Posts from the “Books” Category

World War I and Veterans Day

Posted on November 11, 2013

Photo: CORBIS

Photo: CORBIS

World War I ended on November 11, 1918 and a year later President Woodrow Wilson honored the nation’s veterans with the first Armistice Day. Wilson said that the holiday, now known as Veterans Day, would give people cause to reflect on “the heroism of those who died in the country’s service . . . because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”

As we pause to reflect on the sacrifices of American service men and women, Europe prepares for the centennial of “the war to end all wars.” Yesterday, The New York Times featured a travel piece about the “rich tapestry of events” planned at museums and battlefields such as Verdun. The BBC reported that war buffs will lead to big business in places like Ypres, Belgium, which is seeing a boom in hotel construction and memorabilia. And, various groups have begun collecting and digitizing pictures, letters, postcards and other souvenirs from the conflict in order to explain its long-term impact on the modern world.

Curious about World War I? There has been a library’s worth of books written on the subject. But here are ten tomes to get you started:

1. The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before The War by Barbara Tuchman: Tuchman explores the quarter-century before the war’s outbreak, tackling the haves and the have-nots, the decline of the Edwardian aristocracy, the music of Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky, the Dreyfus Affair and more.

2. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark: Clark looks at the events and relationships that led Europe and the world into a brutal conflict.

3. The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan: MacMillan’s recently published history is another exploration of the march toward war, exploring how a continent awash in peace and prosperity could wind up in a fight that transformed the modern world.

4. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman: This beautifully written, Pulitzer Prize-winning classic recounts in vivid detail the very first month of fighting, showing how it shaped the course of the entire war.

5. Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings: Hastings blames Germany for the war’s outbreak and argues that the country’s defeat was vital to the freedom of Europe.

6. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque: Billed as “the greatest war novel of all time,” it is the fictional account of a German soldier who faces the war’s horrors and vows to fight against the hate that has meaninglessly pit him against other young men of his generation.

7. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild: Hochschild’s New York Times-bestseller asks why so many nations got swept up into the violence of the war, why cooler heads couldn’t prevail, and whether we can avoid repeating history.

8. The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne: Horne looks at the ten-month battle that claimed the lives of 700,000 men, showing how the fight was less about defeating the enemy and more about bleeding him to death.

9. The Great War: July 1, 1916. The First Day of the Battle of the Somme by Joe Sacco: Sacco, a cartoonist, depicts one of the most infamous days in the war wordlessly with this 24-foot-long panoramic drawing.

10. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World by Margaret MacMillan: MacMillan looks at the men and women who converged on Paris after the war in order to shape the peace.

Again, this is by no means a comprehensive list of the World War I-related titles out there. Anything I missed that you love? If so, what is it and what makes it great? Please let me know in comments. Or, share your thoughts about what Veterans Day means to you.

Mastering the Art of French Eating

Posted on October 25, 2013

Photo: Amazon.com

Photo: Amazon.com

I just finished Ann Mah‘s recently published memoir Mastering the Art of French EatingIt’s a lovely account of the year that Mah, a food writer and diplomat’s wife, spent alone in Paris as her husband was called away to serve in Iraq for a year. Some may not view a year alone in the City of Light as some sort of punishment. There are pastel-hued sunsets, the city’s storied rooftops and Pierre Herme macarons, after all. But for all its beauty and luxury, for all its decadent pleasures in every patisserie and multi-starred restaurant, the French capital can be a lonely and confounding place, especially if you’re not from around there.

Like me, Mah is a Francophile and foodie, so when I read her book, I was immediately transported into a country and subjects that I love. In the year she spent apart from her husband, she sought ways to create a new life and friends for herself. One of the ways she did it was by traveling the country in search of the history, techniques and people behind some of France’s signature dishes, from boeuf bourguignon to delicate buckwheat crepes smeared with creamy Breton butter.

“I was intoxicated and my drug was Paris,” she writes. Quite frankly, I was intoxicated and my drug was Mah’s memoir, which made me crave steak frites, red wine and a cozy cafe from page one. If you love engaging memoirs, smart food writing and a dash of history, Mah’s book is just the recipe for your interests. I gave it five stars on Goodreads this week.

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Speaking of steak frites…sometimes I dream about this dish, from the well-seared piece of meat that runs red when your knife slices into it, to the slightly tangy (and sort of buttery) shallot sauce that is served with it, to the crisp frites that soak up some of the juices on the plate. Let’s not forget the big glass (or glasses) of red wine to wash it down. You have to do this right, after all.

Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine ran a story about steak frites at Balthazar. The next day, I picked up Ann Mah’s book and went from thinking about steak frites to craving them. This meant I had to make them. So I did that last night, using Mah’s recipe for the steak and shallot sauce and my recipe for fresh, handcut frites. My wine choice: Chateau Coutet Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. It worked for me.

I’m not sure why this is, but one of the secrets to making really good frites is soaking the Idaho potatoes you’ve cut in cold water. It has something to do with getting rid of some of the starches, but I’m not sure what that has to do with flavor or texture. All the same, I do it, and last night I was in such a manic must-have-frites state that I did it three times. When I was done, I put those babies in hot oil until they were golden brown:


Next, I took a skirt steak, patted it dry and then seasoned it with sea salt and freshly-ground pepper. I seared it for a couple of minutes on one side, then flipped it over to cook it for a few more minutes on the opposite side (the Mah recipe calls for about 50 seconds, but my husband doesn’t like his steak as red as I, or the French, do):

When the steak was done, I covered it in foil and then cooked some sliced shallots in the pan drippings with butter until they were tender. I added thyme, red wine vinegar and some beef stock and cooked it down until there was barely any liquid. Then I added more butter to the sauce. Here is the end result:

One of my Instagram followers said that I was “really killing it in the kitchen” last night. But honestly? I love cooking and do it frequently, even though I may not always post about it. This week I’m just feeling lonesome for Paris and wanted a way to connect myself with a food and a people that I adore. This got me there, if only for a moment. Judging from Ann Mah’s memoir, she probably understands the sentiment all too well.

Speaking to Children About Writing

Posted on October 4, 2013

This morning I had the pleasure of speaking to two fourth grade classes about writing.

I agonized for two days over what to say and how to say it.

I agonized once I realized that Blessing of the Animals happened right before those two talks and I had promised my daughter that she could have her pet fish blessed. I agonized about having to bring the fish to my talks, and about whether I’d trip and fall or mess the fish up once I left.

I’m clumsy like that. But the good news is that I only have a little bit of fish water on my pants.

I choose not to think about what could be in that water.

But back to writing…

This morning, my plan was to give both classes a good recipe for writing. The recipe began with ingredients (the research that gives writing its authority), then moved on to well-structured sentences full of CUPS (or Capitalization, Usage, Punctuation and Spelling). Then, I advised them to sprinkle their work with detail to make it pop, before revising, revising, revising and turning it in.

We talked about things they struggle with during assignments, and I hope that I was able to help them with advice on working through those problems. I didn’t answer everything as well as I would have liked, but I volunteer in the school library once a week and offered to help them if they had questions about their work while I was there.

Both classes wanted to see my web site because I think they actually wanted proof that I do this for a living. Now that they know how to find it, I can only hope that they either forget the domain name, or don’t click on anything I’ve written on this blog about “Mad Men.”

I’m begging you, kids. I don’t want to be getting in trouble with any parents.

Other than that, both classes had a tremendous number of questions about the writing life, how to revise, why I have so many pictures of Paris on my web site (I like to go there from time to time so I can look at old things), whether I draw pictures for the stories I submit (I don’t, but maybe I should), and why I’ve only written for TIME for grownups instead of TIME for Kids (I have nothing against kids, sir. It’s just how it worked out). One student even gave me a story idea to pitch: “Did you know there’s a tropical storm headed this way and I might not be able to play in my soccer tournament?”

It was a good, lively discussion and before I knew it, I was carefully navigating the sidewalks of downtown Baton Rouge with a pet fish. A big thank you to St. James Episcopal Day School for inviting me this morning and to all the wonderful and curious students who made the experience such a delight!

 

 

Simple Dreams

Posted on September 23, 2013

Linda Ronstadt’s “When Will I Be Loved?” makes me think of my mother, who in the late 1970s used to blast this song in her pale blue Volkswagen Beetle. She, my sister and I would sing it at the top of our lungs. For Mom, it was a recent divorcee’s anthem, a hard-rocking lament that allowed her to belt out “I’ve been cheated…been mistreated…when will I be loved?” For my sister and me, it was just an opportunity to be loud in the backseat. We wouldn’t know anything about being cheated or mistreated…until, you know, at least our late teens.

