Sunday, November 15, 2009

Fewer Grownups = More Fun

I really lucked out at our library sale this week finding hardback copies of The Wind in the Willows (with the proper illustrations--hard to find) and The Penderwicks, among other treasures. A mom friend pointed out The Penderwicks to me, mentioning that it won the National Book Award because it was different from all the other children's books nominated that year. "They were all dark fantasies," she said. "This is just a sweet tale about children on summer vacation with minimal adult supervision."

I dove into Penderwicks as soon as I got it home and read it within three days. From the start it reminded me strongly of E. Nesbit's stories and Edward Eager's Tales of Magic, and in fact it makes references to Nesbit's Bastables and Eager's Magic by the Lake. The four sisters also reminded me a bit of Little Women.

The premise is simple: the kindly, Latin-quoting Mr. Penderwick rents a cottage in the New England countryside for his family for several weeks in the summer. The cottage is on the grounds of a large estate with magnificent gardens. Rosalind (filling in for her deceased mom), Skye (the hot-headed tomboy), Jane (the authoress), and Batty (the animal-loving preschooler) befriend a lonely boy and unwittingly get into trouble daily. The girls are all intelligent, spunky, sensitive, and oh-so-likable. It's charming charming charming.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Medley of Creepy Stuff

Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden reminded me of many things.

Wuthering Heights: The scope of its story takes place over multiple generations, and the high-spirited women of the family seem cursed as they seek happiness and love.

The Secret Garden: There's a fantastic walled garden, plus cousins--one sickly and one eager to drag the sick one out of the English manor and into the fresh air so they can share the garden. Frances Hodgson Burnett even has a brief cameo.

The Thirteen Tale: Twins, the gothic mood, creepy English manors, the suggestion of incest, etc.

The Lady in White: Secrets are revealed from multiple perspectives, although TFG's narrative bounces back and forth from 1913 to 1975 to 1913 to 2005 (and so on).

Dickens: Abandoned children and orphans are in the Dickensian vein, especially those trying to survive in Victorian slums whose only comfort comes from spinning terrifying tales about ghosts and Jack the Ripper. Also Dickensian are the cruel, low-class Mrs. Swindell and the vile Mr. Mansell.

Rebecca: The portraits are oppressive and haunting, and Lady Mountrachet pulls a Mrs. Danvers.

Jane Eyre: There's something about that old creep Linus and his withered leg, hiding in the darkroom with his stalker photos and living on the edge of insanity that recalls Mrs. Rochester.

The Faun and the Woodcutter's Daughter: A collection of fairy tales plays a central role in the story, and several of the tales are included in full in the book. TFatWD is just one of the better fairy tale collections that have a similar feel.

Everything I've read set in Cornwall: Because it's set primarily in Cornwall. (Although the bit set in Queensland puts me in mind of The Thornbirds.)

If you like all those things, especially in combination, you'll certainly enjoy The Forgotten Garden. I'll refrain from summarizing the plot and leave it as a pleasant secret to you readers. Although it felt a bit pulpy at times, there were many genuine and tender moments.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When you tire of time travel or fish and chips, you are tired of life.

First of all, I completed the Time Travelers (aka Gideon) trilogy by Buckley-Archer and enjoyed it from start to finish. It's great for kids or adults; it's even a wee bit educational. For example, there's an inside joke about Sam Johnson's famous London quote, references to the revolutionary writings of Thomas Paine and the events of the French Revolution, and a touching depiction of King George III's young family. I appreciate it when an author assumes her readers are educated and rewards them with applicable humor as well as suspense, but there's also a subtext throughout the trilogy that in order to appreciate the fantasy (or scientific invention) of time travel, it's essential to know a good bit about actual history. (That theme is similarly important in Connie Willis's books, insofar as the time travel department at Oxford is the history department.)

While you are reading your books set in London, enjoy some tasty fish and chips! Here's a recipe a partly invented for dinner the other night. I'll give credit to Mark Bittman for the original fish sandwich recipe and Giada de Laurentiis for the oven-baked fries recipe, but I've changed them enough to mostly claim them as my own.

Crunchy Fish Sandwiches with Lemon-Curry Mayo

Begin with 2 pounds fresh white fish (I used haddock. You could easily substitute cod or catfish--just make sure it's the freshest you can find. If you're a sad landlocked person, you can usually get local farm-raised catfish.). Cut the fillets into sandwich-sized pieces. Season with salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. Dredge in a mixture of cornmeal and flour.
Pour just enough olive oil into a frying pan to cover the bottom and heat it on high until a spec a cornmeal sizzles when dropped in (this is the best part, as the fragrance of all that hot olive oil is ever so lovely). Add fish to pan a few pieces at a time and reduce heat. Fry about 3 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels.

For the mayo, mix equal parts light mayo and light sour cream with fresh lemon juice and zest, salt, pepper, lots of curry powder, and a dash of cayenne. Just keep seasoning and tasting until you like it.

Our grocery bakes tasty soft white Italian loaves. I cut thin slices of these and toasted them. Then I slathered them with mayo and added the fish and a handful of fresh arugula (the arugula is essential!).

Oven-baked Sweet Potato Fries

Peel a couple of sweet potatoes and slice them into 1/2- x 4-inch fries. Coat with olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast in the oven at 425-450 for about 45 minutes until beginning to brown, stirring a couple of times. They won't be crisp like potato fries, but they'll taste great, especially dipped in the curry mayo.

Speaking of leftovers, the fish heats up nicely in the toaster oven. You can make yourself another sandwich the following day, or you can put some of the heated fish in a tortilla with fresh cilantro and a squirt of fresh lime for a simple, yummy fish taco.

Or you could just mash up the cold fish and sweet potatoes and eat them with your fingers, which is what Baby Ben did.