Thursday, January 28, 2016

THE PHARAOH HATSHEPSUT: TRYING TO FIND THE REAL WOMAN

Ever since reading Child of the Morning, Pauline Gedge's 1976 novel about Hatshepsut, Egypt's remarkable and mysterious eighteenth-dynasty woman pharaoh, who ruled successfully for almost twenty years and whose name and image were chiseled from many of her monuments by her successor, I've been curious about her. While I'm not consumed by ancient-Egypt-philia, I am, like many people, interested and curious (and yes, I have seen all the "Mummy" movies possible, beginning with Boris Karloff when I was about ten years old). I also read and thoroughly enjoyed Stacy Schiff's "Cleopatra: A Life," so of course I was delighted to receive a review copy of The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney, an associate professor of Egyptian art and archaeology at UCLA.

Unfortunately, in writing this book Cooney faced significant disadvantages. Unlike Pauline Gedge, she was not writing fiction, and while there is abundant resource material on Egypt in this period, it is not the sort that lends itself to illuminating Hatshepsut's actual personality. Her mummy was not even identified until 2007. As an academic who does not want to be dismissed for playing fast and loose with the historical record or making unsupported and unsupportable claims, she relies on phrases like "it is quite likely," "may have," "probably," or "we do not [or cannot] know." While I respect her honesty,  I can't say that acknowledging all these limitations makes for compelling reading, and my curiosity and interest remain unsatisfied.

While Gedge was free to imagine, for example, a romantic relationship between Hatshepsut and Senenmut, her chief advisor, Cooney must admit that no evidence for such a relationship exists. More's the pity, if the reader is looking for a compelling personal drama.  Stacy Schiff had it much easier with Cleopatra, whose life, both political and personal, was amply documented as well as full of political and sexual intrigue.

This is not to say that Cooney's book is dull; it's not, if you read it for what it is, a brave scholarly attempt to reconstruct a woman about whom very, very little is actually known. Cooney is a fine writer and she does provide information and insight on ancient Egypt that will probably be new to most readers. As a scholar, she is meticulous; the endnotes suggestions for further reading run to 52 pages. But by the end of the book, Hatshepsut remains a vague figure who, "it is quite likely" "may have" or even "probably" possessed certain traits as an individual, but "we do not [or cannot] know."

Sunday, December 20, 2015

It's Good, Not Just "Good for You"!

So far I've made two recipes from Rebecca Katz and Mat Edelson's The Healthy Mind Cookbook: Big Flavor Recipes to Enhance Brain Function, Mood, Memory, and Mental Clarity, a title whose big promises might make arouse skepticism in some readers. Well, I can definitely say that my experiences with this book so far improved my mood, since they were delicious, easy to make, and easy on my conscience because I knew they were healthy and good for me as well as gorgeous to look at! And they definitely deliver "Big Flavor."
The cover photo is of "Thai It Up Steak Salad" (which I haven't tried yet); most of the recipes are accompanied by similar full page illustrations, and if the two recipes I tried - "Avocado Citrus Salad" and "Mexican Hot Chocolate" - are representative of the rest, my tummy and taste buds are going to be very happy, and if my mind gets healthier too, well, what more could you ask?

The Mexican hot chocolate recipe is for one serving (thank you, Rebecca and Mat!), made with a cup of unsweetened almond milk, a tablespoon of cocoa powder, two teaspoons of maple syrup, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, and tiny pinches each of salt and cayenne, whisked together in a saucepan while heating. I find cocoa powder easier to whisk in a bowl (no corners to hide in) so I mixed it up in my favorite cappucino mug and heated it in the microwave - even easier and sooooo delicious. The cayenne adds a delicious hint of a burn in the throat and the touch of salt kicks up all the flavors; this is hot chocolate for grownups, but I'm pretty sure the kids will love it too.


