Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Matthew Pearl: The Dante Club

Matthew Pearl is a shining example of how to make take one's scholarly research, parley it into a mystery novel, and make actual money out of it. Not everyone can do this; for one thing, his prose style is outstanding. However, on his way to producing an edition of Longfellow's translation of the Inferno, Pearl crafted a delightful mystery about the group of literati--Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., James Russell Lowell, and the American publisher J.T. Fields--who assisted Longfellow with his work. As they work on their translation, in the novel, a series of murders occur and they realize that the killer is modelling his victem's deaths on the Inferno. But who, other than they themselves, could know Dante well enough to do this?

Pearl's novel, The Dante Club (not to be confused with Arturo Perez Reverte's The Club Dumas), has several elements that recommended it to me: it centers on books, it blends the historical and the fictional, and it is one of those mysteries where knowing about medieval literature adds to one's enjoyment. My favorite mysteries are often those that involve a paper-chase, so I tracked this one down as soon as I saw it in Book Page.

I wasn't disappointed. In fact, this book's standout feature isn't any of those qualities that led me to purchase it, but rather the deft way Pearl takes these giants of American literature and makes them real characters. They squabble, make up, have flaws and overcome them, and in short they develop in the novel--without it ever seeming obnoxious or contrived to readers who know about the historical people. Pearl's handling of Holmes, in particular, is an affectionate look at an imperfect man and how he learns to act decisively and courageously (and for you lawyers out there, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. also appears in the book as a minor character, and is also handled well). By the end, Holmes Sr. has changed the most and is perhaps the readers' favorite character. The Dante Club's extraordinarily deft job with achieving a balance between a well-crafted collection of characters and the demands of historical accuracy is all the more striking because it is a first novel; I look forward to seeing what Pearl comes up with for an encore.

Pearl's edition of Longfellow's translation of Dante has also been printed, and his publisher had the savvy to design a cover that resembles the cover of the novel. I found that amusing.

Hey, while you're settling down by the fire to read a mystery about a translation of an Italian poem, why not munch on some wonderful Italian food? This is one of my favorites from Rachael Ray: Veal Ragu. Hey, when you've got a good book to read, who wants to spend too long over dinner?

Feel free to leave a comment on the Dante Club, Italian food, or historical mysteries!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ngaio Marsh

I apologize for the brief hiatus. I do intend to be more regular.

Someone recently asked me to recommend a "classic mystery novel." I had a harder time with that than I would have expected, because the most memorable ones are often those that somehow bend the genre--Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express, or Hammett's Maltese Falcon. The book I settled on, finally, was Singing in the Shrouds by Dame Ngaio Marsh (that's pronounced "Nigh-oh" by the folks who produce the audiobooks). Naio Marsh gets my vote for "the best mystery author you're not reading," and I'd like to encourage you all to try her books. They've been re-released in America in paperback fairly recently, so they're possible to acquire.

Shrouds is, rather unusally for Marsh or her contemporaries, about a serial killer. It takes place on board a cruise ship bound for Africa; the police have learned that the "Flower Murderer," who leaves flower petals on his victems, may be on board so Inspector Roderick Alleyn (pronounced "Allen") boards the boat and spends the book trying to figure out which of the passengers is his killer. The book has the claustrophobic atmosphere typical of early mysteries, many of which feature oceanic voyages. Although Marsh writes with sensibilities not shared by most modern readers, her biases are not as off-putting as Josephine Tey's.

Alleyn shows up quite early in this book, which isn't always the case in Marsh--she often spends the first third of the novel setting up the characters involved, then introduces the crime and the detective. Normally, this would annoy me, since I read dectective series primarily because (and if) I like the detective. However, her vibrant prose and her interesting characters pull me along anyway, even if Alleyn is offstage. I use that metaphor deliberately, since Marsh was a well-known Shakespearean producer, and several of her novels center around theaters and/or plays. She was also a painter, and one of her novels, Artists in Crime, deals with a painting school. Artists may be my second favorite of her books, but it's hard to choose since I like them all (although her very last book, Light Thickens, is not up to the rest of the series--she didn't even live to see it published, I think).

