Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Backsliding, sort of

I was just looking back over my reading journal, which has slowly gone from an actual physical journal I keep, to being supplemented by this blog, to being almost entirely electronic. I'm not sure I like this transition, but I find it hard enough to keep up even online, plus my reading seems to dwindle more each passing year. For one thing I am reading books that tend to be much longer and denser, and I've had a lot less free time on my hands since this spring, when I started doing music writing on the side.

I spend many evenings doing research, listening to new music, and going to shows and writing reviews. I've seen some pretty cool stuff and got a chance to talk to some musicians that I really admire. It was surreal to chat with Gordon Lightfoot, for example. I've also discovered some great singers and songwriters (for myself, I mean, not "launched their careers") like Joe Pug and Vandaveer. I also enjoyed getting to see and review all of Kentucky Opera's season this year -- I Pagliacci/Cavalleria Rusticana, The Elixir of Love, and Madame Butterfly. Speaking of surreal, I also found myself in the photo pit snapping pictures of Justin Bieber. That was weird. But.. I digress.

I've been meandering through my anthology of classical lit -- I'm only up to Aeschylus -- and although I'm moving pretty slowly, I enjoy it when I get to settle down long enough to read through a section. I definitely would enjoy reading Herodotus more thoroughly, and Pindar's verse. But, I think I'm ready for another novel, and the only question is whether it's going to be something I've had lying around for awhile or embarking on the big winter project of Musil's A Man without Qualities. It may not be time for that one quite yet. I could join my brother in tackling Anna Karenina. Tolstoy always seems right for winter...or I could make myself finish Helprin's Winter's Tale, which I sputtered out on in July. It was obviously not a good match for the season.

This week, however, I'm all about food, so it won't be decided. I'm hosting a holiday party and I spend an inordinate amount of time planning my dishes, my shopping, my prep, and getting all crafty like Martha Stewart (in my dreams).

Monday, November 08, 2010

Reading the classics

On a whim, I read an early John Updike novel called The Centaur, which is partly a retelling of the myth of Chiron, the wise and gentle centaur of Greek myth, who was a a willing sacrifice to the gods to expiate the sin of Prometheus. In the novel, Chiron is high school science teacher George Caldwell, who also coaches the swim team, a lovable loser, convinced of his own inferiority, but devoted to his seventeen-year-old son, Peter. The novel covers three winter days in Pennsylvania in 1947, alternating between Peter's realistic perspective (recalled as an adult) and the third-person prose that weaves the traditional and mythic narrative of the characters and events. In this, as in all of Updike's novels, there is poetry intermixed with the gritty details of the mundane. He describes a gathering winter storm:

The town of white roofs seems a colony of deserted temples; they feather together with distance and go gray, melt. Shale Hill is invisible. A yellownes seeps upward. From the zenith a lavender luminosity hangs pulseless, as if the particular brilliance of the moon and stars had been dissolved and the solution shot through with a low electric voltage. The effect, of tenuous weight, of menace, is exhilarating....Upward countercurrents suspend snow which then with the haste of love flies downward to gravity's embrace; the alternations of density conjure an impression of striding legs stretching upward into infinity. The storm walks. The storm walks but does not move on.
Reminded of how I always loved Greek mythology, and feeling the lack of an actual classical education, in which I would have picked up at least a smattering of Greek or Latin and read some of the great philosophers, I checked out Bernard Knox's Norton Book of Classical Literature to ease my way into some of the ancient writers. I've read Homer and Virgil and some of the plays, but going back into these unfamiliar poems and essays, it's been marvelous to recognize again, how timeless the writing is -- how common the concerns are and how "modern" they sound still, these fragments and scraps from centuries before Christ and Rome's grandeur. I keep coming across little gems that I want to post here, which I'll try to do in the next few days.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lorrie Moore

My days seem to get busier and busier and that pushes reading into further little corners and short bursts of time. We recently vacationed in San Francisco and Sonoma, but about all I managed to read even then was a wine list (that's me chilling my toes on the Pacific beach, satisfyingly tiny and distant on the strand).

Flying makes me restless, so I tend to flip through magazines and look out the window -- I can't concentrate on a book. So even though I carried Lorrie Moore's novel A Gate at the Stairs along for the ride, I didn't actually crack it until I got home again.

