My Favorite Easy Meal

One of my favorite formulas for putting together a reasonably easy, reasonably healthy meal is to combine a grain, a green, and a protein. Around my house, the protein is usually tofu or beans. Really, that’s all you need, so you could stop there.

I love having tons of vegetables on my plate, though, because you get a satisfying amount of volume and nutrition but it doesn’t add up to millions of calories. You can eat a virtual mountain of food and feel quite nutritionally smug (if, you know, feeling smug about nutrition is your thing). At any rate, this meal also has carrots and mushrooms, but it could include any other vegetables you like — I bet roasted bell peppers would be great, eggplant, sweet potato…try whatever.

As an example, tonight I made a different version of this with roasted tomatoes, artichokes, and garbanzo beans, with feta, lemon juice, and kalamata olives as the garnish. It was also really good (but missing something?), and I’ll probably keep working on that variation, too. That said, the version shown below is my favorite:

[132/365] Favorite

Ingredients:

[A little disclaimer: Okay, look, I’m not married to any of these ingredients/amounts. This is really more of a meal concept than a recipe, but I did try to include specifics here in case you want to try it. But know that you can change it up, tweak, and experiment. Whatever you make following this concept should basically be healthy and a great vehicle for peanut sauce, is the main point. So here’s what I do:]

  • 1 block tofu
  • 2 tbsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • sriracha to taste
  • 1 tbsp minced fresh ginger
  • 2-3 cloves minced fresh garlic
  • 3-4 medium carrots, cut into sticks
  • 1 container mushrooms (any variety), quartered
  • as much kale as you can fit into a big pan
  • quinoa (1/4 cup dry per person)
  • lime wedges
  • cilantro for garnish

First, you’ll need to follow the baked tofu procedure outlined here. The short version: freeze the block overnight, thaw it, thoroughly squeeze/drain the water out, cube it, marinate it, bake at 425-ish for 20-ish minutes.

In this case, I went with a marinade of sesame oil, soy sauce, sriracha, and minced fresh ginger and garlic.  Don’t worry too much about exact quantities or having all the ingredients. Just go with it — this is hard to mess up. If you’re in a hurry or don’t have fresh ginger on hand, for example, leave it out. It’s fine.

So, first, prepare tofu as described/linked above.

Save the marinade bowl from your tofu and toss the cut carrots around in there. They don’t need much to taste good roasted, so don’t worry if there isn’t much left. A lot of it probably soaked into your tofu.

When you put the tofu in to bake, put in a sheet pan with your carrots on it as well — they usually take about the same amount of time (~25 minutes, checking/turning in the middle).

At the same time, put your quinoa in your rice cooker, per the rice cooker’s proportions/directions, and let that do its thing. No rice cooker? (WHY NOT?!) There’s probably a good stovetop method for quinoa, but I don’t know it. This looks fine.

The mushrooms can be quickly sautéed with a little olive oil and just a dash of sesame oil; same with the kale. They’ll both cook pretty quickly, so I start these when the tofu and carrots have been cooking for about 15 minutes.

If you timed it right, everything should be done at the same time.

I build a massive pile on my plate, starting with Kale Mountain, topped with a big scoop of quinoa, and then adding tons of carrots, mushrooms, and tofu. Then, plenty of peanut sauce, fresh cilantro, and a squeeze of lime. Some sriracha, too, because why not?

Peanut Sauce:

  • 1 huge glob crunchy peanut butter (2-4 tbsp? I don’t know. Just glob it.)
  • 2 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • sriracha to taste
  • 1-4 tbsp of water (to thin to desired consistency)

Mix up everything but the water, then start adding water one tablespoon at a time until you reach the desired consistency. At first, it will look like this mess doesn’t want to come together smoothly, but give it time. It will. And it will be awesome.

Project365: May Top Five

14299250523_e07ff70b06_bMay is a strange month, with one foot in the school year and the other foot in the summer. One foot in a sensible ballet flat and the other in a flip-flop. One foot with a sad, neglected pedicure and the other with a bright new polish color.

