Pinch Reviews: March 2014

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I managed to slow down slightly for March (is 7 instead of 10 really slowing down?), and I had much better luck this month with reading books that I loved. I didn’t read anything this month that I gave a low rating and, depending on tastes, I would recommend all of these books to the right person.

It always makes me feel bad when I have advance copies but don’t read them in advance, so I have two upcoming books to talk about this month: LEAVING TIME and BAD FEMINIST. Of course, neither of them goes on sale until later this year, so for now, a pinch review will have to do. More extensive reviews to come as we get closer to their release dates.

THE SHINING GIRLS (Lauren Beukes, 4/5 pinches)

This has been on my Kindle for a really long time, and I’d tried to decide if I really wanted to read a book about a POV serial killer who murders women, even if it does involve a sort of Doctor Who-type time travel. In the interest of clearing out my unread books, I gave it a try and was pleasantly surprised. As it turns out, the POV character is Kirby, one of the “shining girls” whose name is in the time-traveling murder house and, coincidentally, the one who got away. When she starts interning with the reporter who covered her case, she starts to unravel the mystery, finding the clues out of place and time that lead her to solve her own attempted murder.

I thought it was really pretty fantastic. I probably didn’t need so much murderer POV, but it did bring the grit and hardness that Beukes obviously strove to include. Really enjoyed it. If you like literature with teeth, this is good.

VERONICA MARS: THE THOUSAND DOLLAR TAN LINE (Rob Thomas, 4/5 pinches)

Well, obviously, right? Veronica Mars is one of those franchises that just gives me eternal life and the book is no disappointment. The early-2000s show focused on blonde teen PI with an attitude and an aptitude for solving mysteries, and the recent movie and book pick up ten years later. College girls are disappearing during spring break in Neptune, and Veronica is on the case, backed up by all of her old pals. It’s not a full five pinches because, as a follow-up to the movie, it drops some of the more interesting stories and launches into several other mysteries (new and old). Overall, I really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to the second, but I hope the universe gets pulled together a little bit better next time.

This book does contain all spoilers, since it takes place two months after the events of the movie, but if you’re not interested in starting from the beginning, it’ll fill you in. Read my longer review here. You really should see the movie, though.

LEAVING TIME (Jodi Picoult , 3/5 pinches)

Work perks: getting to read the new Jodi Picoult early. I’ve been a fan of hers for a while, and while her books haven’t changed my life, they’re always interesting, twisty, and teach me something I didn’t know before. LEAVING TIME is the story of 13-year-old Jenna, now finally old enough to start pursuing her mother’s alleged death, who picks up a couple of friends on her path. Simultaneously, Picoult tells a story of the science of elephant grieving, which Jenna’s mother studied for years. Though some might find the elephant chapters to be a bit much, I thought they were fascinating, and it’s inspired me to learn more about elephant empathy. And, as always, there’s a twist at the end that really brings it home. I don’t know that I loved the twist, but I did really like this book.

Out from Ballantine in October.

THE ACCIDENT (Chris Pavone, 4/5 pinches)

Pavone’s second book, following 2012’s THE EXPATS, follows a confidential manuscript about one of the biggest media moguls of our time over the course of a day as the characters involved try to get it published (and, naturally, the villains try to stop it, by any means). A thriller about book publishing? It may sound cheesy, but it got a stellar NYT review and I personally thought it was fantastic. I don’t usually read thrillers, so I found the pace to be a bit frantic, but it was really fun and kept me guessing.

BAD FEMINIST (Roxane Gay, 5/5 pinches)

The much-anticipated essay collection from Roxane Gay landed in my inbox the day it became available for advance reading, thanks to friends in high places, and I started it almost immediately. Overall, I loved it, fanatically. Gay has been a favorite writer of mine for a couple of years now, and her essay collection speaks to the questions that are being asked in our current feminist climate, like, What does it really mean to be, or not be, a feminist? or What is the intersectionality of feminism with race and class, and how can we make smart, inclusive choices? She speaks a lot about current pop culture, as that is one of her areas of expertise, with a sharp wit that lays out both her own views and what she sees as current issues in pop culture.

If I had one tiny complaint, it would be that perhaps it dwells too much on the pop culture of the last two to three years, but since this is undoubtedly not going to be Gay’s only feminist book ever, I’m fine with it. In fact, I relish it.

Seriously, get this book. Out in August from Harper Perennial.

WHERE THE STARS STILL SHINE (Trish Doller, 5/5 pinches)

On recommendation from dear friend Anna, I read this in a flash. When Callie and her mom are pulled over while driving, her whole life is ripped away as she realizes that her mom stole her from her dad as a child and has been on the run ever since. Placed with her dad’s family in a small Florida town, Callie must learn to navigate the real life she never had.

