The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

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There are books that are page turners, whose every line drives the heartbeat up, the hours tick by like nothing at all, and your face turns blue holding your breath too long as you rush your way to the last page.

This is not that kind of book.

It is a quiet sort of book. A story that can be dipped into here and there, as I did. My copy was located upstairs in the loft, once Wee-er Reader’s bedroom now the playroom/Lego-room. It’s a good room for playing in during the colder months, it’s warmer upstairs and is at the front of the house so it gets plenty of sunshine especially in the afternoons. I would read a few pages here, then someone would ask me to play or plonk a Lego creation on my lap (on the book), or they would fight over the same toy, the same chair, or the littler one would wander out of the loft and disappear for a while, making me poke my head out of my book and call for him. Sometimes he wanders back, other times he’s giggling off in a corner somewhere and I wonder, crap, did I forget to close the door to the laundry room/bathroom/guestroom and have to go in search of him. He’s a wanderer that one, and as am I, having gotten sidetracked in this post already!

And so we return to Alexandra Sinclair who, in a bid for freedom, moves to London, calls herself Lexie, takes up a new job at a magazine, and a new man, Innes Kent, “aged thirty-four, art dealer, journalist, critic, self-confessed hedonist”. A new life, seemingly ordinary for today’s woman, but rather forward for the time, mid-1950s, for someone just 22.

“She has had a creeping fear of late that what she wants most – for her life to begin, to take on some meaning, to turn from blurred monochrome into glorious technicolour – may pass her by. That she might not recognise it if it comes her way, might fail to grasp for it.”

Elina is living in contemporary times. An artist, she has just given birth and is coping, or attempting to cope, with the terrifying early stages of motherhood. Doesn’t help that she almost died on the operating table. And seems to have these lapses where she is lost, mentally, emotionally:

“Maybe her life has sprung four thousand holes. Because one minute it was early morning and she was discovering the new smell and then suddenly she is lying on the living-room floor and the phone is ringing.”

Ted, her partner and the baby’s father, is devoted if distracted, with work on his film and his headaches and sudden memories.

As Lexie’s life is propelled forward, by circumstance and the force of her personality, Elina and Ted seem to drift back in time, not in the time travel notion of things, no, but in Ted’s sudden memories of his childhood, memories long buried and returned to him after the birth of his own child.

Reading the narratives of these two women, as we go back and forth between their stories, it isn’t all that easy to guess at how they intersect at first. But this is not a mystery, there are no prizes, no race to the finish.

O’Farrell has the uncanniest ability to write about motherhood, parenthood, and children.

“Elina moves over the grass, bends and lifts him with one movement. His body feels rigid and his cries broaden into outrage. How could you? he seems to be saying. How could you leave me like that?”  

But I do wonder if this book is for everyone. To those who do not know parenthood or do not wish to, these little details about life with a newborn might cause yawns to be stifled, eyes to glaze over. For someone expecting things to happen, for something to be moving along, then they would be disappointed.

It is a sort of gentle read. There is something tremulous and tense about it but these are undercurrents, hints at the disquiet in these lives that we’re reading about.

Bibliography
After You’d Gone (2000) (my thoughts)
My Lover’s Lover (2002)
The Distance Between Us (2004)
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2007)
The Hand That First Held Mine (2010)
Instructions for a Heatwave (2013)

Nonfiction November: on diversity

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Diversity and Nonfiction: What does “diversity” in books mean to you? Does it refer to book’s location or subject matter? Or is it the author’s nationality or background? What countries/cultures do you tend to enjoy or read about most in your nonfiction? What countries/cultures would you like nonfiction recommendations for? What kind of books besides different countries/cultures do you think of as books of diversity?

Such good questions! I participated recently in Aarti’s Diversiverse, where the challenge was to read books by authors of colour. I ended up posting about 6 books, but these were all works of fiction. And I didn’t give a thought to reading works of nonfiction at all. In other words, I’ve not really given much thought to reading diversely when it comes to nonfiction.

Diverse to me means a variety of things – authors of colour, and international are the first things that come to mind. But it could also mean gender, class, and different life experiences, such as the disabled, different religions, different generations. It is a very tricky thing to discuss, this diversity. I considered giving this week a miss, but it is an important topic, and as I mentioned earlier, I don’t push myself to read diversely when it comes to nonfiction.

So what does diversity mean? Does it mean reading about people different from me? I am from Singapore, my great-grandparents were from China, but I have never been to China nor do I know what it’s like to be Chinese in China.

Or does it mean reading books that are not written by white men? Because it seems that many books are. Of course there is nothing wrong reading books written by white men. As a reader, you are entitled to read whatever you want to! But I guess the point is that as a reader, I want to be reading more widely, to be gaining a different perspective.

Hmm I don’t know whether I’m being coherent….

Perhaps I should just figure out what I am interested in reading!

