Reading may seem like a solitary pleasure, but we do not believe it is so. As we read, we intimately interact with writers, the worlds they create, and our own inner selves as well as the real world that surrounds us. Some of us are also blessed enough to have friends to share the experience with.

While discussing the idyllic village of Three Pines and the captivating characters author Louise Penny created in the Inspector Gamache books, we were aware of the sensory pleasure to be had in the meals described. Olivier’s Bistro, Gabri’s baking, and dinners at the Morrow’s can easily make us salivate while reading the books… Louise Penny's books, are a wonderful entrée into a sensual world, where each book is a season, capturing its mood and flavours, and contributing to the layers of meaning about the characters, who are marvellously revealed over the series.

At one point, a daydream of going through the series with a notebook in hand, writing down all these meals and later cooking them, took shape. This is our "notebook". We hope you enjoy this literary-culinary-sensory-philosophical journey.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Myrna - Therapy, books, and brownie cups!

by Amy

I seem to be shying away from actual cooking. It hasn't been on purpose. Honest.

I actually have pictures of meals that have been cooked, photographed, and enjoyed... but they´re not what I needed to write about. Since the main purpose (to me, at least) of this has been a form of therapy through writing, I have allowed myself to write about what I feel I should be writing about, even if it´s not exactly what is expected here.

I don't think of Myrna as a cook. In fact, we usually see her eating meals in friends' homes (although she helps with cooking and sometimes contributes a dish instead of a decoration) or at (or from) the Bistro (but then, if you lived next to Olivier's Bistro wouldn't you do the same? Why cook?). 

Since I don't exactly have a "Myrna meal" scene from the books that fits this particular post... nor do I have Libby's creativity or brilliancy when it comes to creating character-based recipes, I'll just share an "invention" which, like Myrna's marmberry, isn't really a recipe. It's more of a new twist on old favorites.

Here's my take on Myna's marmberry, by the way. Although I should call it Almondberry. I don't really like marmelade and couldn't bring myself to buy some JUST to take a picture and not eat it. So I guess this is more like peanut (ne, almond) butter & jelly on an English Muffin. We've discussed comfort food before and as far as comfort food goes, I think I'll keep my brownies and pass on the chili and the English muffin with marmaberry!

“People wandered in for books and conversation. They brought their stories to her, some bound, and some known by heart. She recognized some of the stories as real, and some as fiction. But she honored them all, though she didn’t buy every one.”

I remember, as a child, playing make believe with my sister and with friends. Whenever we chose to recreate a beloved story, we’d call dibs on one character or another. Sometimes our choice had to do with the character we most identified with. I have a feeling that choices were most commonly dictated by how we would like to be seen, not who we thought we really were like.

Part of the magic of reading fiction is that we have the opportunity to live many lives and to put ourselves in a variety of shoes. Sometimes the shoe doesn’t fit – but it’s still fun to try it out (emotionally, that is) for a few days (or hours). Sometimes, the character fits us like a second skin. That can be comforting at times, but depending on the context in which the character is inserted, it can be extremely gut-wrenching. Sometimes it is in living through a fictional experience in a fictional context that we can come to terms with our very non-fictional feelings, prejudices, reactions, and impulses.

I think writing fiction could be an even more powerful experience in that sense. Marilynne Robinson describes it thus:

"When I write fiction; I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire - a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one's own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul." (Marilynne Robinson - When I Was a Child I Read Books)

I think that is why fiction is a form of magic.

Stories have a strange power of attraction. When we tell stories, we touch hearts. If we talk about theories or speak about ideas, the mind may assimilate them but the heart remains untouched.” (Jean Vanier – Becoming Human)

I’ve used Jean Vanier’s quote so many times in so many posts that you are all probably wondering if it’s my favorite quote (it isn’t, by the way – although it’s probably in the top 10). It’s a powerful idea, isn’t it?

I think he’s right. I have long used fiction as a form of therapy. I am a life-long reader and while I absolutely believe that our personal histories and view of the world tinge our perceptions of the books we read, I also think that the books we read and the lives we live vicariously influence our view of the world and ourselves.

Louise Penny’s characters are wonderful. I would love to live in Three Pines and have these people in my life. In a sense, they are also a part of me and I can see myself as a patchwork of characteristics from this or that character…

As I said in the Peppermint Tisane post, I think I'm probably most like Reine-Marie (or is it just that I'd like to think I am?). I can frequently empathize with Beauvoir (I am nowhere near as well read or as sophisticated and collected as Gamache and can understand how baffled Beauvoir feels at times), I’m probably closest to Myrna in regards to profession (both as a psychologist – I’m a pediatrician, but counseling and supporting is more important than any other aspect of the job – and as a book pusher), but I’d love to be as well read and perceptive and contained (in actions – not in outfits) as she is. I envy Clara her ability to express herself through art. I would dearly love to borrow Gabri’s self-esteem and authenticity and wish I had a fraction of Olivier’s elegance.

