Where's the book?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Moules, marvelous moules

It's been such a long time since I posted a recipe, and for that I apologize to my hungry army of followers. All eight of you. But this recipe is worth the wait, I promise. It's easy, cheap, delicious, impressive, and, just for emphasis...really yummy.

There are lots of easy ways to make mussels. They don't need much more than some garlic and white wine and a sprinkling of fresh parsley. But this recipe requires only a teensy bit more effort, and is worth those three or four additional minutes, especially if you like the bright, tongue-tickling flavors of Thai cuisine.

You start by adoring mussels. Go get yourself some plump pretty coral ones (local, if possible, but please not farm-raised) and just do this:

Coconut Curry Mussels

Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as an appetizer

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 stalks lemongrass, dry parts removed

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger

1 can (13.5 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk
 (not cream, and not skim)
3 tablespoons red or green Thai curry paste
 (I prefer red)
3 pounds mussels, rinsed (discard open or cracked mussels and any beards you find)

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 2 limes)

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

  1. In a large pot with a lid, melt the butter over medium high heat. Pound the lemongrass with the back of the knife to bruise it, cut it into 1-inch pieces. Add the lemongrass, along with the garlic and ginger, to the pot, and cook until fragrant, 1 minute. 
  2. Whisk in coconut milk and curry paste, stir to combine, and bring to a simmer over high heat.
  3. Add the mussels, stir to combine, cover, and reduce heat to medium-high. Cook until mussels open, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice and cilantro. 
  4. Serve in bowls, along with lots of country bread or baguette (there will be much dipping). 

Be sure to discard any mussels that don't open or that open slightly but refuse to budge any more without a lot of force. Accompanied by a salad and crisp white wine, this is the perfect simple summer supper. The broth is so delicious, you definitely will need to serve it with spoons so you can slurp up every last drop. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Maybe she's a good lawyer

The author of #22, A Book of Salt, Monica Truong, is a lawyer specializing in intellectual property. I hope she hasn't given up her day job.

The Book of Salt is a slog. A dreary, overwritten, underplotted slog through the "adventures" (which mainly consist of remembering his unfortunate past) of the cook employed in the 1930s in the Parisian household of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Finding out the "B" in Alice B. Toklas stands for "Babette" may be the most interesting thing in the book.

Binh, the cook, who narrates the tale, has a tendency to apply a minimum of three adjectives to every noun. He applies cutesy names to the other characters (I think it's meant to be poetic), like his lover, Sweet Sunday Man. And then he repeats the name endlessly, so half of the paragraph is really just his lover's three word name over and over again. The writing is dense and opaque, to the point where I had no idea what the narrator was talking about, even when he's describing something as simple as making an omelet. Some of it is so pretentious, so absurdly overwrought, that it made me burst out laughing. One of my favorites, a description of Toklas's arrival at Stein's door in Paris: "Why ask whether there were other hearts fluttering, racing, at 27 Rue de Fleurus before she walked through the door, before she slid through the vivid red, the scarlet-curtained walls of her second birth canal?"

Gertrude and Alice
Her second birth canal? Oy.

Or this: "The empty clotheslines of her lips." Or: "Skin the color of slowly pouring cream." Or: "Hair the color of properly brewed tea." And those are all from just one paragraph!

There are no interesting peeks into either Stein or Toklas's lives and characters, or any mention of the other artists and writers who frequented their famous Parisian salon. There's not much of a portrait of Vietnam (which is why I read the book in the first place) or even Paris. It's so hard to glimpse anything through the "slowly pouring cream" of the language that the main thing the book left me thinking about, was why I read the whole darn thing in the first place.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mysterious disappointments

I'm a very picky mystery reader. I loved Elizabeth George's Inspector Linley series, until she completely lost it -- really, the woman's writing ability fell off a cliff somewhere. I like, although a little less with every new book, Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series. I loved all of Ngaoi Marsh and Dorothy Sayers (Lord Peter!). Is there a theme here? Is the Pope Catholic? Mystery + a charming, sardonic, pretending-to-not-care detective + a tough, smart, superficially-disinterested-but really-madly-in-love-romantic interest = bingo! I like the mystery to be just as much about will-they-won't-they as it is about will-he-solve-the-crime.

The interesting locales, like Venice or Sicily or the backwoods (backfjiords?) of Norway don't really grab me. Put it in England, please. Preferably London, please. Country houses are nice, especially if there's a rose garden and a nearby Vicar. (This is so making me want to go and re-read Sayers, start to finish).

