Book Review: Love & Saffron by Kim Fay

If books were people, and if Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin married 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, and if those two book-people had a baby, it would be Love & Saffron by Kim Fay, and that baby’s godmother would be Ruth Reichl. 

I devoured this book in one day. Granted I was in a hotel room with a crying baby in the room on one side of me and a barking dog in the room on the other side of me and the roiling ocean waves off my balcony were the OG white noise machine soothing away my frustration at the poor weather conditions for my short getaway to the beach on my Easter break from teaching. 

On my first day at the beach I visited the town’s independent bookstore and purchased one book of fiction (Love & Saffron) and one of nonfiction (Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson). Opting for the fiction first, I started Kim Fay’s short epistolary novel after breakfast this morning. My husband and I took a walk up and down the boardwalk and the wind and chill factor drove us back inside and back to our books. I was not unhappy, lol.

My first epistolary piece of literature, like many, was probably Diary of a Young Girl. When I started teaching, I discovered Karen Cushman’s masterpiece Catherine, Called Birdy. Of course I read Helen Fielding’s bevy of Bridget Jones’ works and stumbled upon a rather dry piece called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday which was a glorious gem of cinematography when adapted for film starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt. Eventually I discovered The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and I realized with great clarity that I loved books told through letters or diary entries.

So, perusing the shelves in the bookstore on Monday, I noticed this slim volume on the staff picks’ shelf. The short description drew me in: a story of food and friendship, of love and loss. Yes please.

With its bright cover and clocking in at just 193 pages, you might be fooled into thinking this was a beach read. You would be wrong. Set in the early 1960s with the drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the trauma of JFK’s subsequent assassination, Love & Saffron starts off innocently enough with a fan letter from a devoted female reader to a female columnist on the other side of the country. The letter is sent along with a small packet of saffron and a recipe of sorts for mussels steamed in a vermouth and saffron sauce. As the correspondence continues between these two women, much different in age and personality, a true friendship develops. In the span of the four years covered by the novel, we watch the friendship develop into a mutual love and respect for one another. In much the same way that Olive Kitteridge grows and evolves in Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Imogen Fortier, as well as her husband Francis, also grows and evolves as a result of her correspondence with Joan Bergstrom. Imogen realizes that along with her unadventurous palate, she has not really given life a chance. Joan’s openness to foreign cuisines, international travel, and inclusivity begins to work its magic on Imogen. And, as quid pro quo, Joan’s confidence in herself as a writer and as a food expert, blossoms.

No spoilers here. The cover says “A novel of friendship, food, and love,” but there is loss as well and when it comes it tears a hole in your heart. That sadness is worth it, however. Imogen, Francis, and Joan all grow and evolve and live richer lives as a result of that one simple fan letter and a small packet of saffron. 

Book Review: The Hygge Holiday by Rosie Blake

For two years I lived in a small town near Brussels, Belgium, and seeking to make friends, I joined an international cooking club. There were twelve members, and we were each assigned a month where we hosted the entire group for lunch, with foods from our own culture. Each month was new and exciting, learning about the cuisines of the places represented by our membership. 

I have very fond memories of the month when we lunched at the home of our Danish member. I had been to Copenhagen as a high school student, but my memories of those few hours in the capital were mostly of the Hotel Lawrence, a ship converted into a floating hotel, and of course, the Little Mermaid, where we all posed in the bright summer sun for photos with her.

My Danish luncheon however, was something I won’t soon forget. Bright, airy, and minimalist in decor, her home was a respite from the loud city noises and busy traffic. Lightly stained and highly polished wood furniture was softened by flickering candles and plush cushions. Her dining room had been stripped of chairs, anchored solely by a long teak table, unadorned but completely covered with platters of food—my first experience with a true smorgasbord.

After a brief welcome and a toast to our ongoing friendships, she instructed us in how to build the perfect open-faced sandwich of brown bread, soft sweet butter, pickled herring, and a topping of dill-specked cream. It is almost as though I can still taste it, nearly twenty years later: the contrast of textures, the brinieness of the herring, the sweetness of the butter and the cream, accentuated and brightened by lemon and dill. 

If you’ve read any of my essays here on my website you know I was born and raised in southeast Louisiana, and I know a thing or two about seafood. There is nothing that comes from the water that I don’t love, but this was my first taste of pickled herring…and I adored it. When teaching the book Number the Stars by Lois Lowry set in Denmark to my 6th grade literature class one year, I talked so much about that little open-faced sandwich that I had to make good on a promise to bring in brown bread and pickled herring for them all to try.

