Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

I will probably get a barrage of hate mail when I say this, but I kinda thought Wicked by Gregory Maguire sucked. I can’t really say why, other than I’ve never really thought of The Wizard of Oz as a fairy tale. It was, I don’t know, too American somehow? For me, the trappings of a fairy tale require a sense of magical realism that, for all that it was set in Oz and the Emerald City, etc., TWOZ just did not have. Maybe it was the lack of a true princess trapped in a castle somewhere. Maybe it was the insertion of the Wizard who ends up being from Dorothy’s time and kills the sense of fantasy, or the fact that her adventure was just a dream. And Maguire’s first book didn’t do anything to alleviate the humdrum nature of the kingdom of Oz.

Anyway, most everyone tends to associate Maguire with Wicked, which tells the story of the Wizard of Oz from the sympathetic viewpoint of the Wicked Witch of the West. It got turned into a major Broadway musical and cemented Maguire’s reputation as a writer who turns traditional fairytales onto their heads. However, he’s written a few more books in the same vein which are, in my opinion, far better, such as Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. As you can probably guess, this book takes the classic fairy tale trope of Cinderella and twists it so that it’s told from the viewpoint of one of the two ugly stepsisters. It’s done magnificently well and I’d have to say that this book is my favorite of Maguire’s fairy tale remixes.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Iris (or is it?), one of the daughters of Margarethe Fisher, who is escaping an angry religious mob in England who killed her husband Jack, the father of Iris and her sister Ruth, who is “simple.” They arrive in 17th-century Haarlem, in Holland, where Margarethe begins working as a housekeeper for the artist Master Schoonmaker. Iris grows fond of the Master and when he expresses a wish to paint her, she demurs at first because she knows she is plain and ugly. The Master begins to show her the basics of painting and they begin an ongoing dialogue that weaves throughout the book, taking on the nature of what exactly constitutes beauty and ugliness, and the relativity of both those concepts.

It’s true, if you think about it. What one person considers ugly can be considered beautiful, and vice versa. There are, I admit, certain universal qualities that render something or someone beautiful, but scratch the surface of any culture or time periods’ idea of beauty, and it is often dated, superficial and not considered beautiful at all by numerous other cultures. And Klara Van den Meer, who later becomes Iris and Ruth’s stepsister, possesses these universal beauty marks in full.

When Margarethe becomes the housekeeper for the wealthy Van den Meer family, she instantly clashes with the mistress of the household Henrika, who mysteriously dies later in the book, opening the path for Margarethe to marry Van den Meer, whose wealth is based upon the infamous Holland tulip trade of the 17th century. Klara, with her beautiful face and family wealth, had been kidnapped as a child and her parents had to spend a small fortune to get her back, so she is prone to numerous neuroses, as we’d call them nowadays. She loathes her new stepmother Margarethe and they constantly battle. But she and Iris develop an odd love-hate relationship, in which they become mutually dependent on one another in trying to survive the sheer horridness of Margarethe’s terrible mothering.

On a larger scale, Iris and Klara come to see themselves as flip sides of the same coin in terms of aesthetics and feminine self-worth and self-realization. Both are judged by society on the basis of their looks, which puts them into the same boat in a sense. Both are women trapped in a patriarchal society in which they must depend on men for their living and sense of worth. Both are able to change their own outlooks on life and take an active role in how their lives will develop. Klara is in danger of being married off to Van Stolk, an elderly lecherous merchant who offers her father and stepmother money, as they have lost their fortune due to the tulip crash. Iris is in danger of losing her nerve to become an artist, to study with the Master and to take seriously the courtship of the Master’s apprentice Caspar, who loves Iris.

The turning point and the climax of the book is, of course, the ball. Marie de Medici, Dowager Queen of France, comes to Haarlem to try and marry off one of her nephews (fictional, of course) and all the families in the town are invited. Klara, who has been living in the kitchen and working as the housekeeper to avoid her despised stepmother, is covered in ashes and soot but these cannot hide her beauty. In an attempt to avoid the planned marriage to Van Stolk, she, Iris and Caspar devise a plan to get her a gorgeous dress and her mother’s famous white satin slippers, never worn. Both Klara and Iris, and Ruth, who plays a much larger role in the book than you would imagine until closer to the end, each take life-changing actions to ensure their futures are not at the mercy of either their mother/stepmother, the changing fates of the tulip economy, or their beauty and lack thereof.

It’s a gorgeously written book, lush and elegant, almost like a tapestry woven with golden threads and sharp, stunning colors. The descriptions of paint colors, artwork, lavish gowns, gleaming jewels, the colors of the winter sky and the glint of sunshine on ice and snow, and the delectable and opulent descriptions of food all combine to create an effect of both wealth and strange magical realism. This paragraph inspired today’s dish:

Van den Meer leaves the Master and Caspar alone for a few minutes. Iris can hear him barking instructions to the kitchen staff for refreshments to be served in an hour: a platter of lobsters and a bowl of lemons – some greens, soaked to remove sand – a pitcher of beer and a pitcher of water and a pile of freshly ironed linens……

Lobster, lemons and wilted greens mean one thing to me – lobster lemon linguine with wilter spinach. Here’s how I did it.

