Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Bookman's Wake

I'm actually posting about a book that I haven't read--I got an audiobook of John Dunning's The Bookman's Wake to listen to in the car when I was going to take a long trip. I have now read most of the other books in the series, because I liked Wake so much. The reading, by the way, was OK--I didn't like how the male reader did the female character's voices.

It's hard to find a book-themed mystery series that isn't a "cozy." The Bookman series, with its detective Cliff Janeway, accomplishes the unusual--a hard-boiled, book-themed series. Janeway is a former homicide cop who leaves the force to set up shop as a used-book dealer. The series (and Bookman's Wake in particular) includes some fascinating detail about publishing quirks and oddities, and some insights on how the visual aspect of books influence our reading of them. This is the sort of thing I've had to deal with in my professional work with regard to early modern texts, but it's interesting to see it discussed in modern printing.

Dunning leaves some loose ends in the early books, and I'd like to see them addressed at some point in the series. The settings are well done, particularly Wake, which takes place in Seattle, and Dunning's sense of place adds to the artistry of the series nicely. If you like books, and hard-boiled, first-person detective novels, try the Bookman series.

What to do with leftover turkey? How about Mexican-inspired food? If you don't have turkey, roasted deli chicken will work.

1 cup chopped onions
2 cups shredded cooked turkey
8 flour tortillas, torn into quarters
1 big can red or green enchillada sauce
1 lb cheddar cheese
1/2-3/4 cup plain yogurt or sour cream

Layer in a 9 x 13 casserole. Pour enough enchillada sauce in the bottom to cover the pan, then place half of the tortilla quarters over it. Layer half of the turkey, half of the onions, and spread half of the yogurt over the top. sprinkle half of the cheese over the casserole. Repeat the layers: sauce, tortillas, turkey, onion, yogurt, cheese. Finish by topping with the last of the enchillada sauce. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes; let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Carr: The Alienist

I promised that I'd give Caleb Carr a fair shake and tell you about one of his better books after *The Italian Secretary* got such a poor review. Mr. Carr's sales wouldn't be affected in any statistically important way if every single one of you went out and bought The Alienist (he's a pretty regular player on the bestseller lists), but I'll feel less guilty if I give him some praise.

The Alienist is set in late nineteenth-century New York City. The novel is in first person, told by Archie Moore, the journalist sidekick of the detective and title character, Lazlo Kreizler. Kreizler is a psychologist (the modern term for a profession then called "alienist" because mentally ill patients were seen as "alienated"), called in by Theodore Roosevelt, the Commissioner of Police, to solve a series of murders. Since the killer has been focusing on cross-dressing prostitutes, the police are not motivated to solve the murders of such unsavory people. The use of psychological tools to "profile" serial killers is now tired stuff in murder mysteries, but Carr makes it fresh again by showing us how an investigative team might have gone about it before such methods were commonplace.

The team consists of an interesting ensemble--Moore himself, Kreizler, two brothers surnamed Isaacson, Moore's friend Sarah (a secretary and one of the first female employees in the police department), and some of Kreizler's former patients now turned household staff. The team is well drawn, for the most part, although the brothers (one a forensic genius with cadavers, another expert at crime scene analysis) are annoying at first.

I would also like to say that Carr deftly plants a red herring that, had it turned out to be the solution, would have given the book a ho-hum "shocker" ending worthy of a mediocre slasher film. I spent most of the book afraid I knew who'd done it, and I'm glad to say that Carr didn't take it that way. It would have made the book much less a painstakingly researched detective procedural than a "BESTSELLER! WITH A SHOCKER ENDING THAT WILL LEAVE YOU GUESSING UNTIL THIS END!" sort of book. This was much more subtle. Kreizler is a neat detective, and I found myself with a mental picture of him that was highly cinematic (actually, I kept picturing Ben Kingsley in *Sneakers* for some reason, even though Kingsley's the villian in that film and it's not a period piece).

Carr still struggles with using "being as" instead of because, but it wasn't quite so egregious in this book. I think the editors did a better job (although it slipped by them a few times). I've got the second book in the series, and I'll let you know when I read it.

I don't really have a recipe that speaks topically to either psychology or serial killing. Actually, that's probably good. This is the best recipe for banana bread ever. The graham cracker crumbs are the key.

