Wednesday, December 21, 2016

There are only four days left until Christmas and if you're scrambling for some last minute gifts, books are the perfect choice.  Here are a few of my favorite reads from 2016, by category:
Summit: A Novel 
by Harry Farthing
A marvelous tale of adventure and murder at the top of the world, Summit is world traveler, explorer, and mountaineer Harry Farthing's first novel. Using Mt. Everest as his centerpiece, Mr. Farthing weaves a skillful plot around well-drawn characters and a fascinating setting.  Whether you are an experienced climber or just love adventure, you won't be able to put this book down.

The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
Follow Cora on her journey from slavery to freedom, traveling via a real train traveling underground through nineteenth century America. The fictional United States that Mr. Whitehead describes resembles the racially divided United States of the 1800's, then veers off the tracks into a world that requires the reader to suspend belief and accept Whitehead's alternate view.  Very skillfully written and thought provoking, The Underground Railroad is harsh and hopeful at the same time; a must read.

Classic Literature:
Moby Dick
by Herman Melville
Captain Ahab, Ishmael, Queequeg, Stubb, Flask, Tashtego, the Pequod, and of course, Moby Dick.  What other cast of characters in 19th Century literature evokes the vibrant images, the harsh emotions, the colorful sense of place of Melville's Moby Dick?  Reading this book for the second time, I am struck by Melville's attention to detail, the brutality of whaling, the singlemindedness of New England seafarers, and the relentless power of the sea.  Truly the great American adventure novel.

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life
by Pat Conroy
Our loss this year of the singular Southern writer, Pat Conroy, is mitigated by the vibrancy of his voice in this, his last collection of essays.  On every page you hear the bright tones of his speaking voice, feel the enthusiasm and excitement of his world view, and revel in his effusive language.  A feast for Conroy fans, and for readers who are fascinated by the joy and majesty of a grand story.

American Playrights - Drama:
by August Wilson
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, August Wilson's Fences is bold, raw and heartbreaking.  Wilson writes vehemently, dishing out truth while your mind screams NO! and your heart tears right down the middle.  Pick up this small and powerful volume and read it before you see the newly released movie.

Just Mercy
by Bryan Stevenson
A timely read for all, Just Mercy reveals the flaws in the Southern justice system, post segregation.  Concerned with imperfect justice, innocence convicted, and the indiscriminate imposition of the death penalty, attorney Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, which began its work in Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia, and expanded nationwide.  Bravo Mr. Stevenson, the savior of the common man and the wrongly accused.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Marie Arana's memoir, American Chica - Two Worlds, One Childhood, guides the reader through two cultures, Peruvian and American, in the mid-twentieth century.  Seen through the eyes of five year old Marie, life in Peru is perplexing, comforting, and exciting, all at the same time.  Raised by her American mother and Peruvian father, young Marie is wrapped in what seems to outsiders as an intrusive South American familial culture.  Her American family seems cold in comparison.  Wise and powerful life lessons all seem to originate in Peru, while harsh realities come from the homogenized life of 1950's America.  
Ms. Arana's story is compelling, her settings rich and colorful.  The clash of ethnicity, belief systems, and social mores raise this memoir from a simple coming-of-age tale to an intricate tapestry, full of experiences that were woven into her very being.  The reader is drawn into Peruvian life and a bit repelled by American life, which helps explain Marie's difficulty straddling the two worlds she was raised in.  I highly recommend American Chica.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

It's Summer Reading Time!

My regular blog followers know that I choose a reading theme each summer.  Last year, I chose pairs of books that were related in some way: Middlemarch and My Life in Middlemarch, Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye and My Salinger Year, and Wiesel's Night, Dawn and Day.  One summer I chose Russian authors (Dear, cheerful Dostoevsky is my favorite.) and another summer I read the entire collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. (Ask my husband how much he enjoyed that summer, as I was so excited by Sir C. D. that I read The Adventure of the Speckled Band aloud to him!)
This year's summer theme is an unusual one for me.  I will read one, huge, glorious book, 
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, all 1474 pages of it!  I wish you had a picture of my face when the mail carrier delivered it.  (I thought perhaps the package contained two or three books, not just one.)  
The idea for this summer's big read came from Stephen King, mentioned in his book On Writing.  On Writing is an interesting, informative page-turner which includes a list of books that King enjoyed during the three years prior to his book's publication.  King also mentioned two epic novels that he thought were worth a read: M.M. Kaye's The Far Paviliions, which I had read twice and absolutely loved, and Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, which I had not read.  So here I go!  I'm on page 45 and I can't put the book down.  I will now happily spend my summer in India with Rupa and Lata and Savita...and a cast of characters yet to be introduced.  Check back with me in September for a final report!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

