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Monday, February 25, 2013

Adventures in Science Fiction

I’m a smorgasbord-style reader: a bit of this, a taste of that. There’s no genre I won’t try and I believe there are good books and bad books in every genre.

Having said that, there are some genres I don’t often sample: sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, westerns, spy thrillers…I think of them (to myself) as “boy books.” But I do dip my reading toe into those waters every once in a while. I loved every Harry Potter book. I follow certain mystery writers: Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie. I’ve had Robert Heinlein’s 1951 novel The Puppet Masters on my guilty pile of unread books, oops, I mean my nightstand, for a long time – years, believe it or not – ever since my sci-fi/fantasy-loving #2 son told me, “You should read this, it’s good,” back when he was in middle school. He’s out of college now and I decided it was time.

I did read it – it took all of two days, being not much longer than a typical New Yorker article – and I did enjoy it. The story is familiar: alien parasitic “slugs” have invaded Earth from Titan, a moon of Saturn; they attach themselves to people at the upper back, and then control them completely. I assumed the book was the basis for the movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, until a little Wikipoking revealed that this book became its own movie version in 1994, starring Donald Sutherland. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was first a book by Jack Finney in 1954 and then a movie in 1956 starring Kevin McCarthy, remade in 1978 with, yes, Donald Sutherland.

Donald Sutherland in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Heinlein’s writing is entertaining and over-the-top in a 1950s hard-boiled tough guy kind of way, which made me laugh out loud from time to time. The book is set in the far, far distant future: 2007. The world Heinlein imagines from half a century prior is not much like the one I see around me in 2013 – his America has ray guns and flying cars, space stations on Venus, a Marxist Sino-Soviet block that still has frigid relations with the freedom-loving West (following a nuclear World War III, which “had not settled the Russian problem, and no war ever could”). In his world everyone still smokes, and the Miss America contest is very popular. But there is a version of a cell phone, with the audio relay surgically implanted into the user’s skull (I’m sure that’s right around the corner for us: the iEar).

Couldn't resist a pic of him.
Heinlein imagines "scanning rigs," that are like video cameras, but when one blows a tube (a tube!), a critical mission is botched. And although he invents marriage contracts that make unions easily disposable, and a world in which people live on Venus, he couldn't imagine much change in the relations of the sexes. His main character, a government secret agent named Sam, makes Don Draper look like Betty Friedan. 

“A babe is just a babe,” Sam says when he meets Mary, the gorgeous (of course) agent with whom he soon falls in lust and then love. He calls her a “vixen” and a “wench,” she calls him “The Wolf” and “Bub,” to which he replies, “Don’t give me that ‘Bub’ stuff or somebody’s going to get a paddling.” Their boss at the agency, called the Old Man, tells him, “Most women are damn fools and children.” Sam doesn’t disagree.

Heinlein’s political propensities seem almost as outdated as his gender politics: “I wondered why the Titans had not attacked Russia first; the place seemed tailor-made for them. On second thought, I wondered if they had. On third thought, I wondered what difference it would make.” His philosophy is a powerful belief in self-reliance and the power of the strong, freedom-loving individual, which also seems a bit naïve and out-of-date, although that may just be my pinko-commie-liberal-Manhattan-elitist ear. Sam sounds a bit like President Reagan at times: “Whether we make it or not, the human race has got to keep up its well-earned reputation for ferocity. The price of freedom in the willingness to do sudden battle, anywhere, any time, and with utter recklessness.” 

My major criticism, as a piece of writing, is that Heinlein has a tin ear for dialog. Sometimes I wondered if he ever heard actual people speak. He doesn’t seem to believe in contractions (they’re for liberals too lazy to write out the words?) so his people say things like “they are” and “I will” and “it does not” instead of “they’re” and “I’ll” and “it doesn’t,” which lands awkwardly on my ears.

But despite the clunky dialog and the (often hilarious) politically incorrect attitudes, I enjoyed the ride. Like so many books set in the “future,” it reveals far more about precisely where it originates. I am awfully glad (as Sam might say) I live today. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Whey to Go, Bread

Remember that ricotta cheese I made a few posts back? I used a half-gallon of raw milk and had lots of whey left over. What to do? After scrounging around the Interthing I found tons of ways to use whey – everything from hair treatments to fermenting vegetables to soaking beans (that sounds kinda cool) to feeding it the “farm critters” (I got rid of those a few years back, Manhattan is no place for cattle).

One idea I loved: using whey in place of stock or water when making soup. But one I liked even better: substituting it for water when baking bread. So I tried what looked like a simple, delicious white bread recipe and it was exactly that: simple and delicious. If you’ve got some whey weighing you down (sorry), this is perfect. The bread is classic white bread, great toasted, awesome grilled cheese sandwiches, and very easy to make.

