Kings of the Earth by John Clinch

Well, there are the three Proctor brothers, and a sister and two parents, a well-meaning yet slightly nosy neighbor and his wife, the state trooper, the nephew, the brother-in-law, and throw in a couple drug dealers, a girlfriend, a waitress, and the narrator, and it makes for quite a few points of view, but such is John Clinch’s Kings of the Earth, and I haven’t read Clinch since his debut novel, Finn, which I absolutely loved and will try not to review here because this is about Vernon, Audie, and Creed Proctor, and everyone attached to the mystery that is their lives as well as the mystery of how Vernon actually died, so you must understand that what you have here is a slowly unfolding tale told through different perspectives and eras, but as you piece together the Proctor brothers’ existence you’ll begin to comprehend why they are like they are—maybe—but I couldn’t believe anyone, even fictional, could live as they do with years of grime worked into their very pores until it colors them and everything they touch a shade of wretched yellow to downright repulsive brown, and try as you might, the smell of them, which takes on a life of its own like another voice, comes right off the pages of the book with Clinch’s frequent reminders in the form of well-written description that you really could do without because you’ll find yourself wrinkling your nose and holding your mouth open the way you do when they’re trying not to smell something bad, but now you’ve gone and made it worse because you can taste it, and Lord knows you don’t want to taste it, but like looking at a bad car accident, you just can’t tear your eyes away from the pages because you need to know what happened, how, and why, and Clinch certainly delivers as he discards the ridiculous writing rule being taught to writers today about choosing one point of view and sticking with it, and let me tell you he brilliantly breaks that one and many others in such a way as to give close-up views and sweeping panoramas, so you find yourself drawn in like one of those visitors who comes to see Audie’s whirligigs, but now you don’t know who you’re rooting for, and then all too soon the writing stops but the story never does.

Anya by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

Don’t read Anya by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer if all you want is a quick read about the Holocaust. Today’s writers are cranking out enough of those complete with prescribed character arcs and inciting incidents occurring within the first three pages guaranteed to keep you hooked. If, however, you’re willing to be stitched into the fabric of life of the protagonist, if you are willing to invest yourself in details and description, if you are interested in conversation that reads like it takes place at a large family gathering, then Anya just might be your novel.

The book reads like one long memory, and I believe it is this quality that makes the events of Anya’s life so seamless. The transition from well-off daughter, wife, and mother to a woman scrambling to keep her family together in the ghetto and then hold herself together mentally and physically in the concentration camps is so smooth. Perhaps it’s because very little detail about the war is provided as if the reader should already know the particulars of how, why, who, when, what, and where. Rather, we are given Anya’s perspective and reaction to everything that occurs. In fact, it’s very late in the war years that Hitler is even mentioned and only then as somebody far away who somehow has power over Anya’s life.

The reader will always be right in the moment with Anya. Schaeffer creates tension that keeps the reader from holding on to Anya’s past because the danger of the situation prevents one from mourning what was lost. There is simply no time to do so. That will come later. Maybe. As for the future, don’t bother contemplating it because it is inconceivable that a future—at least a positive one—could even exist with all Anya is forced to endure and to do just to survive. The only saving grace is that this is not your story, dear reader. Unless maybe it was.

What I found to be the most chilling as I lived Anya’s story with her was the fact that I mentally collected her actions and words to fall back on in case I found myself in a similar situation. Perhaps it is the political, social, and cultural climate of today that subconsciously prompted me. I honestly cannot say. Still, for a work of fiction, Anya is one novel whose influence and impact will stay with me for a long time. I have said before that finishing a well-written book was like leaving behind great friends. The same is true for Anya. The ghosts will live on.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Zounds! Zooks! And maybe even a few Egads! Although I may be flashing back to Clarence Day in Life with Father. These exclamations are just one of the many things that make The Scarlet Pimpernel so adorably charming. Who knew that cozy mysteries came in a vintage version? And thank you, Baroness Orczy, for taking only five weeks to transform your well-received play into a novel that reads like it was written in only five weeks.

“This can’t be a vintage cozy mystery,” you protest. “It’s about the Reign of Terror in France.” Yes, well, gentle reader, this version is about the more swashbuckling side of those dark days in the history of France. It features a thinly veiled hero, a beauty in need of rescue, and a villain who rubs his hands in malicious glee all the while laughing, “Bwa-ha-ha-ha!” At least that’s what I heard in my head every time Chauvelin rubbed his hands together. Which he did with annoying frequency. For a more realistic, yet still fictional, rendering of the Reign of Terror, I suggest A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Let’s also not forget to thank the Baroness for failing to consult her thesaurus for alternative adjectives when describing her three main characters. By the end of the novel, if you don’t know that Sir Percy Blakeney is inane, Lady Marguerite Blakeney is the most fêted woman in London, and Chauvelin is sarcastic, then you haven’t been paying attention. Then there is the gorgeous gorgeousness of life for the Blakeneys even though (SPOILER ALERT) they’re going through a bit of marital discord at the moment. In her defense, the Baroness did come from writing plays to novels, and perhaps she forgot that the repetitive adjectives worked better as onstage direction rather than actual words one has to read over and over and over.

