#21.2 Starting from Paumanok, verse 2

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But wait, it’s not Wednesday! In honor of World Poetry Day, I thought I’d do my Whitman Wednesday a day early. It’s been a while, so to refresh your memory, we are currently trekking through Book II of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Book II is a 19 verse poem, so I thought we’d take it a verse at a time. (See verse one here).

Victory, union, faith, identity, time,
 The indissoluble compacts, riches, mystery,
 Eternal progress, the kosmos, and the modern reports.
 This then is life,
 Here is what has come to the surface after so many throes and convulsions.

 How curious! how real!
 Underfoot the divine soil, overhead the sun.

 See revolving the globe,
 The ancestor-continents away group’d together,
 The present and future continents north and south, with the isthmus
     between.

 See, vast trackless spaces,
 As in a dream they change, they swiftly fill,
 Countless masses debouch upon them,
 They are now cover’d with the foremost people, arts, institutions, known.

 See, projected through time,
 For me an audience interminable.

 With firm and regular step they wend, they never stop,
 Successions of men, Americanos, a hundred millions,
 One generation playing its part and passing on,
 Another generation playing its part and passing on in its turn,
 With faces turn’d sideways or backward towards me to listen,
 With eyes retrospective towards me.

Whitman sees life as a succession of people, each one playing his/her part and then moving on. Their eyes are all looking back to hear Whitman speaking. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a Whitman stanza, so I had forgotten how pompous he can be at times – he is so confident, at least in his writings, that he is going to be read and listened to for generations. But in a way, the absolute confidence that life moves on one generation after another, but that these generations will all share something in common (a love for Whitman, maybe?), is reassuring to me in today’s political climate.

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As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well! If you’re hesitant, take a peek at the free Leaves of Grass eBook at Project Gutenberg.

Pulitzer Project: The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck (1932)

The Good Earth.jpgA Brief Summary: Wang Lung is a poor farmer who has dreams of a better life. In the beginning of the book, he lives in a small two room mud hut with his elderly father. The book opens on his wedding day, where he has finally been able to purchase a slave, O-lan, from the wealthiest family in town, to bring home as a wife. Together, Wang Lung and O-lan toil to build a life together. We follow Wang Lung’s rise to fortune, lands, and wives. As Wang Lung slowly amasses land and fortunes, he slowly becomes the same kind of  corrupt landowner that he grew up hating. Meanwhile, China is undergoing the turbulence of famines and revolutions – the Xinhai Revolution.

Setting: Anhui, China

Time Period: 1911-ish

A Fun Fact: Not sure if this fact is “fun” but Anna May Wong was denied the role as the leading lady in the film adaptation because she was “too Chinese.” Instead, the role went to American/German actress Luise Rainer, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role.

Luise_Rainer_in_The_Good_Earth_trailer_2

Review: The legacy of this book is pretty controversial. Writer Celeste Ng has written a pretty scathing essay on all the reasons why she hates this book.

I hate The Good Earth because, all too often, it’s presented not as a work of fiction but as a lesson on Chinese culture. Too many people read it and sincerely believe they gain some special insight into being Chinese. In one quick step, they know China, like Neo in The Matrix knows kung fu.

I agree with Ng in a lot of ways. If I am being generous, I would say that maybe in the 1930s, this book was seen as revolutionary or insightful on life in a foreign country. I think that like Oliver La Farge and Julia Peterkin, the authors’ hearts are in the right place. Pearl S. Buck was the daughter of missionaries and spent a good part of her life actually living in China (about 42 years.) She was even awarded the Nobel Prize for “her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.”

anna may wong

Anna May Wong

But, like Scarlet Sister Mary, I don’t think this book really stands the test of time. It’s important to keep in mind, that at the time this book came out, there were still miscegenation laws in America, so that a Chinese actress could not kiss a White actor on screen. So of course it’s logical for 1930s-America to accept at face-value that Buck is an expert on China. While I didn’t find her writing as ridiculous as Peterson’s, the tone of the book seemed very judgmental. She writes like an anthropologist observing uncultured heathens in their natural environment.

 

But the writing and story itself, if we examine it strictly from plot and character development, are quite compelling. Wang Lung is a pretty fully fleshed out person; he’s flawed, selfish, ambitious, and hard working. The story of a man’s rise from rags to riches is common and crosses cultural identities. I would honestly have been more interested if Buck wrote more about life as a missionary in China, and I would have perhaps found her observations more compelling in a different medium (memoir? essays?). I’m sure she’s written other books, but it does irk me, as a Chinese-American, that Pearl S. Buck’s name is so synonymous with Chinese fiction.

