Big book, Big knitting, Big Olympics

I am in a rut, a very enjoyable rut. I’m about two-thirds of the way through A Suitable Boy, which, according to Wikipedia at least, is one of the longest books ever published in one volume in the English language. It is very very long, and very very good. I wish I had read it more slowly so that I could have more time with this wonderful book!

And my knitting, well, I can’t say that I wish my current project were taking longer, but I am certainly enjoying it as well. It’s a variation of Natalie Selles’ pattern, Reunion Cowl, a big huge cowl made of very fine lace weight yarn. I would estimate that it has at least 100,000 stitches in it, and it’s not even done yet! But the fabric made by this yarn (Fleece Artist Bluefaced Leicester 2/8 is very very soft, and the colour (a variegated sort of icy blue), makes it fascinating to knit, as I just want to see how the next inch will look. That being said, I am really looking forward to having it finished. I can’t deny that I am looking forward, just a little, to crisp fall weather, and wearing my new gray fall coat, topped off with this cowl. I’m knitting it in plain stocking stitch, without the rows of eyelets shown in the pattern.

And what better thing to do when knitting a giant blue cowl than watching the Olympics! I am enjoying a surfeit of swimming, gymnastics, rowing, whitewater canoeing, and more!

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Booker prize 2012 long list (with wine gums)

Still in VacationLand, still reading. I’m about halfway through A Suitable Boy. There’s nothing more relaxing that lying down on your bed on a summer afternoon, reading a large book with hundreds of pages to go, and eating a large bag of Maynard’s Wine Gums (not widely available in the US – pity).

I continue to LOVE A Suitable Boy – I’m learning so much about India that I never knew before (including the fact that monkeys seem to gambol freely around public parks), yet the characters inhabit a place that seems entirely familiar. It is a very funny book too.

I happened to see on the Guardian website today that the
Booker Prize Longlist has been released. I’ll be interested, when I return to Madison, to see how much media play and shelf space (in both bookstores and libraries) is given to Booker Prize Nominees. The prize receives a fair amount of attention in Canada because only authors who are citizens of the U.K., the Commonwealth, and the Republic of Ireland, are eligible. I’ve noticed before, and discussed it with my American librarian colleagues, that the fiction markets in the U.S. and Canada are remarkably distinct; my husband, for example, had never even heard of David Foster Wallace and his big fat crazy novel, Infinite Jest, until he moved to the States to attend graduate school. and my husband’s a tennis-playing logician. On the other hand, I had a great time pulling several well-known (in Canada) Canadian novels to lend to a Madison English-teacher friend for her summer reading this year, including Fall on Your Knees and Lives of Girls and Women.

This year’s Booker longlist, unlike in some previous years, contains many almost unknown titles; the exception is Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall. Mantel’s book is also the only nominee that I have read – I devoured it in a beachside marathon of Renaissance machinations and gore during the first three days of our holiday. I’ll definitely post a longer review soon. In the meantime, I think I’ll agree with the London bookies, cited in the Guardian article, who are calling it: I think Bring Up the Bodies will win the Booker.

Recipe: Sweet and Spicy Szechwan Style Eggplant with Tofu

Greetings from Ontario, Canada’s Variety Vacationland!

(I just bought this awesome postcard a few days ago, one of several good ones by Canadian Culture Thing)

Things in Vacationland are strikingly similar to RealLifeLand, and primarily consist of reading (A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth), visiting family, swimming, cooking and knitting. I just wrote up this recipe for one of my favourite dishes and figured I might as well share it. I have been known to eat massive amounts of this sort of dish in a good Chinese restaurant, so I’ve been trying to perfect it for several years. This last attempt was particularly good, if I do say so myself, so here it is:

Bronwen’s Sweet and Spicy Szechwan Style Eggplant with Tofu

Ingredients:

For frying:
3 asian eggplants (long and skinny, pale purple)
1 block firm or extra firm tofu
1 red bell pepper
2 inches long piece of fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup peanut or canola oil, or enough to fill your pan to 1 inch

For sauce (adjust to taste)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp sesame oil
4 drops Tabasco or to taste
1/2 cup water, or to taste

To serve:
1 tbsp rice vinegar (I used Chinkiang black rice vinegar)
about 10 leaves fresh basil, finely slices (roll it up and slice it)

Method:

Cut the tofu into slices about 1/2 inch thick, then cut the slices into triangles: stack all the slices up, then make four cuts into the stack – one slice across, one slice up and down, and two diagonals. Hard to explain. I don’t know why the triangles are better, but they are.

Lay the tofu out in one layer on a clean tea-towel (which I used), or paper towel. It fries better when it’s dry.

