Thursday, June 30, 2011

Thursday TV: The Good Wife

Welcome to Thursday TV, the first in a semi-regular (most Thursdays) series of my favorite television shows. First up: the best on television, The Good Wife.
 
My television habits: a primer
I watch a lot of television. I am not one for escapist fiction (for the most part; there are always exceptions), but I am definitely one for escapist television. My DVR is a surprising mix of high-brow programming (BBC America and PBS are favorites) and low-brow programming (I watch most of Bravo's reality shows.)  As a highly visual person, I appreciate seeing the action. I love visual jokes and glimpses filled with meaning you'd miss if you looked away.

I also have a fondness for episodic storytelling. I was reared on books in a series that came out monthly. Now, it's somewhat torturous as an adult reader to wait for a new book in a series I adore to come out once a year (or even less frequently.) Television fills a niche with me. Good television characters feel like friends to me in the same way characters in a novel can.

The Good Wife: The First SeasonThe Best Show on TV? The Good Wife. No contest.
I've watched The Good Wife since it first aired. I remember tweeting my love for it after finishing the first episode (which languished for a few weeks in my DVR because no one seemed to be talking about it.) Initially, I was skeptical. It was a great premise, but I wasn't convinced it would work for a weekly show. In case you don't know the basics: Julianna Marguiles stars as Alicia Florrick, a wife scorned by her husband, State Attorney of Illinois (played by Chris Noth in the best performance of his career) Peter Florrick, when it is revealed he had an affair with a prostitute. She is "the good wife" who stands beside him through political embarrassment.Thankfully, it's nowhere near that simple. Alicia, with Peter in jail (simply put: he was corrupt in other ways too), must return to work. After being out of the workforce since law school, she lands a job as a first-year attorney and competes with fresh, young, lawyers. She finds an apartment for her and their two children, Grace and Zach. It's nice, but it's far from the neighborhood and price range of their house. Peter's mother cares for Grace and Zach while Alicia works long hours, aiming to be the one who keeps her job (two first-year associates battle it out for one spot.)

The Good Wife: The Second SeasonThe Good Wife succeeds because it isn't afraid to tell stories. It's also blessed with an amazing cast and inspiring guest stars. It manages to be both a case-of-the-week legal drama and a dramatic long-term story of a woman scorned, a failing marriage, and a prying public who think they know what's going on. Some weeks the case takes center stage, but some weeks the private drama does. Either way, it's brilliant storytelling. It's perfectly paced.

I'm missing The Good Wife this summer, but I am looking forward to watching it from the beginning on dvd with my mother. I hope to have her caught up on the first two seasons by the start of season three this fall.

Although I haven't yet watched The Wire, The Good Wife showrunners are huge fans. They're such huge fans, in two seasons they've managed to cast fourteen cast members from The Wire. That's television dedication I can get behind (and yes, The Wire, is at the top of my Netflix queue.)

Now tell me: do you watch The Good Wife? What's your pick for the best show on tv?

Convinced? Buy Season One and Season Two of The Good Wife from Amazon. Season 3 starts Sunday, September 25, 2011 on CBS.

As an affiliate, I receive a  small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book (and television) habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

book review: An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear

An Incomplete Revenge (Maisie Dobbs Book 5)The backstory: An Incomplete Revenge is the fifth books in the Maisie Dobbs historical mystery series. My reviews of the first four: Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, Pardonable Lies, and Messenger of Truth.

The basics: James Compton, son of Lady Compton, reappears to ask Maisie to do some digging around a property he's considering buying. There have been fires and thefts over the years, and he wants to know if either present cause for concern.

My thoughts: For whatever reason, it took me quite some time to care about this mystery Maisie was so keen on. I enjoyed some of the background stories, and I tend to be fascinated by tales of small towns, but the plot of this book lacked much mystery, I thought. I plodded along enjoying Maisie and her insight through the first half of the book. Suddenly, the action picked up quickly, and I (foolishly, I know) realized I wasn't giving Maisie or Ms. Winspear enough credit. The second half of the novel soared and offered a fascinating resolution.

