The Stationery Shop

A stationery store is unsurprisingly the focal point in this story by Marjan Kamali which tells the tale of four families and their inextricable connections to one another.

Based in Iran from 1916 until the present, we watch the blush of young love between forbidden classes unravel against the backdrop of political conflict and rebellion.

The Stationery Shop opens in New England 2013 with an elderly couple preparing to visit a seniors home to visit someone who has yet to be identified. As the narrative unfolds, we are transported back to 1953 Iran to a stationery store owned by a kind, gentle and learned man named Mr Fakhri. His shop is an oasis of intellectual and literary treasures. It is also, as it turns out, a location where forbidden love is given a chance to blossom.

Enter the main characters Roya and Bahman, two teenagers who are instantly drawn to each other with a power neither of them understands or can suppress. The stationery shop is their nesting ground for the love that is flourished between them. When the time comes to introduce family into the picture, we find that Bahman’s mother has totally different marriage plans for her son, plans that are not to be altered.

The tale takes another turn when we are transported to Iran 1916 where a young man from the upper class falls madly in love with the melon seller’s daughter, clearly a match that will be vehemently opposed by his family who has already chosen his future bride.

The character’s stories begin to intertwine and the reader becomes aware of the interconnections of the families, and the devastation that has rained down on the ill-fated lovers. Through it all, we witness the political turmoil within Iran during the 20th century. Pro-Shah and pro-democracy groups collide throughout with deadly results. The influence of the oil-hungry western world upon the machinations of ruling parties continues to this day and weighs heavily upon the lives of the characters in this story.

This is an easy read and yet packed with romance, political intrigue, and best of all, Persian cuisine. The reader can almost smell and taste the dishes that are offered throughout.

— Nancy C.

Back to School…Pastry School

Le Cordon Bleu. Well. What do you think of when you hear those three words? A master chef? A piece of chicken stuffed with cheese and ham or bacon? France? Julia Child? I probably think a bit of all of these but more high standards, super high kitchen skill levels and, where a cookbook is concerned, complicated.

So why, do you ask, did I lug home (well, drove home…I didn’t want to drag this thing on the ION!) the heavy, 500 page copy of Le Cordon Bleu Pastry School from the library? Partly as a challenge to myself. Definitely in the hopes of learning something new. And yes, I was wooed by the beautiful photos (check out the mirror glaze on the cake on page 252) and the elegance of this new cookbook.

I have to say I was pretty excited on my first look through. So many delicious sounding and looking baked goods. Pastries, yes, but also cookies and desserts. Where should I begin?

On closer inspection the first thing I discovered is that a lot of the recipes I was tempted by would require me to go shopping for critical ingredients. As I delved further into the cookbook, that shopping list was going to expand to purchasing new equipment, baking tins etc. Now, as much as I like trying new recipes, I’m not the type to buy a special tin to make a one-off recipe. Nope.

So, my ambitious “to try” list had to be edited down to a more reasonable (practical? economical?) level. I started off with a lemon pound cake. I do not have mini loaf tins so I made it as one large cake and that worked out just fine. Easy to make, moist and delicious, this was all starting out on a high. The Black Forest Gateau and the Chocolate Berry Cake were very tempting but I’m going to hold off until a dinner party with family or friends to give them a go.

The chocolate marble cakes once again required a special tin so I opted instead for “individual” (they’re too big to be “individual”, really) bundt cakes. I didn’t get the swirl right so ended up more with two-tone cakes than marbled. The cake was dense and rich; more than the pound cake was actually. For presentation, I piped whipped cream on the cakes and added slices of mandarin oranges. They looked pretty fabulous and tasted good although a bit heavy for my liking.

cordon bleu 004The final recipe I tried was my favourite. They were a sandwich-style cookie made with ground almonds and glued together with chocolate ganache. The dough and the ganache came together easily. Whilst they didn’t look like the photo in the book, they did look very good. Colour was even, nice flavour and that ganache. Yum!

So, while I may not have invested in new equipment, perfected my piping or attempted a macaronnade or entremets, I do not feel defeated. I took out a Cordon Bleu cookbook, made a few items with very good result and have two in hand for the future. I’d say that’s très bon.

  • Sandi H.

Sandwich Style Chocolate Biscuits

Ganache (make this the night before!)

