2018 Books, Pt. 1 / Turkey Meatballs

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This week’s recipe: Turkey Meatballs in Arrabiata Sauce

Here it is, what you’ve all been waiting for: the (second) annual roundup of the books I’ve read this year. Enjoy!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

To be fair, this was actually a reread, but it was so long ago (I was in high school) that I didn’t remember anything about it beyond the barest plot outlines. I saw it was on sale on Audible and remembered liking it so I bought it, and I’m so glad I did. This book deserves all the accolades it got, and more. It’s a big, meaty, decade- and continent-spanning novel that is also compulsively readable, brilliantly written but never ostentatious. It’s the rare ambitious literary novel that’s actually fun to read, just good old-fashioned, cleverly plotted storytelling.

Josef (later anglicized to Joe) Kavalier is a teenager and aspiring escape artist living in Nazi-occupied Prague. With the help of his teacher, he smuggles himself out of Europe in a coffin. He goes to live with his cousin Sammy Klayman (later anglicized to Clay) in Brooklyn, and the two of them create a superhero called The Escapist who specializes in fighting fascists; Joe draws and Sammy writes the stories. They find money, success, and love—Joe with another young artist named Rosa, Sammy with an actor who plays The Escapist on the radio—but Joe can’t extract his family from Europe, and eventually The Escapist beating up Nazis is no longer enough for him. Meanwhile, Sammy is forced to sublimate his own desires, sacrificing romantic love and creative fulfillment for 1950s-style conformity.

The book is a fascinating meditation on what it means to create art, and can be read as a cry to recognize comics as a worthwhile artistic endeavor. In the year 2018, superhero properties are a dominant cultural force, and so it seems that Chabon got his wish. I’m not much of a fan of comic books or superheroes, but especially with Stan Lee’s recent death, it’s worth retelling the story of Jewish men who channeled their lack of physical or political power into creating eternal champions for the oppressed and downtrodden.

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perotta

I went into this novel with a fundamental misunderstanding of what it was about. I knew the plot centered on a middle-aged mother who undergoes a sexual awakening when she discovered MILF-related porn (all true), but I thought she became a porn star herself (false). The titular Mrs. Fletcher is Eve, a divorced empty nester who longs to connect with her fratty son, Brendan. After an anonymous text introduces her to the world of porn, she becomes more adventurous and imaginative, signing up for a community college class on Gender and Society and seeing the erotic potential in everyone she meets, including her new classmates and professor. Meanwhile, Brendan, who had expected college to be a breeze of parties, substance use, and co-eds, flames out both socially and academically. Tom Perotta excels at writing meathead teenage boys with a secret sensitive side, and you feel for Brendan as he tries and fails to fit into a social milieu that rewards wokeness instead of bro-dom. (It helps that, although the novel rotates between the perspective of several characters, Brendan is the only one who speaks in first person.) But while Brendan flails, his mother blossoms, and it’s refreshing to read a book (by a male novelist, no less!) that takes the lives and potential of middle-aged women seriously.

Mrs. Fletcher explores the effect that the proliferation of porn has had on our most intimate relationships, but not in the typical preachy or alarmist way. Brendan has been steeped in porn for so long that it destroys his ability to relate to women authentically, but for Eve, it’s a portal to imagining a new life after years of stagnation. There’s less a plot than a thematically connected series of events, and if you’ve ever read a Tom Perotta novel before, you’ll know that his prose style can best be described as “serviceable.” But the characters are compelling, the themes are relevant, and despite some very dirty stuff, there’s something sweet and gentle about it that made it an incredibly likable novel.

One of Us by Asne Seierstad

This was probably the hardest book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a LOT of depressing books. I would often have to stop the audiobook because I’d find myself crying as I walked around New York City. Seierstad gives a forensic recounting of the 2011 Utoya massacre and its aftereffects. She vividly conveys the confusion, fear, and horror of the day, and does not spare details of exactly how the victims died or were injured; the way that bullets ripped through their abdomens, the way that touching their own brain matter felt, the way that perpetrator Anders Behring Breivik stood on the rocks, laughing and shooting at them, as they tried to swim to safety.

Anders Behring Breivik was an odd duck with an absent father and unstable mother. He hopped from clique to clique in the hopes of finding a sense of belonging. He finally found a home in online far-right communities, where he spent many hours imbibing a hatred of feminism, multiculturalism, and Islam. He decided to assassinate the Norwegian prime minister and murder as many people as he could so that the world would be exposed to his message of hatred at his trial (for this reason, he wanted to get caught in the act and taken alive, to the extent that he actually called the police to surrender several times during his killing spree). Interwoven with Breivik’s story is the story of some of the teenage victims—most prominently Simon, a rising star in the youth wing of the Labor Party, and Bano, a Kurdish refugee who found a home in Norway. These threads converge on that fateful July day, when Breivik’s careful planning and a disgracefully inadequate response by the Norwegian police left 77 dead.

I’m glad that I read this book, but I’ll never read it again. Despite Seierstad’s incredible journalism, you don’t come away with an understanding of how Breivik made the transition from petty delinquent to mass murderer. That’s as it should be—the crime is too horrible for any pat explanations. Instead, all you are left with is an overwhelming sense of despair at all of these young lives ended or ruined because of a phantom threat.

Fitness Junkie by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza

This was my favorite beach read of the year, although I read it in February—I particularly enjoyed listening to the audiobook while at the gym. Our heroine is Janey Sweet, the CEO of a wedding dress firm. The dress designer is her longtime best friend, a stereotypical bitchy gay guy named Beau, who informs her at the beginning of the novel that she needs to lose 30 pounds or else be fired for hurting their brand. Because Beau owns the majority of the company, Janey has no choice but to embark on a number of ridiculous diet and exercise regimens to try to get her life back.

