Book Review: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, the latest offering from Anna North, author of America Pacifica and staff writer at the New York Times, is a compelling read. The book elicited a sense of longing and curiosity for me that I only have with a truly great book; North reveals Stark to the reader through a series of reminiscences from the people who loved her best and may have known her best, although how anyone could know a figure such as Stark is a mystery.

There are people who enter our lives who make us better and make us want to make the world right, through their vulnerability or their kindness or their honesty. North’s Stark has the ability to evoke these feelings within the people she meets and loves, and yet, we are left with the notion that no one ever really knew her, that she was never honest or truly kind. Robbie, Stark’s husband, stated that “life is a heavy burden and imagine if someone just carried it for you for a while, just picked it up and carried it”. North effectively captures the complexities of love and life through Stark.

As for the writing style, North is very adept at capturing the voice of the many characters – her brother, husband, object of affection and obsession, a film reviewer and of course Allison, the catalyst of Stark’s creativity. The novel is an exploration of an individual that could set out to reveal the truth of one, but in actuality, it succeeds in showing that we can only be known in pieces by the people who love us.

I was genuinely taken by North’s writing and would highly recommend The Life and Death of Sophie Stark to anyone who wants to be challenged by characters who come alive.

{recipe} chicken wings and broad beans

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I have discovered that if we want to eat something edible, dinner cannot be complicated. There are simply too many kids trying to get into things, bickering and scavenging for floor snacks in this house. I’ve tried the whole Traditional Dinner and that was as successful as trying to keep the baby from eating everything he finds on the floor – I’m positive he throws half of his Cheerios on the floor for later snacks while he’s about.

These sizeable chicken wings have been kicking around the freezer for a couple of weeks. They hail from Little Dorset farms, purveyors of excellent local meats that are grown without antibiotics or nasty stuff of questionable origin. As a result, the meat is very flavourful and fulfilling to eat – I don’t eat as much meat because what I do have is extraordinarily satisfying. That sounds like I’m blasé about it – I’m not. Ever eat something rather meh then you eat too much because, what the hell? That doesn’t happen here. The chicken is perfectly chicken and delicious. It isn’t an approximation if chicken.

Not everyone may be familiar with fish sauce which is a staple in our kitchen. It adds an umami flavour to the dish -very salty and savoury. I like to combine it with sesame oil and soy sauce in equal parts to balance and those elements are also featured in this recipe.

For balance in he dish, which is somewhat Asian in style – I kind of hate that catch-all as it usually means anything with ginger or a thick, red sauce, which is conspicuously absent from my chicken wings and broad beans.

I’ve kept the chicken summer light and while it appears to have a lot of components, the steps take a bit so you can walk away to fish crayons out of a baby’s mouth, do secret handshakes and play guess the song.

Chicken Wings and Broad Beans

A note: I used 8 chicken and each one equalled an approximate chicken thigh.

one onion
3 carrots, chopped
quart of broad beans, ends snapped off
8 chicken wings (or thighs)
Fish sauce
Soy sauce
Lemon juice

Optional: Scoop of tomatillo salsa

To dust the chicken:
Approximately two tablespoons flour (or a handful)
white pepper (this has more heat than black pepper, be warned)
onion powder
salt

1. Heat olive oil in saucepan – I used a large wok style and highly recommend it.
2. Cook onions until translucent. To avoid burning, keep heat at medium to low. Toss in broad beans and carrots and toss to warm. Set aside.
3. Prepare the chicken wings by tossing in the dusting. The measurements are largely approximate for the spices and salt, it’s your preference.
4. Add a bit more olive oil to pan and bring up to medium/high heat then toss in the chicken to brown.
5. Once chicken is browned, add the vegetables.
6. Add liberal amount of the lemon juice and soy and fish sauces – tablespoon of each, it is important to use equal amounts. Lower the heat just a smidge and cover with a pot lid. Allow to cook for 20 – 25 minutes or until the juices run clear when you cut into the thickest part mod the largest piece of chicken.

Optional extra step: If the liquid is starting to burn down, feel free to toss in more of each in equal parts. It will just make the sauce richer. The flour dusting you used on the wings will thicken all this liquid splendidly into a delicious, tangy sauce. The optional tomatillo salsa adds a kick.