I’m sorry. I was clearly just going to keep going with that terrible metaphor. I’ll try again.

The month began with a breathless, pavement-pounding final-exam grading sprint, spent a little time with its feet up on a plastic chaise longue at the pool, and now it’s back to walking the halls for summer school.

Ennnh, nope.

As a month, May was not a girl, not yet a wom–

Oh, hell; I give up.

Here are my top five photographs from the month. The year’s daily photographs (so far) can be seen here.

[121/365] Graded.
[121/365] Graded.

This stack of graded final exams from my large lecture class represented the last task I had to complete in order to finish up the spring semester. The test went smoothly; students did fine; I got everything done and that was a wrap!

[127/365] Solo 20-miler this morning to start my day.
[127/365] Solo 20-miler this morning to start my day.

Summer leisure time means long bike rides! I took to the streets by myself for a 20-miler and felt great about it afterward.

[132/365] Favorite
[132/365] Favorite

This is one of my all-time favorite basic, healthy, satisfying meals — I realized when I made it this time that I don’t think I have a (good) photograph of it and, worse!, I don’t think I have shared the meal/recipe here. I mean. Without a good photograph and blog post, who can say I made and ate this meal at all, am I right? Well, here is the photo. Blog post coming soon. I hope.

[144/365] Profile
[144/365] Profile

Flannery’s favorite spot of late is this ottoman in the front room of our house. It gets all the morning sun, and she loves to bask in it. She is a pretty lady. As I type this, though, the cat is on my LIST. I do not even want to describe what she did in the bathtub today, nor how harrowing the cleanup process was. I’ll spare you that. You’re welcome.

[145/365] Jade
[145/365] Jade

A broken piece of CW’s favorite (15-year-old!) jade plant he is rooting in this glass. Taking this photo was sort of an afterthought at the time, but it turned out to be a good idea: when I went to edit it, I noticed that the water level was low and had the opportunity to add some more. The plant was saved by my heroic daily photo project, and I will brook no alternate narratives.

Eyes on the Prize

Today has been quite the day.

I’m about to tell you about a bunch of dumb junk that happened, but if you want to skip down to the good part, be my guest.

Summer classes started today, so I found myself back in my office on campus, where the air conditioner had apparently been running nonstop for who knows how many days. I never turn it on, but someone did, so it was absolutely freezing in there. I despise air conditioning. There is nothing worse than artificially cold air blowing on you.

Okay, fine. Some things are worse, I suppose. Like genocide. And canned asparagus.

Moving on. I also had a student-loan payment freak out after I got to work. Long story short: my payment amount changes every year based on income, but it’s always been very reasonable. This year, after I sent in my tax return (first ever joint tax return filed with my husband), they raised my payment amount. By a lot. It’s now about four times as much as it’s ever been before. (Note: our combined income is NOT four times what my single income was. It’s a little more than twice as much.)

I don’t know what’s going to happen there — they may be able to recalculate it for me based on additional information — but I suppose I will resolve the issue somehow. It may involve a lot of ramen noodles, and probably no new clothes again ever.

OKAY. So my day was off to a rocky start, but HERE’S THE GOOD PART:

We finally booked our honeymoon trip today and y’all, I am SO EXCITED. Yes, our honeymoon is going to take place eight months after our wedding. That still counts as a honeymoon, right? CW and I knew we couldn’t really take a big trip right after we got married because our wedding was in the middle of the school semester. The next big break was Christmas, which involved family travel, so we decided to hold off until summer break when we’d be free to go away for as long as we wanted.