What I found most interesting, however, was unexpected resolution in several storylines. The cynical series reader in me thought Winspear would drag out many of those for several more books (if not indefinitely). I now see An Incomplete Revenge as a turning point for the series, and I'm eager to see where Maisie goes next.

Favorite passage: "Coincidence is a messenger sent by truth."

The verdict: Despite being my least favorite Maisie Dobbs book thus far, it felt like a re-birth for the series itself and allowed Maisie to grow and cope with some of her lingering issues. I'm still eagerly anticipating the sixth book, Among the Mad.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: February 18, 2008 (it's in paperback now)
Source: I bought it for my Kindle (bundled with Among the Mad, the sixth book)

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Loving the Des Moines Life: Arts Festival!

Welcome to Loving the Des Moines Life, my ongoing series of exploring my new hometown.

Last weekend was the annual Des Moines Arts Festival. It features artists from around the country (typically, only 10% of those who apply are accepted. The festival includes live bands, theater and dance performances, a film festival, and opportunities for children and adults to create art. The best part: it's free.

Mr. Nomadreader and I live close enough to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park to walk, but I appreciated the bicycle valet offered for those who rode bikes there. (it's the little things.)

"Monumental Wine" by Signe & Genna Grushovenko
While we weren't opposed to purchasing art, we were eager to simply explore art and talk in realistic terms about what kinds of pieces we want for our apartment. We are living in our favorite apartment ever, and it's exciting to be making permanent aesthetic choices that will work in this space and also translate to future spaces. There were two artists who took my breath away. The first is actually a couple, Signe and Genna Grushovenko, who collaborate on their art. We both loved the use of texture and pattern to create intricate layers. If I had the money, I would have bought one. Take the time to see more of their paintings. Their online portfolio is amazing.

The second artist, who is a little closer to our price range, nearly tempted us to buy a piece. The problem? We couldn't choose just one. Rick Abrams does fantastic pop art. Each framed painting has three dimensions. He paints on acrylic and adds multiple layers. Their beauty truly cannot be appreciated unless you see it in person. It's exactly the kind of whimsy and statement piece that would be perfect in our urban, industrial loft apartment. We will be buying a painting by Rick Abrams at some point. The real question will be how many we decide to purchase.

There were many other incredible artists whose work I enjoyed in booths. The range of talent and styles was incredible. I also enjoyed the talent in the Iowa Emerging Artists tents. Des Moines is such a wonderful city for the arts, and seeing so many people of all ages walking through the Arts Festival this week was inspiring. I'm already looking forward to the 2012 Des Moines Arts Festival!

Monday, June 27, 2011

book review: Wanderlust by Elisabeth Eaves

Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five ContinentsThe basics: This passage from the introduction sums it up beautifully: "I'd woken up at the age of thirty-four to realize that I wanted to go home, only to discover that I had no idea where that was. Wanderlust, the very strong or irresistible impulse to travel, is adopted untouched from the German, presumably because it couldn't be improved upon."

My thoughts: Wanderlust started strong for me. The introduction was intriguing. A thirty-four-year-old with no sense of home? With a few different life decision, I could have easily become that. (I'm thankful to now believe I have many homes rather than none, but it took me some time to feel that way.) I was eager to see Elisabeth's journey from the beginning.

The action begins when she's a teenager in suburban Vancouver feeling restless. It was fascinating to see travel form her eyes. I had the travel bug early too, but I yearned for Europe, Australia, and big cities. I wanted the to find the universality of city-life. Eaves yearned for Egypt, Pakistan and places as different as possible. To that end, her story was intriguing because it was so different. It stems beyond pure wanderlust. Seeking out life in a conservative country as a young woman does not appeal to me. I'm content to read about the experiences of others or watch films documenting it.

Wanderlust is divided into three chronological sections. I enjoyed the first one most. I found Eaves to be most thoughtful when thinking of her teen and college years. She offered insight and was quite relatable. As her story moves forward, however, I found myself caring less. The story lost some of its unique edge. There were men whose names blend together. There were places that blend together. Although there were some highlights, I cared more about Eaves and the places she visited than the men she slept with along the way.