INGREDIENTS
4 lobster tails
1 bottle dry white wine. I used Sauvignon Blanc
6-7 sprigs fresh thyme
10 ounces linguine pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium shallot
4 cloves of garlic
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 lemon, to be zested and juiced
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup of pasta water from the linguine

METHOD
Poach the lobster tails in the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and add the thyme leaves. Bring to a boil and cook until the lobster tails turn bright red and curl up. Remove and let cool.

Cut off the tail and cut down the back of the cooked lobster and remove the lobster meat. Chop into chunks and set aside.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the linguine for roughly 8 minutes, until just al dente, then remove a cup of the cooking water. While the pasta is cooking, finely dice the garlic and shallot.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, then cook the garlic and shallot about 10 minutes with some salt and pepper.

Pour in the heavy cream and raise the heat slightly so the cream simmers. Don’t let it burn or curdle, though. Once it is barely bubbling, turn down the heat and add the butter, the zest and juice of one lemon, the shaved Parmesan, and season with salt and pepper.

Stir until creamily melted together into a lovely sauce, and add in about half a cup of the pasta water, then add in the lobster chunks.

Add the pasta into the sauce and cook another couple of minutes, tossing the pasta with tongs to ensure every strand is lusciously covered with the creamy, lemony sauce. The sauce may thicken up a bit so add some more pasta water and more lemon juice to taste as needed.

Add in about 3 cups of fresh spinach, cover, and let the heat wilt the spinach down, then stir again, plate up and serve with a delicious Pinot Grigio or dry white wine of your choice. Delicious, beautiful, elegant – rather like the book itself. Salut!

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

An interesting microcosm of history, Salt essentially takes us back through the known history of the world, and analyzes how this humble little rock – the only rock humans can eat – and how it has had a transforming effect upon civilization. To be honest, however, there were large chunks of the book that weren’t terribly interesting, so I’d veer from jaw-aching boredom to total fascination. What I enjoyed the most were the snippets of specific cooking history – obviously – and the recipes utilizing salt as a preservative from ancient times.

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I am not normally a fan of non-fiction, and about the only non-fiction books I’ve read recently or blogged about are food memoirs. I read to escape our sometimes-mundane existence, so the last thing I want is to be bogged down in lengthy details of reality. This book, however, took me on a journey spanning the globe and timeline of the world, from ancient Rome, where Roman soldiers were actually paid in salt, hence the term “worth his salt” to modern-day Cajun country where shellfish are salted and preserved.

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Salting has been in use as a food preservative since time immemorial, which if you think about it, has a direct effect upon health, winning battles, and otherwise having a culture and society survive and flourish. It is believed to keep evil spirits away, and has been used in medicine to draw moisture and infection out of wounds.

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The science of salt is dull, but not being a scientist or a linear thinker, that’s just me. I find salt interesting insofar as it spices up food, acts as a cleaning agent for my cast iron pans, and I also use it sprinkled across all of my doors and windows in my home to keep out negative energy and evil. Laugh if you want, but for me, it works.

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Some of the more fascinating tidbits I learned from this book include: the fact that Gandhi’s famous march against the British was in protest of salt restrictions; one of the reasons why George Washington fought against the British was against salt shortages; that flamingos get their brilliant pink hue from salt; that salt in the oceans is what keeps our fish alive; that anchovies are the basis for Worchestershire sauce; and that without salt, we wouldn’t have things like soy sauce, cheese, preserved anchovies or preserved walnuts. Which would seriously suck, because not only are cheese, walnuts and anchovies among my favorite foods ever, but they also make up the base of today’s gastro-porn recipe, based on these two passages from the book.

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Since the time of ancient Greece, anchovies have been the most praised salted fish of the Mediterranean, and since the Middle Ages those of Colliore have been regarded as the best salted anchovies in the world.

By the seventeenth century, the English had discovered that salted anchovies would melt into a sauce. This practice may have existed centuries earlier on the continent, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, anchovy sauces became extremely popular.

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Not having been raised to eat anchovies, I didn’t try them until adulthood when I first made pasta alla puttanesca. I was hooked on these little salty nuggets of flavor from that day on. And for all those people who freak out over anchovies in their food, calm the f*ck down already. You can’t even taste the fish, it just gives a lovely, salty flavor. So get out of your comfort zone and eat an anchovy! Or make this recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup olive oil
6-7 garlic cloves
8 anchovy fillets
1 lb. spinach spaghetti (or whatever type you like)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
Fresh ground black pepper
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

METHOD
Boil your pasta water, salt it, and put in the pasta. Cook until al dente, roughly 7 minutes but try it first. Al dente texture varies depending on the type of pasta you use.

