Monday, April 23, 2012

52 Books in 52 Weeks: Book 17 - Night Road by Kristin Hannah

Night Road by Kristin Hannah

There’s something about this author’s books that gets right to the heart of human emotion, which is probably why I enjoy them so much. In Night Road, Kristin Hannah explores motherhood and loss in a way that brought me to tears a number of times. 

I related deeply to Jude Farraday, who tried so hard to be the perfect mother and to present a buttoned-up, picture-perfect exterior to the world … until the day she suffered a loss so devastating that she couldn’t do it anymore.

I also identified with Lexi Baill, a confused teen just beginning to discover who she was when her life was changed forever by a bad choice. 

In fact, I empathized with just about all the characters in this book because their personalities were so complex and believable. What I love the most about this author’s books is that there are no clear-cut “bad guys” and “good guys” in them. Just humans trying their best and sometimes failing. Attempting to move forward but often getting stuck. And learning – usually in an agonizingly slow way – what life and love are all about.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

April REVolution: Food (Part 1)

April REVolution: The Food Challenge

In my original list of REVolutions, I chose April as the month to devote to food. But as March came to an end, I realized I didn’t have any idea how I wanted to approach the subject. That’s probably why I’m only getting to this on April 18! 

Let me begin by saying that I love food. All kinds of food. In fact, some of my meat-and-potatoes friends are downright appalled by my eclectic food choices. (You know who you are …) So variety is not a problem. And since deciding to eliminate vast quantities of bread from my dinner table and cut my portions to human size, quantity is not really a problem either. I also love to cook, and I choose to make a well-balanced meal five out of seven nights a week. (The other two nights we have leftovers or takeout, or dine out – preferably at a place where I can try something new and different.) So my “relationship” with food vis-à-vis preparation and nutrition is also not an issue.

So it would seem that food presents very few challenges for me and therefore makes a pretty boring topic for REVolution. Let’s face it, if the colonists had been as content with the British as I am with food, they’d have been joining them for tea instead of dumping it into Boston Harbor.

Then, just as I began to think that the month of April would pass without a single food-based REVolution, I was asked to take the “Food List Challenge” on Facebook.

For those of you who have somehow avoided being asked to participate, I’ll give a brief explanation: The Food List Challenge asks you to prove you’re a “foodie” by indicating which of 100 different foods you have tried. The app suggests that these “delicacies” represent “100 foods to eat before you die” and that most people will have only tried 20 of them.

This should be a piece of cake, I thought. (Can I check off “cake”?) I made my way down the list, happily ticking off such obscure items as Pocky (we used to get these little Japanese treats at the sushi restaurant) and Polenta (thanks, Grandma!) as well as more ordinary fare like Crab Cakes and Cheese Fondue. I was happy to report that I had tried numerous exotic dishes such as Alligator, Borscht and Calamari (though not at the same meal) and plenty of dessert items including Key Lime Pie, Hostess Fruit Pies and Funnel Cake. In total, I had consumed 62 out of the 100 items. Respectable. But nowhere near where I thought I would (or should) be. In fact, upon comparison with other Facebook friends, I found that I had not even made the top 10!
This deplorable situation must be rectified! And so begins my April Food REVolution! 

From the list of foods that I have never tried (though I may actually have had some of the foreign-sounding ones without even knowing … more on that later), it was first necessary to eliminate those items that I will never, under any circumstances, allow to pass my lips. So I happily deleted Crickets (ewwww) and Squirrel (though we had a neighbor once who was quite fond of them). 

Also stricken from the list were the alcoholic beverages, in which I choose not to indulge: Absinthe (isn’t that shit illegal anyway?), Bellini (though I might have had one back in the day, I can’t be certain) and Dandelion Wine.

There are a few items that I debated putting on my “never” list but will instead label “maybe” – those being Goat, Kangaroo, Oxtail Soup and Snake. As far as I know, our local supermarket doesn’t carry the ingredients for any of these, but should I run into them anywhere – preferably in their deceased and butchered form – I will keep an open mind.

Next, I turned to Chef Google to find out what the foreign items were, as well as some of the others I wasn’t familiar with. Perhaps I’ve actually eaten them after all.

About 15 minutes of searching yielded me several more items to add to the “never” list: Black Pudding (main ingredient: dried blood), Chitlins (pig intestines), Fugu (pufferfish – tempting, but not worth dying for), Haggis (sheep’s heart, liver and lungs), Head Cheese (jellied meat from the head of a pig or calf) and Sweetbreads (a very nice name for a very nasty food: the edible glands or stomach of an animal).

