Monthly Archives: March 2012

Out of anybody’s comfort zone

There are two (or more, but I’m sticking with binary here) reasons to go out of your comfort zone.

Mostly, we think of it in terms of growth, stretching your limits, expanding your horizons, overcoming obstacles. Things that are hard, but things that you choose so that you can end up where you want to go.

Then there’s the other way to leave your comfort zone – because you have no choice. Millions of people, right now, this minute, have been driven out of their comfort zones, by disease, by war, by poverty – my personal departure from comfort is a pretty minor one, really.

But it’s still unpleasant, even if it is a cliche: I’m becoming my mother’s mother, lost skill by lost skill. Her latest bit of slippage is especially unsettling because, in my family, it was always made very clear that my parents’ finances were Absolutely. None. Of. My. Business. And now I’m paying her bills and keeping her checking account balanced.

Monday, I’ll be getting her income tax done. Last year, I didn’t even have to think about her taxes. I don’t like it in this new world; she doesn’t like it here; we don’t have any way to go back.

(By the way: do you have grown children? Let them know where you keep your records and what your sources of income are. Now, while you remember. Don’t wait till it’s an emergency that you can’t help them with.)

It’s not that I object to helping her (though I finally realized that helping her is why I suddenly have so little free time). But it’s so painful to see a person who has always been responsible and independent become unable to cope.

Out of the comfort zone.

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Bella Swan in the Heian Imperial Court?

Review: Of Death and Black Rivers by Ann Woodward

A keeper? No doubt!

I’m a sucker for all things Heian. And besides, this is a well-written little mystery.

But Bella Swan? Well, we start out with poor self-conscious Lady Saisho getting in trouble with the Empress yet again, because she’s too embarrassed to walk across the verandah and get into the waiting oxcart. Lady Saisho has a habit of inconveniencing all the other ladies in waiting while she spends long periods being exquisitely shy.

Her parents sent her to court so she could learn enough social skills to marry. But she’ll never find a husband behaving like this, now will she? Not in a court where ladies are expected to exchange flirtatious letters with gentlemen and even sometimes speak to them – even let their faces be seen, on occasion!

And yet, somehow she manages to run away with a dangerous, handsome, famous general who’s just back from winning a war in the north. Did she really leave the court of her own free will, or did he force her? How much danger is she in? Will he – metaphorically, of course – suck the life out of her?

Lady Aoi (our over-educated, not terribly ladylike detective) is concerned about silly Lady Saisho, even though she doesn’t much like her. But there are other things going wrong at court. The Empress has been persistently ill. Important officials are suddenly dropping dead for no clear reason – usually while out hunting with Lady Saisho’s general. And the poor but brilliant Teacher who once worked for Lady Aoi’s father (and worked for the General’s father before that, back when the General was a boy) has been found, murdered, in the burnt-out ruins of his home. All his books, ancient treasures and his own memoirs, are lost.

How could all these dramatic and dreadful things happen in a place like Heian-Kyo, the imperial city dedicated to arts, poetry, and flirtation? The answers will shake the entire court. (Though the people in this story don’t know it, they foreshadow what will happen in the whole country over the next few centuries.) It takes all the cleverness and courage Lady Aoi and her friends can find to restore matters to their normal calm.

And Lady Saisho? Well…does Bella Swan finally get what she wants, no matter who she has to hurt to reach her goals?

It’s Third Sentence Thursday time again

Twilight, Stephenie Meyer, p. 187:

“‘Don’t let that make you complacent, though,’ he warned me.”

One thing I like about Twilight? I don’t have to worry about spoilers. There can’t be more than three people left on the planet who can read English and don’t know the basic situation in this book.

So I feel perfectly comfortable in telling you that what’s going on here is that Edward has just told Bella that his “family” of vampires avoids dining on people. Now he’s going to try to convince her that he’s still dangerous.

What I can’t decide is whether Edward is being cleverly manipulative here – he’s had lots of time to learn how to sell himself to shy teenage girls – or whether the poor guy is a sincere monster who genuinely wants to protect this delicious, tantalizing prey animal. Doesn’t much matter, though. He is dangerous.

Bella, you idiot, run far and run fast, no matter how pretty he is. And don’t look back.

