Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

This is a bizarre, surreal, and very captivating read. I’d read The Time Traveler’s Wife a few years ago by the same author, and although I enjoyed it greatly, it didn’t grab me the way this one has. Her Fearful Symmetry is one of the strangest and compelling ghost stories I’ve read in ages, although I warn you now that you’ll need some MAJOR suspension of disbelief to keep going.

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About six chapters in, I thought this was a lovely, well-written, and poignant love story about a woman – Elspeth – who dies (literally in the first chapter so no spoilers) and whose spirit is confined to her apartment. In life, she leaves this apartment and her money to her two identical twin nieces, Valentina and Julia, who must live in the apartment for a year before selling it, and come to experience their aunt’s ghost in some very unusual ways. Elspeth’s lover, Robert, lives in the same building, mourning her and working at the creepy and haunted Highgate Cemetery right outside the apartment. There are some other fascinating characters: Martin and Marikje; Edie who is twin’s mother and Elspeth’s own estranged identical twin; and Jack, the twin’s father.

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However, when I finished the book, I was torn. How to describe a book that is so gorgeously and atmospherically written and with characters that are mostly so very unlikeable? My perception of many of them definitely shifted as I kept reading. Robert, who in the beginning seemed a tragic and romantic hero, ended up being a weak and wimpy ass. Elspeth and Edie – well, all I have to say is, I’m glad I never had a twin. And Valentina and Julia’s own twisted and symbiotic relationship leads to the pivotal action in the book. There are family secrets, twin-swapping, body switching, ghostly conversations held through an Ouija board and written on dusty furniture, and the haunted apartment itself that to me, seemed like it must be drapery-shrouded, pale gray and blue, cold and mysterious overlooking the graves of Highgate.

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I’d suggest reading it, certainly. Niffenegger writes so beautifully and poignantly about life, love, death, and her brand of magical realism can turn even a modern-day London apartment into a spooky, gloomy, Gothic place of magic. I think what was difficult for me was the ease with which the characters completely accepted events that were not just bizarre, but completely outside the realm of reality. I get that it’s magical realism, but magical realism needs to have whimsy and sensuality to make it work. Here, the magic is there, the supernatural is there, but against a backdrop of rain-spattered windows, takeout containers, and a ghostly cat called Kitten of Death. The eerie and the mundane.

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Robert, grieving after Elspeth’s death, finds himself drawn to Valentina (how Freudian, right) and proceeds to court her, starting the process that ends in the most major plot twist. Part of his courting involves showing her and Julia – who dislikes him for taking her twin away – around Highgate Cemetery, where he brings them both lunch one afternoon, in a true clash of cultural vocabulary.

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“I’m fine. Thanks for bringing lunch, this is good.” Say something nice, Julia. “Yeah, really good. What are we eating?” “Prawn-mayonnaise sandwiches.” The twins inspected the insides of their sandwiches. “It tastes like shrimp,” said Julia. “You would call it a shrimp-salad sandwich. Though I’ve never understood where the salad idea comes into it.”

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Shrimp and mayonnaise together are a foodie match made in heaven, and though I omitted the bread, I still wanted to recreate the taste of prawns in homemade mayonnaise, so I came up with this tasty treat. I had some black olives to use up, so those got added to the mix. Yum!

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INGREDIENTS
For the homemade mayonnaise:
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon sea salt
3/4 cup olive oil
1 cup finely chopped black olives
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped
Fresh basil

For the grilled shrimp:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
7 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons dried red chili flakes
1 lemon
Fresh basil
Fresh Italian parsley
3 dozen thawed shrimp

METHOD
Firstly, don’t let anyone tell you making homemade mayonnaise is hard. It’s not, it’s just time-consuming. Note: make sure all ingredients are at room temperature.

Whisk the egg yolk, the Dijon mustard, the white wine vinegar, the lemon juice and the salt, and then very slowly, drop by drop, add the olive oil and use a hand mixer to mix.

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Whisk it for 5-10 minutes as you add in each drop of oil, until the mayonnaise starts to thicken and emulsify. You’ll see and feel it, and I promise you the end result will be so worth it.

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Mix in the black olives, the sun-dried tomatoes, and the basil, stir to mix, taste for seasoning, and chill until ready to use.

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Melt the butter in a small saucepan, and add the garlic. Stir and cook for about 5 minutes, then add the red chili flakes, the juice of the lemon, and the rest of the chopped basil, and lightly saute for another 5 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.

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Heat a ridged cast-iron grill pan to high. Slice the shrimp lengthwise down the middle and remove the vein. Season with salt and pepper and a bit more red chili flakes.

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Place the shrimp into the hot grill pan, grill for 3-4 minutes until the shrimp becomes pink, then quickly add in the cooked garlic, basil and parsley.