Years ago, I read Birds of America, and remember liking the stories a lot, although I couldn't tell you much about it now. I just remember that they were clever, humorous, and had a unique voice. This novel is narrated by a Midwestern college girl named Tassie Keltjin, who gets a regular babysitting job for a rather mysterious yuppie couple adopting a mixed-raced child. Tassie is a cool narrator who plays her cards close to the vest, slow to react, and something of a loner, although not entirely by choice. The novel seemed to take a meandering track, often Victorian in its attention to mundane details of physical description, and although I thought it was oddly paced, the writing was good and often funny.

There were a few moments when things the characters said sounded a bit false -- and sometimes Moore went on a little too long, making satirical fun of some of the self-consciously liberal-political "support group" back-and-forth that formed several scenes. However, unlike most novels that I love for the first three-quarters only to find that they flop for me in the end, this book did the opposite. Maybe not even the last quarter, but the last 50 or so pages, I found completely mesmerizing -- forcing me to stay up way past my bedtime to finish it. When things suddenly got weird -- if not surreal -- Moore seemed to slide into another gear.

You find out why the rather eccentric couple is so mysterious, Tassie's boyfriend's true colors are revealed, and then tragedy strikes, and the way Moore handles all of this serves to make the story much more expansive, poignant, and even rather disturbing.

Now, on to other things, but I don't know what. With my schedule, I think I need to stick with some quicker reads for awhile yet.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game

I was led to this history of the struggle for central Asia by reading Kipling's Kim. In studying a lot of Victorian literature, I had a glancing knowledge of what was involved in the Great Game shenanigans and the Afghan Wars, but I'd never read anything specifically focused on the history. Hopkirk's book is a great overview of the major actions from the late 18th century through the beginning of the 20th century.

Fascinating, thrilling, and completely maddening, never has so much been lost for so very little. This was the Cold War pre-game with Russia and Britain thrusting and feinting, waging war by proxy, and sending ridiculous official memos to one another, but never actually coming to blows directly. One would push too far (usually Russia), then the other would finally threaten to retaliate, and somebody would back down, but not of course, until they had seen many hundreds, if not thousands of people die in whatever madness they had lately been pursuing. The painting above memorializes one such enterprise.

When the Afghans drove out the British garrison in Kabul in 1841, 16,000 soldiers, some family members, and camp followers were set upon in the Gandamak gap and massacred just about literally to a man. A few of the native soldiers managed to slip away to the caves, but only one seriously wounded military doctor reached the Jalalabad Gate, where the next British outpost was located.

I amused myself this afternoon by visiting some of the spots on Google Earth, which made the whole thing that much crazier. Hopkirk tries his darndest to describe how desolate, remote, forbidding, and dangerous the landscape is, but nothing quite does it justice. Google Earth made me feel kind of nauseous as I zoomed virtually down into the Khyber Pass or into Chitral. It's rocks people. Big, jagged, up and down rocks with inordinately fierce people climbing out to slit your throat for you, then as now. I am by no means criticizing the Afghan people, who have been beset on all sides for nearly their entire history -- and people will simply NOT STOP coming in to mess with them.

To what extent did we (the general Western "we") create the Taliban? That is a question that begs asking. Of course, there is all the complicated strategic and political "reasoning" behind the Western powers clashing over Afghanistan. No one really wants it for itself (although these days, mineral resources are probably more of consideration), but it just happens to be on the way to places and things that people do want. I'm no political analyst or foreign policy expert, of course, but the whole thing does look rather insane from a certain viewpoint.

There are great illustrations throughout -- mostly of the cast of characters over the years -- soldiers, adventurers, spies, khans, shahs and various potentates. The story can pretty much be boiled down to the captions: "hacked to death by a Kabul mob," "paid for with his life," "assassinated," "beheaded," "slaughtered," "massacred"... You get the picture. And yet, there was never a shortage of men willing to pose as horse traders, wandering holy men, or snake oil salesmen and venture off to the back of beyond, just on the off-chance they wouldn't be thrown into a foul pit, pushed off a minaret tower, hacked and dismembered, or have their head paraded through town on a pike. Oh, and that's if they actually made it to their destination without starving, freezing, taking ill, or being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Seriously, these people needed some reality TV and Farmville to sap their dreams of grandeur.

Now, you shouldn't assume that I didn't entirely enjoy the telling of this history. It's just that it's so mind-boggling in its waste and utter hubris. That and the fact that I woke up this morning, after finishing the "final" chapter last night to this story: "Signaling Tensions, Pakistan Shuts NATO Route." Love the inset map. Holy crap.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Great Game

I finished Rudyard Kipling's Kim. For a long while I found Kim a bit annoying in his smugness, but I warmed to the character through the relationship with his lama, to whom he remained so loving and devoted in what seemed a very un-British way. I also enjoyed Kipling's descriptions of the landscape and the culture of pre-partition India; whatever one may think of his imperial attitude, you get the feeling that his connection to this place and time was very deep and something close to his heart and identity.

