Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Stuck in Europe

Well, to finish out that thick book pile, we're going to concentrate on Europe and the Americans who, for one reason or another, can't quite stay away from the Continent.

Sonia Pilcer wrote a volume of short stories The Holocaust Kid that sounds pretty autobiographical. She's the child of Holocaust survivors, so her Great Burden in life is that every time she complains about her teenage angst, her parents say, "What? You have it so hard? Is this why we survived, so you could turn out like this?" As a teen in a gritty New Jersey neighborhood, she adopts a tough-girl persona, smoking, smacking her gum, teasing her hair four and a half inches out from her head. Moving on to young adulthood, she is "sexually liberated." (If, while reading along, a professor appears, a major cow patty lies just ahead.) (And no, no, no, I don't tell you these things so you can turn straight to them!) As she matures and gets more sensible, she meets others like herself, "2G," meaning the second generation after the survivors, and all of them are obsessed with their parents' concentration camp experiences. All of them create "art" with a concentration camp theme.

The House of the Seven Sisters
by Elle Eggels is set in Holland. It's about a baker who abandons his seven daughters, leaving them to run the business. It spans WWII down to the '90s, yet it reads like a fairy tale, because so many characters are the butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker. If they were cashiers, or system analysts, or HR people, it would definitely sound American and crisply modern. If you like stories that lead you from the narrator's childhood, wherein she tries to make sense of everything the older folks do, to her own days as a grandmother, and if you can keep the names of seven sisters straight, you might look up this one.
Finally, The Red Passport by Katherine Shonk, is another volume of short stories, this one set in post-Communist Russia. Americans wander through each story, and the Russians resent them for their excess of money, of leisure, of compassion. In one story, a grandmother moves back to her home near Chernobyl. She can't understand why her family tells her not to live there, why she can't eat those onions in her garden. Why, look at them! They've never grown so robustly before! Another story is about a mail-order bride, returning to care for a sick relative. Her young American daughter believes the fanciful stories her mother tells about how and why she departed Russia long ago. That is, until a Russian cousin reveals a few more details.

And finally a dessert so big, you're going to need to invite everybody you know over to help you eat it.

2 c. crushed chocolate graham crackers, (about 20 squares)
1/3 c. margarine, melted
1/4 c. sugar
1/2 gal. mint chocolate chip ice cream, slightly softened
1 cups semisweet chocolate chips (or 1/2 c. semisweet and 1/2 c. milk chocolate)
1/3 c. margarine
1 c. powdered sugar
1 12 oz. can evaporated milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 8 oz. container Cool Whip

1. In a bowl, combine crushed graham crumbs, 1/3 c. melted margarine & sugar. Press into bottom of a 15x10 baking pan. Chill in freezer for 15 min.
2. Cut ice cream into 1/2-in. thick slices and lay over the crumbs. Cover & return to freezer.
3. For chocolate sauce: in saucepan, melt chocolate and 1/3 c. margarine. Add powdered sugar and milk. Cook and stir for about 20-25 min. Add vanilla.
4. Pour sauce over ice cream and return to freezer for about 30 minutes or till firm.
5. Spread Cool Whip on top; freeze again until serving time. Makes 32 servings @ 240 cals each.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Parade of books

OK, it's been a while. And the Finished Book Pile stands pretty high. Let's clear it out before it falls over on one of the cats or something.

First up is Parade of Days by James Freeman. Freeman is a Pennsylvania guy. He spoke to our writing group in Allentown. He brought, of course, a few copies of his books to sell. I bought one about a primitive Native American that walks into modern-day America, based on a true story, but I decided not to spend my money on Parade because he said he laced it with sex scenes. He dedicated the proceeds to some cause and, "Since sex sells, I thought if I spiced it up a little and it helped to sell more books for a good cause, all the better." And his eyebrows went waggle, waggle.

Well. I would not help his good cause. But I would search for Parade in libraries and step lightly around the cow patties, as you must know I pretty well do.

Alas, not many pages into his book, I shut it for good. The first irritant was a certain over-formality, a common sin committed by several other writers in my critique group. Freeman's story tells about an odd little collection of humans that take up residence in the air ducts in the library at Bucks County Community College (where Freeman teaches). When the library closes, they fan out and help themselves to the food in the employee lounge fridge, to the library books, to pieces of paper. The librarian, who is a librarian at Bucks County Community College, is naturally mystified by the disappearance and re-appearance of these items. One of the strange people, who used to have a normal life like the rest of us, was once a student or teacher or something at Bucks County Community College. Can't Freeman just say "the college"?

The second irritant was when the characters sat down for a snack on some of their stolen food. The old lady of the group, who could be as quirky as your local homeless shopping cart lady, or as normal and lovable as your pie-baking grandma (Freeman couldn't decide which version to go with) tells a story about a girl who bears a mulatto baby. Now, when your author stops his story to let one of his characters go, "There once was a . . . ", I suspect he is just stuffing the book with something he wanted to say but which doesn't fit into the plot. Or maybe it ties in somehow a few chapter ahead. Since I knew, however, that the chapters ahead contained cow patties and since I felt like I had exercised enough patience with amateur writing, I put Freeman away. His original idea sounded promising. It just didn't lift off the runway.

Next up is Coupon Girl by Becky Motew. This book is apparently part of a series called "Making It," stories about young career girls. Coupon Girl was such a fun read, as well as a peek into an unfamiliar world, that I'm tempted to add the other titles to my list. Jeanie, the main character, sells advertising promotions, or coupons. She pays visits to all the local characters--the orthodontists, the pizza makers, the ice cream scoopers and talks them into running a buy-four-get-one-free promotion, or whatever. Meanwhile, she tries out for a local production of The Sound of Music. Egos and mishaps abound.

Now when I open up the mail and find coupons for tooth whitening and carpet cleaning, I know that somebody had to walk in that business and convince the owner to offer a deal, that the owner hopes the offer will attract new customers.

Third up is High Lonesome: The American Culture of Country Music by Cecelia Tichi. Which is just what it says, plus photos of the country stars. For the bulk of the book, Tichi waxes on about what country music says about "the American culture of loneliness" or the romance of cowboys, or the tension between home and making it out there in the big wide world, or even roses. Is she reading things into these songs that aren't there? I'm not sure, but she convinced me to give Emmylou Harris a try. Her book includes a CD, showcasing many of the artists she talks about.

My favorite part of Tichi's book was an interview section. She focused on artists that came to country from some other form of music--opera, rock, classical violin. Country artists, if you ask them about their craft, claim they just come by it naturally (then complain later that no one takes country seriously because it's so natural that there's no skill involved). Tichi argues that of course it take great skill, but artists immersed in country their whole lives have a hard time explaining their skills. On the other hand, artists who come from a different genre are like people who have lived in two cultures. They are more able to define and compare..

So, now we have cleared out half of the pile. We'll get to the rest in a few days. Meanwhile, here's your recipe. It’s shamefully easy, the kind of thing you can prepare while you’re still groggy from your Sunday nap: Chicken Broccoli Shells