I was hoping for some sort of resolution or conclusion at the end. The introduction was strong, and I felt I was with Eaves on her journey. The ending felt abrupt. For such a contemplative memoir, it deserved a narrative arc. Even a brief "where I am now" would have helped provide some closure. If Eaves still feels wanderlust and doesn't have closure, I wish the conclusion would have said so.

Favorite passage: "There's always a parallel story. The paths not taken go on in our heads."

The verdict: Despite a strong start, the lack of conclusion and narrative arc prevented me from loving this one in its entirety. Eaves is a talented writer with nice observations, but a moment of reflection at the end would have helped it feel like it was the end.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: May 24, 2011 (paperback)
Source: Publisher, via TLC Book Tours

Check out the full tour schedule to see what others thought.

Find out more about Elisabeth. She's on Twitter, Tumblr and has a website.

Buy Wanderlust from Amazon (Kindle version) or an independent bookstore.

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Salon: Checking in on Indie Lit Awards

Happy Sunday! It's a lovely weekend here in Des Moines, and Mr. Nomadreader and I are looking forward to enjoying the (mostly) beautiful weather and the Des Moines Arts Festival today. Tuesday I'll have a full recap of the festival.

After reading State of Wonder, the third book I've given six stars out of five to, I got to thinking about the Indie Lit Awards (I'm thrilled to be a voting member for Fiction this year). Could anything possibly beat State of Wonder? Of course, last year Room was on the shortlist (I also gave Room six stars) and didn't win. It's a lovely reminder how subjective and personal reading can be. When I shared my review of State of Wonder on Facebook, one of my bookish friends (whose taste usually runs quite similar to mine) said she struggled to finish it. I'm confident State of Wonder will be nominated (nominations begin in September!), but I'm already eager to see what else will be.

2011 has been a fantastic reading year for me. Perhaps I'm getting better at identifying my favorite authors or prioritizing books I enjoy. Regardless, there's an excitement to my reading, and, traditionally, the "best books" come out in the fall. Now that 2011 is (almost) half over, is the best still yet to come? Can State of Wonder be trumped?

I decided to look at the shortlist for last year's Indie Lit Awards and see when each book was published. This very unscientific survey will yield no actual insight into this year's awards, of course, but it's a nice tradition to start. Years of data might yield some clues and trends. If there's a way to color-code a spreadsheet for the Indie Lit Awards, this librarian will find it! U.S. publication dates are used.
If this year plays out like last year, the best is certainly yet to come. Now tell me, what fall release do you think is most likely to make this year's Indie Lit shortlist for Fiction?

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Short Story Saturday: Home by George Saunders

Welcome to the first installment of Short Story Saturday, a new semi-regular feature. The project stems from a desire to read more short stories. It's not a secret I prefer novels to short stories, but I'm working to stretch myself as a reader, and part of that will be reading more short stories. When I have read short story collections, I've often found them hard to review as a whole. This feature will allow me to review collections as a whole or separately, but I'll also be reviewing individual stories from a variety of sources. First up: "Home" by George Saunders, which appeared in the 2011 Summer Fiction issue of The New Yorker.

The backstory: When I went to see Karen Russell and Julie Orringer earlier this year, I asked them about who and what they were reading and how their reading habits differed while writing. Both mentioned George Saunders as a perennial source of information. I've never read Saunders (largely because he doesn't write novels, which I am most prone to read.) I mostly forgot about it until The New Yorker Summer Fiction issue I arrived. I was thrilled to see a George Saunders story in it.

My thoughts: There's a disorientation to this story I appreciate more in retrospect than I did initially. The reader is dumped right into the action. The story is predominantly conversational. All the action comes in dialogue. The reader doesn't have background or exposition and must use the conversational clues to make sense of the action and relationships between the characters. Initially, I was struck how play-like the story was. I pictured the events and conversations happening on a stage.

I appreciated the social commentary. It was restrained yet forceful. The characters were well-imagined. Technically, it was impressive, so I understand why writers like Saunders. Did I love it? No. I liked it. I respect it. It didn't inspire me to read an entire collection, but I'm glad to have a glimpse of George Saunders as a short story writer, and I am curious to read more of his stories.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Source: The New Yorker, June 13, 2011 (I subscribe)

Now tell me: do you like George Saunders? What should I explore next?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Loving the Des Moines Life: Alba

Welcome to Loving the Des Moines Life, my ongoing series of exploring my new hometown. Mr. Nomadreader and I had been hearing wonderful things about Alba, a restaurant in the East Village, so we decided to try it out on a Thursday night.

