The Cold Song

Book cover showing a house

“Jenny Brodal had not had a drink in nearly twenty years. She opened a bottle of Cabernet and poured herself a large glass.”

Thus begins The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann and translated by Barbara J. Haveland, with Jenny Brodal breaking years of sobriety with a drink before her 75th birthday party. Jenny is an anti-social curmudgeon who abhors the idea of a party, but her daughter Siri insists on having one, unable to believe her mother could be that bitter or, perhaps, having the celebration to purposefully torture her. As the story backtracks over the preparations leading up to the party, the reader is gradually introduced to all of the other tensions within the family. The husband, Jon Dreyer, has been lying for years about the book he is supposed to be writing but of which he has not a word. Their daughter, Alma, drifts about like a ghost, observing everyone closely while keeping her own secrets. And then there’s Milla.

Milla is the au pair hired to watch Alma and her younger sister for the summer while the family visits Mailund, Jenny’s ancestral home. From the start, she makes Siri uncomfortable. She picks flowers from treasured flower beds, talks a little bit too loudly. Lets Jon look at her a little too much. Something about Milla, Siri thinks, is just not right.

What Siri doesn’t know, but the reader does, is that Milla will not survive the party.

The mystery of Milla’s death gives readers a reason to keep turning pages, but it also manipulates the readers’ relationship wiht the characters. Each character serves as a potential suspect. To me this erodes, rather than enriches, the work, providing a cast of suspicion on each character where it might not be deserved. The Brodal/Dreyer clan does not need a murder to make them interesting, and it feels a bit condescending–or perhaps timid–to believe that the reader needs a page turning mystery to make reading about these characters worthwhile. I had the same sensation from reading The Dinner, but the popularity of that novel shows that many readers disagree with me. Those who loved The Dinner will probably appreciate this novel even more, in which the characters are much more sympathetic.

The book travels past the mystery in a way that The Dinner never managed to. The family must cope with the aftermath of the tragedy. It’s not as if any of them felt a great attachment to Milla, but they do feel a sense of responsibility. Milla’s mother, a famous photographer, begins to send cryptic Jon text messages. Alma, always a strange kid, begins to act more bizarrely and causes trouble at school. And Jenny, well, Jenny just keeps on drinking. In the end, when the reader has assembled all of the available clues and made her judgement, she will probably no longer care, because the heart of the story was never the murder, but instead the slow disintegration of the characters.

P.S. The publisher’s website has some excellent book club questions, and makes me think this would be a good book club book. I need to warn you though, that there are spoilers in the questions.


Afro-Vegan: Bridging Traditions

Cover of Afro-Vegan

Vegan cuisine lacks tradition.

There are examples of veganism or extreme vegetarianism going back to as far as ancient Greece and India, but most cases represent isolated individuals, not a lineage. There are few rare examples of near vegan cuisine being culturally sustained–Shojin Ryori and multiple Indian foodways for instance–but those are exceptions in the gastronomic world. Instead, veganism is more often associated with eschewing what came before, a deliberate turning away from a culture that shares different values.

As a result, most vegan cookbooks are instructional. The average reader is statistically probably unfamiliar with vegan cookery and in fact may have never had to prepare their own meals before, coming from a culture where meat-laden dishes can be delivered or picked up from a drive-thru. It is risky for a vegan cookbook to dive deeply rather than pan broadly, to presume even basic kitchen skills. This means we are treated less often to rich and uncompromising works like the beautiful and omnivorous Burma: Rivers of Flavor or Gran Cocina Latina.

Bryant Terry has always resisted these trends in modern veganism, seeking to ground his food in history, even an omnivorous history. Starting with Vegan Soul Kitchen, he has linked his recipes to family stories, century old traditions, and modern cinema and music. In his latest work, Afro-Vegan he goes further than ever. He maintains the habit of suggesting other cultural works like songs to tie into each recipe, and of “remixing” classic recipes with new twists, such as combining Southern skillet cornbread with North African dukkah. Unlike his past books, however, he goes further in emphasizing the linkages between what he cooks, traditional African American foodways, and the cuisines of Africa.