Photo: Simon and Schuster

Photo: Simon and Schuster

Songs like these were the soundtrack of my youth, which is why I downloaded Ronstadt’s new memoir Simple Dreams onto my Kindle last week and began devouring it in the carpool line outside of my daughter’s school. So far, the book has gotten a lot of attention due to Ronstadt’s recent revelation that she “can’t sing a note” because she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. In some circles, the memoir has also been critically panned for the things it did not reveal (i.e. details about drug use, her relationships with high profile men such as California governor Jerry Brown and film director George Lucas and her Parkinson’s diagnosis, which happened after the book went to press). I look at it as one of those bittersweet songs she sang, marked more for its simple beauty than for any bells and whistles an industry focus group may have wanted to inflict on it.

People sing, she writes, “to complain of how grievously they have been wronged, and how to avoid it in the future. They sing to help themselves execute a job of work. They sing so that subsequent generations won’t forget what the current generation endured, or dreamed or delighted in.”

Now that Linda Ronstadt can’t sing, this book is a reminder of the singular voice she had in rock-n-roll and her commitment to pursuing her heart’s desire, even when it didn’t seem to make commercial sense to her record label. For example, who could have known her three-album collaboration with bandleader Nelson Riddle would be the success that it was, or that her album of traditional Mariachi music would be such a global hit?

One of my favorite parts of the book was her admission that she felt Emmylou Harris was a far better singer than she was. Ronstadt writes that if she had allowed herself to become jealous of Harris, “it would be painful to listen to her, and I would deny myself the pleasure of it. If I simply surrendered to loving what she did, I could take my rightful place among the other drooling Emmylou fans, and then maybe, just maybe, I might be able to sing with her.” Ronstadt surrendered and she and Harris not only collaborated on a couple of albums, but became great friends too.

Ronstadt concludes: “People ask me why my career consisted of such rampant eclecticism, and why I didn’t simply stick to one type of music. The answer is that when I admire something tremendously, it is difficult not to try to emulate it . . . The only rule I imposed on myself, consciously or unconsciously, was to not try singing something that I hadn’t heard in the family living room before the age of ten. If I hadn’t heard it by then, I couldn’t attempt it with even a shred of authenticity. At the time, struggling with so many different kinds of music seemed like a complicated fantasty, but from the vantage point of my sixty-seven years, I see it was only a simple dream.”

It Happened in Paris

Posted on September 13, 2013

The universe works in mysterious ways.

This story begins four years ago in a Parisian playground. My daughter was riding a weathered merry-go-round, and as I sat there watching her happy little freckled face, I quietly worried that maybe I wasn’t really good enough to make it as a writer. The market was just plain hard and I had begun to consider other things I could do.

I decided to go to graduate school and last fall I got my M.A. in Modern European History. During this period of much reading and footnoting, I rebuilt my self-confidence as I delved into the colorful life story of a nineteenth-century Parisian man. My goal was to take the work I had done in class and in dusty archives and turn it into a book.

This spring, I spent eight weeks working with the editor Jill Rothenberg on a proposal for this book that has consumed my brain for the past four years. I originally thought that this should be straight history/biography, but Jill encouraged me to infuse it with a little bit of memoir, because my journey toward this subject was obviously very personal and life-altering. I hemmed and hawed about this until I thought back to my thesis defense, which began with my advisor asking me to explain to my committee why I became interested in this subject. Jill said, “If you tell us why you fell in love with this person, we’ll fall in love with him too.”

Point made.

So I wrote a brand-spanking new first chapter, and when I was done it made me believe in myself and this book just a little bit more. It also made me grateful to have people in my life — like Jill and the aforementioned advisor — who can point me in the right direction.

I spent the summer revising my book proposal and quietly hoping that it would be good enough to attract an agent’s interest. When I was done revising and felt good about the work I had done, I went to Mignon Faget and bought myself a silver wishbone pendant.

And then I made a wish.

Late Monday night, I sent a query letter to a well-regarded agent and figured that would be the end of it. First thing Tuesday morning, this agent sent me an email asking for my proposal. Midday Wednesday she emailed again, saying she wanted to talk to me about representing me. After I peeled myself off the ceiling, after I scoured the house looking for the film crew from “Candid Camera,” after I realized that this was no joke, I realized that everything that has happened since I sat watching my daughter ride that merry-go-round in Paris four years ago was meant to be.

I am grateful for every last bit of it. And now I am going to do every single solitary thing my agent asks me to do, so I can make this dream of becoming a published author a reality. I hope you’ll join me on this journey. It has been a wonderful ride so far!

