Thursday, June 28, 2012

Simple Pleasures: Healthy Seasonal Cooking & Easy Entertaining

By Cornelia Guest
New York, Weinstein Books, 2012
256 pages   Nonfiction

We love entertaining. We have a huge family and a nice home to entertain in, so most weeks we have guests for dinner at some time or other. In the summer with a pool and a grill, we can expect to see family and friends nearly every day. The kids have come to expect chocolate chip cookies and lemonade after their swim, and the adults know where to find beer and sodas. My husband loves that the house and pool are being used, and I love seeing my grandchildren and their friends.

Nothing we do matches the entertaining that celebrity Cornelia Guest does, but I loved reading her beautiful book, Simple Pleasures, and trying out the vegan recipes that fills its pages. For those of us who read cookbooks for pleasure, this one is a delight; the commentary is charmingly egocentric, the recipes are delicious, and the photos are wonderful. 

My first clue that I was going to enjoy Simple Pleasures came from the cover. There is a picture of tulips arranged in an old silver polo trophy. Not that I have any old polo trophies lying around, but it reminded me that I had a beautiful old silver vase from my grandmother. I seldom ever use it because it takes so much polishing—but wait—the trophy on the cover was tarnished. AHA! I brought out my tarnished but graceful vase and filled it with flowers from the farmer’s market. If Cornelia Guest can do it, so can I. 

And then, I loved the commentary. Here are some of my favorite lines: “Our house was always filled with extraordinary people, from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Rudulf Nureyev, from Truman Capote to Yves Saint Laurent.” (I wonder if they would have liked my chocolate chip cookies and my pool-soaked grandchildren.) And then: “When I made my debut…” (Probably they didn’t serve salsa and chips like I do.), and finally: “Though my parents didn’t cook, I grew up spending time in the kitchen, where I watched their French chef, Roger, prepare wonderful food.” (Did she lick her fingers with every dollop of frosting like my 9-year-old granddaughter?)

Interspersed throughout the recipes is commentary and notes from her influential friends as well as advice about vegan eating, and animal rights, which are some of Cornelia Guest’s causes. The photographs are striking, utilizing serving pieces from her family home, Templeton, as well as cute pictures of her dogs.
Most of all, I enjoyed the recipes, which are divided by seasons and use seasonal fresh vegetables. There are suggested menus, and all the recipes are vegan. One of our favorites was asparagus slaw (p. 141). We live right in the middle of asparagus country so our springs are filled with farm-fresh asparagus. I am always looking for new ways to fix it. We will make this recipe frequently. You will be able to find the recipe for Asparagus Slaw at the end of this posting. Tonight we are having bulgur roast vegetables (p. 111) to use up some of the pounds of zucchini that I bought at the farmer’s market last Saturday.

I would give Simple Pleasures as a hostess gift, to a vegan friend, or to anyone who enjoys farm fresh cookbooks or celebrity books. I read Linda Evan’s celebrity cookbook, Recipes for Life, which is much more memoir than it is cookbook. Simple Pleasures is pretentious and simple all at once and really fun to read.
Asparagus Slaw
By Cornelia Guest,
Author of Cornelia Guest's Simple Pleasures: Healthy Seasonal Cooking and Easy Entertaining
Serves 6
Active Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 55 minutes
A delicious twist on standard.
3 carrots, grated
1 ½ pounds asparagus, grated
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint
1/3 cup sliced red onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Combine all ingredients and serve.
© 2012 Cornelia Guest, author of Cornelia Guest's Simple Pleasures: Healthy Seasonal Cooking and Easy Entertaining

Here is Cornelia Guest’s website:

Monday, June 25, 2012

We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons

By Tim Kreider
New York, Free Press, 2012
221 pages   Essays

Tim Kreider is a political cartoonist whose cartoons rose to prominence in a world that apparently I didn’t inhabit because I knew nothing about him before I was sent his book of essays, We Learn Nothing.  In retrospect, it may have been a good thing that I knew nothing about him because I was able to view his book and his cartoons with fresh eyes, which is more than I can say about Kreider’s view of the world and the people who inhabit his world. I offer as witness to his jaded world view the titles of his website and cartoons—The Pain: When Will It End, and the titles of his books—Why Do They Kill Me? Twilight of the Assholes, and We Learn Nothing