My only other criticism is that by the end of the book, Buck has beaten the metaphor of “good earth” to death. She is obsessed with the idea of land as provider, the Good Earth. There are better books to read about farmers, about the Chinese revolution, and about how people can become corrupt or greedy as they become wealthier.

“Wang Lung sat smoking, thinking of the silver as it had lain upon the table. It had come out of the earth, this silver, out of the earth that he ploughed and turned and spent himself upon. He took his life from the earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver. Each time before this that he had taken the silver out to give to anyone, it had been like taking a piece of his life and giving it to someone carelessly. But not for the first time, such giving was not pain. He saw, not the silver in the alien hand of a merchant in the town; he saw the silver transmuted into something worth even more than life itself – clothes upon the body of his son.”

The importance of diversity and representation is that no single book becomes the defining book of a culture or nation. I’ve probably said this a million times, but I think what we need to do is read widely, so that we can see a cross-section of a time or culture. I wouldn’t recommend this book as an introduction to Chinese culture, but then again, I wouldn’t recommend any single book as an introduction to Chinese culture (or any culture).

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Review: A Whole Life, Robert Seethaler

A Whole Life

“Every life, when you look back on it, reduces itself to a few moments. The moments are what stay with us.” – Robert Seethaler

Andreas Egger’s life may seem small to the passing observer, fitting neatly within A Whole Life, a slim 160-paged novella. (Just compare this to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which was a sprawling 720-pages. Although, I haven’t read that one yet!) But do not be fooled, it takes quite a bit of skill for Viennese-born author Robert Seethaler to distill Egger’s life into a few defining moments: dropping a bowl of cereal one morning, being draped over a cow saddle to be spanked by an unloving uncle, building a small fence along the edge of his property. These small moments culminate into a beautifully observed life. There are some important big moments too, but I don’t want to spoil the book for you.

What struck me the most about this book is that the setting almost doesn’t matter. When World War II begins, Eggers leaves his village in the Austrian Alps to enlist in the army. Not because he feels patriotic or passionate, but because it is what everyone else is doing. It didn’t even occur to me that Eggers would be fighting for the Nazis until Seethaler writes, “He… was relieved when he soon saw the familiar red of the swastikas glimmering towards him.” (“Humane Nazis” seem to be popping up in my reading a lot this year, something I’m still wrestling with, and I’ll be telling you about Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night soon.)

As I read A Whole Life, I was immediately reminded of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, a connection, as I later found out, a lot of people have made. They are both novellas, both containing some surreally beautiful moments – an entire mountain lit up in candles for a wedding proposal, a pack of wolves running and howling in the middle of the night with a little wolf girl. I wouldn’t say these are anything like magical realism, but instead, the writers have a way with creating images that haunt you long after you’ve finished reading. The setting and time period for both books could easily be swapped and you wouldn’t even notice – one is cutting trees to make room for a transcontinental railroad while the other is cutting trees to make room for alpine cable cars. Nazi or American Patriot, the writers have both created very realistic and human portraits of a lifetime within 160+ pages. 

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I would recommend this book to you if you liked Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, or Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. I see a similar line of style, plot, and technique running through all of these books. Have you read these before? Do you agree?

#21: Starting from Paumanok

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Happy New Year, friends! (Even though we are already halfway through January – how is that possible?) I have been in the midsts of a busy tax season & new semester at school, so things have been hectic, to say the least. But I have been reading a lot and still have so many things I want to think about with you, so I thought the easiest way to ease back into writing regularly is with a Whitman Wednesday post. Today, we start on Book II of Leaves of Grass. The first poem here, “Starting from Paumanok” is really long, 19 pieces, so here’s just the first part.

Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born,
  Well-begotten, and rais'd by a perfect mother,
  After roaming many lands, lover of populous pavements,
  Dweller in Mannahatta my city, or on southern savannas,
  Or a soldier camp'd or carrying my knapsack and gun, or a miner
      in California,
  Or rude in my home in Dakota's woods, my diet meat, my drink from
      the spring,
  Or withdrawn to muse and meditate in some deep recess,
  Far from the clank of crowds intervals passing rapt and happy,
  Aware of the fresh free giver the flowing Missouri, aware of
      mighty Niagara,
  Aware of the buffalo herds grazing the plains, the hirsute and
      strong-breasted bull,
  Of earth, rocks, Fifth-month flowers experienced, stars, rain, snow,
      my amaze,
  Having studied the mocking-bird's tones and the flight of the
      mountain-hawk,
  And heard at dawn the unrivall'd one, the hermit thrush from the
      swamp-cedars,
  Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.

