Friday, November 30, 2007

Book Club Smack Talk 


I went shopping on Cafe Press for funny book club magnets to give out for Christmas, and they just weren't that great. Apparently librarian humor prevails, which, you know, is just not the same. I felt compelled to make my own.

Voila

My book club can beat up your book club. Seriously. Right after dessert.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Book Club Food: There's a Slight Chance... 

Looks like I'm falling behind on these, but it's been a hot, uninspiring summer. Not entirely unlike our latest book, There's a (Slight) Chance I Might be Going to Hell by Laurie Notaro. We thought, hey, it's summer. Let's read a chicklit beach book since we're all running in and out of town and our newest member is getting married. It will be a lark!

Frankly, I'm not going to give the summary much time here, other than to say that the main character moves away from her friends into a tiny, "perfect" small town built on money from the sewer pipe industry and, finding that she is shunned as all newcomers are in tiny towns, decides to run for Sewer Pipe Queen with the sponsorship of a formerly worshiped but later run out of town beauty queen. You will enjoy this book if the following apply to you:

a) You are a Laurie Notaro junkie and it doesn't matter what she writes.
b) You enjoy SciFi Original movies, like Mansquito and Raptor Island featuring Lorenzo Lamas.
c) You are the kind of woman that enjoys both beauty pageants and bodily humor jokes, primarily the latter.
d) You thought the XFiles would be way better if every case revolved around fake dog poo.
e) You think being thrown into a pool is hilarious. An empty pool.
f) You sympathize with people that are, in general, unsympathetic.

My thought is, if you enjoyed a previous Notaro book, by all means, go read it again. Not that this book is entirely without merit. The middle to latter part where the main characters work towards redemption and self-discovery, solving a decades-old mystery and becoming friends is quite lovely. Unfortunately that part ends abruptly and ridiculously.

Anyway, if you are somehow still inclined to read it, here is our menu from the meeting which, as you can imagine, spent as little time discussing the book as possible if only to keep me from turning purple. The main food item mentioned in the book was a variety of organic donuts. But, we picked a theme of American Summer Food.

Our Menu
Turkey burgers (mixed with Worcestershire, Lipton's Golden Onion Mix, and parsley)
Cheese and crackers
Spinach dip and baguette
Feta cheese and Grape Tomato Salad
Corn and Black Bean Salad
Summer Berry Icebox Pie
Honey Margaritas

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Book Club Food: Me Talk Pretty One Day 

Seeing as how David Sedaris is a satirist, I can only imagine him stumbling across this entry and finding something incredibly disturbing about how a woman actually went through his entire book and wrote down all the food he mentioned. It's especially ridiculous given how much food he mentions, some offhanded, some as a meal, some as a joke, etc. etc. I must admit, I could barely keep up, and still there are some I didn't note.

Meanwhile, I want to disclaimer this by saying, no, I am not crazy. I think. Anyway, David, I expect to hear about this the next time you're on Letterman!

Normally I'd give a plot summary on the books we read, but this is a collection of short stories. The general theme is Not Fitting In. It's his impressions on growing up as a transplanted gay New Yorker in North Carolina, coming of age while pretending his way through art school, and settling down in France with his American boyfriend without knowing a word of French. Ok, he knew a word. "Bottleneck." That kind of sums it up right there.

It was on the bestseller list forever, and probably still is (I'm not looking), so you probably have a general idea about it. I'd say more and quote some and list my favorite stories, but bajillions of people have already done that, and...plus... I just don't want to be That Lady That Found All The Food In The Book And Also Quoted Stuff.

So there.

One disclaimer, I am just listing the real food--not mummified litchi nuts or aspirin sauce. Although, is performance art considered real food? Hm.

Food in Me Talk Pretty One Day
BBQ chicken, potato chips, Coke
cookies
vodka martini
grapefruit soda
hamburger
white wine & cutlets
jumbo shrimp & stuffed mushrooms
pineapple
fudge, gingerbread cabin, ice cream, Peeps, whipped topping, sausages, frosting
Mountain Dew, grits, hushpuppies
prime rib
spanikopita
Jawbreakers and bite-sized candy bars
Boiled Beef Arkansas
hot dog, eggs, chicken back
Gatorade, beer, "piping hot" coffee
patty melt
macaroni
hot dog
chocolate milk & hashbrowns
brie
apple pie
lamb chops
5-alarm chilli
steak
chocolate
sandwiches
French Fries, carrots, chicken legs, corn on the cob, & green beans
melons, tomatoes
cornbread & gingersnaps
iced tea
candy, ice cream, bbq ribs, baked potato, sirloin
nachos, chicken wings
pizza with canned veggies on top
scotch
hot tea

*whew*

Our Menu
Cornbread
Carolina Blond BBQ Sandwiches
Fried green tomatoes
Cole slaw
Macaroni & cheese
Salad
Apple pie
Hard lemonade

Recipes

Carolina Blond BBQ Sandwiches
(based on 1996 Cooking Light recipe)
1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons minced onions or dried onions
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
1 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 1/2 cups (3/4 pound) skinned, shredded roasted chicken breast
6 toasted buns

Combine all ingredients except chicken in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer 5 minutes or until mixture begins to thicken. Stir in chicken, and cook until roasted chicken is thoroughly heated.