Yet, I really, really liked these essays which are very personal and introspective. They include essays about a near death experience, a transgendered friend, a liar, a jailed uncle, a sick mother, and a pair of unknown half-sisters. Surprisingly, I found much to relate to even though my life experience is very different from Kreider’s. I found myself underlining some rather profound insights into human nature in his musings as well as laughing at some absurdity or other he was experiencing. One of my favorite essays concerns the time he and a friend attended a Tea Party rally. Although my Republican husband is no Tea Party-er, I empathized with Kreider because I often feel like a fish out of water at Lincoln Day dinners and fund raisers that I occasionally have to attend out of marital duty. One line in the essay that intrigued me was this: “What dooms our best efforts to cultivate empathy and compassion is always, of course, other people.” He realizes part way into the rally that these are the people he has always hated “the kind of weenies who thought student council was important.” 

There are many absurdities in these essays to laugh at. In Kreider’s world, all great ideas come from sitting around with friends drinking beer. He tells about an old friend who is now an editor who wanted him to write an article about the cultural fixation on arrested adolescence. “Of course,” he said dryly, “I thought of you.” I laughed out loud at a later line when Kreider realizes that this editor is “the same guy who broke my collarbone in a plastic light-saber fight now considers me the expert on arrested adolescence.”

Two of the essays—one about a friend who becomes a survivalist and another about a friend who defriends him—are a bit too long and self-indulgent. However, I kept reading for the little gems of wisdom that I had come to respect and enjoy. I chuckled as he talked about the friend who abandoned him because it reminded me of a self-help book I had read and discussed in my blog about women losing friendships—What Did I Do Wrong; the similarity between the two was striking. In Kreider's case, the musings were such that it made it hard to say, “Oh, you poor guy!” you were busy chuckling over the biting satire. The other long, but interesting story concerns a former professor and mentor who becomes a survivalist and tries to convince the men he has mentored through the years to join him in separating from the world. Much of it takes place on what Kreider calls “Pony Island,” which is a place I just visited for the first place, Chincoteague Island in Virginia. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed this diatribe.

Whether it is these lost friendships or his frequent lost loves, Kreider has a way of “stripping human behavior of all its pretty, petty pretensions,” in the words of the ShelfAwareness reviewer. And it is that quality that makes the reader—me in particular—be able to relate to him and his life experience. Add to that, the cynical cartoons at the end of each chapter and you have a true indictment of our human frailties.

This is Tim Kreider’s website:

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


I am reposting my thoughts about Wunderkind by Nikolai Grozni from Sept. of 2011. The book is now out in paperback and was an excellent book. It deserves a wide audience.
By Nikolai Grozni
New York, Free Press, 2011
287 pages      Fiction

I have a new word in my book vocabulary—roman a clef—a novel in which actual persons and events are disguised as fictional characters and events. Wunderkind is a novelized version, a roman a clef, of the teenaged years of the book’s author Nikolai Grozni.

Grozni was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria and was a teenager when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1989 taking the Communist dictatorship in Bulgaria with it. Wunderkind tells the novelized story of his life as a piano student at the Sofia Music School during the years preceding the revolution.

Much of Wunderkind reads like any coming-of-age novel about a disenfranchised youth. Certainly there are twinges of Holden Caulfield in Konstantin, the protagonist, who is self-absorbed, rebellious, and extremely insolent and impertinent. He is living in a totalitarian state for which he shows total disdain, as do many of the youth with whom he comes in contact. What Konstantin has that most youth do not have is an amazing talent as a pianist, and an overwhelming love of music. In his regular classes, Konstantin is student number 14, who is failing all his classes. In the studio, however, he is the star musician.

The narrator’s love of music is what captured me as I began reading, and frankly it was the music that kept me reading when Konstantin’s ugly behavior began to be a bit wearing and tedious. Konstantin loves Chopin, and many of the chapters are named for pieces in the Chopin repertoire. As Konstantin practices, he describes the music he is playing, and for a moment, he is able to transcend the difficulties of his life and the rebelliousness of his nature. He loses himself in the music—something that only true musicians are able to do.

It is obvious that Grozni is passionate about music. I understood completely when he has Konstantin muse about what makes a great musical experience. “Sometimes, only sometimes, when the planets were aligned fortuitously, when the performer and the audience were in accord with the gods, the magic happened. Being a vessel, an oracle speaking foreign tongues, making prophecies—that was the true role of a great performer. Temperament was the courage to become the music and not allow your petty human emotions to get in the way.” There are so many eloquent passages in the novel—almost all about music—it made me wish to share those magical musical moments. 

