Saturday, February 23, 2013

Saturday Snapshot: Search for Banana Bread

Saturday Snapshot is a weekly meme hosted by Alyce at At Home With Books. The guidelines are to post a photo that you or a friend or family member have taken and then link it back to Alyce's original post for the week. Photos can be old or new and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see.

I bake banana bread every month or so, whenever I happen to have fresh, very ripe bananas lying around. I've been trying to find some different recipes than just the basic one I've used for years. It is an awesome recipe but like to have some variety in the freezer for lunches and snacks.

I came across a recipe for a cinnamon banana bread, and thought I'd give it a try. It was a bit of a challenge, as the batter was dense to work with even before I got to adding all the flour. Also a bit problematic was halving the dough, then layering with the cinnamon and sugar and then adding the rest. Dense doesn't always make for a pliable product.


It turned it alright, though I won't try this recipe again. The swirl part comes from combining 1/4cup sugar with 1tsp cinnamon, which seemed off to me in proportions. I halved the sugar, as that is a lot of sugar and put in more cinnamon. It tastes good but am going to continue looking for more banana bread recipes. If you have any, pass along!

*Eventually I will get a new phone--I have to--and this weekly entry will become more than cooking and baking. Maybe. ;-)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Adaptation: World War Z

I've heard really great comments about Max Brooks' World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War so was intrigued where this would hit with the recent surgence in zombie-based films and television shows. Based on this trailer, I'm not too intrigued anymore. I haven't read the book but is it as trite as this trailer makes it seem?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Book Review: The Lover's Dictionary

Rather than complete the book review I've been working on, I decided to write one about the book I just finished last night instead. It took about 40 minutes to read, but will take considerably less so to write the review.

As the title suggests, David Levithan's The Lover's Dictionary is written as a series of dictionary entries. He selects words with which to describe a love story and then write snippets of that story for each word. The reasoning, as summed up by the male lead: "Trying to write about love is ultimately like trying to have a dictionary represent life. No matter how many words there are, there will never be enough." So true.

The idea with The Lover's Dictionary is to stop and consider the words being used to describe the relationship. Words like "dumbfounded," "incessant," "zenith," and "punctuate" we may never use ourselves but still ring true.

It seems a bit gimmicky, to approach a novel in such a format but hey, why not. There are books out there written as emails, and as blog posts. Maybe even ones on the way written as a series of Facebook updates or Twitter posts. Though I suppose with emoji books now being accepted by the Library of Congress, there's no need to bother with an 'old school' book format when it comes to Twitter.

I thought this choice of format an intriguing way to humanize a word rather than have the characters attempt to explain or try to emulate the meaning of that word within the story. What I mean is that the people felt like set pieces, to be moved and jostled to accommodate the word rather than the words being moved and jostled to accommodate the characters, as we are accustomed. If this makes sense. Maybe?

To make this work though, there has to be some detachment in order to ensure the word or entry is appropriately highlighted. This is accomplished by the lack of names for the lead characters. "You" stands in for the girlfriend, with the story swirling based on the perspective of the no-name boyfriend.

Well, he's not exactly no-name as he intends to be the narrative embodiment of each word. Both are at the will of the word, yet she is always condensed to a singular, generic word, whereas he is extrapolated and freed by multiple, specific words. As such, the words stand in as his name, or at least this is how it seemed to me.

Some of the entries are very short while others have a few paragraphs, just like in a dictionary.  One fault with the entries is the lack of chronology between the entries. Then again, maybe it isn't really a fault as a possible writing affectation. The chronological disparity may have been deliberate (again to follow the dictionary format) or it maybe was just a matter of wanting to use certain words and needing to make them work within 200 pages. Not that it really matters, as ultimately Levithan builds the story consistently, slowly. You want to know where the narrative thread will lead, what words comprise the finality of the character's story. And this is a mark of a good read.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: Your Voice in My Head

Emma Forrest's Your Voice in My Head came so highly recommended to me I felt it should have arrived with gilded gold lettering and a velvet cover. Or something appropriately rich and tacky to visually illustrate the raves granted upon its bindings by the person doing the recommending.

Seriously. I'm not sure I have had a book so heavily hyped to me ever, and this is saying something given how much I read.

The problem with hype, especially when it brews at a personal level, is the acute awareness of the possible arguments and unintentional insults arising should you not like the book as much as the person who started the hype. Reading the book becomes a burden of anticipation and, if you are like me, you may put it off and put it off until you just give in or resoundingly shove it away.

I gave in and plowed through it in one sitting. Then I picked it up a few days later and skimmed back through the pages. I knew I'd be quizzed on it so wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything.