Note: This recipe is quite forgiving. I added a little mustard to it, dashed in the pepper, added garlic salt, and generally adjusted ingredients to my taste. It's very difficult to ruin!

Fried Green Tomatoes

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Book Club Food: Bunny Tales 

Yes, yes, I know. "Bunny Tales: Behind Closed Doors of the Playboy Mansion" by Izabella St. James was our "off" month after some intellectual heavy hitters. We wanted to have a gossipy, junk food meeting and bring our guys, so why not?

Exciting it was not. There's a whole chapter literally "behind closed doors" involving house layout, furniture, carpet quality, and bedroom design. Sure, there's a little backstabbing dish on the Current Girlfriends that you see on The Girls Next Door on E! and reveals about party nights, but mostly there's a lot of whining about rules and reassurances that they are all wonderful, intelligent people that are totally not sponging off of an only somewhat rich old man who is such a drag for not letting them have other boyfriends, too. *yawn*

If you want to give it a try and just have fun with it, hand out red pens with each copy: The copyeditors obviously fell asleep at the wheel, because the grammatical and typesetting errors are truly egregious to the point of hilarity. Too bad for a book attempting to assert the author's legitimacy as a non-dumb blond with a law degree.


Food mentioned in the book:
Chicken Fajitas
Salmon
Penne & Alfredo
Cheeseburgers
Skinny Fries
Chips & Guacamole
Fried Chicken
Pork Chops
Edamame
Oh Henry bars
English Muffin & Strawberry Jam
Lipton Chicken Soup & Crackers
Apple Sauce
Peas
Haagen Daas Strawberry Ice Cream
Thin Crust Cheese Pizza
Cabernet
Shiraz
Coffee
"Famous" Mansion Cookies
Daquiris
Jack & Pepsi
Mai Tai
Muffins
Hot chocolate
Champagne
Apple Martinis
Red-headed Slut

Served:
Turkey Burgers & Cheese
Cheese & Crackers
Chips & Salsa
Edamame *
Veggie Plate & Dip
Skinny Fries *
Chocolate Chip Cookies *
Haagen Daas Strawberry Ice Cream *

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Book Club Food: The Birth of Venus 

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant (every time I type that, I type my own name and then have to backspace to fix it) is a fairly popular book club book as is, so I probably don't need to sell it too hard. Essentially, it's the coming of age story of a girl in the height of the Venetian Golden Age, during the reign of the de Medecis, the French invasion, and the evil priest Savanarola. Lucretzia has an unusual understanding of art for a girl of her time, and of course there is a not-terribly-shocking reason why that we find out later.

(What follows are my personal feelings on it, and your mileage may vary.)

In short, the best part about this book was the very detailed, thorough description of Venice, art, and family life. Dunant is certainly in love with that time and setting, and it shows. It nearly balances out my intense dislike of books written from the precocious, preternaturally brilliant, anachronistically liberal mind of a teenage girl, but not quite. Lucretzia, like most 14/15 year old girls, is cruisin' for a bruisin' thanks to her bullheadedness, and she gets it in spades, some deserved, some not. The problem is, she's in the middle of a very deadly time, and mostly I found myself wanting to shake her silly and tell her to get a grip.

The vivid details of The Birth of Venus apply even to the lurid, seamier side, and that is some relief from the sugary-to-angsty adolescence of its speaker. Its discussion of slavery, sexuality (homo- and hetero-), diseases, and dismemberment is more than frank. Once she grew up a little, I found the book a little easier to stomach, but unfortunately there are also several distractingly abrupt character personality changes (not all hers) that serve to wrap up the storyline. Charming and convenient, but inexplicable and unlikely.

Further, there are a few hints at even more non-coincidental tie-ins of other famous names towards the end, but I'm not sure if my fevered mind was just hoping they really meant something. Saying that, I think the end could have used a little more polishing; it's already nearly 400 pages, and details were certainly not sparing in other parts, so I found the whimsical suggestions without follow-through a bit annoying.

To finish, it's a very womany book club book, replete with a discussion guide in the back, so if that's your thing, enjoy. Her next book is about a Venetian courtesan of the same era, so if you like the setting but not the characters, that might serve you better.

