Friday, July 30, 2010

A Pitcher of Salami.

From today's New York Times, a photo exibhit of thousands of prohibited items taken from luggage at the Kennedy Airport - from unidentified meat to mixed fruits to mystery liquids.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Spoonful of crazy.

I think writing in vernacular (or 'dialect' for the more precious amongst us) is one of the hardest things to do, and do well. Dialogue is always tricky, vernacular the trickiest of all, so Anna Lawrence Pietroni deserves props for her skillful use of a particularly thorny type of vernacular in her first novel, Ruby's Spoon.

Ruby's Spoon is a novel that is very much of its setting. It takes place in the isolated, stinking, and superstitious English town of Cradle Cross, which is a geographical anomaly - an inland island. Cradle Cross is surrounded by a channel full of sewage, mud, dead fish, industrial waste, and other bits and bobs, kept clear by a mysterious woman nicknamed the Blackbird, who pilots a dredger and scoops the detritus from the channel.

Cradle Cross' existence is dependent on its two factories; a nail and chain smelter and a button factory called Blick's, which employs the majority of the Cruxers and is on the verge of going under. Cradle Cross is also drowning under the weight of its own grief - many of the town's families have lost sons and husbands in the War; accidents on the channels and in the factories are common; and Cradle Cross' isolation makes it a place prone to vicious gossip, twisted loyalties, and inescapable sadness. The only spot of reliable humanity comes from the town's sorors, who operate a convent (which is in itself kind of weird - the last place I would look for actual charity in this kind of town would be the convent).

Into this morass comes Isa Fly, a mysterious one-eyed, white-haired woman from Severnsea searching for a lost half-sister from whom her dying father hopes to wrest redemption for abandoning years ago. Isa is aided by the titular Ruby, a somewhat orphan who lives with her neurotic, overprotective grandmother. Ruby, whose mother and sister drowned in a ferry accident and whose father refuses to leave his workshop, is desperate for affection and a way out of Cradle Cross and falls hard for Isa, although her alliance with the unsettling stranger quickly alienates her to the rest of the town.

Isa's return begins uprooting old grievances and wounds as Cradle Cross continues to founder, and she (and Ruby, by association) quickly earn the town's emnity, with disastrous results.

Pietroni is skilled at conjuring up the stench of Cradle Cross' channels, slaughterhouses, and slag heaps, and does a remarkably competent job at navigating the heavy brogue the inhabitants of Cradle Cross speak. Isa's appeal to Ruby is easy enough to understand, but her attraction to Ruby's employer/father figure, Captain, and the inheritor of Blick's, Truda, is harder to figure.

Pietroni's determined weirdness does get grating at times, especially as the oddly named places (Deadarm, the Cut), idiosyncratic people (Em "Trembly Em" Fine-knee Bacon; Annie Nailor Tailer; Belle "Blackbird" Severn), and anachronistic habits (witch-bottles, sewing losslinen, and yammering on about 'merymaids') start to mount up (we get it! Cradle Cross is weird and stinky, its inhabitants are superstitious and backwards, and only anyone who wants to get out has any sense - stop hitting me over the head with it).

In a way, Ruby's Spoon is a love story disguised by creepy atmospherics and eccentric characters, but Pietroni has created a nifty, creepy little world in Cradle Cross, and her tough but lonely Ruby makes an appealing heroine.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Problem with Remakes.


It has come to my attention that there will be an American remake of the Swedish film "Let the Right One In." Based on the novel by John Advidje Lindqvist, the Swedish film was released in 2008 to great critical acclaim and starred two young Swedish first-time actors.

The American remake, titled "Let Me In," is slated for release in October, and will star Chloe Moretz, probably best known as Hit Girl in this year's "Kick-Ass." The remake transplants the two young characters from a slummy Swedish suburb to a small New Mexico town.

Because, you know, they're so similar.

In an interview with, "Let Me In" produce Simon Oakes says that the remake will be "very accessible to a wider audience," and the scares will be 'ramped up.'

Rather unsurprisingly, the director of the Swedish film is critical of the remake, stating that a remake should only be considered if the original film is bad (and "Let The Right One In" deserved its critical acclaim) and pointing out that remaking a film just to make it more palatable for (pander to?) a particular audience is a bad decision.

I find it insulting. I saw a trailor for the ill-advised 2010 remake of the 2007 release of "Death at a Funeral," which made me start wondering, since when is a British movie too foreign for American audiences?

