Two Book Reviews and A “One Pan Snack”

Posted on May 11, 2011

First the One Pan Snack.

In an unusual turn of events, my son very graciously offered up his after school snack for my blog this week.  His offer (made yesterday) has kept me smiling for the past 24 hours.  He calls this dish “One Pan Snack.”  The name just cracks me up.  For many of us, this dish made with 5 eggs, a quarter pound of kielbasa, chevre, and an assortment of chopped vegetables might feed a family of four.  For an 18-year old rail thin teen, it is a snack.

I want to stress that we know we are very lucky to be able to eat hearty snacks on a whim.  My son knows this too, and as such he relishes every bite and wastes nothing.

One Pan Snack (or Quick Supper)

Over medium heat, brown slices of kielbasa or Italian sausage.  When browned add vegetables.  Saute vegetables of your choice (the combination of onions, red pepper, and mushrooms are a favorite) until tender.

Add a little olive oil to the pan if necessary.  Break five eggs into a bowl, add a few teaspoons of water, a little salt and pepper, and beat all ingredients with a fork until well blended.  Pour the eggs over the vegetables, crumble goat cheese over the top, and let the eggs begin to set.

As they set, scramble the eggs together with the meat and vegetables, stirring often for smaller curds, or less frequently for large curds of scrambled egg.  Turn the eggs onto a plate and enjoy after a long day at school.

Now for the book reviews.  I found two books over the past two weeks, and I’d like to share my impressions of both with you.  Read on.

ONLY BEAUTIFUL & OTHER STORIES by Kerry Langan

Childhood experience provides the starting push that begins every tale in Kerry Langan’s consistently elegant, often heartbreaking collection, Only Beautiful and Other Stories.  Whether the story’s narrator is once again the small child trying to make sense of the thwarted lives and coded speech of surrounding adults, or the adolescent maneuvering a more mature and more complicated social landscape for the first time, or an adult whose present has been somehow determined by an episode in his or her younger past, Langan respectfully portrays each person’s singular experience and yet, in doing so, reveals to us ourselves.

In the stories Lead Us Not and A World Transformed young girls feel at the mercy of unreasonable mothers – one who won’t tolerate any untidiness in the home or on her daughter’s person in the form of long hair, and another who gets angry when her daughter has to ask for new dresses to replace those ones deemed unacceptably short by the nuns at the elementary school.  All around these girls are friends and classmates with warmer, more permissive parents, while the messages sent to both Mary Fitch and Angie Reno are: Do not make noise. Do not rebel. Do not give trouble. Expect to be punished if you do.

And of course they are, Mary with a near scalping of all her hair, and Angie with the gift of an ill-fitting and drab brown dress.  While they sense the deep disappointments lurking at the cores of their mothers, these girls also feel the injustice and irrationality being dealt to them.

In both Makeover and the novella-length title story, Only Beautiful, teens are thrust into adult worlds, glimpsing and also participating in the trials and tribulations of love, bad marriages, and divorce.  Barb, the fifteen-year-old babysitter in Makeover, gets drawn into the messy middle of divorce when the separating parents of her young charges both seek her out for advice.  Janet Turrell wants input about what shade of lipstick or what pair of shoes she should wear out on a date, while Mr. Turrell attempts to pry information from her about the dates his ex-wife is going on.  Armed with the feeling of power that comes with these confidences, Barb experiments with some of the trappings of grown ups with humiliating results that lead to a bittersweet loss of innocence.

Only Beautiful follows several teens as they tell the story of the town’s teen beauty, Mary Connolly.  Readers will immediately understand the complicated social structure of high school and their own place in it: the pretty girl who is misunderstood, the friend in her shadow, the other friends and false friends, the aloof boy the beauty pines for, and the available boy who pines for her.  Once again, experimenting with emotions and actions they are perhaps not quite ready for, with only flawed adults as their guides, the young people set themselves on courses of misunderstandings and worse, to be marked for life with the things done and also left undone.

My favorite story of the collection is The Marshall Islands.  A father who has made mistakes in his own marriage and in raising his son watches over the course of an afternoon’s backyard barbecue as his son is poised to repeat the same mistakes, even while he claims to reject everything his father represents.  Langan writes both father and son with an honest eye but also with an abundance of empathy and insight into human foibles.  This is a story I could read over and over and find new meaning in with each read.

Langan’s understanding of her characters and observation of the human experience will impress you, as will her skill with words.  Ultimately, it is this very assuredness and writerly skill that elevates each story from mere cautionary tale to shimmering moment of human understanding.  She writes in detail but also sparely.  There’s not an excess word or a word out of place; all words used have been chosen with deliberate care.  If a description or a conversation is in a story, you know to pay attention: what is being told through both will be important information for the reader.