Do you remember discovering where Whitman was born? (He lived in Long Island, if you forgot!) Here, I think he’s venturing out of his fish-shaped home (do you think Long Island looks like a little fish attached to New York State?) and he’s discovering the rest of America, from Manhattan to North Dakota.

I think this is a great poem to think about as I start the new year. I have been in such a rush to meet deadlines at school and work, that I haven’t taken any time to withdraw “to muse and meditate in some deep recess” which is honestly all I want to do every December. I have been reading “White Trash” right now, which is a 400 year history of class in America, so I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what life was like in the 18th and 19th century. I have been questioning whether our current idea of growing up in a log cabin is actually quaint and completely false. But I digress. After an insane 2016, this poem has instilled in me a renewed sense of hope, exploration, and curiosity as we strike up for a New Year.

How about you? What are your New Year resolutions? What are you reading? Please tell me everything since we last spoke.

#20: I Hear America Singing

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Hi Friends, we are almost in December, can you believe it? This is the 20th Whitman Wednesday, marking five months of poetry! Today’s poem is “I Hear America Singing.”

  I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
  Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
  The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
  The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
  The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
      singing on the steamboat deck,
  The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as
      he stands,
  The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning,
      or at noon intermission or at sundown,
  The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
      or of the girl sewing or washing,
  Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
  The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
      fellows, robust, friendly,
  Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

The more Whitman I read, the more I feel like poetry is a mirror. Poems often reflect their surroundings or the state of the reader more than anything else. It’s hard not to be political these days; it’s hard not to read in between the lines all of the time. It has been especially hard for me to read Whitman, that old patriotic bastard! In this poem, I see a really idealistic and beautiful version of America, the version that I think we all have in our minds. It is a really stark contrast to the news headlines today. I suppose Whitman has an outdated view of America – women do more than sew, sing, and wash these days (thankfully). I’ve been thinking a lot about the “forgotten” white voters who are nostalgic for the past. I hope Whitman’s America is what they are nostalgic for, and not for a pre-abolition, pre-women’s suffrage America. Because doesn’t Whitman’s description seem lovely?

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As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!

Also, my friends and I are trying to start a little non-fiction book club to help us get informed and survive for the next four years. If you’re not afraid to get a little political, please let me know if you’d like to read along with us! Hopefully we’ll have some discussions on Goodreads and Facebook, in addition to real life meetings.

Pulitzer Project: Laughing Boy, Oliver La Farge (1930)

the pulitzer project

laughing boy.jpgA Brief Summary*: At a ceremonial dance, the young, earnest silversmith Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful but elusive “American”-educated Navajo. As they experience all of the joys and uncertainties of first love, the couple must face a changing way of life and its tragic consequences

Setting: T’o Tlakai, a fictional town in Southwestern America

Time Period: 1914

A Fun Fact: The book was adapted into a movie in 1934.

Review: After the disappointment of Scarlet Sister Mary, I was hesitant to pick up Laughing Boy when I saw it was a “Navajo” love story written by a rich white guy from Rhode Island. But, I gave La Farge a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t completely blown away, but I enjoyed the book much more than I expected. Turns out, La Farge was an anthropologist who spent most of his life fighting for Native American rights. I think it was this interest and devotion that helped him create complex characters, especially in comparison to the caricatures we saw Julia Peterkin create.

This book tells the love story of Laughing Boy and Slim Girl. Laughing Boy is jealous of Slim Girl’s American education, while Slim Girl is trying to learn the traditional Navajo skills to fit into the community. It’s endearing to see the two of them try to figure out their place in society together, but neither of them ever feel like they fit in. I related to this predicament, as I’m sure most children of immigrants would. As Laughing Boy introduces Slim Girl to a lot of Navajo traditions, such as dances, horse taming, and blanket weaving, La Farge gives us a very basic primer as well. La Farge writes respectfully; for example, he keeps a lot of the traditional songs in the Native Navajo language instead of trying to translate into English. The book has a timeless feel, and I think part of this is due to such a narrow cast of characters and plot. Most of the story revolves around the two main characters, but we get a few glimpses into other people’s lives here and there. One scene I really liked happens when a few young Navajos go into a general store to play a prank on the storeowner.