The book organization shows his emphasis on African and New World ingredients. “Okra, Black-eyed Peas, and Watermelon” get lumped together in one chapter, while “Grits, Grains, and Couscous” share another. Every recipe showcases some element of African cuisine but no recipe seems explicitly foreign. Terry reworks every ingredient or technique until it fits our modern expectations. Okra is grilled to make a spicy finger food, African black eyed pea fritters appear in a more traditional form and as softer patties for sliders. A whole chapter is devoted to cocktails, demonstrating that this is not intended to be a manual to recreate some kind of authentic African experience, but rather to incorporate tiny bits of tradition into modern life.

Terry does not talk down to his audience or spend much time explaining what’s needed in a pantry or how to deep fry. Because of this, he doesn’t need to water down his vision. Every dish works in concert, delivering a pitch perfect demonstration of Terry’s style. Sometimes this requires uncompromising instructions. Making Slow-braised Mustard Greens–which I would usually toss into one pot and call it a day–requires one pot and two pans, but the result is the creamiest mustard greens I’ve ever had. Za’atar Roasted Red Potatoes included more steps than I would expect from roasted potatoes–including taking the potatoes out halfway through to re-season, then laying each piece back on the baking sheet “cut side up”–but my boyfriend declared them, “the best anything. Ever.” The specifications may seem particular, but in each case Terry reassures that this is worth it. When describing how to meticulously remove the skin from every black-eyed pea used in Crunchy Bean and Okra Fritters, he suggests inviting guests to help. Even in the preparation, he manages to work in ways to make vegan food more about community building than dividing, furthering the book’s message.

Bryant Terry’s Afro-Vegan is one of the few vegan cookbooks I own that both explores a cuisine deeply while elevating it to new heights. It’s one that I’ll grab when I need inspiration for something new and exciting, as well as the one I’ll dog ear and bring to Louisiana on family visits. Hopefully other chefs will be inspired as well, and we can further the cause of integrating veganism into our communities and family histories.

Soup’s On!

Cover of 30 Minute Vegan's Soup's On

Soup’s On by the 30-Minute Vegan–a.k.a. Mark Reinfeld–is pretty much what’s described on the tin: a variety of soup recipes all designed to be completed under thirty minutes. Soups are known for being fairly simple to make and for gaining flavor through time; here the simplicity is preserved and time saved by listing the flavor developing steps as “optional”.

The first chapter, “The Art of Soup Creation”, concerns how to make a soup, the kind of basic cooking instruction that beginning home cooks need and I wish more cookbooks provided. The usually cited foundational techniques for building flavor are skimmed over, however. Instead the focus is on using recipes as a template, explaining how to take a soup recipe, break it down into its requisite parts, then rebuild it with different ingredients. The book ends with another instructional chapter on soup finishing techniques, including recipes for garnishes like Vegan Crème FraÎche and Candied Pepitas as well as a few sides including ‘Cosmic Cornbread’ and Herbed Bread Sticks. Intervening chapters are organized by type of soup, such as “Creamy Blended Soups” and “Soups and Stews with Grains, Legumes, and Pasta”.

In addition to the recipe chapters, the book contains multiple appendices of varying usefulness. There are seasonal growing charts, but which climate zone they apply to is unknown, and the relevance of gardening in a book that implies 5 minutes can’t be spared to brown an onion is unclear. Another appendix contains a call to action against GMOs (the book is full of unsubstantiated health claims that seem out of place). More useful is a chart showing recommended soaking times of nuts and another chart showing measurement equivalencies for different natural sweeteners, allowing you to easily substitute agave nectar or brown rice syrup for sugar in any recipe. This is the kind of information that allows beginners to feel more confident in a kitchen, which seem appropriate to a book like this.

