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.

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!

book review: ScreamFree Parenting (Hal Runkel)

I recently read Scream-Free Parenting by Hal Runkel, a marriage and family therapist in Atlanta Georgia. I think mparenting books are valuable in that they can prod you into insightful dialogues, to question yourself and the path you are currently on. I don’t think any one book is The Answer and it would be insincere to think there is only one way to parent.

As for the methodology. Runkel advocates what I would call self-care. Taking time for yourself and your adult relationships (with your partner, family and friends) are so important – if you cannot take care of yourself and show your child(ren) it is important to do so, you will fail them and yourself. There is also the problem of what Runkel calls “reactivity”; this is the emotional reaction to an event, say your kid going batshit crazy because she can’t find pants that match her shirt. Instead of yelling at her that it’s because she won’t open her drawers and look and will instead ALWAYS rely on you to get them, stop that thought process and consider what is happening. She is not doing this to annoy you (really? Because it seems to happen every morning), rather she is a kid and reasoning is not her forte. You, as her frenzied parent, are there to help her develop the tools that will aid in her growth towards adulthood. Like the ability to find pants.

I found some of Runkel’s proposed phrasing, for example, “if you don’t put away your bike, tomorrow morning I will take it to Goodwill”, to be passive aggressive if put to use for every little thing. As parents, we are to guide our children into decision making as much as it is to establish rules for the house and the expectation that the children will follow said rules. It is not specifically that Runkel is saying to hell with household rules, it’s more that his methodology and phrasing would be daunting and irritating to use all the time. I think the calming moment to consider what is happening and choosing your words wisely (to not make the “always” accusation), to not dissolve into reaction (read: freaking out) is most valuable during crisis mode. If this is not terribly clear it is because I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt some unease at Runkel’s suggestion that his layout is for all the time. Remember how I wrote that parenting books generally have some good tips you can add to your repertoire? This is one.

He writes of the importance of a child’s space. A few years ago, at about the time N started school, I started knocking before entering her room or the bathroom. The danger of her eating something like laundry detergent was lessened at this point (chill, it was always put away), but I thought it important she learn boundaries around her body. That and she was finally getting that she should answer when I knock on the door lest Mommy freak out. Runkel points out the importance of allowing a child their space – if you respect their’s, they are much more likely to reciprocate. He is also under the impression a kid will want to clean their room because they’ll take ownership over the space and like it more if it is neat but I don’t entirely agree – N is not an organized kid but D is and that has more to do with their individual personalities. N needs more prodding to clean up after herself and organize her things. Thinking your kids will clean their room rather than pull a Jillian Jiggs is some serious wishful thinking.

As for Runkel’s writing style – it’s somewhat cutesy self-help which I can deal with because he doesn’t really lay it on too thick and he provides some real-life examples from his family therapy practice. He keeps referencing make-believe ScreamFree books that are in the future and I don’t know if he’s being serious or ridiculous because the joke doesn’t carry very well. The title is definitely loaded – I was definitely not toting this around, flashing the title because it is so sensationalistic (Canadian moment here – how American is the title, eh?). Runkel does address the title – “screaming” is more about the loss of control parents face than the actual volume and his aim in writing the book is to help parents be the calming force in their family.

Liz Feltham : Chowders and Soups

Book cover for LIz Feltham's Chowders and SoupsRecently, a treasure dropped from the mailperson’s hands and into my mailbox, courtesy of Nimbus Publishing. I tore into the envelope, curious at the unexpected arrival and was quite pleased to find Liz Feltham’s newest offering, Chowders and Soups. Locals may remember her as the long-standing restaurant critic of the Halifax weekly The Coast. This is a really smart offering of chowders, some international in flair like the traditional Italian fish soup Zuppa de Pesce (page 62), as well as some that are a bit closer to home like the Classic Maritime Seafood Chowder (page 4). What each of the soups has in common is Feltham’s attention to detail and love of the Maritimes: Each showcases local ingredients.

The recipes are accompanied by colourful photos and creative; the aerial shot of a steaming bowl of soup – the ubiquitous Photograph of Soup – is broken up by photos of raw ingredients and a great mix of dishes that I now covet. Liz achieves what all cookbook writers should strive for, at least if they are attempting to make happy: A recipe is a guideline for your imagination, it is meant to help you along but there are just the beginning and as Feltham writes in her introduction, “Don’t be afraid to experiment and make each recipe your own”.

