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Just finished The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

Read Grace Unshakled, by Irene Huising. From Amazon’s page, it says: “In the year 2025, 17-year-old Grace Duncan finds herself in shackles because of her faith in Christ. An obedient daughter and stellar student, doing time in jail was never on her mental radar, despite the changes in religious laws [this takes place here in the United States] over the past few years. Through twists and turns in circumstances, Grace and a small band of Christians in Newport Beach, California begin a journey to discover what it means to follow Christ with unwavering faith in the midst of increasing persecution. Facing the potential loss of all her hopes and dreams, would Christ be enough?” We read this for one of my book clubs, and it’s a scary thought about what it could mean if we take God out of our country. The author is a friend of a friend and she attended our book club meeting to share about how she came to write this book. I don’t often share my faith here on my website, but this book made me stop and think about the direction our government is going, removing more and more our ability to worship God. Or to worship in any religion. Will this book ever make waves in the book world? Probably not. My copy may be a pre-edited version, as it contained numerous typos and formatting errors. But they didn’t detract from the subject, just the cosmetics. The book doesn’t come to a resolution; in fact it leaves you hanging, as some books do. It was intentional (obviously), but left me wondering about the “end of the story.”

Also just finished reading The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

Read The German Girl: A Novel by Correa. It chronicles the story of a wealthy German Jewish family in Berlin, as the Nazis arrive and make life a living hell. The family is lucky (I guess you could say this) to be allowed to purchase passage on the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger liner, to take them to “the Americas.” The destination is actually Cuba. The story is told from two voices – the teenage daughter in this story, and from a current-day distant family member who is trying to learn about her ancestry. Of the 900+ passengers on the ship, only a few were allowed to disembark since the Cuban President decided he needed more money to accept them. Most families had no money left, as the Reich had taken nearly all of their assets. The daughter and her very eccentric mother were allowed to stay in Cuba.  The remaining passengers are rejected by the U.S. too, and eventually return to Europe, where most of the Jews end up dying in concentration camps. The story goes back and forth from the 1939 journey to current day as the link between the two women is slowly revealed. I had a tough time sometimes, tracking the people in this book, but the story was very riveting. It’s based on facts about the ship (see Wikipedia link above if you’re interested). A shameful chapter in history.

Recently finished reading a magnificent historical novel. Not new. Philippa Gregory has been a favorite author of mine for a couple of decades. You may remember her most famous book, The Other Boleyn Girl, published some years ago. I thought that was a really great book. I’ve read other books by Gregory, but most recently I read The King’s Curse (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels). The time period is the 1450s to 1541, mostly under the rule of King Henry VIII, the infamous womanizer and wife/Queen-killer. The man who cursed Rome (the Pope) – he wanted his first marriage annulled because Queen Catherine couldn’t produce a living male heir. And subsequently made himself the head of the church in England in order to do so. It was a Catholic country at the time. This story (it’s fiction, but woven with intricate historical detail) is from the voice of Margaret of York (a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine),  who was a Plantagenet in her own right (which is key to the later events in the book). Certainly I’ve read other novels over the years that dealt with Henry VIII, but not with this much breadth of info. What a wicked, sinful man he was. And did I say tyrant. Wow.  I could hardly put it down, through its nearly 600 pages. In the author’s notes at the end, she shares relatively recent medical info that suggests Henry probably suffered from a rare problem, Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths IF the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. And that in his later years, he may have had McLeod syndrome, a disease only found in Kell positive individuals. Around the age of 40 it causes physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression and irrational behavior. All of those King Henry VIII had in spades. If you read the book, you might read the author’s notes (at the end) before reading the book. If you like historical fiction (I love any book about English history) you’ll just love this one. It’s interesting, though, as I think about the many books I’ve read covering this era in English history, that each book presented its hero/heroine as the most innocent and worthy individual vying for the crown of England. I remember thinking Anne Boleyn was dealt with so badly during her life (and certainly her beheading), and yet reading this book, I completely reversed my opinion. Anne Boleyn was called a wh–e by most people during the years she shared Henry’s bed. The “curse” from the title pertains to Henry’s inability or the curse on the Tudors, that caused him to fail in producing a male heir. In any case, none of Henry’s wives should have died for it – likely it was all Henry’s fault anyway. Just read this one, okay?

Also recently read News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a free-lance job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her family was killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of an old (wild) west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many. Just read this one first!

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 Cookbooks, on January 15th, 2012.

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It was just last month that I read an article in our local newspaper, written by Judy Bart Kancigor, about this book. [As an aside, I have one of Kancigor’s recipes here on my blog already – one of my favorites, a Layered Hummus & Eggplant appetizer.] Hardly before I’d finished reading the newspaper article, I went to my amazon account and added the book to my wish list. Thank you, Sara, for buying it for me for Christmas!