Whey White Bread
Slightly adapted from Grandmother Bread
Makes 2 loaves

3 cups warm ricotta whey
How warm is "warm"? Here’s how to tell if the liquid (in this case, whey) is the right temperature: 
It should be about 100 degrees. I test it by sprinkling a few drops on the inside of my wrist (the same way Grandma tested the baby’s bath water). It should feel just slightly warmer than your body temperature (98.6). Since my whey had been refrigerated, I heated it on low, testing every few minutes. Of course, I let it go too long and it got a little too hot, so I moved it into the bowl and let it cool down for a few minutes.
1 tablespoon yeast (1 packet)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
6-8 cups all-purpose flour

Preheat oven 350.

Combine the warm whey, yeast, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Let it sit for about five minutes until it’s slightly bubbly around the edges. Stir in three cups of flour with a wooden spoon. Add more flour a little at a time, stirring until the dough becomes too stiff to stir. Move dough to a floured surface, flour your hands, and begin kneading, adding flour as needed. I ended up using about 7 cups, but depending on your circumstances you might need more or less). Knead for about 10 minutes, until dough is smooth and elastic and no longer sticky.

Grease a bowl and let the dough rise, covered, until doubled, about 1 hour. Punch the dough down, knead gently in the bowl, and divide in half. With floured hands, shape roughly into loaves and place in two greased loaf pans. Cover and let rise 1 hour then bake for 25 minutes until golden.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Learning to speak Australian.

The Slap is, I think, the first novel I’ve read set in contemporary Australia. Sent to me by friends in Melbourne (thank you John, thank you Hamish), it tells what seems to be a simple story. The crux of the action occurs at a suburban barbecue: A man slaps a child who is not his own.

I’m not giving anything away. That line, “A man slaps a child who is not his own,” is right on the cover of the book. The slap is a bit like a stone dropped into a lake – although this lake is anything but placid – there are reverberations that move onward and outward from this one simple, albeit shocking, act.

Each chapter of the book is told from a different point of view, focusing on eight different characters who have attended the barbecue. The host, his wife, his father, the man who slaps, the mother of the child who is slapped, a family friend, two teenagers – they all get their turn at bat, and each story is rich, compelling, and vivid.

I admire author Christos Tsiolkas’s ability to so sharply define so many different people, so many varying points of view – young and old, Aussie and immigrant, male and female, gay and straight. Many of the characters are distinctly unlikable, but that doesn’t make their stories any less compelling. And even though they are not people you would want to have a cup of coffee with – the male characters in particular are arrogant, sexist, mean-spirited, and dishonest – they are interesting, and there is a measure of compassion, or at least understanding, for each.

The book sometimes teeters on the edge of cliché, especially in the attitudes of an older generation towards the younger (they are weak, spoiled, selfish). But it always pulls back from falling into stereotypes and maintaining the complexity and believability of the characters.

There were a lot of surprises for me in the book, especially in how different a suburb of Melbourne is from a suburb of a similar-sized American city – or at least how differently our suburban novelists portray it. Tom Perotta comes to mind as someone who has captured contemporary American suburban life. Although his books (Little Children, Election, The Abstinence Teacher, The Leftovers) often feel a bit like he’s picked up a rock and examined what crawled out, the people in The Slap are repellant in ways I found surprising, sometimes shocking. They are vociferously racist. I learned a whole new vocabulary of Australian ethnic/socio-economic slurs from this book: wogs are dark-skinned immigrants, usually from Greece, Italy, Spain; bogans are unsophisticated, common working-class types; if you’re boofy you’re hyper-masculine and dim-witted; and daggy – my personal favorite – which means uncool and comes from the term – dag – for the feces that gather in the matted fleece around the anus of a sheep.

The man who hosts the barbecue where the action begins is the son of Greek immigrants. His father derides the Australezi – they’re all drunks, he believes, “It’s in their blood.” The Australians look down on the wogs. The sex is frequent throughout the book and pretty much everyone is cheating on someone. And drugs are everywhere – the parents and the teens are all using something, often more than one something. Is this really how Australians are going about their lives? Despising their neighbors, snorting lines of coke, snapping up speed and X, cheating on their spouses, drinking themselves unconscious? Hating their lives and themselves?

There is a lot of sex in the book and I have to say, most of it is pretty dull. I read that Tsiolkas was nominated for the “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” for this book. He didn’t win, but I’d love to read – and laugh at – the winner.

Sex, drugs, infidelity, abuse, racism…a pretty grim picture of today’s Australia. But true? One online reviewer wrote: “I live in middle Australia, and none of these characters bare (sic) the slightest resemblance to anyone I have ever met. If this is how Australians are living their lives, God help us all.”

I hope she’s right. Because even though I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, and respected that Tsiolkas had compassion for his difficult characters, I wouldn’t want to live in a world populated by these people.

