January Notes: Cooking, Reading, Writing

Snowfall outside, but hot tea and a snug blanket within. Quiet, and the space and time to write and read and think. And also to cook. Some lists for the month so far:

New recipes Tried

Traditional Vietnamese Pho, as presented by the infallible J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats.

There is a good pho place about 20 minutes from my house, but being able to eat this soup without ever leaving the house (on a frigid January Michigan winter night) is the absolute best. All the steps are worth it. Yes. Char those onions and ginger! Parboil the meat! I used a combo of oxtails and beef shanks. Heaven. The next day my kids' schools were canceled due to snow, and they were thrilled to have pho again for their lunch (yes, the soup is better the next day).

OyakodonRecipe from the website Two Red Bowls.

So very very simple to make. Chicken and custardy eggs simmered in a sweet, salty sauce and served over rice. It's warm and comforting and perfect for winter.

Onion tarts with Gorgonzola and Walnuts. From David Tanis at the New York Times

Okay, so this was fiddly, and probably not something I'd make unless it were for a party, potluck, or other event. But it's such a perfect, elegant little appetizer for a party! I made it for a book club I was hosting, and the combo of flavors—blue cheese, caramelized onions, toasted walnuts—is perfect. In fact, I could skip the pastry crust and just make and eat the topping alone.

Books Read

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman. 

Writer and physicist Alan Lightman imagines the dreams of a certain patent examiner in Bern, Switzerland. Lovely, lyrical vignettes on the nature of time; each chapter offers up an alternative world—a world where time repeats itself, or stops, or runs backward, or where the very link between cause and effect is broken. The Swiss city of Bern is lovingly described in all these alternate states. (Lightman's book reminds me a lot of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, but more thematically coherent).

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jackqueline Woodson. 

Truly gorgeous. I'd heard of this award-winning book, but didn't really know anything about it when I picked it up, curious, in the children's section of Barnes and Noble. I read the inner jacket, disbelieving—an autobiography told in free verse, aimed for young readers? Readers, it works. It works beautifully. Yes, Woodson tells her story in a series of poems—clear, accessible, vivid, moving poetry. The poems build a narrative with momentum. It's the narrative of the author's family history—her father's family, the Woodsons; her mother's family, the Irbys. Jacqueline Woodson is born at a time when she and her family still have to sit at the back of the bus when they travel to visit her mother's family in the South. She's a child, but aware of the civil rights movement, aware that her community and friends and family are marching and demonstrating for the right to sit freely at lunch counters and be treated as humans in the Jim Crow South. The awareness of danger lurks at the edges. But above all, this is a memoir of love. Woodson evokes in vivid detail the beauty of the South, the warmth of her grandmother and grandfather, the love of her family and friends. It's also the story of how she herself falls in love with words and becomes a story-teller. When I was done, I gave the book to my eleven-year old, curious as to what she would make of it. She's happily reading it right now; the poetry format doesn't seem to have scared her off at all. Recommended for both children and adults.

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard.

Definitely for grown-ups. And this is the novel that's been in my thoughts of late, that keeps me thinking of the complicated issues of power and responsibility in our own modern world. de Bodard's novel is an urban fantasy of fallen angels in a post-apocalyptic Paris. The world-building is wholly original and completely convincing; the writing is lush, dense, beautiful. It's Game of Thrones concentrated into a tightly wound murder mystery, with horror and lyricism and both Western and Vietnamese mythology. My favorite character was Philippe, who is not a Fallen Angel but something entirely different: an Immortal from Vietnam, conscripted to fight in a devastating war among the Great Houses of Paris years ago, and now stranded in Paris and longing only to go home. Certainly Philippe is bitter at the Western powers who have exploited him and his countrymen, but he himself is not without sin. No one in this book is. This gorgeous, brutal book is (among other things) an exploration of power structures and collective responsibility and sin, and it offers no easy answers at all. At one point, Philippe angrily denounces the structure of great Houses which rule the city and implies that the whole system should be burned to the ground. He recognizes that there are good people in the Houses, friends that he cares for, but he wonders if the very participation of good people in an unjust system is not something which simply helps to perpetuate that system. And yet he seems to have a huge blind spot. His best friend (and others) cling to the House system for the sake of survival. In a world where fallen angels are hunted and dismembered for the magic in their bones, an angel without a House would be dead. And Philippe himself, in the opening pages of the book, commits an absolutely horrific atrocity for the sake of his own survival—a crime which can never be taken back, and which he did only because he thought he needed to do it to survive.

Like I said, no easy answers here. Everyone in this book is morally compromised. But you come to care for them anyway. Plus, this is a cracking good story.


Well, I'm working on a short story! And I've just written this blog post, so that counts for something, doesn't it?


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