We discussed a few different options, but the places we kept coming back to were Ireland, Greece, and Italy. Although it looked like a trip to Ireland might be a bit less expensive than the Mediterranean, we both just felt a bit more excited to see Greece and Italy, so we decided that was our goal.

rome-view-italy12

(Rome – image source)

I have to note that I really was NOT eager to try to plan a big trip. There are so many variables (which cities? how long in each city? which dates? which hotels? which flights? tours? activities? how to get the best deal? how to stay in a safe/pleasant location? how to travel from city to city?). I didn’t feel like researching and deciding so many different things. I tend to get decision-making paralysis in these situations. Plus, as you might guess, after we had researched, planned, and organized so many wedding-related details, well. I basically wanted a fabulous Mediterranean trip to just materialize on my calendar with very little input from me. Was there some kind of travel fairy who could make that happen?

6055904752_fd46e71322_b

(Athens – image source)

Due in part to my resistance to plan/organize, we briefly considered the idea of a cruise. Neither of us is really a “cruise person,” but CW made the point that we could just leave all our things in one place on the ship without having to unpack/repack every few days and yada yada. I wasn’t super enthusiastic about the idea, so I was strangely relieved to discover that Mediterranean cruises are hella expensive. So that option was out. OH DARN.

(I don’t really have anything against cruises, I feel I should say. It’s just that I’ve read David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” Also, fine; I’ve never been on a cruise but I still am pretty sure I don’t want to.)

We searched plane ticket prices and balked at how expensive even that small element was. Spending money stresses me out quite a bit, and travel is something I’ve historically refused to spend money on. A thousand cheap cardigans from Target? Yes. I will buy those. A couple of plane tickets? That’s what, to me, is a Startling Expense (and thank you, Swistle, for that blog post that explains the concept perfectly — if anyone hasn’t read that post or Swistle’s blog in general, consider this your encouragement to do so). Although I was always enthusiastic about the idea of taking a trip to Europe for our honeymoon, it took me a while to adjust to the idea of just how much it would cost.

Finally it got to the point (a week or two ago) that we decided we needed to make the decision and then pull the trigger. This shit needed to get BOOKED.

What wound up happening is that I called a travel agent whose business card had been included in the race swag bag from that 5K I recently ran (how’s that for research?!) and started asking questions. It turned out that they could use a company that sold packaged tours and basically customize the trip any way we wanted. So, for example, while this company offered trips within either Greece or Italy, but no packages that included both countries, we were still able to create the Mediterranean combo trip of our dreams.

letofrot

(Hydra – image source)

I won’t go through all the planning details, but what we wound up deciding on was five days in Athens followed by five days in Rome. While in each city, we’re setting aside one day to take a day trip out of town to see something nearby. From Athens, we’ll take a day to visit the nearby islands of Hydra (above), Poros, and Aegina. From Rome, we might take a day to travel by train up to Florence or down to Sorrento — we will probably decide that in the moment. CW said he wanted to “plan for some element of randomness,” which amuses me, but I agree. It’ll be so easy to just…hop on a train to Florence! Or Sorrento! Or get a boat to Capri! Or whatever we please!

Greece! Italy! Oh man oh man. I can’t believe we are really going! It has been fifteen years since I have traveled abroad — in 1999, I lived in Germany on student exchange and visited Denmark and France while there. The only reason I took that opportunity was because I was strongly encouraged by my professors, who also helped me get funding for the program. See? I just won’t spend money on travel. People practically have to drag me kicking and screaming, and also help me pay for it.  I feel like travel will always be a Startling Expense for me. So I never even stopped to wonder when I’d ever be able to travel abroad again — I just assumed that as a single person on a non-tenure-track faculty salary, I never would. But now, we are so fortunate to have a little money set aside for this trip, thanks in large part to generous wedding gifts, and we are so grateful and excited.

At this point, all that’s standing between us and our fabulous honeymoon is the summer mini-semester. I can barely think about lesson planning because my brain is now largely devoted to Athens and Rome, but somehow I will muddle my way through. We take off in 55 days. Eyes on the prize.

The Southern Vegetarian Cookbook Review

CW and I got this cookbook, The Southern Vegetarian, by Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence, as part of our wedding gift from my friend Mel — she gave us several cookbooks, each representing a different region where one or both of us has lived, plus aprons (awesome gift). We’ve been using it a lot in the past few months and I figured I’d share a review of it for those of you who might be interested in a variety of tasty southern food made vegetarian.

