Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Whole Raft of Them.

Dan Simmons' The Terror is an icy thrill ride, a deft mixture of historical fiction, supernatural thriller, and meticulous historical detail. Like Drood, Terror is sprawling, packed with nuanced detail, not overly concerned with tight pacing, and not for those who enjoy quick and easy reads.

Simmons picks up where history leaves off: we know Sir John Franklin's ships, the Erebus and the Terror set sail for the Arctic Circle during the heady days of English exploration in 1845. We know nothing about their fate (well, maybe not nothing-I think it's safe to say they're all in Nature's deep freeze, and if the globe heats up any more, maybe someday someone can walk up there and find them, and I imagine they'll look like bananas with freezer burn). But regardless, Sir Franklin's crew all vanished, and despite the efforts of his monied wife to mount a search and rescue, no one was ever found.

Terror catches up with the crew of the ship as they wait in their ice-locked ships. The winter has been hard, even by Arctic standards, and the ships are hopelessly stuck in the ice-choked ocean. The crew is fretful, the food sucks, people keep losing extremities, shipmates are dying from tuberculosis (scurvy has yet to hit them, but you know it's a-comin'), and not only are they trapped in a freezing, stinking hulk of a ship being slowly pulverized by the ice, there's a something out there, a nameless terror on the ice.

Imagine a polar bear on steroids that seems able to materialize and dematerialize at will, that enjoys chomping, slashing, and otherwise shredding the members of Franklin's crew, sometimes returning their mangled bits to the ship for a bit of a giggle. Needless to say, Franklin's crew is less than happy about hanging around and waiting to be done in by frostbite or the nameless Downy Bear from Hell.

It's a relief when Sir James (a bumbling, well-meaning but incompetent captain) obligingly dies and leaves Capt. Frances Crozier in charge, a much more capable Irishman who, in the grand tradition of sailors and Irishmen, is a better sailor drunk than Franklin was a captain sober.

Simmons' novel becomes a game of what-can-we-throw-at-the-sailors. As if murderous ghost bears and, you know, BEING STUCK IN THE ARCTIC AND ALL WHY DID THEY THINK IT WAS A GOOD IDEA TO GO UP THERE ANYWAY weren't enough misery, the crew discover their canned-by-the-lowest-bidder food supplies are tainted with botulism and lead; scurvy sets in; their machinery breaks or malfunctions; and some of the crew members (one in particular is nasty enough to make you want to reach through the pages and smack him) start plotting a mutiny.

With his surviving crew and a mysterious, tongueless Inuit girl (in fine English fashion, the crew shot the man she was traveling with, because, you know, that just makes TOTAL sense to the sailors), Capt. Crozier makes a desperate dash across the ice with his damaged, freezing, starving men, pursued by what seems like the embodification of all the rage of the tundra.

Simmons' writing had me skipping pages ahead and then rereading because I couldn't bear not to know what fresh horror the crew was going to have to face. When the chance of salvation on the ice seems to present itself in the form of a group of Inuit who chance upon one of Crozier's men, THEY SHOOT THEM. YEAH. THAT'S SMART EVERYBODY BRILLIANT WORK CHAPS YOU ALL GONNA DIE.

Unlike Drood's non-ending, Simmons lets us in on what the terror on the ice is, but what the Terror is is more nebulous-the ship itself, the men aboard it, the despair and evil that the sailors visit upon each other and their relentless stupidity, which, if you're like me, will make you shriek and hurl the book across the room. But it's worth it, for Simmons' beautifully detailed writing and complicated characters, and the opportunity to watch Nature deliver a bloody, freezing bitchslap to the sailors who thought they could conquer the Arctic.

Now I'm going to go gargle some lemon juice. Just in case.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Macaroon Madness and Why I Am Not a Private Investigator

First, last week's food section in Washington Post had an article about macaroons (and by macaroons I mean those chewy, meringue cookies with buttercream filling, not the chocolate-dipped coconut ones) ("Macaroons for Real People"). Shocked at the thought that I had been making macaroons for fake people this whole time, I read on, and I'm looking forward to making espresso macaroons with fudge filling soon. I don't actually think macaroons are difficult to make, but they require some special equipment and a bad macaroon recipe (and there are many out there) will scare most people off of making them for life.

What was that? Something about health care? No, I have no idea, I can't hear you over my THOUGHTS ABOUT MACAROONS GO AWAY THANK YOU.

Oh, and I'm not a private eye because I do not have a) a drinking problem b) an ex-wife I think of with equal parts regret and anger c) a resourceful teenage kid that I don't know well enough but is weirdly capable and has enough of my stubbornness to make me think, "man, I'd be mad but this kid is just so stubborn and plucky that I have to let them help me solve this crime! and d) a slew of colorful friends that work in bars that have seen better days and have names like "Sonny" and "Harv."

But this guy does!

NOT ONLY THAT, but Louis Klein is an ex-policeman, lives in the house where his mother met a violent end in a gritty, seen-better-times neighborhood in Philadelphia and his cop father was shot by a perp when he was a child, has a thing for his dead ex-partner's wife (a former high school flame who is VERY CONVENIENTLY married to a rich, violent, shady figure), and has promised her that he'll track down her missing daughter, who, like her mom, got tangled up with dangerous men.

DING DING DING you win the hard-boiled private eye sweepstakes and a trip to Acapulco! Lou bops around Philadelphia, handing out beatings to scuzzbuckets named stuff like Mazz and Freddy Mac, gets whacked over the head by bad guys in scummy upstairs massage parlors while digging for information, and still has time to make it over to Heshy's for a Reuben sandwich and talk about better days with the locals while trying to figure out his own complicated feelings for his partner's widow, Sarah Blackwell, and track down her rebellious daughter, Carol Anne.