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Remove immediately from the heat. Pour over the remainder of the melted garlicky butter, and sprinkle with the remainder of the fresh chopped basil and parsley. Serve with the mayonnaise on a platter. Not only is it delicious, it’s extremely beautiful to look at as well. A treat any ghostly spirit or human might enjoy.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Friday, May 25 was the anniversary of the death of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. For anyone who loves sarcasm, satire, and snark, this book is a must-read. I was introduced to this book in a way a lot of geeky types are – by someone far, far nerdier than I.  Hard to believe, isn’t it?

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I remember devouring this book in junior-year Honors English class, after I had finished an exam before everyone else, and was bored. When I inadvertently burst out laughing while reading, the teacher tried to take the book, saying she didn’t appreciate me reading “pop fiction.” My response was “how can you call yourself an English teacher and consider this book pop fiction?” Needless to say, I had some explaining to do to the principal later that day.

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Basic book premise for you non-nerds who have not had your brains edified by reading this book: Arthur Dent is rescued from having his house destroyed by the arrival of his friend, Ford Prefect. Ford is revealed to be a space alien who takes Arthur on an intergalactic adventure when it is revealed Earth is destroyed to make way for a galactic freeway. Intelligent mice, and aliens, robots and computers with names like Zaphod Beeblebrox, Deep Thought, Veet Voojagig, take us on this hilarious journey through the universe to find the the computer which has the answer to life itself.

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It’s 42. Don’t ask.

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Anyway, the character of Zaphod Beeblebrox, erstwhile president of the galaxy, is the inventor of a drink so out-of-this-world strong…….pardon the pun, that its effect is described as “having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon, wrapped ’round a large gold brick.” Or this other, most poetic description – “the alcoholic equivalent to a mugging; expensive and bad for the head.”

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The aptly named Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster sounded most intriguing – see below – so I did some research into how one creates this masterpiece of a cocktail that will knock you on your ass.

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Take the juice from one bottle of the Ol’ Janx Spirit.

Pour into it one measure of water from the seas of Santraginus V — Oh, that Santraginean water… Oh, those Santraginean fish!

Allow three cubes of Arcturan Mega-gin to melt into the mixture (it must be properly iced or the benzine is lost)

Allow four liters of Fallian marsh gas to bubble through it, in memory of all those happy hikers who have died of pleasure in the Marshes of Fallia

Over the back of a silver spoon float a measure of Qualactin Hypermint extract, redolent of all the heady odors of the dark Qualactin Zones, subtle, sweet, and mystic

Drop in the tooth of an Algolian Suntiger. Watch it dissolve, spreading the fires of the Algolian Suns deep into the heart of the drink

Sprinkle Zamphour

Add an olive

Drink… but…..very carefully…

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This is the pared-down method that worked for me, based partly on this post at the Feastygeeks.com blog, which is nerd heaven for us geeky kids; and partly from Wonderland Recipes.com. I skipped the Algolian Suntiger teeth, though. They’re hard to find this time of year.

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INGREDIENTS
Handful of crushed ice
1 ounce bourbon whiskey
1 and 1/2 ounces gin
1 ounce sour apple mix
2 ounces blue Curacao
2 ounces lemon juice
1 lemon slice

METHOD
In a cocktail shaker, mix crushed ice with the bourbon whiskey, the gin, the sour apple, the Curacao, and the lemon juice, and shake well.

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Garnish with a slice of lemon, and if you’re feeling fancy, peel off some of the lemon peel and twist before dropping into the drink, to get some of the lemon oil and essence.

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I highly recommend following the ratios above, lest you find yourself shitfaced and on the floor wondering how you got there.

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Drink, but VERY CAREFULLY! Here’s to you, Douglas Adams, and thanks for all the fish!

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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I remember discovering Angela Carter in my mid-20s and falling instantly in love with her lush, prosaic, luxuriant and very bawdy language. Her writing can instantly evoke palaces filled with plush draperies, languid golden bathrooms, fairylike woods filled with magical creatures…….and also be as basic and raunchy as humorously describing a cat licking his bottom, the stench of rotting food, or the very earthy pleasures of lovemaking.

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Her masterwork, in my opinion, is her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber and Other Tales, from which the short story I am blogging today got its title. The book itself is a collection of eight novellas based on traditional fairy tales. You’ll read fantastical revised versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, two very different and equally gorgeous versions of Beauty and the Beast, and my own personal favorite story, The Bloody Chamber, which takes the tale of Bluebeard and twists it completely onto its head.

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I was always madly fascinated by the horrific tale of Bluebeard and the wives he’d murdered and then whose heads he kept hanging in his secret chamber, gruesome trophies of his own hunt. It’s no wonder that this particular story has never been turned into a bowdlerized Disney version – there is no way in hell you can make this story nice. You could throw in dancing candlesticks, talking animals, and singing snowmen all you want, and it remains a horrific tale of murder and ultimate redemption, when the fourth young wife takes the key – that infamous key that her husband has specifically told her NOT to use – opens the door to the bloody chamber, and discovers what happened to her predecessors.

