Friday, December 28, 2007


The Book: William Hartson, THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF USELESS INFORMATION. Sourcebooks paperback original, 2007. Very good condition (spine slightly creased, already).
First read: Still reading
Owned since: 2007

"Useless information" is an oxymoron. How could any information not be useful, under the right circumstances? As I like to say, you never know. Did you know, for instance, that it is possible to distill enough cyanide from watercress to kill someone? I didn't either, until I had this book. It would take a lot of work and there are probably easier ways to rid yourself of undesired company -- plus, I don't know where to get watercress in any quantity -- but still, it's a fact that might come in handy someday.

This book was a gift from my friend Linda, and I hope she kept a copy for herself. Thanks, Linda!

Didn't blog yesterday because I spent a good chunk of the day at Volkswagen of Alexandria. My car developed a sudden and dramatic oil leak that needed immediate attention. Fortunately, the cause was relatively minor, and took only a couple of hours to fix; $235 later, I'm back on the road.

It's hard to read when I'm visiting family, and anyway it's time for the Best of the Year list... as usual, not all of these books were published in 2007, I just happened to read them this year. Check back next Friday for the second half of the list.

Best Books I Read in 2007

Megan Abbott, QUEENPIN. Megan Abbott published a full-length novel and edited a collection of short stories this year, and those were good, too, but my favorite work of hers this year was this novella about a young woman who has to choose between the people she loves. This is noir; of course she loves herself best.

Linwood Barclay, NO TIME FOR GOODBYE. I read so many books that claim to be thrillers that it's always a surprise to find one that is thrilling. Fourteen-year-old Cynthia Bigge wakes up one morning to find her mother, father and brother gone -- with nothing to indicate where they'd gone. Twenty-five years later, Cynthia starts to get phone calls, e-mails and even mementos that suggest at least one member of her family is still alive. Cynthia's husband Terry, who narrates the book, is torn between wanting to support her and wondering whether she's losing her mind.

Joshua Ferris, THEN WE CAME TO THE END. Believe the hype. I've never read a better description of the dotcom boom and bust, and the first-person-plural narration pays off beautifully on the very last page.

Judith Freeman, THE LONG EMBRACE: Raymond Chandler and the Woman he Loved. A book I wish I'd written, a look at Raymond Chandler's 30-year marriage to the mysterious Cissy, who was 20 years his senior. It's also a wonderful look at the role Los Angeles played in Chandler's fiction.

Joe Hill, 20th CENTURY GHOSTS. A friend of mine was disappointed that this collection is not really a book of ghost stories, although it does include a couple of classics. Instead, it's an introduction to an author who's going to do great things. The best story in the book is the joyful, surreal "Pop Art," about the narrator's friendship with a boy who happens to be inflatable.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

THE GIANT BOOK OF BAD GUYS by Ian Schott, Colin, Damon and Rowan Wilson

The Book: Ian Schott, Colin, Damon and Rowan Wilson, editors; THE GIANT BOOK OF BAD GUYS: The World's Worst Crooks, Gangsters, Murderers, Despots and Desperadoes. Magpie, 2007. As new.
First read: Still reading
Owned since: 2007

Thanks to Chris for this book, which, amazingly enough, does not include anyone I've dated. Yet.

It's a scholarly look at the worst people in history, beginning with the tyrants of ancient Rome and running up to present-day drug barons and Mafia overlords. It's no mystery why these men fascinate us: it's partly horror, partly a need to identify the things that separate them from us, and partly -- admit it -- a little envy, because they have given themselves permission to behave in a way that the rest of us couldn't even imagine. (Although I've never seriously longed for world domination or cult leadership, some people would need to be nervous if I had a secret zapper that could just remove them to another part of the galaxy.)

Dizzy and I have spent several happy days with the Lavinders, but it's time for us to hit the road again today, and head back to the Washington area. He will be sorry to leave, and so am I.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


The Book: James Villas: THE BACON COOKBOOK: More than 150 Recipes from Around the World for Everyone's Favorite Food. Wiley, 2007. As new.
First read: 2007
Owned since: 2007

Since I'm on the road and away from my bookshelves, posts from now until I get home will all be books I received for Christmas. Fortunately, I got several, and they're all keepers.

This one was an inspired gift from Claire, who knows my weakness. It's exactly what the title says, and includes a history of bacon and descriptions of the many different types, some of which I've never encountered. Not to worry; the book also suggests sources for the types of bacon that might be harder for Americans to find. It's a serious cookbook, with chapters on everything from canapes and appetizers to -- yes -- dessert.

The other night I tried the book's recipe for Swedish Spice Cookies, made with bacon fat instead of butter. The cookies, while certainly edible, were ... um ... interesting. They didn't taste exactly bacon-y, but had a slightly greasy mouthfeel and a kind of meaty undertone that I am not used to associating with cookies. Chefs prefer to cook with butter rather than bacon grease for a reason, and I suspect there might be a reason we don't see many Swedish restaurants, too.