Here’s one. Southeast Asia.

It might not sound ‘diverse’ – a Southeast Asian reading about Southeast Asia. But it is a very diverse region, of which Singapore is just one very tiny dot and a rather atypical dot at that. And I feel like it’s a part of the world that doesn’t get read about very much. These books have been on my Southeast Asian reading list for a while. And it is time I begin reading some of them.

When broken glass floats : growing up under the Khmer Rouge : a memoir – Chanrithy Him (Cambodia)
First they killed my father : a daughter of Cambodia remembers – Loung Ung (Cambodia)
The Mute’s soliloquy : a memoir – Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Indonesia)
The river of lost footsteps : histories of Burma – Thant Myint-U
From the land of green ghosts : a Burmese odyssey – Pascal Khoo Thwe (Burma)
The unwanted : a memoir – Kien Nguyen (Vietnam)
Catfish and Mandala – Andrew X. Pham (Vietnam)

Another part of the world that I would like to read more about is South America. But I have no idea where to begin. I do realize that saying “South America” is very vague. But I’ll be happy to read about any part of it! I was browsing Goodreads and found some books:

 

The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba - Julia Cooke
Waiting for Snow in Havana – Carlos Eire
Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border – Luis Alberto Urrea
My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile - Isabel Allende

Of course there are plenty more out there. And if you have any recommendations please let me know!
 

 

 

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

“To be a man was to posture strength and capability; for my brother, this meant he had to be unafraid. He had to show a strength he may not have felt, had to evince a ruthlessness in his swagger that was not in him.”

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“Men’s bodies litter my family history. The pain of the women they left behind pulls them from the beyond, makes them appear as ghosts. In death, they transcend the circumstances of this place that I love and hate all at once and become supernatural.”

Jesmyn Ward’s book is full of anger and grief. The death of four people close to you will do that. First her brother dies, in October 2000, then by summer 2004, three of her friends had died as well. She is still hurting, it is evident from every line in the book, every word that she pours out onto the page.

Ward takes us through her life, growing up poor in Mississippi, and in between these recollections of her life, she talks about the lives of her friends – and their deaths through accidents, drugs, suicide. She thinks back to the last time she saw them, to how she found out the news of their deaths, and the reactions of their loved ones.  She also examines the socioeconomic factors that have affected their lives and their community:

 “And the school administration at the time solved the problem of the Black male by practicing a kind of benign neglect. Years later, that benign neglect would turn malignant and would involve illegal strip searches of middle schoolers accused of drug dealing, typing these same students as troublemakers, laying a thick paper trail of imagined or real discipline offenses, and once the paper trail grew thick enough, kicking out the students who endangered the blue-ribbon rating with lackluster grades and test scores.”

And how she sought escape in books

“I think my love for books sprang from my need to escape the world I was born into, to slide into another where words were straightforward and honest, where there was clearly delineated good and evil, where I found girls who were strong and smart and creative and foolish enough to fight dragons, to run away from home to live in museums, to become child spies, to make new friends and build secret gardens. Perhaps it was easier for me to navigate that world than my home, where my parents were having heated, whispered arguments in the dining room turned bedroom, and my father was disappearing after those arguments for weeks at a time to live at his mother’s house in Pass Christian before coming back to us. Perhaps it was easier for me to sink into those worlds than to navigate a world that would not explain anything to me, where I could not delineate good and bad. My grandmother worked ten-hour-long shifts at the plant. My mother had a job as a maid at a hotel. My father still worked at the glass plant, and when he was living with us, he would often disappear on his motorcycle.”

 

Men We Reaped was a heartwrencher, an eyeopener. It was a very personal journey, Ward’s attempt to write away her sadness and her pain.

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A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the great California Earthquake of 1906

 

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“Perhaps all cities, like all the creations of humankind, lack the real permanence they often seem to seek. But this was something more. Because of where San Francisco was built, and because of the febrile and uncertain nature of the world that underpins its foundations, it has a unique vulnerability and suffers under a greater sense of edgy impermanence than any other great city anywhere. San Francisco that morning seemed, in the context of the landscape spread around it, a city more temporary than any other great urban creation that humans have ever made.”

I felt my first earthquake when I was about 14 or 15, my family and I were on holiday in Los Angeles. We were in the hotel room and it was probably sometime in the morning when the floor moved. Then a recorded voice advised us from outside the corridor not to worry, that it was an earthquake. Or something to that extent. My sister and I were less worried than excited – our first earthquake! Of course we were all thankful that it was just a very minor one. Then we went about our day.

Earthquakes are a rarity in Singapore, although we are close to the earthquake-prone area of Indonesia, and not too far from where the Indian Ocean tsunami happened. I don’t recall ever feeling an earthquake when living in Singapore.

