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It’s the best book season. Nothing says fall more than a blanket, a good book and good comfort food. I have a handful of books to review and I can’t wait to find the perfect fall/winter recipes to go with them. 

1) The Shining Girls 

2) We Are Water 

3) The Goldfinch 

4) The Girl You Left Behind

5) The Returned

Stay tuned! And get ready for some really, really good pumpkin pairings. 

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A while back I wrote about Marisha Pessl’s ‘Night Film’ and after a few weeks of anxiously waiting for the library to call my number, I got my grubby hands on it and devoured over one weekend at a cabin. 

Pessl’s novel is experiential. Within the text, she layers in pictures, news articles, files, police reports. Flipping the page to a faux Time Magazine article or a picture of a beautiful woman (aka Ashley Cordova) made me giddy each time. 

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Disgraced journalist Scott McGrath pictures his redemption after Ashley Cordova, daughter of a famous and reclusive film director, is found dead. The book follows McGrath and his two unlikely friends — a barely-legal coat check girl and a pill popping LES-er with a connection to Ashley — as they try to figure out the truth behind the Ashley’s alleged suicide. 

As McGrath and his clan follow leads, we find out more and more about Stanislas Cordova, a filmmaker famous for making movies so scary, they have been banned in numerous countries. Cordova’s work inspires thousands of ‘Cordovites,’ rabid fans who worship the mysterious man, despite the fact that he hasn’t been seen or heard of in 30 years.

Pessl creates such imaginative story lines that, throughout the book, you can’t help but wish films like “Thumbscrew” and “The Legacy” actually existed. 

I decided to pair ‘Night Film’ with a blackout cake for many reasons. When I first finished the book, one scene stuck with me. I won’t get into too much detail but it has to do with darkness. A lot of darkness. 

With all of the pictures and fun additions, ‘Night Film’ felt like an indulgence. Tip: download the ‘Night Film’ app before you start reading, and follow along to make the book even more wild.  

Blackout Cake

Pudding

1-1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup whole milk
6 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 tsp vanilla extract

Cake
8 tbsp unsalted butter (1 stick), plus extra for greasing pans
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting pans
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp table salt
3/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 cup strong black coffee
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

See the rest of the recipe here 

 

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I’m not usually a fan of short story collections. I have to be in the right mood, and usually I end each one unfulfilled and wanting more. But Jodi Angel’s collection, You Only Get Letters From Jail definitely changed my mind.

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Angel’s stories are dark and profound. She reaches into the psyche of the adolescent boys who narrate each story. Angel gives voice to these unlucky, can’t-make-rent, struggling young men so well that it’s hard to believe she herself wasn’t one of them. 

These boys live in a world where a job lasts only a few weeks and finding your mother dead on the bathroom floor isn’t a surprising incident. In one of Angel’s stories, a teenage boy finds himself helping out an old lady who keeps a cat in her refrigerator. In another, a barely-legal man runs away with his pregnant girlfriend to avoid the pain her father threatens to inflict upon him. Each story is different, but they are all told in the same ferocious and jarring way.  

Angel’s characters are the kind of men you’d find in a dive bar, drinking alone while their girlfriend watches the kid. They’re the boys who can’t quite get it together or figure out what adulthood is really supposed to be like. For this pairing, I decided on a nacho recipe from Food Republic. You can’t help but have a craving for greasy, cheap food while reading Letters, and this recipe hits the spot. 

Chicken Tinga Nachos Recipe

For the chicken tinga

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs

1 small yellow onion, peeled and quartered

2 cloves garlic, smashed with the side of a knife

1 bay leaf

1 jalapeno pepper, split, seeds removed

1/2 small can chipotles in adobo sauce

2 cups low-sodium chicken stock

5 whole cloves

For the nachos

1/2 large bag tortilla chips

8 ounces monterey jack cheese, coarsely shredded

sour cream and cilantro, to garnish




To view the rest of the recipe, click here
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The Love Affairs has been on my must-read list since I read New York Times’ review

Before I start, you should know that I’m a writer who lives and dates in Brooklyn. Which is perhaps why I enjoyed Adelle Waldman’s novel so much.

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The book centers around Nate Piven, a 30-year-old writer who, after an adolescence full of romantic rejection, is finally being noticed by women. Nate is also becoming marginally successful in the literary world, which seems to exponentially increase his desirableness to women. But the problem is, Nate can’t seem to make any of these relationships work out. 

Before Nate’s first novel is published, he finds himself in a relationship with Hannah, a woman his friends rate a “7” and consider “co-worker material.” As the two become more serious, Nate can’t help but nitpick her every flaw. Try as he might, he often succumbs to the pressure around him and starts to see Hannah as, well, not perfect.