Myrna’s character fascinates me. Shortly before I began reading the Gamache books I’d started organizing my thoughts regarding the idea of books as a therapeutic tool. For a few years I’ve been toying with the idea of studying the concept formally - in some graduate setting. Recent studies have tried to prove what book-lovers have known for years: reading can teach you empathy and increase your capacity for theory of mind; stories can be a powerful tool for teaching children, in particular those with social difficulties, how to decipher emotional cues, perceive others’ behavior, and interpret interactions; non-fiction and fiction alike can give people something to aspire to or be inspired by, and can, thus, promote resilience; and so much more. There’s even a branch of therapy that uses fairy tales in particular (although other stories can be used) to help a client, through identification with the fairy tale and its characters, retell their own stories.

For some time now I have used stories both with my own son and with patients to help them deal with social and emotional issues. It's amazing how much easier it is to approach sensitive subjects if you're talking about someone else. After you've dissected the feelings, put yourself in various positions in the interaction, and reacted to it from a distance, it's easier to talk about the impact that has (or might have) in your own life, who you are in that scene or story, and how you can improve in your own interactions. It doesn't take much. Actually, my favorite stories, in this sense, tend to veer towards picture books. And I learn more than the kids do. 

And then there’s literary therapy. Two friends, in England, have long helped each other deal with life’s challenges through a series of book recommendations. Recently they made it official. ( If I’m ever in London I’ll be sure to make an appointment. They interview their clients and make a list of books they should read throughout their lives – in no particular order. They recently published a fascinating book called A NOVEL CURE. It has literary remedies for various ailments.

And, for those who haven’t read it, I absolutely fell in love with Jean Perdu and THE LITTLE PARIS BOOKSHOP. This character understands the therapeutic power of books (although he himself took decades to allow himself to heal).

I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in, because they are apparently too minor and intangible. The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end. Or when you recognize that you haven’t got your whole life left to find out where you belong. Or the slight sense of grief when a friendship doesn’t develop as you thought, and you have to continue your search for a lifelong companion. Or those birthday morning blues. Nostalgia for the air of your childhood. Things like that.” (Nina George – The Little Paris Bookshop)

I think Myrna’s character is brilliant because it is a sort of homage to the therapeutic powers of books. Or at least that's how I see it.

“I know what you mean. When I quit my job as a psychologist, I felt guilty. This isn’t our parents’ generation, Armand. Now people have many chapters to their lives. When I stopped being a therapist I asked myself one question. What do I really want to do? Not for my friends, not for my family. Not for perfect strangers. But for me. Finally. It was my turn, my time. And this is yours, Armand. Yours and Reine-Marie’s. What do you really want?” (The Nature of the Beast)

I don’t think she stopped. She just found the perfect setting and her optimal form of therapy. She may not be a practicing psychologist in the traditional sense, but she is still a therapist.

But they both knew that words were weapons too, and when fashioned into a story their power was almost limitless.” (The Nature of the Beast)

And now for the brownies. I had to make desserts for a Christmas gathering and I was in another town (another country, actually), away from my own kitchen, and wanting to make sure to please everyone involved, but with little time to do so. My husband (always) would like a pie. My son prefers everything plain. One of my guests is a chocolate lover. And I, myself, am always excited when I'm in the US and there are fresh blueberries and raspberries for sale (we hardly ever get them and, when we do, they aren't usually all that nice). And dessert was created.

I just made brownies from a box. As soon as I pulled them out of the oven, while they were still warm and soft, I pressed a smaller dish into them to create a "brownie cup". I made dark chocolate, because they're my favorite. After the brownie cups had cooled, I added the finishing touches. The filling is that same lime (juice of 2 limes) and condensed milk (1 can) mix. I'd mixed them together and left the mixture in the refrigerator for a few hours so it would be firmer. Then I just decorated with some berries.

What I _didn't_ know before I made dessert was that one of the guests was a baker. As in he bakes things professionally for a living. I'm glad I didn't know beforehand. He wanted to know where I'd bought them (because they were cute) and ate more than one (because they were yummy). So if anyone else wants a nice looking dessert that takes very little time and effort and gives you more time to enjoy books and conversation with friends. This is it!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Hanna's Cookies & Second Impressions

by Amy

“[Hanna] placed a cup of tea in front of Agent Lacoste. A white plate piled with cookies was also put on the spotless table.
Lacoste thanked her and took one. It was soft and warm and tasted of raisin and oatmeal, with a hint of brown sugar and cinnamon. It tasted of home.”

I think I misread this scene the first time around. I didn’t pay attention to the word “oatmeal”. I got caught up in the brown sugar and cinnamon and the taste of home. Somehow, in my mind, I pictured my favorite homemade cookies:  Pumpkin Chocolate Chips. They smell and taste like home to me. So I seem to have read it like this:

Amy thanked her and took one. It was soft and warm and tasted of pumpkin and chocolate, with a hint of brown sugar and cinnamon. It tasted of home.

I think I literally tasted the pumpkin cookies when I was reading. I’d already baked, eaten, and pondered on what I was going to write in the post before I wrote out the quote and realized that I’d made the “wrong” ones! I do love oatmeal cookies, but I usually add chocolate chips as well as (or instead of) raisins. I even have my favorite oatmeal cookie recipe which is perfect because it’s one of those “pour everything into a bowl, mix, and bake for 10 minutes” recipes. Don’t you love those?

