Sunday, September 21, 2014

What Keeps Us Up at Night

Like turning down the wrong hallway in a bad dream, I opened a book that tossed me right back into my sophomore year.

Joan Bauer's Peeled follows an eager reporter at the high school newspaper who investigates the threatening signs that appear at the town's haunted house. Our girl reporter wants to get the story before the town newspaper breaks it, yet no one takes her seriously.  (Honey, it's because you write for the high school paper.)

The town's claim to fame is growing apples.

I'm not sure how this story ended up on my list, because I get my book hints from sneering hipsters. Every title takes years to work itself up to the top of my list and, by then, I simply have no idea where I ran on to it.

I can't speak for the rest of Peeled, but from what I read, the author missed no chances to toss in an apple pun, or an apple place name.  In any case, I need to get this thing back to the library post-haste, where it can be found by some young, eager reader who will appreciate it more than I did.

In its place, I picked up Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder.

The fist you're looking at is painted like the flag of Burundi, one of the least fortunate countries in the world.  It's right next door to Rwanda, if that tells you anything.

In Strength, a young man named Deogratias arrives in New York City from war-torn Burundi and begins to make a living delivering groceries. If I had met him, I would have mistaken him for a lowly cowherder, completely missing the fact that he once attended medical school. Not only that, but an emaciated cowherder whose pants can barely hang on to his sunken hips.

People who knew Burundi wondered how he managed to make it out of that hellish country. All I will say is that story includes a lot of fleeing the by the dark of night and a lot of stepping over dead bodies. As you might guess, Deogratias hates to go to sleep. The nightmares that wake him up--oh my!

How does one make sense of so much evil in the world? people ask. "But look at all the good," Deogratias tells them.  Look at all the small miracles that helped him along the way--the remarkable woman at the Burundi/Rwanda border whose cool stealth saved him from getting herded into yet another massacre, or the former nun in New York who placed call after call until she secured him a place to live and a chance to resume his education.

Kidder reigns as the master of nonfiction. If I were you, I would not miss some of his other highly engaging books, such as Hometown and House.  Everybody has a story and Kidder is the man who hangs out and takes notes until he can discern the central drama of his subjects' lives.

Now, just in case your own life takes a bad turn, you might want to pick up 100-Day Pantry by Jan Jackson and try a few of her ideas.

Jackson offers up 100 recipes that can be cooked with shelf-stable foods.  You can cook the everyday versions--using fresh onions, celery and peppers.  If you like one dish, stock up on the canned and dehydrated ingredients, then thumb your nose at ice storms, unemployment and whatever else bolts you awake at night.  Go at it full tilt, stocking up for each recipe and you have--ta-da!--a 100-day pantry full of potential comfort food. 

Every few weeks, I've slipped some of Jackson's dishes right under the noses of my handy subjects who may or may not suspect what I'm up to.   So far, the score is 3 yeps and 1 nope.  This one was surprisingly good:

(everyday version)

2 (12-oz.) cans roast beef with gravy
1 (15 oz.) can green beans
1 (15 oz.) can corn
1 (15 oz.) can peas
2 (15 oz.) cans carrots
2 (15 oz.) cans diced potatoes
1 (10 oz.) can tomato soup
1 (10 oz.) can cream of celery soup
1 (10 oz.) can cream of mushroom soup
1 onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 TB Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp.salt
1/2 tsp. pepper

Do not drain cans. Mix all ingredients together in pot and heat through.  (My goodness, what laborious cooking this is!)  Makes 12 servings @ 190 calories each.

Consult Jackson's book on ingredient substitutions for the emergency version.

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