cook anything from that cookbook — you know me better than that — but I did get some good quick and easy menu ideas (thank you, grocery stores!): Roasted onion and garlic jam on toasted strips of nan bread, sauteed chicken breasts in a garlic and ginger sauce, turmeric rice with onions and golden raisins, roasted asparagus, a couple ready-made heat-and-eat curry dishes (hot, hot, hot — but tasty, in a hot mouth-burning sort of way) and English tea cookies for dessert. Good friends, good books, good discussion, not-so-bad food — and my three friends don’t mind the bonus cat hair they get at my house, at all.