Archive for the ‘Penelope’s Picks’ Category

waffleI was up late, reading The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, and needed a snack before turning out the light. Lovecraft is heavy going, so I wanted something to restore my spirit:  a grilled cheese sandwich. I found some Cabot’s Extra Sharp, bread, and butter, and fired up our trusty SuperLectric waffle iron. A few minutes later, the hideous excrescences of Lovecraft’s imagination were forgotten as I ate my hot, crispy, perfectly melted, dimpled grilled cheese.

Will it Waffle? has rocked my world. The waffle maker, which I used to haul out of storage on rare Sunday mornings, now lives in the middle of the kitchen counter, an essential part of my batterie de cuisine. It glorifies sandwiches, hash browns, fruit, and other things that I’d never thought to use it for. Right this very minute, I am thinking about trying waffleized churros for breakfast tomorrow.

Daniel Shumski is the genius who thought to ask, “What can I cook in a waffle iron besides waffles?” For several years, he has been blogging about his experiments in waffling, and Will It Waffle continues the project with a collection of 53 recipes.  Any dish that is meant to be hot and crisp is better when cooked in a waffle iron — thanks to all that additional surface area. Ergo, waffled bacon, falafel, leftover mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and stuffing. These are actually some of Shumski’s less daring dishes. If you’re a thrill seeker, try throwing a soft-shelled crab or cookie dough into your waffle maker and see what happens. The book includes a short list of foods that won’t waffle, such as soup and drinks. Beyond these liquids, almost anything goes. There’s even a section where readers are encouraged to document their own waffle experiments. The message is clear: play with your food.

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BTASWe round out Batman Week with Penelope’s review of the other Batman TV show.—Ed.

There is joy in Gotham! After decades of legal wrangling, the 1966 Batman TV show is finally coming to home video in November. Starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo, the series achieved pop-culture immortality thanks to its campy style and viral catchphrases, which need not be repeated here.

Confession: Adam West was my first Batman. I still love the show, but the parody wears thin, and Batman is a Batusi-dancing buffoon. For a more artistic and complex Batman experience on the small screen, I recommend that you turn your eyes and ears to Batman, The Animated Series, which aired on Fox in the 1990s.

The Animated Series was created by actual comics artists and writers, while the live-action series was not. It is stunning to look at. Don’t take your eyes off the screen, because you are bound to miss something beautiful. The 40s noir atmosphere is enhanced by the use of black backgrounds, against which Batman’s eyes are nothing more than white slits.  Lead artist Bruce Timm’s characters are drawn with stark angularity: Batman’s jaw is literally square. BTAS

Does the Joker’s voice sound familiar? It is Mark Hamill, going against his heroic Luke Skywalker type. Other members of the stellar cast include Kevin Conroy as Batman, Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon, Efram Zimbalist, Jr., as Alfred Pennyworth, and Adrienne Barbeau as Catwoman.  Adam West himself was invited on the show to play an aging superhero in the episode, “Beware the Gray Ghost.”

The storytelling is just as strong. The characters, especially the villains, are developed as real people who talk, feel and act like adults. This was not at all the norm for a kids’ cartoon show, which is how Batman was marketed. Take the Emmy-winning episode “Heart of Ice,” written by Paul Dini.  Underneath his refrigerated suit, the seemingly emotionless villain, Mr. Freeze, is a grieving husband bent on vengeance. Woven into this dramatic story is a humorous and clever side plot:  After being blasted by Mr. Freeze’s ice gun, Batman catches a cold, which Alfred treats with chicken soup… and if I told you what happened to the soup I would spoil the joke, so I won’t.

These episodes will keep everyone in your family happy for 22 minutes. Parents, never fear: the Bureau of Broadcast Standards scoured every scene to make sure it was suitable for children. You can read some of the creative team’s comments about the censors in the beautiful companion book to the series, Batman Animated. For example, “Censor wants us to figure out someplace for Catwoman to land other than on her face or breasts.” Or “We have to make it clear… that Batman’s kneeing the Walrus in the stomach.”

