Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Roasted Salmon and Fennel with Pistachio Gremolata

2 medium fennel bulbs about 1 and 1/4 lb total. Cored and sliced into 1/2 inch thick wedges
1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced
2 TBS extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and black papper
4 6-oz salmon fillets skinless
1/2 cup packed fresh flat-leaf parsley coarsely chopped
1/3 cup salted  and shelled pistachios coarsely chopped
1 TBS finely grated lemon zest
1 TBS finely chopped garlic
flaky sea salt.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees
Line a large rimmed sheet pan with foil or parchment. On the pan, toss the fennel and onion with the olive oil and a big pinch of salt and pepper. Spread the veggies evenly and roast until brown at edges and tender, about 20-25 minutes.

Push the veggies into a pile to make a bed for the salmon. Place the fillets on top of the veggies spaced evenly apart and season with salt and pepper. Roast until the salmon is cooked about 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile in a bowl combine the parsley, pistachios, lemon zest and garlic to make the gremolata.

Serve the salmon and veggies topped with gremolata and a sprinkling of sea salt.  Can put lemon wedges around platter for additional garnish.

This recipe is from Fine Cooking October/November issue 2015. My only suggestion is that next time I would use more fennel because it is so delicious, fragrant and mellow.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

800 Grapes by Laura Dave

“You don’t give up on a family. Not without trying to put it back together.”  This is what Georgia Ford’s brother says to her. “My brother who always said the wrong thing, said the most important thing of all.” This conversation comes late in the story after we have spent a week with the Ford family as seen through the eyes of Georgia in her first person account.

It’s not an ordinary week. It’s harvest week at her father’s vineyard in beautiful Sonoma in northern California. It’s also the week leading up to Georgia’s wedding to a successful British business man she met in Los Angeles where she practices law.

Within the first few pages however, Georgia, makes a startling discovery that her fiancĂ©e is not the person she thought he was.  In a desperate panic she drives alone all night, 400 miles to her parents’ home and vineyard where the wedding is to be held.  But there she uncovers a few other disturbing events.  Instead of finding solace and understanding in the home she always loved, upon her arrival in the middle of the night, her world is turned upside down one more time.  And yet another time.  It appears that everyone in the family has been harboring their own secrets and it is in this unnerving climate that she must make life-changing decisions.

It’s difficult to discuss the events of the week without being plot spoilers so I will focus instead on some of the other interesting aspects of the story.

The word synchronization is a repeated refrain throughout the story and if you were giving a book report saying it was one of the themes of the book, you would probably get an A+.   Georgia’s father, a key figure in the story,  defines it as “the coordination of events to operate in unison.  A conductor managing to keep his orchestra in tune.  The impossible meeting  of light reflection and time exposure that leads to a perfect photograph. Not fate”, Georgia’s father would add. “Don’t confuse it with fate. Fate suggests no agency. Synchronization is all about agency. It involves all systems running in a state where different parts of the system are almost, if not precisely ready”.   When seen in a negative light, many people would call this the “perfect storm”.  And  a perfect storm is brewing during harvest week leading up the wedding date.

Synchonization is also what leads to a perfect bottle of wine.  Georgia’s father is a biodynamic winemaker. “My father believed the most important aspect of winemaking was the soil. That his wine got better year after year because the soil did. He would monitor his soil carefully….no chemical, nothing added from outside the farm. This created a lot of work but it also created a more stable ecosystem. That’s what he was most proud of, that he had made the land stronger.”

There are some flashbacks where we learn how her parents met, their beautiful love story and how they started their vineyard with a meager ten acres.  Her mother gave up a rising career as a concert cellist in New York and in turn, her father names his favorite varietal of wine, Concerto, as an ode to her mother’s musical roots.  The word concerto has its roots in two words, which mean to tie and join and also to compete and fight.  Much as the soloist and the orchestra both cooperate and compete in the creation of the musical flow—synchonization.  One doesn’t need to know much about vineyards, as I didn’t, to appreciate the father’s spiritual yet highly successful approach to winemaking. 