Southern Vegetarian

I found out that the cookbook stems from the writers’ blog, The Chubby Vegetarian, which I haven’t spent tons of time on (yet), but which appears to have a lot of good looking recipes as well, so I’ll be bookmarking that right about now.

When I decided to start this review, I also connected with Justin and Amy on Twitter (you can follow them at @chubbyveg) and they very kindly agreed to answer a few questions for me:

KW: My husband and I often trade off cooking duties during the week, but we really love cooking together whenever we get a chance. Working together in the kitchen with your spouse can be a lot of fun — and a little chaotic when you’re dancing around each other and trying not to spill hot food or drop knives. How does that work in your kitchen? Do you two do most of your cooking together? Any favorite things about cooking with your spouse — or pet peeves?

Justin: We love to cook together. One of our favorite things is for Amy to start something, like a pot of beans in the slow-cooker or a baked sweet potato right from the oven, and I will come in and finish it. It works that way when I work late and we end up eating dinner at 9 or 9:30. Our 3 dogs are the main source of chaos in the kitchen. We don’t feed them any people food except the occasional piece of carrot or apple. They love it, so they are constantly begging.

Amy: I love it when justin helps me make a quick dessert. I jokingly call him my sous chef.

KW: I’m a vegetarian, and my husband is an omnivore, though he winds up eating mostly vegetarian at home. Most of our friends are also omnivores. What’s your favorite dish to make for “mixed company” — something vegetarian that really satisfies even the most enthusiastic meat eaters?

That’s our whole goal, for real! We make good hearty, healthy, satisfying food that happens to be vegetarian. We try to subvert the assumptions that people have when they hear the word “vegetarian.”  They immediately assume that it about what’s missing; the meat. We think about it differently. We think about making delicious vegetable-based dishes with a ton of creativity. So, it become about what is on the plate and not about what isn’t. Sometimes they take their cues from meat dishes like our King Oyster Mushroom Scallops and other times the dish is just a product of our own imagination.

I would say that pizza is the great equalizer. Sometimes “enthusiastic meat eaters” notice if there’s not a chicken wing or a piece of steak on the plate, but pizza can go meatless without a big fuss. We built a traditional Italian pizza oven in our backyard last year. We love to serve fresh pizzas alongside lots of grilled veggies, olives, and maybe a roasted eggplant dip. It’s the perfect party!

KW: Do you have any kitchen tools you couldn’t live without (beyond the basics, like knives, pots/pans)?  

Amy: I really like to have mesh strainers. They double as a colander or sifter as well as straining bits out if a stock or retrieving greens from a pot of boiling, salted water. We like tools that perform more than one function.

Justin: I’m a bit of a gear head in the kitchen. I was just given a Ninja blender after testing it for a TV spot. It’s become my new favorite toy. It can juice a watermelon in seconds and it make for the smoothest soups and sauces you’ve ever tried.

***

Big thank you to Justin and Amy for the interview! I love what they say about vegetarian food being “about what is on the plate and not about what isn’t.” And pizza as the great equalizer? I absolutely believe it.

I thought I’d also share some of our experiences cooking with The Southern Vegetarian. Here are some of the things we’ve made and enjoyed so far:

The first recipe I tried was this BBQ tofu pizza with a beer crust, and it’s now become one of our favorite pizzas and therefore a regular in our dinner rotation.

[37/365] BBQ tofu, Cabbage, Onions
BBQ Tofu Pizza

BBQ Tofu Pizza with Beer Crust

The cookbook has a BBQ sauce recipe, but I have to confess to using sauce from one of our local BBQ restaurants for convenience. In my defense, it’s really good sauce. I also like to add red onions — they give it a little something-something.

Someone* made gumbo!