My Australian-American Dictionary
Other than those terms mentioned above, I learned the Aussie words…

A perfect quiff.
Lounge room = living room
Arvo = afternoon
Op-shop = thrift shop (short for “opportunity shop”)
Singlet = sleeveless undershirt, or what the young folks call a “wife-beater”
Boofy = brawny, hyper-masculine, and dim-witted
Wanky = jerky (from “wanker” as in “jerk-off”)
To snaffle = to steal or swipe
Quiff = A piece of hair (especially on a man), brushed upward and backward from the forehead (think Bruno Mars)
Boong = an aboriginal
To Spruik = to speak in public esp. as a showman or salesman

PS. The novel was made into an eight-episode series for Australian TV and was available here on Direct TV. NBC has purchased the rights and is planning a remake, written and produced by John Robin Baitz (Other Desert Cities). It would be interesting to see the Australian version, which was well reviewed, and then the American interpretation. What are they going to do with all that casual racism and drug use?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

One fish, two fish, so many new fish. 
I'm a decent cook. Have I said that before? I love to cook, I find it creative and calming. There's something meditative about chopping and mixing and blending. And what's the result? Good stuff to eat.

Last weekend I took a two-day cooking class with a couple of friends. The class was called Sustainable Local Seafood Orgy, a bunch of words I never thought I'd see in one phrase. It was taught by a very talented chef and cookbook author, Peter Berley, who happens to have a house down the street and around the corner from my little cottage on the North Fork of Long Island. A couple of years ago, before I met him or heard about him, I watched as some sort of renovation/addition took place at his home. It looked like they were adding on a big room. That room turned out to be a big, beautiful kitchen with one wall taken up by a beautiful wood-burning oven. There's a long wooden table down the middle of the room, for cooking and dining, and two gas ovens, sinks, a counter with a range, shelves, a pantry...it's cook's heaven, in other words.

The class ran Saturday 2-8 PM and Sunday 10 AM-2 PM. What did we make, you ask? What didn't we make, I answer. Wood-roasted clams (in that beautiful oven), roasted monkfish, sauteed kale, mashed potatoes with parsnips and turnips, two oyster dishes (one roasted with aioli and one raw with sherry mignonette), pan-roasted whiting, seared scallops with a cauliflower-leek puree and brown butter (the aroma!), a seafood risotto (which required making fish stock), and a shaved fennel salad. And for dessert, cinnamon almond shortbread and one of the best warm chocolate cakes I've ever eaten. And everything -- from the oysters to the kale to the milk and eggs we used in cake -- was local, from the amazing bounty of the North Fork, still providing, even in the middle of frozen winter. 

The ricotta curd-ing.
The clams roasting.
The whiting snuggling.
The cake cooling.

A friend at the farm.
We also took a side trip to nearby Ty Llwyd farm that sells fresh eggs and veggies and raw milk from their own little herd of cows -- in glass bottles. The sight of the cream rising to the top made me feel all Little-House-on-the-Prairie happy. I learned how to shuck oysters, something I've always wanted to do. And without bleeding or losing a finger! But my favorite thing was learning how to make fresh ricotta from that raw milk, which we served with the almond shortbread cookies and a dried fruit compote for dessert. I brought my raw milk home and made another batch on my own -- it's very easy -- and used it for lasagna and blueberry ricotta scones (Smitten Kitchen recipe, very good -- she made hers with raspberries; I had blueberries on hand, so...).

Smitten's scones, Mine were blue.
We drank much wine (also from the North Fork) and met nice folks, including Peter himself and his wife Meggan, a young couple from Brooklyn who brought their two-year-old on Sunday (despite my aversion to little ones in big people places, she was pretty well-behaved and darn cute) and a teacher from Smithtown.

And in case you'd like to know how, here's the secret to the most delicious ricotta cheese:

1/2 gallon raw whole milk (you can find out where to buy it here)
7 TB distilled white vinegar or lemon juice (I used vinegar)
1 tsp salt
1 cup heavy cream
(if you make it without the cream, I'm told, it comes out more like paneer or queso frescro -- I haven't tried this but will and I'll let you know how it turns out)

Combine everything in a pot and slowly bring it to a very gentle simmer. The curds will begin to separate -- stir it very gently once or twice, with a large slotted spoon. There's no need to stir much. When it begins to simmer, shut it off and leave it alone for 10-15 minutes, then strain into a bowl. Leave it a little bit wet, because it will firm up as it cools. Put it in the fridge to cool and firm. How simple is that?

The pale milky stuff left behind is the whey (remember Miss Muffet? eating her curds and whey?). You can save this and use it for baking or in soup (potato leek would be nice). I'll let you know how that goes, too.

But what the hell's a tuffet? It looks like she's sitting on a Hostess Ding Dong.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Nadine Gordimer. Check.

