Saturday, August 30, 2014

Beyond the Pasta by Mark Leslie

Beyond the Pasta; Recipes, Language & Life with an Italian Family
by Mark Donovan Leslie
Gemelli Press LLC, 2010
352 pages
source: borrowed from the library

Summary (from goodreads):

Several years ago, on a break between theatrical gigs in Alabama, Mark traveled to Italy and fell in love with the people, food and culture. Armed with just enough courage, minimal Italian language skills, and a certain proficiency in the kitchen, he enrolled in a full-immersion cooking and language program. He would travel to Viterbo, Italy and live with an Italian family. His teachers were beyond his wildest dreams-he learned to cook from the grandmother, or Nonna, of the family, who prepared every meal in a bustling, busy household, as women in her family have done for generations. Her daughter, Alessandra, taught him the language with patience and precision. Besides culinary secrets and prepositions, they opened their lives to him, and made him a real part of their extensive family. Though the book contains authentic, delicious family recipes Nonna shared with Mark, Beyond the Pasta delves into food memoir subject matter not found in a typical cookbook. It was the day-to-day shopping with Nonna, exploring the countryside and le gelaterie, where he truly developed his language skills, and a new, more joyful and uniquely Italian way of looking at the world.

My thoughts:

There's nothing better than a good foodie memoir, except maybe one combined with travel and recipes. And if it happens to involve Italy, all the better.

In Beyond the Pasta, Mark Leslie was looking for a different kind of Italian vacation experience, and found it with the Stefani family. It took the form of a total immersion language and cooking course. Mark stayed with the family for a month, cooking with Nonna (the grandmother) and learning Italian from her daughter, Allessandra. He participated in nearly every aspect of family life - daily trips to the market and food preparation with Nonna, afternoon language lessons, family dinners, and frequent postprandial strolls... invariably involving gelato. Mark also spent several days in Rome and attended social events with the family.

The book is set up in a journal format, with every day a separate chapter. Of course food (planning, shopping, preparation, and eating) plays the most prominent role. Each day/chapter concludes with a recipe or two. The easy, conversational tone makes this memoir immensely readable.

 I enjoyed reading about Mark's trips to the market and detailed scenes from the kitchen... although less description of proper squid cleaning technique would have been fine with me! I cheered his increasing language proficiency, and especially appreciated discussion of the culture, and general philosophy surrounding food and eating - la dolce vita.

Growing up with my very own Italian grandmother, this book made me nostalgic for childhood days spent in her kitchen. Nearly all the recipes are familiar and I look forward to trying several:
  • Pasta e Fagioli alla Veneta (Venetian Pasta and Beans)
  • Minestra di Patate, Piselli e Tubettini (Potato, Pea and Pasta Soup)
  • Cuppa, Cuppa, Cuppa (Yogurt Cake)
I suppose I must mention a couple of downsides, too.  First, the author does not use the oxford comma. I always do and never imagined its absence would bug me so much, but it really did - starting with the title, in fact. Second, the photography could have been better. Granted, pictures aren't the main attraction, but the black and white photos weren't very clear. I also would have appreciated pictures of the food.

Favorite Passages:
With Italian, you always pronounce all of the letters in the word. The only silent letter is "h"; otherwise, each and every letter gets pronounced. For example, ciao - hello and goodbye - is pronounced "chee-ah-ow." It is starting to feel that the way to succeed in speaking Italian is to chew on the words. Every syllable, every bite!  p.25 
The cutlets - le cotolette - were not prepared until after we had finished eating the pasta... I am learning the importance of this type of preparation. First, the food always come sot the table hot and perfectly prepared. Second, it gives you some time between courses to digest your food, drink some wine and feel as if you have eaten a lot when actually, because the portions are smaller, you have eaten less than you would sitting at an American table.  p. 102 
La dolce vita celebrates the fact that life is not only about a paycheck ... Life is about savoring the sunset, taking a rejuvenating nap in the middle go the day, pausing to appreciate the beauty of a rose on the side of the road, having your children's laughter fill your soul - letting those moments inspire your life. That might be more of a romantic perception than the exact truth of the situation, but it is certainly the truth I have come to witness, embrace and appreciate while living in Viterbo.   p.170 
For me, the "Sweet Life" is going into the kitchen, preparing food and serving it to the people I love and cherish. La Dolce Vita is found in those moments of life around a table where stories are told - old memories are relived and new memories are given life. It is where food ultimately unites us through the juxtaposition of laughter, tears, joy, sorrow, happiness, pain, and ecstasy.  p. 311
Bottom line: A very enjoyable read - probably the next best thing to a trip to Viterbo.

