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One of the great pleasures of my job is unpacking the new materials that arrive daily at the library. Books, DVDs, CDs – you name it, I get my hands on it fresh out of the box. Because I’m fortunate enough to receive this first look, I come across treasures that otherwise might not appear on my reading radar.

One such treasure is “Fanny in France,” a children’s book – juvenile fiction, to be precise – written by the esteemed chef and restaurateur, Alice Waters, with Bob Carrau. This delightful work is comprised of a series of vignettes about the food, friends and fun that Waters’ daughter experienced in France as a child.

Whether she’s describing a daylong effort making bouillabaisse at a Marseille vineyard, an impromptu picnic when becoming stranded while harvesting wild oysters, or making delicious cheese from the freshest of sheep’s milk, Fanny’s adventures and narrative voice enchant the reader with her honesty and sense of wonder.

Join her in the excitement of Bastille Day in Paris, eat sea urchin pulled from the ocean moments before, and get lost in a bustling outdoor market in Nice. Meet characters like Monsieur Poilane, a traditional baker who offers Fanny a “kid-size bubbling apple tart” straight from the huge brick oven in his basement, or Alice Waters’ artist friend Martine, who scours flea markets for special dinner party accoutrements and feeds a crowd of nine with one roast chicken.

Pick up valuable culinary tips. Learn to select fish by looking at the eyes; “if the fish’s eyes are shiny and clear and they look right back” at you, it’s good to eat. Cook like a chef by putting together a mirepoix, “a special mixture of carefully chopped vegetables and herbs that French people use to start lots of things they cook.” When making pizza dough, handle it tenderly, only stretching it as far as it wants to go; “let the dough guide you,” Fanny instructs.

In addition to anecdotes, “Fanny in France” contains recipes for the dishes mentioned throughout the book. Looking for light meal ideas? You might try the Watercress or Garlic Soup, or even a Salade Nicoise, an omelet or a Croque-Monsieur, also known as a grilled cheese sandwich. Want to wow dinner guests? Consider the Couscous Royal with Chermoula, a spicy North African herb sauce, or the Roasted Herbed Rack of Lamb. Craving something sweet? Throw together an Almond Brown Butter Cake or Chocolate Souffle for a decadent treat.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the glorious, adorable artwork by Ann Arnold. Its colorful detail adds a wealth of richness to “Fanny in France.”

Finally, lest you think you’d need a few years of high school French to read this book, never fear. There is a glossary in the final pages of “Fanny in France,” and the author does a great job of casually translating as she goes along. Nevertheless, I found to my delight that I’d retained enough of my six years of French to understand everything.

You can find “Fanny in France” in the Children’s Department of the Joplin Public Library.  I hope you relish it as much as I did. Happy travels, and bon appetit!

 

The Joplin Public Library has a fairly extensive collection of graphic novels, many of which I’ve reviewed previously in these pages. Still, there exists a bias against graphic novels. Many people view them as childish, lacking in literary merit. If that’s your perspective, I ask you to consider the work of cartoonist Art Spiegelman.

In his ground-breaking works “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History” and “Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began,” Spiegelman explores the Holocaust through the experiences of his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew. Part biography, part memoir, both works tell a compelling story.

“Maus,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 — the first graphic novel to do so – covers the mid-1930s through winter 1944. Vladek’s story begins in Czestochowa, a small Polish town not far from the German border. As a young man, he buys and sells textiles and describes a life of pretty girls who openly pursue him. Eventually, he meets and marries Anja, a clever but high-strung girl from a wealthy family. Anja suffers a breakdown after giving birth to their first son, Richieu, and the couple go to a sanitarium in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia so that Anja can seek rest and treatment.

After they return, political tensions rise, and there are anti-Semitic riots. Eventually, Vladek is drafted into the Polish army; he is captured by the Germans and becomes a prisoner of war. After his release, he reunites with his family.  But their happiness is short-lived, as the Nazi noose tightens around Europe. The Jews in Vladek and Anja’s town are moved from ghetto to ghetto amid worsening conditions. Families are split up. More and more people are sent to Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. The couple arrange to escape to Hungary, but the smugglers betray them to the Gestapo, who arrest them and send them to Auschwitz.