I think filmakers don't trust audiences to be capable of engaging with movies that don't feature characters that are exactly like them, American audiences in particular. Packing up the leads from "Let the Right One In" and shunting them to New Mexico substantively changes the theme of the story - Let The Right One In was more about the fraying of Sweden's social fabric in the 1980s and the rise of a parasitic class (taken to a grotesque and literal extreme with Eli, who eventually turns out to be rather more stomachable than the non-bloodsucking characters) than literally about vampires.

Will I watch it? Probably - at least it's not Twilight.

Candy that's stranger.

So, one of the benefits to working where I do is that the vending machines are often stocked with odd candy bars that you can't find many places. (I don't know if this is intentional or we're getting the sugary version of a publisher's remainders.)

Here are this week's weird candy bars:

The Zagnut bar is notable in that it doesn't, unlike most candy bars, contain chocolate. Instead, it's got a layer of peanut crunch a lot like the center of a Butterfinger surrounded by pressed coconut. The coconut is kind of bizarre - more shredded than chopped, a sort of tan color, and so compressed that it breaks off in little crumbles when you try to bite into it, and overall not all that coconutty. There's still something appealing about this weird little candy bar, though - it's sort of like, please love me, even though I have no chocolate!

Up next, the inexplicably named Zero bar from Hersheys. I'm not sure what the Zero is supposed to mean - unless they're trying to mislead you into thinking it's some sort of low fat bar? Besides which, ew.

The label lists this as containing caramel, almond, and peanut nougat surrounded by "white fudge." I think the term "white fudge" is alarming in its vagueness - like, white chocolate? Why not just say that?

As it turns out, Zero's "white fudge" is a thin layer of what looks like lard, with not much taste except an overwhelming sweetness...sort of like a faux white chocolate, which is even more disgusting than white chocolate in general.
The interior has a layer of caramel and the aforementioned "nougat," which is like the texture of the interior of a Milky Way, and doesn't taste particularly of almonds or peanuts. I find white chocolate in general to be a bad idea, and fake white chocolate is even worse.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Reunited in Potocari

From today's Washington Post, an article by Hasan Nuhanovic, a former translator from Srebrenica.

The remains of Nuhanovic's brother were identified a month ago, exhumed from a mass grave in Kamenica. Nuhanovic's brother was among the 1500 who were killed at Pilica, buried, dug up with backhoes, and reinterred in another mass grave in Pilica.

Nuhanovic's father was also killed in Pilica, his mother, killed in Vlasenica. They will be reburied together in Pilica.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Unexpected surprise.

I got this very kind e-mail from Adam Ross, the author of Mr. Peanut:

Dear Alana,
Because I get a Google Alert on Mr. Peanut, I read some of the blogger's reviews out there. I wanted to let you know that I thought yours was terrific -- thoughtful, well observed, and very well written -- a piece of criticism that followed a cardinal rule of the practice: you discussed the work from the inside out. As well, I'm thrilled you enjoyed the book. Like Psycho, it's designed to be re-read, by the way.
Thanks again. Keep on truckin'.
Adam Ross

Thank you, Adam!

It's always very interesting to talk to someone who has written a book you read or a CD you listened to - it's so easy to think of people who create things like that as being at some sort of remove from everyone else, but actually putting a person behind the book or song you enjoyed makes the work take on a completely new dimension.
I hope Mr. Peanut is the first of many books from Adam.

Salty goodness.

Adam Ross' first novel, Mr. Peanut, was probably guaranteed success when, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King said it gave him nightmares. It's a chilling, perplexing, tightly crafted book, and a great effort from a first-time novelist. But, in one of those fiction-stranger-than-truth cliches, the real life of one of Ross' characters is weirder than what happens to him in Mr. Peanut.

In 1954, Dr. Sam Sheppard was convicted of murdering his wife, Marilyn. Pregnant with their second child, Marilyn was beaten to death in the upstairs bedroom of their home in Bay Village, Ohio. The case was a media sensation; the Sheppards were wealthy and attractive, and it was revealed that Dr. Sheppard had carried on a three year long affair with a nurse at the hospital where he worked. Dr. Sheppard's claim of having been knocked unconscious (twice) by a "bushy-haired" mystery man weren't bought by the jury, which convicted him.

Dr. Sheppard spent a decade in jail. While incarcerated, his mother shot herself, his father died of a bleeding ulcer, and his father-in-law killed himself. In 1966, the Supreme Court reviewed his case and overturned his conviction, arguing that the extensive media coverage and biased jury had denied him due process.