So to move from Singapore to the San Francisco Bay Area a few years ago was, well, interesting. When we bought our house, the contract had all these statements about being close to the Hayward Fault, and various other things.  And so I worry quite a bit about the possibility of earthquakes although I have only felt two earthquakes since we’ve lived here, and they were minor ones. But reading this book, and realizing that scientists at the US Geological Survey predict a high likelihood of a big one happening in the area before 2032, gives me the shivers. I realize that 1906 was a long time ago, that things have changed tremendously in terms of building design and what not, but I can’t help but worry! Especially since the 6.0 earthquake that occurred in South Napa just in August, which, while fortunately not too many were injured (and sadly, one person died after chimney bricks fell on him), did quite a bit of damage. Plus look what happened in 1989, during the disastrous Loma Prieta earthquake. Is the Bay Area prepared for the next big one? Am I prepared if something does happen? I really don’t know.

Anyway, back to Winchester, who I reckon is the type of person who enjoys taking long meandering walks just to see where things go, because that’s how his book reads.

Winchester begins by tempting the reader with some snippets of information on the earthquake, some depictions of it from first-hand accounts, and some longing and loving depictions of the city and its surrounds, from his perch high above on Mount Diablo.

I can understand all that geological and geographical facts that he pounds away at. It is an earthquake book, that was to be expected. To read of a meteor crater in Winslow, Arizona, though and various small towns in Missouri and California, which have seismologists all excited, ok fair enough, but Winchester does take us on a rather long meandering route through time and space before we eventually get to 1906 San Francisco. He has after all driven from the east coast of the US to the west, and I guess that means he has a lot of time to think about his project, his journey and more.

So to finally return to San Francisco in the 1900s is a bit of a relief. But Winchester isn’t ready to take us to the earthquake, not quite yet. First we learn about the relative youth of America in those days, the treaties signed like the Louisiana Purchase, buying 600,000 acres of Alaska from Russia, then the treaty signed with Mexico for western lands. And of course one cannot talk about San Francisco history without touching on gold. Some Chinese still refer to this area as “旧金山” (pronounced ‘jiujinshan’) or literally “old gold mountain”.

But wait! In Chapter Seven, Winchester heads back to contemporary times, this time bringing the reader to central California and a little farming town called Parkfield, a “much-measured place” full of scientific equipment, devices monitoring monitoring monitoring seismic activity. And there are discussions about plates and a variety of other things that may interest you more than me.

Aha, Chapter Eight takes us back in time again, with more of the story of San Francisco! Ok so in case you haven’t guessed yet, I am more of a history buff than a geography one. I love all these little details about life back then – how prices of goods rocketed after the gold poured in (nearly a million dollars in the first eight weeks), how people abandoned their jobs to go dig up some gold (more than 200 sailing vessels lay offshore in July 1849, sailors all after the shiny things. By the end of the year, this number was 600!). People lived in flimsy tents, and it was filthy and just downright dirty and gross. And corrupted. This was the mid-1800s. And he throws in all these tidbits, like how the San Francisco patois, like the use of ‘crib’ to mean ‘home’, ‘crimp’, ‘shanghai men’, and even ‘hoodlum’. And far more fascinating (at least to me) details about life in San Francisco, in the west in the 1800s. Oh I bathed in this chapter, I really did. Because Winchester, when he’s good, he’s really really good.

And TADA, in Chapter Nine, we get to April 17, 1906! FINALLY.

But NO! He fools us again. Winchester first sets it up with a rather long few pages about the day before it, the adventures of an opera singer, a tenor, in town to perform and staying at the seven-storey Palace Hotel, we read newspaper accounts of the opera Carmen, then some other things about what happened the night before the earthquake, entertainment at the theatre, a couple of fires, all this ending and GAHHH he didn’t get to the EARTHQUAKE!! He ends with dawn, April 17, 1906: “Dawn was unfolding quietly, serenely. All was perfect peace.”

Ok so now CHAPTER TEN, according to my e-book, we are 47.7% into the book. Winchester is on thin ice here. But we finally meet the Earthquake:

“It made its entrance in a spectacular, horrifying, unforgettable way. It came thundering in on what looked like huge undulating waves, with the entire surface of the earth and everything that stood upon it seeming to lift up and then roll in forward from the direction of the ocean. The whole street and all its great buildings rose and fell, rose and fell, in what looked like an enormous tidal bore, an unstoppable tsunami of rock and brick and cement and stone.”

Winchester digs up accounts from various people, policemen, hotel guests, ship captains, even a very young Ansel Adam and his Chinese cook. He makes the simple point that clocks stopped, because they ran on pendulums. And this one detail stuns me. I understand the telegraph wires going down, the fires and all that. But to think that they weren’t able to tell the time because their clocks stopped blew me away. Yes it was a long time ago.