There are beautiful descriptions of the scenery of the countryside and also of what happens during a harvest week, including the traditional Harvest Party. The tension builds to a startling climax, reminiscent to me of Anne River Siddons’ books. Georgia’s voice also reminded me of the main character’s voice in Rules of Civility by Amor Towles for whatever reason, although the setting could not be more different.  New York City in 1930 vs. wine country California in present day. Throughout the story, we are as torn as Georgia is—will she go through with the wedding or not? It’s a fascinating story of family life and relationships as Georgia searches for answers and solutions, not just for herself, but for her family.   We meet many other colorful characters during this week, all set against this beautiful tapestry of wine country.

This book begs to be read with a glass of wine at your side. And according to this author, did you know it takes 800 grapes to make one bottle of fine wine?  Perhaps that will make you appreciate your next happy hour a little more.

Friday, August 28, 2015

In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

Author Judy Blume has become a household name for anyone growing up in the 70’s and 80’s either as a child, teen, or the parent of one. She dared to write fiction with controversial issues of the day which caused her works to become either beloved, banned or both.   She dared to write of taboo topics of the day such as racism in Iggie’s House, bullying in Blubber and sex in Forever. Perhaps her most noted for teen girls coming of age is Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.

Now at age 77, she has written her second adult novel, In The Unlikely Event, a fictional tale that takes place in the 50’s based on actual events that happened in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey.   Using her own young life as source material, she recalls three actual and horrific plane crashes at the Newark airport that took place over eight weeks.  In an interview she said, “…that story lived so deep inside me. I’m glad it’s out. I’m glad the book is finished.  I never told anybody this story. Not even my daughter, who became a commercial airline pilot. When she read an early draft of this book, she said “Mother how could you never have told me this story.’”

The story begins in 1987 when the main character, Miri Ammerman, returns to her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, to attend a commemoration of the worst year of her life, when the three plane crashes occurred.  Then the reader is transported back to Mimi’s life in the 50’s, where fifteen-year old Mimi  lives with her 33-year-old single mother, Rusty. She knows nothing of her abandoned father.  Other colorful characters are grandmother Irene, who sells cosmetics and best friend Natalie, the affluent dentist’s daughter.   Miri is experiencing her first love with Mason, an orphan with secrets of his own and she lives in constant fear that Rusty will not approve of him because he is not Jewish. Another forbidden love is the dentist’s secretary who has fallen for a boy who is not Greek as she is and the family will never approve. There is also a beloved uncle to Mimi, Henry, a reporter who lives with them and is a positive influence in Mimi’s life.

Then as the planes descend upon this community, devastation occurs both physically and emotionally for the people who live there. In a panic state, the people try to find a reason for the disasters in such close proximity.  Could it mean something that all three crashes narrowly missed schools?  Was it the work of Communists? (this was the 50’s) or even aliens or sabotage.  The site of the third crash almost takes on a carnival air, with hawkers selling popcorn and families taking their children to see the devastation.  As awful as the crashes were, Blume focuses on the way people themselves crash and burn, or often fly higher than expected.

The novel is told in short chapter bursts in many voices.  The characters are introduced quickly and at times can be a little confusing, but eventually you realize that all these lives are threaded together.  The details of the 50’s will be recognizable to many of you—post-WWII suburbs, refinished basements with knotty pine walls, Bird’s Eye vegetables, Elizabeth Taylor haircuts and the Korean war references.

The end takes us back to the reunion of the 80’s to show how eventually the people who lived through this experience managed to make sense of what they saw.  One character sums it up, “Terrible things can happen in this life, but being in love changes everything.”  Blume says, in her unique writing perspective,” We are all passengers in this world, fastening our seatbelts, hoping we reach our desired destinations and bracing for what comes next.”

Thursday, July 30, 2015


I'll Always Be With You
Violetta Armour
iUniverse, 328 pages, (paperback) $19.95, 978-1-4917-6830-3 (Reviewed: July, 2015)

Violetta Armour has written a gem of a story that has heart, soul and empathetic insights and is potent in its small moments. The well-drawn characters are true-to-life in representing the pain and confusion felt when tragedy strikes. Historical details from warring Bulgaria that caused many to flee, as well as racial tensions during the late 1960s, are cleanly woven into the narrative, giving the story purposeful dimension. A final nice touch is the addition of old-country recipes from the author's own "Baba."
All in all, this beautifully crafted, touching book offers tender wisdom that will draw a wide audience and could be especially appealing to young adults grappling with insecurities and difficult times.