Now on to what really matters: THE FOOD.

Food Mentioned in The Birth of Venus:
(grouped if it was a meal)
Roast meat & spiced gravies
Boiled capon, roast pheasant, trout, pastas, saffron pudding, creme brulee, & wine
Roasted peacock's tongues, turtle dove, chamois deer, boiled capon, chicken, veal, whole roasted kid; fish pie with oranges, nutmegs, saffron and dates
Milk puddings
Sweet meats and sugared almonds
Bread and pork jelly
Fragrant white wine and pigeons
Figs, pomegranites, walnuts, and herbs
Spiced wine
Bread and quince preserves
Roasted chestnuts
Cold meats, pork jelly, fresh roasted pike stuffed with raisins
Fried zucchini flowers

Our Menu

The problem here is that the food is fairly medieval. Nobody was about to go rip out a few peacock tongues or boil up some pork jelly, so we just went with Italian.

Bruschetta
Baked Ziti
Salad with Italian dressing and fruits
Breadsticks
Tiramisu
Venetian Sunset (sparkling white wine, pineapple juice, cherry juice, crushed ice)
Red and white wine

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Book Club Food: The Secret Life of Bees 

The premise of Secret Life of Bees is pretty simple, so there isn't much need for plot explanation. One of the nice touches of the book, though, is that it's peppered with superstition about bees and honey, of which there is much given their complicated lives and societies. It seems that to properly care for bees, one must have a little faith and a little mysticism to truly understand their nature, both insect and tribal.

Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a beekeeping book, introducing the theme for that chapter's human drama. It seems bees have long been associated with the crossing point between life and death, messengers that understand something about what we are not yet ready to see. In essence, by looking into the tiny world of bees, we learn to take the leaps of faith necessary to be at peace with our own lives and losses. In honor of that literary conceit, my favorite feature of the book, here is my own bee story.

When our 21-year-old dauschund Max died, my family reeled from the loss of our friend who was so much a part of our lives. He'd been a constant companion to anyone doing anything in his little kingdom, watching the world from one of his many beds with his expressive eyes and telling you all about it in his doggie-speak. Mom talked to him about everything while she did her chores. He sat with me in my long hours at the computer, sometimes 16 a day, building the family business. He kept Dad company in the yard, and supervised Joshua's homework. He was precise in his schedule down to the minute. By the time he became our "Little Old Man" it was only natural that we'd care for the end of his life as any other family member. Everything revolved around Max, which could be incredibly frustrating since you never really knew how to help or what he'd need. Eventually, it was just his time, and when he passed away, I couldn't stop thinking that I should have done more.

A couple of days later, in an incredibly vivid dream, I saw Max sitting on his pillow in the dining room. I was so happy to see him again, that I scooped him up and ran to put him in the sunniest spot of the yard, under our giant philodendron and next to a pretty group of wild lilies. The sun was so warm I could feel it. I told Max I loved him and that how ever many times he wanted to go out in the garden, that was fine with me. He looked at me with his sweet little eyes, like he understood and always had. Suddenly, a bee came between us and started circling him. I tried to get closer, but the bee was guarding him. More bees joined the circle and I called for Max, who looked at me contentedly but a little sad. I grew so panicked trying to reach him that I woke myself up crying.

I was so disturbed by the dream that I wrote a group of INFJ's I chat with online about it. As an English major, I'm usually pretty good at picking out symbolism in dreams, but I couldn't figure out the bees, because they seemed so threatening but hadn't hurt him. Then one of my friends wrote to say bees had often appeared in legends about saints, hovering over bodies that were "sweet". I was so comforted by that thought that I was able to let my guilt of not "saving" him go.

Incidentally, if you found my story too sentimental, dramatic, emotional, overly personifying of animals, or sacreligious, you will probably not enjoy The Secret Life of Bees, because it's all of the above. My only beef with it was that it was yet another book featuring the voice of a 14 year old (you'll that our next book was as well) who was preternaturally wise (though her emotional state was right on) with an accepting attitude towards the world that seemed anachronistic (ditto with the next book). Nevertheless, it was enjoyable and a good summer read. It's also a good excuse to have an old fashioned Southern themed book club meeting!