And the destruction. Relentless. Complete. Devastating.
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- Some 95% of all SF’s chimneys collapsed
- The federal government estimated that only 3 – 10% of the damage done to the city was directly due to the earthquake.
- Half a billion dollars’ worth of property damage
- More than 200,000 homeless, at least 600 killed (some say it was as high as 3,000)
- Fire. Within 5 seconds of the end of the quake, 20 or 30 fires broke out in the lower part of the city, said one account
- It burned across 2,600 acres, destroyed 490 city blocks, 28,188 buildings.
- They burned for three days. Dynamite had to be used to create firebreaks. The water supply pipes had mostly fractured. Eventually the rain began.
Ok so I’ve complained quite a bit here about this book and how long it took to get to the actual event. But I understand it, I understand Winchester’s need to set the stage, to get the reader to understand what things were like at that time, to lay a foundation for the reader about plate tectonics and the earth’s movements and stuff. He wanted to cover all his bases. It’s just sometimes that these places that he visits, the connections he makes between issues is a little bit odd, for instance, he mentions a little town in Ohio, which is the hometown of Neil Armstrong and somehow that takes us all the way to the Gaia theory. He also brings in various characters, hints at their lives and what they were doing during the earthquake but then he drops them and seems to forget that he ever talked about them. I was alternately bored and fascinated by this book. The far-too-detailed stuff about geography made me skim the pages, whereas I loved those details about life in the 1800s and 1900s, how things were so different.

Simon Winchester is one of those people with such devotion and enthusiasm about a subject that he is willing to drive from San Francisco to Anchorage, Alaska, just to see a pipeline.

I was wondering, as I FINALLY finished this book, is this Winchester’s style? He has written quite a few popular books on a variety of subjects, and for a while I was quite convinced I had read one of his books but I realize now that I haven’t, that this was my first Winchester.

Did I simply pick the wrong one to start with? Is there another Winchester book that is more readable?

It did however make me want to read more about the anti-Chinese sentiment that wafted around California at that time. Many years ago, I read Iris Chang’s The Chinese in America.  And it might be a good time to revisit that.

 

nonfictionnovember

I read this book for Nonfiction November 2014,  an event hosted by Lost in BooksSophisticated DorkinessRegular Rumination, and Doing Dewey.

It’s Monday and I’m reading Cleopatra

 

itsmonday“It’s Monday! What are you reading?” is a weekly event hosted by Sheila at Bookjourney to share with others what we’ve read the past week and planning to read next.

Here’s what happened last week:

 

 

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I made japchae again with sugar snap peas, cabbage and carrots, this time I served it with breaded pork chops

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And a crispy skinned roasted chicken legs with roasted vegetables – potatoes, butternut squash and carrots.

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Another day, Wee Reader’s absolute favourite dish: mac and cheese (I use Pioneer Woman’s recipe - I figure she knows a lot about cheesy things), and served it with a cabbage and sausage fry-up.

 

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The Husband and I (and Wee-er Reader – Wee Reader was in preschool) went out for lunch and I had a falafel sandwich with red lentil soup. I seldom eat out on weekdays so it was a nice treat. Plus the falafels here are the best!

 

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This is more of my typical lunch. Roast beef sandwich on a bagel. Or really my typical lunch is leftovers! This was a rare day when Wee-er Reader actually had a nap in the late morning and I had a quick and very early lunch to myself. Which is why the book.

Currently…

Reading:

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Cleopatra: A life – Stacy Schiff

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Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? – Roz Chast

A bit depressing to be honest, but it’s an interesting look at her life and her parents’ lives.

Ghost Brigades – John Scalzi

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After finishing Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, I immediately downloaded the next book in the series! Because it was a rather exciting read. Here’s hoping this one is too.

Worn Stories – Emily Spivack

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While Cleopatra is interesting, it isn’t the quickest of reads, and I wanted something on the Kindle for a quicker read. And it was a good thing too, as Sunday’s nap time was not going well for the younger one, who cried and cried in the crib (his older brother sound asleep in the same room!), so we had to take him out in the stroller and walk walk walk. I had my gloves on and this book on the Kindle!

 

Watching:
More of The Good Wife season five. I finally got to the episode where THAT THING HAPPENED. I knew it was going to get there, I saw it in news headlines even. But I was not expecting to feel that way. Shocked, saddened. I’ve not cried so much over a TV episode before!! I think it’s the way they shot it. The way it was portrayed, the way the news was broken, each person’s shock and realization breaking me just a little bit more again.

Listening:

Suede! Oh this song just takes me back to school days!

Eating:

Carrot Cake!

Drinking:

Assam tea

Cooking:

For dinner tonight, slow cooker pot roast with mashed potatoes. I made the mashed potatoes on Sunday and will warm it up later with additional milk/butter. For the rest of the week:

- teriyaki chicken, rice, stir fried kale and mushrooms

- spaghetti with spinach, tomatoes and salmon

Well that’s all I’ve got so far! I’ll probably end up making some kind of noodle dish. And I was thinking of making a soup, although not sure what kind of soup yet!