The first recipe I tried was the Tomato Squid Chowder (page 27). I love squid and I’d picked up a bag of need-to-use-these-now tomatoes the day before, so the arrival of the cookbook was rather serendipitous. The chowder is a classic tomato-based chowder and taking Feltham’s cue I added some corn and a couple of bay leaves to the simmering concoction. It was really, really good. We had it for lunch, accompanied by grilled cheese sandwiches and the kids ate very last spoonful of the soup. A succes. Like most of the recipes in the book, this chowder could be made quickly for a mid-day meal without a lot of fuss and bother. This is the true success of the cookbook, Feltham has managed to create 50 recipes that are accessible to any level of home chef and if you are strapped for time you could definitely make any number of the recipes on a weeknight.

I am looking forward to the Chilled Strawberry Soup with Black Pepper, as soon as I get a basket of strawberries in our CSA. I do not doubt that local berries are essential for this hot weather soup. One small quibble I have with the otherwise lovely Chowders and Soups is that there isn’t an ingredient index included at the end. It makes scanning through a cookbook that much easier if you have a raw ingredient taking up too much space in the fridge. Feltham more than makes up for this with Stock Recipes appendix where you can find the recipe for all soup, which are the absolute foundation of any quality soup. The glossary, while short offers a quick and dirty list of terms used throughout the text.

I highly recommend Soups and Chowders, particularly because of its versatility – there is something for every season so it won’t sit on your shelf until cold weather. Liz Feltham is knowledgeable and this comes across in each of the handpicked recipes. A definite must for any home chef as she calls all of us folks who enjoy that time spent at the stove.

A huge thank you to Anne at Nimbus Publishing for sending Chowders and Soups my way. If you are looking to meet the once elusive Liz Feltham, you can on Saturday, June 2 at Chapters in Bayers Lake (12-130pm); June 6 at IndigoSpirit in Sunnyside Mall (1-3pm) and June 8 at Coles in Scotia Square (12-2pm). As always, have a look in your local bookstore for a copy.

Kurt Palka: Patient Number 7

A free fall into the life of a woman who is strong willed and yet from the other side of history we, as the reader, feel the heartbreak of her life in Austria under budding Nazi rule – so often I found myself whispering “no.. no..” as my children curled around, safe in sleep. The vandalism and deaths she sees are part of the overwhelming violence in the city. So often I wanted to reach through the pages and shake this woman caught in her own idealism, to point at the death of a Jewish couple killed under suspicious circumstances and shake her until she could see reality, to connect the random dots for her. This is the luxury of living 60 years after these events and throughout Kurt Palka’s mesmerizing novel I was reminded of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, the imprecise memory allowed to German citizens following the atrocities of World War II.

The main protagonist, Clara Herzog, is the type of strong-willed woman I would like to be if life ever came crashing down around me, her willful disobedience while she is at once entrenched in the machinery of the regime and yet she doesn’t seem to know why she does the things she does, only that she must. The wife of a German cavalry officer, she finds a way to hold salons with the prisoners of war in her basement and feed them stolen fruit while an SS officer patrols her living room.

In some ways Clara answers the question of how the horrors of the Nazi regime could happen, how could every day Germans allow the atrocities to occur in front of them? Clara is an intelligent woman with a proud heritage and yet she is inexplicably drawn to the Nazi political party in the beginning. This underground group of misguided youth and idealists attempting to find their way in the world, they offer a place for women in the party and it is for this reason that Clara flirts with the idea of joining their ranks. It is with a sigh of relief that she does not, her own intelligence unassailable against the undercurrent of antisemitism – a Jewish friend accompanies her to a party meeting and admonishes Clara that in Germany the antisemitism is much more visible but she cannot quite believe that a party that sends a female representative could also speak hate.

There is violence in Patient Number 7. In fact, there is one scene in which Clara is the perpetrator of the bloodiness but it is just and rest assured, he had it coming. The violence is not gory, it is unsettling in that it is often senseless – the deaths meted out are as banal as the Nazi’s own racism.

The story is told from the Austrian viewpoint, and Palka captures the fear the Austrians lived in, the white-faced panic of watching their country capitulate under the ferocious might of a megalomaniac. What is most remarkable is that the story is woven from family lore and a long mythologized folder of missives from the most turbulent time in recent memory. I would easily recommend this book, Clara Herzog is a real woman of character and strength. Palka, with his dotted references to Freud and Heiddeger makes me want to revisit these giants of psychology and philosophy.