200 grams / 1.6 cups chocolate (65% cocoa)
225 ml cream
22 grams glucose (I used 4 tsp of white corn syrup instead)
35 grams butter / 2.5 tblsp butter

Dough

120 grams / ½ c butter, softened
25 grams / ¼ c ground almonds (I used a little less than ¼ c)
65 grams / ½ c icing sugar (a generous ½ cup)
2 grams / ½ tsp salt
1 egg
200 grams / 1.6 cups all purpose flour

For the ganache, chop chocolate and place in glass bowl. Heat cream until just below boiling. Remove from heat and mix in glucose/syrup. Pour the hot liquid over the chocolate and mix well with whisk. Mix in the butter. Cover with cling film and let stand at room temperature overnight.

Preheat oven to 300F.

Cream butter, almonds, icing sugar and salt together. Mix in egg and then flour to make a smooth dough. Roll out on lightly floured baking board until 4mm thickness.

Cut into medium-sized circles (or whatever shape is your preference), approximately 20 cookies. Take 10 of the cookie, and cut out a small circle or heart in the middle. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until the bottoms of the cookies are light golden brown. Set on cooling rack to cool completely.

To assemble the cookies, spread ganache on the solid disks. Place the biscuits with the cut out on top. Press together lightly to encourage “sealing”. Let sit to stabilize.

These cookies will stay fresh for at least a week if stored in an airtight container.

The ganache can be stored in a glass jar, tightly sealed, in the fridge. It made an excellent glaze for baked chocolate donuts a week later…but that’s for another review!

Book Swap at the Main

Did you buy some new books to take on vacation or to the beach, but now you aren’t sure what to do with them? Upcycle your gently used books at our Book Swap!

Wednesday, August 21
6:00pm to 8:30pm
Main Library – Auditorium
Drop-in

Participants can bring up to 10 books, adult, teen, or children (no textbooks) to swap for new reads. Everyone welcome.

Woodstock

Time to break out the tie dye T-shirts and headbands and love beads. Yes, it’s time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. In August 1969, half a million young people gathered together on a farm in upstate New York for a 3-day music festival, in what became one of the great defining moments of the 1960s.

Want to live (or re-live) the experience? Here’s what’s happening at WPL. The library is presenting a Woodstock night (live music! tie dye T-shirts! a VW van!) at the Main Library on Wednesday, August 14 from 7:00pm to 9:00pm. Click here for more info. Or borrow some Woodstock-themed items from the library, like I did.

Woodstockpic2I started with this fabulous book, Woodstock: three days that rocked the world. It is jammed pack with great big beautiful photos and provides an excellent summary/celebration of the festival. The reader gets an overview of all the performers, as well as some fascinating trivia. For instance, I learned about the origins of the peace symbol and got a huge laugh out of a New York Times editorial expressing outrage over the festival (“nightmare in the Catskills,” “freakish-looking intruders.”)

Then I moved on to a DVD, Woodstock : 3 days of peace and music. I know I will be re-watching this DVD, just to take in everything it has to offer. There is also another DVD I’m eager to get my hands on, Woodstock : three days that defined a generation. It is on order and hasn’t yet come arrived at the library but you can still place your hold.

Here, based on the DVD, is my take on the musical performances:

Best Act: Tie between festival opener Richie Havens (a singer/musician who simply resonates passion for his music) and Sly and the Family Stone (cool, funky music that is guaranteed to get you moving and grooving).

Honourable Mentions: Crosby, Stills and Nash. Just at the very start of their career, this supergroup confessed to being “scared s***less” but still put on an impressive show. The Who’s performance of “Feel Me” (from “Tommy”) was sensational.

Most LOL Act: 50s style-act Sha Na Na. You can just see the hippies scratching their heads and saying “what the…?”

Performance that best captured the spirit of the times: The crowd leaping to their feet and doing a rousing sing a-long with Country Joe & the Fish:

“One, two, three
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me why, I don’t give a damn
Next stop is Viet Nam…..”

Most Fortunate Performer: John Sebastian (of The Lovin’ Spoonful) was not slated to perform at all and had showed up strictly to watch the show. However on opening night when they were short a couple of performers (stuck in traffic), someone thrust a guitar into his hand, shoved him onto the stage…. for the biggest gig of his entire career.

Most Unfortunate Performer: Jimi Hendrix asked for and was given the coveted closing slot. However various delays saw the festival finishing up, not Sunday evening, but Monday morning. By then most people had already packed up and left. Still, he gave a mesmerizing performance, including his legendary version of The Star Spangled Banner. Sadly, he would die from a drug overdose just over a year later. (Another Woodstock performer, Janis Joplin, likewise died of a drug overdose in 1970.)