“Maus II” picks up where its predecessor leaves off. Separated in Auschwitz, Vladek and Anja lead lives of starvation and abuse. But Vladek finds ways to avoid the “selections,” the process by which prisoners were chose for more labor or even execution, and hustles his way into working as a tinsmith and cobbler. He and Anja manage to exchange occasional messages, which keeps them both going. As the war progresses, Vladek and other prisoners are marched from Auschwitz in occupied Poland to Dachau in Germany. When the war finally ends, the camp survivors are freed. After a time, Vladek and Anja are reunited.

Woven throughout Vladek’s story is the tale of father and son, who share a troubled, tense relationship. “Maus” and “Maus II” are as much about being a Holocaust survivor as they are about being the child of Holocaust survivors. Art is eager to hear his father’s experiences so that he can write about them, but he has little patience for the older man’s anxious, miserly ways. Much of “Maus II” is devoted to their relationship as Vladek’s second marriage falls apart and his health deteriorates badly.

Spiegelman employs an animal motif to tell his story. In keeping with Nazi propaganda, Jews are represented as vermin, as mice. Likewise, Germans are characterized as cats, Poles as pigs, French as frogs, and Americans as dogs. This technique adds a surreal quality to horrific historical events, particularly when characters masquerade as others, such as when Vladek and others wear pig masks over their mouse faces to hide their Jewish identities.

 

 

If you have any qualms about “reading” an illustrated work, be assured that the story is text-driven. The artwork is black and white, and there is a fair amount of detail in the frames.

If you don’t mind the heavy subject matter during this holiday season, I highly recommend that you pick up “Maus” and “Maus II.” They offer a unique, accessible interpretation of a horrific time in history. You can find them in the Teen Department of the Joplin Public Library.

 

 

At the time of her death, Italian cooking legend Marcella Hazan was working on what would become her final book, writing longhand in notebooks that her husband and collaborator, Victor, translated and transcribed. That book, “Ingredienti: Marcella’s Guide to the Market,” serves as a testament to Hazan’s status as a treasure in the culinary world.

“Ingredienti” teaches the reader how to shop like Marcella Hazan. The ingredients are the most basic component of any recipe. You might be able to follow the instructions in her cookbooks, but without quality ingredients, the home cook stands little chance of faithfully replicating the recipes as intended.

“Looking for ingredients should be more deliberate than dropping them into your basket and checking them off a shopping list,” Hazan writes in the introduction. “Become familiar with them, establish a connection, and allow them to guide you to making food that you enjoy and will be pleased to share.”

The book is divided into sections entitled “Produce,” “The Essential Pantry” and “Salumi,” containing therein portraits of individual foods, ranging from artichokes, that spiny, somewhat intimidating but oh-so-delicious vegetable,  to lardo, a solid piece of pure, uncooked pig fat cured with salt, garlic, herbs and spices. The result is a well-organized, fast read that is easy to reference.

Hazan provides tips on selecting items, as well as storing, preparing, and serving them. She provides detailed instructions on how to maintain a large chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and she isn’t swayed by the argument that homemade pasta is superior to factory-made.

“When matched to its most appropriate sauces, the flavors of store-bought, factory-made boxed pasta are fully as remarkable and satisfying as those of the homemade variety,” she writes, though she cautions that not every supermarket pasta is created equal when it comes to quality. Spaghetti cries out for a simple tomato sauce. Short, concave or tubular pasta are best paired with “morsels they can pull inside them,” such as sauces containing meat or vegetables.

Perhaps the most interesting tidbit for me was this one, for serving risotto: “It is a gracious gesture, when serving, for the host or hostess to shake the plate with a circular motion to spread out the risotto so that the guest can eat starting at the edges, where the risotto will be cooler, then proceeding toward the center, where its heat takes longer to abate.”