Last week…

I read:

 

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LA Son: My Life, My City, My Food – Roy Choi

LOVED THIS BOOK. I am going to write about it soon, I promise! I’m hoping to try out one of the recipes before I write about it!

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Old Man’s War – John Scalzi

I loved the thought process that went behind this book. Hey how about if old people, as in age 75,  were called up to war? As in intergalactic space war against aliens, trying to save colonists on other planets, that kind of thing. You’re probably wondering, how can the elderly fight? Well, that’s what I wanted to know, and that’s what John Perry signed up to find out! The writing isn’t very much to shout about, but it’s a fun ride. And GAAHHH there are more books in this series!!

I posted:

       Library Loot     

       Weekend Cooking: Yummy Scrummy Carrot Cake!!     

Links for a foggy Wednesday morning

Nonfiction November: Anyone up for some foodie nonfiction?

 

What are you reading this week?

 

Library Loot

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

 

The Guild – Felicia Day

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Internet phenomenon The Guild comes to comics, courtesy of series creator, writer, and star Felicia Day (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog)! Chronicling the hilarious on- and offline lives of a group of Internet role-playing gamers, the Knights of Good, The Guild has become a cult hit, and is the winner of numerous awards from SXSW, YouTube, Yahoo, and the Streamys. Now, Day brings the wit and heart of the show to this graphic-novel prequel. In this origin tale of the Knights of Good, we learn about Cyd’s life before joining the guild, how she became Codex, her awful breakup with boyfriend Trevor, and how she began to meet the other players who would eventually become her teammates.

 

Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen: 55 Great Chefs Teach Me How to Cook – Dana Cowin

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An uproarious, inspiring cookbook from the longtime editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, in which the first lady of food spills the secret of her culinary ineptitude, while learning—finally—to cook, side-by-side with some of the greatest chefs working today, from David Chang to Thomas Keller

For years, Dana Cowin kept a dark secret: From meat to veggies, broiling to baking, breakfast to dinner, she ruined literally every kind of dish she attempted. Now, in this cookbook confessional, the vaunted “first lady of food” finally comes clean about her many meal mishaps. With the help of friends—all-star chefs, including David Chang, Jacques Pépin and Tom Colicchio and many others—Cowin takes on 100 recipes dear to her heart. Ideal dishes for the home cook, each recipe has a high “yum” factor, a few key ingredients, and a simple trick that makes them special. With every dish, she attains a critical new skill, learning invaluable lessons along the way from the hero chefs who help her discover exactly where she goes wrong.

Hilarious and heartwarming, encouraging and instructional, Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen showcases Cowin’s plentiful cooking mistakes, inspiring anyone who loves a good meal but fears its preparation. Featuring gorgeous full color photography, it is an intimate, hands-on cooking guide from a fellow foodie and amateur home chef, designed to help even the biggest kitchen phobics overcome their reluctance, with delicious results.

E-books!

The Ghost Brigades – John Scalzi

I just finished Old Man’s War, the first in this series, and it was quite an interesting book. I realize that I don’t read that much SF as it tends to be more fantasy that I read. There was some technicality involving skip drives and a variety of other things like colonizing planets and war and stuff. But generally it was a fun read. And I had this desperate need to read the next one.

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The Ghost Brigades are the Special Forces of the Colonial Defense Forces, elite troops created from the DNA of the dead and turned into the perfect soldiers for the CDF’s toughest operations. They’re young, they’re fast and strong, and they’re totally without normal human qualms.

The universe is a dangerous place for humanity—and it’s about to become far more dangerous. Three races that humans have clashed with before have allied to halt our expansion into space. Their linchpin: the turncoat military scientist Charles Boutin, who knows the CDF’s biggest military secrets. To prevail, the CDF must find out why Boutin did what he did.

Jared Dirac is the only human who can provide answers — a superhuman hybrid, created from Boutin’s DNA, Jared’s brain should be able to access Boutin’s electronic memories. But when the memory transplant appears to fail, Jared is given to the Ghost Brigades.

At first, Jared is a perfect soldier, but as Boutin’s memories slowly surface, Jared begins to intuit the reason’s for Boutin’s betrayal. As Jared desperately hunts for his “father,” he must also come to grips with his own choices. Time is running out: The alliance is preparing its offensive, and some of them plan worse things than humanity’s mere military defeat…

Living by Fiction – Annie Dillard

A book about books! Those are the best.

livingfictionLiving by Fiction is written for–and dedicated to–people who love literature. Dealing with writers such as Nabokov, Barth, Coover, Pynchon, Borges, García Márquez, Beckett, and Calvino, Annie Dillard shows why fiction matters and how it can reveal more of the modern world and modern thinking than all the academic sciences combined. Like Joyce Cary’s Art and Reality, this is a book by a writer on the issues raised by the art of literature. Readers of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm will recognize Dillard’s vivid writing, her humor, and the lively way in which she tackles the urgent questions of meaning in experience itself.