A tasty summer martini!
As usual, the first thing I want to explore at a restaurant is the wine list. Although Alba has their food menu (albeit an outdated one) on their website, they don't have their wine list. The wine list is long, but it's not terribly impressive. There are two major shortcomings. First, some of the price points are exorbitant. Of the wines I was familiar with, the lower-end wines tended to be 400 to 500% of the retail price. I balk at anything over 200%. The higher-end wines were priced appropriately. Even more odd to me were the prices of glasses. Typically, the maximum a bottle should cost is four times the glass price. At Alba, it was four times the glass price plus $2, which doesn't encourage diners to order a bottle. The high-end bottles were nice, but there were hardly any options for wine in the $30-$50 range. I was baffled.

Thankfully, the cocktail list was more exciting (and reasonably priced.) Mr. Nomadreader and I both started with the same cocktail (the horror!), which involved muddled basil, gin and lemonade (I think; my notes are a little blurry.) Regardless, it was fresh and delicious, and a delightful summer treat. I appreciate stemless martini glasses, and this one was the perfect weight in my hand.

(Top) asparagus salad; (bottom) seared scallops 
We had an easier time deciding on food than our drinks. For appetizers, we opted to share the sea scallops and the asparagus salad. The scallops were cooked absolutely perfectly and tasted fresh. They were a hit, but I wasn't wowed by the dish as a whole. The puree and sauce didn't enhance the flavor of the scallops for me. Granted, they didn't detract, but it didn't taste cohesive to me. The asparagus salad was good but not great. It was topped with an egg, which was also cooked perfectly, and it all tasted good (despite only barely being able to discern a taste of the promised truffle oil), but nothing wowed me. There also wasn't very much asparagus, which is fine, but I wouldn't call the dish an asparagus salad if the menu hadn't. Both dishes were good and well-prepared, but neither had me hankering to try them again.

Chive potato gnocchi with prawns
Hanger steak with Chorizo frites
The entrees were the highlight of the meal for me. I opted for the chive potato gnocchi in a creme freche sauce with prawns (you may get it with chicken instead, if you're so inclined.) The dish is available in two portions, and I was glad to have the larger one. The gnocchi were light and flavorful. The prawns were unbelievably flavorful (and perfectly cooked.) The sauce was lighter than I expected, which made for a delicious summer gnocchi. It was a broth-like consistency and had the complementary flavors of truffle oil (hooray!) and coconut milk. I would never think of pairing them together, but this dish is worth eating over and over again. There were an abundance of carrots and radishes, which were nice and crisp. The vegetables brought a nice texture to the dish, but they didn't contribute much flavor. I wouldn't have missed them if they weren't included or if there were fewer.

Mr. Nomadreader opted for the hanger steak frites. The steak, like the rest of our meal, was cooked perfectly (rare). The frites at Alba are Chorizo frites. They were tasty, but the portion was huge. I especially enjoyed the fresh scallions on top, but I could have lived without the chorizo (or the frites, really).

Grape martini
The pacing on the food was lovely. I was invested enough in eating that I didn't order a second martini until we were almost finished with entrees. I opted for the grape martini, which features Ciroc vodka, white grape juice and fresh grapes. It was refreshing and tasty. It would be easy to drink many of these, but I would have loved another twist (such as muddled herbs, fresh citrus, or making it with a unique gin, such as Death's Door). I'll be experimenting with at home.

I'm not much of a dessert eater, and I was quite full, but Mr. Nomadreader ordered the apple beignets. They were tasty, but he jokingly disdained them as apple fritters rather than apple beignets; I agreed. I would have loved an herbacious creme freche dipping sauce with them too.

Overall, the meal was nice, but it wasn't nice enough to entice me back frequently. I appreciated the use of seasonal ingredients, and I would like to revisit in autumn, which is my favorite time of year for seasonal eating and drinking. The service was good. It was a relatively slow night with only one server, but the manager was prompt in refilling waters. The pacing was nice, and we were never in need of anything. In another city, Alba might shine more than it does in Des Moines. The wine list needs attention. The food is perfectly executed, but only one dish wowed me with its flavor combinations.

