Unabashed Recommendation: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

So I’ve thought of a number of different ways I might start off talking about books here, and nothing seemed quite right.  I thought I should do something momentous, I thought I should do something epic, I thought I should maybe do a listicle.  But in the end, I decided I would just give a whole hearted recommendation for a book that blew me away, and that I can give an unabashed recommendation to.  Because I can’t give unabashed recommendations easily.  I read constantly.  Literally, I get irritated at my job, my dogs, my dirty laundry, sometimes even my spouse for taking me away from my escape worlds and bringing me back to the world in which I currently reside, and must pay bills in.

And I have high standards.  I want a plot and beautiful sentences.  I prefer a subject matter that is not about white people bored in their marriages.  I want movement, suspense, and I want to have an opinion about the characters.  I don’t have to love them, hell, I don’t have to even like them, but I want to be interested in them.  I like books of all kinds.  I like mysteries, I like YA, I like fantasy, I like prize winning books.  And like David Mitchell said, I think if you’re not reading genre, you’re doing yourself a disservice.  Read the books.  Read all the books.  You don’t have to like them, and you don’t have to finish them, but crack their spines.  Or, these days, the digital equivalent of the aforementioned spine cracking.  I read mostly on my Kindle app on my ipad these days, so no judgement here.

So all of this brings me to why I loved Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.  It had a plot, and a damn good one.  Its fast paced, post-apocalyptic, and chillingly so.  The book starts out with the death of an actor on stage, and, despite the fame and notoriety of the actor, no one is quite sure who to contact about his death.  The issue becomes moot, though, as hours after a fast sweeping and deadly flu wipes out most of the population around the world.  The book then swings to the future, about twenty years post-flu-apocalypse, and then back in the past, pre-apocalypse, as it explores the lives and relationships of the characters.  In the future, we tour the post-apocalyptic world through the eyes of a group of Shakespearean actors.  It feels fantastical at times, it feels all too real at others.

While I read and enjoyed The Road (and it was in fact the only book by Cromac McCarthy I’ve EVER enjoyed), this book not only tells you how “the world ends” but dwells on it and then moves past it, and it is hyper chilling because it seems so plausible.  It’s a story that takes place in two time frames, both before the end of the world, and after.  You meet the majority of your characters in the after, and then explore their lives before.  Mandel says, in an interview with NPR, that she purposely set it fifteen and twenty years ‘after’ because “It’s that I don’t think that period would last forever everywhere on earth. You know because, mayhem is not a terribly sustainable way of life.”  So she then tries to imagine what that world-after-world-end would look like, and it involves Shakespeare.

The Shakespearean troupe discover curiosities as they travel, their discoveries revealing much about the world they inhabit, and much about the world left behind.  Perhaps the most weighty discovery is that of a comic book.  The role of art in the novel becomes almost hyper-important.  Indeed, in that same interview, Mandel says “There’s something about art I think that can remind us of our humanity. It could remind us of our civilization.”  The link between art, and civilization, and, perhaps, humanity is strong throughout the book.  My favorite quote from the book is the one NPR and others have picked up on “Survival is insufficient.”  Which not only forms the thesis of the book, it seems like a pretty damn good otto if you ask me.  But its also a book that you just can’t put down.

And I think its the best book I’ve read in ages.  It works on so many levels.  Its intricately put together, and a true work of art in a way that the mystery thrillers I often enjoy are not.  They’re fun reads, but I don’t think anyone will be reading them int twenty years.  They are a flash in the pan, and I’m ok with that.  What Mandel has done with Station Eleven is something different, something that I would argue will last.  And what I like best about it, is that it is also such a quick, captivating read.  It immerses you in its world, and when you leave it – well, you never really leave it.  The atmosphere of the book haunts me.  I read it nearly a year ago, and I still think about it frequently. And it is the first book I recommend when people ask me for a recommendation as to what they should be reading.  So it seems natural that I pick it for this first post.

Next week I’ll be discussing another favorite – the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante.

But please – I myself am always looking for recommendations.  What are you reading?  What do you love?

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Pumpkin Pancakes: A Hit for Breakfast, Brunch, or Dinner

I’m not a big fan of the pumpkin craze.  I don’t eagerly anticipate the pumpkin spice latte or covet pumpkin in my foie gras – not that I eat foie gras anymore, but goodness why would you do that?  I do, however, enjoy pumpkin pie during the holidays, and have been making these pumpkin pancakes for quite some time now.  A friend of mine gave me the recipe way back in 2007, when this article came out in American Way magazine.  They are quite thick pancakes, and so a little goes a long way.  I like to make a cinnamon whipped cream to go with them, and they’re fun for brunch.  Last night, I made them for dinner for myself, my husband, and my mother because one, I didn’t want to go to the grocery store to get anything else, and two, breakfast for dinner is THE BEST.  And hey, pumpkin is actually full of fiber, so if you go easy on the syrup they’re not even that bad for you!  Kind of.  Sort of.  Wink, smile.

