Five 30-Second Summer Book Reviews

Seeing as the summer is drawing to a close (and I haven’t posted any book reviews in a while), I thought I’d summarize my thoughts on a few of the books I read this summer — and hopefully give some of my recommendations to add to your August reading lists. These were all great reads for me (I don’t say that lightly, by the way), and I highly recommend all of them, although the subject matter and writing styles differ a lot between the books. Anyway, let me know what you think, especially if you’ve read any of these yourself!

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1. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Admittedly, the fact that I read this on the beach in Italy probably makes it seem a lot better than it is. However, Tom Rachman’s debut novel is pretty wonderful, and I would read it again in a heartbeat (that is, if I didn’t already have a hundred books in my “read this now” queue). Tracking the lives of individuals involved with an English-language newspaper in Rome (from readers to publishers to copy editors), Rachman weaves a stunning narrative that doesn’t quite come together until the very end…which, of course, is what makes it so perfect. Each chapter reads like a little insight into the life of each individual, and explores their personal struggles as well as their relationship to the newspaper. Rachman is gifted at painting vivid, realistic, and raw characters, and even though each chapter is relatively short, his writing (which is very clear, by the way) packs a punch, as he pulls out distinct details from each character’s life. Bit by bit, the reader is also fed the story of how all these lives intertwine — both intentionally and unintentionally — which kept me hooked until the very end. Perfect beach reading, very fresh and original, and overall just fantastic writing.

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2. The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik, a novelist and writer for The New Yorker, is one of my hands-down favorite authors, and he particularly excels with his memoirs. I read one of his other memoirs, Paris to the Moon, a year or so ago, and fell in love with his writing style — it’s sharp, witty, intelligent, and yet decidedly unpretentious. The Table Comes First is less of a memoir than Paris to the Moon, but very enjoyable nonetheless. Although it’s a 300-page volume on one seemingly simple topic, food, there is never a dull moment in Gopnik’s writing. Incredibly cultured, his wealth of knowledge shines through as he weaves together food’s history, philosophy, and its criticisms alongside personal experiences on the topic. It’s really a brilliant read, and I highly recommend this for all a) foodies, and b) francophiles.

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3. Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

If you’re looking for a good briefer on the history of Islam and the Middle East, look no further. (Okay, I know most of you probably weren’t looking for this. That being said, it’s totally relevant to the world today, and will seriously enhance your understanding of current events. So go read it!) Ansary’s book is widely regarded as one of the best histories of Islam out there, and his writing style is simple and understandable — this is not some stuffy book intended only for academics. What I love about Ansary’s writing is his humor, ability to synthesize, and that he doesn’t assume his readers have any prior knowledge of the topic. It reads like an engaging historical narrative, so if you’re into non-fiction/history, this is a good pick!

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4. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

This is the first novel I’ve read by Rushdie. It’s still banned in many parts of the world and can be controversial in many respects (the book is partly a re-telling of the life of Mohammed, and Rushdie includes narrative elements which run contrary to the Muslim faith), but that’s part of what makes it an interesting read — it’s equal parts entertaining and relevant to our understanding of society today. I’ll admit, though, this is a tough book to understand without a lot of background knowledge of religion (and not just Islam), as well as historical events. I would recommend reading some sort of analysis to better grasp the major themes. This reading guide is a good start (and doesn’t give away the plot — just use it as you go from chapter to chapter). However, it is still an entertaining narrative, and Rushdie is a phenomenal writer — so I’d recommend this for anyone that really appreciates more complex literary styles and long, intense novels (think Beloved).

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5. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

This is a classic. I’ve been reading The Alchemist every summer for the past six years — I’m currently on my seventh reading. Regardless of whether you’ve read it before, it’s always a great addition to your reading list, and I find that I learn something new every time I pick it up. It’s not so much that the book has changed as it is that my life and perspective shift from reading to reading — so that something new stands out to me each time. That being said, the novel (very short, by the way — you could read it in a few hours) is packed with wisdom, reading more like a fable than anything else. It tracks the life of a former shepherd, Santiago, who abandons his flock in search of his “Personal Legend” — looking for buried treasure at the Pyramids of Egypt. It’s a timeless book about following your dreams (yes, I know this sounds cheesy), but all of us could use a reminder like this once in a while. A great book for self-reflection, and perfect for pretty much any time, ever.

{Images: The Imperfectionists; The Table Comes First; Destiny Disrupted; The Satanic Verses; The Alchemist}

How To Cook Perfect Crêpes

There is nothing quite like a piping hot homemade French crêpe, topped with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a sprinkle of sugar. I remember making these in French classes back in the day, and we always looked forward to taking the class time off to make this quintessential French treat.