Food Mentioned in the Book:
Quaker oats
Blackberry jelly
peaches
chicken
grits*
buttered bread
graham crackers & marshmallows*
angel food cake & milk
red Jell-O
sweet potatoes
cataloupes*
barbeque pork and Coke
honey*
orangeade
raspberry tea & biscuits
banana everything
pancakes
ice cream cone
corn
bologna sandwiches
green Kool-Aid ice cubes
sliced tomatoes
3-tiered chocolate cake
pork chop sandwich & slaw
orange juice
grape juice
banana cream pie
Mary Day cakes* - small 1 layer cakes drizzled with honey
Rice Krispies, milk, and raisins
PB sandwiches
corn fritters
tomato sandwiches
hot dogs
coffee

Menus in the book:
in addition to the food mentioned above

fried okra, pork chops, fresh tomatoes, and sweet tea

sliced ham, fried chicken, deviled eggs, green beans, turnips, macaroni & cheese, and caramel cake

smothered chicken, rice & gravy, butter beans, sliced tomatoes, biscuits, coke and peanuts

Recipes in the book:

Manna*
Equal amounts of the following:
Sunflower seeds
Sesame seeds
Pumpkin seeds
Pomegranate seeds

Salt the mixture (or choose salted seeds). Drizzle in honey until just sticky, but not large clumps. Spread on a baking tray and bake until just brown.

Candlestick Salad*
Turn banana upright in a pineapple slice and add a maraschino cherry on top

Our menu:
fried chicken
biscuits
deviled eggs
green beans & almonds
tomato salad
rice & gravy
banana pudding

We also served a honey margarita, similar to this recipe.

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Atonement Spoilers 

After my last post, I noticed I was getting a lot of hits from searches for Atonement spoilers. Being a major spoiler lover myself, I sympathize and realize that I probably didn't spoil the plot quite enough for you. And, so, to atone for my sins, here it is... the whole truth.

(which I am not going to spoiler tag, so if you don't actually want to know, consider this fair warning)

Part 1:
Briony Tallis is 13, I think, and writing a play called The Trials of Arabella, a morality tale, for a dinner party to be held at her family's English estate later that night. Her 9 year old twin cousins, Jackson and Pierrot, and their 15 year old sister Lola have come to stay with the family because their mother has run off to Paris with her lover. Briony engages them in the roles of the play, which the twins (written more like 4 year olds) are too distracted for and Lola thinks is stupid.

Cecelia, Briony's older sister home from college, and Robbie, the caretaker's son whose advanced college education is funded by the Tallises, have a growing though passive aggressive flirtation. While she chats with her brother Leon and his 25 year old chocolate magnate friend, Paul Marshall, Robbie finally writes her a short note to tell her how he feels, but in the first draft, out of aggravation, includes some very blunt sexual details about what exactly he'd like to do to her. After rewriting it in a sufficiently friendly tone, minus the details, he hands off his note for delivery to Cecelia via Briony...realizing seconds later that he sent the wrong version.

Briony, like any 13 year old girl, reads the letter before handing it off to Cecelia, her formerly sheltered adolescent mind set on fire by the use of a particular slang term. Being a drama queen, she forms an opinion that Robbie is some kind of crazed sexual addict and resolves to save Cecelia from him. Cecelia, meanwhile, reads the letter, the sheer shock of it being enough to make her realize she has been in love with Robbie for many years. Robbie, mortified, seeks her out in the library to apologize but in the moment also realizes their feelings are mutual. They begin to make love in the corner of the book stacks when Briony, fevered by her mission, walks in and, seeing them clothed and locked in what from her angle looks to be combat, believes Cecelia is fighting to get away from the crazed and aggressive Robbie. Cecelia then brushes out of the room past her, leaving Briony to expect her gratitude later.

Slightly before the dinner, Lola shows up in Briony's room with wrist burns and a scratch, claiming that the twins are taking out their frustration on her by beating her up, which again inspires Briony's dramatic nature as she sympathizes and takes on the role of protector. Briony then shares what she read in the letter and the two come to a conclusion that Robbie is a "monster."

Finally the dinner arrives, which, due to the summer heat, all the high-strung emotions come to a point. Robbie tries to start a conversation, and Briony hushes him as though he were attacking everyone. The twins start crying and have to be dismissed. Lola bursts out in tears with how they are treating her. At this point, they realize the twins have left a note saying they are running away and everyone runs out into the night to search the estate.

Briony eventually runs into Lola, sitting in the dark on the countryside as a male figure walking way from her. She is crying and reveals that she was raped, though she claims not to have seen who it was. Briony offers that it was Robbie and the two agree, heading back to the house to tell the family. The doctor is called, Lola is sedated, and Briony sets forth on her case to prove it was Robbie, despite the family's doubts. Having procured the letter from Cecelia's room, she shocks everyone into believing it and Robbie, who has just shown up with the sleeping boys in his arms, is hauled away to prison. The details of the night, revealed under oath, only serve to cement his conviction.

Part 2:
It is now during the war and Robbie, having served 3 years in prison with restrictions on "stimulation" such that he and Cecelia have to write in code to discuss their feelings (using such allusions as the typical Romeo and Juliet), is leading 2 fellow soldiers across France to the coast where they can be taken home. He is trusted and respected wherever they go, but there is still danger as the Germans are still dropping bombs. They can barely find enough to eat, thanks to the scorched earth and shell-shocked citizens. Along the way, they do their best to help townspeople reach safety and he gets severe shrapnel in his leg during one bombing episode, though he is too distracted by the carnage to really notice.