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Room237Have you watched The Shining? Did you notice the placement of cans of Calumet Baking Powder in the hotel pantry? The disappearing chair, the impossible window, the reversal of the hexagonal carpet pattern? Danny’s hand-knit Apollo 11 sweater? If you’re like me, you were too busy recoiling from scenes of ax murders and blood gushing from elevators to pay attention to the carpeting.  But for some obsessed fans, every piece of set decoration, every line of dialogue, every camera shot in The Shining is a potential clue to the film’s hidden meaning.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic, adapted from the Stephen King novel, is ostensibly about a family isolated in a haunted mountain hotel while the father (played by Jack Nicholson) gradually becomes murderously insane. But Kubrick included so many weird scenes and omens not found in the book that an entire subculture grew up around analyzing and interpreting the film. Room 237: Being an Inquiry into The Shining in 9 Parts is a documentary narrated by five members of that subculture who are convinced that they have cracked Kubrick’s secret code.

Is the Calumet baking powder can a reference to the massacre of American Indians? Are a German typewriter (which changes color!) and the number 42 signs that the film is about the Jewish Holocaust? Do you have to run the film backwards to find its true meaning? Or perhaps the whole thing is a cloaked confession by Kubrick that he was involved in faking the video of the moon landing.

Room 237’s director, Rodney Ascher, found an unusual and rather brilliant way to tell his story. We never see the five narrators; we just hear their voices expounding their various theories. The visuals consist almost entirely of thousands of movie clips—from The Shining, naturally, but also from Kubrick’s other movies as well as a huge number of familiar Hollywood films.

While the theories may sound loony when I describe them, actually they’re not. Most of the signs and portents that the narrators see in The Shining really are there—although I’m pretty sure that the guy who insists you can see Kubrick’s face in the clouds above the hotel is making it up. It’s not crazy to believe that every detail of the movie exists for a reason, since Kubrick was a legendary control freak. So there are no bad edits, no continuity errors, and you’re off down the rabbit hole, trying to find out what it all means. Maybe Kubrick had a secret message, or maybe he was just messing with your mind. Trying to interpret The Shining is like entering the haunted Room 237 in the movie’s Overlook Hotel: go there, and you are marked for life. If you love movies and pop culture, watch Room 237, but take warning from its tagline:  “Many ways in, no way out.”

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Check the catalog for The Shining

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keithBeatles or Stones? Yes! This fall, about 50 years after the founding of the two bands, we’re seeing a new crop of books about their early years, including Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s planned mega-biography of the Beatles, and Beatles vs. Stones, a historian’s look at the public images of the two groups. But I doubt that any book published this year will have the impact, or the sales, of Keith Richards’s autobiography, which came out in 2010.

Life has to be one of the best books ever about the cultural and political explosion that happened in the mid 1960s—witnessed from the epicenter by a kid who just wanted to play blues guitar and ended up a pop superstar in the Rolling Stones. The book is raw and rude. Keith disses a lot of well known people, and reveals without apology the depths of his bad behavior: the groupies and girlfriend-swapping, the endless hard drugs and booze, the arrests and trials, the wild parties and trashed hotel rooms.

“Some of my most outrageous nights I can only believe actually happened because of corroborating evidence…  The ultimate party, if it’s any good, you can’t remember it.”

Fortunately, Keith is just as revealing about his music, documenting how he created his epic guitar riffs, and almost effortlessly wrote hit song after hit song with Mick Jagger. He has collaborated with everyone who is anyone in music, and tells good stories about his encounters with Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, George Jones, Tom Waits, and many others.