A word of warning--many of her books were published under more than one title (I assume they had different names in the U.S. and in Britain). A Surfeit of Lampreys is also called Death of a Peer; Killer Dolphin and Death at the Dolphin are the same book. This can make it hard to buy them on-line, since you need to see a plot summary to be certain you haven't read it before.

OK, now, hands up--who's going to have half a jar of mincemeat left over after Thanksgiving? Here's a recipe that will use up the leftovers: Chicken Curry in a Hurry

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Zorro (Isabel Allende)

I have to confess to a fascination with Zorro, which began when I discovered that the Disney Channel had re-runs of the 1950s TV series starring Guy Williams on every night. I was working on an embroidered tablecloth as a Christmas present for my mother that semester, so every night I sat down in front of the TV at 11:30 and watched the show while I worked on my embroidery. I had seen a spoof Zorro movie--The Gay Blade, I believe--but this was my first introduction to Zorro that wasn't pure farce.

When I saw that the famous Chilean author Isabel Allende had written a version of the Zorro story, I had to read it. I had been wanting to read something of hers for a while, so this was my introduction to her books.

I enjoyed it enormously. I haven't been able to track down the original Zorro stories, so I can't say what she pulled from those and what she was lifting from the Disney series. She makes references to the title song, so I suspect that several other points are pure Disney as well. Her novel is mostly set before Zorro begins his work in Spanish California in earnest--I would describe it as "Zorro and how he got that way." The familiar group of characters are there--Diego, Alejandro, Bernardo, the future Sargent Garcia, and of course the villanous Moncada. Part of the fun is recognizing these characters from the series--the pleasure of recognition, I think, has to be one of the great joys of reading. However, most of the story is how Zorro becomes what he is, studying under a famous fencing master in Barcelona, joining a resistance movement to the French occupation of Spain, etc.

And, lest anyone worry about a "literary" author writing about a popular legend, let me say that the novel swashes and buckles quite satisfactorily throughout. This isn't to say Allende doesn't play with the legend--we learn, for instance, that part of the reason Zorro wears the style of mask that he does is because his ears protrude and the mask holds them flat--or change details to suit herself. I don't know about the original stories, but in the Disney series, Diego's mother was a) dead and b) presumably European (her no-good brother shows up at one point in the series, and he has a Spanish name). Allende changes this, and the racial tensions in California give the novel a serious tone in places. None of this takes away from the romping nature of most of the book, however; it only keeps it from being superficial (the Disney series also dealt with European cruelty to the natives in a few episodes also, for the same reason).

No, I think one of the big "literary" issues Allende brings up in this book is the whole question of fanfiction, for that is what Zorro unquestionably is--complete with Mary Sue and all. A Mary Sue (or, if it's a male, Harry Stu), for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is a character in a work of fan fiction who is an obvious self-portrait of the fan fiction's author, often in a position of romantic attachment to the hero of the story. If I were to write a pastiche Lord Peter Wimsey story, in which his client is a Ph.D. in medieval literature named "Becca," who wrote her dissertation on a subject that is identical to mine, and they have a love scene, etc., that would be an example of a Mary Sue.

Allende's Zorro has a character named "Isabel," whose physical description (thick curly hair, etc) seems like Allende's own, and who becomes a sidekick for Diego (there are other clues that she's a Mary Sue, but they involve spoilers). In case anyone missed this, Allende's author portrait shows her in period costume, with a Zorro mask, the hat, and a sword--we are to identify her with the Isabel in the novel. Allende was smart enough to pick something in the public domain (I think) or at least to get permission to use Zorro--the legality of fan fiction is a whole 'nother issue that we need not deal with here. Rather, she demands that we consider the artistry of fan fiction. Must we write off obviously derivative works, even when a practitioner of Allende's skill produces them, as less "serious" than her other novels? Or, does Allende actually have a more authentic book than the originals, since after all she writes in Spanish about her Spanish characters, while the original stories and the Disney series were entirely Anglophone? Is it more original to re-do a familiar set of characters and their stock plots (prison breaks, rescues, etc) with a new emphasis on race, or to invent new characters entirely to think about these issues?