Waldman does a great job delving into the mind of a modern, 30-something-year-old man. Nate struggles to find happiness while trying his hardest to be a “good person” — he may hurt women along the way, but he isn’t inherently bad, and he often doesn’t understand exactly why that ex-girlfriend he accidentally ran into is still fuming. 

The novel doesn’t force a sing-songy view of romance down your throat, nor does it depress with the idea that love is futile. Sometimes, relationships simply … are. 

I decided to pair this week’s book with a brunch favorite, Eggs Benedict. In New York, brunch is the essential relationship divider. If you’re dating, you brunch. If you’re hanging out, you grab coffee and call it a morning. During one scene in the novel, Waldman acknowledges this social norm when Hannah and Nate have a tense, Relationship with a capital R fight during brunch at a hip, new spot. 

This recipe comes from Food52. If you haven’t checked this site out, do so ASAP — the recipes are to die for. 

Vegetable Eggs Benedict 

  • 1red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch squares
  • 1small zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1small yellow squash, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 8-10mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
  • 1/2teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4teaspoon pepper
  • 1-2tablespoon distilled white vinegar
  • 4large eggs
  • 2whole wheat English muffins, split and toasted
  • 1/4cup salsa
  • One teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

 

See the rest of the recipe here

 

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It’s been a couple of weeks since I finished Mario Alberto Zambrano’s Loteria, but it hasn’t left my mind. The novel portrays childhood innocence as it goes hand-in-hand with gritty reality. Told through traditional loteria cards, the book follows the story of 11-year-old Luz Maria Castello and the tragedy that flooded her life. 

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The book itself is gorgeous. Every chapter starts with a different, very colorful loteria card. Luz was directed to use the cards as a way to tell her story. Every day she flips over a new one and relates a story to it, good or bad, mundane or important. Speaking to God and ‘no one else,’ Luz slowly divulges the circumstances that landed her only sister in ICU and her father behind bars. 

Luz is not sheltered from the grim truth that surrounds her. From listening to adults describe women as ‘putas,’ to watching as her mother abandons the family and her father turns to alcohol to numb the loss, Luz understands that life is not easy.

Zambrano delicately reveals the inter workings of a child’s mind, especially one that has dealt with a huge tragedy. While reading Loteria, I felt at times that I was snooping, infringing on the 11-year-old’s privacy like the workers at Luz’s state institution. Luz’s painful revelations juxtaposed next to the brightly colored loteria cards relay a sense of unfairness — Luz should be enjoying her youth, not writing in her diary alone in a group home. 

What Luz does have though, are memories of when her family was at its happiest. In one of her most fond memories, Luz recalls a time when her father, happy to be employed, came home with tres leches cake. 

That day, Papi brought home tres leches. Mom said it was too sweet and runny and it didn’t have enough eggs. She said the one her Tia Sofi makes is the best in the world and no other tres leches comes close. You could only have a slice of this one with a cup of coffee or a glass of water to wash it down. Estrella didn’t say anything, but I could tell she liked hers because she kept licking her fork. But none of that mattered. Papi smiled and said to us, ‘Yo tengo trabajo.’ 

I have to admit, I go wild for any tres leches cake, even if it’s too sweet or too runny. I found a great recipe courtesy of The Pioneer Woman that I guarantee Luz’s mom would appreciate.

Tres Leches Cake 

 

  • 1 cup All-purpose Flour
  • 1-1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon Salt
  • 5 whole Eggs
  • 1 cup Sugar, Divided
  • 1 teaspoon Vanilla
  • 1/3 cup Milk
  • 1 can Evaporated Milk
  • 1 can Sweetened, Condensed Milk
  • 1/4 cup Heavy Cream
  •  _____
  •  FOR THE ICING:
  • 1 pint Heavy Cream, For Whipping
  • 3 Tablespoons Sugar

 For the entire recipe, click here

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A couple months back I wrote a ‘Salivating’ post about Neil Gaiman’s new novel. The book has received raving reviews from various outlets and the beautiful cover alone made me want to read it. 

After a way too long wait at my beloved NYPL, I finally read The Ocean and I ended it with mixed feelings. Before I start off, let me disclose that I’ve never been a fantasy reader. I’m used to the glares across tables when I reveal that I never cared for Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. That said, Gaiman’s novel was beautifully written, with descriptions that provoked amazing and awe-inspiring visuals. 

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I won’t go too much into detail about the book because I covered most of it in my previous post. When a funeral brings our narrator (his name is never given) back to his hometown, he finds his way to his old homestead. While wandering around, he remembers with fondness a friendship he had years ago with a peculiar girl who lived down the lane. 