I have only a nodding acquaintance with the Great Game intrigues that move the plot and found the details hard to follow, so as one book always leads me down the rabbit hole to the next, I just got Peter Hopkirk's history, The Great Game, from the library to help me out. I always find myself wanting a map when I read novels like this. It's funny to read those place names -- Lahore, Peshawar, Kashmir -- and think how little has changed. The players have changed only nominally. The West is still trying to gain control in a place that has never in its history been tractable to outsiders, whether it was the British, or the Russians, or the Americans. Fascinating? Depressing? Will we ever manage to untangle ourselves from that formidable landscape and complicated past?

Kipling had his idealized Kim, master of all those "Asiatic" mysteries, leaving his adult future, mercifully, to the reader's imagination. And we have the sad story of Pat Tillman as our modern-day pawn in yet another iteration of the Great Game. I know that history and the current political situation are too complex to boil down into such easy parallels -- still, it is poignant to have one in mind while reading the other. It reminds you that Kipling is not just some dusty, old Victorian writer who's strictly out of mode, but in fact, someone who still has something meaningful to say to the 21st century reader.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Summer vacation?

I've done some fun stuff this summer and traveled over a few long weekends, but I haven't had a chance to have one of those lay-about extended vacations, sipping cold drinks by the water and catching up on my reading. It's been very active -- squeezing in chores between dashing in and out, picking up food on the way home, and not having nearly as much of a social life with my pals.

We had two major music festivals in Louisville in July, both of which I was covering as part of my side job as a music writer/reviewer for Louisville.com. It's usually much more loose, where I can spread out the shows I'm going to see, but last month everything was packed together. The highlights have been getting to see The Flaming Lips, She & Him, Dwight Yoakam, and Loretta Lynn -- plus interviewing one of my favorites, Tift Merritt (below). I've got a little breather to gear up for a sprinkling of fall shows and the upcoming Arts season. After scrabbling around, dirty and sweaty in the outdoors, it will be paradisical to sit in cool, comfy auditoriums watching the opera and the orchestra.

Meanwhile, I had the Amen corner of family birthdays to attempt to remember -- two nieces, my husband, and both my parents. Whew!

Reading and everything else has taken a hit. I started Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, but bogged down somewhere in the Second Part. When I get distracted from a book for so long, it's hard to get back into it. Plus, I get bees in my bonnet about other things in the meantime. I've been learning about telescopes and trying to brush up on astronomy, so I was in the mood to read something related. I found Simon Singh's Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe and zipped right through it. It was really fun to read, but very thorough and methodical at the same time. I have a hard time wrapping my head around a lot of the math and science -- not to mention the mind-blowing concepts -- but he actually did a fine job of boiling it down to my level. Thank god for people who know how to use analogies, graphics, and charts to explain things to people like me.

Time. Space. Space-Time. It kind of makes the stupid crap I wade through on the Internet and TV everyday seem...well, like the stupid crap it is. I think that would be notated Stupid12.

Next on my reading list are books picked up from the library today: Farenheit 451 (which I don't think I ever read -- or I will remember on approximately page 112 that I read it in 10th grade) and some Kipling -- The Light that Failed and Kim, which takes places between the 2nd and 3rd Afghan Wars (the British version). Those Afghan wars just never seem to go out of style.

Monday, May 31, 2010

China Mieville: The City and the City

One nice thing about the Memorial Day long weekend is that it allowed me to finish The City and the City that I bought last week. While I used to plough through books in two or three days on a regular basis, I don't generally have that kind of time any more. I read it rather compulsively, and it leaves me feeling irrationally guilty that I haven't discovered this author earlier.

Mieville gets stuck in the genre fiction ghetto because he writes in the sci-fi/fantasy realm; in fact, he has won the U.K.'s Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction three times, which I believe is a record. But I wonder how it is that he's not being at least long-listed for Booker Prizes and the other premiere literature prizes?

I'm sure I've never read anything quite like The City and the City. That someone could conceive of such an intricate, psychologically and philosophically rich world, and then set a first-rate mystery-thriller into it leaves me rather slack-jawed. Is there such a genre as the existentialist noir crime novel of ideas?

