Friday Book Whimsy: And the Winner Is…..

Back in June, I wrote a blog post in which I admitted that I had just learned that PBS was sponsoring a contest of sorts in which people would vote for their favorite book. Through some process that I never bothered to research, 100 books were nominated by readers like you and me as their favorite book — as my 8-year–old granddaughter Mylee would say — in the whole entire world. Let me remind you that it was expressly defined as the favorite book and not the best book. As such, books such as Fifty Shades of Gray and The Notebook were among the 100 that were nominated. As Jerry Seinfeld would say, not that there’s anything wrong with them.

Each day, readers were invited to vote for our favorite or favorites. I will admit that most days I forgot to vote. I will also admit that every day that I remembered to vote, I voted for the same book — Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. Haters, don’t hate. I am a sucker for that book. It’s got everything: a dashing hero (never mind that he actually ends up being a murderer), a lovely, yet wimpering heroine (who remains nameless throughout — as Mylee would say — the whole entire book), an evil housekeeper (who may or may not have been one of Rebecca’s lovers), and a beautiful mansion on the shores of the raging sea in Cornwall, England (because Manderley, you see is most assuredly a character in the book. Rebecca has one of the best opening lines in any book: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”)

Alas, Rebecca did not win. And it probably didn’t deserve that honor, despite this reader’s love for the cleverly-written and decidedly creepy story. Instead, the winner was To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Pulitzer-prize winning novel by Harper Lee has been newsworthy for nearly 60 years. Most recently, a school district in Canada has banned the book from its curriculum, saying it is racist and hurtful to African American students. I choose not to weigh in on that controversy at this point but (cough) bulldoodoo.

Here are how some of my favorite books that were included among the 100 nominees fared: Little Women came in 8th; Jane Eyre was in the 10th spot; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was number 13, and Then There Were None took 19th place. As for Rebecca, it did quite well, landing in spot number 25. As for Fifty Shades of Gray, it was 86th out of the 100 on the list.   

Click here for a complete list of the results.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Great American Read

I consider myself to be an avid reader. There’s never a time when I’m not in process of reading a book. When I used to commute for my job, I always listened to unabridged books on tape. So at that time, I always had at least two books going at all times.

I’m also a fan of PBS, particularly their mysteries. I believe I’ve watched nearly all of the detectives solve hundreds of murders. Inspector Lynch. Inspector Morse. Inspector Lewis.  Inspector  Foyle. Every Agatha Christie from Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot.

And yet. AND YET. I knew nothing about the fact that PBS is sponsoring The Great American Read. Thank goodness for Facebook. It seems when they aren’t busy prying into our private lives, they actually can deliver some worthwhile information. A feed from which I learned about The Great American Read is an example of worthwhile information.

Kicked off late in May, PBS is giving readers the opportunity to vote for what they consider to be America’s Favorite Novel . There was a process out of which came a list of 100 novels. Readers are allowed to vote once each day through October 18, for a book from this list. Ultimately, readers will choose America’s Favorite Book. Ta da!

I enjoyed going down the list to see which books were selected as the top 100. I was surprised by some (50 Shades of Grey?) and nodded my approval of others (Rebecca, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Grapes of Wrath, Little Women). I wondered how certain books could not have been selected (Plainsong, The Good Earth, My Antonia).

Criteria included: only works of fiction, must have been published in English, and only one per author.

Perhaps my biggest surprise was the number of books on the list that I had NOT read. In fact, a quick count told me out of the 100 books, I have only read 37. And I read a lot. I was comforted somewhat by the fact that I had heard of all of the books, and most of the books I haven’t read were by choice. For example, while The Hunger Game series and the Twilight series are undoubtedly good, I have no interest. And Left Behind? Nope.

Take a gander at the links I have included, particularly the link to the 100 novels. How many have you read? I would love to hear your feedback on books chosen, books not chosen, and your personal favorites.

As for me, I have already put a couple of the books I haven’t read on hold at the library!

Friday Book Whimsy: The American Heiress

Still reeling from Downton Abbey withdrawal, I enjoyed watching PBS’s Victoria this past winter. Though based on a true story, there was enough romance and intrigue to keep me interested in a way that I wouldn’t have had it been a documentary. And as I watched the credits after the first episode, I saw that the series was based on a novel written by Daisy Goodwin. And I remembered that while I didn’t have that novel, I did own – and had owned for four or five years – another novel by that author called The American Heiress, a novel I had never gotten around to reading.

The American Heiress is the story of young Cora Cash, a New York socialite living in the late 1800s whose father was rich as triple chocolate fudge and who ran with the likes of the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. However, not being old money like the Astors, Cora’s mother thought the way to bring the family name up to that caliber was by having her beautiful daughter marry a British royal. A trip to England ensures that happens.

