Monday, January 13, 2014

Mayim's Vegan Table by Mayim Bialik and Dr Jan Gordon (2014)

I imagine there's this moment in publishing house planning meetings where they discuss upcoming titles and the kind of people who will buy them, maybe laughing at or wondering about the people who buy a book just because of the famous name on the cover. I admit - I am one of those people. If it is written by a female actor, I promise you it's on my list of books to read. Some, I liked a lot (Molly Ringwald's When It Happens to You and Lauren Graham's Someday, Someday, Maybe were both very good and the cookbooks from Real Housewives Bethenney Frankel and Teresa Guidice are excellent and in regular use at my house), some made me smile and watch Clueless again (The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone) and some were just awful (Oh Dear Sylvia by Dawn French and Skinnydipping by Bethenney Frankel were really, really bad). So when I saw Mayim's Vegan Table available on Netgalley, I was torn. I find Mayim Bialik fascinating - a woman with a PhD in microbiology who plays a character on TV with a PhD in microbiology - but I am not a fan of vegan cookbooks, as they are often full of frankenfoods and weird ingredients,. Clearly, my curiosity won out and I requested the title.

Upon downloading my copy, I was again a bit hesitant when I saw there were four chapters on veganism before the recipes even started. With all due respect to any vegans out there, I too have read the research and decided that it's not a lifestyle I want and I don't read books to feel lectured at about my choices (although I have more respect for vegans than I do for people who "eat paleo". Don't even get me started on people who follow "our ancestors' diets" and then cook with ghee and canned coconut milk - just like ancient man). However, these chapters were very reasonable and not polemic at all. I found myself nodding quite a bit - a healthy diet is about making better choices for the environment and our bodies - and, as a society, we eat too many meat products and way too much processed food. These authors (Bialik and Dr Jay) advocate for making better choices, which I fully agree with. They are argue strongly and persuasively that we need to be feeding our kids better food - less processed chips in individually packaged bags that go into landfill and more fresh, healthy food. Also (and I agree with this wholeheartedly) food needs to stop being used as a way to reward or console. Teaching a kid that doing something good means you get a sweet treat leads to adults with a unhealthy relationship with both food and rewards.

So, the writing gets a tick from me. But, at the end of the day this is a cookbook, so I picked two recipes that I had the ingredients for in the cupboard and started cooking.

First up, Spanish Rice. 

Excuse the photo - the steam from the hot food fogged up the camera lens! I served this with kidney beans, jarred salsa and fresh diced tomato in wholegrain tortillas and it was simple and delicious. My boyfriend ate all of the leftovers straight from the pan and didn't believe me when I told him it was vegan. I will definitely be making it again.

For dessert: Chocolate Fudge Cake.

It's a bit flatter than it should be because I halved the recipe. Bialik ices her cake but I actually don't particularly like "frosting" so I just dusted it with icing sugar and served with fresh raspberries and blueberries. This also was a winner - easy, simple, moist and tasty.

My one criticism of the book is that I would have liked to have a key added with information on recipes' suitability for freezing, making ahead and if they were gluten-free. What I liked most about this book is that it wasn't about trying to replicate food with animal products in vegan form - it is full of healthy, simple recipes that taste good and I've got a whole bunch of other recipes flagged to try. I never thought I'd say this about a vegan cookbook, but when my Netgalley copy expires, I think I will actually buy a copy. Four stars.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

It seems a bit cheeky that my first book review of the year with a book that I read 98% of it in 2013 but, given the size of this book, I think I will not be the only one doing so! I speak, of course, of Donna Tartt’s very long highly anticipated The Goldfinch, her long-awaited follow-up to The Secret History and The Little Prince.

This book is told in the first person by Theodore Decker. His mother is killed in a terrorist attack at the Museum of Modern Art in New York at. Following the explosion, at the behest of a dying man a concussed Theodore steals the famous painting The Goldfinch. The rest of the novel follows Theo as he firstly lives with a wealthy foster family, then his father then his mentor, James Hobart.
There are many many reviews of this book out there – so many that I do feel a bit redundant sharing mine. But what is the point of having a book blog if I don’t get to share my Opinions? (Capital O, of course. My Opinions are many and strong) There were two fundamental things I took from reading this book. Firstly, Donna Tartt is a wonderful writer. Her language is beautiful and evocative and her descriptions of Theo’s grief after losing his mother are poignant and heartbreaking. But this first point is dramatically overshadowed by the second dominating aspect of the novel: this book is too bloody long!
I like a long book – Anna Karenina is one of my favourite books of all time and that is both lengthy and detailed. However, because so little happens in The Goldfinch and because we only ever hear the story from Theo’s perspective, rather than being lost in the story or entranced by the language I found myself becoming increasingly impatient. I wanted to tell Theo (and, by extension, Tartt) to hurry up and get to the point! By the end of the book Tartt had started to write in partial sentences (either Tart was as sick of the book as I was or was trying to use writing style to allow us to enter the mind of the protagonist – whatever the rationale, they were jarring and frustrating). I would estimate that a good third of the book is just about Theo getting wasted. You know how when you’re at a party and you’re sober and everyone else is getting wasted and telling you stupid repetitive stories that go on and on and on? That’s what reading about someone getting wasted all the time feels like. I reached the stage where if the first sentence of a paragraph made any mention of drugs or drug use I skipped it and moved to the next one. Life’s too short for reading the same paragraph rearranged slightly differently 3,000 times.

The most disappointing part of reading The Goldfinch for me was that it had the potential to be a really great book. The concept is great and at times Tartt’s writing is close to divine. It just really needed a good editor to tease out the story and cut back all of the excess verbiage. Instead of reading this book, I recommend re-reading The Secret History instead. 2.5 stars.

My copy is more than 4cm deep! Do not, I repeat, do not attempt to use this book as commuting material. This book is single-bookedly contributing to the death of the published book and rise of the e-reader. 

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

I read 78 books for the year, which falls a few short of my target of 104 but is still not a shabby number! I wrote 21 reviews, one more than my target of 20.

Cheers to a wonder 2014 that involves many books, much talking about books and many long, lazy afternoons reading books on the couch.