War and Peace

One of the first things I noticed that people do when they discover you are reading War & Peace is to inquire which version it is. This seems to be a very important question because everyone has a favorite translation, and it would take the cannons of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to blast them out of the stronghold of their opinion on which version is best. Having only read the Pevear and Volokhonsky (henceforth P & V), I must admit that I am not, at this time, qualified to give an opinion on the superiority of one translation over another. I am, however, going to give my opinion on the novel as a whole.

This was my first experience with Tolstoy, and I went into the reading with certain expectations. Perhaps those expectations, which were rather high, diminished the novel for me. I was excited at the prospect of reading a classic Russian author for the first time (an event which had been put off for over a year due to the relocation of the classic literature book group I attend), and even more thrilled to be reading the P & V translation per the recommendation of the book group facilitator. The P & V, if not the newest then at least among the newest Russian to English translations, had been hailed by one article in particular as trumping all that came before.

I’ve read many articles and blog posts since purchasing my P & V copy, and if they’re not touting the reasons why the translation they’ve put forward is best, they’re at least pointing out the best qualities of most of the versions out there. I’m tempted to read the Garnett, Maude, and Briggs translations, but after that I’ll call it quits. I liked War and Peace, but I did not love it.

Somewhere along the way I assumed that a work written by a Russian author would be marvelously passionate, full of brilliant prose, and replete with vivid description. I expected the author of said work to be akin to a male, Russian Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë. That was not the case.

War and Peace was, as a friend described, an easy, accessible read, and while reading it, my attention remained focused on the story. However, as soon as I set it down to read another, more engaging book, War and Peace became easily forgettable. That did not mean I couldn’t pick it right back up where I left off, but there was no revisiting interesting portions, mulling over well-written passages, or enthusiastically detailing the novel over coffee with a friend. I told only a few people that I was reading the novel and did not comment on it unless a guest happened to notice it on my reading stack. In short, it was often bland to the point of boring.

I laughed aloud at several portions of the story and wondered if Tolstoy was writing a parody of Russian aristocracy. That would have been unexpected and interesting. As I progressed and continued to be underwhelmed, I pondered whether or not P & V’s translation was too literal, and if that was what rendered the story flat and the main characters dull. There was a small reprieve during the middle section where Tolstoy shined a little more light on his characters, but by then it became clear that he could not decide between writing a military history or historical fiction. It appears he chose to do both. The passages did not blend at all. They were patched together haphazardly not unlike when one used a Band-Aid when what he really needed was a sturdy piece of tape. The Band-Aid will hold but not very well.

For this reason, the fictional accounts succumbed to his overbearing and oft-repeated opinion that he alone knew exactly why the war transpired as it did. By the last third of the book, Tolstoy’s belief that more than any French or Russian historian he alone had it right, combined with the war itself, became its own character. As the book neared its conclusion, I gave up any hope that the predictable storylines would end with any satisfaction. In that respect, I was not disappointed.

Any interesting tidbit of writing was bestowed upon the peripheral characters such as Dolokhov, Kuragin, Denisov, Marya Demetrievna, and Mademoiselle Bourienne. Their dialog and actions roused interest in the story, and all too often they were discarded the moment their purpose had been served. For example, I truly thought Pierre would be the character to evoke a response in me. He was, after all, the illegitimate son who inherits everything right out from under those who believe they are more deserving. He should have been the scoundrel, the rogue, the one to upset Natasha and Andrei’s engagement. But no, that was Dolokhov who, although a villain, became the character I loved to hate whereas Pierre bumbled his way through his marriage, the war, and the story in general.

I know there are many people who love War and Peace—who believe it is one of the best works ever written—and to them I say, “God bless you.” I’m truly happy for these people. Unfortunately, many who adore War and Peace cannot say the same when they find out one does not absolutely love it as much as they.

I own two more books by Tolstoy which I do plan on reading. I’ll not allow one mediocre book to entirely sway my opinion against a writer nor will I let it keep me from reading other Russian authors. As with any book I read that has been called a classic, finding out exactly why the book earned this label is always of interest to me. In the case of War and Peace, I wondered if the strength of Tolstoy’s reputation as a writer carried the book into literary prestige.

Although I did not fall in love with War and Peace, I would not discourage anyone from reading it. This review is my opinion, and whether or not you agree with me is irrelevant. What is important is that you decide for yourself which books you will read, and then formulate your own opinion of them.

Cue the Comfort

The great thing about comfort foods is that they are incredibly simple and extremely delicious. With that being said, it never hurts to play with a basic recipe to ramp up the flavors and increase the appeal. The ladies at the Baptist church where the Tedescos spent Mother’s Day in 1978 certainly knew this.

In my novel, The Tedescos, Joe took Shirley, Grandma Josephine, and the kids to the church where their best friends, Smiley and Charlene Roberts, attended. Since it was Mother’s Day, the men had to do all the cooking and serving, but you can be sure it was under the direction of the ladies who wanted to guarantee that their best recipes turned out right.

One of the side dishes featured was classic macaroni and cheese. What the ladies at the Baptist church knew was that good food didn’t have to be fancy; it just had to taste like a little piece of Heaven. I imagine the following recipe is something like what these excellent cooks would have been proud to set out on the food table, perhaps with a bit of a flourish. It’s the type of comfort food that will have guests coming back for seconds and thirds.