********

Beyond the music, there was such a great vibe to Woodstock. Reading the book or watching the DVD you get a real, palpable sense of community. It must have been such a blast to be there!

— Penny D.

Books About Books

I find it hard to resist a novel that features a librarian or bookseller as the main character. Part of the thrill of reading these books is in finding out whether or not the author has been successful in getting the nitty gritty of working with books exactly right. It’s entirely possible that I won’t identify with the character in the same way that all chefs don’t feel an instant sense of kinship in reading about other chefs. I might not feel like the bibliophile at the centre of the story is someone I could be friends with but I really like seeing similarities in their work life and mine. If the author has done their homework and put some time into making sure that the details are top notch then I love this kind of book more than any other. And I love to put these in the hands of co-workers and library customers. Books about people who love books!? It’s the best kind of reading, I’m certain.

I try to never miss any “books about books” that come across our desks (even those that focus a little less on actual library work like The Librarian and the Spy by Susan Mann, a fun book but not so much cataloguing or reference work) but this summer there were two spectacular choices that rose above many of the other books I read this summer. Both novels were choices that I enjoyed so much I kept talking about them weeks after I read them and purchased copies to give as gifts.

If an author has created a character with a personality and sense of humour that makes me long to have them come alive and join me for lunch then I think they’ve gone beyond crafting a good story, they have created a world that I wish I could inhabit. Not for the rest of my life – I’m not logging off and buying a plane ticket out of here – just a book that is so good I know I’ll read it again and think of those characters when something reminds me of them.

With both of the main characters in these books I felt as if their life choices, friendships, families and work environments were entirely believable and that isn’t something that happens often in ‘domestic fiction’ and even less so if the books are sold with a romantic arc involved. The vibrant colours on the covers and spine and the snappy text chosen by their marketing department might scare you away but I’m telling you that the women inside of these novels are like flesh and blood humans that you will be so glad you got a chance to meet – oh yes.

In the case of The Overdue Life of Amy Byler we encounter our book-loving character just as she has finally gotten into the groove of being a single parent and full-time teacher-librarian in the same school her two children attend in rural Pennsylvania. Her daughter Cori is fifteen and son Joe is eleven and it takes everything she has to get them to school, activities, maintain their aging house and try to make acceptable meals – her social life takes a back seat but she knows she should make it a priority ‘someday’. At least when she isn’t wondering why her husband left them to find himself in Hong Kong several years before (this is how her life becomes ‘overdue’, a truly great pun). When that long absent father/husband decides to reinsert himself into their lives to get to know the kids again she thinks her best plan is to head out of town for a while and, practical person that she is, she finds a library conference in New York City. She will accumulate some professional development hours while she takes a break from the routine at home and visit an old friend at the same time. Amy is so sensible in her choices! Her college friend, Talia, edits a successful fashion magazine and thinks using Amy as a makeover candidate will help rejuvenate her brand. Win-win? This leads to some super Devil Wears Prada fashion montages and great jokes about uncomfortable shoes and outfits. Initially Amy is reluctant to make changes in her clothing, hair, and makeup but agrees to give it a try when Talia and her assistant start sending her out on blind dates as part of their unfortunately named ‘momspringa’ feature articles on the magazine’s website. Author Kelly Harms uses romance in this novel with a light touch and it is more the story of a person trying to decide the direction that their life should go.

With The Bookish Life of Nina Hill the setting could not be more different than Amy Byler’s. Instead of rural Pennsylvania Nina lives in Larchmont, California, a small neighbourhood that she has never wanted to leave (I looked it up – you would never want to leave either) where she works in a small independent bookshop. Nina’s life has been carefully crafted around her interests and the anxiety she has managed since childhood. She plans her day carefully each morning in her planner and knows what will happen today, tomorrow and the days that follow. She is not a spontaneous person but she is always ready for a touch of fun and has an inner monologue of observations about herself and the world around her. She lives with a charming and remarkably funny cat named Phil. One of her weekly activities is a trivia competition with her team named “Book ‘em, Danno” and they have been kicked out of several bars – not for being rowdy – but for winning too often. Her passion and knowledge for literature is prized on the team and through this group of supportive friends she meets her love interest, Tom (I won’t spoil it and tell you what his occupation is – you must read to the end).