Service: 4 stars (out of 5)
Food: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

Next week in Loving the Des Moines Life: a recap of the Des Moines Arts Festival

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

book review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State of WonderThe backstory: I've been eagerly awaiting State of Wonder since I first heard about it, even though I had not read any of Ann Patchett's other novels (I'll be reading her Orange Prize-winning novel Bel Canto soon.)

The basics: Scientist Marina Singh faces the heart-wrenching task of relaying the death of Anders, her colleague and friend, to his wife and three sons. When both his widow Karen and the head of the drug company she works for ask her to go to the Amazon to find out more about his death and check the progress of the top-secret drug development Anders went down to check on, she feels she must go, despite her reservations.

My thoughts: About once a year, I encounter a book that works for me on every level. Since I began blogging, there are two books I've rated six stars (out of a possible five): American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld and Room by Emma Donoghue. State of Wonder is the third. It's a novel I immediately wanted to stick in people's hands and say "read this book." (I did, in fact, immediately place it in Mr. Nomadreader's hands, as I chose it for our first book club read.)

State of Wonder is unlike anything else I've read. To me, a reader of mostly literary fiction (and mysteries), it read like an adventure novel. Readers of actual adventure novels may disagree, but there was intrigue, action and suspense. There were also past secrets, a fascinating anthropological study, a terrifying but exotic location, scientific developments, and current secrets. Most importantly, there was beautifully executed, observant, prose that didn't get in the way of the story. There were times I laughed, cried, cringed and held my breath to see what would happen next.

I loved it while I was reading it, but I was so caught up in the plot and writing, I didn't start to think of it as a novel in its entirety until the end of the book. As I reflected on the journeys of the characters and on my journey as a reader, I was awed. State of Wonder showed the restraint and patience of a seasoned writer who believed in her characters and story enough to tell the story brilliantly.

Favorite passage: "In this life we love who we love. There were some stories in which facts were very nearly irrelevant."

The verdict: State of Wonder is the best book I've read in 2011, which has been an excellent reading year. It's a beautifully written tale of adventure, journey and life itself. Highly recommended to almost everyone. It's the rare literary novel that will appeal to most people.

Rating: 6 stars (out of 5)
Length: 368 pages
Publication date: June 7, 2011
Source: Publisher via TLC Book Tours (see the full tour schedule)

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy State of Wonder from Amazon (Kindle version) or an independent bookstore (you'll have to wait until fall to buy it directly from Ann's independent bookstore in Nashville, a city Mr. Nomadreader and I love so much we got married there.) In the meantime, you can peruse her website.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, June 20, 2011

book review: Down from Cascom Mountain by Ann Joslin Williams

Down from Cascom Mountain: A Novel
The basics: Ann Joslin Williams sets her debut novel (she has a collection of linked stories, The Woman in the Woods) in the rugged mountains near fictional Leah, New Hampshire, a town created by her father, Thomas Williams. Down from Cascom Mountain is mostly the story of Mary, who grew up on the mountain with a famous writer father, and has now returned.

My thoughts: Although the story starts with Mary, once the novel falls into its own patterns, Mary shares the narration with Callie, a remarkable sixteen-year-old working on the mountain this summer; and Tobin, a gifted but troubled teenager who grew up on the mountain. It's a refreshingly real motley crew of characters, and I enjoyed getting to know all of those who spent the summer on Cascom Mountain.

Williams captures the mountains of New Hampshire in a lyrical way that will resonate with readers familiar with New England as well as those who aren't. It's a lushly written novel full of description of the place as well as its people. It's emotionally raw, and despite how much I was enjoying it, there were a few times (in the two days it took me to read it) I had to stop and let the characters rest for a moment. Still, while I was reading this novel, the characters were always in my thoughts.

Favorite passage: "Still, you couldn't ever let go entirely, you still had to believe that someday, somewhere, all that was missing would somehow appear and come out right. Even when you knew, you knew, what you were looking for was just an illusion, a dream, a hope, a myth. And what was truly possible might be in places you never thought to look before. Or had looked, but hadn't seen."