In 2003, I had never heard of the concept of hygge, although now it is so prevalent in pop culture it made its way to a Jeopardy clue on a recent episode. When I saw the title The Hygge Holiday listed on Amazon’s Kindle deals, I decided it was just the thing that would drag me out of a reading slump, and boy, was I right.

This quick read by Rosie Blake is a delightful example of how hygge worked to bring a dilapidated Suffolk village back to life, resuscitating even the recalcitrant son of the gypsy toy store owner who has left her flat and toy store in the capable and creative hands of Danish wanderer Clara. How and why Clara has ended up in a tiny village in Suffolk slowly unfurls as the story tightens around her relationship with the villagers and London financier Joe, Louisa’s son. 

While the plot and much of the story line is well-known, the beauty of this book is the deft balance of humor and loss. Blake’s writing really shines in her dialogue, both dialogue between Clara and Joe as well as their individual internal dialogue. 

While most British literature leaves me gasping for a cuppa’ tea, this charming novel left me reminiscing about that small open-faced sandwich of pickled herring on brown bread!

Family Food Traditions

In mid-December, I added a bag of mixed nuts – in their shells – to my holiday shopping list. My husband, the shopper in the family, called to verify, “Do you want salted or unsalted?” I tried to explain that you rarely find nuts salted while still in their shells. Finally he understood and brought me a bag of mixed nuts – still in their shells – unsalted of course. They were dumped into my fluted snowman pie plate. I searched high and low for my little metal nutcracker but it was nowhere to be found. It was always in the white lazy susan utensil holder on my counter top. 

My mom always had a bag of nuts in their shells in a bowl around the holidays. I can remember sitting with my dad, sharing the nutcracker, passing it back and forth, cracking and peeling walnuts, almonds, pecans, and whatever else was in the bag. Somehow, dumping those nuts in my snowman bowl means the holidays have officially begun, and I am whisked back to that activity with my dad. 

We all have food traditions that we inherit from our parents, and for those who are lucky, from our grandparents. Three of my four grandparents died long before I was born, and I have only limited memories of my dad’s mother who died a month after my sixth birthday. “Big Mama,” as she was called even though she was pretty small, would give me a little treat if I ran the gauntlet from the driveway to her door without crying. Many a day I was pecked by the rooster in her yard, which always won me a few squares of a Hershey Bar, because it was my favorite candy at the time (still love them), but also because a square of “chocolate flavored” ExLax could be mixed in with the real thing and I would fall for that every single time. Is it just the south (or perhaps just Louisiana) that a person’s overall state of health is judged by whether you had a bowel movement today?

Another food tradition was sharing an avocado with my dad. He would cut it in half and twist it, taking out the pit, and putting each half on a saucer. He would drizzle a little olive oil and red wine vinegar in the little hole, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and hand me a saucer and a spoon. We’d have that as our “salad” before dinner. No one else in my family liked avocados so that was always our shared treat. I still eat mine that way today, and I never fail to think of my dad when I do, symbolically offering up the other half to his memory. Boy, do I miss him.

My mom’s favorite snack wasn’t something I liked, so I never had a handful of Cheez-Its on a paper towel, which she liked to balance on the arm of the sofa while she watched Ellen in the afternoon. I don’t know for sure if I dislike Cheez-Its or not, but the overly cheesy smell of them in the box put me off so I’ve never actually tried one. Anyway, I have too many things on my list of snacks that I love (too much) to add anything new to that list. 

Afternoon coffee was a big thing in my parents’ home, especially if one or both of them had taken a nap. Coffee was always made fresh post-nap. Sooner or later, my dad’s sister, my Aunt Helen, would drive up, or my dad would call her and tell her to come over for coffee. Something was always found to be put out with the coffee, a few store-bought cookies, some pretzels, or if we were lucky, a slice of cake my cousin Penny had baked. We also had fresh coffee after dinner most nights, when my mom would have an extra piece of French bread, with butter and a little jelly, and if no bread was left, she’d have a few Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies, with a light smear of butter on top of each one. Don’t gasp, just try it. Store-bought cookies need all the help they can get, and my mom believed a touch of sweet butter was just the thing. Boy, do I miss her.

Somehow, though, the Cheez-It gene skipped me and went straight to my younger daughter, who shocked me when she requested a box of them when I asked her what snacks to buy for her trip home this Christmas. Rest assured they were purchased; she could have asked for dust from the moon’s surface and I would have found a way to have it here for when she arrived. She had not been home since Christmas of 2019, as fear of covid forced us to cancel her trip home Christmas of 2020. Her asthma put her in a higher risk category, and as much as we missed her, we just wouldn’t take that chance. Of course we Facetime’d and Zoom’d all of this time, but loading up the kitchen counter with her favorite snacks was a small price to pay for actually hugging her and holding her close. Thank you science, it was because of her two doses of Moderna and the more recent booster, that we felt safe enough having her fly in from Los Angeles. We are back to Facetime and Zoom for our visits, with hopes of seeing her again in person this summer.

