Monthly Archives: March 2012

My third Third Sentence Thursday

The Masque of the Black Tulip, Lauren Willig, p. 65:

“If Miles could have also stripped himself of his white silk stockings and knee breeches, he would have, but somehow, he thought he’d arouse more attention striding in there buck-naked than he would clad as though for a court audience.”

Got your attention yet? We’re in the midst of a Regency spy story. Miles Dorrington, an undercover agent of His Majesty’s government in the war against Napoleon, is following a suspicious gentleman through the slums of London, and he’s dressed to kill because the chase started from an elegant evening at Almack’s. The suspect has just slipped into a low-life pub, and Miles has removed and hidden his jeweled shoe buckles before following. Even without jewels, he’s going to be obviously out of place. But there really isn’t much more he can do to change his appearance without making things even worse.

A page or two earlier, we get treated to a wonderful mangling of one of those detective story cliches. The suspect left Almack’s in a sedan chair carried by two strong men (a fairly common type of London transportation in those days). Miles jumps into the next available one and orders the front-end carrier, “Follow that chair!”

(The carrier just says, “That’ll be extra if you want me to run.”)

Spirits and mummies and fire, oh my

Review: The Summoning God, by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear

A keeper? No, even though it held my horrified attention

I’m starting to think I hate books that tell related stories in two different times. It’s one thing to have two sets of characters in different places; there’s room for them to cross paths or be affected by the same events or something. But stories with two groups in different centuries? Annoying.

In this one, the real story is set in the war-torn southwest U.S. – to be anachronistic – about 800 years ago. The extra story concerns a group of archaeologists who are excavating what turns out to be the town where the main characters live. And die. But why bother with the archaeologists?

A couple of guesses; that’s the best I can do. First, the Gears are archaeologists themselves – but they’ve written a lot of books about the last few thousand years in North America, and normally they settle for a short present-day prologue and then focus on the good stuff. Second, there is some argument about how to interpret Anasazi remains – Anasazi is the current term for the people this book is mostly about – and the Gears use the modern characters to tell us about the argument. And finally, the secondary group of people allows them to squeeze in a partial happy ending.

Because there isn’t much of a happy ending in the main story. The overall tone is oddly like noir detective fiction from the 1940’s: all the world is corrupt, no one can be trusted, the noblest plans may be thwarted, death waits around every corner. Unavoidable, I guess, when you’re writing about a time and place marked by a dramatic population crash. But the Gears bring it vividly to life with a town full of struggling, squabbling people and a series of increasingly gruesome questions.

Who left the mummified woman near Aspen Village – and who left a trail of copper bells to entice investigators into a trap? Who killed – and skinned – beloved Matron Flame Carrier? And who, who could or would have set fire to the kiva and burned so many young children? War Chief Browser is determined to find out. Meanwhile, shadowy threats menace the people of Longtail Village. Are they human enemies…or once-human witches…or murderous spirits?

I cared. I got involved in the story, worried for the characters, hoped that Browser would solve the mysteries in time to protect them. And by the end he does have answers to some of the strange things that have been happening. Unfortunately, he also has lots and lots of new questions that crop up in the last few chapters.

Normally, I try to avoid spoilers, at least unless I’m writing about a classic that most people probably know about already. And I’m not going to tell you who else dies, or who turns out to be a traitor. But the ending reminded me much too much of the X Files, or Lost – shows that spent years teasing viewers with the hope that they would finally clear up mysteries, all the while tossing out new puzzles.

After five hundred pages, I’ll put up with some loose ends. I won’t keep scrambling after an unraveled rope thick enough to moor a ship. The end of The Summoning God treats readers too much like the way the villains treated Browser early in the story, when they laid that trail of sparkling copper bells to lure him close enough to try to knock his head in. I won’t follow the shinies down the trail to the next book, and the next, and the next.

Where are the snows of yesteryear?

Measuring one of the big snows in February 2010

Well…taking that question literally, they’ve melted, thank goodness, all 60 or 70 inches of them. They’ve soaked into the aquifer, or drained into the Delaware River and flowed out to sea. But once in a while, we run head-on into the wall of one of those cliches that are too true to believe:

Things change.

Around here, for example, people are still capable of giving directions by saying, “Well, you drive out past the Hawaiian Cottage…” even though the Hawaiian Cottage burned down years and years and years ago. Using it as a landmark is understandable, though. Who could forget a restaurant that you enter by way of a big concrete pineapple?

And if you wait long enough, things change a lot more.

Any self-respecting natural history museum can unnerve you with something like this –


(I took this photo at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. in July 2009.) I wouldn’t want to meet it in a dark alley, or in broad daylight either, if it was still equipped with skin and muscles and a nubbin of brain and an empty stomach. But it’s gone, long gone, and its whole world with it. Gone like the green Sahara that dwindled and dried up before ancient Egypt began to think about pyramids.