This book, Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival is a treasure; there just are no other words for it. I’m not Jewish, and I don’t necessarily cook Jewish food as such, but I am always intrigued about the stories behind ethnic dishes. One of Kancigor’s mantras is “you don’t have to be Jewish to cook Jewish.” Yes! Until now, I’ve never owned a Jewish cookbook. Now I do, and I’m glad of it. Not only because of the history contained within the book, but because I’m grateful in some small way – happy – humbled – to honor all those souls who didn’t survive the Holocaust.

So, what’s this book all about? The writer (editor and writer), June Feiss Hersch, interviewed countless families in the process of compiling the stories and recipes in this cookbook.  Earlier, she approached the Director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage (in New York City), with the germ of an idea, to publish a cookbook of stories and associated recipes from Holocaust survivors. An aside: all the proceeds from the book go to the museum. It’s already into its 4th printing.

The recipes cover a broad Eastern European geography (ethnic and physical) including Poland, Austria, Greece, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Russia and the Ukraine. And at the back is a lengthy list of Yiddish words, pages I referred to often, since I didn’t know the meaning of words like schmuts (dirt), cholent (a sacred stew prepared on Friday, baked overnight in a community bakery oven, to be eaten on Saturday), shtikel (morsel); and bashert (fated). I loved learning some of these new words (aside from other Yiddish words I did know: schlep, maven, nosh, kibbitz, mentsh, and shul).

As I write this, I’ve only read about half the book – I’m not even through reading the chapter on Poland (obviously there are more Polish recipes than those from other countries). But I’m awed by the stories. The true stories of survival, about the Crystal Night (when over 1,000 synagogues were burned to the ground and over 7,000 Jewish business destroyed), about people who hid in cupboards, cellars, forests, barns and other places to avoid the ghettos and concentration camps. But it’s also stories about people who did survive concentration camps (mostly ones who were interned there later in the war) or work camps. About those few who had skills the Nazis needed and wanted so they were fed better than some. About how prisoners hid food for others. About how they kept their spirits alive. About how they survived. About meeting other survivors, about first loves, marriages, boat trips to Israel, or America or Canada. About the yearning to live and thrive. About how some survivors would never – ever – talk about their wartime experiences – or shared them only at the end of their lives. And about how these proud Jewish people honor their loved ones by preparing the family recipes regularly.

Each country chapter contains numerous stories  (told from the actual survivor or a spouse or grown child) along with a photo or two about the family. About where they were from, their years of trying to escape, and managing to survive either in the dense forests with virtually no food, or in the concentration camps. And, thankfully, about their liberation and emigration somewhere else. Then, following that is a recipe, or two. Most of them are the actual recipes from the Holocaust survivor, or a descendant; a few are creations or re-creations from celebrated Jewish chefs (like Faye Levy, Mark Bittman, Daniel Boulud, Gale Gand, Ina Garten, Jonathan Waxman, Joan Nathan, Sara Moulton, and others).

In my copy, several recipes have been yellow-stickied already, and this week you’ll read about the first one I made from this book – a braised red cabbage and apple dish. Nothing fancy, but oh, so very delicious. Next I plan to make a Chocolate Chip Cake, and a Citrus Rice Pudding. Then maybe I’ll try one of the cholent recipes in the book. I’m intrigued about a 24-hour, slow-roasted stew.

Obviously, I highly recommend this book. If you enjoy reading stories, then a recipe to go along with it, you’ll be mesmerized by the book, as I’ve been.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on January 15th, 2012:

    I think I would become too ‘caught up’ in the stories to be able to enjoy the book – I can’t watch anything about either of the two world wars without getting over-wrought. But, if you share recipes only, I might be able to cope.

    I probably won’t go into detail about the stories with any recipes I share on the blog – except a link to buy the book if people want to. There is an element of angst as I read the stories, particularly those survivors who lost everyone in their family. Those are particularly poignant and sad. And yet, so many younger people just don’t understand what happened during WWII, particularly for the Jews, that I just can’t NOT write about it some. Stay tuned . . .carolyn t

  2. Gloria

    said on January 15th, 2012:

    Thanks for sharing Carolyn. Sounds interesting and I look forward to seeing the recipes you post from the book.

    You’ll see one in a couple of days. It’s a winner I’ll be making again and again. Haven’t decided what will be next on the list. I wish I had more energy to be trying new recipes with 3 meals a day, but I don’t. We eat the same-old breakfast nearly every day of the week. My DH doesn’t often eat lunch, so I usually have a bit of leftovers. Dinner is the experiment. So, stay tuned. . . carolyn t

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