Monthly Archives: February 2011

Book Review: State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is one of my very favorite contemporary writers. I have happily read her fiction, nonfiction, essays, even interviews. I’ve read – and would highly recommend – her nonfiction works Truth & Beauty and What Now?, and I have loved, loved her novels: Bel Canto, Taft*, The Patron Saint of Liars, The Magician’s Assistant, Run. I await her new novels especially eagerly, which makes it all the more wonderful and miraculous that someone found a way to slip me an early copy of State of Wonder, which is being published officially this June.

*I did not love Taft; it’s the only novel of hers I haven’t read more than once. But I did like it.

Ann Patchett has a special wisdom about people, and a special talent for communicating that wisdom. Her fiction, to use a phrase I first heard from Julia Glass (another wonderful writer), has emotional truth. Here is the review of State of Wonder I posted to Goodreads (don’t worry, it doesn’t give anything away):

One of the things that most impresses me about all of Patchett’s books, this one included, is her total mastery of setting – and each book is set somewhere entirely different. It’s as if she has lived in each place she writes about for a whole lifetime each. State of Wonder, like The Magician’s Assistant, captures two utterly opposite settings (Minnesota and the Amazon jungle in State of Wonder; Los Angeles and Nebraska in Magician’s Assistant).

But setting is only the beginning, because Patchett is also a genius at character. She builds real people from the ground up, so that the reader understands and empathizes with each perfectly, and every thought they have and every action they take seems utterly consistent and logical with their character.

And as if lushly imagined settings and wisely created characters weren’t enough, there’s always a plot twist or three in there as well. Patchett’s books are written like Craftsman houses are built, with attention to every detail. This kind of architecture guarantees a long lifespan. Oh Ann, how do you do it? Bravo.

“In this life we love who we love. There were some stories in which facts were very nearly irrelevant.” (page 233)

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Ginger Peach Muffins

Here’s a muffin tip, courtesy of Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain: when you remove the muffins from the oven, gently twist each one loose from its cup and tip it on its side. This allows the muffins to cool and remain crisp, rather than getting soft and soggy.

I tried it with these ginger peach muffins this morning, and we’ll see if it worked when I have another one later today. The first one out of the oven was definitely delicious.

I won’t share the whole recipe here because I believe in intellectual property rights, but I will describe the peach topping, because these peaches would be good over ice cream or yogurt as well:

1 large or 2 small peaches
1 Tbsp honey (the recipe calls for honey; I used maple syrup)
1 Tbsp butter
1 tsp grated ginger

Slice the peaches in half and remove the pits. Then quarter and cut into 1/4″ slices.

In a medium pan on medium-low heat, melt the butter and the honey or syrup and the ginger. When the mixture begins to bubble (about 2 minutes), add in the peach slices, turning to coat, and remove from heat.

Divine. You’ll want to use peaches that are ripe but still firm, so they don’t dissolve into mush when you cook them.

What I’m reading: Once Upon a Time in the North, Philip Pullman
What I’m listening to: Achtung Baby, U2

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Virtual Bowl of Soup

On a horrendous (weather-wise) day like today, we should all be enjoying real, homemade soup. But here’s a virtual bowl, for those who haven’t got the real thing.

For those who want to make the real thing, I’ll do my best to recall the recipeĀ  from memory here (I don’t have it written down in front of me). Credit where it’s due: I believe this recipe is from Susie Fishbein’s Kosher By Design.

Ingredients:
1 onion, chopped
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
4-6 cups liquid (vegetable broth and water)
1 15-oz. can white (cannelini) beans
1 large or 2 small sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into bite-size pieces
about 2 cups chopped green beans (frozen is fine)
about 2 cups corn (frozen again)
olive oil
salt
pepper

I usually have two pots going; in the smaller pot, cook the sweet potato (reserve some of this water when draining; you may need it to thin the soup. If you’re using bouillon cubes, as I do, you can also cook the sweet potato in the broth and transfer it all over together). In the larger soup pot, saute the onion in the oil until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Then add the tomatoes and the cannelini, and sweet potato and broth/water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add the green beans. About 5 minutes before serving, add the corn. Season to taste.

