Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

When Rules of Civility appeared on several “Notable Books of 2011” lists,  I thought I’d check it out.  It turned out to be, if not the best, perhaps the most enjoyable read for me that year.  I hesitate to say “best” because that is quite a superlative comment  for a book to live up to which  may leave other readers disappointed, but I can at least say how I felt while reading it. 

Pure pleasure, in the story, the setting, the characters, the witty dialogue and that feeling of being transported totally to a different time (1938) and place (New York City).  Each time I opened the book I was totally there.  I found the language so fresh that although I listened to the book the first time around, I justified that I had to buy the hard copy so I could re-read the numerous examples of figurative language—actually see it in print. In other words, a keeper on the bookshelf.

Now before I go into detail about why Rules of Civility was so enjoyable, I must admit not all the readers were as enamored with the novel as I was.  When reviewing a book, I try not to read other reviews to keep my thoughts original and true, but sometimes it’s hard not to take a peek. Okay, I peeked on this one and sort of wished I hadn’t because I was shocked to read things like, “...the characters stopped developing, the action lagged, and then the story ended abruptly.”  Like someone criticizing your child, I felt I had to come to this book’s defense immediately.  

The story opens New Year’s Eve, 1937, where 25-year old Katey Kontent and her boarding house roommate, Eve, begin their evening celebration. They start at a Greenwich Village jazz bar trying to stretch $3.00 between them as far as it will go with one martini an hour, planning to wind up at a Ukrainian diner at dawn with a 15- cent breakfast of coffee, eggs and toast.  Katey and Eve flirt with shameless savoir-faire and are so clever with the quick repartees.   For example, “On Friday nights they let boys they had no intention of kissing buy them drinks and in exchange for dinner they kissed a few who they had no intention of kissing twice.”

But on that New Year’s Eve, when an elegant moneyed banker named Tinker Grey walks into the jazz bar, it changes all their lives forever.  Katey is immediately smitten, “You could just picture his forebear at the helm of the Mayflower with a gaze trained brightly on the horizon and hair a little curly from the sea salt air.”  But Eve calls, “Dibs”, first.  Although we follow this threesome throughout the year 1938, the story is mainly Katey’s as she rises from a Wall Street secretarial pool to the upper echelons of New York Society.

Katey, a bookworm, is the daughter of Russian immigrants from Brooklyn (where she was known as Katya) and Eve, a blonde, corn-fed beauty, hails from midwest Indiana.  She’s the daughter of a wealthy businessman, although she refuses any financial support from him, wanting to “make it” on her own.  Katey  has been compared to other notable characters in literature, such as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Nick Carraway in the Great Gatsby.  Perhaps some of you remember Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything,  described as an expose of the lives and loves of Madison Avenue working girls.  If you are too young for that one, think Mad Men, but in a much more genteel and innocent fashion. (This is the 30’s not the 60’s). One review said it was also reminiscent of Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities because it captured different aspects of the city at a specific time.

There is no question The City itself plays a huge role in the story.  According to one reader, “If a novel could win an award for best cinematography, this would take home the gold.  It is a retro-era novel of manners, capturing Manhattan 1938 with lucid clarity and a silvery focus on the gin, the jazz, the nightclubs and the streets.”  One of my favorite descriptions was traveling by cab with Katey, “... watching Broadway slipping by the windows like a string of lights being pulled off a Christmas tree”.  Or “... seeing limousines idling in front of the 21 Club, smoke spiraling from their tailpipes like genies from a bottle.”

One critic of the book says the plot relies too much on co-incidences, as if only 438 people lived in New York—always running into the right person at the most opportune moment.  I never felt it was contrived but perhaps I was too star-struck with all the name-dropping...Bergdorf’s, Cole Porter, The Ritz. After reading author Towles’ bio, I could see where he believes in co-incidence as he personally, on his first night in the city many years ago, met two strangers—one who would become his brother-in-law and the other who would help him find a job he worked at for 20 years.  A Yale and Stanford educated investment executive turned novelist (this is his debut novel), I was quite impressed that as a mature male he was able to define the world so clearly through the eyes of a 25-year old girl trying to re-invent herself in the city.