The Avocado Citrus Salad, pictured here, sounds like something I make often, especially this time of year with so many varieties of citrus available at the peak of their quality. The creamy avocado and the sweet bite of citrus are heavenly together. Add the peppery sharpness of arugula, plus shaved fennel, fresh chopped mint, and a bit of ginger in the dressing, and the whole becomes a marvelously complex melange of flavors in which each part is enhanced and elevated by the others. I'd want to eat this even if no one told me that avocado is one of the best fats, "full of brain-boosting vitamin E and a monounsaturated fat that helps lower blood pressure, which can help lower the risk of cognitive impairment" (70).

Katz began work on this book after her father's death from dementia at eighty, after a decade of struggling with the disease, left her feeling like she faced a similar timetable. What she found in her research, "the notion that what I eat can positively impact my mind [was] incredibly freeing" and left her "no longer feeling that [she's] a prisoner to [her] genetics." The introduction and the first two chapters further explain and develop this idea in engaging, engrossing prose; Chapter One, "Your Brain on Food," explains the scientific processes at work, including the relationship between the gut and the brain, a subject that's getting a lot of attention lately. Chapter Two, "The Culinary Pharmacy," lists foods from allspice to yogurt, what they're good for in terms of the brain, and how they work. That mint in the salad I made is good for for cognitive functioning, focus, learning, memory, and neuronal health not just because of its Vitamins A and C but also because studies show that "the scent of mint help[s] boost alertness and memory [and] helped subjects perform better on basic clerical skills, such as typing and memorization" (16-17). I knew that pot of mint in my back yard was more than pretty! And the fennel (I love fennel!)? It contains the B vitamin folate, which boosts mental performance and may help prevent the onset of dementia, as does its vitamin C, which "can also keep your spirits up," while its vitamin A "may deliver a boost to your learning abilities" (14). Hurray! Now I have more reasons to eat fennel than just the fact that I love it!

This book is beautiful: lovely to look at and full of useful and fascinating information in addition to wonderful recipes made with real food that packs real benefits. Katz (along with Edelson, an award-winning science, health, and sports writer) is not just a creative chef and serious researcher - she's a very good writer whose work is a pleasure to read, even if you never make any of her recipes. But please, please do make the recipes! I can't decide between the Cozy Lentil Soup with Delicata Squash and the Rosemary and Pear Muffins. Maybe I'll just make both! For more about Katz's work and some sample recipes (and pictures), you can go to http://www.rebeccakatz.com/. And then go buy this book!







Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Cookbook I've Longed For


Where to begin to describe the wonderful book that The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook: Artisanal Breads from Around the World by Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez and the bakers of Hot Bread Kitchen is? As a long-time baker (I've even taught bread baking classes) and food-obsessed cook in general, I understand that one thing that can bring people of all cultures together is the sharing of food. It's a way in, a point of connection. It's one of humankind's - no, it is humankind's primary means of showing hospitality, compassion, love. Almost every part of the world has its own bread, its own staff of life, and The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook celebrates that fact with its eclectic collection of recipes and, of equal importance, the stories of the women who make the bread (and other dishes included among the recipes).

Hot Bread Kitchen in Brooklyn is more than just a thriving bakery. It is also a paid training program for immigrant and refugee women from all around the world who learn to professionalize their homegrown skills and passion for food; they also learn the business skills that help them to succeed after they graduate. When the book arrived in the mail I took it with me on a short road trip. While my husband drove, I alternated between telling him about the recipes I planned to make and the stories of the women with whom they originated. Tomorrow, for example, I think I'll try Lutfunnessa Islam's whole wheat chapatis and "Greenmarket Vegetables, Bangladeshi-Style." Lutfunnessa is just one of Hot Bread Kitchen's success stories. "The training program appealed to her because it was paid, it was with a team of women, and it didn't require her to interact with the public too much (which intimidated her because of her limited English and experience)." Today she speaks not only English but also proficient Spanish and works as a product coordinator and teacher at Hot Bread Kitchen. Other former trainees have gone on to similar successes and accomplishments.

