Thursday, April 23, 2015

"Lamentation" by C.J. Sansom, Book #6 in the Matthew Shardlake series

I'm addicted to C.J. Sansom's tales of Tudor-era lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, and have enjoyed all of them as audiobooks narrated by Steven Crossley. So it was a happy day for me when book #6 in the series, "Lamentation," became available -- it being one of the books I listed in "My Reading Wish List for 2015."

Hampton Court Palace exterior
Hampton Court Palace

At first, I had some concerns that the series might be running out of steam. There's missing book that might get someone (Catherine Parr, in this case) in big trouble. I've seen this plot before. Once I got into it, though, I realized that it might actually be the best book of the series to date.

It's 1546 and the aging Henry VIII is burning heretics. The king might be head of the church in England, but he won't tolerate deviation from the doctrine of transubstantiation -- the literal, not merely symbolic, transformation of sacramental bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. There are even rumors that Henry might return England to Roman Catholicism.

Hampton Court Palace gardens
Gardens at Hampton Court Palace
 Still traumatized by his experience (in book #5) of the sinking of the Mary Rose, Shardlake is forced to attend the burning of Anne Askew, which sickens and frightens him. Shardlake himself, once a reformist, has lost his faith but is willing to practice whatever the king commands. Despite his longing for tolerance and peace, religious factions insert themselves into his life at all levels -- from his personal friendships, to his legal practice, as well as the political machinations into which he (inevitably) becomes embroiled.
The question the reader is left with is to what extent political advantage drives religious fanaticism and the hunt for heretics, as opposed to the reverse. As might be expected, we see both cynical, self-interested courtiers and true believers at work. In the hands of those around the king, accusations of heresy against competitors for power and wealth were very handy. Even the queen was not immune, though Henry was seriously displeased by those who unsuccessfully tried to implicate her.

Hampton Court Palace, The Great Watching Chamber
Hampton Court Palace, the "Great Watching Chamber," where Henry VIII entertained high-ranking court members
 The book includes a lengthy and interesting historical epilog. Catherine Parr's "The Lamentation of a Sinner" is a real book that was published in the English language by the Queen in 1547. Catherine was of a reformist bent, but stopped short of actual heresy (as defined by Henry VIII at that time). You can find a copy of the book, which is a sort of spiritual journal, along with the rest of Catherine's known letters and other writings published by University of Chicago Press as "Katherine Parr; Complete Works and Correspondence."

As for Matthew Shardlake... It looks as though the next book will see him working on behalf of a new and exciting client. I can't wait to read about it!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"Prune" by Gabrielle Hamilton

Back in November, I posted a list of the 10 books I was most looking forward to reading in 2015.  At this point I've read several of them, and thought it was time to start updating my progress and what I thought of them.

The only cookbook on my list was Gabrielle Hamiliton's "Prune" -- the book named after her NYC restaurant. I'd previously read and enjoyed her unflinching best-selling memoir, "Blood,  Bones, and Butter." While "Prune" can certainly stand on its own as a restaurant cookbook, I found it especially enjoyable as a companion to the author's personal story.

Kindle screenshot of covers for "Prune" and "Blood, Bones & Butter"

In "Blood, Bones & Butter" we met Gabrielle Hamilton, warts and all. Her artistic parents often left her to her own devices, and those devices paradoxically led to a fearless embrace of hard work as well as a juvenile delinquent streak. It all culminated in the opening of her restaurant, Prune -- apparently christened after a childhood nickname given Gabrielle by her mother.

Gabrielle doesn't even bother trying to come across as likable, but the clearly traceable roots of her culinary inspiration strongly appealed to me. Doesn't hurt that she has an MFA and is an accomplished writer, as well as a workaholic in the kitchen. Much of her food aesthetic nods gratefully to her French mother and Italian (former) in-laws (it's complicated). She's also traveled and incorporated the restaurant cultures of other lands into her own personal brand.

I found myself wishing I wasn't much too far away to head on over to NYC and get in line at Prune for one of their highly sought-after tables. So, when I saw that the Prune cookbook was out, it was something I wanted to check out right away.

On the other hand, I don't buy a lot of cookbooks anymore -- generally sourcing new recipes via Pinterest or Google -- so I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to buy a copy. I started by downloading the free sample chapter to my Kindle Fire. With just the table of contents and a few appetizer recipes to peruse, I still wasn't sure if I wanted to plunk down my money and own a copy. I was intrigued, but not quite sold.

To my delight, I learned the local library system gave me access to the full e-book version. That way I could look through the entire book, and if I found I wanted to make only one or two recipes, I could simply jot them down and be on my way. Problem solved.

Unfortunately it wasn't quite that easy. Figuring out which library apps were available for Kindle Fire, and which format(s) would function turned out to require an hour with a reference librarian (thank you!) who helped me side-load "Blio" and get started -- this after I'd spent the previous afternoon getting contradictory tips from various FAQ and help forums.

In the end I was able to peruse a library copy of "Prune" and decided pretty quickly that it was a book I wanted to own. Reader reviews on are decidedly mixed. From the naysayers, the primary complaints were:
  1. There is no index, so no gathering of all the chicken recipes (for example) with associated page numbers
  2. These are restaurant recipes which assume a certain level of cooking knowledge, and may not be scaled appropriately for home meals
  3. Some recipes appear too simple to bother writing down (e.g. radishes with butter and salt) while others are complicated and require ingredients not likely to be available at the local supermarket
Number one is irrelevant for an e-book with a search function. Number two is true enough: "Prune" is not a step-by-step how-to cook book. As for scaling the recipes...not that hard. My feeling is that complaint number 3 rather misses the point. Personally, I probably won't make any of the recipes exactly as written. Yes, Gabrielle would no doubt fire me from her kitchen on the spot. That's okay; I don't work for her and I can adapt as I like in my own home kitchen with ingredients and tools I have available.

I see "Prune" as inspiration for flavor combinations and style. Rustic and deceptively simple, her precise instructions for preparation and serving create elegance out of the otherwise prosaic. Her menu pays homage to her own past as described in her memoir, for example:
  • Triscuits and sardines from the summer she spent as a young teen fending for herself out of her absent mother's well-stocked pantry
  • White bread, butter and sugar sandwiches as dessert from a childhood that often substituted creativity and know-how for the cash needed to buy more conventional treats
  • Egg-on-a-roll from the simple deli meals she lived on when first living in NYC with no income beyond a jar of hoarded coins to meet expenses
She features the flavors of a misspent youth re-imagined for an unpretentious but sophisticated effect. I also found inspiration in her thrifty use of leftovers and scraps in creating other dishes and in her pantry/walk-in organization skills. No mess, no waste, no spoilage.

"Prune" is not just a cookbook, but a gift and an invitation. Gabrielle Hamilton's gift is the dishes that embody her own memories of home, family, and travel. The invitation (or challenge!) is to mine your own food memories for the delicious possibilities that lie there.