We meet Katey again 30 years later and a critical question resurfaces: “Are the behavioral rules that define civility simply a mask that people wear to conceal their true natures or are the rules themselves important and the motivation for following them irrelevant? “

For a novel that seems to be full of glitz and glamour, it’s a heady question, which brings us to the title:  The Young George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.  The bonus appendix contains all 110 rules, ranging from simple Emily Post etiquette such as, ”Drink not nor talk with your mouth full” to the esoteric “Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called Conscience.”   Tinker’s conscience is at the heart of his relationship with Katey and its outcome.

I loved spending a year and 335 pages with heroine Katey Kontent in the City.  I hope you do too.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

There are crab cakes...and there are crab cakes.  I'm always trying new recipes to find the "perfect" crab cake.  Now you might wonder how many variations can there be.  Not really that many if you stick to the basics....the first basic being GOOD white lump meat crab. (That is generally not the small cans you buy at the grocery store.  Costco and Trader Joe both have good one lb. cans with rich white meat.)

The recipe below (from Cooking Light Magazine April 2012) is one of the best I've tried.  One thing this recipe said that I have not read in others is to first drain the crab meat on several layers of paper towel.  If you're a crab cake connoisseur maybe you already knew this simple step, but I didn't.

I hope you enjoy this...if not, don't be crabby about it.

CRAB CAKES with spicy Remoulade

1 lb. jumbo crab meat, shell pieces removed
2 Tablespoons green bell pepper chopped
1.5 teaspoons canola mayo
½ black pepper   (I also add ½ teaspoon lemon pepper)
2 green onions, finely chopped
1 large egg, slightly beaten
1 cup panko –divided
2 tablespoons oil, divided

Drain crabmeat on several layers of paper towel. Combine crabmeat and next 4 ingredients through egg.  Toss gently and stir in ¼ cup panko crumbs. Put remaining ¾ cup panko in a shallow dish.

Divide crab mixture into 8 balls.  Shape balls into 8 patties and dredge in remaining panko.  Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat.  Add one T oil. Add 4 dredged patties and cook 3 minutes on each side or until golden. Remove from pan and fry the remaining 4 patties in other tablespoon of oil.

Crab cakes can be served over lettuce as photo shows and also with a spicy Remoulade sauce below:

¼ cup canola mayo
2 teaspoons minced shallots
1 teaspoon fresh chopped tarragon
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
1.5 teaspoons Dijon mustard
¾ teaspoon capers, chopped
¾ teaspoon white wine vinegar
¼ teaspoon ground red pepper.

Friday, April 13, 2012


You’ve heard the quote: “So many books; so little time”.  Since I agree wholeheartedly, why would I, or anyone, ever read the same book twice? 

Perhaps it’s like visiting an old and cherished friend. As the years pass, although the friend remains steadfast, you have changed and the story takes on new meaning. In many cases it was to see if the book was still “as good” as I thought the first time. The list I have compiled below is one where they definitely were and maybe better the 2nd time around.

I’ve listed them in order of the year they were published...not the order I necessarily read them, although surprisingly I can remember many settings, often the home and room I was in at the time. I’d say they left a favorable and lasting impression.  I couldn’t resist a few of my favorite lines in some...

Pride and Prejudice-Jane Austen (1813)

Jane Eyre-Charlotte Bronte (1847)

A Tale of Two Cities –Charles Dickens (1859) “Tis a far far better thing I do”

Little Women –Louisa Mae Alcott (1868)

Great Gatsby –F.Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Secret of the Old Clock- Nancy Drew (1930) Carolyn Keene (Keene was a pen name for two modern and ahead -of -their time sisters: Harriet Adams and Mildred Benson, who inherited their father’s book company, The Stratemeyer Syndicate).

Gone with the Wind-Margaret Mitchell (1936) Frankly, Scarlett....

How To Win Friends and Influence People  (1936)–Dale Carnegie. “If you want to gather honey, don’t kick over the bee hive.”

Rebecca-Daphne Du Maurier (1938) “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again.”

And Then There Were None-Agatha Christie (1940) Also known by the title Ten Little Indians.

Seventeenth Summer – Maureen Daly (1942)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn-Betty Smith (1943)

Diary of Anne Frank- (1947)

A Town Like Alice -Nevil Shute who also wrote On the Beach (1950)

A Kiss Before Dying –Ira Levin of Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby fame. (1953)

To Kill a Mockingbird-Harper Lee (1960) “Atticus, he was real nice.” “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

Advise and Consent-Alan Drury, credited with giving birth to the Washington political novel. (1960) I read this in ‘62—my first intro to politics—612 pages of politics.