The verdict: As much as I enjoyed the experience of reading this novel, the end result didn't quite come together for me emotionally. Rather, the storylines came together a little bit too much. With novels that feel as real as this one did, I wish the ending weren't quite as neat. It's an incredibly personal, small quibble, but it kept this novel from being a 5-star read. Still, I will eagerly await the next novel from Ann Joslin Williams and highly recommend it.

Rating: 4.25 stars (out of 5)
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: June 7, 2011
Source: I received a copy for review from the publisher via TLC Book Tour (see the full tour schedule)

Learn more about Ann Joslin Williams on her website.

Treat yourself to a copy from Amazon (Kindle version) or an independent bookstore.As an affiliate, I receive a very, very small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Friday, June 17, 2011

book review: We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

We Had It So Good: A NovelThe backstory: I predicted this book would make the Orange Prize longlist this year, and even though it didn't, I was still eager to read this novel.

The basics: At its simplest, We Had It So Good is the story of Stephen, a son of immigrants in Los Angeles who takes a Rhodes scholarship. It's a family saga of sorts, even though it's only 336 pages.

My thoughts: I'm a huge fan of novels that explore the paths we take in life and the journey from young adulthood through adulthood, and Linda Grant delivered a spectacular novel about Stephen's journey through life.

Stephen is around the age of my parents, and I appreciated seeing key events from their lives through his experiences. Cultural events form touchstones, and in so many ways Stephen and his friends embody the hippie generation. As a U.S. reader, it was fascinating to see the similarities and differences of these events through the eyes of a man whose parents moved to the U.S. only to see him move to England.

I expected it to be wise, but I was pleasantly surprised at how funny parts of the novel were:
"It was actually Ivan's old man who was the true anarchist, a really crazy character who always made a rule of only defending clients he was certain were guilty because he liked to get one over on the law."
It's a unique humor, but as I read, I laughed out loud as many times as I said wow. As I sorted through the marked passages in my Kindle, I realized almost all of them are profound within the pages of the novel, but taken out of the context of the characters, the passages aren't as moving.

I'm surprised this novel didn't make this year's Orange Prize longlist, but I have my fingers crossed it will make the Booker Prize longlist (announced July 26th!)

Favorite passage: She simply wanted to be in that place where she could find an unusual range of human expressions, instead of the flat complacency of people who were miserable in all the usual, banal ways.

The verdict: This novel moved me as both a wonderful work of literary writing and as a wonderful story. I enjoyed the political sensibilities and the sense of history. In short, I loved it, and I am eager to read all of Linda Grant's novels.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: April 26, 2011
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

As an affiliate, I receive a  small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

book review: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Please Look After MomTranslated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim

The basics: Kyong-Sook Shin is a famous Korean writer who has won several awards internationally. Please Look After Mom is her first book to be translated into English. It tells the story of a mother who goes missing one afternoon in a crowded Seoul subway station. The story is told in the voices of her children and husband as they search for her, remember her and face their regrets.

My thoughts: Please Look After Mom opens in a somewhat bracing way. The reader is addressed as "you," which is jarring, but in a good way. Still, I scrambled for a few pages to get my bearings in the scene, the country, the family, and the character. As the novel moved into different sections, the narrator's language shifted to first-person. It was an interesting narrative tool, and I appreciated the boldness of Shin to force the reader to figure out which characters was now telling his or her story. There was no road map to this novel, just as mother had no road map when she got lost.

I can't recall reading any other books set in Seoul, and I enjoyed this glimpse into the customs of the city and its surrounding country. Mostly, however, I enjoyed the story of the first narrator, the famous Korean novelist daughter. I was thrilled to meet her first, as I cheered when she reappeared during other narratives. Her story was incredibly moving, and I found myself easily relating to her life.

Please Look After Mom flowed seamlessly in each section between memories and the present. At times it read almost like a thriller. It was easy to get caught up in the search for mom until you realize it's just as interesting to see and understand mom through the different views of her family.

Favorite passage: "Most things in the world are not unexpected if one thinks carefully about them."

