Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sweet Potato Empanadas

It's a bit quiet here on the blog this week, largely because I've caught up with posts for all of the books I want to write about. I'm in the middle of a couple others that I have to finish up to get some new blog material, but in the meantime I thought I'd share a recipe creation I came up with last week using a delicious, if slightly unexpected, combination of ingredients: sweet potatoes, goat cheese, honey, and roasted grapes.

I was inspired to play around with these flavors after trying this baked potato recipe from Pinterest. I liked it, but wanted to try to turn it into a more substantial meal. Here's how I made the empanadas:

Roast 1/2 cup of red grapes tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper on a baking try for 10-15 minutes at 350 degrees. Keep a close eye on this part so that the grapes don't start to smoke.

Peel and cube one good sized sweet potato and boil until tender (10-12 mins). Once done, mash the potato together with an ounce of goat cheese and dashes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and honey. Using store bought pizza dough divided into four quarters, roll out thin rounds and filled half with the potato mixture, a slice of goat cheese, a few of the grapes, and an extra drizzle of honey.

Fold the dough over to form the empanadas and use a fork to seal the edges.

Brush the tops with olive oil and bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. Munch on any leftover roasted grapes while you wait.

This might just be my new favorite flavor combination. I highly recommend trying it, whether in the original baked potato form or in my empanada twist on it.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Friday Fancies

Now that a few days have passed since the Downton Abbey finale, let's dish a little about Season 3, shall we?

(For anyone who hasn't watched the full season yet- stop reading here and jump down below the second photo. I was the victim of a big spoiler myself and don't want to inflict the same on anyone else!)

(image via here)

The spoiler I stumbled on ahead of time was, of course, Matthew's fate, so I watched the entire season knowing what was coming. Sybil, on the other hand,was much more of a shock. Although I'm sad to see both characters go, I think their departures set the stage for some interesting new story lines for Mary and Branson. My personal prediction is that Mary is going to take a more active role in running the estate, which would continue to reflect the evolving roles of women on the show.

I'm intrigued to see how Edith's romance plays out, although I wish that her editor's secret wasn't quite such a page ripped out of Jane Eyre. The downstairs characters also had their share of drama this season. I'm glad to see Bates out of prison, largely because I was getting bored by his scenes there. I love the way that O'Brien and Thomas are like two conniving pendulums swinging back and forth. When one is at his or her most devious, the other one reveals a more human side. They ultimately always switch places, so it will be interesting to see how that continues to play out next season. And is anyone else wondering whether Daisy will take up her father-in-law's offer to take over his farm?

Did I miss anything? What were your favorite moments of this season?

(one of Lady Violet's funnies lines, via here)

Other noteworthy things this week:

As a final cap on Season Four, here's a Q&A with Julian Fellowes.

The Pride and Prejudice anniversary celebration continues with these Jane Austen stamps.

Paris, Line by Line looks like a sophisticated, grown up Where's Waldo.

A new book blog that's tackling an interesting project.

Orla Kiely's new fall collection gives a nod to The Best of Everything.

And just for fun, my new favorite Twitter feed suggests plots for Seinfeld if the show was still on the air today.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Two on a Tower

Everyone's heard of judging a book by its cover, but how about discovering a book by its cover? If the Penguin English Library cover of Two on a Tower hadn't caught my eye as I was browsing The Book Depository, then this lesser known Thomas Hardy novel would probably still be unknown to me. And although it is one of Hardy's more obscure works, some of the key elements of his most famous novels are out in full force: a smart, scientifically-minded hero, a heroine who skirts a fall from grace, a secret marriage, and an ill fated romance that dissolves due to societal pressures.