Patient Number 7 was published March 27, 2012 and is available through McClelland and Stewart (check your local bookstore). Thank you to Netgalley for providing this engaging galley.

Madison Smartt Bell: The Washington Square Ensemble

Conflicting voices, shattered pieces of the whole and a group of men that is hardened against cold weather and unspeakable cruelty. This is Madison Smartt Bell’s The Washington Square Ensemble. I did not initially like the novel. It didn’t sit well as the first few chapters are devoted to one of the street thugs who is amongst the mouthiest and most egotistical, his language effusive and dismissive. Initially, I was skeptical of the book, unsettled by my own general dislike for the character and seeing his voice as the voice of Bell.

Suddenly, a shift. Before I knew it the collective voices of these men of the street became clearer, likeable even. Bell is effective at manipulating the language of each chapter to make each a devotion to the voice. But, I never felt entirely comfortable within The Washington Square Ensemble. Each time I wanted more from a character (or the writing for that matter – it’s unique only as much as it is staid), Bell didn’t deliver. It was easy to forget which character was “speaking” as the lines between the identifying characteristics of each were blurred. An ensemble that is not much above the parts of the whole.

The novel, or Bell, seems to be chomping at the bit trying to catch th ereader off guard but most of the uniqueness, the shock of possibility never delivers. The group shifts, drops numbers off of its ranks and though there is death it another day in the life of a drug dealer in a notorious square. I cannot decide if the laissez-faire approach to violence and death is just lazy writing (there is death that is so expected it wrote itself into the plot) or brilliant because the characters so wholly embody it. I had the sense throughout most of the novel that the core group were essentially the same individual with seemingly subtle differences among them. It’s that feeling of being so close yet so far to the truth.

The Washington Square Ensemble is the type of book that deserves to be read multiple times. As much as I wanted to say I wasn’t really into the book there was an exception. Kind of like the English language, there are no rules only exceptions. This appears to be the mantra of Bell’s work here. I would recommend the novel to someone with patience to tease out the mysteries of a dark weekend in New York City.

Thanks to Open Road Media and Netgalley! The Washington Square Ensemble, originally published in 1984 has been reissued.

Alan Bennet: Smut

Two tales of sexual intrigue and the gaps and silences used to keep them tucked away. Smut, the latest offering by British playwright Alan Bennett is entertaining, a deliciously sinful exploit of British sensibilities.

The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson has a delicious push and pull of secrets and tension. There are so many elements throughout the story that I was genuinely surprised when widow Mrs. Donaldson experienced her unveiling that I actually risked waking the kids sleeping next to me to squeal. This is Alan Bennett’s writing: Mrs Donaldson became a real person for me, navigating her way through a confusing life that keeps happening to her (or is it?). The writing is twisted and coy, enough that Mrs. Donaldson’s performance of social graces hide reality, in more ways than one.

The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes follows along some very familiar story lines, the overbearing mother who hates her new daughter-in-law and fails to see her son as anything but bronzed perfection. As much as I enjoyed The Greening..  I found it difficult to really get into The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes and truly enjoy it. Bennett sticks to more of a stream of consciousness style of writing, again it reflects the sloppy lines of relation and distinction the characters take, particularly in comparison to Mrs. Donaldson’s proper segmented life. Bennett adds subtle nuances to make it uniquely his own but it still remains a known story. Bennett definitely hedged his bets with this story and played it safe. The reticence in the storyline informed on the text and it became rushed, as if Bennett couldn’t wait to expel on to paper this convoluted tale of crossed lives and blackmail. The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes is a solid piece of work but in comparison to The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson it pales.

The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes relies on some fairly antiquated ideas, all filtered through the spectacle of cell phones and internet savvy. It’s rife with delicious double-crosses but I just don’t see it. Each sentence is clipped and polished, much like the lives these characters appear to live, all packaged into neat and tidy boxes. The performance of normal is ever present, even as the characters delight in their seemingly subversive lives. The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes is notable for its subtle change in writing style, the sentences grow longer as the lies stretch beyond all means; a heavy vein of stream of consciousness undercuts the text.

Smut is definitely an enjoyable read and it does make me way to acquaint myself with more of his work. Smut is a well-written piece despite its turn at the cliché wheel.