Saturday, March 29, 2014

Book Review: Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

A Female Pope? Who Knew!

I started this book without any expectations but may have assumed in the beginning that this was a book about Joan of Arc. However, I was surprised to learn that this account of a girl who disguises herself as a man and eventually becomes Pope may indeed be based on a historic figure.

Joan is the third child and only daughter to a strict English father and a Saxon woman. Religion plays an important part in Joan's early life as her father is a canon and focuses on grooming his eldest son to be a religious scholar. Joan is destined for a life of abuse but demonstrates early on that she has a thirst for learning. She learns how to read and write and finds ways to continue learning. Eventually she ends up in a school as the only girl and has to face a new set of challenges.

That Joan ends up the Pope is a fascinating tale even if it is historical fiction and may or may not be true. This is a wonderful story that brings the Dark Ages to the forefront and really exposes the way women were treated and the fears and superstitions of the religious community.

Book Review: Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

I should start this review with the acknowledgement that I am a huge fan of this author. Ever since I stumbled on Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen I have been hooked. She hasn't written a huge inventory of books yet so I have been known to read them slowly to savor them.

What makes her books so wonderful, in my opinion, is the combination of some consistent elements to the stories. Typically there is a heroine featured who has a capacity for strength that she is not aware of who goes through a journey of self discovery. There is romance that is not really overt but weaved into the story. The supernatural always plays a role in Allen's books, without focusing on the paranormal, including different forms of ghosts or spirits as well as touches of other magic.

In this particular story Kate awakens to full consciousness about a year after her husband suddenly dies. She find herself in a new world that has been created by her mother in law while she was not fully present. This includes the sale of her family home, a new job in her mother in law's realty company, and her creative free spirited 8 year old daughter Devin enrolled in a private school with a uniform. It's the morning that Kate is supposed to move in with her mother in law when her daughter discovers an old postcard that had been hidden in the attic beneath other family treasures in a trunk that is from Kate's great aunt Aunt Eby from her resort property called Lost Lake.

So begins the journey to the decaying Lost Lake with little cabins set in the swamplands of the south. Kate and Devin meet a host of characters include Aunt Eby who is planning on selling the resort, along with community members, staff, and guests that are all a little quirky and full of personality. Kate also finds herself remembering a long lost summer that was a highlight of her childhood that was full of a lot of sadness, and comes face to face with the boy who she shared adventures with during that time. Memories are an important part of this book, as well as rewriting the story by taking control of your life. That comes up with many of the characters in this story, not just with Kate.

All of this being said, I enjoyed this book but it wasn't my favorite one by this author. It may be that I am too demanding and have such high expectations because I look forward to her new book releases. I felt that this book could have provided a lot more and perhaps there were actually too many characters and it took away for the stories of Kate and Devin. Despite all of this, I really did enjoy this book and it was a fast read (even if I tried to savor it) and I ended up cheering for Kate to find true happiness and love.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Book Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

A Classic Looking at the Debauchery of the 1920's Jazz Age

I am sure that many of you have already read this book and myself included. However, sometimes, depending on the particular circumstances at a given time, a book offers a new perspective. The first time I read this book was in my early 20's while I was in college for literature course and while I couldn't remember the details of my impressions from that time I remembered that I liked it then.

I have read a lot of books since then and of course have transitioned to several phases in my life throughout the passage of time. There have been quite a few books over the years, and even recently, that have reminded me for some reason or another about this one and in some way.

Add to this last year's renewed interest in this story with the release of the move with Leonardo Dicaprio and Tobey Maguire. I had planned on seeing it at some point but wanted to reread the book before doing so.

This books holds up. It was an easy read, but I required me to look up a couple of the definitions as obviously expressions and our choice of words have changed over time. The book is told from the perspective of Nick Carraway who seems to have traveled East for a new start and is working in some mundane position related to bonds. He lives in the poorer section of Long Island, in a rented house in West Egg. However, his neighbor, Jay Gatsby lives life in the most extravagant ways. The home is the site of some wild parties full of excess that go on throughout the night and into morning, with many of the more respected rich citizens of the East Egg in attendance. It is interesting to watch as the snobbery of East Egg are more than happy to partake in these events offered by their host but still manage to look down upon him as not one of them.

