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I feel privileged to belong to a very special book club. Over twenty-three years we have learned a lot about each other by sharing our opinions about books. We have become truly book-bound. After that many years, one develops a sense about what each of the members will think about the book we are reading that month. And yet, they still manage to surprise and delight me. Some people are more quiet and circumspect by nature, some hold back quite deliberately as a matter of decorum. Me? I have a tendency to blurt out whatever I think. I try not to; I endeavor not to offend; I fear I’m not always successful. But they haven’t kicked me out yet, so I presume they forgive me.
Because of this, once a year when it is my turn to host the book club luncheon, I tend to over-compensate. Our book for October was Beartown by Fredrik Backman, a novel I truly enjoyed. And with one or two quibbles, so did my book club.
But they can write their own reviews, here is mine:
Like thousands of other people, I loved A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Accordingly, I immediately read/listened-to his next two books, and thought, hmm . . . this seems a little formulaic. It seemed to me that Backman found literary success by creating the lovable curmudgeon, Ove, and then rested on his laurels by playing the quirky character card in his next two books. My Grandmother Says to Tell You She’s Sorry and Britt Marie Was Here were both good, but not great. Hence, when Beartown was published this year, I knew I’d give it a chance, but I wasn’t optimistic. I knew it involved a hockey-obsessed small town in northern Sweden and I have difficulty relating to any sport. Most I find boring, some I actively loathe. (Guilty secret: I used to prop a large, open purse on my lap at my son’s little league games so I could discretely (?) read from a paperback.)
So, who could have predicted that my favorite book of the year would be about hockey? But, of course, it’s also about people—what motivates them, what matters to them, what unites them, and what divides them. Or, as Backman says: “Why does anyone care about hockey? Because it tells stories.” (This was an epiphany to me; I may need to pay attention the next time I’m at a UPrep football game.) The slow heartbreak of a community in a cycle of decline is relatable to most of us. Then imagine the pressure on a team of high school athletes when their winning a national tournament could turn the economy of that entire town around. Actually, you don’t need to imagine it: you need to read this profound, insightful and deeply humane saga about friendship, parenthood, love and making hard choices.
I enjoyed the audio version from the library. It’s very well narrated by Marin Ireland and is 13 hours long. But I liked it so much, I bought the hardback version to give to my 14-year-old granddaughter (after my daughter listened to it and gave me the go-ahead.) This is not a Young Adult book, but I believe it should be read by young adults. It is an appropriate book to spark a meaningful discussion of values; I think the topic is both timely and necessary. A cautionary note: the subject matter is dark and the reverberations from a shocking act of violence are harrowing. And there are no pat answers. Instead, Backman builds a complex, multi-layered narrative that deals with the issues and resonates with candor and wisdom.
Beartown, an international best seller, was published in the UK under the title, The Scandal and the sequel, Us Against You is due out in 2018.
If you read Beartown—and I heartily recommend that you do—you will find very little reference to food, or for that matter Swedish Culture. If I had not known that Backman was Swedish, I might have thought the book was set in Canada, or even upstate Minnesota. Still, I settled on serving a Swedish Smorgasbord complete with pickled beets and herring—two foods I despise. For my own palate, and aesthetic reasons, I decided to make a Smorgastarta (Sandwich Cake).
I really kind of winged it, but if you’d like to try your hand at it, here is my recipe:
Swedish sandwich cake
If you Google Swedish Sandwich Cake you will get an array of gorgeous photos along with a few recipes and a couple of how-to videos. After perusing several and doing a trial run that was not terribly successful, I developed the following recipe. Please feel free to change it in any way you like. My understanding is that Sandwich Cake was all the rage in Sweden in the Sixties—and the more garishly decorated, the better. It is meant to be indulgent, but my initial attempt involving shrimp salad and egg salad (both mayo-laden) and then frosted in cream cheese was way too rich for me. Some recipes call for cold cuts instead of smoked salmon, but I think the real secret is plenty of fresh veggies (celery, cucumbers, radishes, onions, etc., but not tomatoes—too watery) for crunch.
2 round loaves of hearty bread (whole wheat, rye or sourdough) crust removed and sliced horizontally (I managed to get 4 crust-less slices, each about an inch-or-so thick.) I ordered my round loaves from Harvest Bread.
Thinly sliced radishes, cucumbers, celery, and sweet red onions
Chopped green onions, capers, sliced green olives, fresh dill, parsley
6 hard-boiled eggs, thinly sliced
Smoked salmon—I bought the Kirkland Wild Alaskan Smoked Sockeye Salmon
Shrimp—for filling or for decorating the top
3 8-ounce packages of cream cheese at room temperature
1 12-ounce container of crème fraiche
1 t each, onion powder, garlic powder, white pepper, salt
2 T of fresh lemon juice
Start by protecting your plate with pieces of parchment paper so the end result is neat and pretty. Put your first layer of bread on the plate and frost it thinly with the cream cheese mixture. Then add a layer of Smoked Salmon and cover that with cucumbers. Spread more “frosting” on the underside of another slice and place it on top. Repeat adding layers of eggs, veggies, more salmon, etc.
Frost the entire “cake” and cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 2 to 24 hours. I decorated the top about a half hour before serving. I tried my hand at radish roses and tulip tomatoes and carrot daisies. I was not very good at it, but it ending up looking pretty festive anyway. I love that it can be made in advance and that it doubles as a buffet centerpiece. It served 9 women with a bit left over.
The table-scape was fairly simple. I used the Beartown colors—green for the forest, white for snow, brown for bears. And I learned one can find almost anything on the Internet: tiny bears to glue on the napkin rings—check. Lilliputian hockey players—check. Miniature hockey sticks—check. Plus, I already had my collection of wooden trees and several Orient and Flume bears. I was going to needle-felt a sculpted bear for each place-setting, but after spending over two hours on the first one, I decided that perhaps one would suffice.
It was a lovely lunch with equally lovely women. And now it’s over and I don’t have to do it again until next year.