The Chubby Vegetarian Gumbo

CW has made this gumbo twice now, and it’s definitely a favorite. He’s an omnivore and he says he might like it better with sausage or something added, but I love it as is and he’s happy enough to eat it vegetarian style, so.

[106/365] "Chicken Fried" Portobello with Mushroom/Shallot Gravy

“Chicken-Fried” Portobello Mushroom with Mushroom & Shallot Gravy

CW made this for the first time last week, and I am already lobbying for it to become a more regular item on the menu. The breaded and fried mushrooms are fantastic, and the gravy is by far the best version of any vegetarian/mushroom gravy I’ve tried. Here it’s served on green beans and tomatoes, but we thought this would also be really good with mashed potatoes and greens.

[114/365] Stupid Loaf
LOAF

Vegetarian Meatloaf with Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Most recently, I tried this meatloaf recipe. The loaf (I’m sorry, but I have to pause and snicker at the word “loaf” EVERY TIME), is composed of tempeh, walnuts, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots, celery, onion, and green peppers. It’s … a lot of chopping. They say you can food-process some of the ingredients, but not others– next time I may go rogue and dump it all in the processor. This recipe tastes GREAT, but the loaf fell apart when I tried to serve it. Leftovers from the fridge sliced up much more neatly, however (and were also delicious). I was frustrated by the structural integrity problems, but CW said it didn’t matter and he’d definitely want to eat this again, so I’ll probably just keep working on my technique over time.

We have also tried a handful of other recipes that just haven’t been photographed– the Vegan Sloppy Joe, which is one of my favorites, especially with CW’s slaw, pickles, and chips; the Vegetarian Red Beans and Rice with Andouille Eggplant, which was really good, but we wound up having it the same week as the gumbo, so it didn’t stand out to us; and the BBQ Portobello Mushroom Sandwich, which is just a nice and tasty sandwich for your sandwiching needs.

Some of the recipes, like the loaf, involve a little more prep time than we’d usually spend, but they’re still easy enough that anyone could make them. The prep is often just a lot of chopping and measuring herbs/spices.

All in all, this has become one of our favorite cookbooks — if you’re looking to make some really tasty comfort food sans meat, I’d definitely recommend it.

Old 280 Boogie

This past weekend was the Old 280 Boogie, just up the road in the tiny town of Waverly. It’s a fun local music festival with artist selling their wares, food trucks, and a laid-back, picnic kind of atmosphere. This is my seventh year living in Auburn and my seventh year heading up to the Boogie — I’ve never missed a year of my favorite local event.

Waverly Boogie-- photo by @brunbec123; photobomb by my husband.

This year, CW and I headed up there with a couple of friends and met up with more folks there. We had coolers full of snacks and drinks and some camp chairs and…all our warm clothes and rain gear. See that cloudy sky?

[109/365] Crowd

It stayed that way basically all day. It had been drizzling rain all morning on Saturday after a Friday of storms and constant downpour, so we counted ourselves lucky that it stayed dry throughout the afternoon.

Skies
The Lineup

When we got there and got settled in, the Shivering Timbers were playing — an Ohio band I wasn’t already familiar with, but that I liked immediately. I’ll be looking for more of their music, for sure.
Shivering Timbers

My favorite Alabama band (who plays this festival every single year) is The Pine Hill Haints. They have a unique sound they refer to as “Alabama Ghost Country Music” and they bring things like a washtub bass, a saw, and an accordion. I know, it’s all too hip to stand, but I do really love their music.

Pine Hill Haints

Spending a few hours hanging out in the country, drinking champagne out of a plastic cup, and listening to good music is one of my favorite things about the beginning of Spring in Alabama.

Emily & Chase
Me & Chad
Me & Becky

Even if the weather didn’t cooperate, we still managed to make a lovely day of it.

And then we all went to dinner where, while trying to hand the waiter my sushi menu, I fell directly out of my chair and onto the floor. A little too much excitement for one day, perhaps. It’s OK; I only injured my dignity and reputation. My well-padded backside was just fine.