I hope you’ll forgive my creative license. Or should I call it absurdly deviated interpretation of the text?

I think these cookies are startling because of their contrast to Lacoste’s impression of sterile angularity. The house didn’t, at first glance, look like a home. Hanna Parra's warm smile (and warm cookies), Roar’s contained temper, and Havoc’s charm prove that it is, in fact, more than concrete and glass. It is a place full of passion and emotions where this family feels comfortable and at home. While the building may be intimidating, I think the cookies are proof that first impressions aren't always right.

“Lacoste got out of the car and stared, amazed. Facing her was a block of concrete and glass. It seemed so out of place, like finding a tent pitched on Fifth Avenue. It didn’t belong. As she walked toward it she realized something else. The house intimidated her and she wondered why. Her own tastes ran to traditional but not stuffy. She loved exposed brick and beams, but hated clutter, though she’d given up all semblance of being a house-proud after the kids came. These days it was a triumph if she walked across a room and didn’t step on something that squeaked.
This place was certainly a triumph. But was it a home?”

It’s foreign. It’s different. It’s alien and out of place. It’s strange and, sometimes, difficult to read.

The house doesn’t blend into its surrounding. It’s not that the architecture is aggressive. It seems out of place, but the agents later come to understand that it was built as a huge window to best contemplate and appreciate the place this family had chosen to settle down in. It is, in fact, a testament to the fact that they appreciate their surroundings to the extent that they built a home that would showcase its beauty.

This scene, to me, is a lesson in first impressions. Lacoste is one of the most open and tolerant characters in the books. She’s thoughtful and doesn’t usually make rash judgments. If it were Beauvoir, we might expect him to be somewhat prejudiced and even derisive – he frequently is towards the Canadian Anglos - the Czech are probably beyond his comfort zone (Hanna Parra even accuses him of profiling in a later conversation although that wasn’t his intention).  As a younger man he sometimes seemed to perceive himself as superior to others – in particular those who were different from himself. I think it's a sign of his deep rooted insecurity. He matured – the hard way – and has become a very different man. But we’ll get back to Beauvoir some other time. This scene is about Lacoste.

“The door was opened by a robust middle-aged woman who spoke very good, though perhaps slightly precise, French. Lascoste was surprised and realized she’d been expecting angular people to live in this angular house.
“Madame Parra?” Agent Lacoste held up her identification. The woman nodded, smiled warmly and stepped back for them to enter.
“Entrez. It’s about what happened at Olivier’s,” said Hanna Parra.
“Oui,” Lacoste bent to take off her muddy boots. It always seemed so awkward and undignified. The world famous homicide team of the Sûreté du Québec interviewing suspects in their stockinged feet.
Madame Parra didn’t tell her not to. But she did give her slippers from a wooden box by the door, jumbled full of old footwear. Again, this surprised Lacoste, who’d expected everything to be neat and tidy. And rigid.”

Lacoste perceives differences and feels intimidated. She compares this triumph of a house with her own messy, loving home. She wonders at what kind of people would choose to live in a place like this and expects them to be angular, rigid, unbending.

The beauty in Lacoste’s character is that she’s always willing to rethink her perceptions. It takes very little for her to reassess her initial ideas and question her first impressions. Very very little. A smile, slippers, tea, and a cookie. She is able to overlook appearances – represented by the house – and see these people for who they are. Or at least to permit herself to be surprised.

“She noticed the teacup had a smiling and waving snowman in a red suit. Bonhomme Carnaval. A character from the annual Quebec City winter carnival. She took a sip. It was strong and sweet.
Like Hanna herself, Lacoste suspected.”

What I love most about this scene is that Louise Penny reminds us of the kind of people it takes to create a diverse community or a heterogeneous group of friends. In a small town like Three Pines, everyone is an outsider and a foreigner until they are welcomed. Three Pines is composed of a wonderful assortment of people. They embrace odd and strange and colorful and secretive and loud and thoughtful and hurt and helpful. The Parras may be more foreign, in a traditional sense, than the Gilberts, for instance. But, to Three Pines, the Parras have already become part of the patchwork that makes up their community.

In a later scene this is explained by Gabri. When he goes to apologize to the Gilberts he also justifies the town’s behavior towards them by making it clear that there is room for diversity and for newcomers, but not for competition and division. The town is wary of the Gilberts (initially), just as they were of CC Poitiers. There is acceptance of all sorts of people. The town is less tolerant of those who undermine or underestimate their own.

I can certainly empathize with the Parras (having frequently been an outsider and a foreigner in various places throughout my life), and I am grateful for all of the Lacostes and Gabris and Claras – and even Ruths - I’ve encountered. They have made me feel welcome.

I hope I, like Lacoste, do the same to those who choose to join us. The new child in my son’s class. The neighbor who moved in upstairs. The new colleague who joins our team at the hospital… And also the “odd” friends who have different tastes in architecture, music, fashion, politics, and books… but who challenge me because they remind me that odd is a subjective quality.

And last, but not least, there’s Havoc. 

One of my absolute favorite bits of Louise Penny’s writing (it makes me smile every time) is Lacoste’s inner dialogue when she meets Havoc.