The heroine in question in Two on a Tower is Viviette Constantine. At twenty-eight, she is married to an absent Lord who left England for adventures in Africa several years earlier. Prior to his departure, he mistreated Lady Constantine in ways that are only vaguely alluded to on the page. As a result, though Lady Constantine holds the highest social position in her rural parish, she leads a withdrawn and depressed life. A bright spot in her dreary daily routine emerges after she meets twenty-year-old Swithin St. Cleeve, a budding astronomer who sets up his observatory on an old tower located on Lady Constantine's property. They develop a friendship that's centered around gazing at the stars and Lady Constantine soon realizes she's in love with him, as much for her hopes of the great scientific discoveries he'll make one day as for his handsome face and guileless nature. When Lady Constantine receives word that her husband has been killed in Africa, it doesn't take long before she gives in to her feelings for Swithin. They enter into a secret marriage and plan to reveal their relationship publicly only after Swithin makes a name for himself as an astronomer, despite the fact that that could be years in the future. Of course, this being a Hardy novel, the planned path of the couple takes several unexpected turns for the worse. Pressure from relatives, potential rival suitors, and financial matters all place a strain on Swithin and Lady Constantine's commitment to each other. Their relationship reaches a moment of crisis when they learn that their marriage may actually be void due to a technicality and they are faced with a decision of whether to continue their lives together or apart.

In terms of the overall story and writing, I found Two on a Tower to be pretty comparable to the last lesser known Hardy novel I read, A Pair of Blue Eyes. Yet even though they are similar, I enjoyed Two on a Tower quite a bit more. Part of it may be due to my mood at the time of reading each one, but I think a larger part of it is due to the characters of Lady Constantine and Swithin. At first glance, neither one is very appealing. Especially at the beginning of the novel, Lady Constantine's lack of judgment is annoying and Swithin's wide-eyed innocence makes him seem like the farthest thing from an intriguing love interest. As the story progresses, though, Hardy subtly makes their characters more nuanced and more interesting. This is especially true when Swithin first realizes that Lady Constantine has romantic feelings for him. His eyes are opened to a possibility that he never thought of before and, in what seems to be a matter of moments, he transitions from a naive boy to a calculating man in a way that's fascinating to watch. Both he and Lady Constantine turn out to be sympathetic characters worth rooting for. And as a pair, they manage to avoid more potential tragic scrapes than many other Hardy couples do, which kept me holding my breath in hope for a good ending for them, even after the writing on the tower wall became clear, so to speak.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Shrimp & Grits

Today I have a recent cooking exploit to share, although I may be a week too late since shrimp & grits would have been a perfect Fat Tuesday/ Mardi Gras meal.

I first tasted grits during visits to Charleston, SC, and at first bite it was pretty easy to see that the non-grits-eating parts of the country were really missing out. They taste a bit like polenta, are readily available in the grocery store, and cook up in minutes. Here I made cheddar grits formed into a little grits cake and topped with shrimp in a slightly creamy, slightly spice sauce. Corn, peas, and bacon mixed in provided the finishing touches. I used this recipe, which was surprisingly easy given the slightly fancy end result.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Friday Fancies

My favorite internet find of the week has also been my most vexing: this tutorial about how to create latte art. The step-by-step photos and video made it seem so manageable that I immediately tried it myself. It's probably needless to say that the process isn't as easy as it looks. Maybe it's because I used coffee brewed in my Keurig, or because I "steamed" the milk in a measuring cup in the microwave, but my first attempt came out looking like any other cup of coffee I've ever made. As did my second attempt the next day. And my third. I may keep trying, though. The possibility of being an at-home barista is just too tempting to abandon, even if it means a new habit of late night coffee and a wrecked sleep cycle.

(even the birds had to dig out of their houses last weekend)

Some other things to enjoy (no special skills required):

A belated Valentine's fix in the form of vintage cards from the NYPL archive.

A book blogger visits Ann Patchett's bookstore in Memphis.

video book club recommendation from Persephone.

Author Carlene Bauer creates a playlist to go along with Frances and Bernard.

And over the past few weeks there's been a lot of buzz about both the Pride and Prejudice anniversary and updated book cover designs. Combining the two, here's a slideshow of various Pride and Prejudice covers throughout the years. (Cover #7 was the edition I had when I first read the book!)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Classics Club Spin

The Classics Club is organizing a fun Classics Spin event this month that involves making a numbered list of twenty titles from your Classics Club reading list. On Monday, February 18th, a number will be chosen at random and everyone will have to read the book in that spot on their lists. The caveat is that you're supposed to pick a mix of new reads and rereads, books you're looking forward to reading and books that you're a little more intimidated by. Although I hate to think of myself as being too intimidated to read any book, I'm sure you can guess that there might be one or two numbers that I'm hoping aren't chosen.