The verdict: Please Look After Mom is a haunting and deceivingly simple novel about family and regret that questions how well we really ever know one another. It's a shame more of Kyung-Sook Shin's work hasn't been translated into English, but I hope more will be.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: April 5, 2011
Source: I checked it out from the library

Treat yourself! Order Please Look After Mom from Amazon in hardback or for the Kindle.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Loving the Des Moines Life: Proof

Welcome to the first installment of my adventures around my new hometown of Des Moines! I'll bring you restaurant reviews, theater reviews, and re-caps of other cultural events as I explore and make myself at home here.

Friday night, Mr. Nomadreader and I set out on our first Des Moines date night. We opted to have dinner at Proof, which overlooks Western Gateway Park.

Proof is an interesting restaurant. It's open for lunch Monday through Friday. They only open for dinner on Friday nights, and they serve a $35 three-course meal with a different menu each week. There were three options each for the appetizer, entree and dessert. Thankfully, Mr. Nomadreader and I have remarkably similar taste in food (and almost everything, really), so we were able to enjoy two of the options for each course.

Appetizers
The heavenly gouda and garlic bisque
For our appetizers, we opted for the gouda and spring garlic bisque, which ended up being my favorite dish of the evening. It was decadent, creamy and delightfully cheesy, and it magically avoided being heavy. We also chose the black quinoa and feta salad, which Mr. Nomadreader realized was almost identical to the one he had at Proof for lunch that day. It was lovely and light with layered flavors and a refreshing dressing. The first course was a huge hit, and we were glad to sop up the last of soup and salad dressing with the delicious bread, especially because there was no butter, oil or other option for the bread. It was good, but I prefer a little pizzaz on my bread.

Black quinoa and feta salad (plus a delicious Albarino!)
Entrees
For our main course, we opted for the beef and the salmon. I had high hopes for both, but the beef disappointed. We asked for it rare and were told it was only available medium rare, which is fine, especially for a shoulder cut. When it arrived, however, it was well done; there was no trace of pink. It was a shame because despite being dreadfully overcooked, it still had delicious flavor. The beef was paired with cherry tomato polenta cakes, which were cooked perfectly and a lovely accompaniment. The salmon was cooked perfectly in a very hot pan. It was crispy all around and a perfect medium rare inside. It was served over a green mango salad, which was tasty, but the cucumber (my one food dislike) overpowered it for me. It was also spicier than I expected and would have loved a yogurt sauce to balance it with the salmon. Still, the dish was a hit with both of us. The main course wasn't quite the home run the first course was, but it was delicious. It is worth noting the portion sizes were smaller than an average entree, so there was no need to worry about saving room for dessert.

Desserts
As someone who doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, I was ecstatic to see a cheese plate as one of the dessert options. I opted for it immediately, without even inquiring about what cheeses were on it. Mr. Nomadreader opted for a flourless chocolate tort with a beet mango gelato. I snared a bite of the gelato, and it was delicious (and not too sweet!). The cheeses were divine, however. The drunken goat always delights, and it was the lightest of the three cheeses. It was overshadowed by two truly remarkable cheeses, however: the roaring forties blue cheese and a rich, creamy, Iowa white cheese whose name I promptly forgot in my attempt to remember the roaring forties. We each finished dinner with a glass of Sauternes, which was a perfect accompaniment to both.

Service
Our server was outstanding. She was everything I want in a server. She knew the answers to our questions when we had them, gave us space to enjoy our food and wine, and was prompt when we needed anything. Everyone on staff we had contact with was welcoming and helpful.

Overall
Mr. Nomadreader and I had a lovely Friday night. At $35 for three courses, it wasn't much of a deal (given the size of the entrees), but it was a fair price. We enjoyed the food and loved the service. The wine list was surprisingly broad, especially the bottle list, and there are many options in a variety of price ranges for red and white wines we enjoy. Overall, I enjoyed myself immensely, but I wasn't blown away by the food. I imagine we'll stop by Proof a few times a year, but I will keep an eye on the Friday night menu each week. Autumn is my favorite time of year for seasonal produce, and I imagine a few trips will be in order in September and October.

Food: 4 stars (out of 5)
Service: 5 stars (out of 5)