After a few more yells a short, stocky young man appeared. His face was flushed from hard work and his curly dark hair was tousled. He smiled and Lacoste knew the other waiters at the bistro hadn’t stood a chance with the girls. This boy would take them all. He also stole a sliver of her heart, and she quickly did the figures. She was twenty-eight, he was twenty-one. In twenty-five years that wouldn’t matter so much, although her husband and children might disagree.

Isn’t that brilliant?! I love how Louise pens it. I’m assuming I’m not the only one who can relate to Lacoste’s losing a sliver of her heart. Of course, real-life people have to compete with fictional characters who frequently take over entire chunks of my heart. Beauvoir is one of them, my the way.

I haven’t forgotten the pumpkin chocolate chip cookies. I said they taste like home. And by home, I mean here. My home away from home. A little town we’ve frequently vacationed in and that bears some resemblance to Three Pines in its mountains and size and isolation and delicious bread from a café down the street. I first ate these cookies here and whenever I make them in my real home (often enough) I am transported to this place and these mountains and the trails I run here to make up for the cookies I inevitably eat too many of.

Chewy Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies

½ cup butter
¾ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 TBS pumpkin puree
1 and ½ cups flour
¼ spoon salt
½ tea spoon baking powder
1 ½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon ginger
½ cup dark mint chocolate chips
Almond slices (optional)
Cashew nuts (optional)
Raisins (optional)

Blend melted butter and sugar. Add vanilla and pumpkin.
Mix dry ingredients.
Add wet to dry ingredients and mix well. Add chocolate.
Leave in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes – at this point I sometimes freeze the dough.

Bake at 350oF for 10 minutes. You want to pull them out of the oven when they’re still soft and look almost undercooked. That way they’re chewy. Perfection!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Bury Your Dead... and don´t forget to eat your breakfast!

by Amy

Bury Your Dead.

That is probably one of my favorite titles. Well, that one and THE LONG WAY HOME. Sometimes a title is a poem unto itself. This one is. Once you've read the book, you have only to think of the words "bury your dead" and emotions will come in waves. Or is it just me?

“You must believe me, son. Nothing bad will happen to you.”

Everyone makes mistakes. That’s a given.

It’s our behavior after a mistake has been made that defines the kind of person we are.

If – by Rudyard Kipling 
If you can keep your head when all about youare losing theirs and blaming you,
but make allowances for their doubting, too;
if you can wait and not be tired of waiting,
or being lied about, don´t deal in lies,
or being hated, don´t give way to hating… 
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

BURY YOUR DEAD is an emotional book. Gamache is in a pretty dark place throughout most of it. Part of it is grief. He’s grieving for lives lost and anyone who has ever lost anyone can relate. But there’s more.. There is remorse when decisions – even with the best of intentions and knowing the risk and responsibility – lead to actions that result in damage and, in this case, lives lost. And then there is the grief every leader – at least every good leader – has felt at least once in his life. The higher the level of responsibility, the greater the guilt when things go wrong.

It’s not only about regret. Gamache is a great role model because he goes above and beyond. He realizes, rationally, that he cannot save everyone all the time. This was actually the subject of a previous post and Nancy (“Hi, Nancy!”) reminded us, in her comments, that “Myrna had to remind him that Jean-Guy’s choices and consequences will be something he and Annie will have to address”. Nancy is right. He has a hard time accepting that emotionally – although he recognizes it rationally.

I think this book isn’t just about feeling responsible for the consequences. It’s about making peace with his humanity. With his mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes. Some mistakes cost us more than others.

“Gamache stared down one dark, dingy corridor in the abandoned factory then down the other.
They looked identical. Light scraped through the broken, grubby windows lining the halls and with it came the December day.
43 seconds.
He pointed, decisively to the left and they ran, silently, toward the door at the end.”

As I started to write this, I was thinking of the things we cannot fix. I was thinking of how you can always bake a new batch of cookies if you’ve burnt the first one… and I was listing, in my mind, the things that cannot be fixed: battles that cannot be refought (or, better yet, avoided before they began), trust that cannot be recovered, operations that cannot be fixed in patients that died on the table… Then I realized that the first batch of cookies can’t really be salvaged, either. They cannot be fixed. You can start over, though. And, sometimes, you can learn from your mistakes. Or the mistakes of others.

One of the things I love about stories is that they allow me to learn from the lives – and the mistakes – of others. By living vicariously through characters, I am gifted with multiple lives and have the chance to experience things I might otherwise not experience. Experience – fictional or not – does not always make us wise. I believe we should try to harness it so it _does_ make us wiser…

In a sense, that is what Gamache tries to do in this book. His own life, his own story, his own losses, and his own mistakes are too recent and too painful to probe. So he probes another story. He decides to dissect the mistake of another leader, another man who also led men to their deaths. In trying to decipher another man’s reasoning, he is trying to come to terms with his own misjudgments.

“Avec le temps.
[…]They’d had quiet dinners together in front of the fire, they´d walked the narrow snow-covered streets. Talked. Were silent. Read the papers, discussed events. The three of them. Four, if you counted their German shepherd, Henri.And most days Gamache had gone off on his own to a local library, to read.Émile and Reine-Marie had given him that, recognizing that right now he needed society but he also needed solitude.”