On the mental side of this journey, he tries to go through his mind what really happened and why Briony would falsely accuse him, citing her dramatic nature and that she may have had a crush on him which he had ignored. He reads and rereads Cecelia's letters, sent from the hospital where she is now a ward sister and has cut off all family relations, driving himself forward every day with the glowing respect of his comrades. He finally gets them to Bray Dunes on the English Channel, where they have been ferrying men back, and it is utter chaos. Reports of imminent bombings have stopped the transports, so he and his friends along with the hundreds of other men already there seek refuge in little places in the town with only scraps to share. As he falls into a delerious sleep, fever beginning to over take him, he is overtaken by his memories and love for Cecelia, shouting in his hysteria. His buddy wakes him up to tell him to settle down and hang on, because all officers are due to be transported back tomorrow. Robbie then falls into a peaceful sleep.

Part 3:
Briony has also become a nurse in a different hospital, cutting off her family to, in proper dramatic form, atone for her sins in the form of caring for sick soldiers and dumping bed pans. She's developed her writing to the point where she's writing novels, though they are rejected. She's also able to use her imagination to help others who are there dying. During one of her leave times, she stops into a chapel to watch Lola marry Paul Marshall, whom Briony has come to realize over the years was the true rapist (he had a scratch on his face at the dinner table that night). Lola convinced herself she was in love with him, convenient for that time period, and now the truth is protected by marriage, leaving only Briony to carry the truth.

Briony has written Cecelia and said she'd like to confess what really happened, so she seeks her out after the wedding, finding Cecelia in a boarding house with Robbie, clearly dazed by the war, sleeping in the bedroom. In one of the most uncomfortable conversations ever, Briony admits her part and, after Robbie joins them, reveals what she knows. Though it will lawfully make little difference, she says she will write the family and sign an affidavit in the effort to clear his name. She leaves them, all of them relieved but broken.

Part 4
Briony is now an old woman, a novelist, and on her way to her 80th birthday party where her great nephews and nieces will perform Trials of Arabella. There is still some tension and sadness between her, Leon, and the remaining living cousin. Afterwards she goes to the post office to pick up comments on her latest novel, a war novel which the publisher in his review implies that she is imposing her view on how it should be rather than how it is, though he will publish it. She corrects a few technical terms and sends it off, heading out to the car and seeing Lola and Paul leaving a museum benefit, Paul being quite elderly and bent but still charismatic, and Lola tall and beautiful with nearly no signs of aging. Briony, it seems, has become Lola's picture of Dorian Gray, as it were.

At home she grows sleepy and begins to reminisce about the past, her sins, her writing...and reveals that she still cannot bear to face what truly happened, that she never found the courage to face Cecelia after all, that Robbie had died that night at Bray Dunes of septicemia from his wound, that Cecelia was killed in an air raid soon afterwards, and that their letters, placed in the War Museum, were the only parts of them that had reunited. She then drifts to sleep (read: dies), believing that her version's happy ending was the best she could do for them, so many years later.

NOTE: As I mentioned in my original review, despite its soap opera plot, Atonement is quite dense and literary. We all impose our own reality on our lives in a way, despite there being other people with their own stories in it, and Atonement explores the potential damage that action has and its cost to our souls. Each character is guilty of it, to lesser or greater degrees, and each character pays for it, though not always in equitable ways. Despite that universal truth which is explored such that we can only sympathize or empathize with every character, and despite having seen first-hand similar instances in the school system, I still did not sympathize in any way with Briony, whose point of view commands the majority of the book. Others vehemently disagreed, and that's why this is a good book club book.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Book Club Food: Atonement 

I've been avoiding writing this entry for a while because I had such strong emotions about Atonement when I first read it and was not in a hurry to go through that again. Nevertheless, it was our first book club book and will be coming out as a movie this year, so it was unavoidable.

Atonement is a good book club book in several different ways. First, some of it is written in the voices of young people, but not so accurately that adult readers want to pull their hair out. Secondly, there is a solid layer of symbolism, metaphor, foreshadowing, and framework that can either be dug into depending on the enthusiasm and training of the group or ignored in favor of the narrative. Thirdly, it will ignite fervent opinions and emotions regarding the turns of events, the characters, and the ending revelation. Finally, it is a book about reading and writing, a true writer's conceit; not only are you encouraged to question the narrator's nature but the nature of writing itself.