Cut the eggplants lengthways in half, then lengthways again into quarters. I’ve found that the long pieces give you the best texture, because the insides get yummy and soft without the edges getting dried out. Put them on a tea-towel too, for the same reason.

Fry the tofu (if you’re feeling virtuous, you can skip this step and just add plain tofu to the sauce and eggplant at the end, but this way is yummier). Pour the oil into your pan to a depth of 1 inch. I normally use a wok, but this time I used a cast iron frying pan – I think it makes the flavour better because there is more charring on the eggplant, but it’s a bit more of a pain. Stick a piece of tofu in the oil to test the temperature. Turn the heat on high and keep it there – I was always squeamish about hot frying oil, but if you turn the heat down the oil will soak into the food. High heat is key. Watch it like a hawk and ventilate – have your husband standing by to turn off the smoke alarm! Once the test piece of tofu starts to bubble around the edges, add the tofu to the pan. Try to keep it in a single layer. Fry it, at high heat and without moving it around, for at least five minutes, or until it starts to become visibly golden brown on the bottom. Flip it and repeat (takes a little less time on the second side). Remove the tofu with a slotted spoon and drain it on a clean rag (yes, I’m a hippie), or paper towel.

Fry the eggplant. Drain off some of the oil in the pan if necessary until you have about 1/2 inch left. Keeping the heat on high, place the oblong pieces of eggplant into the pan with one of the the cut (non-skin), side down. Fry (about 5 min?), until the cut side is lightly browned. Turn it so the other cut side hits the pan, and repeat. By this point, the eggplant should be mushy and it should smell sweet. Mushiness is key. Keep the eggplant always in one layer – with a standard cast-iron frying pan I had to do the eggplant in two batches. Remove the cooked eggplant to your absorbent draining surface of choice.

Turn the heat down slightly, and add the red peppers, chopped in one inch squares, and the garlic and ginger, finely chopped, to the pan. It’s important to add the garlic along with everything else, not before, or it will burn. Stir-fry this mixture until the peppers are fairly soft and smell sweet. Add the sauce ingredients, including 1/2 cup water, to the pan. You want there to be an excess of sauciness, because some will be soaked up by the tofu and eggplant when you add it. Wait until the sauce is boiling and cook until slightly thickened – about one minute. Taste the sauce and adjust seasonings, especially spiciness.

Add the fried eggplant pieces and tofu to the pan and cook in the sauce with the peppers until everything is heated through and soaked in sauce. Add the rice vinegar, tasting to adjust seasoning, and the chopped basil, and mix everything up. Serve over rice.

Warm weather reading

beach

(July will be spent reading on this beach on beautiful Lake Huron)

A colleague of mine, who is studying to be a children’s librarian, was slightly flummoxed the other day when she happened upon an online book list titled “Warm weather fiction for boys.” I suppose the author thought that boys wouldn’t like the term Beach Reads?

I have a confession: when I said the other day that the semester was over, I wasn’t telling the truth. I haven’t finished my grading (or, as us Canucks call it, marking) yet. So I will let The New York Times recommend the reading for today, in an excellent article about Beach Reads.

I should mention, though, that in case you liked the sound of the Bachelor Brothers Bed & Breakfast, you can find more Canadian humour (with a U, naturally), by perusing the list of past winners of the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. I’ve certainly enjoyed several books on this list during summer camping trips and cottage visits, and in the wintertime too:

Leaven of Malice by Robertson Davies (1955 winner)
The Fencepost Chronicles by W.P. Kinsella (1987 – Kinsella is, of course, the author of those two other great summer baseball books: The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and Shoeless Joe ), but his short stories are less well-known, and hilarious)
Prayers of a Very Wise Child, by Roch Carrier (1992)
Barney’s Version Mordecai Richler (1992)
The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (2008)

“eccentrics and eccentricities–fiction”

Novels don’t often receive subject headings when they are cataloged, but two of my favorite books received this gem: “eccentrics and eccentricities–fiction.” And it couldn’t be more appropriate.

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(last summer’s foray to BBB&B land – the Strait of Georgia)

The books in question are Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast and Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book, by Bill Richardson, a Vancouverite who writes light fiction, non-fiction and children’s books while working as a radio host for the CBC.

(fun fact of the day: Bill Richardson used to be a children’s librarian – he has a library degree from UBC.)