(image via here)

1. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
2. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
3. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
4. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde
5. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
6. Howard's End by E.M. Forster
7. The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen
8. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
9. The Warden by Anthony Trollope
10. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
11. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
12. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
13. Cecelia by Fanny Burney
14. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
15. Ulysses by James Joyce
16. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
17. Othello by William Shakespeare
18. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
19. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
20. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I'll see which way my luck is running on Monday!

Update- 14 was the number that was chosen, so I'll be rereading Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Frances and Bernard

I'm a sucker for a good epistolary novel. I know some people have a general aversion to them, but when done well (see exhibit A) I find them to be one of the most compelling ways of structuring a story. And it just so happens that the latest one I've come across, Frances and Bernard, is done very, very well.

Spanning the decade between 1957 and 1968, Frances and Bernard is made up of letters between two twenty-something writers who meet at a summer writer’s colony and strike up a correspondence. Frances is a middle class, Irish-American girl who works on her first novel while living at home with her family in Philadelphia. Bernard comes from a WASP-y Boston family and works on a poetry collection while teaching writing to undergraduates at Harvard. Initially coming together over shared artistic sensibilities, Frances and Bernard also find they share the same religion—both are Catholics, Frances having been raised one, Bernard having converted as an adult. In their letters, they discuss their religious beliefs in a way that's both philosophical and earnest. With debates about books and witty banter added to the mix, their earliest letters to each other are thoroughly thought provoking and entertaining.

In later years, Frances and Bernard both find themselves living in New York City. Letters between each of them and their respective best friends offer us a glimpse into their lives during this period, when their friendship has moved off of the page and into real life. A turning point comes when Bernard, who has long struggled with shadowy bouts of depression, has a breakdown that results in his hospitalization. He eventually recovers, but finds that he has lost all of his religious faith. Although this change breaks one of the most important shared bonds between Frances and Bernard, their relationship actually grows stronger and takes a romantic turn. Here the novel becomes more poignant, as Bernard's  continued mental relapses combined with Frances's insistence on foregoing a traditional marriage to devote herself to writing make it clear that a future together is not to be.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. Author Carlene Bauer has created one of the most simultaneously engaging and moving stories I've read in a while. Every other page seemed to reveal a new passage or line that stopped me in my tracks with either beautiful writing or interesting ideas (and often a combination of both). And, as it's apparently very loosely based on the real life correspondence between Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell, it has me itching to dive into some of their works now.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Do you ever use bookplates in your books? I've had various bookplates over the years, but sometimes find them difficult to use because I feel like I should save them for special books. Then, of course, when I have a special book, I hate to put a permanent bookplate in it. It's a vicious cycle that I'm sure would only be fed by these bookplates by Felix Doolittle that I just discovered. They're so pretty that they would call for a very special book indeed.

And just for fun, a different kind of bookplate (via here). 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Friday Fancies

In addition to buying lots of books, one of my latest literary habits has been to give myself permission to not finish a book if it's not appealing to me. I've abandoned two or three books in recent months and, unfortunately, the most recent victim is one by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Zadie Smith's latest work NW. One of the things I've always enjoyed about Smith's work is her ability to tell stories of very modern groups of people, yet do so by using very traditional fictional formats. This is most obviously apparent in On Beauty, in which she riffs on E.M. Forster's Howard's End. In NW, she covers some of the same territory, but in a bleaker way, with less likable characters, and writes in a constantly shifting style that feels arbitrarily experimental. There were a few gems of the clever observations and wordplay that characterize Smith's writing, but these weren't enough to keep my going beyond the first hundred pages.

(Hydrangea in winter.)

On a more positive note, here are a few things that I did enjoy this week:

There's going to be a new Bridget Jones novel!

An author's unexpected shift from Westerns to romance novels.

What does everyone think of Bookish? Will you use it.

And if the Netherfield Ball was held today, you know the Bingleys and the Bennets would be tweeting about it

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Wolf Hall

I have to start out this post by saying that the majority of my knowledge of English history during Henry VIII's reign comes from having watched the complete series of HBO's The Tudors, which actually turned out to be the perfect amount of preparation for reading Hilary Mantel's acclaimed Wolf Hall. It's a novel in which there's no plot to speak of other than the sometimes glacially slow-moving events of the years leading up to, and just after, Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn. There's a huge cast of characters that can be a bit unwieldy. In certain scenes, especially those involving some of the more minor members of Parliament or the royal court, it can be hard to keep track of who's who. Yet in spite of all this, the densely compelling Wolf Hall still manages to be some of the most literary historical fiction that I've ever read.