I'm going to give you a little summary, but I'm telling you right now, it's not going to do it justice. Somewhere in contemporary Eastern Europe, two city-states border one another -- Beszel and Ul Qoma. The first person narrator is a career detective in Beszel, Tyador Borlu, of the Extreme Crime Squad. The story kicks off as he investigates the murder of a young woman, her body dumped at the edge of a skate park. Soon after he realizes that the crime involves not only Beszel, but it's foreign neighbor Ul Qoma, the stakes are raised considerably and a wider, shadier, conspiracy becomes apparent. Just why the conjunction of Beszel and Ul Qoma complicates Borlu's investigation so dramatically is something that you have to read the novel to understand.

The shadowy organization called Breach, which exists as a dark, all-seeing Big Brother agency somewhere between the two cities, finds and fixes "breachers"on both sides of the cities' borders. The powers of Breach are unknowable; but the rules it polices are rigid. It is one of the creepiest, coolest, fictional constructions that I've ever come across.

Mieville himself is an interesting dude, to say the least. Born in London, he has a degree in social anthropology from Cambridge, a Ph.D. in International Law from the London School of Economics, and also held a fellowship from Harvard. He's a Marxist who, as a member of the British Socialist Workers Party, unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the House of Commons in 2001. He's written six previous novels or novellas and he's only 38-years old -- one of those ridiculously talented upstarts that I seem to be running across more and more lately. Seriously, what's wrong with this younger generation?

As I've started to contemplate the rest of my annual summer reading list, I would definitely recommend this novel (just out in trade paper) to put at the top of yours. I'd love to hear what others think of this one. Mieville has a new novel coming out this month, but I'd like to go backwards and read some of his other books. He has stated that his goal is to write a novel in every genre. Of course!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends

It's been almost two months since I've posted here. Spring always sneaks up on me -- all of a sudden, I have yard and garden work again, Derby festivities, and this year, I also picked up some fun side-work writing about live music for Louisville.com. Since April, I've been going to more shows, doing interviews with artists, and writing reviews, and I'm still getting used to the new schedule.

It has definitely cut down on my time with other things, although I did manage to follow up Romola with reading Ross King's history of the building of Brunelleschi's Dome, an architectural marvel which looms, literally and figuratively, over much of the history of Florence where Romola is set. I learned a little bit about architecture, and it included some great character studies of Brunelleschi and his artistic rivals. Anyone with an engineering bent of mind would probably enjoy reading about the practical challenges of building such an immense dome, the innovations it required, and the machines that had to be created just to hoist all that material up to the workers.

Right now, I'm reading the essays in Chabon's Maps and Legends, a witty, fun, and very illuminating collection about the act of writing, of reading, and of what fires the imagination. He pays close attention to the subject of "serious" literature as opposed to writing for mere "entertainment." By way of making his case for fiction that is both, he uses Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories as an example, and argues against the rather patronizing attitude of critics, not to mention some readers and writers, toward fiction that gets labeled as genre writing for "entertainment" purposes -- mysteries, fantasy, adventure, and science-fiction.

I loved his essay on The Road by Cormac McCarthy, another example that he uses to extend his argument of serious vs. genre fiction. He posits that The Road is "allowed" into the serious literary fiction club, even though it treats a "fantasy" post-apocalyptic world, peopled by near-mythical figures, because McCarthy is already established as a literary writer and his speculative world hews close to accepted forms: "For the post-apocalyptic is also a mode into which mainstream readers may venture without risking the stain of geekdom."
The status of relative legitimacy enjoyed by the literature of global disaster may in part result from the fig leaf that a satirical or religious purpose provides, and from the congeniality to conventional realism of a world without supercomputers, starships, or eight-foot feline warriors from the planet Kzin.
Chabon obviously is not afraid of the stain of geekdom, as he spends quite a bit of time on comic books and what they have meant to him as a writer. One reason that I'm drawn to him is that he is able to put into just the right words, a lot of what I feel about the reading and writing of books. Of course, he goes the extra step of actually putting those thoughts into practice by writing brilliant, entertaining fictions.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Savonarola's end

I have finished Eliot's Romola. One of its criticisms, and a reason that it is not considered one of her major novels, is that her fictional characters are overwhelmed by the political and historical character of the novel. Girolamo Savonarola dominates the last third. The heroine Romola has come under his bracing influence in the wake of her miserable marriage; her husband's numerous betrayals include plotting against the infamous prophet; and the last act of the novel concerns the events that lead to his excommunication and public execution for heresy.