I discovered that some of the items on the list could easily be made at home (Chicken & Waffles, Chicken Tikka Masala, Currywurst), though it might be more fun to order them at an ethnic restaurant. Other foods are rare and expensive enough that I may not have an opportunity to try them – at least not over the next month – like Bird’s Nest Soup and Black Truffle. And others I’ve likely had but just don’t remember (Moon Pie, Prickly Pear, Frito Pie).

Here, then, is my remaining list:

Bird’s Nest Soup – Chinese delicacy
Black Truffle – gourmet
Chicken & Waffles – soul food
Chicken Tikka Masala – S. Asian curry
Currywurst – German sausage & ketchup
Fried Plantain
Frito Pie
Goat (?)
Kangaroo (?)
Lassi – yogurt-based drink
Moon Pie
Nettle Tea
Oxtail Soup (?)
Paneer – Indian cottage cheese
Pavlova – meringue based dessert
Phaal – hottest Indian curry
Pho – Vietnamese noodle soup
Prickly Pear
Rabbit Stew
Snake (?)
Som Tam – spicy Thai papaya salad
Tom Yum – spicy Thai clear soup
Umeboshi – Japanese salty pickled plums
Zucchini Flowers

And now it’s time to Stop & Shop. Care to join me for dinner?

52 Books in 52 Weeks - Book Sixteen: At Home

At Home by Bill Bryson

When I was about 8, my family made what was for them a major financial investment: the purchase of a set of Encyclopedia Brittanica. Leatherbound. With a shiny wooden bookcase, a more manageable set of Junior encyclopedias and a big black globe. The day the books were solemnly installed in our den, I promised myself that someday I would read them cover to cover. (Yeah, I was that kind of kid.)

Well, I never did read the Encyclopedia Brittanica, though I gave it what I considered a valiant effort for an 8-year-old. I opened up the first of the 24 volumes one lazy, rainy afternoon, turned to the first of thousands of onion-paper-thin pages, and was fast asleep before I got halfway through the first column. Saltines were not half as dry as the writing style of those ponderous tomes.

Which leads me to this book review …

If only Bill Bryson had been tasked with writing the Encyclopedia Brittanica, I’m pretty sure I would have read it in its entirety … and had a few laughs along the way. He is one of the only authors I know who can take the most mundane of subjects – chairs, stoves, indoor plumbing and potatoes are just a few examples – and share over 500 pages of encyclopedic knowledge in such a way that the reader hates to put it down.

From tales of overeating in the 18th century (the “Golden Age of Gluttony” as he calls it) to a behind-the-scenes look at the architectural excesses of the Gilded Age, the author takes us on a fascinating room-by-room tour of an ordinary English parsonage, taking regular detours to explore other diversions in his quest to offer a compelling history of the typical home – and how it all happened the way it did. 

After reading this book, not only do I have a new appreciation for the incidentals of daily existence, but also a sense of wonder as to how the human species managed to survive and thrive despite what could only be called insurmountable odds. Bill Bryson has a remarkable talent for making the ordinary, extraordinary. I may never look at everyday life the same again.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

52 Books in 52 Weeks - Book Fourteen: Women Pioneers in 12 Step Recovery

Women Pioneers in 12 Step Recovery – Hazelden Foundation

I was given this book as a gift after helping a friend with some editing work. Though not my usual pick for reading material, I never turn down an opportunity to learn something new.

The book consists of 18 short autobiographical accounts of women who have played significant roles in Alcoholics Anonymous or one of its sister programs: Al-Anon, CoDA, Alateen, etc. While some of the stories were familiar to me, others introduced me to women I had never heard about before. Above all, it reaffirmed how fortunate we are to live at a time when alcoholism – especially for women – is treated as a disease, not a shameful moral failure. 

While this was certainly not the most compelling book I’ve ever read in the recovery genre, it did give good insight into the history of 12 Step programs and the women whose faith and perseverance did much to spread the good news of recovery throughout the world.

52 Books in 52 Weeks - Book Fifteen: Breathing Under Water

Breathing Under Water by Richard Rohr

Richard Rohr is one of my favorite writers on spirituality and Catholicism. He basically manages to say all the things I’ve been thinking about the church-with-a-capital-C, but in a way that won’t get him excommunicated. He cuts through the dogma and manmade mandates and gets right to the heart of what Jesus had to say and what it really meant.

The main premise of this book is that we are all addicted in some way … whether to a substance, a practice, an obsession or ourselves. In fact, our entire society is an “addict.” Richard Rohr uses the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to show how we can get out of this mode of thinking through reliance on a power greater than ourselves.

This is the kind of book that can’t be read once and put aside. It ought to be studied, which is probably why there is a handy Study Guide at the end of it. I just may find one or two like-minded people to go through these exercises and see how the steps he introduces can be applied to everyday life.