Cora’s wedding to Ivo, Duke of Warham, appears to be a perfect match. She gets a title and he gets all of that money to keep his dukedom running. And he’s so darn cute and she’s so darn pretty. But marriage to a royal when you are not only NOT nobility but not even British brings its own set of problems. And why is Ivo so quiet and withdrawn? Drama and intrigue abound. But also romance and the glorious upstairs/downstairs relationships we came to love with Downton Abbey.

The American Heiress is Goodwin’s first novel, and I found it to be captivating and interesting. The author sets the stage so clearly that I could practically smell the dust on the chandeliers. I was sorry it took me so long to finally read this book, and I will read Victoria next (even though I know FOR SURE how that one ends).

Highly recommend.

Here is a link to the book.

Thursday Thoughts

Can You Hear Me Now?
Sometimes I embrace technology; sometimes I want to throw my cell phone/iPad/laptop computer right out the window. Nevertheless, overall, I know technology has improved our lives. Still, my heart sinks when my cell phone rings, and, upon answering it, I get that dreaded quiet lull indicating a computer-generated voice will pipe up. The other day when my telephone rang, my phone showed it was a call from my primary care doctor’s office. That’s never good. But that dreaded lull came on just before a cheerful computer-generated voice said, “Hello. We are trying to reach Kristine McLain. Have we reached the right number?” “Yes,” I said firmly and clearly. “Is this Kristine McLain?” said the nonhuman voice. “Yes,” I yelled again. After several more attempts, I finally convinced the computer I was who they wanted. “Our records indicate you have not had your annual mammogram,” said the voice. “Is this true?” “No,” I yelled into the phone. “If this is not true,” said the voice, “please indicate verbally when you last had your mammogram by telling us the month and year.” So I said, “December 2016.” “You said December 2015. Is this correct?” “No,” I yelled into the phone. “If this is not correct, please tell us the month and year of your last mammogram,” said the voice. “December 2016,” I repeated, loudly enough that Bill looked in from outside where he was doing yard work to see with whom I was arguing. “You said December 2015. Is this correct?” And so on, until after three identical attempts, at which time the voice said, “It appears we are having trouble communicating. We will call you at a later time,” and disconnected. I considered calling my doctor back to talk to a human, but know full well that the place at which I had my recent mammogram had sent her my results. Unfortunately, no one told the computer. This odd encounter once again reminded me that I will not drive or ride in a driverless car until technology has succeeded in inventing a workable automated phone system.

All Hat and No Cows
Yesterday afternoon, Bill and I went to Jimmy John’s for lunch (his favorite). We decided we weren’t in the mood to go back to our house, so we decided to visit a place we’ve driven by many, many times, and each time we have said we should stop just for the fun of it, but never have. You will be surprised when I tell you it was a business called Tractor Supply Co. “I went to one of these kinds of stores once a long time ago, and got a bucket,” Bill said. And apparently he was in the market for a bucket once again. It was about what you would expect. Lots of tools, lots of animal feed, the makings for chicken coops, a small display of ranch clothes, and a large selection of buckets. Bill happily chose one, after taking a bit of time to decide between the black bucket and the red bucket. Hey, I’m not going to complain. I do the same thing at a kitchen supply store. For the record, he picked black. And he told me that his rancher friends would say that we were all hat and no cows. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, though admittedly he made me laugh.

Speaking Sharply
Last year very shortly after we arrived, Maggie’s husband Mark came to our house packing his knife sharpener. He commenced that day to sharpen all of our knives, much to my delight. So I began nagging him almost upon our arrival this year to once again sharpen our knives. His heart was willing from the get-go, but circumstances never allowed it to happen. Happily, day before yesterday, he and Austin appeared at our door with the knife sharpener. Maybe 10 minutes and a lot of whirring noises later, my knives were sharp and ready to go. He’s very kind to do this for his mother-in-law and his wife’s old auntie. Of course, it might have helped some that I threatened to stab him in the heart with my dull knife if he didn’t help me out soon.

Speaking of Love
While looking for something else altogether, I stumbled upon this old photo of the McLains when they were considerably younger. My heart just melted when I looked at it, and it melts every time I look at it again. I think I mostly love how Alastair has his head on Addie’s shoulder. Today? Wouldn’t happen….


Elementary, Dear Watson
I got hooked a few years ago on the PBS mystery series Sherlock (not to be confused with CBS’s Elementary). I’m pretty sure that a lot of the reason I was so taken was because I’m quite frankly very smitten with Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the famous detective. Smitten. Who uses that word anymore? Anyway, I don’t particularly think the actor is terribly good looking in any other role in which I’ve seen him; however, as the sherlock-1600x720great detective, he is simply dreamy. Dreamy. Who uses that word anymore? With the exception of one show that aired last January, PBS’s Sherlock has taken quite a break. So while I’m recording the program, I haven’t watched any of the new episodes yet. Instead, I am watching the old ones on Netflix to get caught up and back into the swing of things. And I had forgotten just how BIZARRE the show is. Bill watches bits and pieces and looks at me like what the….?  I might be getting too old for the program, but then there’s Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock. Dreamy.