     The Uncommon Reader is a lovely, 120 page story by Alan Bennett, the author of The Lady in the Van.  Bennett’s novella is a quick, lively read, one that is especially entertaining for all who love both reading and writing.                
     This little gem tells the story of the British Queen, who follows her corgis into a bookmobile parked behind the palace,checks out a book, discovers a new interest in the people who work for her and ultimately learns to enjoy reading for reading’s sake.  The Queen has spent her life neither promoting nor advocating, but merely acknowledging, everything and everyone.  Now she finds that reading what she wants, when she wants, then telling anyone who will listen about her literary experiences, is an all-encompassing passion.  That is, until she decides that reading is a passive pastime, and she,The Queen, is not a passive person. 
     "Wouldn’t writing be a more active form of expression for her?" wonders the Queen.  Would it?  Read The Uncommon Reader to find out!
Christophe Artisan Chocolatier
West Ashley

     Hoorah!  We now have a French Patissier in West Ashley!  Stop by Christophe Artian Chocolatier in the Magnolia Plaza (by Crab Shack) at 1901 Ashley River Rd. for handcrafted chocolates, pastries and coffee.  
     Today's treats were Chocolate-almond Croissants and Sable Viennois.  The croissants were crisp and flaky on the outside and tender on the inside, just the way a true croissant should be.  Dusted with powdered sugar, these croissants were a perfect size to pair with a cup of coffee.  Christophe's coffee is French-pressed, a treat that I have yet to find in the To-Go format in West Ashley, but now am pleased to grab and go from Christophe.  I also tried the small and buttery Sable Viennois cookies, a shortbread dream dipped in dark chocolate.   I relectantly shared it, but could have eaten the entire cookie myself in three bites!     
     I look forward to trying all of Christophe's tempting sweets,  especially their famous macaroons, in all fourteen tempting flavors.  What could be better than a French-pressed coffee and a Lavender macaroon?

Monday, March 21, 2016

     In a slight digression from my book and restaurant reviews, today I am reviewing the play, A Sudden Spontaneous Event, by David Lee Nelson.  Halfway through its run, tickets can still be purchased for the 3/24, 3/25 and 3/26 7:30 p.m. shows, either  online or at the Pure Theatre box office, 477 King Street.  This will be the last locally produced play for Nelson, Pure Theatre's Playwright in Residence, as he is relocating to Atlanta.  But judging from his writing talent, I am sure that we'll enjoy many more great works from Mr. Nelson.
     A Sudden Spontaneous Event is a work of wit, drama, and poignancy, served up by a strong five-person cast, led by Joy Vandervort-Cobb.  I don't want to give too much away regarding the plot, as there are a few surprise twists and turns.  What I can say is that A Sudden Spontaneous Event was not at all what I expected.  I laughed and cried, applauded and cheered.  
     The play runs approximately 2 1/2 hours, plus a 15 minute intermission, but due to the skilled performances and lively direction, (and the comfy seats) the show did not feel overly long.  The theatre is small, so arrive early for the best seats.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A Walk in the Woods
Bill Bryson