 

Mad Men: The Italian Dish

Posted on April 24, 2013

donandsylviaOh good grief, Don Draper. Not only do you head back down the philandering path, but you take up with your doctor buddy’s wife, an Italian dish who seems just as practiced at cheating as you are. She lives downstairs! She’s friends with your wife! You’re pulling the whole love-in-an-elevator thing waaay before the rock band Aerosmith made it cool in the 1980s. Yes, that makes you ahead of your time, but just how desperate are you to be caught and ruined?

After the season premiere, I thought you had turned a corner because of all your guilty pillow talk. Now? Two more episodes into the season and I just don’t know about you. Didn’t you go through enough personal hell in seasons 3 and 4 to learn your lesson? How many more layers of hell must you face in order to see the light and be redeemed? So far, you seem to be caught in limbo between lust and greed, although I have to say that tormenting Megan for having a love scene on her soap opera smacks of a hell of a lot of treachery.

You bastard.

Don Draper, as a woman, I should hate you. I really should, you insufferable lady killer, you. But honestly…you’re a handsome fella, who is self-made and smart. Sometimes, you even mean well. Given your rich story line and all the trouble you’ve seen, I’m pulling for you, in spite of you. But I think that maybe you and Roger Sterling need to trade places on a psychiatrist’s couch.

Which brings me to Roger: I’m not worried he’s going to kill himself anymore. He’s back to being the silver-haired fox with the screamingly hilarious one-liners. Maybe the therapy is working. Or maybe he’s doing LSD again. The tweeting masses made much of Don and Stan’s secret meeting about the ketchup account on Sunday night, but smug-faced Sterling’s line about firing Harry Crane before he could cash his commission check was comedic gold.

Dear Matthew Weiner: More Roger, please.

Back to Italian Dishes: I made lasagna Sunday night. Part of the reason I did that was to honor Don’s Italian Dish, Sylvia. The other reason was to silence my seven-year-old, who has become as obsessed with lasagna as Garfield the cat. To make lasagna, you start with either marinara or bolognese sauce as the bottom layer. I chose bolognese…

IMAG1217

 

Top the layer of bolognese with a layer of cooked lasagna noodles. Then, top the noodles with a thin layer of ricotta cheese, followed by a layer of shredded mozzarella, followed by a layer of shredded parmesan. I added another layer of bolognese and noodles and wound up here:

IMAG1218I added ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan again, covered it with foil,  popped it in the oven for 50 minutes and then got this:

IMAG1220

Now that you’ve feasted on that, what about Don’s wife Megan? Now that her star is rising on daytime television, now that she’s being roped into these love scenes, now that Don is flipping out about it (all the while slipping downstairs for a quickie), what’s going to happen with her? Granted, Megan aggressively went after Don when she was his secretary, was promoted to copywriter (and the second Mrs. Draper) and then quit to pursue an acting career (helped along by Don, who cast her in a commercial). Let’s say she finds out about Don and Sylvia. Then what? When I ponder this question, I can’t help but think of the Gillian Flynn book Gone Girl, which involves a wife who vanishes on her fifth wedding anniversary. Megan might want to take a page from that book if things continue to go further south.

Although I’m wondering whether the secret ketchup account storyline could provide some clues about where this season is headed. Don and company were warned by their client Heinz Baked Beans not to go after the Heinz ketchup account, which they did anyway. They pitched ketchup, they lost ketchup, and then they lost baked beans too. Don said you have to dance with the girl who brung ya, but he didn’t in more ways than one. Since he can’t have it both ways at the office, is he about to find out he can’t have it both ways at home too?

Other notes:

* My inner Francophile loved that the show included “Bonnie and Clyde” by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot. Here’s a clip.

* “Mad Men” has always gotten kudos for its costumes. New York Magazine has a great slideshow of some of this season’s late-1960s-inspired looks, from fringed suede jackets to white go-go boots.

New York Magazine also interviewed Matthew Weiner’s son, Marten, who plays creepy Glen on the show.

The Hollywood Reporter lists its five worries about the show.

Florida Today and Wired  report that the show’s creators are pitching a new show about the space program in the 1960s, as seen through the eyes of the journalists who covered it. 