Nevertheless, I'm proud of having made the experiment, and glad to have tried bacon-fat cookies. My next attempt from this book will probably be something a little more conventional, like the Alsatian bacon and onion tart. Thanks, Claire!

Five Random Songs

I got some really excellent Christmas presents this year, including an iPod Touch (thanks, Joe!) that adds a whole new dimension to the Shuffle feature. I also got new music, thanks to Chris and John ... let's see what comes up today...

"Metropolis," The Pogues. Shane MacGowan turned 50 yesterday. Amazing, he doesn't look a day over 80.

"Waiting in Vain," Bob Marley and the Wailers. "It's been three years since I'm knocking on your door/And I still can knock some more..." Sometimes it's a fine line between romantic devotion and stalking.

"If I Had a Hammer," the Weavers. Kicking it old school, for real.

"H. R. Pufnstuf," The Murmurs. From Saturday Morning Cartoons' Greatest Hits, a compilation that matched '90s alternative bands up with the themes of the cartoons I watched as a kid. H.R. Pufnstuf, in case you missed it, was a vaguely dragon-like creature who was the mayor of Living Island, where Jimmy and his magic flute were shipwrecked. I haven't seen an episode of "H.R. Pufnstuf" in many years, but he still shows up in my dreams once in a while.

"New Religion," Alice Smith. This was a free Starbucks download that a friend passed along to me (thanks, Mike), and I like it a lot. Alice Smith's voice falls between rock and soul, and every time I hear this song I think I need to go download the full album. In fact, I might do that right now.

Monday, December 24, 2007

LAMB by Christopher Moore

The Book: Christopher Moore, LAMB: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. Harper Collins special gift edition, 2007 (signed by the author). As new.
First read: 2002
Owned since: 2007 (this copy)

At this time of year, we who believe in what Tod Goldberg calls the Zombie God (which I think is hilarious) meditate on the mystery of God becoming man, in the person of Jesus Christ.

Most of us are lucky enough to know some very good people -- people who are wise and kind and consistently make decisions for the benefit of others as well as themselves -- and I'd like to think that most of us are always trying to be better people than we naturally are. But what would a man who is God be like? Would he be someone we'd want to know, and if he wasn't, how would so many of us have followed him for so long?

LAMB dares to address this question, and gives us a Jesus (or Joshua, as he's called here) who is very human, struggling to accept and understand his Godlike nature. Joshua's father was an angry god -- the jealous God of the Old Testament -- but Josh's adventures in LAMB show us that only by becoming human could God understand God's own power in the lives of His creations, and the value of that creation to us. LAMB is hilariously funny but deeply reverent; Moore describes himself as a Buddhist with Christian tendencies, but this book is rooted in the assumption that God made us and loves us, and that Jesus came to earth to teach God how to love us.

I have given away at least half a dozen copies of this book since I first bought it, so was delighted when Chris announced the availability of this gift edition earlier this year. It's bound in flexible leather (I think it's faux leather, but it looks real), with gilt-edged pages and red endpapers, just like the Jerusalem Bible I got for my high school graduation and the missal I inherited from my mother.

My sister Peggy gave this book a doubtful look when I handed it to her last night. "Kind of blasphemous, isn't it?" she asked. That's exactly the point. Blasphemy has nothing to do with leather bindings; it's about using the holy to advance the profane, and this book uses the profane to advance the holy. It's the opposite of blasphemy.

Friday, December 21, 2007


The Book: A.S. Byatt, POSSESSION. Random House, 1990 (Book of the Month Club edition). Good condition; spine is slightly loose and cocked, dust jacket shows rubbing at top and bottom.
First read: 1990
Owned since: 1990

POSSESSION is a modern novel that concerns itself with Victorian sensibilities, so it seemed to fit into this week's set of books. On any given day, it might be my favorite book of all time. They made a dreadful movie out of it, a movie so bad it makes me shudder even to think about it -- don't watch it, ever. Read the book instead.

The book is the story of present-day scholars Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, who discover a connection between their two subjects, the Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. The story moves back and forth between present and past, exploring theories of storytelling, academic politics, medieval myths and more along the way. It is also a story of family lost and found, and of patterns that repeat themselves in the human experience.

It is, as I say, one of my favorite books, and I have read it at least a dozen times. It came as a Main Selection of the Book of the Month Club because I forgot to send the card back, and I picked it up with no expectations. I read it in the bathtub, in the kitchen, on the bus and at my desk because I could not bear to put it down. I had just moved into a townhouse in southern Alexandria that turned out to be a disastrous choice; one of my housemates was pure evil, the other was weak-minded and sad, and this book was more than a welcome escape before I could leave for the holidays.