      Try to read Bill Bryson's book, A Walk in the Woods, without laughing out loud.  I dare you.   What could be funnier than a forty six year old man (with no hiking experience) hiking the Appalachian Trail with  an old college pal, (also with no hiking experience) who is a recovering alchoholic addicted to Little Debbie Snacks and soda pop?  Nothing, I assure you.
     Bryson begins by describing the purchase of his backpack at a specialty "outdoorsman" store, (ha ha) and then filling that pack with a tent, groundcloth, portable stove, pots and pans, (ha ha ha) bottles for water, water purifying kit, waterproof jacket, (hahahahaha) extra socks, extra sweater, maps...get the picture yet?
     He and friend Stephen Katz manage to hike approx. 875 miles of the 2100 mile long Appalachian Trail during one long, very hot, summer, taking breaks to go home and regroup, hitch rides, skip over the boring parts, and slip in a few weeks of solo day hikes.  This haphazard hiking method (which is better by far than anything this normal human being could accomplish) leads them finally to the toughest part of the A.T., The Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine.  A maze of trees and swamps, frosty lakes and sheer rock climbs, The Hundered Mile section of the trail prompts the two men to  look each other in the eye and...quit.  But considering that only 10% of the hikers who start the A.T. in northern Georgia end up making it this far, even an unsuccessful attempt is quite an accomplishment.
      Expecting bear attacks at every step, Bryson and Katz encounter only pushy novice hikers, rude twenty-somethings who are ignorant of even basic trail etiquette, and nasty bunkhouses.  I'll admit, I kept hoping that they would encounter some type of threateneing wildlife, just to see what their reactions would be.  But, other than dirt, heat and hunger, (Katz had a habit of tossing their provisions out of his pack when the going got tough.)  intense discomfort and soul-sucking exhaustion were the only threats.
     So I highly recommend unwrapping a Little Debbie cake, lacing up your hiking boots then propping your feet up on the couch to take A Walk in the Woods with Bill Bryson!


Thursday, February 4, 2016

Ruth's Chris Steak House, New Orleans

     It was only a matter of time before Ruth's Chris Steak House arrived in Charleston.  As our lovely city became nationally known for fine dining, and of course the good manners and hospitable welcome of Charlestonians, the establishment of a chain steakhouse in the midst of our locally owned and operated farm-to-table gems was inevitable.  What was not inevitable was that locals would give Ruth's Chris a chance.  Isn't there room for everyone at the Lowcountry table?
     After all, we here in Charleston are spoiled by our wide variety of James Beard Award nominated (and winning) chefs who prepare creative and delicious meals at some of my favorite restaurants.  But while Charleston diners are discerning, we are also creatures of habit.  Why try a chain restaurant downtown when there are innumerable other fine restaurants offering locally sourced produce, Mepkin Abbey mushrooms, meats from Keegan-Filion Farm and drinks from Cannonborough Bev. Co. and High Wire Distillery?  Because it's fun to try something new.

     Originating in New Orleans over four decades ago, Ruth's Chris Steak House offers thick-cut USDA Prime steaks on superheated plates (plates warmed to 500 degrees, meat cooked at 1800 degrees) and lumberjack-sized side dishes and desserts.  The dining room and bar are popular with those who travel for a living because they know their expectations for good quality beef, hearty portions and attentive service will be met.
     On my first visit to Ruth's Chris all of the guests at my table ordered steak with a shrimp cocktail  appetizer.  The jumbo shrimp were as good or better than any I have eaten anywhere in Charleston. The steaks arrived in a timely manner, prepared exactly as we had requested.  Our filets were tender, our rib eyes juicy and the plates were hot enough to fry an egg on.  All of the family style side dishes were generous enough to serve at least three diners.
     My favorite side dish was the asparagus, which was prepared in the way God intended, lightly seasoned and slightly crisp.  (There is nothing worse than limp asparagus - well, I'm sure there's something worse but I can't think of it right now. ) The scalloped potatoes were thick and buttery. (Every dish is buttery, from the rib-eye dripping in it to the bread budding.)   The best word to describe my first Ruth Chris meal is hearty (almost Mid-Western or Pennsylvania Dutch hearty).
     On my second visit to Ruth Chris Steakhouse, we took the waitstaff's advice and ordered the stuffed chicken breasts which were butterflied and filled with garlic herb cheese (not overpowering) and lemon butter (very light lemon flavor).  I can honestly say that I enjoyed this chicken dish more than the steak.  The skin on my chicken breast was bubbling and crispy, the breast moist and flavorful and it was, of course, served piping hot.
     Our waitress on both occasions was Janea, a polite and helpful professional who kept our bread basket and water glasses filled, was friendly but not overly so, and even hung my coat up for me.  The rest of the waitstaff (who were very busy on a mid-week evening) were equally efficient and genial, even granting our request for a table adjacent to the fireplace.
     For a comfortable evening and a substantial meal, I recommend giving Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, the new gal in town, a chance.