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Gizelle's Bucket ListPerhaps it was too soon, I told myself as I picked up the book from the new non-fiction shelf here at the Joplin Public Library.

A little more than a month earlier, we’d had to put the family Collie, our beloved Molly, to sleep at the estimated age of 12. The house still felt quieter without her sweet presence, and my dog, Buster, seemed to miss her. But the book seemed like it would be a fast read, and the cute photographs were enticing. Determined to be strong, I grabbed it and headed to the library’s self-checkout machines.

“Gizelle’s Bucket List: My Life with a Very Large Dog” was a mixed experience for me. I found myself smiling at the familiarity and ugly crying by the time I reached the final page.

From the moment 19-year-old Lauren Watt and her mother meet the female brindle English mastiff puppy, it’s love.

“The puppy felt so right in my lap,” Watt writes. “I looked down at her and couldn’t believe this was real. Years later, I’d recognize this look as the way a few of my friends gazed at their shiny engagement rings, like they are about to start their lives, like their adventures were about to begin. … I felt as though I’d fallen under a spell, enchanted.”

(I felt a similar emotion when I first saw a picture of my current dog. I’d spent nine long months grieving the loss of my first dog, but the moment I saw a picture of Buster, I just knew he was the one. It was time to move on.)

A handful of cash and one check later, Watt and her mother head home, having named the puppy Gizelle, after the innocent princess in the movie “Enchanted.”

Gizelle fit right into the family pack, and she started to grow. And grow. Watt grows up with her, eventually graduating from college and heading to New York City, giant dog in tow. Somehow, she finds an apartment big enough for herself, her canine companion and a human roommate.

Life in the Big Apple is an adventure for Watt and her giant dog. Daily walks turn into encounters with colorful strangers, thanks to Gizelle’s attention-getting presence. The duo go for night-time runs in Central Park, Watt feeling totally safe in the dark with her dog by her side. Gizelle shows off superstar moves in a costume contest at a dog park.

When Gizelle develops a mysterious limp at the age of six, Watt begins to face the fact that her best friend won’t be around forever. The limp eventually leads to a devastating diagnosis: Gizelle has bone cancer. Watt is heartbroken: “Never, ever could I have imagined this news would hurt so badly, that it would take my breath away, that finding out would feel like I could not ever go on. I sat down, and I sobbed.”

Always a list maker, she resolves to write down things she wanted to do with Gizelle, as well as things Gizelle loved to do. She creates Gizelle’s Bucket List.

The pair take road trips. They eat the best lobster rolls and doughnuts. They enjoy ice cream while sitting on a wooden boat dock. They visit the beach. They ride in a canoe. They play in piles of autumn’s colorful leaves.

All too soon, Watt resolves that it’s time to say goodbye and make that final vet visit. The last pages of “Gizelle’s Bucket List” are difficult to read, especially if you’ve ever lost a pet. Watt doesn’t shy away from the realities of putting her dog to sleep.

Ultimately, “Gizelle’s Bucket List” is about learning to live in the moment and love as unconditionally as a dog does, lessons we all could benefit from. Take a journey with Lauren Watt and Gizelle; you won’t regret it.

 

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dog's purposeI must admit that I dreaded seeing Lasse Hollstram’s latest film, “A Dog’s Purpose.” Months before, I’d been unable to watch the trailer without crying, so that didn’t bode well for the film. And I tend to avoid dog films after the trauma of viewing “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” (also directed by Hollstram) led to night of sobbing and wadded-up Kleenex, and days of sadness.

But the allure of cute canines was too strong, so I succumbed and popped “A Dog’s Purpose” in my Blu-Ray player the other night. Although I shed a few tears, much to my surprise I was able to power through and enjoy the film.

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by W. Bruce Cameron, “A Dog’s Purpose” depicts the story of one dog who, in his quest to find the meaning of his life, reincarnates again and again.

Once he gets past a short life as a stray dog, he is reborn as a Golden Retriever and finds himself attached to young Ethan, who names him Bailey. The two are inseparable, even as Ethan grows up and finds love.

Bailey lives his a long life and, sadly, must inevitably let go of his happy existence. He is reborn as Ellie, a female German Shepherd. Bailey’s new life is one of hard work, as he is a police dog partnered with the taciturn Carlos. Ellie’s days are spent chasing criminals, making drug busts, and tracking kidnapping victims, and her nights are spent trying to break through to the lonely Carlos.

After Ellie makes an early exit, Bailey reincarnates as Tino, an adorable Pembroke Welsh Corgi. He is the faithful companion of lovelorn college student Maia, joining her on her journey as she falls in love, gets married and starts a family.

Bailey lives a good life as Tino, but eventually must move on. He takes the form of a St. Bernard-mix puppy who finds a new home when he is given away in a parking lot. Sadly, his new existence is one of neglect and loneliness, as he is banished to growing up in a barren yard. When he is driven away from home and dumped, he follows his nose and finds himself in a familiar place, with a familiar person, and with a new name: Buddy.

I won’t reveal anything more about this final chapter of Bailey’s life, other than that some of the tears I cried during “A Dog’s Purpose” were from pure happiness.

Just a note: Bailey and his various incarnations are charmingly voiced by Josh Gad, whom younger viewers might know from his work as Olaf in “Frozen” and LeFou in the live-action “Beauty and the Beast.” If you’re in the mood for a sweet story and cute dogs, I recommend checking out “A Dog’s Purpose,” available on DVD from the Joplin Public Library.

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.”