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Slice the garlic cloves into thin slivers.

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Chop the walnuts and toast them in a dry non-stick pan until they brown and you can smell their nutty scent. Set aside.

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In the same pan, add olive oil and saute the garlic cloves for up to 10 minutes.

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Chop the anchovies and add them to the garlic and oil. Cook on medium low until they begin to melt and break down.

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Drain the pasta and reserve one cupful of the cooking water.

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Add the cooled walnuts and some of the chopped parsley to the anchovies and garlic, and add in a bit of the pasta water, which helps the sauce thicken and amalgamate, due to the starches released during boiling.

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Grate in the Pecorino Romano cheese, add in the lemon juice, stir, then take a tongful (yes, that’s a word, I just invented it) of pasta and add it to the sauce in the pan, doing that cool twirly motion that all the best Italian chefs make look so very easy.

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Cook another couple of minutes, just to make sure the cheese melts, then serve. WOW! The anchovy, lemon, parsley, walnuts and cheese are such an amazing combination. Please try this, if only to challenge your preconceived notions about anchovies.

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A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Both a novel of psychological suspense and genuine supernatural horror, A Head Full of Ghosts is head case of a book…..pardon the pun. I love a book that cleverly uses meta-fiction, and this one definitely refers back to itself in such a funny way, by use of social media. (Speaking of which, there is a funny pic at the very end of this post used on one of the most popular social media sites out there, so keep reading for a good laugh.)

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The advent of reality TV, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the others, has turned us into a society where every moment, thought, insight, and personal experience is documented for an audience of millions of strangers. We get validation for every aspect of our lives when we get likes or follows or retweets. This book takes it to an entirely new level, similar to how social media is used in my previous blog The Last Days of Jack Sparks, but here, it documents not just the possession and mental breakdown of a person, but an entire family.

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The book is the story of 13-year old Merry and her memories of her sister Marjorie’s psychological breakdown and subsequent possession – and the TV crew that documented all of it and relayed it to a television audience of millions. Merry is telling the tale in flashback at the age of 23, and recalls her parents’ terror and frustration at Marjorie’s condition, their increasing dire financial straits, and the questions that inevitably arise from such a horrific combination of scenarios.

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Is Marjorie truly possessed by a demonic force? Is she mentally ill? Is she just playing with their heads? Is it child abuse? What makes this book so addictive is that you are never quite sure what is going on. Is the narrator reliable? Who is wrong and what is right? Perception is reality, but then……what constitutes perception? Age? Seeing only what we want to see?

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It’s not so much horrifying – though it is definitely that – as it is uncomfortable. The unease and terror sneak up on you slowly, gradually, disturbingly, and as I got closer to the end, I found myself racing through the pages to see what was happening. If you’re a fan of psychological terror, supernatural horror, and a well-written story that makes you question your own perceptions, this book will definitely send you on a twisted ride.

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In one early scene, Merry is pondering an odd memory of her parents going away for a rare weekend, and wonders if they are leaving because of Marjorie’s behavior, or because of her own strange preference for pasta.

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“Away was the only word the four-year old me remembered. I had no concept of time or distance. Only that they were away, which sounded so weirdly menacing……..I was convinced they went away because they were sick of my eating pasta without spaghetti sauce. Dad had always grumbled about his not believing that I didn’t like the sauce………”

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I love pasta, but of course, it must have some type of sauce. This passage left quite a bit of leeway for cooking, so I decided linguine in a butter-lemon sauce with a creamy lemon chicken piccata was in order, to scare away all those ghosts in my head. This is the method that worked for me, serving 6 people, based on The Pioneer Woman’s delicious recipe. And yes, with requisite tweaks by me. You’re welcome.

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INGREDIENTS
12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, pounded quite thinly (great for stress relief)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup flour
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine
Juice of 2 whole lemons
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup capers
1/2 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
2 lbs fettuccine, or any long pasta of your choice
Fresh parsley for garnishing
Lemon slices for garnishing

METHOD
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the butter and the olive oil. Salt and pepper the chicken thighs, and dredge each one in flour. This is a messy step, so an apron is advised.

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Increase the heat to high, and cook the thighs in the skillet for about 10 minutes on each side. You want them nice and browned. Remove and set aside.

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Saute the shallots and chopped basil for about 5 minutes in the chicken pan juices.

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Lower the heat to medium low, and pour in the broth, the wine, the lemon juice, and the capers. Stir together and simmer for 10 minutes.

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Add back in the browned chicken pieces and pour in the juices they’ve accumulated on their platter. Pour in the capers, cover, and cook on low for 25 minutes.

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Remove the chicken pieces, then pour in the heavy cream, stir together, and taste again. Serve over linguine and garnish with lemon slices.

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We ate this fantastic dish with roasted grape tomatoes and mushrooms, and a gorgeous chocolate mousse cake, in honor of my sister’s birthday.

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As you can see, she is addicted to Snapchat filters. Dork that she is.

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