Friday Book Whimsy: Agatha Christie’s The Monogram Murders: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery

imgresThe newest thing seems to be authors taking over the writing of popular mystery series after the original author dies. Ace Atkins continued Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series. More recently author Kyle Mills continued the iconic Mitch Rapp series originated by the late Vince Flynn. It is my understanding that these authors have continued the series with the deceased author’s family’s permission.

I wasn’t aware, however, that there was a new Hercule Poirot book. SERIOUSLY?????

I was amused to find out very recently about Sophie Hannah’s new addition to mystery writer extraordinaire Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series. The reason for my amusement was that it has been said that by the later books, Christie was sick and tired of the somewhat annoying little Belgian detective. She is to have said “he was a detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep.

But he was a detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep who I absolutely ADORED. As did many others. So I shouldn’t have been surprise to see this addition.

Since Christie famously killed off the detective in her final Poirot offering Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, I wasn’t sure how Hannah was going to handle the new Poirot mystery. As it turns out, it is not subsequent to Curtain. Instead, it is just folded into his earlier life.

Hercule Poirot as portrayed by David Suchet in the wonderful PBS long-running series.

Hercule Poirot as portrayed by David Suchet in the wonderful PBS long-running series.

I was excited when I first began reading The Monogram Murders, though slightly apprehensive about another author besides Christie presenting Poirot, both in his appearance and actions, and by how the mystery would unfold. As much as I read mysteries, I admit I was rarely able to figure out the murderer in any of Christie’s books. Cheers to Dame Christie.

I started out optimistically, but I’m afraid I was soon disappointed. As hard as Hannah worked at presenting a reasonable imitation of the famous detective, it’s not surprising that she fell just short of success. Poirot did things in this book that he simply wouldn’t have done. It is hard to put my finger on what I mean, but if you are a fan of Poirot, you will understand. So then he was simply a detestable little creep.

Poirot has a new sidekick in this mystery, a Scotland Yard detective named Catchpool, and he is certainly no Arthur Hastings. I found him to be both unlikable and quite inept. It’s true Captain Hastings was not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but you couldn’t help but like him. Poirot and Catchpool worked together to solve the mystery of the murder of three people from the same small English village who share a dastardly secret.

I found the ending particularly unsatisfactory. One of Christie’s many strengths was that she could wrap it all up so satisfactorily, and all of the clues she sneakily placed throughout the book suddenly made sense. Hannah was not successful in this effort. The ending was frankly, terrifically confusing and chaotic. I found myself skimming the last confusing chapters because by that point I didn’t care who killed whom.

I’m thinking this might be the last attempt at adding to Hercule Poirot’s legacy.

Here is a link to the book.


Cooking Teachers

I’m not sure I can entirely remember what life was like prior to Food Network. This fact, of course, isn’t exactly surprising since I can’t remember where I park my car at the mall. The irony I’m afraid is that I CAN remember my home telephone number from when I was a 6 years old and the words to all of the songs from the 1960s. Sigh. Way to waste those important brain cells.

I guess our parents used those funny things called cookbooks. They didn’t have anyone to teach them to cook from their little black and white television sets. Well, except for Julia Child. And I don’t know about anyone else’s mom, but my mom didn’t particularly want to learn to cook French food. I would have liked to seen the look on my dad’s face should mom have plopped sole meuniere in front of him one night.

My mom says she learned to cook from my paternal grandmother (her mother died at a very young age). I learned to cook by watching my mother. And more recently from watching Food Network and PBS cooking shows.

It used to be that Food Network consisted almost entirely of actual cooking shows. Nowadays, you can find a few cooking shows on during the day, but nighttime consists entirely of competition shows. They don’t particularly interest me. So I mostly watch during the day. Ree Drummond, Trisha Yearwood, Ina Garten, Giada De Laurentiis. Others.

If I’m to tell you the entire truth, most of the stars of the shows drive me crazy. I can’t imagine cooking showing as much cleavage as does Giada, if for no other reason than that I would undoubtedly splash my chest with hot bacon grease. I sometimes think that if Ina Garten says “How (fill in the blank) is that?” one more time, I will throw my coveted seasoned cast iron skillet through the television screen.

But I have learned things from all of these Food Network and PBS cooks that I think has made me a better cook. Here’s a few of the things I have learned…..