I'm leaving for the holidays today, so posting between now and the end of the year will be erratic. I will post between now and Christmas, though...

What I Read This Week

Megan Abbott (ed.), A HELL OF A WOMAN. I've bought a lot of anthologies this year, and you haven't seen most of them mentioned here because I tend to graze on them, rather than reading them straight through. This one was an exception. The subtitle is "An Anthology of Female Noir," and the women here are all determined not to be victims. It's a terrific collection, but my favorites here are "High Yellow" by Libby Fischer Hellmann, a sinister story of race relations in mid-century Washington, DC, and "Cherish" by Alison Gaylin, a story about an obsessed fan with a great "Twilight Zone"-style twist.

Robert Harris, THE GHOST. A ghostwriter is strong-armed and money-whipped into writing the memoirs of a recently-retired British prime minister, who bears a (surely coincidental) resemblance to Tony Blair. Security around the memoir seems excessive, but the narrator discovers in his research that the prime minister is both more and less than he seems. It's a ripping thriller and especially fascinating to me, as ghostwriting is one of the things I do.

Robert B. Parker, SPARE CHANGE. PI Sunny Randall joins her father on a task force to hunt down a serial killer who seems to be active again after a 20-year hiatus. I think Parker's Sunny Randall series is the best work he's doing these days, and SPARE CHANGE is solid entertainment.

Paul Johnston, THE DEATH LIST. At this time of year, I try to catch up with books I missed when they came out. This one has been on my to-be-read pile since midsummer. More fool me. Matt Wells is a crime writer who's lost his publishing contract and his wife, and spends his time fighting bitterness and writer's block -- until a fan reveals himself to be a serial killer who wants Matt to write his story. To make sure Matt can't say no, the killer threatens his child, his girlfriend, and everyone Matt holds dear -- and starts killing off Matt's enemies. Graphically violent, but so well done I couldn't stop reading, with a shocking twist at the end.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot

The Book: George Eliot, MIDDLEMARCH. Penguin Popular Classics paperback, 1994 (second printing). Good condition, spine is creased. Previous owner's name ("H. Ureychhill"?) written on front flyleaf.
First read: 1996
Owned since: 1996

I have a bad feeling that I was supposed to return this book to someone, a long time ago. Sue (Schulz), is it yours? I'm pretty sure that I read it in London in 1996, or immediately after that trip, at Sue's recommendation. Or it might have been Carla's... or maybe SueLin's... if you remember recommending this book to me, please speak up.

In any case, it's a book all young women should read, and I might bring it down with me to pass it on to Claire at Christmas. Dorothea Brooke, brilliant and headstrong, marries the Reverend Edward Casaubon believing him to be a gifted scholar who will let her be his apprentice and partner. Instead, he turns out to be a small-minded, stuffy man who neither understands nor appreciates Dorothea. Rebuffed, Dorothea forms a friendship with Casaubon's ne'er-do-well cousin, Will Ladislaw.

When Casaubon dies, Dorothea inherits his estate -- on the condition that she never marry Ladislaw. She does good works that bring her into contact with an idealistic young doctor, Tertius Lydgate. It is obvious to the reader that these two belong together, but it's not obvious to them, and they proceed to make decisions contrary to their own best interests. Dorothea does eventually choose Ladislaw over her inheritance, and Lydgate makes a ruinous marriage to a local belle. Both wind up in London, far from the town (Middlemarch) they had hoped to improve.

This is a woeful oversimplification of a book that runs (in this edition) 795 pages and includes dozens of characters. It's a panoramic look at Victorian society, and particularly at the dilemma of the intelligent woman who does not want to live as a spinster.

We're getting more snow, and I've just come in from shoveling -- a Sisyphean activity, since the deck is already covered again. It is pretty, though. I might go out later and take some pictures.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

SILAS MARNER by George Eliot

The Book: George Eliot, SILAS MARNER. Signet Classic paperback, 1960 (15th printing). Good condition; pages are yellow with age, book is lightly marked with underlining and notes. Owner's name ("Clair Lamb," with a flourish) written on front flyleaf.
First read: 1977
Owned since: 1977

Silas Marner, scourge of American middle-school students. We had to read it in seventh grade; I didn't understand why then, and I don't understand why now. It's short, but it's not easy reading for anyone, and the story -- of a miser who learns love from the golden-haired foundling, Eppie -- is nothing special, although that may be because it's become so entrenched in our collective subconscious.

It put me off George Eliot for almost 20 years, until Sue Schulz persuaded me to read Middlemarch (which I'll get to tomorrow). I'm not sure why I kept this book, except as part of my personal history. It was probably the first book I ever had to force myself to read, and the quizzes Mrs. Bortz gave us ("Who gave Silas his dinner the night he discovered his gold had been stolen?") required a much closer attention to detail than I'd have given the book otherwise.

