December 6, 2010

Last night I dreamed that bars around the country were offering discounts to patrons who were bringing in classic books and reading at the bar.  I walked into a lovely spot, some figment of my mind’s imagination, replete with soft light, reclaimed wood counters, and a suspender-sporting bartender who made me a wonderful Manhattan and inquired as to my progress with As I Lay Dying.

On Friday, I walked into class to discover a group of eighth graders honest-to-goodness excited about the reading they had done the night before.  “The book got really good, Ms. Mehra!”  “I couldn’t stop reading!”  (As an English teacher, life really doesn’t get much better than that).

“The book” they were talking about, To Kill a Mockingbird, is the first true piece of classic literature most of them have ever encountered, and it is one of my absolute favorite books of all time, one that keeps constant on my “Desert Island” list, one that I never tire of reading, never stop learning from, never cease being moved by (see: Dill carrying Atticus’ chair, the balcony standing for Atticus after the trial, & “Thank you for my children” at the very end).

I could go on and on and on about the wonder and glory and magic books; it is, after all, my job.  But since some friends asked me to, I’ll talk instead about specific books, classics that have shaped my aesthetics, books I think are worth re-visiting, or visiting for the first time.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a short smattering of my personal favorites.  I’m also slipping in a short list of more recent books that I loved in 2010.  Please do leave your recommendations, whether classic or current, in the comments.  Happy reading!


Fyodor Dostoevksy: The softest of spots in my heart for this author, whom I read for the first time my senior year of high school, and whose name I then adopted as the last name for my first car.  Both of the below books were required reading that year, and they both blew me away.  Brothers is much more of a commitment that C&P, and with both it helps to use a character list “cheat sheet” to keep up with the crazy Russian names, and to read only the best translation (the husband-and-wife pair of Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky do very fine work).

Crime & Punishment (inside the mind of one man; ethics; redemption)
The Brothers Karamazov (three brothers’ family saga; belief; truth)

George Eliot: Mary Ann Evans, author behind the pen name, is one of the finest observers of human nature that I’ve ever read.  Her unique position of being a woman, posing as a male author, writing about female characters, makes for some fascinating reader-author-narrator dynamics.

The Mill on the Floss (brother & sister dynamics; duty; disappointment)
Middlemarch (large cast of characters; purpose of marriage; place of women)

Arthur Miller: One of the great American dramatists; I think our historical time is ripe for revisiting these plays now that half-a-century-plus has passed.  These are also often taught in high schools and colleges, but as with all classics, I think there is a real richness that comes when we revisit such literature as adults, with the layered perspectives of lived experience.

Death of a Salesman (father & sons; dreams & disappointment; the American way of life)
The Crucible (mob mentality; scapegoats; fear of the other)

Tennessee Williams: I spent the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school reading everything that Tennessee Williams had ever written.  Guess I should have known then that I would end up an English teacher, eh?  It’s a bit difficult for me to choose just two of his plays, but here we have one classic and one obscure (the latter is my favorite Williams).

The Glass Menagerie (mothers; loss; broken promises)
Summer & Smoke (love v. lust; fate; transformation)


Labryinths/stories & other writings (J.L. Borges)
Another piece of literature that never budges from my penultimate list, this collection of writings contain some of the most inventive and brilliant short-short stories I’ve ever read.  The way this man’s mind works is dazzling; the world he sees in his mind’s eye is a pleasure to visit.

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Widely considered one of the “Great American Novels,” this one is particularly interesting to re-read in the midst of a recession, as its set in climate of economic excess.  Fitzgerald is, too, a master of language, and his descriptions are a joy, even when what he’s describing is not.

The Razor’s Edge (Somerset Maugham)
When it’s good, literature addresses our deepest questions and concerns: who are we?  what’s our purpose?  what is the proper way to live?  This book travels the world as its protagonists seeks to answer these questions for himself.

The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison)
Young Pecola Breedlove is one of those characters you never forget; a young black girl whose white society teaches her that she’s ugly. Some of the turns of Toni Morrison’s very fine language have stuck in my mind since I first read the book, and they are always a pleasure to return to.

Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackery)
Subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero,” I learned to love the craft and scope of this book as a graduate student, thanks to one Professor Epstein.  Though there might not be any characters to straight-out admire, there are plenty of strands of human behavior in which we can all (for better or worse) see ourselves.

Our Town (Thorton Wilder)
I love the theatre, can you tell?  The meaning of this measured drama completely transformed for me after my father died; the experience of loss brought me newly to the play, allowing me to see things in it I couldn’t have as a high school student.  Literature stays the same, but we are always fluctuating, that’s the beauty of it.


by Roald Dahl:

Charlie & the Chocolate Factory
The classic on which the films are based tells the story of a poor young boy drawn into a magical world full of chocolate, candy, and the power of imagination.

Young orphan Sophie (after whom one of our cats is named, thanks to the Montessori kids I was teaching when we adopted her) is befriended/kidnapped by a Big Friendly Giant.

by Alexandre Dumas:

The Count of Monte Cristo
Revenge!  Mystery!  Intrigue!  Swordfights!  My students always balk at the length of this novel but get sucked in anyway.