Hint: I often substitute a half a can of pumpkin pie mix as it already has the cinnamon and allspice and ginger already  worked in.  These days you can
even get canned pumpkin pie mix in BPA free cans.  I’m against cans, mainly, and prefer to control the ingredients myself, but last night the mix was all I had, so the mix I used.
If you do that, omit the brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and allspice.  Or don’t if you like a bit extra.  And, as I said, these pumpkin pancakes can be quite thick, so I add more milk til I get a somewhat thinner batter.

I think they’re fabulous for brunch, satisfying for dinner, and a good choice for the holidays.  What’s your fall breakfast favorite?

Pumpkin Pancakes

1 1/2 cups of milk
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 egg
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons vinegar
2 cups all purpose flour
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix together the milk, pumpkin puree, egg, oil, and vinegar.  In a separate bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, and salt.  Stir into the pumpkin mixture just long enough to combine.

Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium heat.  Pour or scoop the batter onto the griddle using approximately 1/4 cup for each pancake.  Brown on both sides and serve hot.

Leek, Potato, and Chipotle Veggie Sausage Pot Pie, or How I Mollify Myself that WINTER IS COMING

So the onset of fall means I drive to work in the dark. I don’t yet drive home in the dark, but the time is changing this coming weekend, and soon enough all I will be able to think about is carbs, sleeping in, and flannel pj’s. Which is why I have been exploring the wonderful world of skillet recipes from Epicurious. I was a big fan of pot pie in my meat eating days, but when was the last time you ate one that didn’t come in a box that you popped int he microwave?  The reality is, pot pie is a fairly easy to construct dish.  It’s a one pot meal that impresses. Both comforting and pretty, its good for a casual dinner party or an evening at home, just the two of you. While I have made this recipe just as it is, I decided to play with the recipe yesterday, and the result was oh-my-god-there-was-hardly-any-left-good. It was a Leek, Potato, and Veggie Chipotle Sausage Pot Pie and it was delightful.

I’ve also made the original Butternut Squash and Sage skillet pie, omitting the chicken from the recipe and it will definitely be on my table again.  Its one of thsoe fabulous recipes that lends itself to innovation.  I’m going to keep playing with ingredients (and as you may have noticed, I’m a pescetarian, so  eat fish and seafood, but no beef, chicken, pork, or game).  I think there are a lot of possibilities for this dish – what ingredients do you want to try?

INGREDIENTS

• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 2 Leeks, sliced
• 4-6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
• Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
• 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
• 3 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
• 2-3 potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2″ pieces (about 1 1/2 cups)
• 2 Field Roast Veggie Chipotle Sausages, browned and sliced (could also, of course, use real sausages – my vote would be for andouille)
• 1 sheet frozen puff pastry (such as Dufour or Pepperidge Farm), thawed
• 1 large egg

leeksPlace a rack in upper third of oven; preheat to 425°F. Heat oil in an 8 or 10″ cast-iron or other heavy ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add leeks; salt, cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 4 minutes.

Brown veggie sausages, slice, and set aside

Reduce heat to medium-low. Add garlic to skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic begins to brown, about 2 minutes.

Sprinkle flour over. Cook, stirring constantly, for 4 minutes.

Stir in broth, 1/2-cupful at a time, then add squash. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until potatoes are just softened and broth is thickened, 8-10 minutes. Add veggie sausage to skillet, stir, and season with salt and pepper. I also added a little creole mustard here, for a little flavor boost, and a hint of hot sauce, cause I like a little kick.
crust

Unfold pastry and smooth any creases; place over skillet, allowing corners to hang over sides. Whisk egg and 1 teaspoon water in a small bowl. Brush pastry with egg wash; cut four 1″ slits in top to vent.

Bake pot pie until pastry is beginning to brown, 15-20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375°F and bake until pastry is deep golden brown and crisp, 15-20 minutes longer. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.
It’s important to let it set for the ten minutes before serving as that really helps to let the sauce thicken. The end result has a decadent feel, but is still suitable for #meatlessmondays  It also makes evenings curled up on the sofa because of the cold that much better!

Fall for a Flat White

The Flat White – supposedly originating in Australia, this cappuccino like cup is perfect on a gray fall day. It’s a new favorite order of mine. What’s your favorite caffeinated cup?

Venice for Fall

Photos to come.