Thursday, August 30, 2012

Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, by Sara Roahen

Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, by Sara Roahen.
W.W. Norton & Co. 2008. 293 pages.


This is the fifth book I've read for the Foodies Read 2 Reading Challenge this year, and I loved the book.  I bought Gumbo Tales several years ago, and it is another one that sat on my library shelf waiting for the right time for reading. Unfortunately, hurricane season in Louisiana is the apropos time to read this series of essays on the food culture of New Orleans area, because Roahen's book discusses venues destroyed by Katrina and the elderly restaurateurs who didn't survive the evacuation. 

Today, as I write, people in New Orleans are digging out after Hurricane Isaac, while others in South Louisiana are evacuating because of broken or breached levees.  The destruction wrought by hurricanes, even supposedly low level 1 hurricanes, wreak havoc on a state still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish exactly seven years ago to the week (Katrina was a slow developing catastrophe).

While some stories in Roahen's book are tragic, she uses humor effectively to prevent the essays from being too depressing,  pessimistic or maudlin.  She divides her book into chapters on emotion-laden subjects, at least in my household--topics, such as:  gumbo, po-boys, crawfish, coffee and chicory, and red beans and rice.  Other important subjects she scrutinizes are sno-balls (snow-cones);  red gravy (Italian tomato sauce); turducken (if you watch football, you should know this one); and oysters.  Other chapters include Sazeracs, vegetables, poisson meuniere amandine, pho, coconuts, king cake & y-ka-mein, le boeuf gras, and turkey bone gumbo.

Roahen's descriptions will interest anyone wanting to know more about the melting pot of New Orleans inhabitants as told through their food.  Roahen does explain in her foreword that some of the places mentioned were washed away, and she doesn't know if or when they might return, e.g. the Vietnamese market area outside the city, but they were so much a part of the fabric of the New Orleans she experienced that she couldn't leave them out.  Roahen herself no longer lives in New Orleans, but the reader knows that the city has become part of her so she will return often.

Anyone familiar with the Crescent City will undoubtedly see favorite neighborhood venues mentioned.  I know we rarely visit New Orleans without stopping by Mandina's, an Italian-creole neighborhood restaurant on Canal that has been totally revamped since Katrina.  And drinks on the porch at The Columns on St. Charles will become part of our ritual after our recent visit. 

This book to be one to be read slowly and savored, and I plan to pack it to use as a culinary guidebook for our next visit to NOLA.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Gone Missing, by Linda Castillo

It is a busy time of the year for educators and Early Head Start is no exception.  My consultant friends and I have been busy aligning our Early Head Start School Readiness Goals with our assessment instrument and our curriculum--FOR INFANTS AND TODDLERS NO LESS!!--but it's largely completed and the teachers have received pre-service training according to all the bureaucratic requirements of our funding source and our state government. 

I'm hopeful this may enhance the teachers' understanding of developmental milestones and give them some cultural capital needed to participate in the debates over education during these challenging times.  I still have to develop several implementation plans, educate parents on what we are trying to do and get them engaged in the process and write the continuation federal grant.  BIG SIGH......

I've often commented to friends, facetiously, that murder and blues elevate my mood--by this, I mean reading an engrossing mystery and listening to some down and dirty blues, or R and B, make me feel better.  Go figure.  This may be one reason I so enjoyed forgetting everything this past weekend and reading a hard boiled mystery set incongruously in Amish Country.

Gone Missing, by Linda Castillo.  Minotaur Books. 2011. 277 pages.

