Monday, February 21, 2011

Book #9: The Year of the Hare

The Finnish writer Arto Paasilinna's The Year of the Hare has got to be one of the most absurdly amusing things I've read in quite some time. The novel, originally published in 1975 but only translated into English in 1995, starts off normal enough for a novel: Vatanen, a newspaper writer, is headed back home with his photographer partner when the pair hit a hare in their vehicle. Vatanen gets out to see about the hare, and in the few moments in which he realizes that he is responsible for the hare's broken leg, he decides to entirely abandon the joyless, constricted life he'd been leading in Helsinki.

What follows is something of a migrant tale, in which Vatanen and his hare go from place to place as they please, seeking solitude in nature and finding odd physical-labor jobs along the way. At first they seem only to encounter people as enchanted with the hare as Vatanen is. The longer Vatanen sets himself apart from "normal" society, however, the more extreme both he and society seem to become. Pretty soon what started as something of a Thoreau-like retreat from modernity turns into something very like madness, complete with troubled encounters with authority and fixations on wild animals.

I will surely be thinking about this book for quite some time, trying to figure out exactly what happens at the end and just who Vatanen might be. Paasilinna's narrative style is mostly sparse, making the chapters quick and self-contained with occasional moments of confusion. The humor is strongly there throughout, eventually souring just a bit into darkness. I'd suggest this book to readers looking for something out of the ordinary, those who enjoy a bit of the absurd in their literature, and those interested in novels in translation.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

New meal: Modified Lasagna Bolognese

Whoops! I know it probably seems like I've fallen off the face of the planet, or at least like I haven't been reading anything or cooking anything new. Both of those statements are false: I've been cooking and reading plenty, but I've suddenly become rather busy with school/professional/research commitments as well. Let's just say a lot of my reading lately has pertained to planning children's programs. Happily, camp stories are about to make an appearance...

I did make a tasty modified lasagna bolognese this past week for the roomie and me. I used a ragu recipe from Cooks Illustrated as the basis for the lasagna, but instead of ground beef and pork, I used ground pork and veal (what I had in my freezer from particularly good sales at the butcher counter). Instead of a heavy bechamel to go with the meaty, tomato-y sauce, I used low-fat ricotta cheese and shredded mozzarella. Really, it was divine.

The main principles for this ragu:
  • soften the aromatics (small chopped onions, carrots, and celery) first in a bit of olive oil
  • add the meat (about 1 1/2 lbs) and break it apart so it doesn't clump
  • before the meat really starts browning, dump in 1 1/2 c milk--at least 2%; let it simmer and reduce for at least 20 minutes
  • dump in 1 1/2 c dry white wine; let it simmer and reduce for at least 20 minutes
  • dump in 1 tbsp of tomato paste, a 28-oz can of petite diced tomatoes, some salt, and pepper; let it simmer and reduce for at least 20 minutes until you've got a sauce consistency that you like
From there, it's really just layering in lasagna, topping hot pasta, or frankly, eating the ragu with a spoon. It's that good.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Book #8: Anna and the French Kiss

I found Stephanie Perkins's YA novel Anna and the French Kiss on the same best books list as Before I Fall, which I read and reviewed about two weeks ago. Upon first reading a blurb about the book, you'd probably think to yourself, Oh, another high school YA story of will they or won't they get together in the end. And, yes, while I suppose the most obvious storyline in the book is whether Anna and her new best friend Etienne will finally acknowledge how they feel about one another, that's only just a part of the book.

The story starts out with Anna from Georgia, about to begin her senior year in high school, being forced to attend school at the School of America in Paris. She doesn't speak French; she doesn't feel comfortable in such a new place; she's leaving her best friends, her potential boyfriend, and her beloved younger brother behind. All because her father, who writes sappy cancer-themed tear-jerkers that live on the bestsellers list despite being absolute drivel, wants to say that his daughter is cultured. Needless to say, Anna is not happy.

But she is lucky, because she immediately falls into a tight group of friends at the school. They start to help her get out of her shell, show her where the local cinemas are, help her learn enough French to get by--especially Etienne, the cool-without-trying boy on whom every girl apparently crushes. He likes hanging out with Anna--a lot. We only get to hear Anna's thoughts about what's going on, but it's pretty obvious that both Anna and Etienne are perpetually talking themselves out of getting together because of Etienne's continued relationship with another girl.