Through the course of the story we learn why Gatsby has come to this location to live and how most of the course of his life was a design to achieve an ultimate goal in winning back Daisy Buchanan, the love of his life. Years ago, Jay Gatsby was a poor solider scheduled to go to battle when he met Daisy, a young socialite in Louisville. He fell in love with her and went to war. Daisy on the other hand eventually married the wealthy Tom Buchanan and had a child. Gatsby discovers where she lives and sets up in a home directly across the Long Island Sound so that he can view her home from where his stands.

Daisy's life is not necessarily a happy one and certainly her marriage to Tom is less than ideal but in reading the book this time around I felt that she would never leave Tom for passion. The riches of her life, and her ability to do basically nothing to guarantee her comforts, is not something she would give up. I think she would prefer to turn a blind eye to her husband's history of infidelities and his lack of respect for the sake of appearances as well as wealth. When Gatsby reappears in her life I think she sees him more as a diversion than a future, and she is more than happy to make him her own toy much like her husband has done with women over the years.

I think that this book has a lot of themes that have been dissected over the years but one of my general impressions was that this book was a lot about contrasts. Rich vs. Poor, New Rich vs. Old Money, Passion vs. Love, and then some more complex ones with the other relationships going on in the story.

I have a feeling that my first read of this book I felt a strong sense that Daisy was a heroine and that she should end up with Gatsby and leave her old life behind that bound her. This time I was not interested in her ultimate happiness but felt that Gatsby was a sad soul who was never happy with what he had. In the end he paid the ultimate price for his love for her that was not returned.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Book Review: In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin

Do Not Read this Book!

That should be my complete review of this book because frankly I feel like I have wasted a lot of time reading it. 

You might ask my why as I have been known to give a book about 50 pages before I bail and put it down. I often do that because life is too short to read bad books and because if I'm not reading for some academic course, and this isn't related to my job,  I simply don't have to feel the need to complete it.

Unfortunately, the first 100 or so pages of this book was phenomenal and it drew me in. I really liked the our hero, newly returned WWII Veteran Harry Copeland and rooted for him as he discovered true love with Catherine Hale. I found the meeting of these two people from vastly different backgrounds who found a world together.

Something happened after 100 pages. The story seemed to turn and the plot went into a direction that was different in tone and not as magical. Yet, I continued on because I felt I owed it to Harry and Catherine. Over time, the author wasn't as lyrical anymore but just plain old boring, with pages and pages of description and dialogue that frankly just didn't matter.

At about page 400 I began skimming pages, often skipping five of them at a time to just get through this because I felt invested. It was NOT worth it and the ending was even worse than I had anticipated. I felt cheated.

It usually takes me only a few days to finish a book but this has been about two weeks. Ick.

Awesome Corned Beef and Cabbage. . .

. . . Slow Cooker Recipe with Apple Juice and Beer,

AND Finished with Apricot Mustard Glaze

Core Ingredients for the Crock Pot

I supposed I could have put all of that in the post title but I don't think it would fit, so "Awesome" to draw you in will have to work.


Cooking in a slow cooker is obviously used in most recipes to cook a recipe over a long period of time with a little less effort. Truly, because of timing on a Sunday filled with errands (including going to get the Corned Beef), I didn't start this until early afternoon so I cooked the dish on high. Truthfully, because I glaze the corned beef after cooking, I guess that there is a little more effort and work but I think it's worth it. To be completely honest, I have never cooked the corned beef in a pot per the directions on the package because I think it tastes so good and is so soft and tender when you make it in the crock pot.