Overall, Your Voice in My Head is intended, I think, as a humorous memoir. It certainly isn't a humorless memoir. Forrest is quite adept at laying out the one-liners with a nice cutting edge. One of my faves: "I hate it when Beyoncé wins a Grammy and in her speech thanks God. He didn't have time to help out in Darfur but he made sure you won an MTV Moonman." Can I hear a resounding "amen"?

In way of a synopsis, the story begins in 2000 when Forrest first comes into contact with Dr. R following a suicide attempt. She sees Dr. R over a span of 8 years, the relationship only ending upon his death. Forrest is devastated, as anyone would be, especially since she had no idea he was ill. The narrative takes this event as the trigger point for much of what follows. And what follows are revelations of depression, mental illness, bulimia, romantic highs and lows, and cutting.

Lest you think Forrest's story is just like numerous other memoirs which cover similar ground, consider this quote:
Chicken and egg: which comes first, looking at yourself with burst blood vessels on your eyes and vomit in your hair and having to cut yourself because you're so ugly? Or eating everything in the cupboard to try to hold down how ugly the cutting has made you? It is madness. And if you don't know who you are, or if your real self has drifted away from you with an undertow, madness at least gives you an identity.
These are not words of a simple person with simple motives and with a simple story.

What these words relay to me is that this isn't a story of self-pitying, of a self-affected girl seeking external validation for being "fucked up." It is decidedly a narrative devoid of self-pitying, which given the life lived could very easily of turned out being. It is more self-deprecating, self-attributing than anything else. There is introspection and consideration, creation and destruction, all of which are hard fought and rotate deeply within Forrest.

This is more than adequately illustrated in Forrest's relationship with Gypsy Husband (or GH), which is the bulk of the story. This relationship was (and possibly still is) one of the most emotionally crippling aspects of Forrest's young life. It would easy to blame GH for everything that happened but Forrest doesn't take the easy route. Both had faults and both are at fault for how it played out and she lays the facts bare. You may judge harshly, you may over-sympathize but what you cannot do is brush aside her ability to map logic to emotion while, at the same time, not condemning herself to the postures of intellectual superiority or the silliness of emotional haphazardness at any given moment. This is a talent which very few people possess in this particular micro-genre.

It is most likely I would have picked up Forrest's memoir without it being pushed upon me. I had read somewhere comparisons to Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Such endorsements piqued my interest, as both of these books had a strong impact on my life. I discovered these comparisons as being flimsy at best. All are memoirs, all deal with intensely personal ailments and ruminations yet I didn't feel a pull, a settled warmth towards Forrest like I did with Plath and Eggers.

This is because I wanted it to be more of a tribute to Dr. R, or rather just more. His death is the narrative pivot, the defining event for the book. Baring her admiration and respect, Forrest writes,
"[Dr. R.] was cheerful. He was an eternal optimist. There was nothing I could tell him that he'd tell me was as bad as I'd decided it was. 'Oh, and then I murdered a drifter. I stabbed him twenty-two times.' 'Only twenty-two times? That's fewer than twenty-three.' I trusted him completely. And I liked how he saw me. It's that simple." 
These are profound words expressing profound feelings. Yet, there is little explored in terms of what losing this particular relationship means to her.

Forrest does well to highlight the impact Dr. R had on others in life and in death. She does this by using comments left in the online guestbook setup for his New York Times obituary within the narrative. You get a very solid and clear idea of the type of doctor and person Dr. R was through these comments. But, extracting the impact he had on her life is rather muted and soft. Of course, her selection of specific comments provides a window into the type of doctor and person Forrest wants to project to us. But the narrative doesn't come to any meaningful or personal conclusion, which I now wonder is the point she's striving to make. That there is no meaningful conclusion to be had because the relationship is still, in some fashion, going on in her head. She can deal with and conclude the relationship with GH but does not necessarily strive to conclude the one with Dr. R.

I don't really know, and this is the best compliment I can provide for the book. There doesn't necessarily need to be anything tidied up at the end; I like puzzling out ideas and conclusions on my own. Ultimately, Your Voice in My Head is Forrest's story, her life and how it is played out and written out is for her to decide. And while I cannot achieve the same level of hype which foisted the book upon me, I can offer a suggestion to consider walking up to Forrest's window for a few hours and take a look inside. It may not be a life-altering read for you but her story is worthy of recognition as being life-altering.

Read an edited excerpt.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Canada Reads 2013 Summary

The annual "battle of the books" Canada Reads closed out last week with Lisa Moore's February crowned the victor.

I didn't post anything in front of the competition this year because, well, I had no interest. I stopped being terribly interested in 2011, as I felt nothing could top 2010 in terms of books and champions.