Enjoy

Fairy tales

I’ve been reading Fairy Tales to the kids over the last week or so – these are Brothers Grimm from when I was a child so it lacks idiosyncratic sensitivities that are always present in Disneyified crap. Last night we read Brarskin, a vivid tale where a man sells his soul to the Devil for seven years in return for unending wealth; the catch, and it is mighty, is that he may not wash or comb his hair for seven years.

That’s a tremendous amount of time for grime and hair to build upon your face, your nails growing to grotesque lengths. He acquires himself a wife, one who is simply too innocent to say no when her father offers her to the beast man as a gesture of thanks – and of course, she is beautiful.

Fairy tales are wonderful cautionary tales – great public service announcements for soap, too – but they serve multiple duties. They are so outlandish and caricatures of real life that as a non-religious family it can put so many stories of extraordinary into perspective.

A man swallowed by a large fish; more Biblically correct than to describe it as a whale, is about as plausible as the Devil appearing to a man and buying his essence of self before he has a chance to starve.

There is this ridiculous notion that children of non-religious families can’t possibly have an understanding of morals because they don’t have The Bible, heaven forbid. Morals are taught around dinner tables, in the interactions between family members. “What do you think about that?” is a question I often ask the kids, because it’s all well and good to wag a finger and tell them what is right and wrong, but they need to be able to figure it out themselves.

A list of rules is obviously a good place to start, but kids – and adults – need reasoning skills to figure out the how and why of what makes an action or belief right or wrong. It is entirely far too easy to do harm – out of cowardice, prejudice or rebellion – because it is something we just shouldn’t do because we’ll get in trouble; however, if we can develop the understanding that harming another is wrong because we don’t want want to be treated that way and all beings, human and otherwise, deserve to live without harm from others then the impetus to not do wrong to others becomes that much more poignant.

Fairy tales have these grand punishments for evil-doing. The first thing N asked about Cinderella was how could her father allow the evil step-daughters to treat her so poorly. I don’t know the answer to that, it isn’t evident in the text but it also did not seem fair that Cinderella’s father was banished from the kingdom for his role on her abuse. This was N’s second question, how could he be banished, he is Cinderella’s father. In short, even though her father allowed awful things to happen to Cinderella, N saw space for some sort of resolution.

Fairy tales provide another space for discussing, dare I say, so many issues that it seems like anything and everything with kids.

sartorial inspirations

Last summer I was tremendously pregnant. Thankfully, I am not this summer but I also don’t have a clue what I should wear. It’s all terribly vain and I have this gorgeous baby that I love and how could I possibly be concerned with fashion but c’mon (for a primer on how that should sound in your head, listen to Pregnant Women are Smug).

Polka Dots! from Life Appreciation Blog.

Polka Dots! from Life Appreciation Blog.

I need to wear clothes and I want to look cute. In addition to completely and totally changing your world view, children change your body. I now have muscles and not so muscly bits, and it’s probably shitty of me to complain about losing weight and not knowing what to wear, but it’s true.

I apparently also lost my fashion sense when I gave birth – I haven’t a clue what to do with myself so I’ve started a Pinterest board. Like all good people of the internet.

A lot of my “aaahhhh! clothes!” freaking is coming from impending situations where I will have to hang out with people older than 7. Those who don’t wear tutus as regular street wear.

I’ve told Mr I would definitely do What Not to Wear, despite the obvious love they have for lady blazers and pastels, if only out of desperation for someone to assure me that I can still look cool even though I’m in my 30s, married and have three kids.

This happened after I had D five years ago, which is how I discovered Lady Smaggle, whom I adore but I could wear a leather maxi for about three seconds. Her style is impeccable and I adore her but I need access for feeding B. I own exactly one white shirt that I liberally spray with stain remover whether there is a stain or not, just because you never know, it’s white and I have kids.

Pretty much everything I own is black, if only because it is forgiving of most stains and I’ve fallen for the lie that well kept black yoga pants are acceptable pants to wear about – though I’ve only worn them out when I’m on my way to the gym.

This is life one yearish older. You’re obsessed that you probably can’t look cool anymore – mostly because you don’t know what that means.

You Can Too! {book review}

I was mighty excited last week to receive a surprise copy of “You Can Too!”by Elizabeth Peirce. I love canning, and though I have rarely included recipes of my own concoctions, though I love coming up with new preserves and the joy of a shelf packed with delight brightly colours.

You Can Too! is a great starter for those looking to preserve their own harvest – or those bought at the farmer’s market; I still maintain that there is really no point in canning anything but local produce (except for oranges in marmalade).