Sure, that does sound a bit trite (at least there are no vampires!). But behind the "will-they-won't-they," there are some great themes about seizing the opportunities that you might not have wanted, learning to really communicate with the people you care about, dealing with less-than-ideal family situations, and defining what "home" is on one's own terms. Set with Paris as a backdrop, and peppered with rapid, witty dialogue, Anna and the French Kiss achieves all the good that can come from a YA novel that is ultimately about a relationship.

I'd suggest this book to readers who enjoy boarding school relationship stories (think Looking for Alaska) or realistic stories about coming to terms with new surroundings. Older YA girls in particular who enjoy realistic high school stories would probably like this book.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Book #7: Peter and the Starcatchers

I suppose it looks like I'm on something of a retelling-of-well-known-tales kick. I had heard that Dave Barry (yes, that Dave Barry) and Ridley Pearson's Peter and the Starcatchers, the first in a series of adventure novels aimed at children and young adults, set out to retell the story of Peter Pan. The premise, as I'm sure you could have guessed, drew me in, and I finally checked out the book from the library last week.

I read the whole 400+ page book in just one day (and it was a busy day, at that!). I was able to do so not primarily because of the quick style and Hi-Lo accessible reading level, but because my attention was held rapt throughout the entirety of the story. This first book in the series ends up being a prequel of sorts to the premise of the story of Peter Pan; throughout the book, each element of the story falls into place as Peter becomes able to fly, the Lost Boys band together, the pirate loses his hand to a massive crocodile... well, you get the idea. It's all there, even elements of the original Peter Pan that I didn't recall immediately on my own.

The book starts with Peter and some other orphans being led onto a ship bound for a foreign land with a cruel king--the ship is the Never Land, as it would happen. On the ship, a bit of mystery and intrigue seems to surround an otherwise inconspicuous trunk. The first mate makes sure it's guarded, a young girl seems to want to investigate, and a pirate schemes to get it for himself. Seeing just how what's in the trunk allows the whole story of Peter Pan to begin to take formation is really fascinating. The whole thing is extremely well-crafted, if a bit goofy with names (Black Stache? Fighting Prawn?).

I'd suggest this book to reluctant young male readers in particular, as I think the adventure and hints of familiarity would capture their attention. I'd also suggest it to anyone interested in a behind-the-scenes type look at a favorite story.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Book #6: The Fairy-Tale Detectives

Since I'm still working the reference desk at the public library one day a week, and since I do want to be as informed as possible about reading suggestions for young people when I go on the job market in a month or two, I decided I would indulge my desires to read juvenile fiction. I found a mention of a series for older elementary school readers called The Sisters Grimm. It's a relatively new series, but it has already achieved the distinction of being on the NYT Bestsellers List. I figured this variety of recommendations could earn the book a spot on my to-read list.

I knew right off the bat that I'd enjoy the whole premise of the first book in the series, The Fairy-Tale Detectives. After the disappearance of their parents and a stint in an orphanage, the two Grimm sisters suddenly find themselves living with a grandmother whom they thought dead. Granny Grimm, though alive, does seem a bit on the odd side. She talks to her house, cooks brightly technicolored foods... Oh, yeah, and she lives in a town inhabited almost exclusively by fairy tale characters. When things go awry, it's up to Granny Grimm to solve any problems and mysteries. And when Granny Grimm is carried away by a giant? Well, then it falls to the sisters Grimm to do their best to save the day.

I found one of the main characters, Sabrina Grimm, to be a bit whiny in her thoughts to herself--I wouldn't have chosen her as the focus of third person limited point of view as author Michael Buckley did. The pace of the story moved pretty quickly, however, and those slightly tedious passages where Sabrina is a bit too much in her own head go by quickly.

The characterization of famous fairy tale characters is really superb. Beauty and the Beast gossiping with the Three Blind Mice while waiting to enter Prince Charming's ball? Yes, please! I'd suggest this book to children who enjoy both mystery and fantasy stories, and to adults who enjoy clever fractured fairy tales and are looking for a bit of escape in their reading.