If I have gotten anything tragically wrong, I’ll correct it in the next few hours, but I think it’s OK as is.

“I think it’s gonna be okay, Joe.”
“WHAT makes you think that?”
“Who knows where thoughts come from? They just appear!”
-Empire Records

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Bibliomania

I just came across this little aside in a textbook for my collection development class: “If there is a bibliographic equivalent of alcoholism, many librarians have it.” The following sentence cites the Random House Dictionary’s definition of bibliomania: an “excessive fondness for acquiring and possessing books.” (Note it doesn’t mention an excessive (or obsessive) fondness for reading books.) The text goes on, “Most bibliomaniacs (librarians included) cannot stay out of bookstores and consider it a great feat of willpower and self-control if they manage to leave one without buying a book or two.” Well if that’s isn’t chillingly accurate.

For more on the topic of bibliophilia/bibliomania, I highly recommend Allison Hoover Bartlett’s excellent The Man Who Loved Books Too Much.

Back to doing homework. And sneezing. Is anyone in all of New England NOT sick right now?

What I’ve been reading: State of Wonder, Ann Patchett; The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, Jonathan Coe
What I’ve been listening to: Clarity and Futures, Jimmy Eat World; Say I Am You, The Weepies; The Suburbs, Arcade Fire

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Of Desserts and Pen Pals

I have a pen pal! Read about it on my other site, http://www.jenny-arch.com (here’s the direct link to the pen pal post. Say that three times fast.)

In other news, I finally made two dessert recipes I’ve been wanting to try for months. Lucky for you, these recipes are already online! And I can verify that they are very, very, very good.

Lemon Bars from Epicurious (you’ll also need to make this Shortbread base from Epicurious as Step One for the Lemon Bars, so though the lemon part can be “prepared in 45 minutes or less,” that’s not taking the shortbread into account)

S’mores Cookies from Cookie Madness

I’m not a huge fan of lemon bars, and I liked these a lot, so that’s saying something. They won’t trump a chocolate dessert (not for me, anyway), but they’re nice to have on the table at a dessert party to balance out the sweet. (Yes. There is such a thing as a dessert party.)

 

And the s’mores cookies, well…they are just awesome. I tried to make them a couple months ago and it was such a failure I didn’t even document it here; I mixed the marshmallows directly into ordinary chocolate chip cookie dough (sans graham cracker crumbs, sans extra chocolate), and if you don’t already know, please learn from my mistake and DO NOT bake marshmallows into cookies for ten minutes. That is apparently way too long for marshmallows to be in the oven, they become inedible and they stick to the pan like superglue. So if you want s’mores cookes, definitely follow this recipe! It’s a winner.

What I’m reading: Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
What I’m listening to: Where You Want to Be, Taking Back Sunday; Commit This to Memory, Motion City Soundtrack; Bach’s Cello Suites, Yo-Yo Ma; Dar Williams

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Hmm…

Today’s Groupon in my inbox was “55% Off Psychic Reading.” My first thought was, How did you know?

That is all.

What I’m reading: Unbearable Lightness, Portia de Rossi; Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
What I’m listening to: Stay What You Are, Saves the Day; Plans, Death Cab for Cutie; Tell All Your Friends, Taking Back Sunday

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The Cake

It’s someone’s birthday today. Right now he’s at work, but when he comes home…

There will be cake!

You may recognize this cake (and the stand) from last year’s post, Top Secret and Classified Chocolate Cake.

I’m planning to spend the rest of the afternoon doing homework, not three feet from this cake, which sounds dangerous…but I already licked the bowl, so I think I can wait till tonight.

What I’m reading: HTML, XHTML, and CSS, Sixth Edition, Elizabeth Castro
What I’m listening to: Everyday Behavior, Melee; Plans, Death Cab for Cutie

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