Sheppard was released, and then things got really weird. Three days after being freed, Sheppard married a German woman who had written to him while he was in jail. His new bride was the half-sister of Joseph Goebbels' wife. She divorced him three years later, claiming domestic abuse.

Meanwhile, Sheppard appeared on the Johnny Carson show, co-wrote a book about his trial, and went back to practicing medicine, only to be sued for malpractice by the families of two patients who had died in his care. He then became a professional wrestler and nicknamed himself "The Killer." He married the twenty-year-old daughter of his wrestling partner, and promptly died six months later of liver failure due to alcoholism.

Sheppard's son, Sam "Chip" Sheppard, who also appears in Mr. Peanut, tried to exonerate his father, including suing the state of Ohio for wrongful imprisonment on his father's behalf. Chip Sheppard blamed his family's handyman, Dick Eberling, for Marilyn's murder, which may not have been that far-fetched, considering that Eberling was conveniently sitting in prison for murdering an elderly woman whose house he had maintained, and both of the woman's sisters had died in suspicious circumstances - one had been beaten to death by an unknown assailant, the other fell down the stairs in their shared house, managing to break all four limbs in the process.

Which is just a rather long-winded way of saying that the weirdest plot a writer can think of doesn't compare to how bizarre life actually is sometimes. Compared to Sheppard's real life, Ross' alternate reality - Dr. Sheppard appears as a police detective - seems rather banal.

That aside, Mr. Peanut is a great read. Ross claims the central death (murder? suicide?) was inspired by a true story related to him by his father about the death of his cousin's wife: suicide by fatal legume.

David Pepin, a video game designer, and his wife Alice, a teacher of emotionally disturbed children, live in New York City. Chronically depressed after three miscarriages and a diagnosis of infertility, Alice has become morbidly obese, which David actually doesn't mind - what makes him miserable are Alice's repeated attempts to lose weight, which disrupts the equilibrium of their marriage.

After repeated attempts to slim down through weird diets and quack devices, Alice finally starts to shed the weight, and David fears she's shedding the marriage along with her girth. Alice finally leaves, refusing to tell David where she's going, and he promptly starts sleeping with a coworker, only to have her reappear nine months later, continuing to dwindle in size. David ends his affair, but a menacing private investigator he hired to find Alice continues to bedevil him.

Finally, either David murders his severely allergic wife by forcing her to eat peanuts, or she kills herself by eating them voluntarily - that's what the novel's two detectives are trying to figure out, while pursuing the elusive PI.

Both detectives have their own problems. One, the aforementioned Dr. Sheppard, is dragging around the own question of his guilt or innocence, and the other, Detective Ward Hastroll, is dealing with a wife who has refused to leave the bed for five months and won't tell him why. All three men are determined to plumb the depths of the others' culpability in the failure of their marriages, while simultaneously being baffled by the intricacies of their own relationships.

Mr. Peanut has compelling, gut-wrenching scenes, in particular one of Alice's late-term miscarriages and the murder of Dr. Sheppard's wife, Marilyn. Mr. Peanut is also rich in repeated motifs - M.C. Escher's artwork crops up repeatedly, as do references to films and characters by Alfred Hitchcock. The work itself is very Hitchcockian, ambiguous about guilt or innocence, presenting events from slightly altered perspectives, and permeated with a sense of voyeurism.

Mr. Peanut is a disorienting work, as the reader is never quite sure where they are - in the book's narrative, in the imagining of the various characters, or in Pepin's uncompleted novel, which is also about the dissolution of his relationship with Alice and her death?

Although Ross fleshes out his characters rather well, particularly the murdered Marilyn, Alice remains something of an enigma, and his one attempt at capturing her voice, overhead in an Overeater's Anonymous meeting, is jarringly Palahniukesque and false. The introduction of the threatening PI, Mobius, feels unnecessary - why bring in a potential murderer when you have so many other ones handy? Mobius feels more like a plot device than a character. But the book, imbued with a dark humor that is wildly funny at times, is intricate enough that you'll want to reread it, and maybe take some notes, as soon as you're done.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Hey, I'mma let you finish, and you may have won the Commonwealth Prize, but this is no Rashomon and you are no Kurosawa!

It takes some skills to juggle multiple viewpoints in a coherent and engaging way. Christos Tsiolkas does not have these skills.

