22 Britannia Road, by Amanda Hodgkinson

22 Britannia Road is a story of a Polish family reunited after the end of World War II. Janusz was a soldier in the army while his wife and son, Silvana and Aurek, were run out of Warsaw and lived in the forest for years. After six years of being apart, the family is reunited and live in England. There, they have a nice house with a proper English garden and kindly neighbors. But it is still a struggle to move on with their lives after the horrors they have each seen. Throughout the book, the underlying questions is this: does living in a house with a garden enough to make a family? Can a new car or an education for Aurek erase the past enough to build a future?

Told in alternating points of view and through flashbacks throughout the war, 22 Britannia Road shows a wide portrait of the effects of WWII – effects both immediate and lasting. An image that stays with me is that of Silvana cutting the pictures of lost and orphaned children from the newspapers, and sleeping with them under her pillow so the grey ink stains her hands and her pillowcase. The imagery throughout is lovely, haunting and often heartbreaking. But through the course of the story, Hodgkinson shows the resilience of the human spirit and love. Wonderfully written, 22 Britannia Road hits home.

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Peach Crisp

It’s peach season, people, and peaches are one of my favorite things on the planet. I eat them fresh like crazy, but sometimes you just need to bake something, am I right? So here’s a recipe for peach crisp that is easy and dee-lish. My first bite made me go, “day-yum.” Emphasis on the “yum.” Plus it’s easy. Bonus!

Peach Crisp

4-5 cups peaches, chopped (skin left on)
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Topping

1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 stick cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Instructions

Make the crisp topping: mix together the flour and brown sugar. Add the butter, cutting in using a pastry cutter, two knives, or a food processor. The mixture should be the texture of fine crumbs. Stir in the walnuts.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Toss the peaches, flour, sugar and cinnamon together in a large bowl. Transfer peach mixture to an 8×10 baking pan and spread evenly. Sprinkle the crisp topping over the fruit, covering the entire surface. Bake on the center rack for 30-35 minutes, until the topping is browned and the fruit juices bubble up through the topping.


In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

The year is 1933, and William E. Dodd has been appointed American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany by President Roosevelt. Before setting sail for Berlin, Dodd takes Roosevelt’s instructions to heart: to uphold American values. Thus, in the face of the economic hardships crippling the U.S., Dodd decides he and his family will live on his regular salary of just over 17,000 dollars – much to the chagrin of the State Department and the “Pretty Good Club” of independently wealthy Harvard graduates that made up the bulk of consular service. Dodd makes a fascinating ambassador: he is either completely inept, or totally brilliant. The truth is not always clear; however, he does his very best to carry out the task he believes Roosevelt set him, even in the face of an ever-strengthening Third Reich. Dodd’s daughter, Martha, is the second central figure. She has a brilliant social life, rubbing shoulders with members of the foreign press and important Nazi officials – even the surprisingly moral and upright chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.

It is an unsettling read in many ways. First and foremost, In the Garden of Beasts (by Erik Larson) is a work of non-fiction. There are quotes throughout which illuminate some truths from that era: for example, the tide of anti-Semitism throughout the United States – including many prominent members of the federal government. Perhaps the most unsettling thing is reading about how Hitler was able to rise to such extreme power without anyone stepping in from outside to stop him. The signs were there, though carefully concealed behind a thin veneer of “normalcy” experienced by American visitors to Germany during the early 1930s. Even Martha Dodd is originally seduced by the apparent loveliness of Germany and the Nazi party’s efforts to create a “better Germany.” Only after many months living in Berlin does the truth become evident to Martha and the rest of the Dodds: that Germany is gearing up for war. And even then, Dodd’s reports to the State Department – and, indeed, to Roosevelt himself – are ignored or dismissed as overly dramatic, based on the reports of short-term visitors to Germany. Amid the Americans’ strong isolationist bent, the truth about Hitler and Germany was suppressed or ignored in order to keep the country out of “European squabbles.” It seems incredible that the leaders of the 1930s truly believed that appeasement – just giving Hitler what he wanted – could solve the “Jewish problem,” as the growing persecution of Jewish people was known.

Both terrifying and fascinating, In the Garden of Beasts offers a real-life narrative of life in Berlin as Hitler rose to power, peopled not only with the Dodds and their friends and colleagues, but also with those such as Goring, Goebbels, Himmler, and Hitler himself. Fear, uncertainty and paranoia permeate the events of the book, instilling in the reader a faint semblance of what life was like during Hitler’s rise.


The Coffee Trader, by David Liss

I first heard of David Liss while listening to a program on either MPR or NPR – I can’t remember which. In any case, they were discussing his forthcoming new book, The Twelfth Enchantment, and I was intrigued. At the library not long after, I went to see which of Liss’ books were in the collection. They had several, and I chose The Coffee Trader, one of his older works, figuring if I liked it I could work my way up to his more recent novels.

Indeed, I liked The Coffee Trader. It was perhaps a little more simplistic in style than the books I’ve read recently (i.e. the poetic language throughout White Oleander), but overall it was an interesting piece of historical fiction surrounding the introduction of coffee into major European markets in the mid-1600s. The plot itself was interesting and tense, but the characters fell a little flat. The main character, Miguel, was not fully fleshed out, and as a result I felt little connection to him. Hannah, Miguel’s sister-in-law, was an intriguing character, however, as a woman divided in many areas of her life: duties as a wife vs. attraction to Miguel; desire to be a meek wife vs. desire to learn; the Catholic faith of her childhood vs. the abrupt revelation of her true Jewish heritage. Alferonda is another interesting character – he is neither good nor evil; having been wronged by his community, he has made the most of his life and become a puppet-master of sorts. The plot delivers twist after twist until the very end, making it an exciting and compulsive read. I read it in two days; it is by no means a difficult read.*

I’ll be returning to the library for more of Liss’ books in the future.