Worn Stories – Emily Spivack

I’m curious about this collection of short essays about clothes! The contributors are rather diverse, although I wonder if they can all write well (plus I don’t recognize all the names… probably cos I’m not really in tune with the style world? But oh well, it’s a short read).

 

wornstoriesEveryone has a memoir in miniature in at least one piece of clothing. In Worn Stories, Emily Spivack has collected over sixty of these clothing-inspired narratives from cultural figures and talented storytellers. First-person accounts range from the everyday to the extraordinary, such as artist Marina Abramovic on the boots she wore to walk the Great Wall of China; musician Rosanne Cash on the purple shirt that belonged to her father; and fashion designer Cynthia Rowley on the Girl Scout sash that informed her business acumen. Other contributors include Greta Gerwig, Heidi Julavits, John Hodgman, Brandi Chastain, Marcus Samuelsson, Piper Kerman, Maira Kalman, Sasha Frere-Jones, Simon Doonan, Albert Maysles, Susan Orlean, Andy Spade, Paola Antonelli, David Carr, Andrew Kuo, and more. By turns funny, tragic, poignant, and celebratory, Worn Stories offers a revealing look at the clothes that protect us, serve as a uniform, assert our identity, or bring back the past–clothes that are encoded with the stories of our lives.

Kids’ loot:

What did you get from your library this week?

Weekend Cooking: Yummy Scrummy Carrot Cake!!

Ah the carrot cake. Say those words to a Singaporean and they tend to think of that hawker centre dish, known both as ‘carrot cake’ and ‘chai taw kway’. Crispy, fried goodness of a steamed radish cake (much like the kind at dim sum restaurants), quick fried in a wok with caipoh (pickled radish – such salty goodness), eggs, sometimes with prawns and chili, and topped with spring onions. Here’s an example. 

But no, I am talking about carrot cake. Sweet and moist carrot cake, made with orange-y carrots, studded with raisins, and topped with icing. I’m not fond of cream cheese frosting, sorry guys. Plus my Mum always makes hers with a lemon icing, so when I saw this one recipe from BBC Good Food, and found that one last orange lost in my fruit drawer, I knew this was the cake for me. And it was perfect.

It all started with a kids’ TV show. Harry the Bunny to be exact. It’s a cute little show that stars a rabbit, who talks to the camera about various kiddie things. And one of these things he was talking about was carrots in one episode and carrot cake in another. So Wee Reader asks if we can have carrot cake.

So oddly enough, while my Mum loves making and eating carrot cake, and I’ve helped her make carrot cake many times before, I’ve never made carrot cake myself. Why is that? Why do I always stick to those things I always make like brownies and chocolate cake and chocolate chip cookies. Oh perhaps because they have that life-giving essential ingredient, chocolate. And carrot cake doesn’t.

But sometimes there is a need for something that is not chocolate-y.

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Wee Reader of course insisted on helping. 

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Yeah you know what happened? I skimmed over the fact that they used ‘self-rising flour’ and forgot to add extra baking powder to my plain flour. 

 

And so thanks to Harry the Bunny, Wee Reader and BBC Good Food, I made carrot cake. Here’s the recipe and my adaptations:

 

  • 175g light muscovado sugar – I used brown sugar, which is all I have
  • 175ml sunflower oil – I used vegetable oil
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 140g grated carrots (about 3 medium) - I added an extra carrot!
  • 100g raisins – I presoaked them for a while in some water, just to plump them up
  • grated zest of 1 large orange
  • 175g self-raising flour – I only have plain flour and didn’t read it properly! (See here for DIY self-raising flour recipes)
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon - I used just 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon as I’m not fond of cinnamon, and also added 1/2 tsp ground ginger and a few shakes of allspice
  • ½ tsp grated nutmeg (freshly grated will give you the best flavour) – nope didn’t have any

 

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4/fan 160C. (about 350F)

Oil and line the base and sides of an 18cm square cake tin with baking parchment. The easiest way to do this is to cut two long strips the width of the tin and put each strip crossways, covering the base and sides of the tin, with a double layer in the base. (I used a silicon loaf tin and so didn’t need to oil or line)

Tip the sugar into a large mixing bowl, pour in the oil and add the eggs. Lightly mix with a wooden spoon. Stir in the grated carrots, raisins and orange rind.

Mix the flour, bicarbonate of soda and spices, then sift into the bowl. Lightly mix all the ingredients – when everything is evenly amalgamated stop mixing. The mixture will be fairly soft and almost runny.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 40- 45 minutes, until it feels firm and springy when you press it in the centre. Cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then turn it out, peel off the paper and cool on a wire rack. (You can freeze the cake at this point.)