The major plot movements occur in the last few chapters of the book when Konstantin is expelled from the music school, the revolution begins, the unspeakable happens to the beautiful violinist that Konstantin loves, and the boy grows to a man. If you are reading for plot, this is probably not the book for you. 

The musical pieces that make up the chapter headings can be found on the author’s website, each piece played by a famous pianist. There is also a link to a video of the author as a teenager playing Chopin. One of the quotes on the back cover is by Patti Smith, the singer and author of Just Kids. I can see why she was asked to read and comment on the book. Her memoir is also about the creative process and the passion of youth. She, her friend Robert Maplethorpe, and Nikolai Grozni would have had a lot in common.

Every other year in Kalamazoo, we are privileged to hear some of the world’s greatest pianists at the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. One component of the festival is a series of concerts featuring the world’s best young pianists. During one festival, I had the privilege of driving a young Chinese pianist to her several concerts around the area. One afternoon, she came to the house to practice on my grand piano; I sat at the kitchen table and listened to sounds coming from my piano that I could not possibly have made. It was a transcendent experience. 

There are moments like that in Wunderkind, moments when you wish you could be hearing what Konstantin is playing, when you wish you could be feeling what Konstantin is feeling. Grozni’s descriptive voice is such that you are almost there. 

Nikolai Grozni’s website has pictures of the Sofia Music School, pictures of himself as a young pianist, and a video of him playing Chopin. I received this book from the publisher. I probably would not have found the book otherwise, and I am a better person for having read it.

Read also an opinion article Grozni wrote during the Egyptian Revolution, comparing it to the revolution in Bulgaria in 1989:

Taste of Home Cooking School Cookbook

By Taste of Home
Greendale WI, A Taste of Home/Reader’s Digest Book, 2012
319 pages 400 recipes   Non-Fiction

I love this Taste of Home cookbook. What I like best about the cookbook and the magazine supplements that I occasionally buy is that I seldom, if ever, have to go out and buy exotic spices or unusual ingredients that I would not normally have on hand. Sometimes just looking at the recipes reminds me: “Oh, yeah! I could do that for the party or the family dinner or supper tonight.”

The Taste of Home Cooking School Cookbook follows the traditional Taste of Home pattern: a description for each recipe submitted by a reader with the reader’s name and hometown included, then the recipe. There is a picture for each recipe; something my non-cooking daughter tells me that she has to have in a cookbook. The other major innovation with this cookbook is that nutritional values are included with each recipe—something that has been lacking in the magazine and the supplements. Additionally, it is a very colorful cookbook and is nicely arranged. The index is complete, and categories of recipes are easy to find. These are essentials for a good cookbook in my mind. Interspersed throughout the cookbook are handy tips—tips, I am assuming, that are explained when the cooking school tour comes to town. I have never gone to one of the cooking schools but I have heard others talk about them.

This book came at a good time for me. My husband and I are following the 17-Day diet. (We’re on day 21 and it’s going pretty well). Therefore, the nutritional values on the recipes have been the first thing I have looked at as I read over and tried the recipes. Here are some of the recipes I tried and had success with. The pictures are out of the cookbook…my end results don’t look so glamorous.

 Ginger Chicken (p. 137). This is a regular stir fry recipe except that it used egg white to bind a soy sauce/cornstarch mixture to the chicken before the chicken was fried in the wok. I had never grated a piece of ginger before, and it really added a zip to the finished product.

  Orange Tilapia (p. 185). We found this to be a very good recipe with orange juice and orange peel added to to tilapia, carrots and zucchini, which were then steamed in parchment paper in the oven. We really enjoyed the recipe and I most likely will make it again.

Savory Apple-chicken Sausage (p. 241). We made this for Sunday breakfast. I am on the search for recipes that we can have for breakfast that have the protein but not the fat. This really filled the bill. The apples filled in for the dryness that often comes from ground chicken. This recipe is a real keeper.

Sausage Pizza Soup (p. 77). This is what I am making for dinner tonight.  It is very low calorie and low carbohydrate but looks like it will have a good pizza-y taste to it. Only 128 calories a cup.

 I didn’t try any appetizers or desserts because we aren’t eating anything like that right at the moment, but when the 17-day diet has run its course, you can bet that I will be making lots more of the recipes.