The book itself is gorgeous, practical, and very well organized. It has all the information a first-time baker will need and offers exciting possibilities for those of us who've been at for decades. I never thought I could make some of the more exotic breads I've enjoyed in restaurants, like Indian naan, Armenian lavash, or Ethiopian injera, but with the clearly written recipes and abundant photographs provided, I'm pretty sure I can succeed.

Beginning with a section on basic (and not-so-basic) techniques, an extensive sidebar on how to store bread, and then "Notes on Equipment and Ingredients," it provides readers with all the technical background they'll need before moving on to the actual recipes, which begin with unleavened flatbreads like Moroccan m'smen and the above-mentioned chapatis and lavash, as well as matzo, then moves on to "slightly elevated leavened flatbreads" (like naan, injera, pita, and focaccia), then a terrific chapter on tortillas and other things to be made with masa, before getting into what some folks think of as "real" bread baking, loaves from rustic French breads to ryes to traditional onion bialys, followed by "enriched" breads - "Challah and Beyond." But it doesn't stop there; the next chapter provides recipes for "Filled Doughs from Around the World" - kreplach, knishes, Albanian cheese triangles, empanadas, and more. That chapter is followed by a collection of "quick breads and holiday breads" which once again reflect food traditions from all over the world. I'm planning to make my first stollen ever for Christmas morning! There's even a chapter on what to do with leftover bread, "Waste Not": the panzanella salad below is just one example.


I can't remember the last time I felt so enthusiastic about a cookbook, and not only about the book itself and its recipes and stories, but about the mission that drives Hot Bread Kitchen. In every way I can think of, it's a very good thing.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

From a Problem Play to a Challenging Novel


In "The Gap of Time," Jeanette Winterson composes a "cover version" of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," one of his late plays - infrequently performed and considered somewhat problematic by some critics. One of my own professors dismissed it as "silly." The plot certainly stretches credulity, but Winterson's re-envisioning fills in the plot holes of the original and brings it to a satisfying conclusion - more satisfying than the original, actually, since we don't have to depend on a statue coming to life.

I approached this first novel in Hogarth's Shakespeare series with gleeful anticipation and felt a bit let down in the early part of the book, since I didn't feel that Winterson's writing was up to her usual high standards. But then I remembered that I don't much like the early part of the play either, so maybe it's the source material that's the trouble. The plotting and characterization of the novel felt, like the play, stilted and awkward, and I had a hard time getting interested in the characters. (I never managed to get interested in Leo/Leontes, but that's because he's such a shallow jerk in both book and play.) However, once the action shifts to "New Bohemia" (a location much like New Orleans) and focuses on Perdita and her foster father and brother, Shep and Clo, everything picks up, including my interest, and the rest of the book is a real delight. It ends well, with the right couples getting together (I guess) as in so many of Shakespeare's plays.

One of the best parts of the book, though, is not the novel itself but rather Winterson's account of her own involvement with the story, and the personal essay she includes is also a meditation on forgiveness - a key element in Shakespeare's later plays - and time itself. As an adopted child herself, the story of the foundling Perdita has always resonated with her and she jumped at the chance to create her own re-telling. We all probably have stories that hold special places in our hearts and minds, and overall I enjoyed what she did with this one. So be patient, even if, like me, you find it hard to drum up much interest in an arrogant, neurotic, jealous tech magnate at the beginning. It gets much better as it goes along.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Lovely Book

I just finished reading Nina George's The Little Paris Book Shop, and I am so pleased that what I thought might be at best a mild and pleasant diversion turned out to be so much better and so much more.


What a delightful book this is! I've been reading things that are very good but rather grim, it seems, and this lovely novel was such a breath of fresh air. But it's not fluffy or silly; all the pleasures are earned, and the characters change and grow beyond the pain they begin with. Jean Perdu is a lonely man whose name ("perdu" is French for "lost") reflects his emotional condition. He lives a solitary, spartan life in his Paris apartment, and although he knows his neighbors most of his social contact comes at work; he owns a floating bookshop on a barge on the Seine, where he practices his uncanny ability to know what a customer should read. 