I think there is an interesting trend going on in the Pulitzer awards. Between 1928 – 1932, four of the five books are about non-White people (even though they all had very White authors). We have just visited Peru in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the Gullah people in Scarlet Sister Mary, we are visiting the Navajo here, and in just two short years, we’ll be out of the country, in China, with Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. I am always thinking about the importance of diversity, and it’s nice to see the Pulitzer juries valued this even 100 years ago. However, I will definitely be eagerly looking forward to the first person of color to win the Pulitzer! Just taking a brief glance at the list, I’m not sure when this is – does anyone know?

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I would recommend this book to people who are curious about Native American literature, but honestly, if you are, I would suggest you start with Native American authors, like Louise Erdrich, for starters. While I enjoyed the book more than expected, I don’t think I would recommend this to friends or revisit this book in the future.

#19: When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

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Hi Friends, if you’re just tuning in, every Wednesday, we talk Whitman! We are still trekking our way through the first section of Leaves of Grass, but I thought I’d mix things up a bit today. I was reading The New Yorker on the couch this Sunday, when I spotted a reference to a familiar face in this article: Ishion Hutchinson, Post-Post Colonial Poet, a review on Hutchinson’s second book of poetry, House of Lords and Commons.

But poets don’t want to be fodder for panels and colloquia, and Hutchinson’s poems are oppositional and disruptive, sometimes tauntingly so. “The Orator,” like Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” is a poem about poetry itself, its immediate purchase on the sublime, so much more powerful than classroom circumlocution. A lecture on “Caribbean Culture” is delivered by a “bore” who “was harping in dead metaphor / the horror of colonial heritage.” Suddenly, a thunderstorm knocks out the lights, and the lecturer now stands helpless in the dark

So I thought it would be fun to pull up Whitman’s poem next to Ishion’s. First up, Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

This poem is so quintessentially Whitman to me – shunning higher education institutions for the power of poetry and nature. Next up, Hutchinson’s “The Orator.”

Continue reading

Infinite Jest – Vocabulary II.

I had so much fun going through some of the vocabulary words I learned from the first chapter of DFW’s Infinite Jest (almost two months ago), that I thought I’d continue to share some of the more interesting words and sentences here. I am still slowly working my way through Infinite Jest, but I am hope to be able to devote a nice chunk of time to it over the winter holidays.

  • Presbyopia: prezbēˈōpēə (noun) – farsightedness caused by loss of elasticity of the lens of the eye, occurring typically in middle and old age. Literally means old-eyed.

O. stood there, he says, hefting a cold clod, playing with the Velcro on his puffy coat, watching as the Moms, bent way down to me, hand reaching, her lowering face with its presbyopic squint, suddenly stopped, froze, beginning to I.D. what it was I held out, countenancing evidence of oral contact with same.

  • Enfilade: enfəˌlād (noun) -a volley of gunfire directed along a line from end to end

Uncle Charles, a truly unparalleled slinger of shit, is laying down an enfilade of same, trying to mollify men who seem way more in need of a good brow-mopping than I.

  • Fantods: fantäds (noun) – a state or attack of uneasiness or unreasonableness; the creeps!

Roaches give him the howling fantods.

  • Apocopes: əˈpäkəpē (noun) -losses of syllables from words, particularly unstressed vowels

Gately could easily have screwed out of there and never looked back; but here indeed, in the lamplight, is a seascape over next to the chiffonnier, and the associate has a quick peek and reports that the safe behind it is to laugh at, it can be opened with harsh language, almost; and oral narcotics addicts tend to operate on an extremely rigid physical schedule of need and satisfaction, and Gately is at this moment firmly in the need part of the schedule; and so D.W. Gately disastrously decides to go ahed and allow a nonviolent burglary to become in effect a robbery – which the operative legal difference involves either violence or the coercive threat of same – and Gately draws himself up to his full menacing height and shines his flashlight in the little homeowner’s rheumy eyes and addresses him the way menacing criminals speak in popular entertainment – d’s for th’s, various apocopes, and so on…

I was going to type out the whole sentence, but I flipped the page and realized the sentence continued for another half a page!

What are some of the books you’ve read which require a big dictionary every page or so? What are some of your favorite archaic words? I think Howling Fantods is one of the best phrases I have read in a while.

#18: The Ship Starting

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“The Ship Starting”

Lo, the unbounded sea,
On its breast a ship starting, spreading all sails, carrying even
her moonsails.
The pennant is flying aloft as she speeds she speeds so stately—
below emulous waves press forward,
They surround the ship with shining curving motions and foam.