Eliot examines minutely, not only Romola's crisis of faith as her moral compass fails her in a very public way, but also Savonarola's failure to live up to his fiery sermonizing. Was he a poser or was he in earnest? He had declared to the people that God would intercede on his behalf to prove his prophecies were true. The people took him at his word. And when he ran afoul of the Pope, whose corruption he excoriated, his followers were eager to witness Savonarola's miraculous rescue when subjected to a trial by fire. Unfortunately, he was not so convinced:

Not that Savonarola had uttered and written a falsity when he declared his belief in a future supernatural attestation of his work; but his mind was so constituted that while it was easy for him to believe in a miracle which, being distant and undefined, was screened behind the strong reasons he saw for its occurrence, and yet easier for him to have a belief in inward intuitions; it was at the same time insurmountably difficult to him to believe in the probability of a miracle which, like this of being carried unhurt through the fire, pressed in all its details on his imagination and involved a demand not only for belief but for exceptional action.

Eliot investigates the psychological burden of a figure such as Savonarola, neither condemning him entirely, or holding him up as a martyr. This is the dilemma Romola faces; she has invested in Savonarola's message of purity and goodness as an example for her own life, when she had nothing more to cling to, but when faced with having that last belief stripped away, where does that leave her? Here is her (and Eliot's) humane and compassionate conclusion:

Whatever falsehood there had been in him, had been a fall and not a purpose; a gradual entanglement in which he struggled, not a contrivance encouraged by success.
In Eliot's progress as a writer Romola occupies the space between her earlier triumphs (Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss) and her later masterpieces (Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda). I'm glad to have filled this gap. I can definitely see the more refined expressions of ideas she explored in Romola that turned up in more artful ways in the latter two novels, particularly Deronda. Romola, almost too saintly in her suffering, becomes the more deeply flawed, yet still beautiful, Gwendolyn Harleth in Deronda, with Daniel assuming Savonarola's role of moral compass for her even as he struggles with his own mysterious identity and mission as a Jew in Victorian Britain.

It is one of the secrets in that change of mental poise which as been fitly named conversion, that to many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness. (Daniel Deronda)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

More from Romola

I'll be the first to admit George Eliot is not for everyone. As a rule, she does not write short novels; she doesn't cut to the chase or read like a screenplay. She unwinds one flowing sentence after another, building by slow accretion a character's rich psychological profile. Step by step, the plot unfolds, motivations are explored, the fates of the players are intertwined, and never, never is Eliot in a rush to make things happen.

So, you have to enjoy the subtle beauties of her language, the shadings, the foreshadowings, the drift of fine detail that creates an entire imaginative world. But then. Where everything has been advancing tick-tock, tick-tock, there comes a point when it all accelerates, the tensions that have been hinted at before suddenly intensify, and for me at least, the decorously-paced story becomes the page-turner. Or, as I said to my husband in much less refined terms, the shit really hits the fan. I'm just past that point now. Not only are the fictional characters headed for reversals, but the historical ones are as well. Now the revolutionary leader Savonarola -- the crusading Domenican priest Fra Girolamo -- is coming to power in Florence after the downfall of the Medeci's in the French-Italian wars. There will be book-burnings and there will be blood!

One of the chapters just finished is called, "A Supper in the Rucellai Gardens." Tito Melema, husband of the titular beauty Romola, continues his downward spiral into lies and betrayal, just as his political star is rising in the new power structure of Florence after the Medeci have been expelled. He is dining with the most powerful men in Florence, while at the same time being confronted by the one man who knows all of his darkest secrets and who seeks to expose him. Here, we come to another of Eliot's uncanny strengths: as a Victorian woman writing about fifteenth century Florence, she possesses a peculiarly timeless understanding of what makes people tick.

See if any of this sounds familiar: a young, handsome, silver-tongued politician on the rise, seems outwardly devoted to his wife, but in fact has betrayed her and fathered a child out of wedlock, and now faces exposure and disgrace. He is willing to say or do anything to weasel out of it. Also, a cynical political party, currently out of favor, is willing to latch on to a popular conservative movement led by an evangelical to retain their grip on power. (Georgie girl, I hope you're getting a load of this.)

I could quote the entire chapter, but of course, that's not feasible, so I'll just pick out a bit of it for your amusement. The Frate is the conservative priest, Girolamo Savonarola, and this comes from the speech of one of the richest men in Florence to his cronies:

"We might have done without the fear of God and the reform of morals being passed by a majority of black beans; but that excellent proposition, that our Medicean heads should be allowed to remain comfortably on our shoulders, and that we should not be obliged to hand over our property in fines, has my warm approval.