Less instructional are the recipes themselves. Everything I tried tasted delicious, especially a cauliflower soup that tasted like a velvety vegan cheese sauce. Producing that deliciousness, however, required me to make many judgement calls. Each recipe lists a few optional ingredients and cooking methods. In some cases the ‘optional’ method felt vital to me so I went with it, and I can’t be sure what the result would be for a novice following the bare bones version of each recipe. The recipe for Indian Chutney Stew with Tamarind, for instance, begins with pouring vegetable stock in a pot and then tossing in a slew of raw vegetables to boil. The main ingredient, tamarind paste, was to be one to three tablespoons. For such a pungent ingredient and the main flavor component of the dish, I would have appreciated a more specific suggestion. Meanwhile, adding a sweetener to balance the sourness of the tamarind was listed as optional. I found the soup almost inedible without this ‘optional’ ingredient. By following the ‘variations’ that involved sautéing the vegetables first, as well as adding some agave nectar, I ended with a delicious soup. The result was fantastic, but the recipe as written would not be something that I would recommend.

The target of this book appears to be inexperienced home cooks, but such cooks would be better served by learning more traditional ways of building flavor rather than how to throw things in a pot and boil them according to a recipe. If you are looking for some quick but tasty soup suggestions, I would recommend this book only in exchange for a promise to always take the 5 extra minutes to follow the optional instructions.

VeganMofo: The Vegan Stoner Cookbook

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks. If you are new to Libromancy, please check out some of my non-cookbook reviews, such as my review of Pacific by Tom Drury

It seems right that I start VeganMofo with the first vegan cookbook that I’ve reviewed on this blog: The Vegan Stoner Cookbook. VeganMofoers will recognize the name instantly as that of the hugely popular cooking blog of the same name.

The cookbook is not only as cute as the blog, but cuter. Many of the recipes are repeats, but the book is still worth having in your kitchen because you need a cooking reference, so it may as well be one that makes you laugh.

See my full review here: Sprouts Illustrated

Reviews and samples from around the web:
5 Minute Churros at Mr. and Mrs. Vegan
Lentil Loaf at Karmatarian

Vegetarianism for One

Eat Your Vegetables is Joe Yonan’s follow-up to Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One. Eat Your Vegetables also focuses on solo-cooking, this time from a vegetarian perspective. Well, not exactly vegetarian; hello, anchovies!

Like many of my favorite cookbooks, EYV is more than just a collection of recipes. This work is more textual than many cookbooks, with small essays mixed in between chapters. I enjoyed the chatter, especially the historical bits and kitchen tips such as how to keep half an avocado fresh in the fridge. Most of these hints are targeted at a solo chef who needs to keep partial ingredients fresh. I still found them enormously helpful even if that doesn’t apply to me; who doesn’t need to know how to creatively reuse leftover ingredients?

I’ve seen reviews for Serve Yourself complaining that this isn’t quick, weeknight cooking like the reviewers expected. Yonan’s book aims to appease the foodie who happens to live by herself and doesn’t have an outlet for her cooking desires. To appreciate this book, you have to not feel silly sitting at home by yourself and enjoying a beautiful sweet potato and mushroom galette that looks like it came from a French bistro. That being said, very few of the recipes are not quick and easy. Some recipes are very basic recipes from the U.S. lexicon, like sloppy vegan joe, made with a meat substitute. Other are closer to foodie fare, such as Socca with Eggplant and Broccoli. Even when he branches into international cuisine, the recipes are very accessible. The most difficult to procure ingredients in the book are chickpea flour and Peppadews.

This is a Peppadew.

I tested two recipes, the Thai Basil Fried Rice and Kale and Caramelized Onions Quesadillas. The fried rice was a very straightforward recipe, not at all different from any other similar fried rice recipe you may have encountered. I found myself changing it drastically to meet my tastes and can’t really comment on the quality of the original recipe except to state that it was obviously very flexible! The quesadillas, on the other hand, I made exactly as described and they were fantastic. They only take about 5 minutes if you have the tortillas and onions on hand (which you will if you follow the encouragement of this book to make time consuming treats like that in advance to store). They were by no means traditional quesadillas, even though I swapped out the mozzarella for Mexican queso fresco, but they were much healthier and still very filling.