The Slap is, unsurprisingly, about a slap. A guest at Aisha and Hector's barbecue in the Australian suburbs slaps an annoying little kid, and the novel's schtick is to present the slap from the viewpoint of each guest, which in theory could have been an intriguing little plot device, except Tsiolkas unwisely decides that eight viewpoints have to be included, and does such a poor job of exploring them that the novel becomes a muddled, soggy mess in the middle, at which point you are going to wish you could smack some of the characters yourself.

Tsiolkas' first blunder is not, as one reviewer suggested, making the main character distasteful, but rather his inability to make a character who is both distasteful and with whom the reader can identify (Patrick Bateman, anyone?). None of Tsiolkas' characters are compelling enough, or fleshed out enough, to provide the reader with a hook to hang onto as they wade through the pages.

Next, Tsiolkas, in his haste to get everyone assembled, throws a monster barbecue, but shoves so many people into the scene that it's impossible to figure out who matters and who doesn't (hint: don't mention anyone that doesn't have something to do with the plot. You know the old canard about, if you show the gun, it has to go off sometime? Tsiolkas can't resist describing every second cousin, niece, and random toddler that turns up, then abandons them). The result is a cluttered, schizophrenic montage.

And finally, Tsiolkas' characters just aren't that interesting. Like so many recent works I've read, he seems to confuse bad behavior with depth. Not interested yet?! Look, he's having an affair! Still not paying attention?! Look, they're hitting their kids! They're drinking too much! Are you compelled yet?! Here's a sex scene!!

The book devolves into profane slop, and the characters' inner lives are as deep as the shallow end of a kiddie pool. The only marginally interesting thing about The Slap is the setting, and I supposed Tsiolkas does deserve some props for trying to create a diverse group and show how they fit in (or don't) in the Australian suburbs, but his attempts at showing racial and class tension are clumsily handled, and although they could have served as the main thrust of the book, they just distract, as does the rest of this overstuffed, overwrought pastiche.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Oh, you tart.

I think this is the only summer tart recipe that you could need. It's quick, involves minimal cooking, can be assembled ahead of time, and doesn't involve any weird ingredients. Make the pastry cream first, because it needs at least three hours in the fridge, then make, freeze, bake, and cool the tart shells. You can assemble them and let them hang out in the fridge for a day, or just keep everything separate and put them together until you're ready to serve them.

PASTRY CREAM (makes about 2 cups)
2 cups half and half (if you don't have half and half, you can mix about 1 1/3 cups of low fat or skim milk and 2/3 cups of cream)
1/2 cup sugar
pinch salt
5 egg yolks
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 tablespoons of unsalted butter

1 1/4 cups of flour
2 tablespoons sugar
pinch salt
8 tablespoons of softened butter
2 ounces of softened cream cheese

Here's where you get creative. I used cherries, blackberries, and raspberries, but you could use any or a combination of the following: strawberries, blueberries, lingonberries, sliced and skinned peaches, sliced and skinned plums or nectarines, apricots, kiwis, or any other soft, sweet fruit or berry. You'll also need some apricot jam (any cheap kind will do), or raspberry or strawberry jam will work too if you're using those fruits.

First, make the pastry cream. This is pretty easy. Put the half and half, six tablespoons of sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan and let it come to a simmer. Stir it a couple times to make sure the sugar is dissolving.

While it's heating, whisk the yolks and the rest of the sugar and the cornstarch together until smooth. Once the cream comes to a simmer, slowly pour about a cup of it into the egg yolks while whisking them (you can leave the burner on). Then, put the pan back on the burner, and whisk the cream and yolk mixture back into the cream. Reduce the heat to medium, and whisk the hell out of the mixture for about thirty seconds. It will start to thicken and your whisk will leave trails in the cream. It will also make an expressive blorping noise while big bubbles burst on the surface.

Take it off the heat, stir in the butter and vanilla, and then either put it into a bowl or leave it in the pot. Take a square of plastic wrap and press it onto the surface of the cream. Put it in the fridge for at least three hours.

Next, make the tarts, which you can do while the pastry cream is cooling.

Whisk together the flour, salt, and sugar. In another bowl, cream the cream cheese and butter together. Beat in the flour mixture. It will look kind of like sand. Crank your mixer up, and the dough will develop big clumps.