Cooking the perfect crêpe, however, can be a difficult task. You want the batter to be spread as thinly as possible in the pan and you need to flip it without tearing it. And you can pretty much bet that the first crêpe you make is going to have to be tossed out.

You need to work quickly when making crêpes, but once you get the hang of it, they really are a cinch to make. The batter comes together in minutes and in one bowl, and it only takes a minute or two to cook each crêpe, depending its size and thickness. Make sure the pan is hot before you pour the batter in, and immediately swirl the pan in your hand to get the thinnest possible coating of the batter for the crêpe. After that, it just becomes a matter of flipping the crêpe halfway, removing it from the pan, and topping it with whatever your heart desires (I personally prefer mine with a little lemon and sugar).

Crêpes are a fantastic and versatile classic. The crêpe itself is not very sweet, so you can go with sweeter or more savory fillings. They are great to have around for family breakfasts or brunches with the girls, and you can have an assembly line going so everyone can fill their own crêpe as they come out of the pan. They are best served fresh, but you can also store the crêpes in the fridge and reheat them for a few seconds in the microwave before filling and eating.

One of my very first French teachers introduced me to this recipe — it’s simple and easy, and I’ve been using it for years. I posted it a while back on this blog, here, and am re-posting it now (along with new pictures!) just for easier referencing. It really is a fantastic recipe.

Crêpes

Adapted from La Technique by Jacques Pépin

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/2 stick butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup water

Directions:

  1. Wisk until smooth: flour, eggs, sugar, salt, and half the milk. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well.
  2. Heat skillet or crêpe pan on medium-high heat. You do not need to grease the skillet, but if you like, a small dab of butter before you make the first crêpe could help. Add approximately 3 tablespoons of batter to the pan per crêpe, and adjust as necessary for different pan sizes. Be sure to stir the batter thoroughly before adding it to the skillet, as it can become clumpy.
  3. Cook crêpes on medium heat for approximately 50 seconds or until the thin edges begin to curl up and small bubbles form in the middle. Flip, then cook for about 30 seconds on the other side.
Fill your crêpes just before eating and roll them closed. I love to keep mine simple with a squeeze of lemon and some sugar, but other possible fillings include Nutella or chocolate sauce, caramel, jellies, fresh fruit (with whipped cream, if you like), ham and cheese, etc. Enjoy!

{Images: photographs by me — please feel free to use, just leave a credit/link!}

the best crêpe recipe

I’ve had this crêpe recipe for quite a few years now. One of my old French teachers used to make these for our class (and let us make them with her as well), and they were always a treat! I always had mine with a little lemon and sugar, but the wonderful thing about crêpes is that you can get creative with the toppings. As long as you start with a good base crêpe (the freezer ones — if you can find them — just don’t compare), the final result will be delicious.

According to the Word doc I’ve had saved on my computer all these years, the recipe is from La Technique by Jacques Pépin.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/2 sticks butter (melted)
  • 1/2 cup water

Preparation

  1. Wisk until smooth: flour, eggs, sugar, salt and 1/2 of the milk.  Add remaining ingredients and stir well.
  2. Use a teflon-lined pan, 5″ to 6″ in diameter. Heat skillet on a medium to high flame. You do not need to grease the skillet. Hold pan slightly tilted and pour about 3 tablespoons of batter onto the pan, quickly rotating it so that the batter has a chance to cover the hot pan. (The thinner the coating the better the crêpes.)
  3. Cook crêpes on medium heat for about 50 seconds, then loosen the crêpe with a wooden spatula, flip the crêpe over and cook approximately 30 seconds on the other side.  You will notice that the side which has browned first is nicer than the other, stack them with the nice side down so that when they are rolled or folded they look nicer.

These are honestly quite easy to make. Although a crêpe pan would be ideal for making these, I just use a regular skillet and that always works fine. And if you have to scrap a few (or more than a few) crêpes in the beginning, do not be daunted! Flipping them takes some time to get used to, and the first couple usually get thrown out regardless of one’s culinary skill.

Finally, what would be the purpose of crêpes without filling? Try experimenting with your own — almost anything is possible — or try some of the ones my French teacher suggested:

  • Fresh-squeezed lemon juice and sugar (my personal favorite)
  • Chocolate — Hershey’s, Nutella (yum!), etc.
  • Jellies in any flavor
  • Fresh fruit (try mixing with whipped cream!)
  • Ham or chicken & cheese
  • Tomato & cream cheese

Enjoy!

{ Source: Images used in collage (clockwise from top right) from foodnetwork.com (separate recipe included), closetcooking.blogspot.com, vanillabasil.blogspot.com, and taste.com.au }