If possible, don’t read Life in print; listen to the audiobook version instead. Its offbeat, somewhat laid-back production is oddly suited to the story and to Keith’s distinctive style. There are three narrators, each taking a turn at reading in the voice of Keith : Johnny Depp (a close friend and admirer of Richards), the Irish rocker Joe Hurley, and Keith himself.  This is disorienting for the listener, since the narration switches without warning from Depp, reading quite neutrally in his American accent, to Hurley, who does an over-the-top interpretation of Keith: slurring words, chuckling, and mumbling in a South London accent. At first I was put off by Hurley’s reading, but it grew on me and eventually I settled in to enjoy it. Keith narrates the final section of the book, covering his recent years, which are comparatively uneventful—oh, except for the time he fell out of a tree in Fiji and suffered a life-threatening brain injury.

Some parts are better than others, but the book, like a good album, opens with its strongest number. Superbly narrated by Depp, this is the story of the 1975 arrest of Keith, fellow band member Ronnie Wood, and two friends while driving a Chevrolet Impala packed with illegal drugs and weapons through Fordyce, Arkansas. This legendary culture clash between rural southern law enforcement types and long-haired British rockers can be read as hilarious farce, complete with a drunken judge and a victory parade for the bailed-out musicians. But there’s a dark heart to the story, a reminder that this was the Vietnam Era, the always-present backdrop of songs like “Street Fighting Man” and “Gimme Shelter.”

What a drag it is getting old… For years now, the Stones have endured writings in the press making fun of their withered appearance and calling on them to retire, for decency’s sake. So far, neither the band nor their fans are ready to pack it in. In the summer of 2013, the Stones rocked out in electrifying sets in Hyde Park and at the Glastonbury Festival before screaming crowds spanning three generations. You know what they say, baby: listen to your elders.

Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook version of Life

Check for the print version

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TraversoWhen I was growing up in northern New England, I used to try wild apples. They could be found in the countryside and even deep in the woods, still growing in orchards abandoned 50 or 100 years before. Quite a few of these apples were “spitters,” but the good ones spoiled me for any supermarket commodity apple.

Amy Traverso’s book made me remember those old orchards, which are stark evidence of the collapse of diversity in American apple growing. One hundred years ago, about 15,000 named varieties of apples were grown in North America.  Today, most of them are extinct. Apple preservationists are working to reverse this trend, and thanks to their efforts, you can now buy heirloom varieties such as Black Oxfords, Roxbury Russets, and Yellow Transparents at farmers’ markets and specialty orchards. But what to do with them when you get them home? The Apple Lover’s Cookbook has it covered.

The heart of the book is a detailed guide to 59 apple varieties, all of which are currently grown somewhere in the country. Each type of apple gets a glamorous photo along with information about its history, best uses, availability, appearance and taste (e.g., “flavors of honey and pear” or “sweet, rich and spicy, with a mild aroma of cilantro”). The usual supermarket suspects are here, but never mind them. The fun is in learning about and desiring varieties that you have never heard of, with evocative names like Westfield Seek-No-Further, Esopus Spitzenburg, or Calville Blanc D’Hiver.

The most useful and clever thing about the guide is that each variety is assigned to one of four categories based on its taste and texture: firm-tart, firm-sweet, tender-tart or tender-sweet. Most of Traverso’s recipes call for apples by category, not by name, so you can use a supermarket apple or an heirloom, as long as it’s from the right category. However, if you’re just cooking with Granny Smiths, you’re missing the point.

This is probably the place to confess that what first attracted me to this book was a photograph of a doughnut. The beautiful pictures of dishes such as Apple-Stuffed Biscuit Buns, Dutch Baby, Apple and Mustard Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, and Pork and Apple Pie with Cheddar-Sage Crust will have you searching the kitchen junk drawer for your apple corer.

If this book has a hero, it is the Maine apple historian John Bunker, profiled in one of the brief articles scattered among the recipes. The story of how he tracked down and rescued the last known branch of Marlboro apples in existence is downright inspiring. In honor of people like him, don’t buy that pretty but soulless Red Delicious the next time you visit the supermarket. Put it back down, and see if you can find a Baldwin, a Gravenstein or a Northern Spy instead.