This book was definitely fluffy and entertaining, but it also had interesting things to say about diet culture—how we associate certain body types with virtue and self-worth; how “wellness” can often have nothing to do with actual health; who profits from all this, and who suffers. I didn’t remotely care about the romance subplot (Janey has to choose between two kind, attractive, sexually compatible men, boohoo), but I think the authors deemphasized romance intentionally. For instance, Janey is recently divorced, but it doesn’t seem to affect her emotional life nearly as much as Beau’s betrayal. The book makes Janey and Beau’s friendship seem real and lived-in, which makes the pain he causes her all the more acute. Their relationship, rather than any romance, is the heart of the novel, and is the catalyst for Janey’s growth and self-discovery—a rare and welcome development in the world of chick lit. But all that aside, it’s simply a very funny satire of the health and wellness industry.

My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

I was the last person in the world to read the Neapolitan Novels (and I’m only partway through the third one, so this is only a review of the first two). Mark, who is not a big reader, absolutely devoured them, staying up until 1 am to finish them, and since we were going to be in the Naples region for our honeymoon, I decided I should give them a shot. I feel like, before reading my assessment, it’s instructive to know that I hated Pride and Prejudice. Why, I wondered, were we reading this chick lit about a girl looking for a rich husband in English class? I now understand that the plot of every other chick lit novel—spunky protagonist who don’t need no man meets a wealthy, appealing, but kind of douchey dude, they initially spar, then he wears down her defenses and they fall in love—was built on the prototype created by Pride and Prejudice. So while I can recognize that my criticism was unfair, I can’t help how I reacted to it. Same goes for the first two Neapolitan novels.

The books are the story of two best friends, the insecure, introspective Elena and the intense, volatile Lila, growing up in postwar Naples. Both are excellent students but Lila is forced to cut off her schooling early, and while Elena goes on to high school and university, Lila enters an unhappy marriage and, like everyone else in their village, lives a life shaped by poverty, violence, and corruption. Despite Elena’s educational advantages, she regards her more naturally gifted friend with a mixture of admiration and envy that borders on obsession—which was the source of most of my issues with the books.

Elena feels less like a fully realized character and more like a vessel to talk about Lila’s life. (For instance, Elena publishes a novel, but we never learn what it’s called or much of what it’s about; all that we are told is that Elena considers it a ripoff of a story Lila wrote when they were 10.) Through Elena’s fixation on Lila, it is clear that the latter is the character Ferrante finds most interesting, but I thought she was quite the Mary Sue, and it quickly began to grate on me. Lila is the best student, Lila has the quickest wit, Lila is the prettiest, Lila is the bravest, Lila is the best at designing shoes, Lila has never swum before but after five minutes she’s the fastest swimmer around. This boy is in love with Lila. This other boy is in love with Lila. That boy is in love with Lila, and so is his brother. This boy, who has never before expressed any kind of romantic feeling for Lila? Guess what—he’s in love with her. If you find Lila to be not endlessly fascinating but instead kind of an asshole, which I do, you start to get bored. And the plot is not exactly propulsive. I found My Brilliant Friend in particular to be claustrophobic and repetitive, which was maybe the point. Elena’s entire world consists of fewer than 20 people (somehow simultaneously too few and too many characters), and hearing about their drama is like listening to a friend tell you a boring story about people you don’t care about. There’s endless talk about who is going out with whom and who got what grade on the exam and who got beat up. I know that the characters are school-aged, but it’s all very high school.

It’s not all bad, of course. The books are well written (if over-reliant on certain verbal crutches—drink every time that Lila narrows her eyes) and give an immersive portrayal of postwar Naples in all its grit and airlessness. After so many Mafia stories where women are on the periphery, a close examination of the effects that the macho violent culture of southern Italy has on women’s lives is welcome. And I liked the second book better than the first, especially towards the end when Elena finally escapes the old neighborhood and Lila’s impulsiveness finally catches up with her, which is why I decided to keep reading (that, and I’m an inveterate completionist). But honestly, I don’t really understand what the big deal is.

So anyway, here’s some pasta and meatballs. Ashley Rodriguez’s Date Night In is one of my favorite cookbooks, so when I saw that she was coming out with a new book, I immediately preordered it. I’ve already made this meatball recipe twice, once with turkey and once with chicken, and it’s been a big hit both times.

Turkey Meatballs in Arrabiata Sauce

 

From Let’s Stay In

INGREDIENTS

1 pound/ 450 g ground dark turkey meat

1/2 cup / 50 grams finely grated Parmesan (ed note: I used nutritional yeast to keep it kosher)

1/3 cup/ 20 g panko bread crumbs

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Pinch chili flake

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

2 tablespoons finely chopped basil

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 small onion, finely diced, about 1/4 cup/60 g

1 egg

2 tablespoons olive oil

Arrabiata

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 anchovies, minced

4 garlic cloves, sliced

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chili flake (or more if desired)

28 ounce/800 g can crushed tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

INSTRUCTIONS

For the meatballs: In a large bowl combine the turkey, Parmesan, bread crumbs, salt, oregano, chili flake, parsley, basil, garlic, onion, and egg. Stir just until everything is well mixed but take care not to over mix as you don’t want to toughen the meat. Sear a small amount of the mixture then taste and adjust seasoning to your liking.

Add the olive oil to a large skillet or dutch oven. Sear the meatballs over high heat until a deep, dark crust forms. Remove the meatballs from the pan and set aside while you prepare the sauce.

For the sauce: Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to the pan and sauté the anchovy, garlic, and chili flake over medium high heat.

Once the garlic has turned golden carefully add the tomatoes. Stir in the oregano, sea salt, and pepper.

Return the meatballs to the pan then gently simmer until they are cooked through, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Serve over creamy polenta or pasta.

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