1 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 or 3 mashed bananas
1 c. graham cracker crumbs
1/3 c. shortening
3/4 c. sugar
2 eggs
1/2 c. chopped walnuts.
Combine dry ingredients.  Mix sugar and shortening, then add eggs, dry ingredients,
bananas and nuts. Pour into greased loaf pan. Bake in 350 oven
for 1 hour.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Beowulf: The monsters and the nutjobs

We interrupt our regularly-scheduled bookblog to bring you the shocking truth about Beowulf! It's all real! And Michael Crichton wasn't even close!

I know, I know. I should be outraged at the author's perpetuation of some pretty weird flavors of fundamentalism. Truth is, though, I laughed so hard my asthma kicked in and I was actually wheezing. Here are some gems from the essay and my responses:

[Edit--an alert reader just told me that not all browsers are showing the different fonts I used to distinguish the original essay from my comments. I have now italicized the original essay.]

Beowulf liked adventure more than ruling the land. A band of warriors adventured with Beowulf. In those days warriors often vowed loyalty to their lord, or leader, and a group trusted and respected each other and risked their lives for each other. They shared the plunder they gained through victories. Beowulf with his band of warriors fought and killed monster animals.

Beowulf didn't actually go adventuring after he became the king. At no point was did he "like" adventuring in favor of ruling--the two options were not simultaneously available.

The main monster in the story of Beowulf is Grendel. That is capitalized as though it is a proper name like Fido or Black Beauty.

The manuscript doesn't capitalize any names, including that of Beowulf.

Later in the story Beowulf killed Grendel’s mother also. He returned to Sweden and was king for fifty mostly peaceful years. He died while once again conquering a monster.

This is the entire discussion of the two later fights. Guess that whole "magic sword" thing was a little inconvenient for our author.

Only one manuscript of the original poem exists. People found it, partly burned, in England about five hundred years after Beowulf lived.

Nope. The manuscript wasn't "found" in the eleventh century, it was written in the eleventh century. There's a difference. The manuscript also didn't get burned until the 18th century. We can be certain about this because a short while before it got singed, a Danish scholar named Thorkelin made a transcript, including bits that are now lost or illegible due to fire. If it was already burned, how come Thorkelin could read it?

Many literature books say that it is fiction, one of the earliest examples we have of an English novel.

I want to see the "literature book" that calls a 3000-line poem from the Middle Ages a "novel."

But if someone were writing fiction, he would not name so many real people; he would invent characters as novelists do. And if someone wrote it long after the events, he would not know all those real people who lived in Beowulf’s time.

Novelists don't name real people? Oh, man--guys, this is terrible. I don't know how we're gonna break this to Bernard Cornwell.

And if someone wrote it long after the events, he would not know all those real people who lived in Beowulf’s time.

Er, he read the many, many lists of geneology or regnal lists (names of kings) that still survive in medieval manuscripts? Just a thought.

But the basic story is historically true, and the animals are zoologically real. They are not called trolls or other fantasy names.

This is true! They're not called trolls once in the Old English! Of course, that's because "troll" is an Old Norse word, and not an Old English one. "Troll" doesn't enter the English language until the nineteenth century (yeah, you read that right--contemporary with Brahm's lullaby and the American Civil War). The poem doesn't call Grendel a flamenco dancer, either, but we can't claim, on that basis alone, that he didn't have rhythm.

No English kings or events are mentioned. This shows that the poem was written before the Saxons, Geats, and other tribes migrated to England.

Wait. She said that Beowulf was born in 495. The migrations happened in 450-500. How'd they write about him before he was born? And how come they could write in Old English when it didn't exist yet?

At least this is a break from the folks who claim Beowulf is a Tudor forgery. . . .

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Carr: The Italian Secretary

Oops! It's been a month. I have been getting reading done, but, due to technical difficulties at work, haven't had much chance to blog when I'm home. Things were resolved last week, so with luck I'll be a little more frequent.

Today's post is about a book I didn't really like. Yeah, I didn't mean to do negative reviews, and I'll still mostly focus on recommendations. Caleb Carr's The Italian Secretary, however, is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, which means some readers might enjoy it anyway, so I'll go ahead.