The untimely death of a father leads to major life changes and startling discoveries for the man's teenage son and his wife in this emotionally rich, introspective novel about grief and recovery set just before the turn of the 21st century.
The book opens with a bang, beginning with this startling statement: "I never meant to kill my dad." Building steadily from there, the story unfolds initially from the point of view of young, remorseful Teddy. He was eagerly learning to drive in Phoenix with his dad, Stan, when the car was broadsided by a drunk driver. Teddy's grieving mother, Mary, is also deeply impacted and decides the best thing for the family would be to move to Stan's small hometown of Middleburg, Indiana, and live with his Bulgarian mother.

Teddy struggles to fit in at school, but finds comfort from a book his great-grandfather brought to America from the old country. He also receives unexpected guidance from an impish and brainy girl; a severely burned teen with wise insights, and a perceptive graveyard caretaker. Meanwhile, Mary seeks support from Stan’s high school sweetheart, an understanding black woman named Rosetta, and is shocked to find Rosetta had much more than a casual relationship with Stan.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

This book is a sterling example of what is often described as narrative nonfiction – “joining good research with compelling, character-driven storytelling--reads like a novel”.  I might add that it reads not like any ordinary novel, but one filled with drama and suspense even though we know the outcome.

It is the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and coxswain, made up of sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers who defeated elite and prestigious rivals such as Harvard and Princeton and sons of aristocrats from Cambridge and Oxford. It’s a story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times.  Much like Seabiscuit of the same Great Depression era, it gave the country an underdog to cheer for.  It reminded them what can be achieved when everyone quite literally pulls together. Author Brown, says, “For me, the story is very much a metaphor for what that whole generation managed to do.”

As author David Laskin (The Children’s Blizzard and The Long Way Home) praises it so aptly, “I read the last fifty pages with white knuckles and the last twenty-five with tears in my eyes. History, sports, human interest, weather, suspense, design, physics, oppression and inspiration—this book has it all.”

In fact, there is so much to discuss in this book, I have tried for a month to write this review but always fell short in describing its magnificence.  A big accolade, I know but so deserving.  Since my own words seemed inadequate, I decided the best approach was to share the author’s words in his prologue which captured my heart immediately. 

“This book was born on a cold, drizzly, late spring day when I clambered over the split-rail cedar fence that surrounds my pasture and made my way through wet woods to a modest frame house where Joe Rantz lay dying.  I knew only two things about Joe when his daughter Judy opened the door that day. I knew that in his mid-seventies he had single-handedly hauled a number of cedar logs down a mountain, then hand-split the rails and cut the posts and installed all 2,224 linear feet of the pasture fence I had just climbed over. And I knew he had been one of the nine young men from the state of Washington who shocked both the rowing world and Adolph Hitler at the 1936 Olympics…he talked about learning the art of rowing, about shells and oars…about long cold hours  on the water under steel-gray skies…marching into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin and his crewmates….it was when he tried to talk about the boat that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes…something mysterious and beyond definition…it was about a shared experience when nine good-hearted men gave everything they had for one another,  bound together forever by pride and respect and love.  I told Joe I’d like to write a book about his rowing days and he said he’d like that. But then his voice broke once more and he admonished me gently, ‘But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.’

The actual boat,  the old wooden The Husky Clipper, today rests on the top rack of the University of Washington boathouse.  It was built by George Popcock, internationally famous for designing and handcrafting the best and swiftest racing shells in the world of crew racing.  A native of England, he was recruited in 1912 to build shells for the University of Washington. The George Pocock Racing Shell Company in Seattle became the leading producer of quality racing shells in the country, making 80 percent of all those used by college crews in America. His boats were coveted by colleges and rowing clubs around the world. Among the innovations he developed were sliding seats, lightweight oars, special oarlocks, and a unique steering mechanism, replacing the tiller.

However, it was not only his craftsmanship in building that made Mr. Pocock unique, but the visionary philosophy he shared with the crew to strive constantly for the ideal and to respect the spiritual side of life. Each chapter begins with a photo and his quote, such as, “It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you’re near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul.”

Other characters on this elaborate world stage Brown reveals are the crew coaches of the day:  Tom Bolles, Al Ulbrickson and Ky Ebright—their coaching philosophies, their relationship to each other, their rivalries, losses and victories.  When Ulbrickson retired in 1959, he said one of the highlights of his career was the day he put Joe Rantz in his Olympic boat for the first time and watched the boat take off.  