This is a sad, sweet story of a real teen girl with real problems, and Doller does not disappoint. Nothing is easy for Callie, especially when, now, it should be. As a sophomore novel, this is a roaring success, and if the premise sounds appealing to you, read this because you will not be let down.

IDENTICAL STRANGERS (Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, (4/5 pinches)

I’ve been on a kick lately for learning about adult sisters, and this book immediately drew me in. Twins Elyse and Paula were adopted separately at birth, as part of a secret twin experiment conducted in conjunction with Louise Wise Adoption Services in NYC. Thirty or so years later, they found each other by inquiring into their backgrounds, and have to adjust to not only having a sibling, but a twin. The book is written in alternating perspectives, and it’s really interesting to hear their voices and thoughts on whether they initially wanted to uproot their lives to get to know their twins.

Much of the book is about their experiences getting to know each other and attempting to learn their backgrounds. I had thought there might be more information included about the history of the experiment they were involved in, but as we learn, the results are locked up until 2066, so there isn’t really much to say at this point. A really solid book, sad at some points but mostly happy, and really quite unique and interesting.

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The standout this month was likely BAD FEMINIST, but honestly, all of these books were great. What did you read in March?

Keep up with my reading progress on Goodreads, if you’d like.

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Super Sports (and Food) Weekend

What a weekend! While we usually spend Friday nights at 169 Bar or at home, this weekend was chock full of new things. After work on Friday, Harry and I headed down to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to watch the Thunder stomp the tar out of the Brooklyn Nets. They got up about 20 points and stayed that way for the rest of the game, and though we had seats pretty high up, we still had a great time. Plus, Bill Clinton was there, so that was exciting!

IMG_20140131_191843You know how I know Harry likes me? He grew up in Manhattan and still wore a Thunder shirt, gamely cheering for my team. He’s the best.

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Like I said, the Thunder wound up wiping the floor with the Nets, but we stayed the whole time and thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. The best part about going to events in New York is that once you’re out of the arena, you can jump on public transportation and be home in a normal time, instead of sitting in your car for two hours. It’s really great.

Plus, neither of us had been to a sporting event at Barclays yet, so we had a fantastic time at the rust-colored sports spaceship.

Saturday we lounged around, as per usual, ending the night with Melissa McCarthy’s great SNL episode (minus that yikes-racist monologue), and mostly we got ready for Super Bowl Sunday.

Most of my friends here are at least casual sports fans who can enjoy most games, but have at least one team or sport they’re particularly passionate about. For me, it’s college football. For Harry, it’s NHL hockey. For roommate Michelle, it’s Seattle sports (which sometimes causes a clash on the Sonics/Thunder debacle), so we all went in for the Seahawks in SB48. That turned out to be a good choice, since the ‘Hawks whomped the Broncos the entire game. Pretty embarrassing!

I didn’t take any pics of us sitting around watching TV, but we did manage to throw together a pretty comprehensive spread for the most important sports meal of the year. We had Korean soy garlic wings, twice-baked potatoes, garlic pull-apart bread, pigs in a blanket, and some spicy fries–that’s all you need, right? I made some cookies that got a little too crisp, but we still had a bite and they weren’t too bad.

This bread, though–yum. We adapted it from a Smitten Kitchen recipe, throwing in extra herbs as well as some leftover chopped bacon and jalapeno slices in a few parts. Our local grocery had run out of sourdough loaves, too, so we got a couple of baguettes and a garlic loaf. The best part about this bread, though, is that we melted butter and garlic, and then just poured it into the bread. If you’re going to tell me that you think that sounds like too much garlic, you’re wrong, because that doesn’t exist.

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Literally you just cut the bread, pour all the stuff in, cover it with foil and throw it in a 350 oven for 10-15 minutes, and then it will change your life forever. Seriously, so good.

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Here are those yummy twice-baked potatoes I was talking about, paired nicely with some 2005 napkins we found at Harry’s parents’ apartment in the city. I made these with any basic recipe–bake the potatoes at 350 for an hour, scoop out the insides and mix with all your toppings, then stuff it back in and bake for another half hour. Top with cheese and more bacon, and you’re good to go.

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I keep forgetting to get pictures of us actually making or eating the food, usually because I’m making and/or eating the food. Someday! I hope your weekend was as fun, if not as sports-filled, as mine!

Long Weekend Relax

It’s just been a few weeks since the big holiday publishing break, but having a long weekend was particularly relaxing this weekend. My friends and I didn’t do too much, since we usually reserve our weekends for pure relaxation and this was no different.