The thing to know about Carr's book is that it originated in a request to contribute a short story to an anthology of Sherlock Homes pastiches centering on ghost stories. Yeah, you read that right. Carr's contribution was too long, but the publishers liked it so they put it out as a novel. It does, in fact, read more like a long story. Holmes and Watson get called up to Edinburgh to investigate two murders in Holyrood House that resemble the ancient slaying of Mary, Queen of Scot's music secretary, David Rizzio. They spend the train ride in exposition and back-story, have a mildly interesting interlude, and arrive in Edinburgh. When Watson wakes up the next morning, Holmes has solved the case. This lack of any development in the mystery is OK for a short story, annoying in a novel. True, several more chapters ensue in which our heroes try to trap the villain, etc., but as a mystery this isn't terrifically successful.

Holmes has suddenly developed a belief in ghosts, in direct opposition to his comments in Conan Doyle's original stories (the Canon, for those of you not familiar with the term), but that's not Carr's fault since it's the premise of the original collection. I think this could have been successfully cut back to a short story, rather than spun into a novella. Still, it's Holmes and if you're like me and you'll read just about anything with that character, it's probably worth picking up in a used bookstore.

Carr also has a bad habit of using "being as" instead of "because" or just "as." I will be honest with you all and admit that this is a pet peeve of mine. It's annoying in vapid teenagers. It's pretty poor in published novels, which ought to employ the fewest words possible. It's inexcusable in a book written in the first person before "being as" entered the language as a common speech tick. Shame on you, Carroll and Graf. This is something your editors should have caught.

Carr's own series of late nineteenth-century mysteries are far superior. He's a better writer than this; the premise was just too silly. I'll tell you about a good book of his next time.

The Brits can put curry in anything. I heartily approve. Here's my own suggestion for how your life can be improved through curry paste:

My Mom's Beer Cheese Soup

<>½ stick butter (4 Tbsp)
4 Tbsp flour
¼ - ½ cup finely diced onion
1/8 – ¼ tsp dry mustard
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
1 can (aprox. 2 cups) chicken stock
1 to 1½ cans beer
½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup finely dices carrots (optional)
¼ cup finely dices celery (optional)
¾ - 1 lb. shredded (or hunked) cheese (sharp cheddar or Velveeta)
½ cup (or so) broccoli floweret’s, chopped
2 – 3 slices bacon, crumbled
Shredded cheddar cheese
Green onion, chopped <>

Sauté onions in butter. Add flour, salt, pepper and dry mustard. Stir until bubbly. Gradually add chicken stock, beer and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add carrots and celery, if desired. Simmer 5 – 10 minutes until vegetables are tender. Add cheese, stirring constantly until melted. Add broccoli and simmer until just barely tender (2 - 4 minutes?). Garnish with sprinkle of bacon, shredded cheese and green onion (optional, of course). Serve with bread sticks or garlic bread. Enjoy!

Mom Notes: I prefer the flavor of sharp cheddar, but Velveeta melts a little smoother. If you use Velveeta,reduce or eliminate the salt added to your white sauce. I add enough cheese to make the soup a pretty light yellow color. Use more or less as you like. Better flavored beer makes better soup and you get to drink the 4½ cans left over so get a decent one.

My note: Try adding 1 tsp of curry paste when you add the dry mustard. It gives the soup a very nice flavor--not too overpowering. The only downside is that it makes the soup a bright orangey-yellow color that makes it look like you're using some weird preservative.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

King: The Art of Detection

Er, long time no post. I guess I should just quit apologizing. We've moved, and I'm now blogging from my new home in the mountain south! We love it here so far.

I'm in the middle of several books, and am therefore not finishing any of them quickly. I may also have to resort to posting less-than-positive reviews. I suppose it was inevitable that I would have to quit only posting about books I really liked.

I did enjoy the Art of Detection. I've read King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, and like them (except for the most recent, which is why I didn't blog about it). I hadn't read any of the Martinelli books before this one, and I enjoyed it. Kate Martinelli is fun--a good, solid cop of the sort I like reading about. The bonus for this book is the inclusion of a "mysterious" typescript story that (readers of King's other series know) is written by Sherlock Holmes from the Mary Russell books. It's a mystery-within-a-mystery, and I have a taste for layered texts. The book moves along well, and the secondary characters, including a Sherlock Holmes fan club / re-enactment society is well done. King makes a nod to her real-life friend Leslie Klinger's New Annotate Sherlock Holmes (short stories and novels), a recommendation that I enthusiastically second for anyone who enjoys the Holmes stories.