I have felt justified in this opinion in the ensuing years but will not bore you with my thoughts (largely cause it will turn into a rant and, well, there are enough of those littering the internet).

Anyway, the theme for this year's battle was Turf Wars aka books from specific regions. People were to make suggestions then vote on fiction books from specific regions in Canada they thought best represented said regions. The champion assigned to each region then picked a title from the shortlist to advocate.


The victor, as previously mentioned, represented the East coast. My all-time favorite book, Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan, made it to the final as the representative for Quebec. Two Solitudes, to me, the definitive Canadian novel and should be read by everyone, not just Canadians. But that is for another time, another post.

Check out more on Canada Reads.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Book Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore

I was reading Robin Sloane's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
a few weekends ago and decided to take it along to a hair appointment in the hopes the wait time there would encourage me to finish it. I was facing a deadline with the library and didn't want to pay overdue charges, yet I just couldn't get the book done. So along for the appointment it came.

One of the stylists saw me reading the book, came over and asked if I was enjoying it. My response? "Yeah, it's alright except for being a love letter to Google." I was a bit surprised by my comment--as was he--but thinking on it now it was the right response. And it crystallized why my reading was so slow going.

Being only half-way through the book at that time though, I wondered if I was being too hasty in my assessment. Would I have made this comment if he had caught me at the end of the book?


(Insert an accompanying deep sigh).

I loved the concept for this book. I could envision the shelves, the people, the expressions, the environments. I had a nice visual of Mr. Penumbra planted in my head from the moment he was introduced. The premise and execution is all kinds of nerdy and awkwardness. It's similar to Ernest Cline's Ready Player One in this regard but much less dense and less intellectually invigorating.

My problem, however, was I kept getting pulled out of the narrative every time I saw the word "Google" or when there was some veiled reference to it. Frustrating, because there is a fair bit of Google here to oogle (haha, groan).

Pushing this situation aside for a moment, the book is about the (mis)adventures of web designer-marketing exec Clay Jannon. Jannon is a recent addition to Mr. Penumbra's bookstore, having been recently laid off and increasingly desperate for work. He becomes the night clerk there, catering to an almost non-existent clientele who "never browse. They come wide-awake, completely sober and vibrating with need.”

Vibrating with need when entering a bookstore? Hmmm, I can relate.

To fulfill their needs, Jannon climbs a ladder, grasps one of the volumes and sends them on their way. Then he dutifully logs the appearance and manner of each person, sometimes being quizzed by Mr. Penumbra as to his observational skills. Intriguing, right?

The oddness of his observation responsibilities spurs Jannon on to figure out who these customers are, what is in the mysterious and cryptic volumes, and what is really going on to necessitate a 24-hour bookstore. His adventures in discovering answers to these queries lead to the discovery of a secret society with an old school underground headquarters in New York. It also leads to an awareness that perhaps "[a]ll the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight.” 

Now, back to Google. Penumbra lays out the value of technology for his mission: ‘Computers, my boy,’ he says. ‘They hold the key for us. I have suspected it for some time, but never had proof that they could be a boon to our work.’” And I agree with the sentiment, especially in the context of what occurs in the book. And I get why it is a leading character in the story. But, but, but...

I don't know; I just couldn't get past the Google aspect and therefore couldn't get involved enough in the story to care. I understand its importance in transforming our social and technology landscapes, but so what. My mental blockade to accepting this particular character meant I couldn't really get involved with the story; the mysterious elements didn't really seem all that mysterious. And without the mystery, without a propelling force driving the narrative, reading the book became quite a boring exercise for me rather than the exciting one I expected based on other reviews.

Jannon makes the comment about midway through the story: "The right book exactly, at exactly the right time." I wish this was true of my experience.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Saturday Snapshot: Hunting for Fritters

Saturday Snapshot is a weekly meme hosted by Alyce at At Home With Books. The guidelines are to post a photo that you or a friend or family member have taken and then link it back to Alyce's original post for the week. Photos can be old or new and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see.

Through no forethought on my part this particular segment seems to be turning into a weekly food post. This is largely due to my phone being on its last legs and my being unable to use its camera unless the phone is plugged in. It is also due to my being mainly at home these past months and needing something to occupy my time. Sooooo........

I've been looking for great vegetable fritter recipes for awhile and finally decided to just try a couple out last week.

First up was Curtis Stone's crispy vegetable fritters made with carrot, potato, and zucchini. Not too impressed, bland. They turned out okay but I obviously did not get enough of the moisture out of the vegetables. There is only one egg to coat all the veggies to get them 'crispy' and for that to work there needs to be minimal moisture. I thought there was but apparently not.