Taste of Home test kitchens and many more recipes:

I received this with a couple of other cookbooks from the publicist. More cookbooks postings in the next few days.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life

By Mary Johnson
Toronto, Bond Street Books, 2011
526 pages     Spiritual Memoir

Times change, people change, the response to religious faith changes. If a person does not change, they are not growing; they are not, in fact, living. This idea is brought forcefully home in the magnificent spiritual memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson. At age 19, Mary, who was a part of a large, Texas, Catholic family, joined the Missionaries of Charity, the order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa. Twenty years later, her heart told her to take another path, and she left the order.

Her memoir recounts her journey from obedient follower to religious scholar, to questioning leader and finally to independent thinker. She says, “Through years of wresting with my own dark nights, I’d replaced marriage to God with a different sort of integrity.” The reader becomes totally caught up in her story, which she relates in a chronological order. The order in which she tells the story is important because the reader is able to relate distinctly to her journey from youthful innocence to exhausted middle age. 

An Unquenchable Thirst is an intimate look at a lifestyle that has been shrouded in mystery for centuries. We who know little about this topic—especially those of us raised in a different form of Christianity—wonder how the life works, who chooses to become a nun, and what the daily life of a nun is like. What one sees is that this is a profoundly austere life. The theology of sacrifice as practiced by Mother Teresa is one of rules and schedules and a total lack of independent thinking and response. One reviewer said that the nuns’ "sacrifices would convert sinners, save souls from hell, make reparations for sin, and speed world peace." These are the very things that Johnson chafes at over the years. However, she never rejects the concept of the religious life, only her life as an obedient nun. She finally realizes that in order to have a life as a nun, you must have a “stubborn faith, not an ecstatic vision.” Her honest portrayal of the order and Mother Teresa should be required reading for anyone seeking a life as a religious.

Johnson’s training includes years of dish washing, cooking, and piles of laundry. When she is finally able to get to the work for which she had joined the order, she experiences some happiness. She works with disadvantaged children, studies in Rome, and then becomes a guide for those entering the order. Many of her years are spent in Italy. She yearns for Mother Teresa to acknowledge her good works by calling her by her name, Sister Donata, but Mother never does—only “Sister.” 

The most poignant section of the book for me was about a young nun under Johnson’s care who came to be seriously depressed, so seriously in fact that she reverted to child-like behavior. At first Johnson is impressed by the natural child-like faith the woman has: “faith that we’d been encouraged to cultivate but which had always eluded me.” When she realizes that the woman’s mental health is in danger, she instinctively reacts by hugging her and touching her as a way of comforting her. Touching in any way is not allowed in the Missionaries of Charity and Johnson is reprimanded for her actions. It takes weeks of tenacity on Johnson’s part to get the woman the mental health care that she needs.

An Unquenchable Thirst is aptly titled for Johnson speaks of the thirst to know God and to help others in Jesus’ name. But she also speaks to the thirsts that she, in the end, could not deny: the thirst to be touched; the sexual thirst that she speaks candidly about; the thirst to be acknowledged; and the thirst to understand her place in the world. 

I was able to get an inside view of an abbey when my mother was in a nursing home run by the Benedictine Sisters in Duluth Minnesota. One dear sister had befriended my mother, loved her, massaged her, sang to her and prayed with her. When she realized that my sisters and I were spending hundreds of dollars on hotel rooms, she offered us a room in the abbey with kitchen privileges. It was a kind and generous gesture—one that we appreciated in immeasurable ways. Sister Susan’s ministry was to the dying at the nursing home and I will be eternally grateful for ways in which she ministered to my mother, including speeding my mother’s soul to heaven. 

As Johnson talked about the austerity of the life of the Missionaries of Charity and the silence of mealtime, I was reminded of the happy chatter that emanated from the dining room at the abbey in Duluth, the camaraderie of the nuns, and the way in which they interpreted the gospel.

With that experience in mind, I was interested in an article written by Mary Johnson and published by the Religious News Service on June 4. It is about American nuns.

You may also be interested in reading my thoughts on The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris who has spent a great deal of time at an abbey in Minnesota. I actually met Kathleen Norris in the elevator at the abbey in Duluth shortly after I read her book.

I can highly recommend An Unquenchable Thirst. It is very long, but it was so intriguing that I was able to stick with it for the long haul to the benefit of my soul.