A Very Quick Summary:
Atonement begins in Briony Tallis' voice during a hot 1930s summer in the British countryside at her family's estate. She is in love with writing romance plays and has engaged her visiting cousins as actors. When one of them is assaulted later that day, the story they concoct together creates irreparable rifts in her family. Later, alternately hardened and contrite by their roles in the event, some of them struggle through the horrors of War, paying their penance and revealing their true character. Briony, too, attempts to pay for her part by becoming a nurse, honing her skills as a writer at night and eventually trying to make true amends. Later, as an old woman, she reflects back on her role and completes the book about the event and subsequent fallout she has been trying to write in the 60 years since, revealing that [SPOILER--highlight to read]the true events did not have such a happy and satisfying ending, but that is her atonement.[END SPOILER]

Even More Briefly, in a moral: As long as we keep our story straight, it is possible to romanticize any event. We can continue on our path, leaving tragedy behind, have lives outside of that story...we're capable of anything, of changing. But, in our final moments, truth cannot be denied.

Some overriding ideas:
* We force each other into our ideas of how it should be, when they have their own issues outside of our agenda; they also feel obligated to play within the construct despite it being a hardship.
* We imagine ourselves to be heros/heroines of our own lives, when in reality, others typically live those roles despite being "unsuitable."
* Melodrama is not the same thing as change.
* Levels of control: Fate, her grandfather that built the family estate, her father who demands obedience, her mother who controls and is controled by migraines, Cecelia and Robbie who control each other through unspoken emotions, Briony who controls her young cousins, etc. Ultimately, all of these are exercises in futility when shown in light of future events and the War.
* Our idea of karma and what we deserve may not be entirely accurate...or relevant.

Food in Atonement
There is a lot of food mentioned here; some is in passing, and others more integral. It will become quite apparent during your reading which is which, but I'll mark them here with an asterisk. We wanted to combine the book with a Mardi Gras party, so we didn't choose any from the below list EXCEPT the all important chocolate cocktail. Rather than recreate the exact one, which was completely disgusting, we did more of a chocolate granita. You really can't skip making some sort of chocolate drink with Atonement. Period. I'll list any specific recipes the book mentions, including that one (the original).

Drinks:
Iced punch
Chocolate & Rum Drink (chocolate, egg yolk, coconut milk, rum, gin, banana, icing sugar, mint)*
Gin & Tonic
Dessert wine
Wine
Sheep's milk
Tea (in brown mini teapots)
Cocoa
Bovril (beef stock tea)

Foods:
Chocolate bar*
Cold cuts & salads
Roast potato salad (potatoes, olive oil, and lemon)*
Roast*
Lettuces in "gravy"
Beet root & Brussels sprouts
New potatoes
Custard
Soft fruits
Loaf of brown bread, soft cheese, onion
French loaf, olives, cheese, pate, tomatoes, ham*
Pink & White marshmallows
Saucisson (sausage)
Sugared almonds*
Veggies boiled with oxo cube
Bananas, oranges, Swiss chocolate
Slabs of ham, poached eggs, leg of roast chicken, Irish stew, lemon meringue
Toast & strawberry jam

Suggested Menu:
Antipasti platter of olives, cheese, pate, tomatoes, & ham
Loaf of French bread
Roast
Potato salad
Salad
Wine
Custard with fruit
Dessert wine, chocolate cocktail, or hot tea
Party favor: small bag with 6 sugared almonds ("My pig will always remind me of you.") and a chocolate bar

Feel free to add any suggestions or comments about the book or your meeting. Frankly, you may need lighter food to free up people's energy for arguments or you may just be too disgusted with the turn of events. Whatever your feelings, it's a dense book that may be too taxing for some groups due to time constraints, but is very effective in its premise.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Book Club Success? 

Annula left a good question on the book club intro entry, and I thought I'd answer it here, as best as I can:

I'm a devoted reader but I've only once tried a book club, a group organized by one of my neighbors. All they ever served was chocolate chip cookies and red wine over ice cubs. No wonder the club fell apart after three or four meetings. Well, certain of their policies - they refused to meet unless all members were present and that they wanted to read only books written by people they'd actually met - were undoubtedly factors in the club's demise, too.Your post makes me want to go out and find a new book club, one with better policies and far better menus. Any suggestions?

Right off, I have to say, that menu sounds perfectly disgusting. Ever since I first read the message, I haven't been able to get that visual out of my head. Gah! Besides that, you're right--those policies are completely unreasonable.

If we only used authors we knew in Jacksonville, we'd end up reading a lot of Key Lime cookbooks and historical tales featuring the Huegenots. To be fair, John Grisham did write a couple of his books here, but the point I'm trying to get to is, sticking to authors you know generally produces a long list of mediocre books. That's really the most important thing in the book club: reading books you are excited about.