186 cookbooks – Well, the cover’s pretty

Both front and back. But I should have read the endorsements on the back of the cover more skeptically. “The food on Yamuna’s table looks great!” says Deborah Madison. Yes, she goes on to rave about the flavors and creativity. But I really ought to remember that when people praise cookbooks for pretty food, they’re likely to belong to the we-eat-with-our-eyes (and gum up our eyelashes?) school; the folks who brought the world mock guacamole made from mashed peas. Hey, as long as it’s the same color, isn’t that good enough?

Not hardly. Pretty food is nice, but there are several things that matter more. Is it healthy? Can you prepare it and have time for the rest of your life? How much does it cost? And the question of all questions, how does it taste? (In this case, not very good.)

Worse yet, the recipe I tried from Yamuna’s Table didn’t even end up looking pretty. I tried the “Cheesy Corn-stuffed Crepes with Ancho Chili – Tomato Sauce”. I like Indian food (and Mexican food, a closer match for this dish), and the recipe is full of good stuff – corn, cilantro, cheese, potatoes, tomatoes, cumin, pumpkin seeds, lime. And yet it came out of the oven a flaking, disintegrating mess that tasted blandly awful.

Part of the problem was her restaurant-style presentation. Usually, when you roll crepes or tortillas around a filling and oven-bake them, it helps to top the dish with a sauce that prevents things from drying out. I suppose that would have been too ordinary. Anyhow, we’re told to “spray the crepes with oil and bake until the stuffing is heated through”, then plate them in a puddle of the tomato – ancho sauce. The texture was not pleasant.

And neither was the taste, and this is where I find this cookbook useless.  Vegetarian food is fine. Food that avoids other specific ingredients is fine – one of my friends is a very good cook who just can’t eat onions or garlic. But the more things you exclude from your diet, the more challenging it is to come up with dishes that are enjoyable, especially for people who don’t share your list of restrictions.

What I didn’t realize when I bought Yamuna’s Table is that it adheres to an unusually limited variation on vegetarianism. Milk, and some cheeses, seem to be acceptable; but no eggs. No onions. No garlic. There may be other excluded seasonings I didn’t notice. What’s left is a lot of dull-tasting, very complicated dishes.

Maybe I’ll offer this one to my friend with the onion allergy. It’s no use to me, no matter how decorative the cover is.

Silly Mr. Shaitana

Book Review: Cards on the Table, by Agatha Christie

A keeper? Meh. Annoying fluff.

Oh, that Mr. Shaitana! A notorious figure in London society – bizarre clothes, long, long waxed mustache and little pointy beard, mysterious but certainly unBritish origins, and an unnerving, sinister sense of humor. Almost as famous as Hercule Poirot – or maybe even more famous.

Mr. Shaitana is a collector: of artworks, of knowledge, of people. And the more bizarre and sinister his collection, the better he likes it – especially his specialty, collecting murderers. For he appreciates artistry in murder – the killers who walk safely among us because no one realizes their victims were murdered. He explains to Poirot, slowly and carefully so that our little middle class Belgian retired policeman will be able to understand, how dull and conventional it would be to subject these rare specimens to arrest and punishment. Then Mr. Shaitana invites Poirot to a very special bridge party, featuring the finest in detective skill and the finest in unsuspected killers.

Poirot has his own opinion: Mr. Shaitana is stupid, as stupid as the kind of drunken youngster who climbs into the tiger cage at the zoo.

But he comes to the party, with Mrs. Oliver, the silly-feminist detective novelist (who would be completely, instead of mostly, unbearable if she didn’t seem to be meant as a parody of Christie herself); Superintendent Battle, the wooden-faced policeman; and Colonel Race, the handsome spy. (And there you have all the characterization you need; every bit as much as Christie bothered with.) And there are four more guests: man-of-the-world Dr. Roberts, charming elderly Mrs. Lorrimer, handsome Major Despard, and timid little Miss Meredith. Again, this is about as much characterization as you’re going to get.

The evening crawls quietly along, through hand after hand of bridge, till the “detective” group prepares to leave – and finds that Mr. Shaitana has been stabbed to death! It must have been one of the people at the “killer” table. But which one? And who had they each killed, before? (Or was Mr. Shaitana mistaken, or joking, and could one or all of them be innocent?)