"...And, for my part, I see clearly enough that the only safe and wise policy for us Mediceans to pursue is to throw our strength into the scale of the Frate's party. We are not strong enough to make head on our own behalf; and if the Frate and the popular party were upset, every one who hears me knows perfectly well what other party would be uppermost just now....

"A wise dissimulation," he went on, "is the only course for moderate, rational men in times of violent party feeling. I need hardly tell this company what are my real political attachments... This theory of the Frate's, that we are to have a popular government, in which every man is to strive for the general good, and know no party names, is a theory that may do for some isle of Cristoforo Colombo's finding, but will never do for our fine old quarrelsome Florence....the best thing we can all do will be to keep the Frate's flag flying, for if any other were to be hoisted just now it would be a black flag for us."

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Picking a favorite author feels like picking a favorite child -- you feel a little slighting toward the others, but in your heart of hearts, there is the one. For me, that is George Eliot. While it used to be the case that Silas Marner was assigned in high school English classes, it was not in mine. (Our novels junior and senior year were instead The Scarlet Letter and Animal Farm. It was a less savage age when we had not yet completely given up on and betrayed our youth by assigning Dean Koontz and Anne Rice, as if the origins of those authors had never existed. But I digress.)

I didn't encounter Eliot until my college course on the Rise of the Novel, in which we read many books of formidable length, including Middlemarch. In fact, this is the same course in which I was supposed to have read Bleak House, and as recorded in this blog, finally finished it a mere 25 years later! As word-addled as I was between the Fielding, Eliot, Dickens, James, Sterne, et al. (confession: I never finished Tristram Shandy either; yes, it's on the repair list), I was engaged by Middlemarch. It wasn't just that I liked it, I admired it; it was so grand, so serious, and instead of being weighed down by its own substance, it was a fascinating, romantic story. I don't think anyone has ever taken such an intense look into the moral lives of her characters. And George Eliot was very concerned with moral decisions. She herself struggled with and ultimately rejected Anglicanism, and as a religious skeptic, she investigated the impulses that drove men and women to the acts that would either destroy them or settle them in an enlightened, useful, and happy life.

Since my first introduction, I've read through most of the Eliot oeuvre, including some of the short fiction, poetry, and her letters. Of the novels, only two remain for me -- Felix Holt and Romola, and I've just begun the latter, which is set in Florence, Italy in 1492. It is a departure for her; her other novels are set in her own Victorian time period, in England. This novel is an expression of her ambition and classical learning, a foray into historical fiction that most critics have numbered among her less successful attempts. Having just started, I can say only that it is awe-inspiring in its erudition. Oh, she delights in throwing around the Latin and Italian phrases, as well as her knowledge of classical literature, including Greek. This may not make for an engrossing novel on the level of Adam Bede, but it has its own charms.

Here, she describes the slow, moral descent of one of the novel's main characters in her wonderfully meticulous dissection of human frailty:

When, the next morning, Tito put this determination into act he had chosen his colour in the game, and had given an inevitable bent to his wishes. He had made it impossible that he should not from henceforth desire it to be the truth that his father was dead; impossible that he should not be tempted to baseness rather than that the precise facts of his conduct should not remain for ever concealed.

Under every guilty secret there is hidden a brood of guilty wishes, whose unwholesome infecting life is cherished by the darkness. The contaminating effect of deeds often lies less in the commission than in the consequent adjustment of our desires -- the enlistment of our self interest on the side of falsity; as on the other hand, the purifying influence of public confession springs from the fact, that by it the hope in lies is for ever swept away, and the soul recovers the noble attitude of simplicity.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Wintry Olympics

I think one reason so many people have been fascinated with the 2010 Winter Olympics is that this season, more than ever, so many people on the U.S. east coast feel like they're competing in their own personal events: shoveling snow, sledding, and trying to get to work on icy roads after getting walloped by one storm after another. And what else are you going to do when there are snowdrifts up to your window eaves?

We've been luckier than most in the Ohio Valley. Winter has been mostly an aesthetic event with only a couple of messy days and no more than about six inches of snow at a time. Still, this winter has seemed longer, colder, grayer, and snowier than usual, and even though it's late February, it's hard to see that Spring is just around the corner. Today, the snow is gone, but again it's damp, cold, overcast and I've got some Nordic skiing on the t.v. to be followed by the big U.S. vs. Canada hockey final.