My rating:

Weekend Cooking, hosted at Beth Fish Reads, is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves
by Matthew Thomas
Simon & Schuster, 2014
640 pages
source: Netgalley (via publisher for review consideration)

Summary (from goodreads):

Born in 1941, Eileen Tumulty is raised by her Irish immigrant parents in Woodside, Queens, in an apartment where the mood swings between heartbreak and hilarity, depending on whether guests are over and how much alcohol has been consumed.

When Eileen meets Ed Leary, a scientist whose bearing is nothing like those of the men she grew up with, she thinks she’s found the perfect partner to deliver her to the cosmopolitan world she longs to inhabit. They marry, and Eileen quickly discovers Ed doesn’t aspire to the same, ever bigger, stakes in the American Dream.

Eileen encourages her husband to want more: a better job, better friends, a better house, but as years pass it becomes clear that his growing reluctance is part of a deeper psychological shift. An inescapable darkness enters their lives, and Eileen and Ed and their son Connell try desperately to hold together a semblance of the reality they have known, and to preserve, against long odds, an idea they have cherished of the future.

Through the Learys, novelist Matthew Thomas charts the story of the American Century, particularly the promise of domestic bliss and economic prosperity that captured hearts and minds after WWII. The result is a riveting and affecting work of art; one that reminds us that life is more than a tally of victories and defeats, that we live to love and be loved, and that we should tell each other so before the moment slips away.

Epic in scope, heroic in character, masterful in prose, We Are Not Ourselves heralds the arrival of a major new talent in contemporary fiction.

My thoughts:

We Are Not Ourselves is a beautifully written, profoundly real, and emotionally devastating novel. I finished the book weeks ago, yet it continues to weigh heavily on my mind.

This is the debut novel everyone is talking about. It has been described as everything from a family saga to the new Great American Novel. Since its focus is on a single family unit, I wouldn't necessarily call it a saga, but it definitely has all the characteristics of  a great American novel.

We Are Not Ourselves  begins with an Irish immigrant couple in Queens and their only child, Eileen. She takes center stage early on. What follows is basically her story - her yearnings, struggles and strivings for a better life, her pursuit of the American Dream, and the obstacles she encounters along the way.

Eileen pins her hopes on scientist Ed Leary. They marry and have a son, Connell (named for the author of the novel Mrs. Bridge, which Eileen encounters during pregnancy). Eileen pushes her family onward and upward, but it's obvious Ed does not share her aspirations. He takes comfort in routine and resists change.

As Ed enters his fifties, he becomes withdrawn, easily confused, and even more adamant in his insistence on maintaing the status quo. Eileen is painfully slow in figuring out what's happening to her husband, but most readers will certainly guess the true nature of Ed's problem. Once it is spelled out and his illness is labeled, the novel becomes sadder and increasingly difficult to read... especially for the reader who has experienced similar life events.

In the second half of the novel, the family comes to terms with Ed's illness and attempts to move forward. Connell, who had been in the background, begins to play a larger role. None of the characters are especially likable, but they all ring true. Small human dramas play out in their everyday lives. It is interesting that the author chose to keep Ed's own story and experiences out of the narrative.

Also of note, I took great delight in the author's vocabulary and word choice. I will certainly read whatever Matthew Thomas writes next.

Bottom line:  I was totally consumed by We Are Not Ourselves and do not remember the last time a book had such a profound emotional impact on me.

My rating:

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Tuesday Intro -- Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books

Prologue: WHY I READ
It's not a question I can completely answer. There are abundant reasons, some of them worse than others and many of them mutually contradictory. To pass the time. To savor the existence of time. To escape from myself into someone else's world. To find myself in someone else's words. To exercise my critical capacities. To flee from the need for rational explanations. 
And even the obvious reasons may not be the real ones. My motives remain obscure to me because reading is, to a certain extent, a compulsion. As with all compulsions, its sources prefer to stay hidden.
Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books
by Wendy Lesser