Police Chief Kate Burkholder knows the Amish culture in Ohio where she presides over a small police department in a generally peaceful, rural region.  Burkholder grew up Amish but rebelled in her teens and left the culture and life style behind.  But, when Amish teenagers begin to disappear, Buckholder is the person called in to consult on the case.  It is lagniappe that this allows her to work again with State Agent John Tomasetti with whom she has a burgeoning romance.  Soon the case takes on alarming and dark overtones, and young women's lives are at stake.  Will Kate find them in time?
This is a hard-boiled mystery rather than a feel good cozy.  The setting may be Amish country, but there is evil and insanity lurking among these peaceful, aloof folk.  Sometimes the police deductions seem slow, but the pacing of the plot makes this a page turner.  The book also taught me something about Amish culture, e.g. the existence of "Rumspringa," a time before baptism when Amish teens are allowed to experience the life of the "English" culture without rules. 
There are three earlier books in this series, and I read this last book in the sequence before the others because a friend gave me the book.  I think I would now like to read the first book in the series to get additional background and back story on the recurring characters and the setting.  It's certainly not a typical "Amish mystery."
Has anyone else read this series?  What did you think? 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Goddesses--Domestic and Otherwise

Gully at Wassona Park
I recently spent over a week back "home" in the mountains of Virginia, visiting my mother and my sisters. My old neighborhood consists of a large gully encircled by a street. On the gully side of the street are trees, creating lovely shade for the road.  The resulting environment is the reason that this neighborhood was originally called a "Park.".  

childhood home
Across the road from the trees are the houses.  My family lives at one end of the circle road, and my grandmother and my cousins lived in houses situated farther around the circle.  It was a perfect neighborhood for us growing up in the fifties.  It was and still is a residential area in rural, small town America.

My sister now lives there near my mother, and she and her husband have a large garden.  While we were there, they fed us well--"Slow Food" grown primarily by them, cooked by my sister with occasional help from the rest of us, using tried and true recipes.  My mouth waters just thinking of the bountiful meals we had last week.

Stuffed peppers, cole slaw, green beans, squash casserole, corn on the cob, deviled eggs--
a home grown, home-cooked meal--with blackberry pie for dessert!

Before I went to Virginia, I wanted something really light to read and my sister-in-law had once suggested I try author Sophie Kinsella when I got a chance.  She went on to say that she couldn't read Kinsella's books in public because she laughed too hard.  When I was looking for a "fast read," I looked on my library shelves and noticed an abridged version of Sophie Kinsella's The Undomestic Goddess.  "Okay," I thought,  "I'll give it a try."  I am not a chick lit kind of woman, but I can relate to being an "undomestic" goddess, having suffered culinary disasters in my kitchen unlike my sisters, who both are actually skilled in the domestic arts.

The Undomestic Goddess, by Sophie Kinsella.
New York: Dial Press, 20005

In Kinsella's book, a fast track lawyer, Samantha Sweeting, is obsessed with her high stress position in a prestigious British law firm.  She thrives on the pressures of the job and is a total workaholic.  Her family is equally driven and not exactly close-knit, and the book begins with Samantha's less than spectacular birthday celebration.  Nonetheless Samantha's life is roaring along at warp speed until she misses a deadline that causes a client to lose a massive amount of money.

In a daze of disbelief, Samantha ducks out of her office and boards a train to avoid the repercussions of her error until she can think about how to deal with it.  She gets a bit tipsy and has a roaring headache.  When she exits the train several cities later, she knocks on the door of a wealthy couple to request an aspirin and water to clear her head so she can think.  The couple, the Geigers, think Samantha has come to apply for a job as a full-time housekeeper and are impressed with her totally fabricated credentials.  Samantha is hired and the comedy of errors begins, because Samantha knows zero about domestic chores.  Somehow each of Samantha's domestic disasters is salvaged, and she begins to want to learn how to do the tasks expected of her.  Of course there is also a love interest thrown into the mix.

The characters are likable, and Kinsella adds humor to the formulaic story of Samantha's tenure with the Geigers and her ultimate redemption.  I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the book, found myself laughing out loud at times and might even try another of Kinsella's books in the future.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Cozying Up With a Cozy: Jenn McKinlay Library Lover's series

It's the Dog Days of August in Northwest Louisiana, and what's a girl to to do but curl up in an air-conditioned cottage with a good book or two and some Sangria wine to take her mind off the weather.  At least that's the advice I gave myself this week.  And, best of all, I found the perfect companion with Jenn McKinlay, author of the new Library Lover's mystery series.  When I haven't been glued to the TV watching the Summer Olympics, I've been reading.