I'm a medievalist, so I have no problem with the idea that "originality" can include interesting new treatments of old stories (otherwise, you have to say Chaucer is un-original, which I won't concede). But some of the backlash against fan-fiction has tended toward that argument. What I think Allende could be suggesting here is that a sharp division between "original" and "derivative" works leaves out a lot of middle ground that authors could work in with great success.

And hey, what's more derivative than Americanized versions of Mexican dishes? Whip up some guacamole to munch on while you're reading Zorro:
2-3 avacados
3-4 canned whole peeled tomatoes, plus some of the juice from the can
1/2 tsp. Tabasco sauce (more if you like it spicy!)
1/2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp salt.
1 tbspn lemon juice.
Scoop the pulp out of the avacados--when you buy them, make sure they're nice and soft (but not rotten). Combine them in a blender with the other ingredients, and blend until smooth. Or, if you don't have a blender, you can mash the avacado up with a potato masher and chop the tomatoes before you combine the ingredients. This recipe doesn't add sour cream to the guacamole, so it's much healthier than most restaurant versions (although the avacados in it will make it turn brown if you save it over night--it's still edible, just not as pretty).

Got a thought about Zorro, fan-fiction, or originality? Leave a comment below!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

School Days (Robert B. Parker)

I'm a mystery novel addict--I've been known to read mysteries in times of stress like some people chain smoke, starting a new books from the back cover of the last one. I discovered Parker a few years ago, and happily worked my way through the Spenser books over the course of a year or so.

I like Spenser. Yeah, they're really short--practically novellas--but they're fun. I like the 1st person, tongue-in-cheek narration: "It came the way I knew it would, a long slow looping right punch that I could have slipped while writing my memoirs" (Hugger Mugger). Part of what Parker does well is collect an ensemble of secondary characters that the reader enjoys seeing again--not just Spenser's girlfriend and his best friend, Susan and Hawk, but Martin Quirk, Frank Belson, Tedy Sapp, Bobby Horse, Chollo, Vinny Morris, etc. Most books involve some subset of these characters in some combination (Potshot has darn near all of them together).

School Days breaks this pattern, and I think it's deliberate. Susan is out of town for the duration of the novel's action. Hawk just doesn't appear, and neither do any of the other usuals. The only characters recurring from other books are Rita Fiore, a lawyer whom Spenser needs to talk to for plot reasons, and Major Johnson, who hasn't been in many books since we met him as a tough gang leader in the housing projects in Double Deuce. Neither of these characters are close to Spenser (although Rita would like to be), and as a result he's much more isolated in this book than he has been in any of the novels with the possible exception of Valediction. Parker's decision to leave Spenser on his own ties with the subject of the book's mystery--a school shooting, done by two teenaged boys at their high school in an affluent suburb. The parallels to the Columbine shooting are obvious, and since this book does not mention anything from the previous Spenser novel, Cold Service, and is coming out less than 12 months after it, I wonder if Parker didn't write this years ago and wait to publish it.

Spenser's client is the grandmother of one of the alleged shooters, who doesn't believe her grandson did it. Spenser's investigation brings him up against several people in the community involved, nearly all of whom are grasping hold of a collective amnesia as a way of dealing with what happened, and with their own flaws and mistakes that led to the violence in the school. The police, the school president/principal, the families of the two boys don't want to talk about what happened. Contrary to what we might expect, the other kids from the school, who knew the alleged shooters and the victims, are the only ones willing to talk about it and seem to be dealing with it better than their adult counterparts. Spenser's isolation in the novel mirrors that of the accused shooters, both before and after the crime. Parker's novel refuses the sort of canonizing / demonizing dynamic that the media leapt to when Dylan Kliebold and Eric Harris opened fire in Columbine. The novel still comes up with something like an explanation for the events in the school, but it isn't grounded in the saintliness of the victims and the unabashed evil of the shooters. Parker's novel isn't attempting a justification of Columbine, nor really an explanation; the book is more about people's reactions to "unspeakable" crimes than the mystery itself. As a side note, the presence of Major Johnson silently points to the question of why the shooting of rich white kids by other rich white kids should be "unspeakable" and shocking to everyone, while the victim and the accused in Double Deuce are about the same age as the kids in School Days and the press doesn't seem to care. I think that is why he, and not Hawk, serves as Spenser's underworld connection in this novel.