Silas Marner, to put it in holiday terms, is the fruitcake of English literature -- except that I actually like fruitcake. Does anyone -- did anyone -- enjoy this book? If so, pipe up.

And a very happy birthday to my old friend Gary, who has every reason to look forward to the coming year with joy.

Five Random Songs

"Messiah: Part II, No. 44. Hallelujah," London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis & the Tenebrae Choir. Seriously, I didn't pick this; it's a recent download, and just popped up. But there's no beating it, especially at this time of year.

"Going Down," from the Hair soundtrack. How's this for random: we go from the Hallelujah chorus to a song that begins "Me and Lucifer, Lucifer and me."

"Noah's Dove," 10,000 Maniacs. Now I'm really wondering about this Shuffle function -- is it set to "religious references only" this morning?

"Half Life," Too Much Joy. Not explicitly religious -- except it kind of is. "You spend half your life remembering your life when you were young/Half your life dreaming how much better life could get/Well, every time you make a choice, hey, half your life is gone/All you've got's a few big dreams/Divided into many small regrets (like everybody else)."

"I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)," The Proclaimers. I was going to go 500 miles today, but have to postpone the drive for a couple of days. But I will be the girl who drives (almost) 1,000 miles to be with my family for Christmas...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

AGNES GREY by Anne Bronte

The Book: Anne Bronte, AGNES GREY. Oxford World Classics paperback reprint, 1991. Very good condition; some age-related browning. Sticker on front cover reads "Bronte Parsonage Museum."
First read: 1997
Owned since: 1997

Anyone with siblings can't help but be fascinated with the Bronte family's dynamics, but of course we'll never know how things really were among them. I bought this book at the Parsonage, when I realized I'd never read anything by Anne, and felt the need to direct my attention to the baby of the family.

Poor Anne. AGNES GREY, her first novel, was published in a three-volume set with her sister Emily's, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, in 1847; how could she hope to compete?

AGNES GREY is considered the most autobiographical of all the Bronte sisters' novels. Like Jane Eyre, Agnes is a governess; unlike JANE EYRE, AGNES GREY concerns itself specifically with the ambiguous role of a governess in genteel society. Agnes is not isolated, as Jane is at Thornfield; Horton Lodge, where Agnes teaches, is a hive of social activity, and the family's oldest daughter, Rosalie, is someone Agnes herself might have been, under different economic circumstances.

AGNES GREY is a much angrier novel than either JANE EYRE or WUTHERING HEIGHTS; it is also shorter and not as polished, although some passages are just as vivid as anything in the other books. Anne's second book, THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL, is remarkably sophisticated -- I might get to that one later in the week, if I can find my copy.

But Anne died in 1849, at the age of 29 -- less than a year after the deaths of her brother, Branwell, and her sister Emily -- and Charlotte was left to re-edit Anne's manuscripts and preserve the family's legacy, at least until she herself died six years later. (Patrick Bronte, their father, survived all of his children; he died in 1861, at the age of 84.) Did Charlotte value Emily's work over Anne's? Is Emily's book that much better than Anne's? Maybe so.

Monday, December 17, 2007

JANE EYRE by Charlotte Bronte

The Book: Charlotte Bronte, JANE EYRE. Bantam classic paperback reprint, 1987 (24th printing). Very good condition; edges show minor rubbing, 1/4" tear on front cover.
First read: 1977
Owned since: 1989 (this copy)

One of many ways you can divide serious readers is between people who prefer JANE EYRE and people who prefer WUTHERING HEIGHTS. I think it comes down to a question of who the reader identifies with; I've been asking the question for years, and have yet to find a man who prefers JANE EYRE.

But Jane's my hero and has been since I first encountered this book, as summer reading for Mrs. Flippen's eighth grade English class. (My prep school segregated English classes until 10th grade; in eighth grade, girls read JANE EYRE while boys read A TALE OF TWO CITIES.) As a new student -- and a scholarship student to boot -- in a class of girls who had been together for many years, I identified strongly with the story of the ugly orphan who decided she was entitled to a happy life.

Of course, my lifelong search for Mr. Rochester probably explains a lot about why I'm still single.

When I visited Yorkshire in 1997, I had to pay my respects at the Haworth parsonage where the Bronte sisters wrote their novels. It's a small house to have held (at one point) eight people, but the moors around it stretch as far as the eye can see. I was a little shocked to see a plaque commemorating Branwell Bronte's death on the wall of the Black Bull pub, as if the Black Bull had not borne any responsibility in that death.

But as Jane herself said -- I have it on a postcard, framed on one of my bookshelves -- "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being of independent will."