I have referred to a lot of recipes over the years to complete the crock pot portion of cooking, using bits of this one or that one to come up with my own version of slow cooker corned beef. Two of my inspirations over the years have been  the Apple and Brown Sugar Corned Beef at Southern Food as well as Corned Beef and Cabbage Dinner for the Slow Cooker at Recipes. I like portions of both recipes but there were things that I wanted to add to make it even better and some timing considerations. I really like the use of apple juice rather than water and by adding a bottle of beer, I think it's even better. The first recipe had a lot of juice with I liked and the cabbage was cut into chunks to cook with the corned beef so it got very soft. However, I did not like the addition of mustard in the crock pot and thought the brown sugar made it too sweet without it. The second recipe calls for you to remove the corned beef and keep it warm, then add the wedges of cabbage to the crock pot at the very end. I found that the cabbage did not cook enough a couple years back with this method. That recipe also did not have an onion and the apple juice was diluted with water.

To start, I prepared all of my vegetables. I cut the large white onion into eighths that naturally fell apart. The small redskin potatoes were quartered and I also cut up a small head of cabbage after peeling back a couple of outside layers. The carrots. . . well, I cheated with the carrots. Trader Joe's has carrots already washed, peeled and cut so I could not resist. Typically I use baby carrots because it avoids all that work but I think that the larger carrots are sometimes tastier and won't be as mushy after being cooked.

Layered vegetables, add the corned beef, and then the seasoning and liquids.

After preparing the vegetables, I placed them in the crock pot. Potatoes and onions went on the very bottom, followed by carrots and then topped with cabbage. I then placed the corned beef down on the bed of vegetables and wedged more cabbage around it. I sprinkled about half of the enclosed seasoning packet on top of the corned beef and then added a bottle of beer. I then filled the rest of the crock pot with apple juice until it reached the top. I placed the lid on top, trying to get a good fit, and then set the timer for five hours on high.

Now this is the challenging part. . . not opening the lid! I recently read an article where removing the lid during cooking was one of the pitfalls in slow cooker cooking. I believe that they actually stated that every time you lift the lid you are adding an extra half hour to the cooking time. So today I demonstrated restraint - which is difficult for me - and did not peek, stir, sniff or add anything once I put that lid on.


So five hours later. . . 

Five Hours on High Heat - No peeking!
I really did let the food go without touching it once in the five hours! I am really proud of myself - I need to add that. This is what the dish looked like when I lifted the lid for the first time.

Glaze Ingredients
I removed the corned beef and put it in a pan lined with heavy duty foil and let it rest for a few minutes while I prepared the glaze to finish the meat up.

In a small bowl, I combined the Apricot Preserves, Rice Wine Vinegar, and the Dijon Mustard. I add a little of the vinegar to add some tartness but also to make it easier to mix.

I then spooned the glaze on the corned beef and placed the pan in a preheated oven at 375 degrees. I watched it carefully to ensure it didn't burn and basted the glaze on to the corned beef every five minutes or so. Total time in the oven was about 15 minutes.

Glazed Corned Beef

I let it cool a bit so the glaze would harden and then served it with the vegetables still warm in the crock pot.

Awesome Corned Beef and Cabbage Recipe

Slow Cooker

1 Package of Corned Beef with Seasoning Packet (I used Sy Ginsburg)
1 Small Head of Green Cabbage, cut into chunks
2 lbs Small Redskin Potatoes, quartered
1 Large Yellow Onion, cut into eights
2 Cups Carrots, peeled and cut into sections
1 Bottle of Beer
3 Cups of Apple Juice

1 Cup Apricot Preserves
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1 teaspoon Rice Wine Vinegar



Line bottom of the crock pot with the potatoes and onions, layer with carrots and then top with cabbage. Add corned beef, fat side down. Sprinkle with about half of the seasoning packet. Add the bottle of beer and then the apple juice until you reach the top. Place lid on top and cook for 4-5 hours on high, or alternately on low for about 10 hours.

Remove corned beef from crock pot and place in a lined pan and let it rest for about five minutes. Combine the glaze ingredients and spoon over the meat. Place in a 375 degree oven for about 15 minutes, basting every five minutes or so. Let cool before slicing. Plate with crock pot vegetables that are removed from the pot with a slotted spoon.