This is one of the darker Spenser books, due to its subject matter. Adults mess up--even Spenser makes an uncharacteristic mistake--with fatal consequences for the teenagers who depend on them. By sheer coincidence, this is the second mystery novel about a school shooting I've read in the last two months--the other, Ian Rankin's A Question of Blood, makes several open references to the Dunblaine massacre and seems to be another author's way of dealing with the terrible spectre of violence in school. I'll have a separate post in it some time in the future.

Normally Spenser novels involve him cooking up a storm, but I don't remember that as a prominent feature in this one. It's hard to go from such a dark subject to a cheery recipe selection, so I'll conclude by suggesting that you make the favorite dish for one of your family members sometime, and be sure you sit down together to eat it.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Susanna Clarke's Strange (and Norrell)

I finally finished Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell last night--at 750+ pages (in hardback), it's not for the faint of heart. I've been reading it with several smaller books orbiting around it, as it were, for over a month. I confess I tend to be intimidated by very long books--not because I think they're too hard, but because I'm afraid if they turn out to be terrific and I can't put them down, I'll get myself into a mess not getting my other work done. I suffer from guilt every time I read for fun because I'm not working, grading, or doing laundry or housework, so it's hard to commit to a large book sometimes.

JS & MN was a delight, however. It's set in the early nineteenth century, during the Regency, and it mimics the diffuse style of the time--without ever getting to the point of irritating a modern reader. It probably wouldn't be to everyone's taste, but if you even think you can handle that style of writing, and you don't detest anything that smacks of fantasy fiction, it's worth a go. The premise of the book is that during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, magic actually worked, but it is lost so that the study of it becomes purely historical / theoretical. However, one person--Mr Norrell--learns to be a practical magician, and about one-third of the way through the book, he takes on a student, Jonathan Strange. I have to say the book is slow going until Strange shows up, but after that it's a fairly smooth read. Clarke's depiction of some of the historical characters of the time is a large part of what makes the book fun (as with most historical or alternative-historical novels, there's a lot of pleasure in recognizing historical characters and enjoying what the author does with them), especially in the brief appearance of a certain famous poet whose character she nails perfectly.

The book is stylistically remarkable for its footnotes, many of them little gems of short-short stories themselves. They're also excellent pastiches of the sorts of notes one would find in scholarly works from the time period, as several reviewers have pointed out (the web site linked to above has a whole host of reviews).

I wonder why my conception of any cuisine before the 20th century seems to be limited to roast meats and stews? I do, in fact, know better. At any rate, I think a few slices of good roast beef (I usually make a pot roast with garlic and red wine seasoned with thyme, rosemary, marjoram, and a bay leaf) between uneven slabs of chewy bread would be a good accompaniment to this book, with cheddar cheese (or, better yet, Wensleydale cheese if you can find it) and whatever other sandwich fillings you have on hand. Say what you like about English cooking, this is the nation that reportedly invented the sandwich, and they have perfected it. I enjoyed English food when I was there a few summers ago--any place where you can get Indian-spiced chicken for your sandwich is OK by me. I still think fondly of the little deli in Helmsley, Yorks. that had the most amazingly good coronation chicken sandwich.

Got a comment about JS &MN, sandwiches, or roasted meats? Leave one for us below!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Sunday food and football

Ah, fall Sundays, when a young girl's thought turn to the sneak, the screen, and the long pass. I really enjoy football, but I don't understand it as well as I'd like. A book that has done much to alleviate that is Get Your Own Damn Beer, I'm Watching the Game: A Woman's Guide to Loving Pro Football by Holly Robinson Peete. The author, who has been in some TV shows I've never seen (I was probably off reading somewhere), married an NFL quarterback and writes about the game from the perspective of not only the fans (she was from Philadelphia and loved the Eagles even before she married Peete) but the players and their families. I found her style a bit labored in places--she tries too hard to sound all down-to-earth and real sometimes--but the book was fun, on the whole, and I know a lot more about football now than I did before I read it. I really liked the chapter where she explained what all the positions actually do, and she gave a lot of history that I found fascinating. Now my husband's reading it--he actually wasn't much of a football fan before we got married, but I've converted him.

