Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cutting for Stone

I really liked this book.  I resisted reading it for quite awhile after I read the reviews.....didn't sound like my kind of book.  But once I started it I never looked back.  I often complain about the length of novels where the story just plods on  as though the author can't figure out how to end it, but although this book is well over 600 pages long it held my interest to the very end. 

The author is a doctor in real life and there is a lot of emphasis on  hospitals and medical matters, but it is not (very) technical and the physicians and surgeons in the story come across as real people with compassion and concern for the human beings who are their patients.

The plot revolves around twin sons born to a beautiful Indian nun and a British surgeon.  It is a tale of love, betrayal and forgiveness, set in the exotic background of Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie.  There are many colorful characters brought together by life's vagaries and I was mindful of that"endless river of Chance and Change" on which we all float and which carries us to destinations which we could not have  imagined when we set sail. 

I have heard several reactions to this book from different people....one liked it a lot, one could not get into at all, one put it aside while reading something else but intends to go back to it, and so on.  So you will have to sample it  yourself to see what you think.  But for me, it was one of those books that makes reading so much fun.  I would give it 4 1/2 stars. maybe 5.

Cutting for Stone       Abraham Verghese         Vintage Books   

Friday, November 11, 2011

Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant

I have just read a book about eating alone.  It is a collection of essays from food writers and well-known people about what they eat when they are home alone or dining solo in restaurants.  As might be expected, their choices are sometimes weird in the extreme.  They indulge in secret food fetishes and gorge on childhood favorites, they invent fantastic stews and experiment with exotic spices.  Or, they open a can of refried beans and eat them cold out of the can.  Just the sort of thing you (oh, come on, admit it!) or I do when we are alone.

I have lived alone for almost ten years.  Although I share meals several times a week with my family, most of my meals are just me, myself and I.  To make things clear, eating alone (or being alone) is not my problem.  What I hate is cooking alone.

I still love to cook, and spend a lot of time poring over recipes on the wonderful cooking blogs on the Web, or in magazines and Sunday supplements.  I  keep up with the latest trends and techniques (sous vide, foams),  exotic ingredients (hoja santa, malanga), adventurous and daring combinations of foods ( guacamole with Dungeness crab, apples and coconut vinegar ) and various foreign cuisines which catch on with the public for a while and are then replaced by the next hot trend.  I like to try new recipes, but I do not go far afield, sticking mostly to tried and true ingredients and techniques.  Can't get most of  that new, trendy stuff here in Lakeport, anyway.

But when I do cook, it is for my family.  I have little interest in sweating over a hot stove to produce something just for me.  In the first place, after I finish eating, I do not want a lot of pots and pans and dishes sitting around my kitchen.  As I wrote in an earlier blog, I do not do dishes at night, and when I finish eating, I want to rinse off a plate and a glass and be done.

So I often do what some of the essayists in the book do:   I open a can of something and eat it, as is. I love corn, and while it is in season I have an ear of corn-on-the-cob almost every day.  But the rest of the year, I will sometimes open a can of Green Giant kernels and eat them cold (but not out of the can) with a slice of buttered bread.  I like baked beans the same way.  Hot or cold.  Tomato soup is good with saltines and butter,  and there is just one pot to wash.  Cream-of- Anything Campbell's soup heated up with a can of chopped clams.  I love canned red salmon, plain,  with maybe some left-over  salad or a sliced cucumber.  Once in awhile, I will get ambitious and cook a full recipe of Swedish meatballs, say, and store them in the freezer.  Pull out two or three, heat up some McCormick's brown gravy and boil a potato and I'm good to go.  You understand that this is a confessional, nothing held back.  I was comforted by some of the stories in the book:  I am not the only one!

I have some standards.  I do not eat things straight out of cans.  I do not eat standing up by the kitchen sink.  I do not eat TV dinners (except when I had the shingles),  and I always use a place setting.   Etiquette gets bent a little, of course.  I usually cut everything up into bite-size bits before I begin, because I read or do acrostics or watch the News Hour while I am eating, and I do not want to be distracted.  This is the antithesis of what food means in the social sense...the gathering around a communal board to share and enjoy the loving preparation of nature's bounty and so on.  This is just to stuff in some nutrients to keep the engine running.

Confession:  I have not been entirely candid about eating out of  containers.  I eat Ben and Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk right out of the tub.  Nobody around to see and it saves washing a bowl.

The book is "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant", edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler,  and published by Riverhead Books.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic

An unusual little book, only 129 pages long, but covering a period in American history not given much attention by many Americans.  If begins with the journey of the "Picture Brides" from Japan to the West Coast of the U.S. and ends with the round-up of all Japanese at the onset of WWII.  It is written in an incantatory style which I found very compelling and very close to poetry.  In it, one traces the history of these women with their expectations, hopes and fears as they make their way to America to begin life with men whom they know only from pictures (many of which are misleading or false), through their first anxious days,  years of backbreaking toil for most of them, childbirth ,and the repudiation of their heritage by many of those children, and the final days of their disappearance from the cities and towns and farms of the West.

The author does not follow the story of any particular woman, so this is not a novel in the usual sense. She writes of the women as a collective body, giving the narrative a universal, interlocking, unity.  One feels the commonality of their stories woven into the individual experiences of each one.

The final section (of eight) is written from the point of view of their American neighbors after the internment of the Japanese.  Where did they go?  Will they return?   Were they really traitors, are the rumors and whispers really true?   

I liked this book a great deal.  I think any woman reading it can relate in some way to the stories of these women, even though her life experiences may be much different. A mother is a mother, a wife is a wife, a woman is a woman, whatever her origins.  

The Buddha in the Attic        Julie Otsuka        Alfred A.  Knopf