I can cross another always-meant-to-read author off my list. For my February book group, we read Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun. Here's my ten-cent review: stiff, cold, opaque, distant, vague.

The story is a simple one -- and a fascinating one, at least from the synopsis. A successful South African couple, he the director of an insurance company, she a doctor, are faced with something that does not happen to people like them: their twenty-something son has committed a murder. The facts of the case are very straightforward and his guilt is beyond doubt, so the story is about how his parents deal with what has happened. But for a tale that should be emotional and internal, the writing is cold and far, far away from what is going on within the two main characters.

Gordimer does not set a scene; there is little if any description of place or person. Their home is a blank except for the terrace where they watch the sunset. There are few details about the characters physically or of their emotional terrain. The style feels more like that of a short story, where we are given glancing details and few words are wasted on description. The story moves along, but it always feels like it is visiting each scene glancingly, or like we're watching it from very far away, through a telescope.

There are no quotation marks, which I usually don't mind if it's handled well, but in this case it's confusing. Gordimer goes in and out of dialogue and narrative and thought, often in the same paragraph, and it becomes difficult, sometimes impossible, to tell what is said and what is thought and what is the narration.

A little bit of tension works up during the trial but the constant rehashing of the minimal details of the case -- by the lawyers, by the judge, by the parents -- gets tiresome. I won't give away the ending (in case, after this lousy review, you run out and buy the book) but it made me cross South Africa off my list of countries to visit.

One good thing I can say about the book: Despite the fact that no one in my book group particularly liked it, it made for an excellent discussion.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Bloody Good Book

I haven't mentioned it yet, but I'm adopted. I mention it now by way of saying that any book that features adoption as a theme is inherently interesting to me. Which is why I picked up By Blood  by Ellen Ullman. I read a brief review of it that sounded interesting, and mentioned that it featured a search for a birth mother (been there, found that), and then I read something about the author and it mentioned that she was adopted, so I figured she would know what she was talking/writing about (as so many authors, when writing about adoption and adopted characters, do not).

I hesitate -- a bit -- to mention the whole adoption thing, because for so many adult adoptees, adoption is the focus, the defining issue, of their lives. While I do believe that adoption actually is the defining issue of an adoptee's life, since it leaves an emotional and physical (yes, I believe that, too) imprint that can never fully be eradicated, I also have a visceral distaste for the adoption-defines-me bandwagon. I don't want any one thing to define me -- my race, my religion, my sexual preference, my taste in music, my love of dachshunds, my allergy to guinea pigs. I don't want to be put in the adoption-is-my-life-my-life-is-adoption corner. (Sudden memory: There was a girl in my high school whose yearbook quote -- I kid you not -- was "Zionism is my life. My life is Zionism." Guess where she lives now? I so wish the answer to that was Miami, but it's Tel Aviv.)

However -- shameless self-promotion to follow -- I also have to admit that I co-wrote a book with my birth mother about that very issue. Not Zionism, adoption. It follows my birth mother's story of finding herself with an unwanted pregnancy at 20 and giving up the baby and how it affected her life, and my story of growing up adopted and how it affected my life, and our finding each other many years later. Just in case you're interested (didn't I make it sound fascinating?), you can buy it here. And if you want it digitally, here.

Writing the book was a deeply healing experience, one that the adopted character in By Blood (look, I'm getting back to the point! and it only took three paragraphs!) could use. She is a confused young woman, in therapy for her difficulties with her adopted parents, her romantic partner, her life. Unbeknownst to her and her therapist, the man in the next office -- the narrator of the story -- is listening to their sessions. Our unnamed narrator becomes slowly and inextricably drawn into her life (she is also unnamed, her refers to her, quite creepily, as "my dear patient"), until he actually and anonymously intervenes in her story.

The book casts a sinister and disturbing pall from the very first sentence: "I did not cause her any harm." The story is set in San Francisco in the mid-seventies, a depressed and anxious time. Patty Hearst has been kidnapped, the Zodiac killer is on the loose. The narrator is a university professor on forced leave for what slowly reveals itself as -- no, I'm not giving anything away. There are many mysteries in the book -- the mystery of why the professor has been disgraced, the mystery of the origins of the "dear patient," even the mystery of the therapist herself, who has a colorful past of her own that she is hiding. All of these mysteries are wrapped in the unsettling fog of whether or not the narrator, despite the claim of his opening sentence, will harm his dear patient. Despite his frequent protestations of innocence, he also fears what he might do, even praying to God: "Help me, remember she is the patient, my beloved patient, not like the others, nothing like them at all!"

But who these "others" are, and what he has done to them, remains a mystery.

The prose is seductive, and the story unfolds like a reverse origami. There are mysteries upon mysteries, and even though at the end, not everything is clear, the intense journey has been satisfaction enough.

Buy (or borrow" By Blood. And my book, too.