My own version of the Olympics has been carried out in the kitchen where I've been experimenting with my French cuisine, courtesy of Julia Child. I've never done much with fish, other than frying it or broiling it in the oven with very mixed results. It just seems like one of those things too hard to get right. So, the last two Saturdays, I've cooked fish poached in white wine. Last week it was Sole Bercy aux champignons -- sole fillets with scallions and mushrooms. Following Julia's recipe precisely, it came out perfectly, even the cream sauce. I was too harried to pause for a picture, but it was a beautiful dish. I served it with salad and buttered peas and a crisp Sauvignon Blanc.

I hadn't planned to do it again this Saturday, but they had some lovely salmon fillets on sale at Kroger, so I brought one home and tried another recipe. Again, I poached it in white wine with a dice of celery, onion, and carrot for about 12 minutes. After draining off the juices and boiling them down, I whisked in several tablespoons of butter for the sauce...et voila!

And just because I was in there trying new things, I decided to practice my souffle-ing. For a side, I made one with gruyere cheese. One good thing about souffles is that they are simple from an ingredient standpoint -- flour, butter, milk, eggs with whatever sweet or savory flavor you're adding, in this case, shredded gruyere. The trick of course, is those pesky egg whites and getting them folded into the cooked sauce without deflating the mixture, and of course, the "puff." I had pretty good luck with this one. It was certainly tasty and had a nice, golden brown crust. We (the spouse and I) ate ALL of it, along with the fish and salads, and white Bordeaux. Too much!

A negative side-effect of kitchen Olympics is that if spring doesn't get here soon with warmer temperatures and outdoor activities, I'm going to need to lose about 15 pounds! On tap for tonight: lasagna. There's a real spa entree for you!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chicken Big Mamou

I made this dish the Monday before Mardi Gras. Mamou is one of my favorites from the Paul Prudhomme Louisiana Kitchen Cookbook, along with his jalapeno-cheddar yeast rolls. Both are great for a wintry day at home; fortunately it was a holiday, so I could spend the day watching it snow and puttering around in my kitchen -- this is especially important for bread baking and all the punching, rising, and shaping that goes along with bread from scratch.

Since I had all that time, I also took pictures of the cooking process -- always a great inspiration to get into your own kitchen and cook! The full Mamou recipe is readily available online if you Google it, so I won't include it here. I highly recommend the cookbook if you like Cajun cooking, or you can probably get it from your library.

Assemble all the ingredients for the two spice mixes -- one for the rich tomato sauce and one for the chicken rub.

I assemble the spice mixes in small bowls; as you can see, there are lots of onions, both white and scallions, chopped pretty fine. Oh, and butter. Lots of butter! It already looks good deconstructed.

Heaven on earth is a bunch of onions sauteeing in butter! This is the first step to the sauce -- one cup of white onion and minced garlic.

You add in tomato sauce, Worcestershire, spice mix, chicken stock, half the chopped scallions, tabasco, etc., and simmer for 40 minutes before adding the chicken. It smells so good!

I used about 2lbs. of chicken breast, cubed up. Mix it up with the rub mix (these are heavy on the pepper, as you can see in the first photo -- black, white, and cayenne. Saute in more butter along with the rest of the scallions until it's cooked through. It then goes into the sauce after its 40-minute simmer.

Add the chicken to the sauce. You'll be doing lots of tasting at this point. You may want to lap it straight from the pot but control yourself. It's hot! Cook the pasta and get a plate.

Ooo la la! On the plate with a fresh yeast roll.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pick your prince

I'm between books right now as I've just finished Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall. Often, after I read a really marvelous book, I know that the next thing is likely to suffer by comparison, so I have to put a little time in between. I was first introduced to this novel (I believe before it was published in the States) by Levi Stahl, who wrote so wonderfully about it that he made me eager to read it too. Even so, since one man's fabulous is another man's "meh," I didn't necessarily expect to love it.

For connoisseur's of both literary fiction and history, and also for more mainstream readers, Wolf Hall is a thorough pleasure. It follows the years of Thomas Cromwell's rise to prominence from an apprentice, of sorts, to the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, just at the time that Henry VIII started to rid himself of Katherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn to the apex of his power in England before the king's relationship with his second queen began to sour.

Mantel sticks close to the facts, wielding her impressive scholarship in service to her imagination and creating a fully-realized portrait, not just of Cromwell, but also the other historical figures who seem to live and breathe on the page with their contradictions, murky motivations, and unpredictability. Conversations, formal in the royal court, or whispered behind closed doors, snap with wit and realism.