Peirce is informative and playful throughout the book – I particularly like the doodles of canning supplies and produce. She somehow manages to cover all of the basics of food preservation, including freezing and cold storage. The recipes, some of them from her own family, are interesting – I plan on making the mustard pickles and I’ll see if it holds true to her Grandmother’s double underlined “good!”.

I liked the anecdotes sprinkled throughout the chapters, they personalize the book as do the addition of photographs of her son and other family members. Food is family and preserving our harvest brings us closer to our forebears – a sentiment that I think is shared by Peirce as there are multiple heirloom recipes. Surprisingly, the chapter titled Stories from the Kitchen feels forced – Peirce loses the playfulness and storytelling ability more readily available in her anecdotal asides.

I find that every time I flip through You Can Too I learn something new – I definitely recommend reading through it entirely then refer back for more pointed questions – though it seems to lack an index which I would find very useful. There are a number of recipes in the back of the book, including some tasty looking Dilly Beans I am rather keen to try this summer.

Many thanks to Nimbus Publishing for providing me with a copy of You Can Too!

In the shadows: Plato’s Cave

The first day I got lost. The University of Windsor was not a huge or complicated campus but negotiating buildings with official names while trying desperately to not actually look like a first year student, and no doubt failing miserably, meant that I scuttled into my classroom in Dillon Hall minutes after everyone else had settled in. Across the room I could see the only other Philosophy major for our graduating year, the rest of the seats filled with kids looking for a breezy elective.

In the first weeks of Classical Philosophy we tackled Plato’s Republic, the heavy existential tomes saved for later in the semester. Philosophy, like most classes in Arts and Social Sciences were shuffled off to the older buildings which lacked amenities like air conditioning, reliable lighting and windows that stayed open without pieces of wood wedged into the frame. September in southwestern Ontario is warm, hot even. The return to school is a cruel joke, considering most students continue to wear semi-beach wear to class.

Our classroom was The Cave. Students facing forward, a scattering of rich kids sat defiantly behind clunky laptops and we listened to Hans V. Hansen cast shadows to tell us the truth. Our desks could never be the ideal desk because they could only exist out there, in the ether and this was only a mild approximation. Not even a good one at that but shhh… It was the truth. The truth is on the wall until the Philosopher King sees the light that makes the shadows and knows, the chains, the desks that hold us there are of no consequence and he (or she – the Philosopher Queen) escapes and seeks a purer truth. The real truth that speaks not of lies.

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At 19, the Cave Allegory, with it’s chained inhabitants facing while only the bravest of souls dragged themselves from the darkness, was intoxicating to me. I’ve told the story countless times to my kids, the cave is now a movie theatre and the escapee goes on to great adventures. It’s been a while since we’ve visited the cave but I think it might be time again.

Yesterday, I tweeted to Mary Lu (@HalHum101 – she does amazing work) that the Cave Allegory was a story often told to my kids, to which she replied, “Who do they think is chained in the cave?”. And I stopped. I don’t know. I’ve never dwelt on them and even when I think of the cave, I don’t tend to consider the people who are trapped in the cave of shadows because I love the trek of the Philosopher King, the power in escaping. Because to me, the Cave Allegory is about beating the odds and seeking knowledge – because you know it must be there, waiting to be found.

But, there is that pesky question of The Prisoners, those who are forced to believe that the shadowy life they lead is truth. We know these people. We are them. Even those of us who think we shun it, that forced doctrine of wayward “truth”, in what way are we prisoners of our own ignorance? In what ways do we keep our children faced forward, never peaking for the light?

The obvious answer, for my family and me, is that we are non-religious (my husband and I are atheist and we are raising our  children without dogma). However, there is a huge, glaring BUT with this situation – as part of the western tradition, just about every single cultural tradition, piece of literature, music, philosophy, everything is heavily impacted by The Bible. Thus far, Mr and I have largely stayed away from Bible stories in a bid to simply not deal with dogma but, we have inadvertently chained our children in our own  cave. To understand Western cultural traditions, they will need to know the stories from which they derive – seriously, try and listen to Bob Dylan or read Mordecai Richler and understand them (beyond the surface).

The power believes infuse into The Bible comes from the rhetoric that surrounds the text and that part of it? As parents, it’s up to us to determine the rhetoric and in order to ever call bullshit, the kids will need to know the stories the shadows are telling. It’s like watching a movie with the sound off.