We spent Friday night at Charles Hanson’s 169 Bar, which we say we do every Friday but get to at least once or twice a month–to be totally honest. There’s just something about a platter of oysters that can’t be beat, you know? Of course, I always want to get my dim cell phone pictures before the tray is empty, but I only remembered about three-quarters of the way through the plate this time. I think that deserves a little pat on the back, at least.

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And, you know, a taxidermied t-rex above our favorite table.

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Otherwise, I had dinner at Bodega in Bushwick with a friend from home in town for the weekend, and we pretty much just bummed around the neighborhood to eat delicious meals and watch great movies together. I saw both In A World… and Frozen this weekend, so I’ll call that a success!

As far as books go, I’ve already read five books this year, somehow, and this week I finished Maria Semple’s WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE?. This book is delightfully individual in its document-heavy concept, and transcends the limited format to convey not only a complicated narrative but implied emotion and character development. I know these are basic parts of a novel, but in less capable hands this would seem gimmicky, especially since the story deals with adult paralyzing anxiety, adjustment to life change at all levels, and complex parent-child relationships–mostly conveyed within documents like emails and work documents, along with commentary from Bee, the fifteen-year-old narrator.

I’m currently still in the middle of both Lawrence Wright’s GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY, HOLLYWOOD, AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF and Libba Bray’s THE DIVINERS, both of which I’m loving (obviously for different reasons). I’m planning to have them both done in time to do another mini-review roundup at the end of the month. So far it seems like my plan to read 75 books by the end of the year is going swimmingly, which I’m thrilled about.

It would have been nice to get a little more done this weekend, but at the same time, it’s really nice to spend the weekend relaxing, cleaning, and catching up on movies we missed.

Brooklyn Living: A Shelf Set

Ever since I first saw this beautiful novelty piece at Harry’s parents house, I fell in love, and when his mom decided it wouldn’t work, we knew it was perfect for our lit-loving new home. After letting it sit on the floor in front of the cookbook shelf for a week, we put it up last weekend and I couldn’t be happier with it.

Along with the small jars and potpourri bird, I put my first edition of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn propped up–it only seemed appropriate.

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On the cookbook shelf below is my growing collection of cookbooks, including books like the Roberta’s Cookbook, Gramercy Tavern Cookbook, and The Meatball Shop Cookbook, all from well-known NYC establishments, but also including a Barefoot Contessa set and new staples like The Mac and Cheese Cookbook. I try to cook something new every weekend, and these books all help me find new and interesting recipes to try and adapt for my own use.

Having a cookbook shelf has long been a dream of mine, and this makes me so happy to look at every day. Mostly, though, I’m thrilled that our apartment is finally starting to come together and look like a place where real people live–and it doesn’t hurt if it looks like a decorator passed through, too.

PS The candle burning is made by Sydney Hale – cedarwood and vanilla – and I highly recommend their work.

Books I Loved in 2013

In 2012, I read 26 out of my Goodreads goal of 60 books, which I found to be a huge disappointment. In 2013, I adjusted my expectations to 35 books, thinking I didn’t know if I’d be able to really kick it into gear. However, I had to up my goal multiple times, and it ended up at 65 by the end of the year.

In 2013, though, I read 68 of my 65 books, a fact I am over the moon about, and here they are for your perusal, in reverse chronological order of when I read them. Apparently Goodreads doesn’t have a good way to visually present the titles in a way that’s easy to put here, so this is what we’ve got. However, I think I read much better books in the second half of the year than in the first, so I’m not too heartbroken over it.

Of all these books, though, these are the ones that I loved this year, my 2013 life changers.

Wild // Cheryl Strayed
If you’d told me, as my friend Anna did earlier this year, that this book would change my thinking and become my favorite book of all time, I would have, as I did, secretly rolled my eyes and put it on a future to-read list, maybe. The recollection of the implosion of Strayed’s life and her subsequent hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, however, is incredible and absolutely changed the way I think about some things, notably my relationship with my own mother. I think everyone should read this book, without hesitation.

Panic // Lauren Oliver
Okay, this may be a little cheating, since this is doesn’t come out until April, but I read it in December and loved it. As you can see, I read Oliver’s Delirium trilogy earlier in the year, but I think this is her best work yet. It’s set in the present world, and Oliver really nails the emotions, the highs and lows of high school, and sucks you into the apparent immediacy of the game. Anyway, if you like YA, pre-order it now.