“Ingredienti” delights all the senses. Hazan – and presumably her husband, as translator – has a facility with language that adds layers of temptation, elevating what one would otherwise consider a humble object. Take, for instance, what she has to say about fava beans: “Fava’s soft, velvety pod is as fuzzy to the touch as the beans inside it are smooth.” Or, in discussing Amabito no Moshio, a Japanese salt, she writes, “No other salt has such suave manners. It disappears into the food you sprinkle it on … and flavors emerge with precision and clarity.”

Hazan does an excellent job of describing smells. For example, tomatoes “should have a decidedly earthy, almost farmyard scent,” and “marjoram’s fragrance is charming but fragile.”

She also makes rich use of similes and metaphors. The white bulb of fennel is described as being “as hard and large as a boxer’s fist,” and an onion “is the bass player in the combo of flavors that I am putting together, the rhythm section that sets and drives the pace of its fellows.”

Finally, Hazan acknowledges the difficulty of obtaining the most quality of ingredients. Unless you grow your own herbs and vegetables or have access to a well-stocked, reliable farmers market, you must visit the grocery store. And let’s face it; not all grocery stores will carry that genuine extra-virgin olive oil or imported pancetta. To help you stock your pantry and follow the advice given in her fine book, Hazan provides four pages of online resources.

You’ll discover “Ingredienti” on the new non-fiction section at the Joplin Public Library. But don’t read it while hungry, I warn you. I found myself wanting to gather ingredients from my refrigerator and pantry – pasta, garlic, olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, Parmigiano-Reggiano – and throw something together to tempt my taste buds. Instead I resorted to swiping a spoonful of creamy ricotta from the already open container in the fridge, but that’ll be our little secret.

Unlike my luckier friends and colleagues, I’ve had no opportunity to indulge in travel this summer. Consequently, I’ve been feeling pretty burned out lately, weary of the Missouri heat and humidity, and more than a little envious of people’s vacation photos and stories on Facebook. Then, last week I read my way through a handful of books by illustrator and writer Lucy Knisley and found myself transported.

 
French Milk

This charming graphic novel, peppered with actual photographs, details Knisley and her mother’s sojourn in Paris. Using their rented apartment as a home base, the duo indulge in leisurely sight-seeing, tasty French food and vintage flea-market shopping. Imagine six weeks of celebrating New Year’s Eve with fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, stopping to enjoy buskers as you stroll the streets of Paris, exploring the exquisite grounds of Versailles or taking in priceless works of art in the city’s many museums.

Food plays a starring role in this French adventure. Mother and daughter linger in cafes for meals of French onion soup, oysters and wine, or throw together simple yet tasty repasts of croissants, cheese and pickles. Knisley becomes obsessed with decadent hot chocolate and can’t seem to stop drinking the rich, creamy French milk – hence the book’s title. When their time in Paris comes to an end, she loads up on good mustard and condensed milk, both sold in tubes, and cans of foie gras to tote home. (As someone who hoards Kinder Bueno candy bars when she travels overseas, I get it.)

But “French Milk” is about much more than getting to know a foreign city. It’s about the relationship between mother and daughter, as well as the uncertainty Knisley faces as she nears the end of her college career and must officially enter adulthood.

An Age of License: A Travelogue

“Some trips are more than distance traveled in miles,” Knisley writes on the first page of “An Age of License.” “Sometimes travel can show us how our life is … or give us a glimpse of how it can be …”

Reeling from a break-up, Knisley fortuitously finds opportunities to travel – a comics convention in Norway; a side trip to Sweden to visit a new lover; a stopover in Berlin to congratulate newlywed friends; and a return to France to see her vacationing mother.

As she hopscotches across Europe, Knisley maintains a leisurely, spontaneous pace, truly exploring her surroundings, from local French wineries to relics from Cold War Berlin. “An Age of License” is a joyful experience as Knisley luxuriates in the freedom that travel, youth and her unattached status bring.

Curious about the title? In France, the author encounters an American who claims that “the French have a saying for the time when people are young and experimenting with their lives and careers. They call it: l’age license. As in: License to experience, mess up, license to fail, license to do … whatever, before you’re settled.”