The undisputed center of the novel, and of Mantel's subsequent trilogy of books, is Thomas Cromwell. We witness his personal and political machinations as he rises from poverty to a place as the valuable servant of Cardinal Wolsey to the right hand man of Henry VIII, able to manipulate the direction of the English government and church. Alternately a villain and a hero, I found myself despising him one moment and rooting for him the next. I think that one of Mantel's most effective tools in painting such complex character portraits is her rich dialogue. For all of her characters, she creates voices that sound familiar to the modern ear yet still feel appropriate for the time period. Cromwell's conversations with others reveal the most about him and, for me, were the most enjoyable parts of the book. Particular highlights include his private interactions with his family and his adversarial yet sympathetic relationship with Thomas More.

Having spent well over a month working my way through this, I can say with certainty that Wolf Hall is by no means a light read, but it is a fascinating one.  I'm eager to continue on with these characters in Bring Up the Bodies, although I do need a bit of a break first--maybe I'll pick that one up once Mantel starts gathering awards for the third installment in the series.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Love of My Youth

Mary Gordon's The Love of My Youth takes place in Rome, where sixty year old Miranda and Adam are unexpectedly reunited with each other after forty years apart. As the title quite obviously suggests, they were each other's first loves, a devoted couple throughout high school and college until a betrayal (which is slowly revealed during the course of the book) caused a sudden and final break between them. When they meet again in Rome, both are married with grown children. What results is not a renewal of their former romantic feelings, but rather a series of tentative steps toward getting reacquainted with one another. Unfolding primarily through a series of conversations they have as they walk around Roman landmarks, the novel highlights the ways in which they have dramatically changed from the young adults they were when they first knew one another, as well as the ways in which, for better or worse, they have stayed the same. 

Although the conversations between Miranda and Adam make up the heart of the novel, they're actually one of its biggest weaknesses. To a certain degree I admired the way in which Gordon was able to weave the inner thoughts of both characters together with their dialogue. It's no easy feat to shift between points of view and she pulls it off in a way that smoothly reveals Miranda and Adam's back story. Yet there was a certain tone to all of the dialogue that made it feel extremely false, like nothing people in the real world would ever actually say to one another. There were so many lines that felt like they were straining to be intellectual. Miranda and Adam's comments to each other are overly poetic and very self-involved, with the feel of a carefully planned script rather than an actual conversation. This made the novel as whole feel pedantic and draining. In theory, I was interested in the fact that these two characters were rediscovering each other through these conversations. In reality, though, there were several times when I found myself wishing that I didn't have to be privy to them.

I can't say that I truly liked this novel, and I certainly can't say that I liked these two characters, but there was a certain richness to Gordon's writing that may make me willing to give something else of hers a try in the future.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Friday Fancies

I've been on quite a book buying binge lately. Throughout high school and college, I bought books faster than I could read them and pretty much always had an entire shelf filled with books waiting to be read. I've curbed my purchases a lot since then, largely by making more use of the library, but have felt myself slipping back into my old ways recently. I'd like to place the blame on the articles that pop up every now and then bemoaning the demise of bookstores, and of printed books in general. Every time I see one of those, it makes it easier to justify new book purchases as a way of stockpiling while I still have the chance.

Below is a peek at a few of my newest acquisitions that will be coming soon to future posts. And I promise that once the weather warms up, I'll take my camera outside and try to expand my photography beyond "still life with books".

Here are a few more finds from the week:

A look at the knitting studio of Jared Flood, the designer behind Brooklyn Tweed.

A teatime twist on homemade Valentine's treats.

A bird's eye view of time lapse photographs.

PBS is currently airing Shakespeare Uncovered, an interesting series in which big name actors dissect various aspects of Shakespeare's works.

And I really enjoyed this article about Boston's independent bookstores, partly because it covers my old stomping ground and partly because it makes one of the best arguments for the merits of bookstores over online ordering when it says, "When you come into a bookstore and browse, sometimes you're looking in a section and you realize the book you've never heard of is the book you really need".


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