Saturday, December 15, 2007


The Book: Dr. Seuss, HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS. Random House, 1957 (54th printing). Good condition; front cover has shallow score down the front, from a heavily-wielded pocket knife.
First read: 1968 (best guess)
Owned since: 1990 (approximately)

I think I bought this book as a gift for my nephew George, but didn't give it to him because I sliced the cover when opening the box. I probably still owe him a copy, come to think of it.

It's a little early for this book, but Anna and I saw the Boston Pops' holiday show last night at the Augusta Civic Center, and a group called Cantus did a wonderful choral version of the Grinch story. They're touring; if you get a chance to see them this season, don't hesitate.

If you live under a rock and don't know the book or the TV show, it's the story of the Grinch, who lives just above Whoville and hates Christmas, which the Whos love. He can't stand the noise of Christmas; he can't stand the singing. It might be because his heart is two sizes too small. So he steals all the presents and ornaments from the Whos, and carries them away to his mountain hideaway -- but the Whos sing anyway. Because Christmas isn't about the presents or the decorations. Seeing this, the Grinch's heart melts, and he learns to embrace the season and the Whos.

I will always associate this book with the Christmas of 1994. Mom had a seizure a week or so before the holiday; it was her first major health crisis, and it was terrifying. She went into the hospital, and all of us kids came home. All I wanted for Christmas that year was for Mom to come home -- and she did, on Christmas Eve. She had been so sick that she hadn't done any shopping that year, but it didn't matter.

Since then, I have not been able to read these lines without tearing up:

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

Hope it comes for you this year, too.

Friday, December 14, 2007


The Book: Ceil Dyer, BEST RECIPES FROM THE BACKS OF BOXES, BOTTLES, CANS, AND JARS. Galahad Books, 1993 (reprint; originally published in three volumes, in 1979, 1981 and 1982). Fine condition.
First read: 1993 (approximately)
Owned since: 1997 (approximately)

For sheer reading entertainment, this is my favorite cookbook. My mother bought a couple of copies as Christmas presents for two of my sisters soon after it came out; I liked it so much, I asked for my own copy.

I don't think I've ever made anything out of it, but I love to read it. The book is exactly what the title says: recipes using prepared foods, copied from product labels. Some of it's a little ridiculous, but most of the recipes are perfectly straightforward: the lasagne recipe off the back of a Mueller's lasagne noodles package is easy and classic. The recipe for Chicken Cacciatore from a Progresso Olive Oil bottle sounds great -- if I liked Chicken Cacciatore, which I don't. (Bad associations -- Mom's one attempt at it caused a kitchen fire in our Fairfax home when I was six.)

Some of the recipes are shameful, though -- or shameless, depending on your perspective. "Summer Salad" (p. 263) calls for a can of peach halves, a can of pear halves, a can of sliced pineapple, and thinly sliced Armour Golden Star canned ham, mixed with sour cream and horseradish and served on a bed of iceberg lettuce. It might taste pretty good, but I couldn't serve it to anyone unless I pretended it was ironic. Oh, and you can make your own gourmet concoction by mixing Campbell's Green Pea soup with Campbell's Tomato Soup, a cup of milk and a dash of curry powder. If you try that at home, invite me for some other night...

What I Read This Week

Sue Grafton, T IS FOR TRESPASS. I had quit reading this series for a while, but picked this one up because someone told me it was Grafton's best in years. It's excellent, even if you haven't read books A-S. California private investigator Kinsey Millhone investigates a home health care provider who's looking after an aged neighbor, and winds up confronting a sociopathic identity thief. The book switches points of view between Kinsey's first-person narration and a third-person narrative from the health care worker's point of view, and it's genuinely suspenseful and chilling.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

TWELVE MONTHS OF MONASTERY SOUPS by Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette

The Book: Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette, TWELVE MONTHS OF MONASTERY SOUPS: International Favorites by the Best-Selling Author of From a Monastery Kitchen. Triumph Books, 1996 (first edition). Good condition, some food stains and water damage.
First read: 1996
Owned since: 1996

I believe I've said it here before: I like soups. For a year or two, this was my most heavily-used cookbook. If you have freezer space, soups are great for single people: make a pot, freeze separate servings, thaw as needed.

Not all of the soups here lend themselves to that approach, as the emphasis is on seasonal food served (mostly) hot and promptly. Soups that call for a beaten egg just before serving, or need to be heated without coming to a boil, are not good candidates for freezing and reheating. (This might seem obvious to you, but I speak from experience.)

Favorites here are the cream of asparagus soup, which uses real cream; spicy orange and carrot (I like orange foods, too); and beet soup, which is both a lot of work and very messy. If you make it, wear something beet-colored. The acorn squash soup recipe is easy and seasonal, and I might make it this weekend.