Displacement: A Travelogue

Although “Displacement” is a travelogue like “An Age of License,” it’s a much more poignant one. The book depicts a trip that Knisley takes with her aging grandparents, when she accompanies them on a Caribbean cruise as their caregiver. The journey becomes an exercise in patience and compassion, as well as in coming to terms with her elders’ mortality.

The cruise is no vacation for Knisley, as she deals with everything from her grandmother’s dementia to her grandfather’s incontinence, and all the resulting complications. She dispenses medications, seeks out lost items, and spends nights laundering her grandfather’s pants. There is little time for shore excursions or walks on the beach.

Interspersed with the daily travel diary are excerpts from a memoir that Knisley’s grandfather, a World War II veteran, wrote about his war-time experiences. Every night she reads further, seeing her now-frail grandfather in a new light. The contrast between his older and younger self is bittersweet.

On a side note, the sometimes unpleasant realities of cruise vacation that Knisley highlights are spot-on: goofy entertainment, rude passengers, the constant cleaning and sanitizing to avoid the spread of norovirus, a gastro-intestinal illness. As a veteran passenger, I can admit that, while fun, cruises do have elements of the absurd.

So if you haven’t been able to travel this summer, don’t despair. Journeys – of a sort – await you at the Joplin Public Library.

I’m embarrassed to acknowledge that there are times when reading seems like a way to pass the time and books fail to make much of an impact, despite the authors’ best efforts. Blame fatigue or everyday distractions such as work, but occasionally it takes too much energy to choose a book, let alone finish one.
However, recently I’ve been fortunate enough to read a couple of books that have reignited my enthusiasm for reading.

Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent

The subtitle, “A story of an unexpected friendship,” reveals the heart of this memoir in an understated manner.

When journalist Isabel Vincent initially meets Edward, her intention is to do an out-of-town friend a favor and look in on her nonagenarian, newly widowed father. But over weekly homemade dinners, a friendship blossoms that will transform her and, consequently, her life.

Over frigid Hendricks martinis, simple yet divine roast chicken and hearty apple tarts meticulously prepared by Edward, conversations delve into the art of cooking, Edward’s late wife, even Isabel’s high-stress career and faltering marriage.

“But from the beginning of our relationship,” Isabel writes, “I knew instinctively that his culinary tips went far beyond the preparation of food. He was teaching me the art of patience, the luxury of slowing down and taking the time to think through everything I did.”

Edward’s friendship extends beyond the dinner table. He writes her thoughtful letters on embossed stationery, sends her handwritten poetry, and takes her shopping for the perfect little black dress to encourage her to explore her feminine side.

Over time, Edward’s ministrations begin to have an effect not only on Isabel as she gradually wakes up to the realities of her life and what must change, but also upon himself, as he moves on from a profound grief at losing his soul mate.

“I had no doubt that fixing my confused middle-aged existence was giving him some kind of purpose in life,” Isabel confides.

This true story of friendship is touching, and the writing found within this slim volume is lovely and vivid – and often hunger-inducing.

At their first dinner, “the fatty juices from the steak bled across the expanse of the white porcelain” plates. One can almost smell the musty, garlicky scent of the black truffle oil that Edward uses to top a cream of cauliflower soup. A French fry is “a slab of soft potato spilling out of a crispy, golden, salty coating.”

If you’re looking for a charming book that will bring a gentle smile to your face, I can’t recommend “Dinner with Edward” enough.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

This author had me at “Pride and Prejudice” – as in “modern retelling of.” The classic Jane Austen novel has been my hands-down favorite book since I first read it at age 12, and I eagerly partake of any film or book related to it.

In this lively and well-done update, Sittenfeld has transplanted the Bennett family to Cincinnati, Ohio. Lizzie, a journalist, and Jane, a yoga instructor, have returned home to help look after their father, who is recovering from a heart attack and subsequent surgery, and find things a mess.