Let’s take a closer look at Baroness Orczy’s hero, Marguerite Blakeney. “Wait—Marguerite is the lady in need of rescue. She couldn’t possibly be the hero of this story,” you again protest. Yes, well, since we’re all pretending we don’t know Sir Percy is the Scarlet Pimpernel, you must admit the majority of the story is told from Marguerite’s point of view. This small detail is a pleasant surprise as the reader is treated to a transformation in Marguerite’s character. And then Lady Blakeney ruins the ride by falling back in love with her husband and needing rescue herself thus shining the last few moments of glory on Sir Percy AKA the Scarlet Pimpernel. Way to dissapoint the feminists, Baroness.

I would have thought an inane man who kept an extra set of sumptuous clothing on his yacht into which he could change after performing astounding feats of derring-do to thwart a sarcastic villain would gladly have shared the heroic limelight with his fêted wife. As for Sir Percy’s alternate identity, it’s easy to see why he chose the Scarlet Pimpernel over the Red Ninny or the Crimson Fop. Those last two certainly wouldn’t make a damsel in distress tremble with desire.

The brilliant naming schemes don’t end there, dear reader. The worst is given to Mr. Jellyband whose name is so painfully, so obviously not a real name but rather a representation of his jovial character that I’m a titch surprised we weren’t further inflicted with Sir Manly Gorgeousbod, Lady Beauty Misunderstood, and Baddy Badguy. But really, the novel is so stinking precious than one simply cannot help but laugh aloud. To hate it would be like hating kittens, puppies, and babies.

Wilberforce

Morgan Wilberforce is a boy in trouble in the coming-of-age novel that bears his name, Wilberforce. His story is set in England in the 1920s at a time when the effects of the war are still fresh on everyone’s mind. The reader is thrown into the action along with Morgan as he wakes up from a suicidal tackle during a game of rugby. From there one journeys with him as he navigates life at St. Stephen’s Academy, complicated relationships, and devastating situations made so by Morgan’s involvement. Pay attention to the dark shadow of a clue delivered at the beginning of the novel as well as those tossed throughout the following pages. H. S. Cross handled these details in such a way that the reader never feels as if he/she is constantly trying to catch up.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve read several novels about all-boy schools in England, but I wasn’t the least bit surprised when the seamy underside of life at such a school included what Morgan referred to as ‘mucking about.’ The details were only implied, but the subject almost put me off from finishing the book. I’m glad I stayed with it because the situation plays into the larger issue of what Morgan is truly dealing with.

The last one-third of the novel slowed to a pace that, in the hands of a less skilled writer, could have tanked the whole book. Then Cross broke the rule of introducing a character late in the story (one of several rules she broke brilliantly, so I still complain about the way writing is being taught!), and she added the unexpected layer of—what shall I call it?—religion. And yet, while the Bishop (said late character) represents Anglo-Catholicism, there is nothing religious about his approach to helping ‘sort out’ Morgan Wilberforce. Cross didn’t make the story about religion but rather delivered a heavy dose of compassion, so when Morgan finally experiences a breakthrough, it is genuine. It is also surprisingly swift, occurs at the brink of Morgan’s sanity and the edge of the novel’s conclusion, and is satisfyingly realistic.

One will never see this novel in the inspirational section of any library or bookstore. I’m not sure it should be by virtue of the fact that it doesn’t conform to the type of books usually shelved there. What I loved about Wilberforce is that it didn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life, didn’t glorify them for shock appeal either, but it included an element that undeniably dealt with redemption. I must admit, I didn’t see it coming. For this reason, I’m looking forward to reading more by H. S. Cross.

Hot Potato

As sweet and satisfying as any dessert, Mother Arlene’s sweet potatoes are always a hit at church potluck dinners, funeral dinners, and most especially at the Mother’s Day Feast hosted by the Baptist church. The recipe has been in Mother Arlene’s family for generations, and while she will gladly share it with anyone who asks, there is something extra special about the dish when prepared by Mother Arlene herself. That something extra is love, and it’s the ingredient Shirley Tedesco needs on the particular Mother’s Day she and her family spend with their best friends, the Roberts family, at their church.