We don’t usually like to dwell on our shortcomings. And I don’t think anyone truly wants to investigate their mistakes, what led to them or their consequences. It’s particularly painful when the results are dire – let alone catastrophic – and when atonement is not an option. It is even worse when it is public and you are judged – or justified – not only by your own thoughts, but by the audience of onlookers. It is bad enough when our mistakes hurt us, but it is devastating when others have to pay a price or when they cost us the loss of trust, friendships or even lives.

Armand Gamache is in pain through most of this book.

I cannot even begin to imagine the depth of his pain.

I have my own mistakes and regrets to contend with. On a side-note, I cannot say the word “regret” without hearing Frank Sinatra’s voice in my head singing, “Regrets, I’ve had a few…”. Now it’ll be stuck in my mind all day.

Some of my less than stellar decisions hurt no one but myself (like eating one – or ten – too many cookies). Others aren’t as easily dismissed and have cost me some sleepless nights. Worse. Some mistakes have hurt others. Those still give me nightmares sometimes. It doesn’t matter that they’ve been aired out, forgiven, and – when possible – been atoned. I still remember the hurt I caused. And it haunts me.

There are others that may not even be considered mistakes. In some ways, Gamache’s own experience falls into this category. We make the best decision we can with the knowledge we have available at the time. Urgency – as in Gamache’s case – sometimes gives us limited time to gain knowledge or to reassess our decision-making process. Sometimes, it is only in hindsight that the knowledge is available.

“That was often the equation, give up the few to save the many. From a distance it seemed so simple, so clear. And yet, from a distance you might see the big picture, but not the whole picture, you missed the details. Not everything was seen, from a distance.”

I have only practiced medicine for 10 years. In those 10 years much has already changed. Sometimes I learn something new and am reminded of a patient (or patients) for whom I made what I thought was the best decision, but now, in hindsight, if only I could go back in time... Nothing drastic. No lives lost. No severe consequences. Usually the outcome wouldn’t even have changed. As I write I am listing them in my mind and cannot think of one where the outcome would have changed. Maybe one or another would have had earlier behavioral interventions or something… I still feel guilty.

I can only imagine how Gamache feels.

I once saw a TED talk (Brian Goldman – Doctors make mistakes. Can we talk about that?) about mistakes in medicine and how doctors aren’t encouraged to talk about them. We aren’t supposed to fail. We aren’t supposed to make mistakes. But it is only in talking about them and airing them and assessing them and studying our own – and others’ mistakes that we can prevent them, make amends, or learn from our mistakes.

To err is human.

We do not need to ignore or cover up our errors, though.

While we do need to bury our dead, we need to grieve them and to make our peace with our role in their lives – and theirs in ours. We need marks. We need the headstones that remind us what those dead meant to us. The pain of loss can be important to make us aware of the responsibility we have towards those still around us.

We all make mistakes. Some mistakes are huge – but have few, or dismissible, consequences. Others are unintentional, small, apparently inconsequential, and lead to disaster. It is not the nature of the consequence that determines the weight and importance of the error. It is not being caught that makes it a sin. It is not discovery that makes you accountable.

We do need to forgive ourselves. But we cannot let ourselves off the hook too lightly or too quickly. We need to take time to assess our actions, our intentions, our motivations, and our reasoning. We need to evaluate the consequences of our choices. We need to rethink our steps and try to imagine different outcomes to different paths taken. Ideally, this is done before action is taken (although some people are paralyzed in trying to make the best decision and never make any decision at all). I believe, and there are studies to prove, that successful people and resilient people are not the ones who always make the best choices (I don’t think those people exist). They are the ones who take responsibility for their choices – and the consequences thereof.

“And while forgetting the past might condemn people to repeat it, remembering it too vividly condemned them to never leave.”

True forgiveness can only come after there is true understanding. Gamache understands this. He isn’t beating himself up in this book. He is giving himself time to heal. Then he is making himself relive it, bit by bit, and understand it… so he can come to terms with it and forgive himself.

“To be human is to accept ourselves just as we are, with our own history, and to accept others as they are.” (Vanier – Becoming Human)

It is only because he allows himself to retrace his steps and because he is humble enough to accept, and recognize, that he is human and susceptible to error – despite taking all precautions – that he realizes that while some things cannot be made right – Agent Moran’s life cannot be regained – there are things that can be amended. While Olivier will never be the same and the price he paid was, in a sense, higher than the mistake he made, Gamache’s error in that case could be amended.

Gamache became stronger physically after the raid. He was in better shape than he’d been in a long time. He worked at it. He was also stronger emotionally. He worked at that, too.

He is a good role model.

We all make mistakes.

It is what we do afterwards that make us who we are. 

Throughout much of the book there are many simple meals – most in local cafes and Émile’s home. Breakfasts abound. Much tea and café au lait is drunk throughout. I didn’t really cook a meal for this post. I did include some pictures of my own breakfasts (usually overnight oats – I always add a generous amount of cinnamon to the mix at night, and throw in some chocolate chips and fruit in the morning). Coffee and tea.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Maple Syrup Taffy...Old Quebec City...Avec le temps

by Libby

After breakfast he climbed the steep, slippery street. Turning left, Gamache made his way to the Literary and Historical Society. ... Kids were wrapped and bound, mummified, preserved against a bitterly cold Québec winter and heading for Bonhomme’s Ice Palace, or the ice slide, or the cabane à sucre with its warm maple syrup hardening to taffy on snow. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.27)

Armand Gamache is in old Quebec City, staying with his old friend and mentor, Émile Comeau.