Vocabulary Word of the Day:
Emulous: seeking to emulate or imitate someone or something.

I think this poem has a nice cadence to it, so I would recommend reading it out loud. I like the repetitive use of “she speeds, she speeds.” We’ve seen a lot of water and sailing imagery so far in “Leaves of Grass,” whether Whitman is comparing his book to a boat – the lone bark cleaving the ether – or calling himself a river man. I think Whitman uses water in many way. Oceans are both frontiers to be crossed and part of the natural world that Whitman champions. Water nourishes us as well as separates us from one another creating boundaries and borders. I should compile a list of some of the water metaphors that Whitman has used so far – I’m excited to see what Whitman does next!

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As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!

Review: Martha Stewart’s Vegetables

Sorry for the radio silence over here, friends. I was feeling pretty uninspired all of October, I don’t think I even finished a single book. And then this past week has been a doozy, hasn’t it? I am emotionally and spiritually exhausted. I have been pottering around the kitchen and taking a lot of naps. I thought I’d focus some of my energy away from politics and the news by adding what I hope becomes a regular column about Learning to Cook. Here, we will be doing our usual cookbook reviews, but also (hopefully) sharing other recipes and stories with you as well. What better way to start a culinary adventure than with Martha Stewart?


Martha Stewart, domestic and culinary goddess, recently released a new cookbook on Vegetables. I have been searching for ways to bring more veggies into my life. While I love salads and stews, sometimes you just want something different. Do not be fooled by the title, this is not a book for vegetarians. I was a little disappointed by this, because while veggies are in every recipe, they are not necessarily the star of each meal. I don’t need Martha to tell me I can add onions to a stir fry, do you?

The book is organized by types of vegetables – flowers, tubers, legumes, etc. While I can understand this categorization, I think I would have preferred the book to be organized by season. (I know, I know, you could also argue that different types of vegetables are also a form of eating seasonally.) There are photographs of each recipe, which I really loved. The food is all beautifully plated and presented – the photographs alone are worth flipping through the book to look at.

The first recipe I tried was her Roasted Pork Chops with Sweet Potatoes and Apples, because I was feeling the autumn crisp in the air and excited for fall produce. I’ve shared the recipe below, along with some of my notes:

Ingredients:

  • 4 bone-in pork chops, each about 1 inch thick (about 2 1/2 pounds total)
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
  • 1 large sweet onion, such as Vidalia, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
  • 1/3 cup apple-cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup apple cider
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 2 apples, preferably Honeycrisp, thinly sliced, seeds removed

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Season pork with salt and pepper. Heat a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat; swirl in oil. Cook chops until golden brown, turning once, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Remove all but 2 tablespoons fat from skillet.

  2. Reduce heat to medium. Add potatoes and onion; season with salt. Cook until golden in spots, about 10 minutes. Add vinegar and cider. Cover and simmer, stirring a few times, until potatoes are tender, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with caraway seeds. Return pork and juices to skillet; tuck apple slices between chops. Roast until a thermometer inserted into thickest part of chops (without touching bone) registers 138 degrees, about 10 minutes. Serve pork, vegetables, and apples with pan juices.

Jessica’s Notes:
I am not especially a fan of sweeter dishes. I generally prefer savory, spicy, & salty things. That being said, this recipe made some very juicy and tender pork chops. I think the combination of sweet potato, apples, and apple-cider vinegar was a little too much for me. I think next time, I would replace the sweet potato with normal potatoes and throw in some jalapenos or star anise for an extra kick. The recipe suggests you could use apple juice instead of apple cider vinegar, but I think the acidity of the vinegar is really necessary. As I’ve been cooking more and more, I have become feeling more confident about modifying recipes. I might try tweaking and writing my own recipes in the future.

The recipes in Martha’s book range from very simple salads to slightly more complex meals. I think it’s a pretty safe choice for beginner cooks like me, because you could slowly build a repertoire that you feel confident about. There are a wide range of recipes, so there will be something for any palate. I like that there are a manageable number of recipes, so that you don’t feel completely overwhelmed the way you might when you’re browsing online.

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I would recommend this book to people who love beautiful cookbooks and who are looking for ways to incorporate more veggies into their lives. However, like most recipes, a lot of these are available on Martha’s website.

  • I’d like to thank Blogging for Books for sending me this book in return for an honest review.