I highly recommend this book to cooks who live by themselves or with roommates who are not worth cooking for. You can’t eat microwave lasagna every night.

Paprika: the rapey novel, not the spice

TLDR; conceptually interesting, but those concepts are not realized until the second half. Also, major trigger warning.

Paprika, a novel by prolific Japanese sci-fi author Yasutaka Tsutsui, is about the invention of a device to access others’ dreams. The protagonists and villains are doctors who work on psychological disorders at a cutting-edge clinic. Using the new device, they can watch a patient’s dreams and help diagnose and cure the patient’s neuroses. Of course, someone quickly realizes the power that one could wield with such a tool, as well as the fun sexual uses it could be put to, and thus conflict is introduced.

The book begins when workers at the clinic who had access to the device begin to suddenly go mad. The cause of the madness seems like it is intended to be a mystery, but the writing quickly ruins any suspense. Within a few pages a certain doctor Osanai is behaving so shadily that the reader instantly knows he is responsible for the attacks. The protagonists, meanwhile, wonder about it for another 100 pages or so while the reader has ceased to care. All potential points of interest are dismissed in this fashion. Why is this other fellow acting so villainous? No use wondering for long, because soon someone remembers his entire backstory in one quick paragraph, tidily handing him a motive. When a powerful, new version of the device, the DC Mini, goes missing and the characters urgently need to find it, they muse about where it is but don’t actively search for it. No need; when the time is right one of them just finds it in a pocket where they had placed it and forgotten it.

It’s a shame that a book about the amazing ability to enter another person’s dreams spends over half of its text with mysteries that never have a chance to be mysterious and boring anxieties about who is offending whom in the Japanese workplace. The second half finally indulges in the possibilities the technology offers. Part 2 opens with the history of a strange European sex cult and then launches into a long series of chases through nightmares, with all of the fantasy and physics-defiance that the reader had long been waiting for. The writing is still shoddy, but there is enough distracting action to make it delightful nonetheless.

There is one aspect to the book that I know some would describe as being independent of its literary merits, but which has a significant impact on whether or not I am able to enjoy a book. I know that I am not the only one in this. This aspect is rape. Rape here, rape there, rape everywhere. The rape in this book is unique in that the violence is not the horrifying aspect; rather, it is written such that the main female character, Dr. Atsuko/Paprika, more often than not semi-consents to the rape, as paradoxical as that sounds. In one instance, she even insists that she needs to be raped to save her life. Discussing this with others, we could not decide if literally asking for rape even qualified as rape anymore, but that’s how it is described within the novel. The book devolves into hentai on more occasions than the narrative requires and if I wasn’t reading it for review I would have stopped at the first disgusting ecchi-fanboy moment. And that’s not even getting into the other questionable decisions the author made in regards to how he portrays Dr. Atsuko, such as the fact that despite being a Nobel-nominated scientist, all people care about is her vagina and how she looks.

Despite my reservations about this novel, I know there are several people out there who would enjoy it, like people who read Palhaunik for his edginess. The chase scenes are fun, the science is fantastic, but the book is horribly, horribly flawed.

The Flamethrowers

The Flamethrowers is the story of “Reno” (not her real name) as she tries to go from small town western gal to big city artist. She moves to New York City after graduation from her small art program and lives on her own, imagining all of the excitement that she will have once she finds a crowd and fits in. Eventually she does find that crowd, a crowd that is coincidentally perfect for her. It just so happens that she loves motorcycles and Italian and wants to create land art. She is “discovered” by Sandro Valera, accomplished artist and Italian heir to a motorcycle mogul. Oh, and he has an interest in land art. And an interest in beautiful younger women. He sweeps her into the 70s New York art scene, and later, accidentally into the radical elements of Italy during the country’s Years of Lead. Think the Red Brigade and molotov cocktails that utilize espresso makers.

The plot is at times thrilling, at other times simply heady as you get to peep behind the curtains at late 70s evenings at the Chelsea Hotel, at the kind of games that drunk artsy people play. There are also moving scenes of the American west and a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous in Italy. If there’s one thing this novel has it’s enjoyable, if dark, escapist fun.