Blood, Bones and Butter // Gabrielle Hamilton
This food memoir blew me away–I guess this year I was really into lady memoirs, since I put several of them on my best-of list, but I loved this. Hamilton chronicles not only her journey to opening her restaurant Prune in New York, but her family life, the two being intertwined in a way that’s both wonderful and tragic.

League of Denial // Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

When this title was announced at work, I immediately knew I would fall in love with it. I’m someone who grew up living college football, and this book made me cry, laugh, and most importantly, learn. This isn’t a book about banning football. The authors write for ESPN and love football. This is a book exposing the way the NFL has ignored brain damage in football for thirty years, and looking for a way we can change the system without getting rid of it.

Five Days at Memorial // Sheri Fink
This title tells the story of the first five days after Hurricane Katrina at a major hospital in New Orleans, in which some doctors were accused of euthanizing patients. This book interviews dozens and dozens of employees, patients, and relatives about their experience without making accusations, but I would categorize this as another life-changer. It gives us previously unknown insight into a dark and unclear moral situation, one that seems unfathomable but that did, in fact, happen, as told by those who witnessed it.

Tiny Beautiful Things // Cheryl Strayed
Yes, another Cheryl Strayed. However, this one is a compilation of her columns from when she wrote the Dear Sugar advice column for The Rumpus (which everyone should be reading, though Dear Sugar is discontinued), and the way Strayed includes her personal life in her advice and stories is heartrendingly beautiful. In fact, now that I’ve read Wild, I’d really like to reread TBT since I have a better idea of what was happening. I’m not usually an advice column person, but this is really something else.

Cinder // Marissa Meyer
Futuristic dystopian YA with a partially cyborg protagonist? Okay. Add in that it’s the first in a series of fairytale retellings, all of which work together in a plot that would stand alone even if it weren’t retellings, and I’m totally sold. Seriously, great fun, great writing, and the third book in the series comes out early this year. Do it to it.

Parasol Protectorate series // Gail Carriger
I started reading this series last year, and read the three final books in the five-book series when I bought the whole series for Kindle early in the year. This whole series is best described as Victorian supernatural steampunk comedy, which I know sounds ridiculous, but trust me when I say that this is one of the very few books I’ve read that had me laughing out loud every few pages. The characters are distinct, both lovable and hateable, and this is the most fun I’ve had with genre literature in a while–perhaps because it straddles multiple genres, creating a story that almost anyone can enjoy. Plus, Carriger has a YA series Finishing School, the first title being Etiquette & Espionage, which is set in the same world with some overlapping characters, if that’s more your thing.

Other honorable mentions are the upcoming Red Rising (Pierce Brown, out 1/28), Coming Clean (Kimberly Rae Miller), Orange is the New Black (Piper Kerman), Eleanor and Park (Rainbow Rowell), The Divorce Papers (Susan Rieger, out 3/18), Beautiful Ruins (Jess Walter), Born Standing Up (Steve Martin), The Madness Underneath (Maureen Johnson), Finnikin of the Rock (Melina Marchetta), and This is How You Lose Her (Junot Diaz).

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Why did I read so much this year? I know of a few certain reasons, one of them being that I read exclusively on the subway (and I have a 40-minute one-way daily commute), and the other being that I got a Kindle from my parents for Christmas last year. Those daily Kindle deals can be really good, people. I’m sure there are other erasons, but those are the two that I can point to with certainty. Physical books are great, and our shelves at home are overflowing with beautiful hardcovers (especially since I started my new job), but for me there’s not much that beats the simplicity of an ereader. It’s much easier to read a tablet on a crowded subway than it is a bulky hardcover (and I don’t bend my books), so I’m able to read more than one book in a week, if it goes quickly (which it obviously did this year).

If we aren’t friends on Goodreads, please add me so we can keep each other accountable this year, and let me know what you read last year that was good and what you’re most looking forward to this year. I’m always looking for recommendations!

Easy Beer and Chocolate Almost-Perfect Chili Recipe

Even though Storm Herc didn’t deliver like expected in New York this weekend, it’s still pretty cold here–it’s supposed to be 13 degrees as a high tomorrow. But I have a heavy coat and I don’t get to wear it very often, so I’ve enjoyed wearing it around Brooklyn. Another thing I enjoy is cooking on the weekends, spending hours cooking recipes out of my cookbook collection and looking for new things I can parcel up for weekday lunches.

Luckily for me, the intersection of cold weather and cooking is working on my  chili recipes. Growing up in Oklahoma, chili was a staple in winter, and while New York thinks it knows about Midwestern food, I’m slowly making sure it really does. Or, at least, that my little corner of Brooklyn knows about good Midwestern food (fine, Oklahoma is more south-central-midwestern, but let’s just move on).