It's a weird, distracted time of year, and it's much too cold again today -- and we're supposed to be getting more snow. The rest of the planet may be suffering from global warming, but here in Maine we're having a hard, early winter, and the sooner I head south for the holidays, the happier I will be.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

CHARLESTON RECEIPTS by The Junior League of Charleston

The Book: CHARLESTON RECEIPTS Collected by the Junior League of Charleston (S.C.), 1950. Printed by Walker, Evans & Cogswell; 15th printing, 1968. Spiralbound, missing back cover. Previous owner's name ("Ellen C. Lamb") on front flyleaf. Pages are slightly brown with age.
First read: 1970 (approximately)
Owned since: 2007

This book is another legacy from my mother. I suppose I could have bought my own copy, but it means more to have hers.

As a child, I used to read this book like a historical novel. It describes a way of life that was already an anachronism in the mid-1950s, a society in which one might need a punch recipe that served 140 people (Rum Punch: 1 gallon brandy, 1/2 gallon rum, 1 pint peach brandy, 2 quarts black tea, 2 dozen lemons, sugar to taste, 5-6 quarts carbonated water), or be able to make a syllabub with "three squirts from the cow."

Each chapter begins with quotations in Gullah, the Lowcountry dialect, that might well be considered offensive today. I haven't seen the most recent edition of this book, but I suspect that it now begins with an introduction that apologizes for its context. My mother used to give newer editions of this book as wedding presents; I believe you can still order it directly from the Charleston Junior League.

It's a practical cookbook, though, as well as a historical artifact. I've made the Lady Baltimore Cake for more than one occasion, though it includes a cooked frosting, and I don't usually like to make those. The recipes for cheese straws and cheese wafers are essentials, and I remember Mom making the cheese roll recipe for Christmas one year. (Like all mid-century cookbooks, this one is heavy on the canapes; I love canapes.)

That said, it includes recipes I will never make. You will never eat Bluff Plantation Cooter Pie at my table; quit snickering, "cooter" means "turtle." The recipe for Roast Possum is wasted on me, too, as I have nowhere to hang a possum for 48 hours before cooking, as the recipe recommends.

We had more snow and ice last night, and the roads were really bad. Driving home from trivia, I spun out into a snowbank. No harm done; I was going very slowly, and remembered the rules about turning into the skid. But today the sun is out, and the temperature's supposed to approach 40, so I'm hoping everything melts -- at least for a day or two.

Five Random Songs

"Marry Me a Little," Raul Esparza. From the soundtrack of the Company revival, one of the newest additions to my collection -- a birthday/Christmas gift from my friend Tom. Thanks, Tom!

"Koka Kola," The Clash. The pause that refreshes in the corridors of power. I hope I get to see the Joe Strummer documentary somewhere over the holidays. God only knows when it will get to Maine, if it ever does.

"Summer Dress," Red House Painters. From Voices from the Dark, the CD John Connolly put together to accompany the US edition of The Black Angel. Romantic and sad.

"How Long Has This Been Going On," Carmen McRae. From the Verve Remixed CD.

"Do Ya," Electric Light Orchestra. Another great song ruined by its overexposure in TV commercials, and I can't even remember what the commercial is for.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


The Book: Nina Simonds, A SPOONFUL OF GINGER: Irresistible, health-giving recipes from Asian kitchens. Knopf, 1999. Very good condition, some water damage and food stains; book opens automatically to "Dad's Chinese Chicken Wings" (p. 105) and "Rainbow Salad with Spicy Peanut Dressing" (p. 199).
First read: 2000
Owned since: 2000

I like cookbooks, and I own quite a few of them. This is one of my favorites, and the recipe for Spicy Peanut Dressing is one of the best things I make (it's a favorite of Moira's and Matt's, too).

This cookbook is macrobiotic in theory -- the idea that you can improve your health by balancing the hot and cold properties of food -- but the recipes are just plain good. Even people who don't think they like Asian food will find something they like here. I'm looking at the curried pumpkin recipe right now, and thinking that might be something good for tonight's dinner. But where am I going to find black mustard seeds in central Maine?

This morning's temperature, when I got up, was 5F. Five, as in five, as in the number between four and six. I decided to wait a little while before taking Dizzy out. My dashboard widget says it's now 9F, but it feels warmer. It feels at least 15.

Monday, December 10, 2007


The Book: Susan Carlisle Payne, compiler and editor; THE SOUTHERN LIVING COOKBOOK. Oxmoor House, 1987 (second printing). Good condition; dust jacket has small tears, some water damage, pages are slightly yellow with age.
First read: 1988 (approximately)
Owned since: 2007

When my siblings and I divided up our mother's belongings, I wanted only a few things; this book was one of them. I'm surprised that its publication date is as late as 1987, because I could have sworn I used it in high school -- but this book might have replaced an earlier edition.