Spring Break in Tennessee (with Bob Weir)

We traveled up to East Tennessee to visit my family for a couple of days over our spring break, and then went to Knoxville and Nashville for one night each to see Bob Weir and Ratdog perform.

Cloudy Smokies

If you know my husband, you know his deep love for all things Grateful Dead — we’ve seen Furthur together (Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, and others) and last summer, when we went to see Bob Dylan, Wilco, and My Morning Jacket, we were treated to a surprise guest appearance by Bob Weir. I guess Bob Weir is becoming something of a spring/summer music thing for us.

I’m not as big a fan of the Dead as CW is, but I enjoy the music and the scene and am happy to join in something he really loves. Two nights in a row might admittedly be more than I’d typically sign on for, but it turned out to be a really fun time.

We headed up to see my family first, and stayed a couple of nights with my brother, P. He has two fat, fluffy dogs who are both very sweet, but who will NOT stop following people around and panting frantically.

My brother's dogs, gazing up at him adoringly.

As much as I love dogs, I was ready to scream about all the hair and spit and the unceasing motherloving panting. The weather was cold, so we didn’t get out for our planned hiking excursion, but we made do. Plenty of food and beer will soothe the antsy soul, that’s for sure. We went out for a great lunch, and then P. also orchestrated a huge feast for dinner that included not only burgers (and veggie burgers) and kebabs on the grill, but also pulled pork BBQ, roasted potatoes, baked beans, and some other items I might be forgetting. Dude knows how to eat.

[72/365] Peter

New Belgium Spring Blonde

My dad and his wife joined us, but did not want to be photographed. You will have to imagine them in the background of these pictures.

On Friday night we headed down the road to Knoxville — not far from my hometown — and made our way to the historic Tennessee Theatre. In the neighborhood, we found a bar with a Grateful Dead art show going on: plenty of good beers, posters, and photos to peruse.

Scruffy City Hall

[73/365] Tennessee Theatre

Unfortunately, I did not wind up bringing my real camera into the theater for the concert (I was worried I wouldn’t want to deal with an extra item), so all my photos inside are Instagrams. Please let me tell you, though: the inside of the Tennessee Theatre is really something. It’s ridiculously opulent, especially when I think of its origins as a movie theater.

Soooo, not a bad concert venue!

Mirror goofing

Sorry for the insta-overload, but this place is beautiful!

Birdsong

We had a lot of fun exploring and looking around before the show started. The band was good Friday night (though I preferred Saturday’s show), but I wasn’t feeling very well for most of the first set. Something about the beers or dinner didn’t agree with me, so I basically had to sit down and sip a soda and keep it together until I felt better. Womp, womp.

Favorite songs of the night: “Tennessee Jed,” “Birdsong,” “Dear Prudence,” “Goin’ Down the Road.”

Saturday took us farther down I-40 to Nashville. We did the same thing there: found the Ryman Auditorium and then just explored the area on foot for a while before the concert. Downtown Nashville is full of a bunch of tacky tourist traps (cheap watering holes with flashy signs selling bottled domestic beer for $6 each) and the fact that it was St. Patrick’s Day weekend only made it seem worse. I’m sure there are cooler places to be in Nashville, but we didn’t want to drive anywhere, so we were stuck in this one main area. We weren’t into the tourist/St. Paddy’s bar scene, so we just walked around a bit. I got to take tons of photos, and then we had dinner before the show.

CW on the Bridge

View from Capitol Hill

Ryman Auditorium

Ryman Auditorium

CW in the Pew

Pew K

Saturday’s show was my favorite of the two. The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville is another great historical venue — it used to be a church (and still has its original pews), then it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry, now it hosts bands like Ratdog (and Widespread Panic, who had performed the night before and who I used to see frequently in the 90s). We wound up sitting behind a cute engaged couple, one of whom was an Auburn alumna and the other a current Alabama student — the very model of “a house divided.” We chatted a bit about Auburn- and Alabama-related things. It’s funny how you can establish rapport with strangers right away just based on these topics.