We are also taken into Nazi Germany as they prepare for the Olympics.  We are given historical glimpses of key members of the Nazi Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propoganda, run by Joseph Goebbels. We learn of the brilliant Leni Riefenstahl, the first German female to produce and star in her own films. She won the affection of the Fuhrer as she produced many successful propaganda films , one which documented the massive Nazi rally at Nuremberg in 1934.   Her film of the 1936 Olympics was meant to record the splendors of the Reich, but nine boys from Washington denied her a proper ending.

In the author’s words, “It’s harder to imagine a starker representation of good and evil brought face-to-face than these nine American kids dressed in ragged old sweatshirts and mismatched shorts racing against regimented blonde oarsman in crisp white uniforms with swastikas on their chests.”

Back to Brown’s thoughts after his first meeting with Joe Rantz. “As more of his story unfolded I began to see the elements of a great tale there—intense competition amongst individuals, bitter rivalry between schools, a boy left alone in the world (Joe), a fiercely demanding coach, a wise mentor, a love interest, even an evil stepmother…and the climax of the story played out on an enormously dramatic stage—the 1936 Olympics, under the gaze of Hitler himself. What more could a story teller ask for?”

As a reader, I don’t think we could have asked for more.  And I, who knew zero about crewing, now have a tremendous respect for the sport. With Father’s Day approaching, this might be just the perfect gift for someone who loves a gripping tale.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

All The Light We Cannot See by Doerr

As I complete yet another book with a World War II setting, I can’t help but wonder how bare our literature shelves would be without the countless stories of heroism, bravery and sacrifice of those who lived at that time, both in our country and abroad.   Although most of the books I read are fiction, I am certain the stories are based on truths that have been passed down through the generations. I highly recommend All The light We Cannot See by Anothony Doerr if you want to be transported to a time and place in history through excellent descriptive writing and characters you wish you had known in real life.

Instead of following persecuted Jews to the horrors of Auschwitz, Doerr weaves together the stories of two unlikely heroes of the time--a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a German orphan, Werner.  Their paths collide in occupied France as they try to survive the devastations and horrors of World War II.

Marie-Laure’s father works at the Museum of Natural History in Paris where he is the master of a thousand locks.  When his daughter goes blind at the age of six, he teaches her self-reliance in many ways. For example,  he builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way from home to the Museum.  Their loving relationship will touch your heart and then break it when they are separated, shortly after her twelfth birthday, as the Nazi’s occupy Paris. Her birthday gift from her father that year was a Braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne which becomes her most prized possession. When her father is taken away, Mari-Laure finds safety in the walled citadel of Saint-Malo where her reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea.  One of the most touching scenes in the book is the first time she experiences the rush of the sea on her bare feet.  And to add a touch of mystery, among the few possessions she was able to take with her just might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, critic Vollman says “Marie-Laure is an exquisitely realized creation….her self-reliant intelligence, nurtured by her father, allows her to carry on bravely…each time Madame Ruelle at the bakery sells her another ordinary loaf with a slip of coded numbers inside for her great-uncle to transmit on illegal radio, the girl calmly does her duty.”

We first meet the young Werner in a German orphanage with little sister, Jetta, who he is devoted to. They become enchanted by a crude radio they find when they discover a copper wire that allows them to tune into foreign broadcasts.  “After prayers and lights out, Jetta sneaks up to her brother’s dorm where they lie hip-to-hip, listening till midnight, til 1, till 2.”  

Werner, through his early fascination with the radio, becomes a child engineering prodigy at building and repairing these crucial new instruments. This talent earns him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, and allows him to escape his destiny of the coal mines which killed his father. However, he pays a dear price for his escape. Like Marie-Laure, he is  now separated from the one person he loves, sister, Jutte.  We follow Werner through the ravages of the war and when he is assigned to track the resistance movement, he makes his way eventually into Saint-Malo where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

Ten years in the making, Doerr says,  “Writing the book was a huge puzzle. I felt like I was building a big model house. I had, I think 187 chapters and each one alternates in point of view or time.”   Don’t let the number of chapters scare you off.  The chapters are short and the narrative is easy to follow as we alternate from Marie-Laure to Werner.