Last night, I made a chili so tasty, so delicious, that I couldn’t resist sharing it here. First, I started by pouring myself a glass of wine, and obviously I chose this wine because not only do I enjoy shiraz but it has an interesting lion on the label. That said, cooking on Sunday nights is one of the highlights of my week and having a glass of wine while I do it makes it extra enjoyable.

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Beer and Chocolate Almost-Perfect Chili
Serves 4-6 and great for refrigerating for lunches

  • 2 lb ground chuck
  • 1 shallot, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 C olive oil
  • 1 can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
  • 1 can kidney beans
  •  12 oz beer of your choice
  • 2 tbsp semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 2 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp each spices to taste – I use garlic, paprika, cumin and oregano
  • 1/2 C water

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Now, the reason I call this almost-perfect is that I didn’t have any chilis on hand to slice and put in. I would have roasted and added a small assortment, but unfortunately it’s too cold to make going to the store worth it. A can of diced chilis would work, too, if your produce section isn’t great. Also, I used the Sam Adams Boston Lager because that’s what we had on hand, but I think anything you like to drink is probably going to be the taste you want in the chili, although you can’t really taste the beer flavor at all in the finished meal.

Of course, the chuck can be substituted with any other beef cut or turkey, if you prefer, and vegetarians can use their preferred substitute.

First, chop the shallot and garlic, and cook them in the olive oil. Do this first, because I always forget and then am scrambling to fix my timing once the meat is browned. Once you have these going in the oil, feel free to put your meat on the other burner.

Brown the meat in a deep skillet with the water so keep the moisture, and once cooked, add in the onions and garlic mixture. Add spices to taste now so they can really get into the meat while it cooks, and stir the mixture together for a minute. Pour in the beer once the water cooks down (usually about ten minutes on medium high), and keep the temperature at medium high. Once the mixture settles together, add in chili powder and tomatoes, let cook approximately two minutes, then add chocolate chips.

Add in the sea salt and pepper to taste, and then place the lid on and turn the heat down to low to cook for about twenty minutes. Take off the lid to let the moisture cook down, about five to ten minutes, depending on how you like your chili to taste.

Let it cool a little, then scoop yourself a bowl. In fact, if you’d like, you can put it on top of some Fritos like I did, and drizzle some ketchup and mustard (French’s is the only acceptable mustard here, snobs) over for a good summer taste. If that’s not your jam, feel free to eat it plain – it’ll still be great, if I do say so myself.

 

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Chili is one of the easiest foods to make, since you literally just put it in the pan and let it cook until it tastes how you want. I’ve been looking for a good recipe for a while, and I think I may stick with this one for a while. I hadn’t put in chocolate and beer yet, and I have to say that I really think it put it on the next level. Shallots, too, are one of my favorite discoveries of the last few months, and I put them in anything I can.

This was one of my favorite things I made this weekend, though I made some other really incredible dishes (to be recreated, photographed and shared at a later date) with a friend, and if you make this, I hope you love it as much as I did.

In Landscape Love with Massachusetts

A few weekends ago, Harry and I visited his college town in Massachusetts for an extended weekend vacation. He had an alumni event on Saturday, so I tagged along and we spent the weekend touring the surrounding town and enjoying the rural area.

Of course, we couldn’t leave without driving past Grand Central first. No, really, you have to drive past it to get where we were going, but I can’t say I minded the view, and I may have requested a slow down (that I did not get) to take this picture. Instead I took a series as we got closer, which when looked at in sequence seems like a terrifying stop-motion video.

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Beyond that, though, we were free of the city and off into the wilds of non-city New York, which is one of my favorite general places to be. And once we’d dropped off Harry’s parents at their house upstate, we moved on to Mass., and it was one of the more beautiful and relaxing weekends of my life, I’m pretty sure.

You don’t see many skies that rival Oklahoma, and to be honest these weren’t quite there, but as you can see in the pictures below, they were pretty nice.

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See? I wasn’t kidding around. So beautiful. That last picture is a snap of Harry’s favorite tree in his college town, and you can see why. It’s really stunning out in the field on its own. Great for pictures, at any rate.

There’s not really a lot to say that the pictures themselves can’t express. They are worth a thousand words, really, I suppose.

We’re off to his parents’ house upstate for the Thanksgiving holiday, so please enjoy your Thanksgiving muchly and be sure to follow me on Instagram if you’re interested in seeing more similar pictures. I guarantee you the balcony shot from their house over the river is worth it and it’s probably the first thing I’ll post tomorrow morning. Wish you were here!