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The Debutante

My book club (“The No More Lawyers Book Club”**) is currently reading The Debutante.  I finished it last night, and while it was a easy summertime read, it isn’t the kind of book I’d usually pick up.

It’s a story about Cate, a painter struggling with the direction her life is taking, who assists her aunt’s antique/heirloom dealing business by helping perform an inventory of an estate going up for auction.  She discovers a box with mysterious contents, and learns of a famous debutante, Diana “Baby” Blythe, who mysteriously went missing in 1941. Cate struggles to find a sense of self in her own confused world, while also searching for clues about Baby Blythe’s disappearance.

The story simultaneously tracks Cate’s life as well as her investigation into Baby Blythe.  I really had trouble getting invested in Cate or any of the other characters in the larger story.  They seemed to be defined by longing, regret, and little else.  I don’t identify strongly with those feelings, so I didn’t identify strongly with those characters.

The book alternates chapters about Cate with letters from Baby Blythe.  This was a very effective format, and kept me engaged in the mystery.  I felt that the clues about the Baby Blythe mystery come too slowly, and too far between. Most of the mystery reveals itself all at once in the last 40 or so pages, and it took a long while to get there.  A few times I considered quitting the book altogether because it was feeling boring, but I kept up with it mostly because I didn’t have anything else nearby to read.  I did like the mystery angle, but I wanted there to be more of it, and for it to be darker.  If the whole book had the pace and the intrigue of those last 40 pages, it would have been a better fit for me.  All in all it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t a book I’d pick on my own, but it also wasn’t a bad way to spend a few evenings.

**(Said club is made up of 8 lawyers and a pediatrician)

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cookbooks every vegetarian kitchen needs

I was a vegetarian for several years, but when I got pregnant with Baby Beez, I wanted to eat Uncle Sam’s Subs ALL DAY EVERY DAY, and vegetarianism went out the window.  I would like to go back to vegetarianism, but the one of the keys to being a veggie and not getting bored and not getting fat is to cook at home and make a variety of different things (as opposed to, say baguettes and brie all day every day, which although delicious, isn’t ideal).  I haven’t been able to cook nearly as much as I’d like lately, but when I DID have time to do all that cooking, these were the tools in my arsenal:

Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker by Robin Robertson.  Not surprisingly, a lot of the recipes in here are soups and stews, but she does branch out with some entrees, desserts, and appetizers.  Robertson includes some easy preparation tips for using the slow cooker that really helps bring out flavors.  The recipes are all very diverse– this is not a set of variations on the same bean soup.  My favorite recipes are the Maple Baked Beans (ok, so baked beans do not sound exciting, but they are really delicious), and the In a Hurry Vegetable Curry.

The Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero.  This is a vegan cookbook, but you don’t have to be a vegan to LOVE it.  A lot of vegetarian cookbooks are stuck in a pasta and cheese rut, and I sometimes feel like vegan cooking spends too much time trying to impersonate meat and dairy.  This cookbook doesn’t waste its time on “fake” recipes.  It focuses on beans, grains, and vegetables, and deliciously so.  It runs the full dining gamut, an encyclopedia of vegan dining with a recipe for every occasion.  It also includes very helpful cooking tips that will equip you with skills for creating your own delicious vegan recipes. Although the authors probably wouldn’t be too keen on this, I often make these recipes “non-vegan” by using regular milk instead of soymilk, butter instead of soy margarine, etc, because those are the ingredients I already have in the house.  The recipes turn out just fine with the substitutes. My favorite recipes include the Seitanic Red and White Bean Jambalaya, and the Plaintain and Pinto Stew.

Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook is the vegetarian hippie bible, and not surprisingly it’s in the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame.  It contains lots of casseroles and easy bakes that easily feed a full family, and also freeze very well.  My favorite recipes are Cauliflower Mushroom Marranca (sooooo good) and Scheherazade Casserole.

Olive Trees and Honey by Gil Marks.  This is a Jewish cookbook, but it’s not all blintzes and matzoh balls.  We Jews are all over the world, and so is this cookbook.  The recipes are from all over Europe, and there are a number of recipes out of Africa and India as well.  The variety is impressive.  My favorite parts of the book are the descriptions of the background and traditions surrounding each dish, as well as different variations on the recipes based on the flavors of different countries.  There are also very informative sections about Jewish history and traditions, Jewish cooking traditions in different countries, and the qualities of different spices.  Sephardic Leek and Cheese Casserole and Noodle Kugel are amongst my many, many favorite recipes in this collection.

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The Hunger Games

Since I not infrequently leave work at six, get home and give Baby Beez a bath and a snuggle and put her to bed at 7:30 and then work from 8 til 10 or 11, I don’t have a whole lot of leisure reading time.  I try to read for a few minutes before falling asleep because I tend not to sleep well when I go directly from work time to bed time.  Over the last couple weeks I have plowed through all three books of The Hunger Games, and my “few minutes of reading” has turned into “staying up entirely too late reading,” which has led to several three-coffee-mornings.

The basic plot isn’t particularly new: In post-apocalyptic America, people are forced to fight to the death as a form of political manipulation and entertainment.   Collins makes things more interesting with a female lead who feels human, not (completely) rigid and symbolic.   The romantic plotlines, while at times predictable, at least are more interesting than the “woman falling all over herself to attract the man of her dreams” idea we’re so used to seeing.

The to-the-death competition takes place in an enormous Arena, designed with care and fatally booby-trapped by the Capitol-employed Gamemakers.  Every inch of the Arena is recorded by surveillance cameras, and the bloody competition is televised to the masses.  Every man, woman, and child is of course mandated by the government to watch.  The Arena, and all of its horrors, was extremely creative and vivid, and my absolute favorite part of the book.  If Collins wrote a whole series just detailing all 73 of the previous Hunger Games (the book starts with the 74th annual Games) and their Arenas, I’d be in first in line to read them.  It is gruesome and terrifying and enthralling.

Collins does a good job of creating an imaginary new America (Panem), divided into districts that are starving and struggling to survive, but controlled by an opulant, wasteful Capitol.  Collins describes how each district focuses on a different industry, but her exploration of the individual districts (besides 12, where the main characters were from) was limited.  I would have been interested in more in depth treatment of each of the districts, to see how current America fits in to Collin’s Panem.  She tells us that District 12 is in Appalachia, and the Capitol appears to be in the Rockies, but I think that’s it.  If she discussed the geography of the other districts, she did so quickly and I missed it.

Collins’ world is very visual.  She spends great care to discuss the appearance of the characters and their surroundings, which really brings the Arena (where the deathmatch takes place), and the Hunger Games and their associated celebrations to life.  However, this teeters into the overindulgent when she gets to discussing fashion, and I don’t think the books would have suffered if she pared down the what seems like page after page after page of description of what certain characters were wearing at times.

The names Collins chose for her characters often distracted me.  A sampling: Katniss Everdeen, Primrose Everdeen, Peeta Mellark, Gale Hazelle (I think that was his last name…), Cinna, at one point there’s a Lavinia, and Castor and Pollux.  I felt like some names were too future-y and “uneek”, while the other ones too heavy-handed in their referencing.  It’s a petty point, but it was enough to distract me while reading.

I’ve heaped on a lot more criticism here than praise, because too much praise would give away the story. The story’s full of surprises and twists and turns.  It’s refreshing and creative and dark and different.