Besides a mesmerizing tale, the writing itself is filled with exquisite physical details and stunning metaphors.  And because Marie-Laure is blind, we experience her life through all the other senses she must employ.  We smell, taste, touch and hear the world through her.

Like any story of World War there are villainous and evil characters, yet in All The Light We Cannot See, Doerr manages to illustrate through these two young characters, and against all odds, the ways people try to be good to one another. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


The definition of a  psychological thriller has been defined as a “suspenseful book which emphasizes the psychology of its characters more so than the plot.”

I have just completed three British psychological thrillers and I might add that my definition is each of these characters are in definite need of some time on a psychologist’s couch.  Their motivations and behavior are so bizarre—in some cases downright creepy. Yet, I was compelled to keep on reading to see how their twisted minds worked.  

Take for example, Mr. Hemming, a successful and trusted realtor in a small British village.  He has spent hours with you acting in your best interests, searching properties and negotiating a price that  allows you to move into your dream home.  You trust him…but you shouldn’t.  Unbeknownst to you, he has kept the key to your home, as he has every home he has sold in the last seventeen years. 

He visits your home often when you are not there, not to steal, but to observe your lifestyle.  He opens drawers in offices and bedrooms and prides himself on knowing some of your most intimate secret habits and pleasures.  Did I mention creepy?   He doesn’t consider himself a criminal or dangerous. However, when he falls in love with Abigail, one of his clients, he sets into motion a series of events that show how dangerous his twisted mind can be.  She is unaware of his affection but when he discovers through his prowling that the man Abigail loves is a philandering predator, he sets out to discredit him as a means to protect her.   His plan turns disastrous and the plot thickens.  Mr. Hemming is the narrator of his story and that makes it even more compelling.  The book , The Pleasure of His Calling: a Novel by Hogan is a tense read, so much so that you might want to consider changing your locks after reading it.

Also set in England, The Girl on the Train by Hawkins, has been dubbed the new Gone Girl and hit the best-seller list shortly after publication. The main character, Rachel, becomes obsessed with a couple she observes from her daily commute into the city by train. As the train passes a suburban area and stops at a signal that allows her to watch the same couple daily as they breakfast on their patio, she fantasizes what their perfect life must be like. She even gives them names.  (More creepiness) Because her own life has recently fallen into shambles their  “perfect” existence grows out of proportion in her mind.  “They’re happy, I can tell. They’re what I used to be. Tom and I five years ago. They’re what I lost; they’re everything I want to be.”

Then one day on her commute, she observes a scenario on the patio that destroys the perfect couple image. She feels compelled to let one of the partners know what she has seen.  Similar to the scheming realtor, she tries to protect a person who doesn’t even know she exists and in doing so, complications arise, including a murder.  Because alcohol is her constant companion after working hours, often leading to memory lapses, she questions what she has seen and even her actions, not being able to account for hours of her time.

It is difficult to discuss any more of the story without plot spoilers but leave it to say there is suspense and tension. The Girl on the Train has also been compared to Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

The third book, Her, a Novel, by Lane, also set in England, is the story of two seemingly very different women.  It seems at first glance that Nina and Emma have little in common. Emma, who left a thriving television career, is now the mother of toddler Christopher and pregnant with her second child.  Her once glamorous life now consists of picking up rice cakes and Legos.   Nina, on the other end of the spectrum, is an artist who has already raised her family and lives a seemingly ordered  and successful existence, which includes posh dinners and a vacation home.

From the opening sentence, when Nina recognizes Emma, we are aware that something chilling is about to unfold.  Told in both women’s voices with alternating chapters, we hear first from Nina, “The sensation of it, of finding her there in front of me after all this time, is almost overwhelmingly powerful: like panic or passion…I’m scared of seeing her, and I’m scared that I’ll never see her again.”

Their paths begin to cross frequently.  Little does Emma know that Nina is orchestrating every “chance” meeting.  We are aware of Emma’s rage while Nina is totally oblivious to it and so the tension mounts with each chapter as it builds to how Nina knows Emma--and an ending that is too horrific to imagine.

I chose to review these three books together because of so many common elements—the British setting and psycho characters who try to orchestrate the lives of people who are unaware of the evil lurking so near them.  Besides changing our locks, these books remind us to close our blinds and perhaps be leery of strangers who want to befriend us.