After reading about this book over at Jill's new blog, I picked up a copy at the library yesterday afternoon. Like many readers, I have a weakness for books about books and reading and I have high hopes for this one. The goodreads summary sounds encouraging:
“Wendy Lesser’s extraordinary alertness, intelligence, and curiosity have made her one of America’s most significant cultural critics,” writes Stephen Greenblatt. In Why I Read, Lesser draws on a lifetime of pleasure reading and decades of editing one of the most distinguished literary magazines in the country, The Threepenny Review, to describe her love of literature. As Lesser writes in her prologue, “Reading can result in boredom or transcendence, rage or enthusiasm, depression or hilarity, empathy or contempt, depending on who you are and what the book is and how your life is shaping up at the moment you encounter it.” 
Here the reader will discover a definition of literature that is as broad as it is broad-minded. In addition to novels and stories, Lesser explores plays, poems, and essays along with mysteries, science fiction, and memoirs. As she examines these works from such perspectives as “Character and Plot,” “Novelty,” “Grandeur and Intimacy,” and “Authority,” Why I Read  sparks an overwhelming desire to put aside quotidian tasks in favor of reading. Lesser’s passion for this pursuit resonates on every page, whether she is discussing the book as a physical object or a particular work’s influence. “Reading literature is a way of reaching back to something bigger and older and different,” she writes. “It can give you the feeling that you belong to the past as well as the present, and it can help you realize that your present will someday be someone else’s past. This may be disheartening, but it can also be strangely consoling at times.” 
A book in the spirit of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel  and Elizabeth Hardwick’s A View of My Own, Why I Read  is iconoclastic, conversational, and full of insight. It will delight those who are already avid readers as well as neophytes in search of sheer literary fun.
I think I'm going to  enjoy this one. What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Every Tuesday, Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea posts the opening paragraph (sometime two) of a book she decided to read based on the opening. Feel free to grab the banner and play along.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Weekly Update: 8/24/14

Good morning and welcome to another weekly wrap-up post. This has been one long week - bad weather, Twin B not feeling well, last minute changes and frustrating cancellations, and most of Friday spent with a killer headache. I'm actually glad to see this week end!

I had to look a little harder for my #100HappyDays, but found them in little furry friends, a good book, and a quiet Friday evening with my husband. I'm trying to share photos daily on Instagram. Saturday was day 60! Search for lakesidemusing if you'd like to follow along.

Read last week// I finished Beyond the Pasta; Recipes, Language and Life with an Italian Family  by Mark Leslie. The combination of travel diary and cookbook is almost always a hit with me. My plan is to have a review ready for Saturday's Weekend Cooking post.

Currently reading//  I'm making good progress with An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. It's nearly 900 pages (a fact that's easy to overlook with an ebook) and I've finished the first third. The read/listen combination is working well, and relatively short chapters make me more likely to pick it up even if I have only ten minutes to spare. The story is very good, too!

Starting soon//  I got into a nice routine last week reading An American Tragedy at odd moments during the day and Beyond the Pasta in the evening. A less demanding book is perfect for before bed, so I'm considering adding an Agatha Christie to the mix (Katherine has tempted me!) or possibly Big Little LiesI'm at the top of the library hold list for Liane Moriarty's latest and am hoping to get it sometime this week. Both books look good...

On the blog//
Tuesday Intro: Beyond the Pasta by Mark Leslie
Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry  by Gabrielle Zevin
Review: The Ship of Brides  by Jojo Moyes
Weekend Cooking: Grilled Peaches with Rosemary & Balsamic Vinegar

In the kitchen//  Besides the grilled peaches mentioned above, I tried another recipe from Weber's Real Grilling for Trish's Cook It Up cookbook challenge - Tandoori Ckicken Kebobs. I'll post my review of the cookbook on September 6. We also had Indonesian Grilled Swordfish this week, courtesy of Ina Garten.

Looking ahead// Our house will fill up again for Labor Day weekend. Twin A returns from Paris on Wednesday (I'm hoping Icelandic volcanic ash does not become an issue), then she and Daughter #1 will take the train up from NYC on Thursday.  After a quick unpack, repack, and a lot of laundry, Twin A returns to college on Saturday. Daughter #1 is with us until Monday.

Today// The sun is finally shining again. I'm going to get out there and enjoy it! Happy Sunday... I'll catch up with you later this evening.

This post will link to It's Monday, What Are You Reading? hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Grilled Peaches with Rosemary & Balsamic Vinegar

It's peach season! The freshest and most delicious peaches around here come from Pennsylvania and this week Wegmans has them displayed front and center. Walk through the door and there they are - you can practically smell them before you're inside! Naturally, I bought a few and began to contemplate a simple dessert.