Next up was Smitten Kitchen's broccoli parmesan fritters. Holy yum! Mine don't look as good as hers and likely don't taste as good either but they were well-received. I liked the idea of slighty steaming the broccoli first then mashing it a bit rather than it being raw. Think it helps combine it with the fresh parmesan. These are great as a side or as a snack. I think I'm going to try this recipe with cauliflower at some point.

Still looking for recipes; if you have any please pass along!!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: Yes, Chef: A Memoir

My introduction to Chef Marcus Samuelsson came courtesy of Top Chef Masters. I was watching the program in support of Susur Lee, one of Canada's most renowned chefs, and found myself cheering on Samuelsson equally during the final round.

Why? He just seemed likeable. And honest. And not pretentious is the way so many other chefs come across on these shows.

Now, I am not a 'foodie' or whatever moniker is in fashion these days. I like food to be simple, and which can be described in 3 words or less. I'm one of those people who doesn't really like dressing on salads, as I want to taste the true flavors of the components without a mask. I want lettuce to taste like lettuce, and not overly slicked with vinegar or oil or anything else. Knowing this about myself, I was interested to see what I would discover through Samuelsson's Yes, Chef: A Memoir.

Would it be stuffed with self-importance? Would it be condescending towards my simple food choices? And what is the spice mixture on the cover?

My only other experience adventure in the sub-sub-genre of celebrity chef autobiography comes from Anthony Bourdain. I really enjoyed Kitchen Confidential mainly because that world was so new to me. I even enjoyed the television show that was based on it; well, I enjoyed the supporting cast anyway. But unlike Bourdain's tales you will not find booze benders, drug binges, or high profanity in Yes, Chef save for a few youthful follies. Instead, you'll find a heart-warming albeit somewhat tragic tale bouncing from Ethiopia to Sweden to Germany to France to the United States and back to Ethiopia.

Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia where he was hospitalized at age three with tuberculosis along with his older sister and mother. Following his mother's death, a white middle-class couple from Göteborg, Sweden adopted Samuelsson and his older sister. It was his grandmother Helga who inspired Samuelsson’s love of cooking early on, as he spent many hours beside her in the kitchen learning the Swedish dishes that would come to influence his career in later days.

After the heartbreaking news he would not become a professional soccer player ("I sometimes think of myself more as a failed soccer player than as an accomplished chef."), Samuelsson fully embraced a career in the culinary arts. He went to restaurant school, worked in kitchens around Sweden and Europe, and completed stints on cruise ships. All of these experiences fueled his desire to mix food and cultures, to experiment beyond the standard definitions of what is considered "the best food."

I knew I truly liked Samuelsson when he stated: “Who lied? Who started the lie that France had the greatest food in the world?” Yeah, who did? I'd really like to know too.

His rise to chef stardom happened in New York at Aquavit, a famous New York restaurant specializing in Nordic cuisine where he became head chef at age 24. This event shaped many of his experiences that came after, including the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia and connect with his neglected culinary roots. It is here Samuelsson meets his father for the first time, and realizes the full strength of the familial bonds shaping his life and his cooking.

Narratively, Yes, Chef begins to peter out in the later chapters when the focus switches to more current events such as cooking for the President of the United States, marriage, and his restaurant Rooster in Harlem. They are not as fluid. Perhaps it is because the topics are too current, too "of the now" that they lack the weighted reflection and introspection shown in the previous chapters.

The story of Marcus Samuelsson is of someone who tried, stumbled, tried again, succeeded, and repeated. Samuelsson has made mistakes; he admits it. He doesn't try to make excuses or bend the truth to make himself sound like a better person than he really is. This honesty is what makes the story such an engaging and inspiring read.

What also makes it inspiring is the threaded theme of how crucial mentoring is for youth (and I would say for everyone). A large part of his success can be attributed to the mentoring provided by family, friends, and colleagues along the way. Samuelsson himself takes time to mentor young people in his neighborhood, inviting them over to his apartment to cook with him. Who does this? Really, who does this?

Overall, I admire the reserved nature of the Yes, Chef, which I suspect is also Samuelsson at his core. We are allowed in pretty far but there is still a palpable, respectable distance. This is no 'look at me, how brilliant I am"; it is "here I am and my journey thus far. Take me for what it is and for who I am."

Okay - yes, chef.

Read an excerpt from Yes, Chef: A Memoir

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Saturday Snapshot: 'Nuff Said

Saturday Snapshot is a weekly meme hosted by Alyce at At Home With Books. The guidelines are to post a photo that you or a friend or family member have taken and then link it back to Alyce's original post for the week. Photos can be old or new and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see.