But I keep trying. This week's attempt to find a new mystery writer was another look at Kate Atkinson, whose Life After Life was so wonderful. But Case Histories (#21) was just middling, the kind of book that's interesting enough while you're reading it, but almost instantly forgettable, as if the words and lines just slid right off the page and out of your brain. Case Histories is the first in Atkinson's series of four (to date) Jackson Brodie mysteries, all of which have been adapted by the BBC starring Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy!) as Brodie.

Lucius Malfoy as Jackson Brodie?
Brodie's an interesting but somewhat unformed character. There are assumptions made in his personality that made the book feel more like the third or fourth in an established series, where there could be some shorthand in his characterization, than in the book that introduces him. There are three (three!) mysteries -- case histories -- being investigated, one the disappearance of a little girl from her backyard, one the murder of a young husband by his wife, and one the seemingly random murder of a young woman at her father's law office. The book moves back and forth in time, roams from place to place, and incorporates a large cast of characters. It isn't confusing, it more has the effect of watercolors, a canvas thinly covered. Atkinson, as she does in Life After Life, has an amazing ability to get a lot across very economically, like a good short story writer. But there are too many balls in the air here, and there's a sense that she's stretched herself too far.

I enjoyed reading it just enough to maybe give book number two in the series a shot. But I think I'll go find my old Ngaoi Marsh first.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Sometimes it's not good to revisit the past

Although re-reading In Cold Blood after perhaps 40 or so years was a wonderful experience, and restored my faith in my memories of much-loved books (and thank you, too, Franny and Zooey), sometimes it's better to leave good memories alone. Who said you can't go home again? Oh, yeah, this dude. I'm embarrassed to admit I've never read any of his work. Onto the list he goes.

But sometimes you really shouldn't revisit the past. Leave a good memory alone and it stays a good memory. But how do you know that until it's too late and you've re-visited a book you once loved and found out it's just...okay. Or, even worse, kinda lame. I don't think you can know, so watch out Hesse and Vonnegut and Fowles and Wouk and all the other writers I loved in my youth: I'm coming your way again. I'm choosing optimism -- the books I loved then, I will love now. I hope.

However, that doesn't change the fact that there will be bumps along the way. And this week's choice was exactly that: a rather slow, creaky, not very unexciting bump.

When I first read Time and Again (#20), back in the '70s, I loved it. New York in the 1880s is my favorite time and place, and the book let me vicariously travel back to 1882 along with the time-traveling hero Simon Morley. I thought it terrifically captured the time I was living in, as well as the time I longed to visit.

The Dakota in its early years
But reading the book now... it all just felt clumsy. Visiting 1970 -- the present-day setting of the book -- already felt like time traveling before Simon took his time-traveling journey. The language, the images, the attitudes towards African-Americans and women, all felt so dated. It almost made me laugh, when it wasn't making me appreciate how far we've come. The women are all secretaries, in stockings and heels, who are described as attractive or not. Even in 1970, was it appropriate for a boss to swipe his secretary on the "rump"? Maybe I've forgotten. And there are no people of color, except for the scary groups of young Negros that Simon crosses the street to avoid. And speaking of those streets, I found two geographical errors in just the first 50 pages. At one point, traveling east on the Upper West Side, he crosses Amsterdam, then Broadway, then stops for a light at Columbus. Which is, of course, geographically impossible, since Amsterdam is in between Broadway and Columbus.

A little later, he talks about how Central Park is exactly the same now as it was in 1882, even going into detail about it. But anyone familiar with Central Park history knows that what is now the Great Lawn, a giant oval of grass and baseball diamonds, was originally a reservoir. It remained that way until the early years of the 20th century, when it was filled in. But in 1882 it would have been a giant body of water. Not remotely the same! He also gets wrong the reason the famous Dakota apartment building (of Rosemary's Baby and John Lennon assassination fame) is called the Dakota, but I like that story (because it was so far north of the settlement of New York when it was constructed in the early 1880s that folks said it might as well have been in the Dakotas) better than the real story (the builder was fascinated by Western territories and liked the name), so I'm inclined to overlook that one. Perpetuating falsehoods that are cool is fine.

I could have gotten past all that if the book weren't, sin of all sins, boring. Not stupefyingly boring, not cant-read-another-word boring, but just somewhat boring. As in not very well written. Simon Morley is not a well drawn character, his emotions and affiliations seems to shift without much reason, and the book's action doesn't really get going until late in the tale. Once it does, it's fairly interesting. But it never rises to the heights that, for all these years, I held it in.

The arm and torch on display 1876-1892
One thing I did love unreservedly, was Simon stumbling across the forearm and torch of the Statue of Liberty, on view for all to see and enter (for just 50 cents), in Madison Square Park. The arm was displayed there as a fundraising effort, to obtain the costs necessary for constructing the pedestal of the Statue in New York Harbor. In the book, Simon climbs to the viewing balcony that circumnavigates the torch, and is able to see nearly all of the much smaller-scale New York from that perch. How wonderful to imagine a New York in which the height of just the Statue of Liberty's arm is the tallest thing in sight.