Tiny Beautiful Things

Posted on October 22, 2012

dearsugarFor the past couple of years, all I’ve heard is “Cheryl Strayed, Cheryl Strayed, Cheryl Strayed. You, of all people, should read Cheryl Strayed.” I haven’t been able to read Cheryl Strayed, because I’ve been busy reading David Pinkney, Theodore Zeldin, Eugen Weber and (insert other French historians’ names here).

Now that I’m not reading these French historical titans at such a breakneck pace, I read Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar over the weekend and would like to take this moment to bow down to a master.

(Bows down).

For those who have been either under a rock or laboring through graduate school (ahem), Strayed is the New York Times-bestselling author of Wild, her memoir of a life-changing hike she took after her mother’s death  (Ed note: I’m reading that next). Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of the once-anonymous “Dear Sugar” advice columns she wrote for the online magazine The Rumpus. The columns, noted for their out-of-this-world literary flair (each reply is a gorgeous short story in and of itself), hard-earned wisdom, humor and tell-it-to-me-straight advice gained a cult following. After spending the past few days transfixed by them (even reading some of them aloud to my husband) it’s little wonder why they did.

Yes, I laughed. I cried. The columns became a part of me.

I even studied their structure.

Less than a decade after Elizabeth Gilbert ate, prayed and loved her way around the world (thanks in no small part to a publisher’s advance), Strayed is telling people not to run away from their problems in search of an ever-elusive truth, but to face down their troubles and deal with them like big girls and boys. She is at turns tender, tough and hilarious, offering her readers a

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In The Pleasure Groove

Posted on October 18, 2012

itpg Nigel John Taylor grew up as a shy only child in working class Birmingham, England. It was the 1960s. His father harbored deep, dark secrets from World War II and poured his heart into working on his car. His mother, who couldn’t drive at all, walked her bespectacled lad to church five days a week. That self-same lad was not a jock, not cool and not sure about what he wanted to be when he grew up.

Then the seventies came. When Nigel saw British pop band Roxy Music on television, it was his moon landing. By the end of that decade, he had a best friend named Nick Bates (later Nick Rhodes) who shared his love of music and dream of starting a band. Together they would form Duran Duran, a pop-funk-new wave quintet named after the villain in the futuristic 1968 film “Barbarella.” The band — consisting of keyboardist Rhodes, frontman Simon Le Bon, drummer Roger Taylor, guitarist Andy Taylor and bassist Nigel (who was going by the more rock-n-roll “John” by then) — became the biggest band of the 1980s. Their music was catchy, their videos were decadent, their looks were pin-up boy fabulous.

They made a lot of teenaged girls scream.

I was one of those girls.

Taylor’s much-anticipated memoir In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death and Duran Duran came out this Tuesday and I finished it in less than a day. The story, co-written with freelance writer Tom Sykes, is an engaging look at Taylor’s extraordinarily blessed life, which was rooted in the Catholic Church, then the pop music and new wave fashion of the 1970s before rock-n-roll superstardom took him on a wild ride around the globe. In some respects, the story is a conventional “nothing could have prepared me for this” tale, one full of screaming teens rifling through his trash, lines of coke snorted through rolled-up $100 bills, more apartments than he could afford and eventual disillusionment with the business aspects of the band that made him a such a fixture on MTV in the early 1980s. But in other respects, it’s a wonderful look at Taylor’s life, the musical and fashion influences that shaped Duran Duran, the creative opportunities that unfolded because of Duran’s success (i.e. the Bond theme “A View To A Kill,” side projects such as Arcadia and Power Station and involvement in Bob Geldof’s Live Aid), and Taylor’s rocky journey away from addiction. His is a redemptive story, which ends with a stronger and better Duran Duran and a healthier, more grounded Taylor who is able to balance the demands of fame and family life.

“The music never sounded better,” he writes.

And Taylor’s book couldn’t have been a better read.

To close, here’s Duran Duran’s Hyde Park performance from the London Olympics. What better way to show off J.T.’s bass magic than “Rio”:

Why Writers Should Write

Posted on October 15, 2012

Actress Lena Dunham got a big fat book deal last week and some struggling writers were none too pleased. Good thing author Alan Watts (featured above) reminded writers why they write in a recent lecture. Here’s what he had to say (via GalleyCat):

When we finally got down to something that the individual really wants to do, I will say to them: “You do that and forget the money.” Because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid! Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than a long life spent in a miserable way. And after all if you do really like what you’re doing it doesn’t matter what it is, you can eventually become a master of it. The only way to become a master of something is to be really with it.