The following recipe is the one I had in mind when creating the above-mentioned scene. The deep, rich flavor of these potatoes makes them a welcome addition to any dinner table, but don’t wait until Thanksgiving to enjoy them. Mother Arlene’s sweet potatoes will add spice to your middle-of-the-week menu and make you glad you tried them.

PS – Don’t be shocked by Mother Arlene’s inclusion of bourbon in her recipe. This Godly, graceful woman is no fool when it comes to using this classic, American spirit in moderation as a flavoring for her famous sweet potatoes just like her mother taught her. “Oh, honey—it’ll be our little secret,” she will say as she presses the recipe into your palm.

Mother Arlene’s Sweet Potatoes

5 large sweet potatoes

8 T unsalted butter

½ t sea salt

1 t ground cinnamon

½ t ground nutmeg

¼ t ground clove

¼ t ground ginger

Dash of allspice

¾ c sugar (I used raw)

½ c dark brown sugar

1 T vanilla

2 T bourbon

Preheat the oven to 350° F.

Wash the sweet potatoes and peel them. Remove any bad spots with a paring knife. Cut the sweet potatoes into slices about a half-inch thick and place them in a large bowl.

Place the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. When the butter is melted, stir in the sugars, spices, vanilla, and bourbon. Keep over the heat until the sugars are melted.

Pour the syrup mixture over the sweet potatoes and stir to coat them thoroughly. Transfer the potatoes to a 9 x 13 glass baking dish taking care to scrape all the syrup mixture from the bowl into the baking dish.

Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake the potatoes for 30 minutes. Remove the baking dish from the oven and carefully baste the sweet potatoes with the syrup mixture. Replace the foil on the baking dish and return it to the oven for another 15 – 20 minutes or until a small knife penetrates a potato slice with ease.

Remove the sweet potatoes from the oven and allow them to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Enjoy!

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.

Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other

Shirley Tedesco loves her mother-in-law. Really. But since Grandma Josephine never quite forgave Shirley for stealing her oldest son away and marrying him, well, let’s just say there is an undercurrent of tension between them, and that tension never comes out more than when Joe’s younger brother, Danny, visits.

Danny is the family screw-up who frequently cons his mother into investing in his latest stupid, money-making scheme. Joe, without Shirley’s knowledge, sometimes bails his brother out. So when Joe announces that Danny is coming for dinner and bringing his new girlfriend, Shirley is not at all happy.

Ratchet up the tension between Shirley, who is not pleased, and Grandma, who is thrilled. But the ladies are civil, and their chosen battlefield is the kitchen where each whips up the best of her recipes; Grandma to please her baby boy, and Shirley to simply not be outdone.

The following recipe for yeast rolls is the one I had in mind when choosing what Grandma Josephine would make. These rolls are little, handheld clouds of deliciousness. Light and tender, rich and satisfying, you will find yourself whipping up a batch of these easy-to-make delicacies if for no other reason than to indulge in a pan of them sans a meal!

Grandma Josephine’s Yeast Rolls

4 teaspoons active dry yeast

1 ½ c warm milk (about 100° F to 110° F)

4 ¼ c bread flour

1 large egg, beaten

2 t salt (I use kosher or sea salt)

3 T granulated sugar (I use raw)

½ c unsalted butter (1 stick), melted and cooled to lukewarm

For the Topping:

1 egg

1 teaspoon water

Pinch of salt

Generously butter a 9 x 13 x 2-inch metal baking pan.

In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, combine the yeast and 1 t of the sugar with the warm milk. Let stand for one to two minutes until the yeast blooms.

Add the flour, the egg, 2 teaspoons of salt, the rest of the sugar, and the melted butter. Using a dough hook, mix on low speed until combined.

Increase the mixer speed to medium and continue to mix for 7 minutes. You can add a teaspoon or two of flour as needed to encourage  the dough to pull away from the sides of the bowl, but not so much that you make the dough tough.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times to form a ball that is springy and elastic. Place the ball of dough in a well-oiled bowl. Turn to oil both sides. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise in a warm place for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.

Gently punch down the doubled dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Use a sharp knife to cut the dough into 24 uniform pieces and shape them into balls.

Place the individual dough balls in the buttered baking pan to make four rows of six (24 rolls). Cover lightly with a clean dish towel and let rise in a warm place for 20 to 30 minutes.

Heat the oven to 375° F.

When the rolls have risen, whisk an egg with 1 teaspoon of water and a pinch of salt until well blended. Gently brush the tops of the rolls with the egg wash mixture. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the rolls are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped.

Remove the rolls from the oven and allow them to rest for 10 minutes. Serve warm with butter, jelly, jam, or honey.

Enjoy!

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