The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

If I could have any set of books with me on a desert island, I’d choose the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, the Johannes Cabal books by Jonathan L. Howard, and The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by the one and only Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This mysterious, lyrical, dark and yet oddly uplifting series, set in Barcelona before, during and after their bloody Civil War, sucked me in from the first two books The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, and the third one, The Prisoner of Heaven, is just as enthralling.

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Here, we pick up the threads of Daniel Sempere, the protagonist from the first book. He is married, has a baby boy, is running his family bookstore, and continues his friendship with the jester-like Fermin Romero de Torres, who is one of the funniest characters in literature. Fermin is a hoot!

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The Prisoner of Heaven is the third book centering around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, but if you haven’t read the other two novels, The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, (both of which I have previously blogged) don’t let that stop you from picking this one up – because you see, Zafón has done something brilliant and perfectly fitting with these books. You can start with any book and read them in any order, and they all remain connected through this one, single, perfect place. In this book the story of Fermin Romero de Torres is detailed out piece by fascinating piece, and Daniel is given more information on the history of his parents. The relationship between Daniel and Bea is also in question – and references to both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game crop up throughout the book in, sometimes, the most surprising of places.

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You can also clearly see Ruiz Zafón’s love for the works of Dumas and in particular, The Count of Monte Cristo. I mean, a secret prisoner, a Gothically dark and unbearable prison, the oddly beautiful way he describes dirt and corruption, making these otherwise revolting elements such a strong part of the overall narrative. Dumas seems to exert a non-stop fascination for modern writers in the Gothic tradition, which makes sense if you think about it. Secret passages, secret identities, secret loves……..all those literary elements that hook us and fascinate us still.

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However, the darkness that seems to live around every corner in post-war Barcelona is well on display here. Barcelona herself is as much a character in this book as anyone else, both the inherent beauty and mystery of this city, as well as its moody darkness and the gorgeous and run-down amusement park atop Mount Tibidabo, which featured prominently in both previous books and is still a huge part of the overall framework here. I can’t imagine these books taking place in any other place in the world, so strongly do they connect to the seedy, dark, violent and beautiful metropolis that is Barcelona.

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There are not too many food references in this book, but that’s ok because I was inspired by one of my favorite cookbooks of all time, The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman. His method for making that classic Spanish dish huevos a la flamenco, or flamenco-style eggs, is so yum that I had to recreate it in honor of Fermin’s eternal love of serrano ham. The nice thing about this particular method is that you can scale it up or down depending on how many people you’re serving, with the ratio of 1-2 eggs per person.

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup cubed ham, Serrano preferably but use whatever you can find
1/2 cup chorizo
1 cup chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned
4 eggs
1/2 cup cooked green peas (use frozen bagged ones here)
4-6 strips roasted red peppers, from a jar
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 415F, and in a cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil and toss in the ham and chorizo. Cook until nicely browned.

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Chop up the tomatoes and line the bottom of four oven-safe ramekins with them.

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Spoon in the cooked ham and chorizo.

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Crack an egg over the tomatoes and meat mixture and season lightly with salt and pepper.

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Toss a spoonful of peas over each egg yolk.

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Add 3-4 strips of roasted red pepper on top of the peas.

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Bake for 15 minutes, or until the egg whites have set but the yolk is still a bit runny, because you need that unctuous golden ooziness to make this dish truly fantastic.

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Allow to cool while you toast some bread – we had green chile cheddar bagels –  and serve, dipping your bread into the nice, gooey egg yolk as you go. So delicious and quintessentially Spanish. ¡Olé!

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The Feet Say Run by Dan Blum

Thanks to AL and ABH for the photography.

The Feet Say Run is a beautifully written, lyrical, and somewhat surreal book. The main character’s time on the island, where the book opens, has a strong, otherwordly vibe that also presents the world around us in, at times, a brutally realistic fashion.

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Hans Jaeger, the narrator, is trapped on an island, we are never quite sure where. He’s there with some other odd characters, so I was immediately put into mind of the TV series “Lost.” It has that kind of magical realism, weird feelings where things seem dreamlike and hyperreal at the same time.