Macaroni and Cheese as featured in the Ladies Auxiliary Cookbook

1 – 1 lb. box of elbow macaroni

½ c (1 stick) unsalted butter

½ c all-purpose flour

4 c whole milk

3 – 8 oz. blocks* of cheese, shredded

1 t salt

½ – 1 t black pepper (I used a coarse grind)

1 t dry mustard

10 – 12 slices of provolone cheese

Parmesan cheese

Cook the macaroni al dente according to package instructions. Drain thoroughly as macaroni holds a lot of water in the crook of the elbow. While the macaroni is draining, use the hot pot you cooked it in to melt the butter over a low heat. Add the flour and whisk until smooth. Cook for one minute over a low heat and do not let it burn. Slowly add the milk, whisking thoroughly, and cook for another minute over medium heat.

Preheat your oven to 400° during the next part.

Add the cheese by handfuls, stirring after each addition. Continue cooking until the cheese melts and becomes stringy. Not all the cheese may melt, but this is acceptable. The liquid portion of the mixture will still thicken quite nicely.

Add the drained macaroni to the mixture and stir to coat. Carefully pour the mixture into a 9 x 13 glass baking dish. (Do not panic if it seems soupy. The extra liquid will be absorbed and make the macaroni and cheese creamy.) Top with the provolone slices and liberally sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Bake at 400° for 25 minutes or until the cheese on the top browns and bubbles. Let the macaroni and cheese sit for ten minutes before serving.

Toasted cheesy deliciousness!

*Side note:  I start with blocks of cheese over pre-shredded because it’s creamier. The pre-shredded stuff always seems dry to me. Also, I suspect the quantity isn’t exactly what the packaging says. You’ll want at least six cups of cheese, however, I’ve found that a little more never hurts which is another reason I prefer blocks of cheese. When choosing cheeses, I like to include at least one orange cheese to make it look like traditional, American macaroni and cheese.

Rollin’ in the Dough

Who nibbled my cookie?

I suspect my mother’s fondness for black licorice was what set me on the path to loving zesty sweets. In addition to anything black licorice, I enjoy cinnamon, clove, peppermint, anise, and ginger candies and gums. I consider myself one of the lucky ones that these six fall within my range of favorite flavors. Some people would not consider this a plus, and I’ll bet I could tell you exactly on which flavors we would disagree.

I think it’s a genuine shame that there are people in the world who don’t like—nay, love—licorice and anise. In fact, I recently read a blog post where the woman ranted on and on about how evil licorice is. I actually felt sorry for the poor, misguided soul. The sad thing is, if one does not like licorice, there is a good chance its cousin, anise, will not be appreciated for the taste bud-stimulating wonder that it is.

Now before you wrinkle your nose and click another site, allow me to introduce a buttery cookie that is slightly reminiscent of shortbread only more tender with a sweet, deeply satisfying herbal presence. As my cousin recently said, one either loves or hates anise. As a fan of anise, the following cookie recipe was an obvious choice to appear in my novel, The Tedescos.

Grandma Josephine Tedesco makes a batch of these delicious, brightly decorated cookies as dessert following the dinner during which her youngest son, Danny, introduces his latest girlfriend to the family. I imagine anisette cookies were a staple in the Tedesco household as they are easy to make.

While no one is going to force you to try something you don’t like, I do believe you will do yourself an injustice if you don’t give Italian anisette cookies a chance. The festive little cookie makes a pretty presentation on the plate and is perfect for any occasion or to simply enjoy with a cup of coffee or tea.

Josephine Tedesco’s Italian Anisette Cookies

For the dough:

1/2 c unsalted butter, softened

1/2 c sugar (I used raw)

3 large eggs

1/4 c milk (I used whole milk)

¼ t LorAnn’s anise oil**

½ t vanilla extract

3 ¼ c all-purpose flour

1 T baking powder

 

For the glaze:

2 c powdered sugar

3 – 4 drops of LoAnn’s anise oil

3 T water

Nonpareils

 

To Prepare the Cookies:

Preheat your oven to 350° F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar together in the bowl of a standing mixer for a few minutes until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and beat well until the mixture is frothy. Add the milk, anise oil, vanilla extract, and mix until combined.

In a separate bowl, sift the 3 cups of flour and the baking powder. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in three increments, mixing until just combined. Place the dough on a sheet of plastic wrap long enough to cover all sides. Gently press the dough into a square about two inches thick.

Once the dough is shaped, cut the square into four equal pieces. Cut each slice in half lengthwise, and then cut those pieces in half lengthwise again. Cut each of the four strips of dough into six pieces and roll them into balls. The individual dough balls should be approximately one inch in diameter. Repeat with the remaining dough. This should yield approximately 96 cookies.

Place the dough balls on the parchment-lined baking sheets and leave about 1 ½ inches between them on all sides. Bake the cookies for 10 minutes, or until they are very lightly browned on the bottom. Transfer them to a rack to cool completely.

 

For the glaze:

Once the cookies have cooled completely, whisk together 2 cups of powdered sugar, 3 – 4 drops of anise oil, and 3 tablespoons of water. The glaze should be thick but not dry. Dip the tops of the cookies into the glaze and return to the cooling racks. Sprinkle each cookie with nonpareils. Allow the glaze to harden before storing or stacking for presentation.

Enjoy!

**I prefer LorAnn’s anise oil over anise extract because the oil really packs a punch of flavor in these cookies. If anise isn’t your thing, consider LorAnn’s lemon or orange oil.

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