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I hate books I can’t understand,” said Bell. “I like a book to be clear as running water, so that the whole meaning may be seen at once.”  —The Small House at Allington

Anthony Trollope’s fictional heroine, Bell, likes just the sort of book that Trollope himself wrote, clear as running water. After his death, Trollope’s reputation was that of a writer of light fiction lacking in plot and literary style. Now the literary tide has turned, and he is praised as a master of realism. Whereas his great contemporary, Dickens, gives us a three-ring circus of grotesque and absurd characters in every chapter, Trollope writes of ordinary people who are neither all good nor all bad. They talk and gossip as ordinary people do—about their gardens, politics, who is engaged to whom—and their characters and feelings are subtly revealed in these everyday conversations.

Which brings me to Timothy West. I love reading Trollope in print, but I can understand why some people fault his prose as boring or flat. Not until I listened to his novels performed on audiobook by Timothy West did I fully appreciate the glory of Trollopean prose. The man was born to read Trollope, and Trollope was born to write novels to be read by Timothy West.

If you have not read Trollope before, I recommend starting with Barchester Towers, the second of Trollope’s six Barsetshire Novels, even though it alludes to events in the first book, The Warden. It is Trollope’s best-loved novel, and for good reason. The great question that touches all others in the story is, who will rule the diocese of Barchester: the vain but cowardly new bishop, Dr. Proudie, his terrifying wife, Mrs. Proudie, or his sanctimonious chaplain, Obadiah Slope? Entertaining events ensue. All of the many characters are guilty of human weakness or bad judgment—yet their failings and moral dilemmas are treated with humor and (for the most part) forgiveness.  West voices the characters perfectly. He is especially superb as the narrator, who is continually making witty asides to the reader.

Sadly, there is no real Barsetshire. Trollope is said to have taken his inspiration for the cathedral city of Barchester from the real Salisbury in Wiltshire, and his country locales from various places in England’s West Country. But though Barset exists only in the imagination, there is no more pleasant place in the world to spend a few quiet hours.

Check the WRL catalog for Barchester Towers on audiobook


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How can this be? The library’s copy of The Essential New York Times Cookbook is sitting on the shelf. Cooks of Williamsburg, you are seriously missing out.

Here are recipes that readers have clipped from the pages of The New York Times and treasured for decades. Amanda Hesser sifted through 150 years’ worth of food columns from the newspaper, and polled thousands of readers to compile a collection of about 1400 keepers. She looked for recipes that represented their era or that inaugurated a food fad, such as David Eyre’s Pancake or Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread. There are classic dishes (even one for tuna salad) and far out dishes (Eggs Suffragette). Above all, the recipes are interesting, varied, and thoroughly tested. Follow them and you will make wonderful food.

Not in the mood to cook? The book makes lively bedside reading. Hesser introduces most recipes with witty commentary about the history of the dish—or about the quirks of the food writer who originally published the recipe. Each chapter opens with a timeline tracing food fashions through the decades. The vegetable timeline includes

1880s—fried eggplant is a staple
1940s—the decade of spinach
1950s—nothing good is happening in veggie-land
2008—the year of the Brussels sprout

So far, I have made Amazing Overnight Waffles (they’re not kidding), Madame Laracine’s Gratin Dauphinois (the apotheosis of the potato), Boeuf Bourgignon I (incroyable), and Puree of Peas and Watercress (the greenest dish you will ever eat, and one of the most delicious).

So why is our copy languishing on the shelf? Could it be the lack of color photographs? Gorgeous pictures are de rigeur in today’s bestselling cookbooks. They’re not limited to photos of a finished dish—you’re just as apt to see a full-page glamor shot of a radish. I’m as susceptible to food porn as the next person, but after all, it’s just fluff. On sheer substance, Hesser’s book beats everything else out there—hands down.

Check the WRL catalog for The Essential New York Times Cookbook


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