Speaking of that younger daughter, a few days in during our Christmas visit, an Amazon package arrived for me. Inside, a complete set of nutcracker tools. Even though she doesn’t sit and crack and peel nuts with me, she ordered this set for me, and now these new (and much improved) tools will remind me each holiday season of her as well as my dad. Boy, do I miss her. 

Book Review: Jazz Age Cocktails by Cecelia Tichi

Don’t be confused by the title of this book. Yes, it is about cocktails popular during the Jazz Age, but this is not just a book of cocktail recipes. It is a history book, a book of US social history during the time of Prohibition, with recipes for the cocktails of the day sprinkled throughout. And, that’s a good thing, a very good thing.

Jazz Age Cocktails is well-written, well-researched, and well-illustrated. In the “spirit” of the subject matter, it is not dry or flat, but told with a strong narrative, dropping famous names right and left. I particularly enjoyed the sections giving us a peek in the lives of the lost generation.

I really enjoyed this book. As a long-time middle school English and literature teacher, I loved the chapters that delved into the lives of Ernest Hemingway and his frenemy F. Scott Fitzgerald. I also enjoyed Fitzgerald’s RSVP to an invitation to a cocktail party, where he conjugated the word cocktail as a verb, demonstrating his mettle with the English language.

Cecelia Tichi’s mettle with the English language is also on display with this book, and I look forward to reading more of her work, including her Kate Banning mystery series, perhaps while sipping a Cat’s Pajamas, a recipe that stirred (never shaken!) my interest in Tichi’s latest book.

Thank you to NetGalley for a digital ARC of this book.

Book Review: Soomi’s Sweater by Susie Oh

This is a short and sweet picture book, but for me the illustrations are far superior to the story line. Susie Oh’s drawings have captured the soft, maternal feelings that I know so well from having raised two daughters of my own. I could feel the excitement from Soomi when she received a new sweater, obviously a gift, but we don’t find out who sent it to her. That would have been a nice detail to know.

As a long-time language arts teacher, I can’t help but search for theme and moral as I read a new piece of literature. This is where my struggle with Soomi’s Sweater started. What was the message? As I read, I kept waiting for it. As I scrolled past the last page, I wondered what Susie Oh really wanted me to take away from this book. Is it the special nature of a treasured gift? Is it not being able to wait for something to come, as in Soomi growing into the sweater? Is it that accidents happen and sometimes things just go wrong? Or, as the last few pages seem to indicate, is it that little girls have to run home to mommy to make things right?

This genteel story is beautifully illustrated, but the story left me wanting more, even from a children’s picture book. Give it a read and decide for yourself, and while you are at it, revel in the beauty of Susie Oh’s illustrations of Soomi and her mom.

Book Review: The Dig by John Preston (Other Press, 2007)

At some point during the pandemic, my husband and I watched the Netflix original film The Dig (Netflix, 2021) starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan. We were both quite taken with it. I immediately googled it and found that it was based upon a work of historical fiction of the same name by John Preston. My next step was to request a copy of the novel from my library.

After months of waiting in line for a copy of the novel, and then several weeks spent reading other things for NetGalley, I finally opened Preston’s slim book. What I found between the covers of this battered library paperback was a story just as intriguing and charming as the movie. Preston’s fictionalized retelling of the story of an archeological dig in Suffolk, England, was inspired by his learning that his aunt had actually participated in the 1939 excavation of an Anglo Saxon burial ship, discovered in a mound on farmland owned by Mrs. Edith Pretty.

Peggy Piggott, portrayed by Downton Abbey‘s Lily James in the film, was on her honeymoon with her first husband when he is called to Suffolk to participate in the dig. She is asked to help as her smaller and lighter frame was more beneficial in the excavated and delicate remains of the ship. Piggott was born Cecily Margaret Preston, and after divorcing her husband in 1956, had a second, unsuccessful marriage to Luigi Guido, a Sicilian. In her later years, she and her first husband, archeologist Stuart Piggott, reunited to share a post with a historical society in Wiltshire.

With the country on the brink of entering WWII as a backdrop, Preston tells his story in alternating 1st person narratives in the voices of Basil Brown, Edith Pretty, and Peggy Piggott, starting and ending with Basil Brown, whom Edith Pretty, the wealthy landowner, has hired to conduct the initial dig. The story moves along swiftly, with the main characters guiding the reader through the ups and downs of archeology as well as the ups and downs of relationships of the characters involved in the dig.