Beat together the frosting ingredients in a small bowl until smooth – you want the icing about as runny as single cream. Set the cake on a serving plate and boldly drizzle the icing back and forth in diagonal lines over the top, letting it drip down the sides.
Recipe from Good Food magazine, May 2002

 

weekendcooking

 

Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs

 

 

 

Links for a foggy Wednesday morning

It has been ages since I’ve done one of these!

Edan Lepucki writes at The Millions about likeability in fiction. She mentions her novel, California, which I really ought to try to read soon! And this year is ending! Gah… Have you read it yet? Or are you intending to?

If you’ve not checked out the series that Morning News is doing on writers in restaurants, you really ought to! Here’s their brief: “In our series, we send novelists out into the field to eat in restaurants and report back, as long as they file something that fits two criteria: It is a restaurant review; it is not a restaurant review. From there, they’re free to go wherever inspiration takes them.”. And here is Charles Yu on Buffalo Wild Wings

So many great topics on Nonfiction November’s second week: Be/Become/Ask the expert. SOOOO many books to add to my TBR list!

The Mouse Mansion – what a cute book!

A fun post on Scratch and Sniff Books for Grownups on BookRiot!

Non-bookish things:

This Gruyere and Emmentaler Mac and Cheese with Ham and Cubed Sourdough at Vanilla Garlic is going on my mental list of recipes to try!

I usually have udon in my fridge, and often stir it into a quickly made chicken and vegetable soup or tom yum soup (made from one of those pastes). But this recipe for a meat sauce at Teczcape sounds quick and easy too!

Usually I’m not a cheesecake person but this Coconut and Mango Yogurt Cheesecake at Dessert First sounds divine!

Nonfiction November: Anyone up for some foodie nonfiction?

nonfictionnovember

So, it’s Week Two of Nonfiction November! Regular Rumination is hosting this week and this is the topic:

Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Ok I didn’t know where to go with this one!

Am I an expert at something? These days the only thing I’m good at is reading while ignoring taking care of my two young fellas.

I tend to read all over the place! But as I sat down and took a long look at my Goodreads ‘read’ and ‘nonfiction’ categories, I realized that one nonfiction topic I have read quite a bit about is food.

 

Yeah so food is a rather big topic in itself. There are books on different countries’ cooking and food. (Links are to my posts on the books. I have read all the books I’m mentioning here, but have not written about all of them). For instance, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya von Bremzen or Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food–Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation’s Food Was Seasonal by Mark Kurlansky or To the People, Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China by Audra Ang. Or books on ingredients, like Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky. Or even on the instruments that we use to eat and cook our food, such as Consider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson.

Sometimes the book aims for a more unique angle like 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust by William Alexander, who hones his bread making skills rather passionately.

Or this one about allergies, which I first read when I found out my son was allergic to several foods (wheat, milk, peanuts and tree nuts. He’s since outgrown the first two but is still allergic to peanuts and tree nuts): Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life by Sandra Beasley.

Or for those interested in culinary traditions, especially those of European immigrants, a look into life of five families in a New York tenement in the mid-1800s through the food they cooked and ate, in 97 Orchard: An Edible History of five Immigrant Families in one New York Tenement.

But then I realize that perhaps one sub-topic that might interest you all, at least it does me, is the chef-memoir or anything related to restaurants. I love to eat out. A skill I first honed in Singapore, a city-state covered with restaurants, high-end and low-end. In this tiny island you get restaurants by Joel Robuchon, Jamie Oliver, Guy Savoy, Daniel Boulud, Tetsuya Wakuda. And it’s got restaurants making the World’s Best list. Not too shabby for an island nation that runs 50 km (31 miles) east to west and 26 km (16 miles) north to south. So perhaps it is understandable that Singaporeans are big foodies (to be honest there’s nothing all that much to do if you’re not really into shopping and partying. I wasn’t.) There’s nothing like searching out that next hot dining establishment. Sometimes living in the suburbs of Northern California, I miss that. Sure there’s plenty of good food here too but it’s so very spread out! Excuses excuses (young children excuses) I know. So yes, I have only made it to a handful of good restaurants here. Perhaps the meal that has stood out the most would be my lunch at the French Laundry (in case you are interested, photos and details are in this post).

Anyway let’s get back to the books! For it seems that I have read more than a handful of chef memoirs and other books written about life in the kitchen!

There are the celebrity chefs:

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef – Gabrielle Hamilton
Yes, Chef – Marcus Samuelsson

And going behind the scenes of a kitchen at a restaurant:
Sous Chef

Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford
The amazing Michael Ruhlman has written quite a few books on this, although I’ve only read (I think! it was a while ago!) the first one:

The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America
The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection
The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen

perfectionist
The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine by Rudolph Chelminski just tore me apart. This is the story of one of the top chefs in France, Bernard Loiseau, and the madness of Michelin star perfection.