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The theme of questioning one’s life and choices, the “dark night of the soul,” as St. John of the Cross so eloquently put it, is at the heart of this book. Very existentially, Hans remembers his previous life and questions his ongoing existence, because let’s face it, he’s done some pretty crappy things. He worked for the Nazis in  Germany, despising them at the same time. Who among us hasn’t done that, albeit on a less extreme level. We get up, we oftentimes have to do things we don’t like or want to do. But we do them, in order to survive, to exist. As does Hans.

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The storyline arcs between Hans’ entrapment on the island and his struggle for survival there, and his life before, both the awfulness of the Nazis and the beauty of his own love story with Hilda. The lyricism in Blum’s writing – and he is quite an excellent writer – gives the brutal passages an almost fantasylike feeling, like you’re experiencing the horrors through a film of milky glass.

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Hans is not the most likeable character in the world, and there are times when I felt like he was trying to make excuses for what he had done in his life, to try and justify the choices he made that led him to being a Nazi. He’s participated in some terrible things, and given the current state of our country and the fear and anger so many people feel these days, I found it sadly and frighteningly timely to read.

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Two food passages stuck out to me. The first is Hans remembering his mother and aunt having lunch in pre-war Germany at a very posh French restaurant. Hans’ mother is a terrible snob, and she meets her match that day with the waiter. If you’ve experienced a true French waiter, you must know that no one, and I mean NO ONE, outsnobs him. Hans’ mother keeps trying to get the waiter to explain what is in the sandwich, and he continues to needle her by saying there is nothing in the sandwich “except ze bread, madame,” “ze limburger” and “ze tomato.” It gave me the giggles, reading about this dreadful woman being put in her place by a supercilious waiter.

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The second passage takes place on the unnamed island. Andre is one of his Hans’ compatriots, and one day, foraging for food, they come across a cache of dove eggs. Hallelujah, it’s breakfast time! Hans watches Andre with consternation, thinking to himself – quite facetiously – how they will have their feast of eggs.

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Talking to him and listening to his babbling replies. Look, Andre. One of the doves has laid an egg! Are you going to help me cook it? How should we prepare it, do you think? Scrambled? Eggs Benedict?

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I considered doing something involving limburger cheese, but aside from the fact that it is not available in the United States, it really has a horrendous smell. I love a strong, raspy cheese, but limburger is a bit much, even for me. So another strong-scented and flavored cheese seemed in order – gorgonzola! And having done Eggs Benedict in an earlier post, I thought about what else I’d love to eat if stuck on a deserted island, and smoked salmon immediately came to mind. So baked eggs with smoked salmon, gorgonzola and spinach was my riff on the desert island dove eggs. I think mine is probably a bit better.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on too many oeufs en cocotte recipes to mention. The addition of blue cheese is my own.

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INGREDIENTS
6 large eggs
2 cups fresh spinach
1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola
6 oz. smoked salmon
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Salt and pepper for seasoning

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F. Spray three large ramekins with butter spray.

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Wilt the spinach in a skillet, adding some salt for added flavor.

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When the greens are wilted, line the bottom of the three ramekins with it.

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Sprinkle some gorgonzola atop the spinach in each ramekin.

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Then add the smoked salmon to each dish, covering the cheese and spinach. Crack two eggs into each ramekin.

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Top the eggs with one spoonful of heavy cream each.

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Sprinkle over more gorgonzola on the eggs, and season with salt and pepper. Put the ramekins onto a shallow baking tray, and bake for 20-25 minutes. You don’t want them to burn or get leathery, just set.

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Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a bit, and put additional strips of the smoked salmon atop each ramekin. 2017-03-05 20.00.58_resized.jpg

Serve with toast and some lovely rose wine.  It’s simple, yet rich and sumptuous, something that a snotty French waiter or a refugee on an island would both be happy to eat.

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And if you’re interested in reading more of Dan’s work, check out his scathingly satirical blog The Rotting Post. If you’re a fan of sarcasm, snark and smart-assery, you will love his writing!