Once again Gamache marveled at the beauty of this old city with its narrow winding streets, the stone buildings, the metal roofs piled with snow and ice. It was like falling into an ancient European town. ... It was a living, vibrant haven, a gracious city that had changed hands many times, but kept its heart. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.28)

He is not there for pleasure, but in need of help, to recover, yearning for peace, away from public attention.

Bury Your Dead brings a change of mood and pace to the series, with the opening chapters revealing three men experiencing the effects of trauma as the result of terrible events. Each copes with it in his own way.  

Armand Gamache has the company of Émile, but most days he also seeks solitude. He immerses himself in a daily routine of breakfasting, walking with his faithful companion, Henri, and finding refuge in an obscure Anglophone library researching the Battle of Quebec.

But he is tormented by memories and 'flashes', re-experiencing what has happened. While physically he is improving, psychologically he is burdened with the pain of loss, responsibility and guilt.

Too late, Chief Inspector Gamache realized he’d made a mistake. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.2)

Wisely, both Émile and Reine-Marie know how to give him space. They are careful with him, letting him be.
Should she say it? It was never far from her mind now, from her mouth. The words she knew were useless ... Certainly she knew they could not make the thing happen. If they could she would surround him with them, encase him with her words. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.3) 
Émile gently counsels Gamache to give himself time to recover ... 'Avec le temps'.
It was a tell-tale tremble, and Émile knew the terrible tale it had to tell. He wished he could take that hand and hold it steady and tell him it would be all right. Because it would, he knew. With time. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.5)
How poignant, and we understand what is needed: time, support, space and finding a balance between these to gain perspective, to heal, find peace, but not forget.

Exterior and interior views of the Lit & His

And knowing Gamache as a Renaissance man, it is understandably his discovery of the library of the Literary and Historical Society, one of the last remaining Anglophone vestiges, where he finds some peace, a sanctuary amongst the books. And what fascinating history!

And inside Québec? An even smaller presence, the tiny English community. And within that? This place. The Literary and Historical Society. That held them and all their records, their thoughts, their memories, their symbols. Gamache didn’t have to look at the statue above him to know who it was. This place held their leaders, their language, their culture and achievements. Long forgotten or never known by the Francophone majority outside these walls but kept alive here. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.17) 
Arched windows broke up the bookcases and flooded the room with light, when there was light to catch. But the most striking part of the library was the balcony that curved above it. ... The room was filled with volume and volumes. With light. With peace. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.17) 
Statue of General James Wolfe
But peace is transient, and images and sounds still haunt him. One is particularly unsettling, always there, and he is 'never alone' as it plays with his sanity.
But louder than all of that was the quiet, trusting, young voice in his head. “I believe you, sir.” (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.17)
And he is also unsettled by the politely caring but insistent daily letters (and licorice pipes) from Gabri. He is living through the trauma of Olivier's imprisonment and responds by keeping the home fires burning, engaging with his friends as usual and living with a dogged belief in Olivier's innocence, that manifests itself in a repetitive cycle of one question to Gamache, "Why would Olivier move the body? It doesn't make sense. He didn’t do it, you know." Gabri has great conviction, and knows how to act on it.

From a distance, Gamache finally feels that conviction, too. He calls Beauvoir to investigate further in Three Pines. 

Jean-Guy Beauvoir is looking for an opportunity to escape the crushing attentiveness of Edith, from whom he is increasingly detached. He has withdrawn to his basement.
Hated how much he owed her. Hated how much she loved him. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.42)

And he hates how the ringing of a phone effects him, his heart almost stopping, every time it rings. And it wasn't getting any better.
The Chief’s secretary had answered the phone in the office. ... “Homicide,” he’d heard her say. And nothing had been the same since. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.44)

For Gamache, another distraction presents itself, too.  While he has discovered the Lit & His library, one of its board members, Elizabeth MacWhirter, has discovered him, and tries to enlist his support for the 'embattled' enclave, when the body of a prominent Francophone is found on the premises. 

Though reluctant, Gamache does agree to support the investigating officer, Inspector Langlois, for the sake of clarity. It's a murder case, afterall! Langlois has experienced some English/French language miscommunication with the head librarian upsetting her enough, that she stridently responds, 'The night is a strawberry'!

Voila! Our namesake!!

These opening chapters bring a rush of memories of recently discovering old Quebec City with two wonderful friends, the three of us intent on following the trail of Armand Gamache through the old  town.
Well we had some help by taking a fascinating Bury Your Dead walking tour, run by Tours Voir Quebec.

And with that experience in mind, and for this post, I've managed to bypass all of Gamache's breakfasts in the first four chapters, and allow one small reference to maple syrup taffy, grab my undivided attention!

It brought back a vivid memory of walking down lively rue Saint-Louis with my friends and coming across a restaurant, La Buche, with a snow bar (in the middle of summer!) for taffy making. How could we resist!