We try to be flexible with book types, as we all like different things, and keep in mind how much free time we all have after work. The person hosting picks the book, though we usually email a list of 4 or 5 potential books to the other members and take a vote. Unless we're going to have an unusually long gap, like 6-8 weeks between meetings, we stick to books under 500 pages. Also, if we read a challenging, literary-minded book the previous month, we'll read something lighter the next. If it's near the holidays, we just read something totally worthless and fun. Variety.

Member-wise, it's hard to know what kind of blend of people make up a good group. The four of us share somewhat similar careers--medical editor, medical writer, high school English teacher, and troubled teen counselor. While we have similarities in what we do, we're not on each other's territory. We don't live close to each other, and we don't work together. I think that somewhat helps the situation in that we can respect what the other person does without feeling threatened, which is sometimes an issue with women. Also, if one of us somehow ran contrary to someone else in the group, which did happen in our original group of 5, it can be resolved outside of the boundaries of the group without us having to run into each other all the time. I'm not saying that's necessary for all groups, mind you, but that's what works for us.

With scheduling, we started out saying we'd meet the last Tuesday of each month, but ended up deciding to let it float in that general vicinity. We keep each other informed about changes in our schedules (teaching on every Tuesday night, Battlestar Galactica addictions on Friday nights, etc.) and any upcoming trips. Because we're a small group, we try to meet with everyone if we can, and just put it off until it works; if it were larger than 5, we'd just meet when the majority could be there. Holding out for everyone in a large group, unless you're stuck on Craphole Island (Lost), is unrealistic.


The LOST Island book club griping about Stephen King's Carrie

As far as the discussion goes, we allow all kinds. The hostess typically looks up some discussion questions online and picks maybe three or four in case the conversation dies. We usually start with like/dislike/extreme hatred, and then go into details. We can talk about structure and symbolism if it's a major part of the book, as with Atonement. But, not all books are heavy on that. It can be about emotional manipulation on the part of the author, success of the narrative voice, and satisfaction with the method of conclusion. Or, it can be that we didn't sympathise with the protagonist, and if we knew her, we'd beat her down (also see Atonement). Whatever it is, we each comment fairly briefly on each facet as it comes around, don't interrupt, and keep the whole book discussion to about 45 minutes. Then we catch up on life and stuff our faces full of dessert.

Speaking of dessert, by settling on a food theme, it creates a challenge for us all to get excited about. Even if we hate the book, which we have, we at least know there will be good food, and we can just eat and complain about the book. As we get into reading the book during the month, we'll write the group with theme ideas. Then as the meeting approaches, the hostess sends out an email with reminder directions and phone numbers, settles on a theme, says what she can make and asks us what we'd like to bring. There is usually some thematic drink, an appetiser, salad, bread, an entree, a side, and a dessert or two. Any of those can be thematic also.

After a while you get a feeling for what you can count on from the others. M. usually brings a drink and an entree. C. usually makes a nice big salad with nuts, fruit, and field greens. B. does dessert. I fill in whatever blanks are left. We can all be creative, or if it's just been a stressful month, pull it out of a bag. I promise I did not care one cent that last month's dessert was Publix tiramisu.

The important part is, we're doing this for us. It's an escape and a get away from daily life and the droning. It's a treat and we're pampering each other, and that's the kind of atmosphere that helps it continue. It's not a drudgery, a competition, or an opportunity to judge each other, or where we force each other to sludge through snobby books.

Melissa was responsible for getting us together, as she'd kept in touch with one person from each place she'd worked over the years, and that was all of us. Putting a group together might be as simple as putting up the wish with some suggested guidelines (no iced red wine with a little barfy face next to it) on the corporate board, or asking a good friend and seeing if she knows someone she thinks would groove with the two of you, and on down the line.


Just say NO to disgusting book club food.

I haven't been in a coed study/book group since college, though every 4th or 5th meeting we invite our significant others to join for the food part. They usually find some sport on TV by the book part. The main problem coed groups will run into is territorial behavior, in my opinion, but I don't know how to prevent that, short of Tasers and/or tranquilizer darts. Just kidding, guys! Haha! If it's a passive group and nobody is willing to step up when someone gets out of line, just keep that in mind when inviting new members, male or female.

Anyway, that is a VERY long answer, but I do hope that helps!

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Book Club Food: The Year of Magical Thinking 

A quick summary:

The Year of Magical Thinking begins moments before the sudden death of John Dunne, Joan Didion's husband, and she takes the readers through her year of grief, self-analysis, and adjustment, all the while following her adult daughter Quintana in and out of hospitals as she fights a series of serious illnesses. Ever analytical, Didion delves into medical studies, psychology theories, and literary accounts, all on the topic of grief, in an effort to understand her inner and outer state.