Anyway, it's more than a cookbook; it's a manual for the suburban Southern lifestyle. It's suitable for even beginning cooks, with lots of photographs and explanations of basic cooking techniques, cuts of meat, etc. It also has a whole chapter on game birds, for families with hunters.

I pulled the book out this morning to send someone a recipe I used to make all the time: Cola Cake, on page 113. It's a fudge cake made with Coca-Cola (Pepsi really doesn't work as well, and if you can get the kosher-for-Passover Coca-Cola, that works best), buttermilk, and marshmallows. I used to bring this in to my old office for birthdays. It might be time to make it again.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

THE SILVER PALATE COOKBOOK by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins with Michael McLaughlin

The Book: Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins with Michael McLaughlin, THE SILVER PALATE COOKBOOK: Delicious recipes, tips, love from Manhattan's celebrated gourmet food shop. Workman Publishing softcover, 1982 (39th printing). Good condition; some water damage and food staining, spine is cracked at the "Lemon Chicken" recipe (p. 93).
First read: 1985
Owned since: 1985

I'm pretty sure this was a Christmas present in 1985, although I don't specifically remember getting it. I do, however, remember using it to cook Thanksgiving dinner in 1986, and it's been in heavy use ever since. I just pulled it out on Thursday night, in fact, to make toffee bars for the party at Kate's Mystery Books. I should have doubled the recipe.

It's a little unfair that the Silver Palate became such an icon of 1980s hedonism, because the recipes are about cooking good food simply. I still use this cookbook all the time; the recipes are easy and the food is terrific. Granted, some of it's a bit dated now. The pureed-vegetable craze came and went, thank goodness, except in houses where parents make their own baby food. (Even there, I'm not sure those babies are eating chestnut and potato puree.)

Kate's party was a great time (bad name-dropping to follow). My cousin Kathleen McLaughlin Jacobson came in from the Cape, and I was glad to see Tom, Joe Finder, Chuck Hogan and Dana Cameron, among others. Didn't post yesterday because I've managed to pick up a cold somewhere along the way, and went straight to bed with an extra dose of Alka-Selzer Cold and Megan Abbott's new anthology, A Hell of a Woman.

I'm still not feeling great today, but need to get a few things done. It would nice to have my apartment a little better organized before the end of the year; one less New Year's resolution to break...

Friday, December 07, 2007


The Book: Tom Ehrenfeld, THE STARTUP GARDEN: How Growing a Business Grows You. McGraw Hill trade paperback, 2002 (first edition).
First read: 2001 (I think)
Owned since: 2002

I own three copies of this book, and not one of them is signed. How is this possible? I read much of this book in manuscript, provided research and suggestions on the text, and helped out with the launch party; why aren't any of my copies signed?

The book is, as its title suggests, an exploration of the intersection between entrepreneurship and personal growth. Through interviews and case histories, Tom looks at how successful business owners rose to work-related challenges by overcoming their personal demons, and how some were able to apply the lessons of their businesses to their private lives. The book is also a valuable how-to guide for anyone thinking about starting a business of their own.

It's lazy of me to pick this book today. It's also shameless logrolling and sucking-up, because I'm going to see Tom at Kate's Mystery Books' holiday party tonight. I missed last year's because of the weather; the weather's turning ominous again today, but with luck I'll be out the door before the snow begins.

For anyone in the Boston area, the party starts at 5:30 and goes to at least 8:00 p.m. See you there!

What I Read This Week

Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I read this book for a client, and was sure I'd read it as a child -- but what I read must have been the Classics Illustrated version or some other abridgment, because this was not the book I remembered. Professor Aronnax, his assistant Conseil and Canadian whaler Ned Land are involuntary guests of the mysterious Captain Nemo, who takes them on a journey around the world at the depths of the ocean. Originally published in serial form, the book is more a string of encounters with the marvels of the deep than a real adventure novel. It's remarkably prescient, though, and I wish it had come with photographs.

George D. Shuman, 18 Seconds. The premise of Shuman's series -- a blind psychic who can "see" the last 18 seconds of a dead person's life -- is fantastic, but we don't see enough of the protagonist, Sherry Moore, in this second novel. Moore's blindness limits her ability to do much investigation; Shuman overcame this in his first novel by partnering her with a police detective, but this time around the detectives are operating independently, and it's hard to keep track of everyone. They're all on the trail of a serial killer who kills women by hanging them, in an attempt to replicate his own mother's death.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


The Book: James D. Lester, WRITING RESEARCH PAPERS: A Complete Guide, Second Edition. Scott, Foresman and Company softcover, 1976. Book is in good condition; covers are creased but intact, colors are bright, owner's signature ("Clair Lamb") on front flyleaf.
First read: 1977
Owned since: 1977

This is a textbook from my eighth-grade Natural Science class, of all things. I haven't opened it in years, and am not sure why I've kept it, except that I collect style books. And it turned out to be prescient: right there on the first page of the first chapter, it says, "learning to master research techniques will be of great help in your other courses and in your life after college." How did Dr. Lester know?