The police and the Secret Service, of course, intend to use standard methods to investigate. Mrs. Oliver will rely on the superiority of women’s intuition and be “comically” wrong every time. And Poirot? He announces that this is a crime of psychology, as demonstrated by the way each of the four suspects kept score during the bridge game!

The investigation proceeds in the usual thirties detective story style, with conversations among the various suspects and tracing of clues by the detectives. Gradually it becomes clear what the backstory of each suspect is – and clear that someone who has murdered once or twice might very well murder again.

Poirot and Battle arrive just in time, twelve pages before the end of the book, to prevent another death. After the arrest, the remaining characters gather to hear Poirot explain how he figured everything out – or is this meeting really for another purpose?

Well, yes, it is. Nine pages before the end, Poirot accuses someone else of killing Mr. Shaitana, and brings in a witness who says he was washing windows and saw this final suspect committing another murder. How did Poirot know? Well, it was all psychology, you see; no particular evidence. No, not even the window cleaner; it turns out that bit of testimony was completely invented, by Poirot, and the “window cleaner” is a hired actor. Come on.

This would be a middle-grade Christie if she had left off the last twelve pages. It gets pretty tiresome to hear Poirot blather about how these cardboard characters reveal their nonexistent psychology by writing down bridge scores. And there’s only so much I can take of 1930s social stereotypes. Even so, she does a good job of gradually building the case against the first of the two killers (the one who did not kill Mr. Shaitana, but killed just about everyone else in sight).

Unfortunately, then she expects us to accept the complete flipflop – based on Poirot’s notions and faked testimony – that frames a completely different person for Mr. Shaitana’s death. When it came to trial, I have to wonder if the final arrestee was acquitted. In any case, the combination of bridge-score detection and the “extra” conclusion irritated me enough that I don’t think I’ll keep this one.

It’s a zoo, of sorts, around here

I live in the suburbs. Not just any old quarter-acre-lot spread-out suburbs that used to be fields ten years ago, either. These are close-in suburbs just a couple of miles from Philadelphia – fifth largest city in the U.S., a million and a half people jammed together 10,000 to the square mile; that Philadelphia. My house is pretty new for this particular neighborhood – only a little over fifty years old. It’s the sort of area that, by stereotype, should be really hostile to anything resembling wildlife.

I guess it doesn’t count that there are probably more squirrels on my block than people. Or that the lake a block away is full, year-round, of ducks and Canada geese that have never seen Canada (heck, they’ve never left New Jersey) and herons and the occasional loon. And you can find robins and sparrows everywhere; for that matter, everybody has (sea)gulls, no matter how far inland.

It did surprise me, soon after we moved here, to realize that there was a family of rabbits living under an overgrown rosebush in our side yard. Of course, rabbits are cyclical, so some years you hardly see any. Other years, though, there are so many grazing on our lawn that we hardly need to cut the grass.

Still, rabbits aren’t that unusual, right? But pheasants. What on earth are pheasants doing dashing across the street just in front of my car? Do they think they own the block? And then there are the people who have to keep their small dogs indoors out of harms’ way when the hawks and foxes go on the prowl around town.

My friend D has the best story yet, though. You should keep in mind that D lives only a block away from Collingswood’s main street. There’s nothing rural about her neighborhood, and hasn’t been for a hundred years. There’s definitely nothing woodsy about it.

So what was a deer doing walking down the middle of her street?

I guess some wild animals are a lot more resilient than we expect.

186 cookbooks: Recipe fail.

Hot pepper, scallions, and cilantro. Sounds tasty, doesn’t it? I thought so.

Boy, was I wrong.

But it sounded really good. So I chopped up half a Hungarian wax pepper and a couple of scallions and a handful of cilantro and cooked them with some chicken breast, then mixed in a bit of yogurt. And it looked reasonably attractive, too.

Then we sat down to eat it. It didn’t taste like chicken, or like yogurt, or like peppers, or scallions, or cilantro. It didn’t taste like a blend of some or all of those flavors. It tasted, in a vaguely unpleasant way, like nothing at all.

We wound up having salad and biscuits for dinner.

(That’s American baking powder biscuits, btw, not English sweet biscuits. At least they turned out well.)