One of the things that I found so charming in the book is the genteel way in which Preston handles the relationship between Mrs. Pretty and her servants, both those inside the great house and those who work for her outside the house. They are all very protective of Mrs. Pretty, who was widowed at a young age and left with a small boy to raise on her own, and Mrs. Pretty, who by all accounts is acknowledged as the woman in charge, is truly gracious and respectful to them in return. In the book, Mrs. Pretty appears to be suffering from some malady that is not discussed. In the film this is represented more directly. Another slight difference is that Preston handles his aunt’s first marriage with great discretion, while the film does pull away the curtain a bit more.

Usually, I recommend that you should read the book before seeing the movie, and on only a few occasions have I veered from that. One notable exception is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. The Hitchcock film is every bit as good as the movie, and I don’t think it matters which comes first to someone unfamiliar with them. The Dig will be another exception to my rule. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book, even though I was “forced” to visualize the characters in the book with the faces and voices of the actors from the film, something I usually do not enjoy. The actors cast in their roles so perfectly fit the characters in the book it was no hardship at all to continue with them in their parts.

If travel is still out of the question for you due to COVID restrictions, take a literary trip to the countryside of England while reading Preston’s fine book, and finish off your getaway with a viewing of the Netflix film. You won’t be sorry.

HSPT Prep Course

Do you have a rising 8th grader planning on applying for admission to an area Catholic high school? If so, the High School Placement Test is required at many of the DC area Catholic high schools. Three of the five sections of the test are language arts-based, which just happens to be my specialty! Sign up for my virtual prep course by emailing me at michardillo@gmail.com.

Interview: Eman Quotah, author of Bride of the Sea

See my most recent published piece for Washington Independent Review of Books: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/an-interview-with-eman-quotah

Holding Hands for 32 Years

From almost the exact moment that we became a couple, my husband has held my hand. If we are sitting in different chairs on either side of a table watching tv at night, he will reach across the table and hold out his hand for me to grasp. When we are out together in the car, and the traffic isn’t too bad, he will hold his hand out for me to take it for a few minutes. If we get out of the car to go into a restaurant or store (you know, in the before times), he will reach behind to clasp my hand in his as we cross the street or walk up a set of steps, even just one step from the driveway to the sidewalk of the shopping center. He always walks slightly ahead of me “to block traffic” which is a long-standing joke of his.

We had a very small wedding, in my Louisiana hometown, about 60 miles southeast of New Orleans, just family and a few very close friends of our parents. Our only non-relative friends present were people who participated in the wedding itself: two musician friends, my maid of honor. The size of the guest list had a little to do with money as neither of us had any, and my parents were paying for the flowers, invitations, stipends to the church and musicians, and a small reception at my parents’ house after. It also had to do with the fact that my husband and I grew up in small towns about 100 miles apart from one another. At the time of our wedding, my husband had just completed grad school in Virginia and I was working and living in Maryland. We didn’t want to burden his Virginia friends and my Maryland friends with a decision of whether to fly to Louisiana or not, especially since my hometown really had no hotel, motel, or inn. So, rather than hurt feelings by inviting some but not all, we just didn’t invite anyone outside of our families.

Neither of us minded how small the wedding and reception were, because for us, it was all about just the two of us starting our life together. Nothing else really mattered. I bought a tea-length dress off the rack on my lunch hour. We took the bus to a nearby mall for him to buy a new dress shirt and tie for a suit he already owned. But, I remember with great clarity all of the Mass, us holding hands during our vows, our hands together when we exchanged rings, and even holding hands during the homily, which I am sure was frowned upon in my very conservative hometown Catholic church.

A family friend from my hometown had become a photographer, and he took our wedding photos. Once when I was showing them to a friend here in Maryland, she remarked that Tom is holding my hand in every single photo, and often, he is holding my one hand with both of his hands. After the wedding, we took a picture under the giant oak tree in my parents’ yard, the breeze from the Mississippi blowing in our hair, and yep, he is holding my hand in both of his, while I hold my bouquet in the other. When our parents offered up toasts in my mom’s living room, we are each holding a glass of champagne, and he is again holding my free hand.

June 10, 1989, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Port Sulphur, LA

Once my friend mentioned it, I couldn’t help but look for it in all photos of us after that. Sure enough, in almost every photo we have taken celebrating our anniversary having dinner out over the years, he has reached across the table and taken my hand just before the photo is taken.