I'm not baking much these days (seems like we all want to lose a pound or two), but a piece of grilled fruit certainly won't derail any diet plan. I'd recently come across a recipe for Grilled Peaches with Rosemary & Balsamic Vinegar on The Framed Table and decided to give it a try last night. Besides, Jill had already clued me in to the fact that it was National Eat a Peach Day.

I cut the peaches in half, removed the pits, placed them on a grill-rack lightly sprayed with Pam, and cooked them for 5 minutes on medium-high heat.

Flip them over and grill for another 4 minutes.

Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with fresh rosemary.

Drizzle with high-quality balsamic vinegar and enjoy.

A delicious flavor combination!

Have you every grilled fruit? Do you have a favorite recipe or combination?

Weekend Cooking, hosted at Beth Fish Reads, is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Ship of Brides by Jojo Moyes

The Ship of Brides
by Jojo Moyes
Penguin Books, 2014
originally published in 2005
496 pages
source: Netgalley (via publisher for review consideration)

Summary (from goodreads):

The year is 1946, and all over the world, young women are crossing the seas in the thousands en route to the men they married in wartime - and an unknown future. In Sydney, Australia, four women join 650 other brides on an extraordinary voyage to England, aboard the HMS Victoria, which also carries not just arms and aircraft but 1,000 naval officers and men. Rules of honour, duty, and separation are strictly enforced, from the aircraft carrier's captain down to the lowliest young stoker. But the men and the brides will find their lives intertwined in ways the Navy could never have imagined.

My thoughts:

Jojo Moyes has done it again! Actually, she did it about ten years ago, but The Ship of Brides  has recently become available to US readers in digital format, with the paperback release scheduled for later this fall.

Since December, I have read four of  Jojo Moyes' novels and am struck by how different they are. Some authors seem to hit upon a formula or theme and rework it again and again, while each of Moyes' novels seems fresh and new. Me Before You  is a contemporary story told from alternating viewpoints, The Girl You Left Behind  features dual story lines, past and present, which ultimately converge, and Honeymoon in Paris is a novella and prequel to The Girl You Left Behind.

The Ship of Brides is basically historical fiction with a present-day beginning and end. After WWII, hundreds of young Australian brides board a navy ship which will carry them to England to be reunited with their new husbands. I love it when some small kernel of history provides fodder for a novel, and the post-war time period is a favorite. The combination of brides, crew, close quarters, and a long journey certainly makes for some interesting reading.

Moyes gives us a wide variety of characters whose dialog and interactions always ring true. However, the number of characters made the beginning of the novel slow-going for me. I read the first several chapters in small, short bursts over the course of nearly a week and initially had a hard time keeping the characters straight. Perhaps that would not have been the case if I'd read the first few chapters in one sitting. That being said, I tore through the last half of The Ship of Brides  in under 24 hours - simply couldn't put it down!

As Jojo Moyes continues to work on new novels, US readers can now wander through her backlist. I, for one, look forward to the journey.

Bottom line: Fans of Jojo Moyes won't want to miss The Ship of Brides.

My rating:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin
Algonquin Books, 2014
273 pages
source: ebook borrowed from library

Summary (from goodreads):
On the faded Island Books sign hanging over the porch of the Victorian cottage is the motto "No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World." A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.

A. J. Fikry's life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island-from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who's always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.'s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.

And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It's a small package, but large in weight. It's that unexpected arrival that gives A. J. Fikry the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn't take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J.; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.'s world; or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn't see coming. As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.

Quick thoughts:

I laughed. I cried. In the end, this book was a little too sweet, somewhat predictable, and wholly improbable.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry  just didn't live up to my expectations. BUT it was still a good enough book, especially the beginning, so go ahead and give it a try.

Everyone else loved it!

A few favorite quotes:
"I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn't be—basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful—nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children's books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and—I imagine this goes without saying—vampires." 
“Despite the fact that he loves books and owns a bookstore, A.J. does not particularly care for writers. He finds them to be unkempt, narcissistic, silly, and generally unpleasant people. He tries to avoid the ones who've written books he loves for fear that they will ruin their books for him.” 
“They had only ever discussed books, but what, in this life, is more personal than books?" 
“We are not quite novels. We are not quite short stories. In the end, we are collected works.” 
“You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question, What is your favorite book?” 
“We aren't the things we collect, acquire, read. We are, for as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved. The people we loved."
My rating:


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