One of my favorite characterizations in the novel is what she does with Thomas Howard (Duke of Norfolk and uncle to Anne) -- a frequent Cromwell adversary who only grudgingly comes to acknowledge "the son of a blacksmith's" power at court:

The duke is now approaching sixty years old, but concedes nothing to the calendar. Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and as cold as an axe-head; his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics; in tiny jewled cases he has shavings of skin and snippets of hair, and set into medallions he wears splinters of martyr's bones....He thinks the Bible a book unnecessary for laypeople, though he understands priests make some use of it. He thinks book-reading an affectation altogether, and wishes there were less of it at court. His niece is always reading, Anne Boleyn, which is perhaps why she is unmarried at the age of twenty-eight. He does not see why it's a gentleman's business to write letters; there are clerks for that.

Mantel excels at presenting these entertaining and densely-packed descriptions, conjuring the Duke before you, and every time afterward that he appears, you bear that first impression in mind. When he comes "rattling" into the room, you remember those shards of martyr's bones, the impression both faintly comic and sinister at once -- and you feel you have his measure.

Reading Wolf Hall you are immersed in the world of Tudor England, its chamber pots and jewel-crusted gowns, the barges on the Thames and the grisly public executions. But of course, the real genius in it all is the portrait of Cromwell that emerges; a man so crucial in working out the tangle of separating England from the Roman Church and Henry from his wife; the man who was simultaneously loathed at court and in politics, but loved by family and his extensive household of valued servants.

One feels a little silly, falling in love with Thomas Cromwell, long dead and described as looking "like a murderer," but as I was re-reading Levi Stahl's musings on the book, he actually hit the nail on the head as to the attraction -- for males or females; it is "hyper-competence," a subject that my husband and I have discussed in just this context.

As Mantel notes in the book, Cromwell was said to have memorized the entire New Testament in Latin; he was adept in several languages and could out-talk the Devil; he knew a quiet, sure way to kill a man, if necessary, and he knew how to convince people that his ideas were really theirs. He knew the value of things and when asked by the women at home to describe Anne for them, could "price her out" from head to foot; he knew what was in England's coffers to the last farthing; he could shoe a horse, plan a meal for a cardinal, threaten a troublemaker into submission, and make a pair of peacock wings for his little daughter. He's not writing sonnets, swashbuckling, or laying wenches left and right, he's just tackling the everyday, alongside of parleying with kings and bishops. He's rather exhausting, and that seems to have been a common opinion of him.

The title of this post, "pick your prince," is a bit of the pragamatic wisdom of Cromwell, by way of Mantel's storytelling. There may be a number of contentious princes; you don't know which one will end up triumphing, who to suck up to; but if you're a smart and capable man, you'll pick your prince and make darn sure that he's the one who comes out on top -- and if it doesn't work out, you take the consequences. Taking risks and responsibility at the same time are sorely lacking in public life these days -- maybe that's a big part of the attraction as well.

This is quite long and I've still managed to leave out a lot of what's wonderful about this book. When I got toward the end and realized that Wolf Hall is the seat of the Seymours (family of another future wife for Henry) the foreshadowing gave me an inkling that this might not be the only novel Mantel intends to write about Cromwell. Very happily, she is, at least according to the Internet (ultimate trustworthiness), already at work on the next volume.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

New Year's 2010

My long holiday vacation is nearly over, and while we missed all the snow that was dumped elsewhere, the cold air has settled in for awhile. Once I got over the flurry of house cleaning early in the week, I made a trip to the library. After not reading much of anything for a couple of months, I read two novels quickly back-to-back: first, Rebecca Stott's literary mystery, Ghostwalk, and then Per Petterson's To Siberia. I really loved his previous novel, Out Stealing Horses. They were both good without being great, but it was a good way to kick-start my reading life in the New Year.

Now, I would have thought that I would read even more as I got older, but compared to the voraciousness of my younger self, the number of books has steadily dropped off, year-to-year. Of course, I no longer work in a bookstore, and I'm also much more restless and unfocused, as if I were aging backwards (though not physically, unfortunately). So this is what it's like to be an adolescent!

The other thing I've come to realize -- and reading these two perfectly satisfactory novels emphasized it -- is that I no longer take much pleasure in reading merely satisfactory books. At first it was just that I couldn't and wouldn't read bad writing or sloppy writing (which automatically disqualifies most, not all, popular fiction), and now my persnicketiness has ratcheted up to the point that I don't even want to read merely "pretty good" books. This sounds ridiculously snobby, but I prefer crankily discriminating. So, rather than bounce around from one thing to another that I don't really care about, I'm going to be very picky this year. Along with the ever-present five or ten pounds one is always trying to lose, I guess that's my resolution.