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In Carter’s version, the young wife is ultimately rescued by her mother, so you can read it as a highly feminist archetypal tale. I think why this particular tale of Carter’s has always beguiled me so much is because the young wife is as fascinated by her older, murderous husband as she is repelled by him, which demonstrates the multifaceted nature of women. She is as happy with her husband’s wealth as she is miserable in her solitude. She orders a fabulous feast for herself when her husband leaves her to go on a business trip, and before her fateful exploration of his castle and ultimate discovery of the bodies of his three previous wives – all killed by him and preserved in a locked room.

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Then I found I had to tell her what I would like to have prepared for me; my imagination, still that of a schoolgirl, ran riot. A fowl in cream – or should I anticipate Christmas with a varnished turkey? No; I have decided. Avocado and shrimp, lots of it, followed by no entree at all. But surprise me for dessert with every ice-cream in the ice box.

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Shrimp and avocado are, in my humble opinion, a marriage made in heaven. There are so many wonderful ways to combine them, but I decided to make some appetizer bites combining shrimp, avocado, cucumber, and some homemade Creole seasoning. As I had invited friends over for Game Night, these made the perfect starter.

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INGREDIENTS
30 raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1 teaspoon chipotle sea salt
1 tablespoon butter
2 ripe avocadoes
1 tablespoon lime juice
Sea salt
2 large cucumbers, peeled and cut into round slices

METHOD
Mix the olive oil, lemon juice, and spices together in a bowl, and add the shrimp. Stir around to ensure they are completely covered, then refrigerate for an hour.

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Arrange the cucumber rounds on a platter.

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Mash the two avocadoes together, and season with salt and lime juice to taste.

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Spread the avocado mix onto each cucumber round.

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Heat the butter in a cast-iron skillet on medium-high, and gently cook the shrimp for 2-3 minutes per side, until they are opaque and have some nice blackened marks on them.

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This is what you want.

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Let the shrimp cool for a few minutes, then place one shrimp on each avocado-covered cucumber round.

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That’s it! Simple, elegant, and quite beautiful, with the contrast of the blackened shrimp floating on the cool green bed of avocado. And the spiciness of the shrimp is nicely offset both by the smooth avocado and crisp cucumber. So good that surely you can keep Bluebeard from killing you next.

Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses by Isabel Allende

This book was one of the most wonderful and sensual I’ve had the pleasure of reading in ages. Isabel Allende is a an amazingly erotic writer, bringing to life the twin joys of food and sex……something I’ve blogged about previously. If you truly think about it, these two activities are mirrors of each other in so many ways. We must all eat to live, and we must procreate to continue life.

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But I speak of not procreation or eating to survive, but rather, the sheer joy that is inherent in both activities. The sensation of an oyster sliding down your throat, the salty crunch of roasted almonds in your mouth, the grape flavor of wine on your tongue………all are just as pleasurable as the taste of your lover’s lips and tongue, the feel of his strong hands on your body, and the sensation of being made love to.

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Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses is an ode to the joys of lovemaking and the joys of eating. Coupled with various recipes designed to be aphrodisiacal, the beauty of kissing and touching and making love, and how these sensations are heightened by specific foods and drinks, are chronicled in dizzying detail. Allende is known for magic realism, and this book retains and spills over with that flavor of magical realism and picturesque description. Probably best read and cooked with your lover, the recipes in this book run from simple – consommes and soups – to more complex meals and desserts.

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Though the entire book is devoted to the connection of food and sexual passion, my favorite passage is in the chapter when Allende describes her ultimate orgy and the food she would serve with it. Sensual reading at its best!

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What would I serve at my orgy? If I had unlimited resources, I would offer cold fish, salads, sweets, and fruits – especially grapes, which always appear in films about the Roman Empire. And mushrooms, of course, which are as aphrodisiac as oysters. The celebrated Roman poisoner Lucasta knew the popularity of those fungi.

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I love mushrooms and eat them at least once a week, whether sauteed in butter with onions and garlic and added to spinach and chicken, cooked into scrambled eggs or an omelette, or sliced raw into a lunchtime salad. And when I came across Allende’s recipe for Festive Mushrooms at the back of this wonderful book, I was inspired to recreate them, with a couple of minor changes.

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INGREDIENTS
1 dozen mushrooms
1 tablespoon butter
1 shallot, finely minced
2 tablespoons duck liver patê flavored with truffles
Juice and zest of 1/2 a lemon
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Wash the mushrooms and cut off the stems, but keep the stems. Pat dry.

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In a food chopper, finely chop the mushroom stems and the shallots.

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Melt the butter in a skillet. Lightly saute the stems and shallots for up to 10 minutes. Add the lemon juice and cook another 5 minutes. Let cool.

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Heat the oven to 375F, and while it heats, mix together the finely chopped stems and shallots with the patê, the heavy cream, and the lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

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Place the mushroom caps on a flat baking tray. With a small spoon, fill each one with the mixture.

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Bake for 30 minutes, or until they become golden on the top.

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They can actually be eaten straight out of the oven, at room temperature, or even chilled. Hot or cold, they are always delicious…………kind of like love.