You can either make five small tarts, or one big one. If you make a big one, just grease a tart pan, roll the dough up into a ball, and, using the heel of your palm, press it into the tart pan by squishing down the middle and pushing out to the edges, rotating the pan while you do it, until the tart pan has an even layer of dough in it. If you want to make the small tarts, do the same thing with five small balls of dough.

Pop the tarts into the freezer for about 30 minutes. If you want to leave them longer, just wrap them in plastic wrap. Heat the oven to 375, put a double square of foil over the tart(s), and bake for about 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another ten minutes, until the tart shells are browned. If you're baking the small ones, it's easier if you put them all on a cookie sheet. They will look like this:

After they're done, pull them out and let them cool off. You can let them sit out for a while.

Next, gather together the fruits you plan to use and rinse them and pat them dry. When you're ready to put the tarts together, fill them with the pastry cream, like so:

Pile the fruit on top of the tarts. Ordinarily, recipes will tell you something like, "arrange the fruit attractively on top of the tart." Which begs the question, if the recipe did not tell you that, would you just randomly smash it on top of the tart? Because I would. You can kind of squish the fruit down into the pastry cream to keep it in place, and pile as high as you want. Then, scoop some of the jam into a dish, microwave it until it's bubbly and runny, and brush it onto the top of the fruit.

Voila! Then, stab anyone who tries to eat your tart in the hand with a fork.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Navy SEAL class 228 has a lot of gadgets. They have scuba gear, diving equipment, oceanographic surveying equipment, NODs, high-tech wetsuits, and a cadre of well-trained support staff, including medical techs, dive instructors, and teachers.

The soldiers slogging across Normandy don't have fancy gear. Some of the soldiers bivouaced in the snow don't have winter boots or adequate uniforms. Or hot water. Or enough fuel. Or a clear communication line, or a tank that can actually maneuver in the mud, or enough medics, or enough medical supplies, or topographic intelligence, because of they did, they would have gotten some warning that, hey, those famed hedgerows of Normandy are actually impenetrable walls of foliage that a tank can't get through and this is going to be more like a fatal chess game than a ground battle.

But some of the trainees in Navy SEAL class 228 kept moving forward, and so did most of the soldiers who slogged around for months and months in the frozen mud, and that is why there are Navy SEALs and I am not writing this post in German.

Dick Couch, author of Warrior Elite, is a former Navy SEAL. He was given unprecedented access to the training of Class 228, and Warrior Elite follows the men of Class 228 as they progress through, or fail, or quit, the Navy SEAL training program. Couch's book gives the reader a methodical overview of the training program, and explains why each torturous trial was developed and what it is supposed to test. It also reveals the sometimes surprising reasoning behind what it takes to be a SEAL - not the fastest, not the strongest, but the most determined.

What is most interesting about Couch's book is the personal progression of the SEAL trainees, as some of the strongest candidates break down and elect to leave the program. Warrior Elite is surprisingly heartbreaking, particularly when trainees are forced to leave the program because of injuries. One of the strongest trainees, nicknamed Otter because of his prowess in the water, finishes Hell Week and exceed all expectations, only to be dropped because of a sinus infection that leaves him unable to finish the dive testing. Terse, spare, and to the point, Warrior Elite ultimately proves to be a very touching book.

Stephen Ambrose is probably one of the most accomplished military historians and authors today. I think a large part of his success is not only that his books are eminently readable and impeccably researched, but that he wisely steps back and, whenever possible, lets the words of those who fought remain the focus.

Citizen Soldiers collects interviews with the soldiers, officers, and medical personnel. Ambrose's arrangement of the information is masterful; instead of dividing up the history by battle, he chooses to devote chapters to different parts of the American forces, from the Air Force, doctors, medics, and nurses, and prisoners of war. This gives Citizen Soldiers a startling complexity and provides a multiplicity of viewpoints, including from German soldiers and European civilians.

Citizen Soldiers has moments of equally astonishing brutality and mercy; from soldiers who executed unarmed enemy combatants to soldiers (sometimes the same soldiers) who showed humanity to prisoners and enemies alike under the worst of conditions. Ambrose also shows how miraculous the victory in Normandy actually was.

Reading these two works side by side raises an interesting point - the Class 228 trainees are there because they volunteered, and even being placed in a BUD/S class is an accomplishment. Many of the soldiers in Normandy were draftees. The debate over the relative merits of an all-volunteer army continues to rage (see, Jacob Weisberg's 2006 Slate article, and The New York Review of Books by Michael Massing, "Who Fights and Why?".)