*Especially if, like me, you skim over the economics parts that explain the Dutch stock exchange in the 1650s.


Cucumber Boats; or, Some Experiments are Bound to Fail

I went to my little vegetable garden last night and came back with a basket of cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. I knew just what to do with the cherry tomatoes: Vegetarian Tortellini Salad. (I admit, I’ve been largely subsisting on this dish lately. I just can’t get enough of it.) But as for the cucumbers, I was a little overwhelmed. I’ve been pulling cukes out of the garden for weeks now, and I’m a little (read: really) tired of eating them raw as slices. And the cukes I picked last night were enormous; there were 3 I couldn’t wrap my hand around, and they were probably as long as my forearm.

I looked for a few recipes online, but most were more involved than I was willing to try last night. Some called for cream cheese, which I love, and I figured I would make something up. Thus, my version of Cucumber Boats.

It was not my finest dish.

It was easy to prepare and sounded tasty. I had high hopes. Some experiments are just destined to fail. Here is the recipe. If you have a great cucumber recipe, send it over. Please. I’m begging you.

Cucumber Boats

1 medium cucumber
about 2 tablespoons cream cheese
Italian Herbs*

Cut the ends off of the cucumber, and slice lengthwise. With a small spoon, scrape out the seeds. In a small bowl, mix the cream cheese with the herbs. I just kept adding more sprinkles of herbs until it looked pretty good and…herb-y. Liberally smear the herbed cream cheese into the hollowed-out cucumbers.

*I have a little jar in the spice drawer called Italian Herbs. Pretty sure it’s basil, oregano, maybe parsley, etc.


White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, is practically prose poetry the whole way through. The language is rich and textured, rendering the details of each scene in heartrending detail. The story follows Astrid Magnussen, whose mother, Ingrid, is a poet who tells Astrid they are descended from Vikings. Ingrid despises weakness and worships strength and intelligence – especially her own. When she is rejected by a lover, she is driven mad and kills the man, landing herself in prison and Astrid in foster care. There follows six years of foster homes for Astrid, from the cruel to the ignorant to one tender woman that Astrid actually comes to love. Tied to her mother’s legacy and harshness through letters and a few visits to the prison, Astrid struggles to find herself and peace with the world as she grows from girl to woman.

The whole book is heart wrenching. At times, Astrid is strong, at others she is weak; she is human. As the story progresses, I found myself perched on the edge of my seat, just waiting for the next disaster to befall Astrid. This is fabulous writing, since it conveys Astrid’s own fear and sense that everything is temporary to the reader. At times, I was tripped up by the choppiness of the prose, but the vast majority of it is expressive, poetic, and emotional. I was unsure as I neared the end of the book how the story could possibly end with any sort of finality,* but ultimately it was wrapped up in such a way that I was satisfied with Astrid’s development as a character, the events surrounding her mother’s trial, and the forecasted future for Astrid.

*Not, of course, that finality at the end of a novel is a necessity. Some books simply end – and that bugs me.


Carrot Cake Cupcakes

My sister’s favorite kind of cake is carrot cake, so for her bridal shower I decided it would be nice to make carrot cake cupcakes. I’d never made carrot cake in any way, shape or form before, so I scoured the internet for a recipe that looked simple and good.* Dear ol’ Martha Stewart came through for me. My first time making carrot cake cupcakes turned out to be a banging success. The cupcakes were moist, sweet and spicy, and a huge hit with all the guests.

*It’s my strong belief that the best dishes – whether a main course, breakfast, or dessert – are made from simple, whole ingredients. You won’t find many ingredients in my kitchen that can’t be found at the local Cub Foods.

Carrot Cake Cupcakes

1 pound medium carrots, peeled and shredded (I did this by hand with a cheese grater)
3 large eggs, room temperature
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup golden raisins (optional; I used them and liked it)
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
Cream cheese frosting (recipe to follow)
Shredded toasted coconut (recipe to follow)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 standard muffin tins with paper liners. In a bowl, whisk together carrots, eggs, sugar, oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and raisins. In another bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Stir flour mixture into carrot mixture until well combined. Divide batter among muffin cups, filling each 3/4 full. Bake, rotating tins halfway through, until testers inserted into centers come out clean, 23 to 28 minutes. Let cool in tins on wire racks, 10 minutes. Turn out cupcakes onto wire racks, and let cool completely. Unfrosted cupcakes can be stored overnight at room temperature, or frozen for up to 2 months in airtight containers. Frost cupcakes with cream cheese frosting (recipe below). Frosted cupcakes can be refrigerated for up to 3 days; bring to room temperature, and sprinkle with toasted coconut (recipe below), pressing gently to adhere.

Cream Cheese Frosting

2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
12 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
4 cups (1 lb.) powdered sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat butter and cream cheese with an electric mixer until light and fluffy (2-3 minutes). Reduce speed to low. Add sugar, 1 cup at a time, and then vanilla; mix until smooth.

Toasted Coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spread coconut evenly on a baking sheet with a rim. Toast, stirring occasionally, until starting to brown, about 10 minutes (or longer if a darker color is desired). Transfer sheet to a wire rack; let coconut cool completely.