The family home and finances are in disarray. Mrs. Bennett is a compulsive shopper. Mary rarely leaves her bedroom as she works on her third online master’s degree. And jobless Kitty and Lydia spend their days dining out and indulging their obsession with CrossFit.
And then there’s the love interests: affable Chip Bingley, a doctor whose claim to fame is appearing on a reality TV dating show called “Eligible,” and his friend Fitzwilliam Darcy, a standoffish, judgmental neurosurgeon.

Other Austen types make appearances, as well. The obsequious Mr. Collins is now awkward Cousin Willie, a software start-up magnate. The awful Caroline Bingley, while still Chip’s sister, also serves as his manager. The manipulative cad George Wickham has become Liz’s long-time friend and crush, Jasper Wick. And arrogant, meddling Lady Catherine de Bourgh has been re-envisioned as Kathy de Bourgh, renowned feminist icon.

“Eligible” is a delightful book, full of humor (some of it ribald, thanks to Lydia) and romance even as it addresses issues of gender, class and family relationships. I listened to the audiobook version, as narrated by Cassandra Campbell, and frequently found myself sitting in my garage upon arriving home, loathe to turn off the car and the story.

Whether you’re a Jane Austen fan or someone looking for a light-hearted summer read, I wholeheartedly recommend “Eligible.”

Purely by accident, my literary theme of late has been “girl power.” Many of the graphic novels that I’ve recently picked up focus on young women and female friendships. Below is but a sampling of what I’ve been reading.

“Lumberjanes. Beware the kitten holy, volume 1,” by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis

This graphic novel, found in the library’s Teen Department, is set in Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Girls, aka Hardcore Lady Types, where the unofficial motto is “Friendship to the max!” It features the adventures of a group of five friends who consistently find themselves in perilous situations as they try to earn badges and unravel a mystery. They battle magical, three-eyed foxes, fight off river monsters, explore secret caves and encounter boys from a neighboring camp who might not be what they seem.

I have to admit, I was slightly bored by “Lumberjanes,” perhaps because I feel much older than the target demographic. But the strong bond between the girls is sweet, and they’re prone to uttering cute things such as “What the junk?” and “Math and science and logic to the max!” My favorite was probably Ripley, the smallest member of the group. She bursts out with comments such as “I like kittens!” and her specialty move is the “fastball,” when she cannonballs into and then karate-chops the supernatural beings threatening the group. The bright, energetic artwork brings Ripley and the other girls to life, as if “Lumberjanes” were an animated cartoon leaping off the pages.

My co-workers loved “Lumberjanes,” and you might, too, so check it out for yourself. The library also has volumes 2 and 3, with 4 on order.

“Ghost World,” by Daniel Clowes

This cult classic, found in the adult collection, follows the daily lives of best friends Enid Coleslaw (an anagram of the author’s name) and Becky Doppelmeyer. They’re smart but cynical young women who pass the time wandering around their cultural wasteland of a town, hanging out in a local diner and mocking the people they encounter. Although the two are long-time friends, as the novel progresses, their bond becomes strained when both develop a crush on the same boy and Enid half-heartedly attempts to get into college, a move that would result in her leaving Becky behind.

The focus is on Enid and Becky, but they share space with plenty of characters, from an alleged Satanist couple to a local astrologer-psychic. No one is exempt from the girls’ judgment and sharp tongues, including each other. The tension that forms in their friendship is sad but familiar, even bittersweet, as growing apart is often an inevitable part of growing up.

The artwork fits “Ghost World” perfectly. In consistent shades of black and pale blue, it seems melancholy and is as cool and blasé as the female protagonists themselves.

If you like the graphic novel, you might consider checking out the film adaption, starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi, also a part of the Joplin Public Library’s adult collection.

“Giant Days, volumes 1 and 2,” by John Allison

When my Comics and Cocktails book club read “Giant Days, volume 1” in April, I fell in love with it, so I promptly purchased volume 2 at my local comic book shop. These clever, easily read graphic novels depict the exploits and mishaps of three college-age friends.

Outspoken Susan, dramatic Esther and sheltered Daisy just started university a few weeks earlier but are already inseparable. Together they experience romantic tribulations, seek revenge on sexist bro types, battle an epic flu, save one of their own from a vengeful fake faith healer and, oh, yes, sometimes tend to their schoolwork.