Ina Garten: As annoyed as I get when the Barefoot Contessa instructs us to use “really good wine” or “good vanilla” or, as in one recipe, “really good saffron” (as if you should spend even more on an ingredient that already requires you to pawn your wedding ring to buy), I have learned that she is right that the better the ingredients, the better the final result. But the way I look at it, it doesn’t mean you have to fly to Madagascar to pick up a bottle of vanilla. It means, if possible, buy real vanilla extract as opposed to vanilla flavoring.

Paula Deen: Paula’s use of butter is (and I think was meant to be) ridiculous. But she taught me not to be afraid to use butter in my recipes. It simply tastes better. I also learned the easiest way to prepare collard greens – fold them in half and pull the leaves off the stem in one fell swoop.

Giada De Laurentiis: Despite my constant annoyance with her cleavage and the fact that she won’t simply say “spaghetti” or “fettucine” the way we do, she has taught me to use the freshest ingredients possible. Recently, she made a pasta red sauce that looked delicious, and she threw the rind of a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano into the sauce to flavor it. I will definitely give that a try. Giada also uses a lot of fresh fennel, and once I gave it a try when using one of her salad recipes that included fennel and grapefruit, I was hooked. Yum.

Ree Drummond: The Pioneer Woman has given me permission to use store-bought ingredients. Though Ina Garten must turn her nose up at Ree Drummond, I love that Ree will open up a box of chicken broth or use a jar of store-bought pesto.  If she can do it, so can I! It makes me happy to see her use her cast iron skillet so often because it’s one of my favorite cooking utensils. I couldn’t live without it. I love her 16-minute meals. Next to Lidia, I probably use more of the Pioneer Woman’s recipes than any other.

Lidia Bastianich: I left Lidia until last because, well, you know. I want her to adopt me. She speaks to me. For example, the day after I burned my hand because I grabbed the handle of a pan that I had taken out of the oven a minute or so before, she told me, “Kris, make sure when you take something out of the oven, you place a towel on it to remind yourself and others that it is hot.” (Well, she might not have directed it specifically to me, but she said it on her show the next day, and I know she meant it for me.) She has taught me not to fear anchovies but to embrace them as a rich and salty seasoning that melts in your fry pan and therefore won’t scare others, who will simply wonder why your sauce is so good. I also learned to salt my food as I cook, every time I add an ingredient or move to a new step. (If you fear oversalting, place the amount of salt you want to use in a little bowl and take from that. That’s what Lidia told me.) And maybe my favorite instruction from her is, “Clean hands are your best kitchen tool.” Amen.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Lidia recipes…..

Pasta with Baked Cherry Tomatoes, courtesy Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, Lidia Bastianich

3 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
½ c. plus 1 T extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 c. fine dry bread crumbs
1 t. kosher salt, plus more for the pasta pot
¼ t. pepperoncino flakes, or to taste
1 lb. spaghetti, gemelli, or penne
10 plump garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 T. chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 c. loosely packed fresh basil leaves, shredded
½ c. freshly grated pecorino (or half pecorino and half Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano) plus more for passing
4 oz. Ricotta or ricotta salata

Arrange a rack in the center of the oven, and heat to 350 degrees.

Toss the cherry tomato halves in a large bowl with 3 T. olive oil. Sprinkle over tomatoes the bread crumbs, salt, and pepperoncino; toss well to coat the tomatoes evenly. Pour the tomatoes onto a parchment-lined sheet, and spread them apart in a single layer. Bake until the tomatoes are shriveled and lightly caramelized (but not dried out), about 25 minutes in all.

Meanwhile, fill a large pot with salted water, and heat to a rolling boil. When the tomatoes are nearly done, drop the pasta into the pot, stir, and return the water to a boil.

As soon as the pasta is cooking, pour the remaining olive oil into a big skillet, set it over medium-high heat, and scatter in the sliced garlic. Cook for a minute or two, until it is sizzling and lightly colored, then ladle in about 2 c. of the pasta cooking water, and bring to a vigorous boil, stirring up the garlic. Let half the water evaporate, then lower the heat, stir in the chopped parsley, and keep the sauce barely simmering.

As soon as the tomatoes are done, remove them from the oven.

When the pasta is al dente, lift it from the water, drain for a moment, and drop it into the skillet, still over low heat. Toss pasta quickly with the garlic-and-parsley sauce in the pan, then slide the baked tomatoes on top of the pasta. Scatter the basil shreds all over, and toss everything together well, until the pasta is evenly dressed and the tomatoes are distributed throughout. Turn off the heat, sprinkle on the grated cheese, and toss once more.

Serve immediately.

pasta with baked tomatoes

Nana’s Notes: I cut the recipe in half by simply halving the ingredients. I used fresh tomatoes out of my garden, which I’m madly harvesting. The only cheese I used was Parmigiano. The meal was delicious. Thanks again Lidia.