What I didn’t enjoy, initially, was the narration. The book is mostly told from the first person point of view of Reno, except for a few exceptional chapters primarily told from the point of view of Sandro’s father. Reno’s point of view was full of pithy M.F.A. aphorisms that were far too clever. I only have the experience of my own mind to pull from, but in my experience, my running narration is more like, “Wow, I’m bored. I wonder what’s for dinner. I kind of need to pee. No, I’ll wait until this episode of the West Wing is over.” Beautiful, deep-sounding interior dialogue from characters is one of my pet peeves and this book was strong in that area. Let’s just say I think that next year, this will be a primary candidate for the Tournament of Books.

I got over my problem with the narration as I got deeper into the plot. As she entered Sandro’s alternate universe, she became an observer, giving up herself to simply try to absorb whatever magic these artists had that allowed them to just be so cool. She began relaying more of their dialogue, more physical observations, and I was able to sink in. I began to remember similar good times in my life, I began to let my pet peeves go . But this is when my deeper problem with the narration became evident. I knew everything the narrator thought about everything and I knew the things she loved, but I didn’t know her. I didn’t even know her name. I didn’t know how people thought of her, I didn’t know how she reacts in social situations. She says what the other characters tell her but she does not give response. Is she rude? Talkative? Shy? She presents herself as an emotional blank slate. Usually this is a writerly technique to allow the reader to imprint themselves upon the character and deepen their sympathies. Except it doesn’t work in this case. Reno is so strongly defined by her hobbies and her background. Even her moniker derives directly from one of the elements that makes her unique. It’s hard to slip myself into her leather jacket.

So what we get is a book about political action where the heroine appears to have no political feeling. And maybe she doesn’t and that’s the point. A point I miss because I can only ever see her actions obliquely, so I have to imprint my personality on her, and I could never ever be apathetic. Apathy is a prerequisite in her art crowd. She implies that she is only feigning it, but it is hard to tell because she’s gotten so good.

Despite my complaints herein, I still give the book 4 stars. There is absurdity and humor and warmth. And violence. The moments of violence punctuating the novel are beautifully written and make the diffidence of the narration seem more purposeful. The characters don’t care for the world, but the world keeps asking them to care. With muggings and rape and attack dogs. This dissonance is what makes the novel powerful.

Twin Peaks as written by Raymond Carver.

Cover of Pacific by Tom Drury
Pacific by Tom Drury

Tiny Darling is father to Micah Darling. Micah is brother to Lyris Darling and Eamon Hammerhill. Lyris and Micah are both the children of Joan Gower, who plays sister Mia on the television show “Forensic Mystic.” Tiny was once married to Louise Norman, thrift store owner. This is just a segment of the web of relationships that tie together Tom Drury’s Pacific.

Each person has a first name and a last name. Each possess a weight in the text. As Eamon says, “everyone must have an arc and a conflict.” These characters and the entire novel are a series of tiny details shellacked together. Scenes are specific, most a span of minutes only. Together these details repeat, clump together to create a work.

If there is a plot, it is this. Micah moves from tiny Stone City to L.A. to live with his estranged mother. His father starts a career as the white hat equivalent of a bandit. A stranger from out of town sets up a shady business selling Celtic antiques. Ex-sheriff Dan Norman investigates. There are drugs and sword fights and beach volleyball. Mystic elements abound. And funerals and a good bit of TV watching. It is a small town after all.

The end is unsatisfying–how could it be otherwise? One does not read a book like this to finish a plotline. One reads it to hear Tiny’s parting advice to his son (“Put your head down and random in the solar plexs. It’s unexpected.”) One reads it to probe the tensions between Louise and Lyris, the daughter she could never have. (“‘I get afraid sometimes.’ ‘Of what?’ ‘Oh, that I will be left, or that it’s the end of the world?’ ‘Yeah,’ said Louise. ‘Yeah.’” ). All an ending is in this context is a television being turned of, replacing these curious lives with a blank screen.