Only Beautiful is not only beautiful; it is a stunner of a story collection.

  • Only Beautiful & Other Stories
  • ©2009  Kerry Langan
  • Wising Up press
  • Available here

EACH ANGEL BURNS by Kathleen Valentine

The classic Gothic novel feeds readers on equal parts thrilling terror and sublime chivalric style romance, sometimes with a smidge of repressed sexuality thrown in for good measure.  Often set in dark, unexplored castles or forbidding abbeys, these stories feature people who suffer at the hand of evil or the supernatural, while heroes try to triumph and divine punishment looms over both man and society.

I cut my teeth on the novels of Charlotte and Emily Bronte and Mary Shelley, perhaps the widest read period Gothic writers.  Think of the dark and brooding Heathcliff, the “secret” kept hidden in Rochester’s attic, Shelley’s misunderstood monster: each novel promised mystery and menace and endings that might offer resolution, but of an older, more jaded kind than the happily ever after of fairy tale.

In the 20th century, the Gothic torch was re-lit and carried most proudly by Daphne du Maurier.  As she picked up writing in this classic genre, she also modernized the tradition, replacing dank castles and abbeys with partially inhabited manor homes, and a madwoman in the attic with a portrait of a dead wife intended to chasten the ingénue bride.

With her 2009 novel, Each Angel Burns, indie author Kathleen Valentine picks up where du Maurier left off, herself reviving and recreating the genre by incorporating some classic mood elements (a labyrinthine abbey, a hero, an absolute evil villain, and a range of inexplicable disappearances) along with modern twists intended to keep the story current and accessible – a dingily ordinary mill town bar, an assortment of struggling middle-aged Everymen, and their modern and sometimes angst-ridden relationships with women and God.

Gabriel (Gabe) assumes a central role in the bunch, all of whom have been friends since high school.  Husband to an unhappy wife, father to three daughters, Gabe is a woodworker who was meant to go to art school.  He has accepted his lot without much looking back because of his sense of duty, but struggles with feelings of inadequacy because he can’t seem to make his wife happy no matter how diligently he keeps his nose to the grindstone.  His long time best friend, Pete, is a former heartthrob turned priest, forever at arms’ length from the women he once collected with ease, but all the while uncertain if leaving his one true love, Magdalene (Maggie) to marry another man, was a good decision.

Maggie, knowing she stood between Pete and his commitment to the church, made Pete’s departure easy by taking up with Sinclair and announcing to Pete that she had made up her mind to marry him instead.  The marriage that resulted has been a poor one, with Maggie left a prisoner of Sinclair’s money and his cruel proclivities.  When Sinclair offers to buy her an abandoned abbey on Maine’s coast as a retreat and place for her to do the sculpting she loves, Maggie seizes the opportunity to begin her break from him.

As Maggie reconnects with Pete in the wake of the dismantling of her marriage, she also meets Gabe who, upon Pete’s recommendation, becomes the craftsman in charge of the abbey’s renovation.  Love between the two lonely artistic individuals begins to grow.  If this were your standard romance novel, right at this moment a bodice would rip, someone’s rippling chest muscles would peek out from an unbuttoned shirt, and body parts would be heaving with desire.  The lovers would end up together, riding off into a beautiful sunset.

But Valentine’s tradition is the Gothic romance, and she is respectful of the more complex threads of story that deserve to be told against the backdrop of the unknown portions of the abbey and Maggie’s cipher of a husband.  She writes with delicate grace, allowing personal stories to unfold, deftly adding secondary story lines (the miraculous recovery of a lost statue of the abbey’s angel Gabriel, a sinister string of missing and dead girls turning up along the coast of Maine, and a touching depiction of redemption after a tragic and crippling accident) to enrich the whole.

The main story and its offshoots come together because of Valentine’s use of the Catholic religion – its traditions, teachings, and symbolism – as unifying image and theme. Marriages break up, new love takes its time, all kinds of commitment are questioned and tested; in the end evil is uncovered and vanquished, but not without some soul searching and sadness.  All of this unfurls to the reader within the larger context of faith and its redemptive, healing properties.  A born storyteller, Valentine gives the stories of all her characters their due time to develop until they resonate.  Each Angel Burns is a book that has burned itself into memory.

  • Each Angel Burns
  • ©2009 Kathleen Valentine
  • Parlez Moi Press
  • Available here
©2011  Jane A. Ward