Five Smooth Stones-Ann Fairbairn (1966)

Ordinary People –Judith Guest (1976) My first reading was in my living room in Michigan 1974 before it was published! Judy is a friend who entrusted me with her story, which was then just a hefty bundle of 81/2 x 11 white pages—written on a typewriter no less.

Last of the Breed –Louis L’Amour (1986) This is not a western but a great Russian espionage novel.

Crossing to Safety-Wallace Stegner (1987)

The Eight - Katherine Neville  (1988) Think DaVinci Code but better.

Boys’ Life- Robert McCammon  (1991)

Coming Home- Rosamund Pilcher of Shell Seekers fame. (1995)

Rules of Civility (2011) -Amor Towles.  I listened to this originally but had to buy the book to highlight all the original, fresh and beautiful metaphors.

I opened with a quote and will close with this pre-school ditty....keeping in mind—
good books /great friends: “Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver but the other is gold”.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Disclaimer:  This is a word-of--mouth recipe from my mother. I don’t have it written down anywhere, so all measurements are approximate.... but it’s not rocket science (or baking) so try it and adjust according to your own taste.

6 green peppers (I try to buy the smaller ones)
If you like spicy food you can also stuff a few small hot peppers of any variety.

3.5 to 4 lbs ground meat-- a mixture of ground beef and ground pork. Can be ½ and ½ or 2/3 beef and 1/3 pork.

About ¾ cup long grain rice (not instant)
2 14.5- oz cans of diced tomotoes....can use plain or seasoned...lately I have been using the fire-roasted diced.
1 large or 2  small onions  (diced)
Salt, pepper, paprika,
Garlic is optional but I usually add.

In a pan large enough to brown all the meat, first dice and sauté onions in a little oil.  If you are using garlic, add it to the onion mixture.   When almost done, add the rice to the onion mixture to coat it with the oil and onion flavor. Continue sautéing for a few minutes.  Remove onion/rice mixture from pan and set aside.

In same pan brown the beef and pork. I sometimes used potato masher to make sure it is in small loose pieces while it is browning.  Drain excess grease and then add spices, including salt, pepper to taste and about 2 T paprika.

Then add the onion/rice mixture to the meat pan with the meat.

Add the canned tomatoes to the meat mixture and stir.

While the meat is browning, prepare the green peppers. Wash, slice off tops and scoop out seeds and membranes.  Dice tops into small pieces (remove membranes) which you can add to the meat mixture for added color and flavor.

I like to use a blue speckled roasting pan with a lid.  Put a thin layer of the meat mixture in the bottom of the pan .  Stuff each pepper and lay them on their sides (so skin will brown) on top of the meat mixture.  Spoon excess meat mixture between peppers and on top.

Put some water or chicken broth along sides of the peppers so the mixture will remain juicy and moist.  You don’t want the water as high as the peppers...maybe about 1/3 of the way up.  As the rice cooks it will absorb some of the water.

Bake covered at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. Then rotate peppers (carefully so filling doesn’t come out).  Bake covered another 30 minutes or so.  Remove lid from pan and continue baking for about 30 minutes while you rotate peppers till all sides are darkened on top.   (Some people par boil the peppers to remove the outer skin – I have never done this and it doesn’t seem to be a problem. If someone doesn’t like the skin of the pepper, it is easily removed when it is charred a bit from the roasting.  I think there are more vitamins in the skin too.

If necessary add a little more water to mixture to keep it moist.

Options:  A small can of tomato sauce can be placed over the peppers while they are roasting but I think it waters down the meat and pepper can experiment to your taste.

Garnishes at table:  This is good with crumbled Feta cheese sprinkled over it or red pepper flakes for individual spicing.  If everyone in the family likes it spicy, a small can of diced green chilies can be added to the meat mixture.

When serving it is nice to plate up some of the loose meat along with the stuffed pepper as it is usually has more juice in it.

Add some crusty bread like Italian or French and it is a complete meal with protein , starch and veggie.

Leftover meat mixture makes a good taco filling. You can add some taco seasoning to the meat mixture for a more authentic taco taste.