But he's not so good at taking care of his own emotional needs. Perdu is lonely because the love of his life left him twenty years earlier and he has never recovered, and then, suddenly, he is presented with a letter she wrote to him before her departure, a letter that changes how he feels about everything. He casts off his barge and begins a life-changing voyage down the Seine and ultimately to the wine country of Provence, to discover what happened to his beloved Manon. On this journey he is accompanied by a young novelist who can't deal with his fame, who leaps onto the barge uninvited, and two cats (Kafka and Lindgren). Along the way they meet a wonderful assortment of characters who help Jean (and Max, the young novelist) to take stock of themselves and their feelings so that when friendship and, yes, love arrive, they can recognize them and appreciate them.

I couldn't help thinking of this as a sort of French Huckleberry Finn since, after all, we have two male characters floating down the country's most important river, one older, one quite young, both in search of something - freedom, happiness, resolution of issues from the past. But The Little Paris Bookshop is very different, really, and not just because it feels very French. The narrative unfolds through the eyes of an older man who is, at last, becoming wiser about things of the heart; it is a gentle, meditative reflection on those things, and I found myself reading slowly because I wanted to savor every observation, every feeling. I was happy while I was reading it, and it makes me smile to remember it.



Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Nice Little Meal

First, if you'll indulge me, a bit of a rant: I absolutely cannot understand people who don't appreciate leftovers. I don't even want to try to understand them. We have some in our family; they're also the kind of people who say "If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it." Really? Maybe I can't - that is possible - but maybe I can and I just want to know what the seller thinks it's worth, and if we agree about that, or I'm curious how big a fool the seller thinks the consumer is. There. I feel better now.
      I absolutely love leftovers, and the little breakfast or brunch or supper on the plate below is an example of how lovely and delicious leftovers can be. Basically, everything here was left over except the egg.
     We usually have pasta on Sunday nights but I'd been craving polenta for a while so last week we had that, with some Italian sausage and red sauce, and it was fantastically satisfying. But two people can only eat so much polenta at one meal, so Joe (he was cooking that night) poured the rest into an 8" square glass dish and put it in the fridge.
      Now please don't say, "Don't you know you can buy precooked polenta in a tube and just slice off what you want" or "Isn't there instant polenta, so you can make just enough for one or two servings, super quick?" Yes, we could take those shortcuts, but . . . it just wouldn't be the same. So it takes a while to make polenta the traditional way; basically, you have to let the cornmeal and water (and some salt) simmer, and you have to stir it quite a bit. It won't kill you. Pour a glass of wine and relax, talk with whoever is around, or just put on some nice music, or read - you only need one hand to stir.
     A little more backstory: we've decided to shop as little as possible because our pantry and freezer are so full, and we've made it kind of a game to require that each meal has something from the freezer and/or pantry (long-term storage), or, ideally, both. In this case the dry polenta was from the pantry, and the sausage was a surprise from the freezer, something we'd forgotten we had.
     Then the meal that followed a couple of days later, on Tuesday, the one in the picture that you may be wondering if I've forgotten, used the leftover polenta, kale from the freezer, eggs, and some leftover chopped salad from Monday, which, since it had no lettuce in it to get icky and slimy, was just fine.
      The really cool part is that I was also able to put it together in just one pan - a nice, fairly heavy, nonstick pan really does make life so much easier.
     First I sprayed the pan, heated it on medium, and browned the polenta squares on one side. While the first side was browning I sprayed the second sides of the polenta squares so when I flipped them over they would be as well protected against sticking as the first. Be sure to use a plastic or wooden or bamboo spatula to avoid damaging the pan surface (you probably already know that - sorry). Also, polenta sets up pretty firmly, but do be careful turning the squares so you keep them in one piece - not cutting the squares too big helps. I get 9 squares from an 8" pan.
     After turning the polenta squares, I pushed them to the side of the pan and on the other side put in the thawed kale, which I'd drained and squeezed as much water out of as I could without getting weird and neurotic and excessively perfectionist about it. I used my fingers to create two little nests in the kale (you can use spinach or chard or whatever greens you have, so long as they're precooked to some degree) and then dropped an egg into each nest, reduced the heat to pretty low, and put the lid on the whole thing. By the time the eggs are cooked to your liking (I want the whites cooked but the yolks still liquid), the greens will be hot and the second side of the polenta will be browned.
     Then you just plate it up, in this case with a colorful chopped salad made up mostly of tomatoes, cucumber, red onions, and olives with a light vinaigrette. You could sprinkle a little grated Parmesan or Romano cheese over the polenta if you wish, and I like a light sprinkling of white balsamic vinegar on the greens; many people like some hot sauce on them, or on the eggs. However you choose to dress it up with condiments - or not - it's a tasty, simple, well-balanced meal with only one pan to wash. That works for me.
   