Author Jenn McKinlay on her board

Author Jenn McKinlay may be familiar to some of you with her Cupcake Bakery series, but the Library Lover's mysteries are my introduction to her work.  I discovered McKinlay thanks to Cathy's Kittling: Books blog .

First, a word about Jenn McKinlay.  I learned from her website that she is the mother of boys, a skateboard enthusiast, horseback rider, hang glider pilot, wife of a musician, and has written books under her own name, as well as pseudonyms.  She now has five mystery series in the works.  Wow!  She's clearly either crazy, on speed, or just highly energetic and efficient with an enthusiasm for living life to the fullest.

After reading the Kittling Books review and discovering that the books are set in a small town library, I thought I would enjoy this series.  Loving the immediate gratification of my Kindle, I downloaded Books Can Be Deceiving and Due or Die--and began reading.

Books Can Be Deceiving, by Jenn McKinlay
Berkley Prime Crime, 2011.  Kindle download

After being downsized from her university archivist position and discovering her professor fiance was cheating on her with a student, Lindsey Norris is looking for a place to start over and finds it in coastal Connecticut as the Director of the Briar Creek Library where her college friend, Beth Stanley, is the children's librarian. Beth is having man problems of her own.  She is engaged to a selfish, reclusive children's author/illustrator, Rick Eckman, who is as "icky" as his name implies.  When Rick is found murdered, Beth becomes the chief suspect after the police discover that Rick and Beth had a public quarrel and Beth had gone to Rick's house to confront him about his lying and dishonesty.  Lindsey and her friends must discover the real murderer because the police chief has stopped looking--he is convinced the perpetrator is Beth!  Books Can Be Deceiving is a great title for this book, and Lindsey is determined to uncover the layers of deceit and clear Beth in the process.

Sometimes I find McKinlay tries too hard with her metaphors.  It's not that they aren't evocative or descriptive, but for me, they interrupt the flow of her story.  Examples are: "Not surprisingly sleep eluded Lindsey like a cat that did not want to be found." or "The bike ride into work woke her up, as the brisk October air pinched her cheeks like an affectionate auntie."

However, McKinlay creates an interesting group of people who live in Briar Creek: the retired actress, Violet LaRue; Lindsey's landlady, Nancy, a widow; Mary who owns the local diner with her husband, Ian; Mary's brother Michael "Sully" Sullivan who begins to ignite Lindsey's interest in men again; Mrs. Cole, "the lemon" and Lindsey's nemesis at the library; Milton Duffy, the 82 year old yogi and frequent visitor to the library.  These characters all are back for book 2 in the series, Due or Die.

Due or Die, by Jenn McKinlay
Berkley Prime Crime, 2012. Kindle download

Carrie Rushton, a well-respected nurse, is elected President of the Friends of the Library in an acrimonious election.  A couple of the townspeople are upset by the election, and one unhinged library patron makes veiled threats against both Carrie and Lindsey as director of the library.  When Carrie's generally disliked husband is murdered the night of the election, people wonder if Carrie is the intended target or if she could be the murderer.  Carrie is so upset by the murder, she moves in with Nancy and Lindsey in Nancy's home where Lindsey has an apartment. 

Lindsey seems slow to suspect that there is more going on at the Briar Creek library than meets the eye, but after a series of mishaps, the mystery is satisfactorily solved. 

As the Kittling Books blog suggests, one of the most enjoyable parts of Due or Die is experiencing, vicariously, the nor'easter that buffets Briar Creek during the course of the book, while here in my world the outside the temperatures hover around 100 degrees.  Hurricane force winds are not unknown to Louisiana, by any means, but to pair the wind with a blizzard and frigid temperatures, then it begins to sound truly uncomfortable.

This strengths of this series don't lie in the tension of the plot, the keen detective work of Lindsey and her friends, or the thrill of the discovery of the murderer. It's about spending a relaxing evening in the company of people who are becoming folks you care about and want to get to know better.  Add a lovable mutt into the mix and the appeal factor keeps going up.  If you like a cozy mystery series that doesn't take itself too seriously, I recommend this one.  Book 3 in the Library Lover's series, Book, Line and Sinker, is scheduled for release December 2012