Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Books Bringing History to Life

Spring Break had me on a reading binge so while I haven't really cooked or baked anything special, I've spent many evenings curled up on the sofa with a stack of books.

History was my least favorite subject in school. Except maybe for PT (physical training) which was downright horrible, thanks to my inherent couch-potato-ness and the ill-tempered PT instructor Miss Ruby. But anyway, history class was tedious and I struggled to get it over with so I could get to the fun subjects like English and Biology. I wretchedly memorized seemingly random dates and wars and treaties without any context to what I was being made to learn.

It is only now, decades later, that I feel like I am re-learning history bit by bit, through books that are not history textbooks at all. Instead, they are novels set in particular historical periods, or mysteries set in foreign lands, or memoirs from a particular era. And thus, through the art of story-telling and the formation of an emotional connection, I am finally beginning to understand historical events and how they relate to politics and world events today. Here are three books I read last week, each of which provided a better history lesson than any textbook could.

Image: Goodreads
I have enjoyed all of Jhumpa Lahiri's books, especially her short stories, so I got into a months-long virtual queue at the library to get my hands on her latest novel, The Lowland. It has all the classic Jhumpa Lahiri features- roots in India, a move to the North-Eastern US, culture clash and a search for identity. All this is woven into a family saga spanning three generations.Two brothers grow up inseparable but their lives branch out as one gets entangled in the Bengali communist party and the dangerous and radical politics of the Naxalite movement while the other brother stays in the safety of academia and moves to the US. I've heard the word "Naxalite" hundreds of times without understanding at all what it was all about. This novel explained a great deal of the history and politics behind that movement. The story, however, was too heavy and sad. The characters too unwilling to change their situation. An emotional read, but I just wish the emotions were not all oppressively negative.

Image: Goodreads
Communism is also front and center in Anya Von Bremzen's Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. The title is rich with irony, and the book is a highly personal, searing and funny romp through nearly a century of life in Soviet Russia- in Bremzen's words:  "All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion...Inevitably, a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing, of unrequited desire. So what happens when some of your most intense culinary memories involve foods you hadn't actually tasted? Memories of imaginings, of received histories; feverish collective yearning produced by seventy years of geopolitical isolation and scarcity..."

This book made me so nostalgic. You see, a few decades ago, India and Russia were socialist allies with a great deal of so-called cultural exchange: Russian book fairs in India and Hindi movie stars idolized in Russia, that sort of thing. The newspapers were full of mentions of Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika. I grew up with Russian children's literature and a subscription to a Russian magazine called Misha. And their books and illustrations were quite rich and fantastic and very un-Disney if you know what I mean. The Adventures of Dennis (there was no menace with this Dennis, mind you) was my favorite Russian-translated book- and look, I found it reviewed here. My parents who are not known for throwing away things probably still have it. I remember a story where young Dennis asks his friend, "What are your favorite things?" The friend answered with a long list of irresistible food items that goes on for two whole pages. After this breathless menu recitation, the friend asks the same question to Dennis who says, "I like kittens. And grandma". Such a funny-sweet-sad story of children who know quite a bit of hunger and scarcity. Bremzen's memoir explained exactly what the country was going through to produce a story like that.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking has a whole chapter on the favorite Soviet celebratory dish Salat Olivier or what I knew as my mother's Russian salad- cubes of boiled potato, carrot, peas and pineapple chunks suspended in a homemade mayo dressing. Bremzen's book will be one of my favorite reads of 2014.

Image: Goodreads
War and unrest through a child's eyes. This theme comes to life yet again in the graphic novel, A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return by Zeina Abirached. The bold and beautiful black-white illustrations are a contrast to grimy, war-torn Beirut described in the book, which talks about a single evening in the life of young Zeina and her family and their neighbors, huddled from the bombing in the foyer of their apartment. Behind the anecdote was a history lesson in the 15 year long civil war of Lebanon. And by the way, for you time-pressed folks, this is a short graphic novella that you can devour in an hour or two.

This beautiful and touching book reminded me strongly of a friend in graduate school (we've since lost touch) who was born and raised in Beirut during this 15 year period. War was a fact of life for him; after all, he knew nothing else until he was a teenager. He told me that night after night, his mother would serve dinner during the ceasefire. When he moved in his teens to a place where there was no war, he wondered, "If there's no ceasefire, how do people know when to eat dinner?" I remember when he told me this, I felt such a pang of pain in my heart. Please can we stop waging wars?

That's three memorable books and I have several more that I'm looking forward to. What are you reading these days?

Monday, March 03, 2014

The List: February 2014

February may be the shortest month but around here it was an action-packed one with snow days and guests providing the most memorable moments.