At the end of our meal, taffy was served at our table. What a delight! And  what a new tasting experience, with the sweet 'woodsy' taffy, still warm, melting in my mouth with luscious stickiness! Oh this maple syrup is wonderful stuff!

I thought I might re-create the taffy making experience using packed, crushed ice instead of snow. But with 'sweets' firmly in mind (this is doing my waistline no good at all!) I decided to make an ice-cream as an icy bed for the taffy. 
Of course, an ice-cream sundae! 

What better than warm, sticky taffy meeting a cold whisky ice-cream for a burst of sweet earthy, woodsy flavours. And if I topped it with a crunchy maple syrup/pecan praline, wouldn't I stop caring about my waistline? Well for a little while anyway!

As I reached for the the single malt, Scottish highlands whisky, I noticed the bottle of Drambuie that I had bought some time ago to flavour a custard for a marmalade steamed pudding.

Now Drambuie is a very smooth and fragrant whisky liqueur. Perfect for the ice-cream! So here it is...

Drambuie ice-cream sundae with maple syrup taffy and maple syrup/pecan praline 

Drambuie ice-cream
This is basically a vanilla ice-cream, further flavoured by Drambuie. Both the vanilla and Drambuie flavours come through clearly and complement each other very well.

6 free range egg yolks, at room temperature
3/4 cup of superfine/caster sugar
2 cups pure cream
1 cup of whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split
4tbsp Drambuie (or whisky, if preferred)

1.  In a saucepan on medium heat, stir the cream, milk and vanilla bean (scrape some seeds into the liquid) until just before it reaches simmering point. Remove from heat.

2.Whisk the yolks and sugar together in a bowl until thick, glossy and a light colour. Pour in the cream mixture and mix well together.

3.Return the mixture including the vanilla bean to the cleaned saucepan and cook over a medium to low heat for at least ten minutes, while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Do not let the mixture simmer. Allow the mixture to slowly thicken.

4.Remove from heat and cool. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. 

5.Churn for 20 minutes and then add the Drambuie and churn for another 5-10 minutes. Pour into a container, cover and freeze for at least 6 hours.

This is a very creamy ice-cream and won't freeze rock hard because of the alcohol in it. Perfect for a sundae! 

Note: If you don't have a churn, use a hand beater to whisk the ice-cream mixture as it starts to freeze. Repeat twice more (every hour or so).

Maple syrup/pecan praline

I had made almond praline with sugar for the dessert in my previous post, so when faced with the idea of an ice-cream sundae I naturally thought of 'nuts'. It occurred to me that maple syrup would really add a rich and special flavour to praline. I wasn't mistaken. Isn't it a universal truth that pecans and maple syrup were made for each other?

1/2 cup of maple syrup (I used 'Canada no.1 Medium')
1 cup of raw pecan nuts
pinch of sea salt flakes

1.  Heat the maple syrup in a saucepan to about 250F/120C, to reduce and caramelise it. 

2.  Add the pecans and stir constantly with a wooden spoon.
3.  The sugar will crystallise and appear sandy and then gradually liquefy to a dark caramel colour. Keep stirring to coat the pecans completely with the caramel. Reduce the heat if necessary so that the nuts don't burn.

4.  Pour onto a baking sheet covered with baking paper. Sprinkle with sea salt flakes. Break up any clumps with the spoon. Store in an air tight container when cool.
This praline is bursting with a deep, rich caramel flavour (more complex than when using sugar), with a slightly bitter note. I love it!

Maple syrup taffy

1/2 cup of maple syrup

I used 'Canada no.1 Light' for the taffy as I didn't want the flavour to overpower the ice-cream, also given that the praline has a strong flavour.

Heat the maple syrup  in a saucepan over medium heat to 235F/110C, or the soft ball stage. Don't let it heat too quickly and burn. Remove from the heat and let sit for a minute or two.

Serving the sundae

Scoop ice-cream into a stemmed glass or dish. Drizzle warm maple syrup taffy over and around the scoops. Sprinkle finely chopped pecan praline over the ice-cream and taffy. Eat immediately!!

These flavours were made for each other. Not sickly sweet at all.  And as for the cold ice-cream melting under the influence of the warm gooey taffy and releasing its Drambuie essence, well what could be more delicious? I know...the added crunchy brittleness and deep rich flavour of the pecan praline!

Seconds are in order!! Blow the waistline...

Oh, and The Night Really is a Strawberry. Louise Penny said so!!

With thanks to a very, dear friend who bought me this copy, attended a signing in North Carolina and had it personalised by Louise Penny, then sent it to me, in Australia.

How wonderful!! And how lucky am I!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Chicken Pesto Sandwich and Letting Go

by Amy

Hungry?” Gamache opened the door to the old train station and held out the brown paper bag.
“Starving, merci.” Beauvoir almost ran over, and taking the bag he pulled out a thick sandwich of chicken, Brie and pesto. There was also a Coke and patisserie.”

Years ago, when I first started dating my husband, I gave him a picture book. It was written by a Brazilian author and educator: Rubem Alves. It told the story of a little girl and her beautiful multicolored bird. The bird traveled all over the world and, every time he came home, his plumage would have the colors of the last place he’d visited. He spent hours with the little girl telling her stories of the places he’d been and the people he’d met.