Time to re-read The Alienist, a much better visit to New York in the late 19th century. Or maybe not. Let sleeping books lie?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A masterpiece

I first read In Cold Blood (#19) a long time ago, perhaps in high school. Of course, I remembered the story well, having since seen the movie, the movies about Capote, etc. But in my hazy memory, the book was approximately 75% murder, 25% background and follow-up. Boy, was I wrong. Out of about 400 pages, there are perhaps 5 that describe the actual murder. And they don't come until about three-quarters of the way through the book. The rest is the lead-up to the murders (the first of four sections is called "The Last to See Them Alive"), the search for the killers, the arrest, the trial, and, fairly quickly, the five years until the murderers are executed.

There are no surprises, of course. We all know who did it, and we all know they hung for it. But the true surprise is how incredibly well-written and gripping the book is. How can there be a page-turner, when we already know
The killers: Dick Hickock and Perry Smith
the outcome? Capote manages to give us the details of this fairly mundane family -- the Clutters -- and these almost pathetic killers -- Dick and Perry -- and keep us glued to our seats in the process. All while he was pretty much inventing a new genre, the non-fiction novel.

The really interesting part of the book, to me, is how it's put together. The story is the story, and although Capote may have invented pieces here and there (and there's a heck of a lot of controversy about what was "true" and what wasn't), the tale is told as it happened. But the choices (what to convey in description and what in dialog, or monolog; whether or not to follow the action chronologically; what to put in and what to leave out) are fascinating. One example: The book begins on the day before the family is killed, and we follow them through every moment of their day, in tremendous detail. The story of their last hours is intercut with the story of Dick and Perry, and their plans for the murder, their purchases, even the food they eat. We follow both arcs right up until just before the moment they intersect -- as the killers are driving up the road to the lonely Clutter farmhouse. And then we skip ahead to the discovery of the bodies the next morning. Why? In a book that is almost steadily chronological, with background filled in throughout, why is such an important event -- THE important event -- off-screen?

Capote and Catpote
We don't find out exactly what happened that night for a long time. And when we do, it comes buried in a monolog of Perry's, after the two men are arrested in Las Vegas. Perry speaks for pages and pages, and tells us every detail of that infamous night. That is, until he gets to the actual murders, and then the omniscient narrator returns, and in one short paragraph, tells us how the Clutters died. And then we return to Perry's first-person narration.

Why? Why play with time and voice, which he does throughout the book? My personal theory: Capote identified with Perry, another broken child-man with a heartbreakingly awful childhood. And because Capote identified with him, and perhaps had even grown to care for him in the many years he worked on the book, he wanted to keep the story that would surely harden our hearts against Perry away from us. He didn't want to tell us the gruesome facts of the murder so early in the book. And he didn't want us to hear it from Perry himself. Better it come anonymously, where it might not cause us to condemn Perry so severely.

There are so many fascinating narrative choices. Capote famously had 8,000 pages of notes for the book, and how he whittled them into this compelling story might be an interesting tale in itself. But what we do have, in 350 un-put-down-able pages, makes for intense reading. In Cold Blood is the first of its kind. It's also the best.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Back to the Bennets.

There's only so often you can re-read Pride and Prejudice. Or other Austen masterpieces. And there are only so many books like this one, that talk about Jane and her works. But I finally got to read Jo Baker's Longbourn (#18), which I've been meaning to do since it came out last year, and it was wonderful.

Longbourn is, of course, the Bennet home in Pride and Prejudice. And Longbourn is the "downstairs" view of that home, the story of the servants: Mrs. Hill, the redoubtable housekeeper, her withering husband, the bold and intelligent housemaid Sarah, and the very young housemaid Polly. And of course, the mysterious footman James, who enters and upends their lives. 

It's also fascinating to read about what goes into running a home like Longbourn, a relatively small domicile (and there's a visit to Pemberly, Mr. Darcy's estate, so we clearly see the difference). Just doing the washing of all the undergarments used in a household of six women was a nearly overwhelming task. Keeping the clothing clean and the food cooked was a massive job, and Baker clearly did massive amounts of research to get it all right. But the research doesn't show, the story and characters reign. 

If you know the story of Pride and Prejudice, it enriches and deepens the book, since you will understand, and appreciate, all the references to what is happening upstairs. But Longbourn is its own tale, and it's a beautifully written, thoroughly entertaining one. There are appearances by all the beloved Bennets, a brief moment or two of Mr. Darcy, and some longer scenes involving Mr. Wickham. But the story belongs, mainly, to Sarah, and it's a very good story indeed.