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying . . . well, you decide


      When I received Scott Hawkins' The Library at Mount Char from Blogging for Books, I had hopes that it would be an inventive, intelligent, high-concept fantasy. I mean, it does have the word "Library" in the title, and as a fan of Jorge Luis Borges, that alone is a draw. And then there's inside front cover copy, indicating "ancient customs" and the possibility that the plot deals with nothing less than the actual death of God. I'm a sucker for "ancient customs" and mythologies (I majored in anthropology as an undergrad and later taught mythology), and I'm inclined to be forgiving and generous when it comes to fictional representations of those subjects. But Hawkins' first novel owes more to the mythology of twelve-year-old fanboys, i.e., ugly and gratuitous violence, generally leading to explosions of varying degrees and dimensions, than it does to anything found in an actual or even invented library. And it's not the inventive recasting of the idea of a library that's the problem; it's the lack of a solid underpinning or grounding for the world Hawkins creates here. He does eventually get around to that, but not until the reader has slogged through 275 pages, give or take a few, of fairly mind-numbing carnage, much of it at the hands of David, a larger-than-life psychopath in a tutu who's generally described as covered in blood. Aside from that description, and the fact that he's unstoppable (until near the end), David's not really very interesting, just an oddly dressed variation on one of the evil Terminators from the movie franchise.
      David has a sister, Carolyn, who's apparently the protagonist of the story, though she's another fairly flat character with few redeeming or even particularly interesting qualities. She's very smart and has vast knowledge (gleaned from the Library) of stuff regular people don't know much about, though her cloistered upbringing has rendered her fairly ignorant in the ways of the outside world, and she dresses strangely. But she's on a mission, so I suppose she can be forgiven her one-track mind. That mission concerns the probable death of God, who raised her and her adopted siblings (including David) in the Library; they refer to him as "Father," and like God (and perhaps some real fathers) he is the great mystery at the heart of this book. We could perhaps compare him to Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Perhaps.
      Fortunately, Hawkins has given Carolyn a foil, Steven, the "American" she sort of loves (to the dozen "children" of the Library, all outsiders are "Americans"). We learn very late in the book that they have a childhood connection, but it's too late to save either their relationship or the novel. Carolyn puts him through all kinds of torments, but she does give him a lioness, Naga, so he's less alone than he might be while the world is going to hell. Steve's relationship with Naga is one of the very best things about this book.
      The other intriguing character is Erwin Charles Leffington, an authentic war hero who served three tours in Afghanistan and then "decided he'd killed enough people," and now works for the Department of Homeland Security. Erwin, Steve, and Carolyn eventually become a sort of team, three musketeers against the bad guys, who include some of Carolyn's siblings and the U.S. military-industrial complex. (Most of the other characters eventually wind up as collateral damage.) Without Steven and Erwin, I doubt I'd have finished The Library at Mount Char
      If this book winds up being made into a movie, I might go see it. It has potential, given a good screenwriter and director - Guillermo del Toro comes to mind - who could emphasize the humanity of some characters who don't seem to really interest Hawkins, particularly female characters, who are thinly drawn, even Carolyn, who for the most part is just a killing machine with a sort of detached curiosity about others, whom she describes as "disposable." The visuals and special effects, though, should be awesome.