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Just finished reading How It All Began: A Novelby Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant (she arrived after the birth, actually). Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.

On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of middle-aged high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, and wealthy) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.

 

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Essays, on March 26th, 2013.

laurie_colwin_and_books

The world lost a wonderful writer when Laurie Colwin died in 1992, very young (48) to a heart attack. I remember opening my issue of Gourmet that month to read the unbelievable news that Colwin had died suddenly. There was no explanation about what happened. I’d been a fan of her writing for many, many years. I adored her essays in the magazine, and had purchased her first food essay collection, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (Vintage Contemporaries). I loved the stories – most of them were from her many years of writing for Gourmet. Her writing style was so witty, folksy, down to earth. But loving, and matter-of-fact. She shared simple recipes, but with a charm and verve that made you just want to go right to the kitchen and make her beef stew. Or her gingerbread. Or her creamed spinach with jalapenos.

Recently I moved some of my cookbooks and other books related to cooking from my kitchen/family room area to my upstairs office. Books I don’t refer to with any frequency made the transition along with various cookbooks I can’t bear to part with, but don’t use much. When I came upon the Home Cooking book, I decided to set it aside and it’s been sitting in the book rack in one of our bathrooms for about 2-3 months. Even my DH has picked it up from time to time and enjoyed reading a story. I’ve just finished reading it from cover to cover, with a renewed enthusiasm for making some of her recipes (of which there are few). There are several quotes that I found so humorous, so I decided to share some with you. I don’t think I’m allowed to completely write one of her essays here, but bits and pieces are okay, I think. Perhaps they’ll pique your interest – enough to buy the book yourself.

In the Forward of the book, Colwin wrote a little explanation about her love of food and socializing in the presence of food.

Unless you live alone in a cave or hermitage, cooking and eating are social activities; even hermit monks have one communal meal a month. The sharing of food is the basis of social life, and to many people it is the only kind of social life worth participating in.

No one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers. In my kitchen I rely on Edna Lewis, Marcella Hazan, Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, the numerous contributors to The Charleston Receipts, and Margaret Costa (author of an English book entitled The Four Seasons Cookery Book).

One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends. People who like to cook like to talk about food. Plain old cooks (as opposed to the geniuses in fancy restaurants) tend to be friendly. After all, without one cook giving another cook a tip or two, human life might have died out a long time ago.

Perhaps Colwin’s most famous essay is the one entitled “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant.” It is, without a doubt, my favorite food essay ever, and I’ve opened this book more than once just to read this chapter. Colwin was young and an aspiring writer back then, and had to economize in order to even live in New York City. She rented an apartment that would likely drive a normal person off the edge, but to Colwin, it had charm in spades. Here’s what she wrote:

For eight years I lived in a one-room apartment a little larger than the Columbia Encyclopedia. It is lucky I never met Wilt Chamberlain because if I had invited him in for coffee he would have been unable to spread his arms in my room which was roughly seven by twenty.

I had enough space for a twin-sized bed, a very small night table, and a desk. This desk, which I use to this day, was meant for a child of, say, eleven. At the foot of my bed was a low table that would have been a coffee table in a normal apartment. In mine it served as a lamp stand, and beneath it was a basket containing my sheets and towels. Next to a small fireplace, which had an excellent draw, was a wicker armchair and an ungainly wicker footstool which often served as a table of sorts.

Instead of a kitchen, this minute apartment featured a metal counter. Underneath was a refrigerator the size of a child’s playhouse. On top was what I called the stove but which was only two electric burners – in short, a hot plate.

Many people found this place charming, at least for five minutes or so. Many thought I must be insane to live in so small a space, but I loved my apartment and found it the coziest place on earth.

My cupboard shelves were so narrow that I had to stand my dinner plates on end. I did the dishes in a plastic pan in the bathtub and set the dish drainer over the toilet . . .

When I was alone I lived on eggplant, the stove top cook’s strongest ally. I fried it and stewed it, and ate it crisp and sludgy, hot and cold. It was cheap and filling and was delicious in all manner of strange combinations. If any was left over I ate it cold the next day with bread. . .

In this tunnel-like dollhouse of an apartment, Colwin often entertained, but only a party of three. Four made impossible logistics. She often served soup – a one pot wonder. Usually she brought in dessert. I’ve tried to envision an apartment 7 feet wide by 20 feet long, which had to have included a bathroom of sorts, thereby leaving very little space left for living. Yet Colwin found it absolutely comforting and homey. She always preferred to eat at home rather than go out – she was a champion of good old-fashioned kinds of home cooking. Nothing fancy was her motto. One of her mantras was about salt – lots of it – and seasoning everything with celery salt too.

Eventually Colwin married – moved into a more normal sized house – and had a daughter. She continued to write. Including numerous novels. Here’s a link to her many published works. None is available on the Kindle.

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  1. Lee

    said on March 27th, 2013:

    Thank you for this….I feel exactly the same about Laurie and have reread her food essays more times than I can count! Xo
    I wish I owned all of her books – about the only place you can find them is in dusty old used bookstores . . . carolyn t

  2. Ann Webb

    said on April 2nd, 2013:

    I, too, love Laurie Colwin. I think that I have read all of her books, fiction and nonfiction. I keep Home Cooking and More Home Cooking next to my bed, and have for about 10 years! Ann W.

    I was sure there were many Laurie Colwin fans out there. Just last night I found my hard-cover copy of More Home Cooking. I knew I had it, but couldn’t find it! Now I can renew my acquaintance with those stories as well. She was such a witty writer. . . carolyn t

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