The books (which stand alone, but are probably best read in order) chronicle the adventures and misadventures of fraternal twin brothers Hector and Virgil, who run a book-focused bed and breakfast on a small island in the Strait of Georgia, between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. The island is never identified by name: it is a mythical addition to the Gulf Islands, a group of islands that, to some observers, might as well come out of a storybook. The islands have a reputation for good wine and food (especially cheese), beautiful scenery, eccentric architecture, and low-key inhabitants. Guests come to the BBBB&B from a variety of Canadian towns and cities with the goal of either solitary or social reading of books ranging from Proust to P.D. James. They are encouraged to write their stories in the inn’s guestbook, and these are sprinkled throughout the narrative. The second book, modeled on the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, is more scrapbook-like than the first, and includes recipes.

Hector and Virgil are the product of a dalliance between their mother, a frustrated socialite with a passion for auto mechanics, and a traveling book salesman, and the description of their parentage and childhood is one of the most enjoyable parts of the first book. Although both parents are dead at the beginning of the narrative, the twins are haunted by them, through their father’s boxes of books, delivered annually on their birthdays, which turn them into devoted bibliophiles with extended (sometimes bordering on pretentious) vocabularies, and and by their mother’s ghost, which occasionally appears “in person” but more often makes herself known through the voice of the twins’ parrot, Mrs. Rochester.

A number of secondary characters also pop in and out, sometimes to provide comic relief, sometimes to spur reflection on the part of the twins or the reader. Hector’s girlfriend, Altona Winkler, writes romance novels and tabloid-esque articles in the local paper (both are excerpted); their friends Rae and June run a local cafe called The Well of Loneliness and the second book sees the introduction of their handyman, Caedmon Harkness, who lives in a thatched VW bus with his pet parrot, who is mute. Virgil has a photographic memory for poetry, both serious and comic, and both the twins and their guests (who occasionally take the narrative reins) make numerous recommendations for books of poetry, non-fiction, novels and cookbooks.

While it is a pleasure for the reader to discover new poems through Virgil’s recitations, not everybody will have a taste for one of the books’ dominant running gags, the doggerel moral poetry written by the island’s late resident poet, Solomon Solomon. It will either make you giggle and think, or it will annoy you, and the same could be said of these books’ quirky vocabulary and wordplay and their reflective and slow-moving tone, which sometimes verges on self-indulgent navel gazing. But don’t let me put you off – I wouldn’t be writing about these books if I didn’t enjoy them very much. The first one is definitely best enjoyed in audiobook form, read by the author: the narrative was designed for radio, as Bill Richardson first introduced the characters on CBC radio in the early 90s, and I suspect that the audiobook would be perfect for commuters, as it is divided into short snippets of narrative.

These books will probably be familiar to my Canadian readers (I’m still, frankly, getting used to the idea of having readers! Hello readers!) Richardson won The Stephen Leacock Award for Humour for the first book. But, as I have discussed with friends in Madison, books that are well-known in Canada are not always well known elsewhere, and vice versa, so I hope that I have convinced some new readers to meet Hector and Virgil at the Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast!

Torontonians

In the spirit of my current read, The Complete Tightwad Gazette (more to come on that later, I promise), I headed out for some free fun this past weekend on a visit to Toronto. It was Doors Open weekend!

(I am not sure if I need to explain this, since I am almost certain that everyone who reads this blog knows me, and is therefore likely to know about the greatness that is Doors Open)

The first stop was Campbell House, at Queen and University. I had never been inside, despite the fact that I am a huge Canadian history nerd, and this is one of the oldest houses in Toronto. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos. By far the most interesting part was the basement kitchen, and the explanation of how to cook a roast dinner and bake pies in the big fireplace. There was also a demo of how to make 19th century lemonade, which made me thirsty, since it was about 30 degrees out!

Next, the Canada Life building just next door.

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This building has been part of Doors Open Toronto for almost as long as the event has been running, and I would totally recommend a visit here next year. Visitors can ride the elevator to the top floor observation deck, which is very opulently decorated besides having a great view of downtown.

After we emerged from the elevators at ground level, and I recovered from the vertigo-inducing video of a repairman replacing a lightbulb on the building’s weather beacon/planned airship tether, I remembered a bookish connection.

If I remember correctly, a key scene in The Torontonians, by Phyllis Brett Young, takes place in the Canada Life building. The protagonist, a frustrated suburban housewife, has gone downtown to visit a neighbour about a mysterious cheque (wouldn’t want to give more than that away about the plot!). He stands in his office, looking out at the city spread before him, musing on his past in the slums of the The Ward, and looking towards the future at the lands being cleared for the new city hall.

I can’t find the book right now in my messy apartment, but if I could, I’d include a quote to convince you to read it! It’s gripping in a soapy kind of way, and I loved to read the descriptions of Toronto of the early 60s, when the Yonge Street subway (and resultant decrease in traffic) was still novel, and Leaside was considered the ‘burbs.