Chili goes well with football, and this is my favorite chili recipe. Try it while you're watching (or reading about) the game:
1 lb ground beef
3 cans chili beans (hot or mild, however you like)
3 cans of tomato sauce
1 green pepper, chopped
1 onion, chopped.
2 cloves garlic
2-4 tablespoons of chili powder (it depends on how hot you like it, and how old your power is)
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 tablespoon cinnamon
salt and pepper to taste
Brown the ground beef and drain it. Toss it and everything else back in the pot, and simmer it for half an hour or so to combine the flavors.

I like the additional flavors of the turmeric and cinnamon (although I rarely get to include the latter if I make it at home because my husband doesn't like it). Be careful, though, because turmeric will stain clothes and old countertops. This chili is also more rich in tomato than a lot of chilis, but it's still nice and thick--I can usually get my spoon to stand up in it after it has simmered.

Drop us a comment about football, good books about football, or your favorite chili!

submission guidelines

Now that I have an idea how to run this thing, I'll post the ground rules for paging books:
  • I've set the comments to "moderate," which means if you try to post, it won't actually go up until I check my email and allow the comment. This is not because I'm a control freak, but because 45 seconds poking around on blogger convinced me that spamming blogs in the comments is a big problem. I don't want my comments all to be "good blog i added it to my bookmarks :) check out my blog its really good and you too can start you're own busines form home," etc. If the moderating of comments becomes too great an annoyance, we can try opening the comments up later.
  • I want to talk about books on this blog; that's its main purpose. However, since it isn't an author- or series-themed blog, I don't think we can assume that everyone reading it is familar with any book. Not even one you're sure everyone in the whole freakin' world has read. No matter how popular it is, or how long it has been out, do not put spoilers in a comment. I will define "spoiler" as any information that you reveal that isn't on the books dust jacket back cover, even if you don't think it's that relevant or surprising.
  • If people do want to have more in-depth discussions and talk about the details of a particular book, we can form a yahoogroup mailing list so that anyone who doesn't want to have a book spoiled can just choose not to go read the posts there.
  • I want everyone who might find it to feel comfortable reading this blog. Slurs or any generalizations about a group of people's abilities or behaviours will not go up in the comments. No comments along the lines of "well of course the character does that because she's a women / a Jew / an Inuit and that's how they are, " please. Comments about defining characteristics of a system of belief are fine ("Most Roman Catholics believe that Jesus Christ, a Jew who was born during the time of the Roman Empire, was the Son of God") as long as they are not worded in such a way that they're inflammatory. I've had this policy for years in my classrooms and it's worked well, so I'm going to institute it here.
I'll post again in a bit with a more on-topic post.

Saturday, November 05, 2005


Since this is about books, and possibly cooking, let's start with a combination of the two--a cookbook! Rachael Ray just published a new one--anyone tried it?
Rachael Ray 365
Got a review? The reviews on Amazon frequently turn out to be the publishers' press releases pasted in, not real reviews. Let me know if you have this; I'm going to be getting a copy myself in a few weeks. I flipped through it in a bookstore and it looks like it has an index, which her last book, Cooking Round the Clock didn't. Someday I may index it myself; when I do I'll paste it into this blog.

Drat. Now I'm hungry.

Paging all books

This is a blog about books, and I suspect I will also talk about cooking in here also. I'm not connected to the popular writing / publishing industry at all, so I don't work for anyone who produces these books. I'm a life-long bibliomaniac, however, and I've recently defended a dissertation in English literature. I'm mostly looking for this to be yet another outlet for my bibliographic enthusiasm, a place to talk and hear about books that I don't work with professionally but still enjoy. This is where I will confess my addiction to mystery novels, talk about non-fiction (hey! someone just wrote a book about Nancy Drew's creators! cool!), sci-fi, etc. Once I figure out the mechanics of the site, I'll post again with some ground rules.