[74/365] Bob Weir and Ratdog

At any rate, the show Saturday was such fun. I had my real camera with me this time, and people were kind enough to let me up to the stage for a couple of minutes to take photos. Whenever I have that opportunity at a concert, I try not to be in people’s way for any longer than absolutely necessary, so I just squeezed in at the front of the stage and snapped five or six quick ones and then went back to my pew.

Favorite songs of the night: “Uncle John’s Band” and then basically the whole second set — “Deep Elem Blues,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Dark Star,” “China Cat Sunflower,” “I Know You Rider.”

We were so worn out after the second show night in a row that we basically passed out as soon as we hit the hotel bed. Sunday morning we got up early to the sounds of pouring rain, not so happy to be facing a 5+hour drive back home. CW (chivalrous and kind man that he is) did most of the driving, even though it was supposed to be my turn, because he knows how stressed I get when driving in a rain storm. I took over later on, when the skies cleared, and we made it home just in time to do all our school prep, laundry, and shopping for the week.

Oh yeah, that’s right: back to work. Heading in on Monday morning, in another rainstorm, before sunrise, with no coffee (I forgot the almond milk at the store and I refuse to drink black coffee) — well. It was not my ideal re-entry to work life. But you know what old Bob [Dylan] says:

I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it
And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singing
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

I finished reading The Goldfinch last week and, in short, I loved it.

[3/365] The Goldfinch

Like pretty much everyone else, I absolutely loved her 1992 novel, The Secret History: the compelling characters, the creation of a world, the suspenseful and esoteric plot. I loved it all. It made me want to go back to college at some small, snooty New England place and study Ancient Greek, drink whiskey, and smoke cigarettes. Sigh. At least I can still do one of the three.

As an aside, since reading The Secret History several years ago, I’ve spent ages looking for other campus novels that could stand up to it. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep didn’t quite fit what I was looking for, for example, even though I enjoyed it. Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding was (completely different from The Secret History but) turned out to be equally absorbing and delightful and has become a new favorite.

I started Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend, a few years ago but for whatever reason abandoned it pretty quickly. As I look up the publication date, 2002, it occurs to me that it came around during a time when I wasn’t really able to get much leisure reading done. (Grad school was rough, man. Somebody make me a Twibbon.) I’ve often thought about returning to The Little Friend, but it just hasn’t happened. Yet, I guess. (Have any of you read it? Thoughts?)

As soon as I heard about The Goldfinch, though, I jumped on it. I started the book as I like to begin most novels (and films): knowing absolutely nothing about the plot or characters. An almost blank slate. This is my favorite way to begin. Jump into the world of the novel and let yourself disappear into it with no preconceptions or expectations.

And that is also sort of my excuse for being a terrible book reviewer. Honestly, I never write book reviews (and almost never read them) and this is one of the reasons why —  I just don’t want to say much to you about the plot or characters here, so at least it won’t be me who robs you of the blank-slate experience.

So. Don’t read the passage below unless you’ve already read The Goldfinch and/or don’t plan to:

Donna Tartt writes a damned good sentence DOES SHE NOT. #spoilers

Just know that as I read the novel, I fell in love all over again with Tartt’s emotionally evocative, finely wrought prose. The above passage is just one of many that struck me so much while reading that I was forced to go back and re-read and turn it over in my mind again (and again). I think her style has matured and deepened since The Secret History in such a way that reading her prose is just as satisfying a stylistic treat as it is an engaging experience with plot and character. She’s able to sink deep into the setting, too, but in a way that never becomes tiresomely naturalistic. The cities of New York and Las Vegas come to life crisply in The Goldfinch; Tartt brings out elements I haven’t seen personally but that feel deceptively familiar.

I’m sure that this novel, like The Secret History before it, will be one I reread regularly. Donna Tartt has a way of creating worlds where I want to spend more time.