I am restless and distracted today, with a few too many things demanding my attention. The area of my deck immediately in front of my kitchen door is a sheet of ice an inch thick, and I don't know what to do about it; it's melting slowly and creating deadly icicles above the ground-floor barber shop entrance, and I go down every couple of hours to knock the icicles down. But the water's dripping onto my deck from the building's roof, and I can't stop the formation of new ice. Anyone have any suggestions? The sun's bright at the moment; the air temperature is 15F. It's a recipe for icicles.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

PENN & TELLER'S HOW TO PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD by Penn Jillette and Teller

The Book: Penn Jillette and Teller, PENN & TELLER'S HOW TO PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD. Villard Books softcover, 1992. Fine condition.
First read: 1992
Owned since: 1992

I would say this is one of the most useful books I own, if I'd ever had the courage to try even one of these tricks in public. My favorite remains the trick that starts the book, "Stabbing a Fork in Your Eye," although my hands are too small to make it work. Maybe if I used a ketchup packet instead of a creamer cup...

Aside from dispensing valuable information like that, this book is just laugh-out-loud, choke-on-your-food funny. And they prove, by demonstration with a fiberglass tape-wrapped melon, that a shot fired from the general direction of the Texas Book Depository would, in fact, have caused President Kennedy's head to jerk "back and to the left," just as it did in real life. They provide instructions so you can try this experiment yourself: "6. Wrap the tape around the melon. Get it so it's a nice even skull-like thickness. 7. Decorate your fiberglassed melon. Penn drew a picture of Oliver Stone on his... We both feel strongly that putting a melon wearing a pink pillbox hat next to the target melon is in very bad taste."

This book originally came with a plastic bag of cool props that have long since been lost in one of my moves. I haven't checked, but if the book-with-props is still in print, it would make one fantastic Christmas present for almost anyone you know.

Five Random Songs

"Steppin' Out," Joe Jackson. If it's possible to distill the 1980s into a single song, this is it. "You, you dress in pink and blue just like a child/And in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile..."

"March of the Pigs," Nine Inch Nails. From The Downward Spiral. I don't have the latest album yet... I'd add it to my letter to Santa, but I'm pretty sure I'm on the naughty list this year.

"Rockaria," Electric Light Orchestra. I was out on the town Saturday night with Megan Abbott, Christa Faust and some other folks, and someone -- I think Megan -- asked the table what our musical guilty pleasures were. Someone said "ELO" and I took issue: loving ELO is nothing to be ashamed of.

"When You're Good to Mama," Marcia Lewis. From the Chicago soundtrack.

"Absolutely Barking Stars," Maria McKee. I love Maria McKee, formerly of the country-rock band Lone Justice. What's she doing these days?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


The Book: Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht, THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO SURVIVAL HANDBOOK. Chronicle Books softcover, 1999 (20th printing). Book is badly coffee-stained at edges.
First read: 2000
Owned since: 2000

I know this book was a gift, and I'm embarrassed that I can't remember who gave it to me -- it might have been my mother, it might have been one of my siblings, it might have been Anna. If you gave me this book, speak up so I can thank you again.

This book spawned a mini-industry of "Worst Case Scenario" books, but this remains the original and the best. Among other things, it tells you how to survive if you're in the line of gunfire (which would have been handy when I lived in downtown Washington); how to take a punch; how to perform a tracheotomy; and how to land a plane when the pilot is disabled. Some of it is tongue-in-cheek (few of us will ever need to dodge a charging bull, or leap from a motorcycle to a car), but a lot of it is valuable advice (what to do in an earthquake, how to use a defibrillator, how to deal with a downed power line).

"How to drive in snow" is not an entry in this book, although it does tell you what to do for frostbite (direct heat is a bad idea; thaw the area slowly with warm compresses or warm water, but only if there's no risk of refreezing). Against all my expectations, I managed to fly back from Los Angeles to Portland yesterday, and the worst part of the trip was the drive home. Roads were messy but not icy, but visibility was so bad that I could not see the cut for my exit, and had to drive all the way to Augusta and double back.

It's still snowing lightly today, but I've already ventured out once (to pick up Dizzy) and will have to go out at least twice again. Tonight is Gaslight Theater's annual meeting, 6:30 at Hallowell City Hall -- all are welcome, so if you're in the area, get the four-wheel-drive in gear.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

A short break ...

No posts this weekend -- I'm on the road and don't have the time or the attention span. Chances are good that I'll get snowed in somewhere Monday on my way home, and will have plenty of time for posting then...