Our bookish and intelligent boy lives with his sister and parents in a beautiful home. When bills become too much, his parents offer up his beloved room to renters, forcing the narrator into his sister’s room, far away from the perfect bedroom at the top of the stairs. After a lodger turns up dead, the boy meets Lettie Hempstock and his life is changed. Lettie, who lives with her grandmother and her mother, is not your everyday neighbor. 

When not-so-typical evil babysitter, Ursula Monkton, shows up, it’s the Hempsteads who come to the rescue in more ways than one. 

Gaiman’s novel packs a punch at only 181 pages. The majority of the tale is told through the eyes of the 7-year-old boy, making it at times terrifying at at times wondrous beyond imagination. Still, when I finished the book I didn’t feel like I learned anything more about the world we live in, or left with a greater understanding of life. Perhaps I was asking too much (I usually am), but I finished the book entertained yet slightly unfulfilled. 

Still, I think The Ocean at the End of the Land provides a perfect food and book pairing. Near the end of the story, our hero remarks,

'I do not miss childhood but I miss the way I took pleasure in the small things, even as greater things crumbled.' 

While his world is falling apart around him, the young boy still finds the most happiness in things like a mouthful of shepherd’s pie. This week’s recipe comes curiosity of The Kitchy Kitchen. 

Shepherd’s Pie

For the Potatoes:
1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes
1/4 cup half-and-half
2 ounces unsalted butter
For the Meat Filling:
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped onion
1 1/2 cups carrots, peeled and diced small
3/4 cup celery stalk, peeled and diced small
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 pounds ground lamb or beef
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1/2 cup beef broth
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons freshly chopped rosemary leaves
1 teaspoon freshly chopped thyme leaves
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup fresh or frozen English peas

View the rest of the recipe here

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Elliott Holt’s debut novel, You Are One of Them caused me to miss my subway stop last week because I was too enraptured to hear the foggy announcement. That pretty much says it all. 

You Are One of Them is a psychological thriller that captures the paranoia of the Cold War flawlessly. Holt’s novel is loosely based on the story of Samantha Smith, who in 1983 began correspondence with Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov.

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In the book, Smith is Jennifer Jones. Jones is the picture of pre-teen Americana; blonde, pretty and popular with a name so American, it almost sounds made up. Across the street, Sarah Zuckerman is the product of a broken home. She’s quiet, bookish and spends her days with an anxious mother in the dark, curtain-drawn house ever since her father repatriated to London. 

Inspired by her mother’s passion for fighting nuclear warfare, Sarah decides to write a letter to Yuri Andropov. When Jennifer’s letter is published and reproduced instead of Sarah’s, Jones becomes an overnight celebrity. She travels to the USSR, writes a book and becomes an ambassador for peace. Her instant fame causes tension with Sarah,  but before they can reconcile, Jenny and her equally perfect parents are killed in a plane crash.

Years later, Sarah receives a mysterious letter from a Russian woman named Svetlana who knew Jenny as a child. Svetlana offers Sarah an intriguing opportunity to connect with a past she hasn’t quite given up on yet and before she knows it, Sarah finds herself living in Moscow.

What Sarah ultimately finds in Russia sparks an internal struggle and she’s presented with a decision she waited her whole life to make.

The post-Cold War Russia that Holt paints isn’t pretty. Remnants of communism linger on the metro, at the grocery stores, at the bars. But Russians aren’t ashamed of their country, they are intensely proud of it. They fervently flock to their dachas during the summer months, mingle with friends and boast about their great country. After a few months, Sarah finds herself in a dacha with new ‘friends,’ cooking and drinking a lot of vodka.

In the book, the Russians are eager to entertain. One of the foods they served during a getaway was shashlik, a form of a kebab. I picked a recipe from Saveur.com that Sarah would have undoubtably tried during her Russian stay.

Shashlik

½ cup minced dill

½ cup seltzer water

2 tbsp. white vinegar

1½ tbsp. ground coriander

1½ tbsp. paprika

1 tsp. ground cumin

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1½ lb. boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 2” pieces

3 small yellow onions (2 cut into 2” wedges, 1 minced)

¼ cup olive oil

5 cloves garlic, minced

3 tbsp. tomato paste

1 tsp. crushed red chile flakes

16 pitted prunes, roughly chopped

1 (28-oz.) can whole peeled tomatoes in juice, crushed

1 cup minced cilantro

½ cup minced parsley

1 tbsp. lemon juice

2 (12”) metal skewers

See the rest of the recipe here.  

 

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I don’t think I could have chosen a better week to read Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave. While New York was dealing with its own record-breaking temperatures, O’Farrell’s characters were caught in the great London heat wave of 1976. Taking place over four boiling days, we meet the Irish-turned-British Riordan family, who not only has to manage blistering heat, but also has a family crisis on their hands.