Gilman isn't covering much (any?) new ground and his characters are straight out of central casting, but he does try to ratchet up the tension in the book's final pages with a couple of nasty revelations about family ties, and the dialogue is pretty snappy. You could do worse than pick this book up for a pleasant interlude (try reading it over a Reuben sandwich).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

You can have my salt...

...when you pry it from my puffy fingers.

New York Councilman Felix Ortiz wants to ban the use of salt in restaurants. That's right, ban it. And impose a thousand dollar fine for each sprinkle of fleur de sel that garnishes your plate-or shake of salt on your fries.

This is sort of like demanding that restaurants cook without pans or something. (It's okay, I can hold your gyro over the flames with my bare hands!) My only hope, and I know it's a long shot, is that Ortiz has never actually cooked any food himself. Hopefully this bill with go down in flames, but until then, I consider every salt sprinkle an act of defiance.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Clue by Four of History

Reading a book with equal parts irritation and dread is an odd experience. Sashenka, a young Bolshevik aflame with Revolutionary fervor in the days before the Revolution, has no idea that she's about to get nailed with the clue by four of history, but the reader does.

Montefiore's Sashenka is the daughter of a Jewish manufacturing tycoon and a drunken, promiscuous mother. Sashenka's parents and their unique history is more interesting than Sashenka herself, who, under her intellectual uncle's influence, starts spouting babble about the revolution of the masses, etc. But Sashenka is on the winning side (for now) and after the Revolution is over, her mother is dead, her father in a gulag, and she's enjoying a position of privilege in the Party ranks as the editor of one of a propaganda magazine and the wife of another loyal Bolshevik.

Sashenka and her husband even survive the Terror, and 1939 finds them living the privileged life of high-ranking apparatchiks, complete with dacha and servants (and not that unlike her life before the Revolution). Any sympathy one can scrape up for Sashenka dissolves during this chapter, with her willingness to accept the 'disappearance' of so many colleagues and her platitudes about the wisdom of the Party and its leader, Stalin. But perhaps this is what makes the rest of the book so effective. Sashenka and her husband, Vanya, are ideal Party members and committed Bolsheviks, personal favorites of Stalin, and legitimately believe in the rightness of the brutal methods of the Party, which makes their downfall simultaneously all the more satisfying and horrific.

Sashenka's one misstep, an affair with a writer, begins a complex web of deception that ends with her and her family arrested and on trial. Desperate to save her children, Sashenka confesses to a ridiculous and convoluted scheme to assassinate Stalin. The narrative picks up again when a young historian from the Caucasus is hired to excavate the mysteries of a client's past, one of the innumerable orphans of the post-Revolutionary period, and begins untangling the threads that led to Sashenka's arrest and its aftermath.

Montefiore does a competent job of capturing the details of post-Soviet era Russia, down to the tacky clothing and clash of ideologies, as well as the labyrinthine bureaucracy facing those who try to discover the truth of what happened to so many who disappeared during and after the Terror. Sashenka and Vanya's dedication to the Party ultimately means nothing in the face of a force that grinds them, and thousands of others, into dust and lists of names in the files of an archive.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

One of the funniest sentences in a book review I've ever read:

..."Sujatha Hampton's book feels like a semi-truck on a crowded freeway when the brakes have given out." From a book review of As It Was Written in the Washington Post.

Are you worried what may happen to your pet when the Rapture happens? Go to Eternal Earthbound Pets, and you can be matched with an animal-loving atheist who will care for your pet (at least until they both die in a rain of fire, or something). Unfortunately this service is not yet offered in Virginia.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Best dessert ever.

Coconut tart from Buzz.

My cupcakes...

...bring all the feds to the break room.

I have a whole lot of book reviews in the pipe, and one book I can't wait to finish so I can review it. But in the meantime:

Did you hate reading Dickens in high school? Wonder why he was so verbose while plowing through Great Expectations? (Hint: he was being paid by the word.) Well, Dan Simmons' Dickens is a womanizing, adulterous, callous, dishonest, and egotistical douche, so this may help you exorcise some of that residual hatred.

Simmons' Drood is a sprawling, intricate novel, rich with both meticulous historical detail and complex, unpredictable characters. That none of them are particularly likeable is to Simmons' credit. His gouty, egotistic and insecure narrator, novelist Wilkie Collins, is thoroughly repugnant, yet his journeys through underground London in search of the mysterious Drood are nail-bitingly tense. Is Drood real? Who cares? The novel is a twisting joyride, even though it's never quite clear if the events are part of Collins' laudanum-fueled hallucinations or not.

After returning from a deadly train crash, Dickens enthralls his friend and confidant Collins with his tale of meeting Drood, a nightmarish character who Dickens is determined to track down in the backstreets and sewers of London. Enlisting the help of a private detective and an assortment of drug addicts and beggars, Dickens and Collins scour London in search of Drood, although Collins is never quite sure if Drood exists or is a product of Dicken's imagination and penchant for playing elaborate tricks.

As Collins' mental faculties erode and his dependence on laudanum increases, the specter of Drood seems to coalesce over the men as Collins becomes obsessed with unraveling the secret of Drood. At the same time, his corrosive jealousy of Dickens drives him to madness, and Collins' hallucinatory world starts to mesh with the real one, with disastrous (and fatal) consequences.

Simmons' writing is labyrinthine and the book may be frustrating to those hoping to unravel the mystery of Drood, but the book's twining plot and cleverly crafted dialogue are ultimately the prize, not the identity of Drood (if he exists). Simmons also excels at exposing the hypocrisy that runs underneath Victorian England, much like the sewers into which Collins and Dickens descend in search of Drood. Rather than expecting a prize at the end, readers are better served to just enjoy the ride.