Who needs to eat more vegetables? Yeah, me, too. I saw Giada making this on the Food network the other day, and tried it out. It's really good:

Tomato Vegetable Casserole

Let me know what you think! And a shout-out to any of my students who found this blog by poking around on my course blogs.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Cornwell: The Last Kingdom

How did I not know that Bernard Cornwell was writing a series set in Anglo-Saxon England? I'm a biblomaniac and an Anglo-Saxonist, for pity's sake! I happened across the first book in the series, The Last Kingdom, in a bookstore and it was already out in paperback. It's set in Britain during the beginning of the Danes' (aka the Vikings') invasion, told by the first-person narrator Uhtred of Bebbanburg. The Danes sweep through England, capturing the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, and only Wessex remains under control of an Anglo-Saxon king, the man history now calls Alfred the Great.

I've heard of Cornwell's novels before, and one of my officemates had enthusiastically recommended the Sharpe series to me although I haven't gotten to reading them. The Last Kingdom lived up to what I'd heard of Cornwell. Most Americans don't know about King Alfred, and don't know what happened in England in the ninth century, so for many readers this can be read like any other novel, with the same suspense. I know the history already, though, so for me the pleasure of this novel was in the artistry and the choices Cornwell made as an author. It's a little like seeing a familiar play--Hamlet, say--you know what's going to happen, and you're watching to see how it's brought about on the stage. What will they do with the ghost? How will they stage the play-within-a-play?

Cornwell's largest problem may have been trying to write a sympathetic first-person narrator from the time period. Unless you want your book's audience to be limited to devout Catholics, it's difficult to have a historically credible narrator whose belief in the miraculous and reliance on the Church won't turn off the readership. Modern sensibilities don't mix well with ninth-century religion, for the most part. Cornwell manages this by having his fictional narrator be taken in by Danes at the age of 11 and converting to paganism. When the narrator ends up in Wessex, this give him the outsider's perspective on the religious environment that the modern reader shares. Such a tactic isn't new--Michael Crighton made his main character in Eaters of the Dead an Arab--but it works well. In fact, the narrator's disdain for the religious devotion was almost anachronistic and over-critical, but the character is still young and I'm looking for him to develop some idea of the value of literate and monastic culture.

The Danish background also keeps the novel from being oversimplified. The reader likes the Danes at times, although perhaps not enough to be cheering for them. I was curious about how Cornwell would handle some of the well-known incidents from these invasions, such as the interaction between the Danish leaders and King Edmund, and each time he deftly keeps the Danes from becoming unsympathetic. I have a few quibbles with his portrayal of Anglo-Saxon culture--for instance, he has a Danish character state that the Anglo-Saxons believe in father-to-son succession, which doesn't match what I've read about the politics of the day--but on the whole I'm quite pleased with this book and will read the next one soon. Relatively soon, anyway, since we're moving in a few weeks.

As it happens, I was reading from King Alfred's Old English translation of St. Gregory the Great's (Latin) Cura Pastoralis, and I came across the following command:

"Habbað ge sealt on ieow, ond sibbe habbað betweoh iow" 'Have salt within you, and peace among you'

Folks, if that isn't an injunction to drink margaritas, I don't know what is.

1 slice of lime
margarita salt
1 shot tequila
1 shot triple sec
1/3 cup sweet-and-sour mix
1/2 shot lime juice.

Cut a notch in the lime and insert in on the rim of the glass. Run the lime around the rim so the rim has juice on it. Take the lime off and roll the rim in the salt. Add ice to the glass, the add the rest of the ingredients and stir. Peace be among you.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Off-season eating

No, this isn't about the dietary needs of NFL players. I've noticed that, like most people, I tend to eat certain foods at certain times of year. Right now, I'm getting lots of pineapple. Pineapple slices with cottage cheese, pineapple chunks on shish kabobs, etc. The weird thing is, I could do this year round. I mostly use canned pineapple anyway, and it's not exactly seasonal in cans.

I have decided to rebel. Join me in breaking the seasonal-eating habit!

Libby's Pumpkin Pie Recipe

Post your suggestions for delicious foods that we don't usually eat in June in the comments section!