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When devoted husband and dad of three, Robert Riordan, goes missing after a typical morning walk, his children return home to their disoriented mother.  Years ago I read The Hand That First Held Mine by O’Farrell and I found that many themes reemerge in this novel. With her husband of 40 years missing, Gretta finds solace in the fact that her adult kids are finally home again.

Michael Francis, the only son, is a history teacher with a failing marriage. Monica is the always-perfect, prized daughter who has been driven away from her younger sister, Aoife, after a dramatic event years prior. Aoife, the youngest child, now lives in New York and for years has been nearly estranged from her family. The siblings decide to put their differences on the back burner and work together to find their quiet, missing father. 

Like O’Farrell’s pervious book, Instructions for a Heatwave is driven by the compulsory power of love. The Riordan family has differences – many, many differences – but they realize that in the face of disaster, they can’t help but care deeply for one another.

The search for Robert turns out to be the least interesting part of the book. As the novel progresses, we learn that every character has a secret and eventually, most secrets have to come out. 

At the beginning of the book, Gretta Riordan swears that not even a heat wave will keep her from her ritual of making bread every morning. Gretta is also supremely proud of her Irish roots, even when her children are quickly becoming more English than Irish. For 40 years, she’s made her husband Irish soda bread, which makes it the perfect food pairing for this entry. Recipe courtesy Epicurious.

Irish Soda Bread 

4 cups bread flour

1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder 

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup raisins or dried currants

1 tablespoon caraway seeds

2 cups buttermilk 

View the rest of the recipe here

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Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer prize for Olive Kittredge in 2009. Her new novel, The Burgess Boys, is a worthy successor that focuses on similar everyday drama and pain.  

The Burgess family is well known in their small Maine town. We find out quickly that the younger brother, Bob, accidentally caused his father’s death when he was only four, leaving their single mother to raise him, his older brother Jim and his twin sister, Susan. 

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Fast forward decades and Jim is a well-known lawyer who succeeded in getting a beloved musician acquitted for murder. Bighearted and beloved Bob works at legal aid and his sour twin sister Susan lives in their hometown of Shirley Falls with her awkward, gangly, 19-year-old son, Zach. 

When Zach is accused of a hate crime (he threw a frozen pig’s head through a window of a local Somali mosque), Bob and Jim step up to help Susan. The family is not close, and hasn’t been for years but they’re all haunted by the loss of their father. The brothers leave Brooklyn and return to Shirley Falls for the trial, making public appearances, and pleading with local politicians for understanding. 

Strout effectively lays out the inner workings of sibling relationships — the distance, the willingness to please, the feeling that no matter what, you’ll never be alone because of this unconditional bond — and convinces us to love these characters and their flaws. At the same time, Strout paints a picture of the Somali population in Shirley Falls. Outsiders in their new home, the Somalis cling to each other, valuing family over everything else in life, a stark contrast to the Burgess family. 

The novel doesn’t end with a profound understanding of life, but examines how lies and guilt can often lay hidden away in families, and in turn, determine so many choices. Strout illustrates that commonplace events and little secrets in life are more important than we allow. The Burgess Boys is engrossing and will stick with you past its last pages.

Because the book is set in Maine, it would be easy to choose a lobster roll or a clam chowder as a food pairing. But Shirley Falls is a depressed town whose residents have stopped keeping up appearances. They don’t do fancy dinners, or entertain with cocktails — they get up, they go to work, and they microwave whatever they can find before retiring to the same bed they’ve slept in for years. 

Which is why I picked the classic dinner champ, pasta with meat sauce, that takes little effort with a lot of payoff. This recipe comes from Martha Stewart and is exactly the type of dish Susan would make when reuniting with her two brothers. 

Pasta With Meat Sauce

  • 4 tablespoons butter

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 1 carrot, grated (about 1/2 cup)

  • 1 onion, chopped

  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped

  • 3/4 pound ground beef

  • 1 can (28 ounces) whole tomatoes

  • 1/2 cup milk

  • 1 dried bay leaf

  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

  • Coarse salt and ground pepper

  • 1 pound fettuccine

  • Grated Parmesan, for serving

    See the rest of the recipe here

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When I get excited about an impending release, it’s all I can think about. Having read Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I was very intrigued when I learned she was releasing a new book after seven years. 

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Night Film follows the story of Ashley Cordova, a teenager who’s body was found on an October night at an abandoned warehouse. While Cordova supposedly died of a suicide, disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath believes otherwise. McGrath sets off on a quest to uncover the truth and recover his lost career. 

As McGrath delves deeper and deeper into the mystery, he learns more and more about Ashley’s filmmaker father and comes face to face with the underbelly of New York City. Many outlets are calling it to this year’s Gone Girl

Annnnd I’m hooked folks. Pessl’s novel is released in August and I expect (well, I hope) to be hooked as soon as I get my hands on it.