The little girl loved her bird and his fascinating stories and yearned for his return whenever he flew away. One day she had a brilliant idea. She decided to build him a lavish golden cage. It was the most beautiful cage in the world and she was excited for his return because she knew he’d be happy in that cage, and she would be happy because he would always be with her and tell her stories.

The bird came home. He saw the cage. He loved the little girl and didn’t want to disappoint her. He stepped into the cage and did his best to keep her company, but when he lost the freedom to fly, he also lost the source of his entertaining stories. Without his travels, his feathers lost their reflected colors and became gray and lifeless.

I’m not sure what my husband – who was then a 20 year old in his first real relationship – thought I was trying to tell him. He did tell me - a few years into the relationship - not to mourn if he died doing something he loved. He enjoyed some risky sports at the time. I laughed and said he couldn't tell me not to mourn. I would keep in mind that he'd died happy... and that might be of some comfort. He is a lot like the bird, I think… In our twenty years together I have never tried to put him in a cage. Although, unlike the bird, I doubt he’d meekly comply and willingly lock himself in.

This is not an anti-marriage or anti-fidelity manifesto. That’s not what the story is about. The story was written for parents and children, originally, and speaks of the impulse we have, when we love someone, to keep them sheltered and safe and as close to us as possible. As parents we want to shield our children. As spouses, our reflex is to want to protect our loved one. Isn’t that what Madame Gamache knows so well and Annie is beginning to understand?

“Inspector Beauvoir finished his lunch and went to direct the setup of the Incident Room. Agent Lacoste left to conduct interviews. A part of Gamache always hated to see his team members go off. He warned them time and again not to forget what they were doing, and who they were looking for. A killer.”

The Chief, like most everyone, is both protected and protector. Beauvoir is probably the one who most watches out for him; he’s almost a mother hen at times – although I doubt he’d appreciate the comparison. Gamache's protectiveness carries the weight of leadership as well. It’s not an easy burden at the best of times and, in Gamache’s case, when the dangers are quite real and can easily boil down to life and  death, it’s especially fearsome.

“The Chief Inspector had lost one agent, years ago, to a murderer. He was damned if he was going to lose another. But he couldn’t protect them all, all the time. Like Annie, he finally had to let them go.”

He not only couldn’t protect them all, all the time, usually he can’t really protect them at all. This paragraph is foreshadowing. It proves he’s always known it’s a Herculean task. It doesn’t mean he excuses himself from the responsibility. Nor does it mean he forgives himself for the loss.

I know how he feels. I can empathize, as a mother, with the desire to keep a child safe and sheltered and away from all harm. I understand the angst of being aware of the dangers in the world and knowing, with devastating certainty, that even if I were to be with my son every minute of every day, I would not be enough to shield him from the minor, much less the great perils of life.
I think we all can empathize.

“It was clear as Chief Inspector he had to consider everyone a suspect. But it was also clear he wasn’t happy about it.”

This phrase says a lot about Gamache's character. While he is undoubtedly aware of evil and danger, he doesn’t dwell in it. While he recognizes that everyone is a potential suspect, he would prefer to view them all as potential friends.

At first glance, his predicament is very different from our own. Unlike Gamache, we are not required to consider everyone a suspect… Are we? I was shaken to discover that his unhappiness in having to suspect his fellow man wasn’t as alien a feeling as I’d first thought.

Walking alone in the evening in my city, I tend to see men as threats before I’d consider them friendly. If I stop at a street light and someone walks towards my car, I not only keep my windows up and doors locked, I tend to avoid eye contact. We teach our children not to talk to strangers (although my own son hasn’t been as indoctrinated as I was as a child – I probably err on the side of the pendulum that assumes people are nice and not potential kidnappers). But still. It’s a sobering thought.

It is in this world, full of peril and evil and danger that we must be prepared to let our loved ones go. I think the only way to do this (and not lose my mind) is to acknowledge that while there are risks, there is much more wonder. It’s worth it.

Life was not meant to be lived within a safety bubble. Letting go may feel frightening at times but, like the bird in the story, we should not deprive those we love of the wonder that is in the world. Like Gamache, we can recognize danger, but choose not to dwell on it. We can dwell, instead, on grace and beauty and love and goodness and hope.

Three Pines is a beacon of hope (even if it does appear to have the highest rate of murder per capita in the fictional world). Louise Penny wrote books in which light pours in through the cracks, goodness prevails and characters find grace and hope and resilience in trying and horrendous situations.

May we all, like Gamache, let our loved ones go… even as we keep an eye on them and do our utmost to ensure their safety without caging them. And may we all remember that while there is danger and evil in this world, there is grace. And hope. And goodness. And love.

On the homepage of her website,  Louise Penny says just that. And I quote:

“My books are about terror. That brooding terror curled deep down inside us. But more than that, more than murder, more than all the rancid emotions and actions, my books are about goodness. And kindness. About choices. About friendship and belonging. And love. Enduring love. If you take only one thing away from any of my books I’d like it to be this:
Goodness exists.”
She’s right. And, reading her books, it isn’t hard to acquiesce to her request.