Mykonos, Rockville, MD – 26th anniversary

I read an article once that said you should hold hands with your partner when you are arguing, as it will remind both of you of the bond you share, rather than the difference that is causing the argument. Full disclosure: we do not do this, and we argue just like everyone else. But, still, I wonder if Tom’s frequent reaching for my hand is one of the reasons why we are happily together after 32 years, even after the 24/7 together time of the pandemic.

Our parents (two-handed clasp here!)

I have another friend who offered up a more cynical thought on this subject. She said that he is holding on to me, like a possession, to keep me from getting away. I laughed, but inside I was thinking, “Get away from what? I’m right where I want to be!”

During the pandemic when we didn’t go anywhere, and especially to the no-appointment hair salon we had been going to for decades that was always swarming with people and chairs so close together, Tom’s hair got longer and longer. He’s Italian on both sides, so it’s thick and wavy, and in it’s longer “style” it could qualify as what we used to call “big hair” back in the 1980s. He thinks he looks like Elvis; I think I like it better short and neat, but it’s his hair so I’m mostly mum on the subject. However, now that he is back in the office every day, he has told me about all the comments he is getting about his hair, mostly compliments on the longer length, and mostly FROM WOMEN he works with. I’m not really the jealous type, but . . . I’m not entirely crazy about this situation, lol. I feel like showing up to his work one day and having him walk me around the office while I hold his hand.

Tom’s maternal grandmother (still holding my hand!)

Today, June 10th, is our 32nd wedding anniversary. We started it the same way we do every day now that I’m no longer teaching, having coffee together. And, as you might have guessed, he did reach out and briefly hold my hand across the table before he left for work. We’ll have dinner out tomorrow night, ask a server to take our picture, and of course, we’ll be holding hands. Happy 32 to us!

Book Review: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Random House, October 2021)

My last in-person visit to my local public library was on Thursday, March 12, 2020, to pick up a bag of books “just in case” the whole coronavirus thing was really a thing. Ha! The K-8 elementary school where I taught sent us home that day with instructions to be prepared to teach via Zoom starting on Monday, March 16, 2020. Little did we know!

Standing at the new fiction shelves, doing my favorite kind of shopping (not a shoe girl, a handbag girl, or even a jewelry girl when it comes to shopping), one of the librarians walked by and said, “Have you read Olive Kitteridge?” I told him no, and went to look for it, but their copy was checked out.

Fast forward to November of 2020, when I had long ago exhausted the bag of books from the library and had started to use Libby/Overdrive to feed my obsession with reading, I remembered that conversation with the librarian and downloaded Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Within just a few pages I realized that I wasn’t reading an ordinary book written by an ordinary author. This was something completely different. I was torn between flying through it in one setting or dragging it out to make it last longer.

Because I was late to the Strout party, I was lucky enough to download its sequel, Olive Again, just a few months later. After I blew through that one, I I read I Am Lucy Barton. Once I was fully vaccinated, I made my maiden voyage to my favorite used bookstore and bought copies of all the Strout titles there. I’m so happy I have some from her back list to still read: Anything is Possible (which I think is part of the Lucy Barton storyline), The Burgess Boys, Abide with Me, and Amy and Isabelle. Needless to say, I am a fan for life.

And then, NetGalley listed Strout’s latest novel, Oh William! Of course I requested it immediately. And just like the others, I could not put it down. I don’t know how she does it, but it only takes a paragraph or two and I’m fully immersed in whatever world Elizabeth Strout chooses to create.

To be honest, Oh William! to me is quite different from Olive Kitteridge and her sequel. Where I found Olive’s story to be inspirational and uplifting, I found Lucy and William to be raw and disturbing. How can I like both ends of the spectrum? Well, I guess that is the magic of Strout’s writing for me.

In promotional materials for Oh William! Strout said it was inspired by the deep secrets being unearthed by the DNA ancestry testing now available. While that is one of the story arcs in Oh William!, I didn’t consider it to be the main one. For me, the book is a continuation of the continuous untangling and re-tangling of the relationship between Lucy and William. In both Lucy Barton and Oh William, there were things I loved about both Lucy and William, but there were also things I hated about both those characters as well. Just like in real life, nothing is all good or all bad, and these two people are perfect examples of that. Strout even has a quote on her website that drives this home, “It is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives.” Murky completely describes Lucy and William’s relationship, where each individual is a character in the story and their relationship is another character entirely.

For fans of Elizabeth Strout, Oh William! will be another home run. If you are new to Elizabeth Strout’s work, may I suggest you start with Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009. There you will find the brilliance of how Strout intertwines thirteen short stories with Olive being the constant that ties it all together in her flawed and fascinating way.

Thank you to NetGalley for an ARC of this new novel.