Like Kelly Harms does in her novel, author Abbi Waxman doesn’t make Tom the most important part of this story. Nina discovers that she has a large extended family beyond her single mother, a substantial and mysterious inheritance, she learns that the bookstore she loves is in jeopardy, and everything triggers her anxiety – the possibility of romance is often the last thing on her mind. Nina has priorities and reading is often first on the list, or in her planner, she devotes entire Thursday nights to it. Although she is at a much different stage of life from Amy Byler she is also trying to decide on her direction in life and you can’t help but be inspired by the way that finds a way that is right for her quirky, lovable personality.

Books, authors and literary quotes are sprinkled throughout both novels (in the case of Nina’s life it is a weekly occurrence because of her extremely competitive trivia team) and the characters of teacher-librarian and bookseller are letter perfect. When Nina describes the customer who walked up to the counter and asks for a refund on a copy of Pride and Prejudice because she didn’t like it and Nina has to refuse (the customer had read it all the way through before coming to back to the store) I was reminded of a similar experience from my own working days in a bookstore. Nina’s bookstore world, and her sarcastic bookstore manager/owner, are so true to real life. It’s a delight.

Amy Byler is an absolute treat of a bibliophile, as well as a gem of a devoted teacher-librarian, and the experience in that book is multi-layered because her daughter Cori is spending the summer with ‘assigned’ reading from her own mother and her comments (in letter form) are included, so we see the book-loving relationship from all sides. When Amy attends the library conference in New York City she is required to make a presentation about an ongoing project in her school library and the details about this effort are quite interesting, the conversations she has with other professional librarians 100% credible and the books they are discussing absolutely relevant. If I met Amy at a conference I would love to sit down and talk to her – I’d probably have asked for her business card and checked in with her a few weeks later. I’m almost sad that she doesn’t exist. Same thing with Nina but her trivia skills are intimidating… maybe she would let me feed her cat.

Books about librarians and booksellers are always being published – across all genres – vampire librarians, librarian spies, booksellers who solve mysteries, and I read them all with great happiness. This summer has been a particularly good one for newly published titles but I have other favourites from years past that I take from the shelves over and over as a part of my comfort reading. I turn to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore when I want a dash of fantasy, I look up Jenny Colgan when I want to be transported to Scotland and I can read about A. J. Fikry and his wonderful shop on Alice Island on any day. The story of how his life changes is absolute perfection and I’m a little nervous to hear that an actor and director have been assigned to the film based on the book – what if they don’t get the details right? What if they are not able to evoke Fikry’s love of Roald Dahl on screen the same way it exists in the novel? Sometimes a book is perfect just the way it is, especially when it is a book about books.

— Penny M.

RIP Toni Morrison

Author, professor, activist Toni Morrison died today at the age of 88. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for “Beloved” and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. She was a recipient of many awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.

toni morrison

Down-home with The Prairie Table

The Prairie Table features good ol’ Canadian recipes from the blogger behind the highly successful The Kitchen Magpie. In this cookbook, Karlynn Johnston shares over 100 recipes – from appetizers and main dishes to side dishes, delicious desserts and cocktails (compliments of Mr. Kitchen Magpie). These tasty yet doable recipes will encourage us to share more meals with those we love and remind us of the importance of reconnecting at the end of a busy day.

I immediately enjoyed the personable, friendly feel to Karlynn’s writing as she shares the recipes she makes for her own family and big get-togethers. Organized into 8 chapters and with a nostalgic, retro vibe to its colour pictures, Karlynn weaves some of her heritage into the book by dedicating the first chapter to the tasty Ukrainian dishes she grew up on. As a Tater Connoisseur myself, I’m particularly smitten with the section on perogies – particularly her “Choose Your Own Perogy Adventure“!

I tried a couple of the recipes before this review — my daughter and I made the Cake Mix Cookies (using Cherry Chip – deelish!) and I’m relieved to know that Karlynn (like myself) is a serious banana hoarder. I am not alone. Phew! Her Banana Gingerbread Loaf was a great way to reduce my cache of frozen ‘nanas and it was big time yum at home and shared with coworkers at WPL. With my eye on many more recipes to try (Beer and Orange-Glazed Salmon, Curried Honey Chipotle Sweet Potatoes, Make-Ahead Loaded Mashed Potato Casserole…), this will be a much used cookbook in my home.

With good tips, a wonderful down-home feel and a great selection of doable recipes, The Prairie Table will get home cooks into the kitchen and eager to share their new culinary skills at family dinners, dinner parties and large potlucks.

-Laurie P.