Welcome to my blog. I am Miriam Downey, the Cyberlibrarian. I am a retired librarian and a lifelong reader. I read and review books in four major genres: fiction, non-fiction, memoir and spiritual. My goal is to relate what I read to my life experience. I read books culled from reviews in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Bookmarks, and The New Yorker. I also accept books from authors and publicists. I am having a great time.
Hope you will join me on the journey.
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.
By Cornelia Guest,
Author of Cornelia Guest's Simple Pleasures: Healthy Seasonal Cooking
and Easy Entertaining
Active Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 55 minutes
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Greendale WI, A Taste of Home/Reader’s Digest Book, 2012
319 pages 400 recipes
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
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.
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.
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.
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.