The Three Musketeers
Then, a lot of them read this one next.  It also has mystery!  intrigue!  and swordfighting!  Plus brotherhood!  and loyalty!

by Katherine Paterson:

Bridge to Terabithia
A young boy who doesn’t fit in his family + a young girl who doesn’t fit in with the other kids at school + a teacher who takes an interest + the power of imagination = one of the best coming-of-age stories I know.

Jacob Have I Loved
I don’t have a sibling, but this book made me feel like I understood the experience of competing with one, and gave me hope that even the oddest of ducks would eventually find his/her place.

Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier)
A murder mystery that still leaves me guessing when I re-read it, plus lush writing and emotion.  A true classic.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
With a spunky, opinionated narrator and arguably the best trial scenes in all of literature, this novel captures the joys of childhood summers, the love between parent and child, and the difficult truth of the ugliness of human nature—and its potential redemption.

Where the Red Fern Grows (Wilson Rawls)
This book came up the other night at a table full of grownups and we all began screaming simultaneously “I CANNOT THINK ABOUT THAT BOOK WITHOUT CRYING!”  The love between a boy and his dogs has never been better captured; read with Kleenex.

Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
I read this book aloud at my father’s bedside in the hours before he died.  It is a frank, beautiful, and powerful tale of love and friendship.


*each book is linked to its Amazon listing

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery)
March (Geraldine Brooks)
The Ticking is the Bomb (Nick Flynn)
Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)
Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski)

And now, for some food (the kind we eat).


Gingerbread is its own classic-worth-revisiting.  As a kid, they were the cookies I passed over in favor of flashier, more sugary stuff.  But my slightly grown-up palate is now all too pleased with these little spiced cookies.

Though the cookies featured here were dusted with powdered sugar (I have learned that the use of a sieve or flour sifter will help create that pretty, even, powdery coverage), the second batch I made, and ate almost singlehandedly, I decorated with squiggles of a simple citrus glaze: a squeeze of lemon juice + enough powdered sugar to yield desired consistency.

The cookies, both glazed and sugared versions, kept in an airtight container for a week after baking, and they were delicious.

3 ¾ cups flour
3 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
3 tsp. ground cloves
2 ½ tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. baking soda
11 T unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup golden syrup*
½ cup heavy cream

Whisk together the dry ingredients and set aside.  In the bowl of a mixer, beat the butter, brown sugar, & golden syrup until fluffy, 2 minutes.  Alternate adding the flour mixture and the heavy cream, starting and ending with the dry ingredients.  Mix until the dough just comes together.

Divide the dough in half and cover each piece with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for at least one hour.  (I kept one half of the dough overnight, and the resulting cookies tasted just as good).

When ready to bake, line baking sheets with parchment & preheat the oven to 350˚.  On a well-floured surface, roll out the dough to desired thickness; thinner if you want crisp cookies, thicker if you want chewiness.  Go crazy with the cookie cutters!

Refrigerate the cut-out cookies on their baking sheets for 15-20 minutes before baking.  Then, bake for 12-15 minutes, watching carefully so that the bottoms don’t brown.  Cool cookies completely before dusting with powdered sugar or glazing.

* Saveur claims you can substitute dark corn syrup, but I think it messes with the texture.



  1. I just picked up…
    “The Giver” For the first time in…..years. A great read. I am also re reading “The Color Purple”
    Some things are better the second time through!

    Thanks for the ideas. Inspiring!

    Comment by Michelle — December 6, 2010 @ 11:15 pm

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  3. Michelle above beat me to the punch — I think “The Giver” is one of the all-time best young adult books ever written. And this year our whole school read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” — fascinating, and relatively easy given the weight of the subject matter.

    Comment by Lee — December 7, 2010 @ 8:11 am

  4. Michelle–My students read The Giver in 7th grade at our school and it does make a great impression on them. If you’re fond of that novel, I can’t recommend The Hunger Games trilogy (by Suzanne Collins) enough; similar dystopian elements but a little darker and more grownup. ALL the grownups & kids I know who have read them, loved them!

    Also, it’s been too long since I read The Color Purple myself–thanks for the reminder.

    Lee–I bought a copy of Henrietta Lacks at Burke’s (of course) last time I was in town, but I’ve yet to start it. On my ambitiously long “to read over Winter Break” list!

    Comment by Blue Jean Gourmet — December 7, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

  5. […] must say that I love, love, love Nishta’s Southern/desi sensibility. Cardamom shortbread and gingerbread cookies? Yes please – many of […]

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  6. Can’t say I’ve read the Giver…although I do think I’ve read To Kill a Mockinbird. Haha. 😀

    Anyways, I revisited the site (which I haven’t done in AGES) and saw the picture of the cookies. They looked intensely good so I had to read the post…now I know how to make gingerbread cookies. 😀

    Comment by Silon — December 11, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

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