Yet even at her most philosophical, she veers into memory "vortexes" to a time when John and Joan were young, when Quintana was little, when things were better and there was time left to live. In her belief that she could have saved him, that he will walk in the door at any moment, she counts back time, at first from the death pronouncement, then a few days, then weeks, then years, finally realizing that not only was he gone the second she found him, but that he had expected it for years, anticipating it even days before.

The book leaves her stepping into the second stage of grief, and in that way seems unresolved, a feeling that does not always sit well with readers but is an obvious conclusion to those who have dealt with such an intimate loss. So much of the book focuses on their past, their vacations and houses, it seems more revealing of their marriage and friendship, rather than her grief itself. She dreamily relates their times together, leaving you with quite an admiration of John and the successful relationship between two writers.

The options:

Food is mentioned quite prevalently throughout the book. Between their restaurants, family meals, parties, holidays, and weddings, I amassed quite a list. I might have missed a few things, but here is every item I found....

Food in The Year of Magical Thinking
(I also include drinks.)

Scotch
Tossed salad
Shrimp Quesadillas
Chicken with Black Beans
Endive salad
Ham
Scallion and Ginger Congee
Watercress Sandwiches
Lemonade
Champagne
Wedding Cake
Souffles
Creme Caramel
Huevos Ranceros
Mahimahi
Lettuce vinagrette

The menu:

Penne with Vodka Sauce
Scallion and Ginger Congee*
Tossed salad*
Italian bread
Tiramisu
Creme Caramel*

The recipes:

Scallion & Ginger Congee
1 cup rice
8 cups water
2 scallions, diced
2 tablespoons diced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon concentrated chicken stock
3 tablespoons mirin

In a large pot, bring the water and rice to a boil, reduce to medium. Keep boiling for 30 minutes. Stir in the chicken stock to add flavor, reduce to simmer and cover. Continue simmering for another 30 minutes.

In a small pan, sautee the scallions and ginger in 2 tablespoons of the mirin until the scallions are clear and ginger softens a bit (a few minutes). Add the mixture into the rice along with the final tablespoon of mirin. If the porridge is too thick for you, you can add water to suit.

Note: I couldn't find an exact recipe for this, so I created one based on reading several congee recipes. Congee is simply this: rice porridge. Whatever you add to it is your own flair. It is recommended for those who are sick or have weak constitutions in its blandest state, but it can also be a base for stir fry.

Creme Caramel
3 cups heavy cream
1.5 tablespoons vanilla (or 1 bean)
1/2 cups sugar
1 envelope Knox gelatin
honey

Mixing the cream, vanilla, and sugar in a pan, bring slowly to a simmer on medium. Stir constantly as cream easily burns. Remove from heat and stir in gelatin. In six individual small bowls or ramekins, drizzle enough honey to cover the bottom. Spoon in mixture, cover, and refrigerate for several hours. To serve, dip the bottom of the bowl in hot water and run a knife around the top edges to loosen from sides. Flip quickly onto a plate and tap until it releases. Drizzle with more honey if desired and garnish with fresh fruit.

Note: It might sound fancy and unfamiliar, but it's better known to us in its Spanish incarnation as flan. She mentions torching the top, which would make it creme brulee rather than caramel. Brulee is typically not presented standing on its own, while caramel is, and has slightly different consistency. Also, I found that what people hate most about flan is not its creamy, gelatinous texture as you might assume, but the egginess. Knowing that, I chose a purely whole cream recipe. I can't imagine the calorie count is worse than a recipe with 4 eggs, and these are served individually. Even with my explaining the recipe, the group couldn't get over it not tasting like eggs! Finally, I put about 5/8ths an envelope of gelatin in the mix, based on a related recipe, but it did not quite hold together well enough, so I would recommend using the entire envelope.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Book Club Food: Introduction 

One of the toughest parts of a book club is figuring out what food to make. Since January, a few friends and I have been getting together every month-or-so (flexibility has helped it keep going) and we will readily admit that eating is our favorite part. After all, you can't guarantee you'll like the book (we usually don't), but at least with good cooks in the group, you know the food will be good.

Sometimes food is an integral part of a book, and sometimes it's barely mentioned. We try to fix at least one dish from the book. Barring that, we either try to match the ethnic theme, use a featured ingredient, or figure out a clever drink name.

One thing is for sure, none of us have a lot of time to spend figuring the menu out, as I know is true for a lot of book clubs. If you had time to do that, you wouldn't need a book club to encourage you to read more, right?

And even though there are plenty of sites out there talking about their books, providing group questions, etc. (we've tried to stay off the beaten path but don't seem to be succeeding), there aren't a lot of people talking about what they served. So, for each book, I will try to post the foods mentioned in each book, followed by what we served and some good recipes. Maybe it will save you some time. Also, recipes are welcome!

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