The artwork is colorful and reminiscent of Walt Disney animation, the writing witty, and the stories familiar without being clichéd. I connected with “Giant Days” in a way that I haven’t with a book in a while, most likely because it brought back vivid memories of my freshman year of college, from the immediate dorm friendships, to a painful crush, to a raging case of strep throat.

If you want to read “Giant Days,” good news! Both volumes have been ordered and are on their way. If you’re impatient, I recommend getting on the reserve list now, as each one already has holds on it.

A recent medical leave posed a strong challenge to my ability to stay home, observe the doctor’s restrictions, and get some rest. When I wasn’t sleeping, knitting scarves and making use of adult coloring books, I parked myself in front of the television. But I could only binge-watch so much early “X-Files” and “Portlandia” on Netflix, so I had to shake things up a bit with a variety of DVDs. Here are some that helped me keep my sanity:

The Jinx: the Life and Deaths of Robert Durst: If you’re a fan of the Netflix documentary “Making of a Murderer,” consider this multi-part HBO documentary about the strange and unlucky Robert Durst, scion of a powerful New York City real-estate family. Durst, suspected of murdering his wife Kathie in 1982 and his friend Susan Berman in 2000, is apprehended and tried after his neighbor Morris Black turns up dead and dismembered in 2001, when the film’s narrative begins. The well-researched and well-organized “Jinx” utilizes archival news footage, police evidence and interviews with key players to tell the story, but by far the most riveting component is the hours that writer and director Andrew Jarecki spent talking with a willing Durst, who comes off as more than a little spooky.

Suffragette: This new addition to the library’s DVD collection stars Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, a laundress in 1912 London who becomes part of history when she suddenly finds herself an unlikely recruit in the fight for women’s right to vote. Her involvement in the cause places her family, her job and her home at risk. In addition to Mulligan, there are strong performances all around: Brendan Gleeson as the investigator working to bring down the suffragettes; Helena Bonham Carter as a determined, long-time leader in the movement; and Anne-Marie Duff as the woman who initially recruits Maud. Meryl Streep has high billing as well, although her character, a presence in name and photograph throughout the entire film, only makes brief appearances. The story will engage, infuriate and inspire you. And be sure to stay put for the end credits, which feature a lengthy list of when women received the right to vote in countries around the world.

The Muppet Movie: I simply love this movie. It never fails to make me happy, beginning with the opening strains of the song “Rainbow Connection,” which makes my eyes well up with sentimental tears. The many wonderful cameos, from Milton Berle to Steve Martin, always surprise me. If you need a smile, join Kermit the Frog and friends as they journey to Hollywood for a casting call while trying to evade the film’s villain, a restaurateur who specializes in frog legs. And if you need more Muppets in your life, the library has “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz,” “Muppets from Space” and “Muppets Take Manhattan,” as well as the delightful reboot starring Jason Segel and Amy Adams, “The Muppets” and its sequel, “Muppets Most Wanted.”

Waiting for Guffman: This comedic mockumentary, set in fictional Blaine, Mo., depicts the creation of a local acting troupe’s original show celebrating the small town’s 150th anniversary. Starring Christopher Guest, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O’Hara, it spotlights the antics of this passionate but not necessarily talented group of performers. The titular Guffman is a New York theater figure whom they hope will bring their show to Broadway. Unfortunately, the library doesn’t have this particular movie (you can always do a request for purchase), but if you like the cast and the mockumentary format, it does have the very funny “Best in Show,” about the world of dog shows.

 

Man Up. No recuperation is complete without a chick-flick. “Man Up” is a new addition to the Joplin Public Library’s collection. Starring my British boyfriend Simon Pegg and American actress Lake Bell, it’s a charming and funny tale of mistaken identity. Quirky Nancy, who has pretty much given up on men and dating, is wrongly thought to be Jack’s blind date. How does she handle it when the two really seem to hit it off and spend a fun-filled evening together? Will she come clean about the accidental deception, and how will he react? You’ll have to check it out to find out!