Eating winter fruit salad- apples, clementines and dried cranberries. Rinsing the apple cubes in some lemon (or vinegar) water helped the salad stay fresh-looking even when I made it hours ahead of time.

The best things I ate all month: potato bourekas (baked puff pastry turnovers) made by my Israeli friend's mother and potato pierogis (doughy dumplings) made by a co-worker's mother using their traditional Polish recipe. Yes, it was the season of potato pastries made using old recipes by moms!

The most successful experiment of the month was lemon curd- a tangy and smooth dessert sauce. And the amazing thing is that this lemon curd is made in the microwave. The original recipe made a rather large batch and I wondered if I could cut it to a third. Dessert sauces can be a bit fussy and there's guarantee that fractions of recipes will work. But you know how I am- always living on the edge- and this time it worked. I cut it to a third for a smaller batch and it still worked beautifully and took 5 minutes tops.

Baking a berry yogurt cake. I used frozen berries because, well, have you looked out of the window? This is an easy, beginner-friendly cake and quite flexible- for instance, I used ricotta and homemade yogurt instead of milk and Greek yogurt, and subbed almond flour for 1/4 cup of the AP flour.

The lemon curd was whisked with whipped cream as a topping for this cake, and honestly the tangy lemon curd with the tangy berry cake did not quite work for me- too much tang all around. Next time I'll use them separately.

Making itty bitty hearts: A February list cannot be complete without a liberal sprinkling of red and pink hearts, can it? I made these tiny, puffy felt heart-shaped pins for her to give to her classmates for the preschool valentine exchange. The pattern is here on Purl Bee, but I used blanket stitch for edging.

Feb 14 is also International Book Giving Day and all the kids in Lila's class were asked to bring a gently used book from home to exchange with each other. Between valentine exchanges and book exchanges, it was a fun and busy day at school.

Sewing for superheroes: Our local domestic violence shelter gives out superhero capes to kids who come through their program as a way of offering them support and strength (and a bit of fun) during this very difficult time in their lives. They were looking for volunteers to sew some of the capes for them. I used this pattern and made a few. They provided us with this shiny, slippery fabric to make into capes. The stuff was a total pain to sew (it is not well-behaved like cotton) but after some teeth-gnashing I did get them done.

When 2 inches of snow/ice (what? don't laugh) brought life to a standstill for 4 or 5 days, a friend and her family stayed with us- they had issues with the heat in their house. We had to work overtime to keep the kids from going stir-crazy. I taught my friend's 6 year old daughter to sew and we made a little bunting. This kid impressed me with her patience and perseverance- especially since she speaks no English yet (only Hebrew) and I was teaching her using a strange language of gestures and nods.

Knitting a scarf/cowl- a gift for a friend. It looks like a shawl when worn but slips over the head and stays on without a fuss. The pattern is called Zuzu's petals and it was a joy to knit. If you've seen the movie It's a Wonderful Life, you'll remember the reference for Zuzu's petals.

Image: Goodreads
Reading Stephen King's On Writing. The first half of the book is a memoir of King's writing life- his childhood, his early fascination with pulpy horror movies, his earliest writing, his battles with addiction. The second half is a writing seminar with advice for aspiring writers: "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut".
 I've read a couple of King's novels and I find them highly uneven- I love parts of them and the others drag on or seem outlandish (this is strange since millions of people clearly love his work.) But this book I did like from start to finish.

Enjoying the unique interaction between toddler and dog.

Lila's first chore- a daily task that she does almost every morning and evening since she turned ~2- is to feed Duncan. She picks up his bowl, walks to the closet where we store the food, V or I open the closet, then she scoops food into his bowl, asking "More?" after every scoop. We say "More please" and then "Bas" (hindi for enough). Then she closes the door, carefully walks back with the bowl and puts it in Dunkie's spot and tells him, "Enjoy your khaana, Dunkie" which is his cue to start scarfing down the food (khaana is Hindi for food.)

I am always amazed at how patiently Duncan will wait for as long as it takes Lila to do her thing- sometimes, spilling some kibbles, sometimes getting distracted for a minute with something else. But she does it- and takes pride in caring for and feeding a family member just as adults do for her.

Duncan finishes his meal in record time (seconds, literally), then comes back to find Lila. He does this unfailingly after every meal- walking to whoever fed him and sitting down next to them- it feels like a thank you gesture. And then he usually burps!

One Hot Stove will be on Spring Break next week and I'll see you in two weeks. Meanwhile, do share in the comments what you've been eating, cooking, baking, reading, watching, making and enjoying this February