And of course there is the ever-present Anthony Bourdain and his fun reads:

 

The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones
Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook
A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines – this one is my favourite!
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

And when there are restaurants, there will be critics, which is where books by critics come in handy:


Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess by New York magazine food critic Gael Greene. Which I only gave 3 stars on Goodreads, although I can’t remember why.

Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life by Mimi Sheraton

Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic and editor of Gourmet, wrote quite a few memoirs:
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table
Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way

and even a work of fiction that is set at an about-to-go-bust food magazine, Delicious!
And an interesting insight to getting that ‘fourth star’ from the New York Times from the view of a restaurant, its owner and its staff.

The Fourth Star: Dispatches from Inside Daniel Boulud’s Celebrated New York Restaurant by Leslie Brenner

Alright, so that’s probably far more information than you will ever need on this topic, I hope! Thanks for indulging me!

But I’d like to know, what’s your favourite foodie read? 

It’s Monday and I’m reading A Crack in the Edge of the World

Currently…

It’s Sunday morning and I’m hiding in my room while the kids play Lego in the loft. OK it’s not really hiding if my door is open and the younger one wanders in and out, digging around my bookshelves and nightstand and playing with things he finds around like earphones and a pen (it’s run out of ink so it’s ‘safe’). I’m typing this on my tablet and he keeps coming over and saying ‘see see’. Because yes that’s where I occasionally let him view YouTube videos of Maru cat. Have you ever seen Maru? He’s a fat cat who lives in Japan and is too fond of boxes. My kids – and I – love these videos. Well the younger one loves anything with cats!

Here’s some of what we did ate this week:

 

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updated to add: I made linguine carbonara for Sunday dinner and served it with a spinach and cherry tomato salad with a (bottled) ponzu dressing.

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Mmm fish porridge at Asian Pearl. Oh and other dim sum dishes too!

 

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It’s been very long since I’ve eaten at California Pizza Kitchen! It might have been nearly ten years ago since I was last in one, probably in Singapore. But we were at the mall picking up some thing from Macy’s and it was right by the carpark! So there was lunch.

I was surprised by this bacon, potato, leek and egg pizza. It doesn’t look pretty but had such great flavour.

I liked that combination and will definitely be stealing it when I next make pizza!

Reading:

crackedgeworld
A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the great California earthquake of 1906 – Simon Winchester

For Nonfiction November. It was a bit of a slow start, with Winchester meandering through space and time before finally getting to California in 1906! But here we are!

oldmanswar

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi

Just starting this, it’s my first Scalzi. I’m looking forward to it!

lason

LA Son: My life, my city, my food – Roy Choi

I’ve only just started reading the first few pages of his life, his childhood in Korea and all that. But I was curious and flipped through the book. I love that each chapter has recipes at the end, and that plenty of the recipes are things that I would actually want to eat and cook, like his short rib stew and mushroom quesadilla, his $4 spaghetti! And plus I love that he unabashedly includes a recipe for his favourite way to eat instant ramen (it includes American cheese – something I don’t think I’ll be trying! In case you’re interested I like to eat my instant noodles dry, I drain them and pop it into a bowl with ketchup, soy sauce, sesame oil, a bit of pepper, and frozen dumplings which I boiled together with the noodles. If I’m feeling healthy, some quick blanched spinach or whatever frozen veg I have around like peas and corn).

 

Listening:


Kay Tse (谢安琪) This is the Spotify link to her album

Watching:

I am still rewatching Gilmore Girls. And watching, for the first time, Season 4 of The Good Wife. This LG-Florrick/Agos fight is kinda crazy!

Eating:

So I made some brownies, using this recipe from Smitten Kitchen, then added some Kahlua and a tablespoon of instant coffee. I’m calling it Kahlua coffee brownies.

Drinking:
Assam tea

Cooking:

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Once again, I’m making japchae on Sunday for Monday dinner. On Monday I’ll also fry some breaded pork chops and cut them up to be eaten with the noodles.

Later this week I’m also thinking of making baked chicken legs with mashed potatoes and some kind of vegetables. Wee Reader has asked for mac and cheese so I might try to do that as a one-dish meal, e.g. add sausage and some vegetable (peas and cauliflower?) to the dish.

Last week…

I read:

Men we reaped – Jesmyn Ward
Review to come

The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater

French Kids Eat Everything – Karen Le Billon

I posted:

       Nonfiction November and Weekend Cooking: French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon     

       Library Looting some non-fiction!     

       October reads     

       Recent reads: Wintergirls, The Paying Guests     

       Nonfiction November Week One     

 

Woah, I sure posted a lot last week. I’m not sure how I did that! Haha that sounds rather pathetic…!

Anyway, I hope you have a good reading week ahead. Let me know what you’re reading this week!