Ah, well. We’re told that God notices the fall of a sparrow; from other sources, we’re told that birds are, in effect, living dinosaurs. If God takes note of our mini-dinosaurs of today, can he forget T. rex? 😀

T. rex, meanwhile, never guessed that her time was short; never made bucket lists or had nostalgic thoughts about how much better the Triceratopses they had when she was a kid tasted than the ones you get nowadays. We know better, or worse.  Good or bad, this is the only 2012 we get. Appreciate it.

The worst family Christmas ever

Book Review: A Holiday for Murder by Agatha Christie

A keeper? I think so – fluff, but entertaining

Nobody much likes old Simeon Lee, and he hasn’t seen most of his children for years. He’s never seen his only grandchild. But this year – which must be 1937, I suppose, since that’s when the book was published – he has invited the whole family to gather at his luxurious country home. What’s more surprising is that no one refuses. They all come, from the South Pacific and the midst of the Spanish Civil War, as well as from various parts of England. (And so does a mysterious young man from South Africa.) Has age caught up with Simeon? Does he want to be reconciled to his family at last?

Well, no. What he wants is to spread hints about shameful or criminal shenanigans they may be involved in, and announce that he’s going to make a brand new will with brand new beneficiaries. In the real world, people like Simeon get away with their games as often as not – but we’re in an Agatha Christie novel, so it’s no surprise when somebody murders Simeon.

But who could it be? There’s no weapon, so it wasn’t suicide. The room is locked up (several of the sons have to get a sturdy bench and batter the door down), but nobody’s inside except Simeon’s body. Besides, there was a horrible crash of falling furniture and a fearsome scream that brought everyone in the house running, so how could the killer have had time to escape?

After a quick marathon of investigation (the murder happens on Christmas Eve, and a few days later the book’s over), Hercule Poirot figures everything out. He identifies which characters seem to be part of the Lee family and aren’t. He tells us which ones are really Lees no matter who they claim to be. And he presents a series of explanations for the murder, then rejects them one after another before presenting the real killer and describing the central clue to the whole case – a pink balloon!

In many ways this is an over-the-top parody of the classic English country house murder mystery. I don’t know if that’s what Agatha Christie intended, but that’s what makes it fun. If you come across a copy, take a look.

Getting back to my comfort zone

Sometimes we lose track of habits, even ones that make us happy. That’s been happening to me over the past six months while learning to cope with my mother’s declining health.

For years, I’ve been in the habit of walking a lot – actually, that started when I sprained my ankle badly a long time ago. (Falling down a couple of steps is disorienting enough. Falling down steps, coming to a stop lying on your side, and looking over at your left foot bent sideways at a 90 degree angle, with the sole flat on the floor, is not a good thing.) Even after the sprain healed, my ankle was weak and painful, until I started walking routinely. That seemed to strengthen the muscles so that they could stabilize my foot in a way that the damaged ligaments can’t manage any more.

So, for me, walking isn’t just one of those things you do because it’s recommended. Neglecting it makes me feel bad; my ankle aches, my gait gets a little wobbly, life is not good. And yet, from late September till early this year, I hardly walked at all. I didn’t have much time; I didn’t have enough focus to know how to best use the time I had.

Fairly recently, I’ve spent at least some time on our treadmill every week, and that’s a good thing. Outside walking, though? Not at all, even though it’s been one of the mildest winters I can remember. Even though I knew perfectly well I would feel better and cope better if I could get back to what used to be normal, something in me wanted to balk.

But this week, at last, at last, I made it outside, enticed by spring. Leaves are unfurling. Trees are covered with flowers. I headed outside with my little camera to celebrate. It wasn’t really a trip outside my comfort zone so much as a return to it.

With flowers.

Blueberry popovers???

Blueberry popovers, fresh out of the oven

A week ago, Foodimentary startled me by announcing that it was National Blueberry Popover Day.

Not so much because it seemed like a strange sort of holiday – when it comes to days devoted to food, things get much weirder than that. But I had never heard of putting anything in popovers except, once in a while, grated cheese. After all, the whole point of a popover is that it’s the food equivalent of a balloon. You don’t want to fool around with ingredients that will pop the bubble or weight down that steam-fueled inflation.

Of course, I had to make some.

Milk and eggs and whisk; flour; blueberries

I Googled around a bit and found several sites offering recipes that were closer to Yorkshire pudding with blueberries, and generally with other additions like cinnamon sugar. (Then again, the main difference between popovers and Yorkshire pudding is what kind of pan you bake them in.) At last I decided to go with the simplest possible interpretation.

Basic Popovers:

1 c. milk
2 eggs
large pinch of salt

Mix these thoroughly with a whisk.

1 c. flour

Add the flour a little at a time, whisking it into the liquid.

(For Blueberry Popovers, you’ll also need about a quarter cup of blueberries)

Ladle the (very runny) batter into buttered muffin pans. Bake at 450 degrees F – in a hot oven, in other words – for 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to 350 (medium oven) and bake another 20 minutes. Do not open the oven until they’re done, or they may collapse.

Ready to bake

To turn this recipe into blueberry popovers, I left out the salt and added a tablespoon of sugar. (I won’t use sugar again.) Then, after ladling the batter into the pans, I put four frozen blueberries – it’s only March; the Jersey blueberries won’t be ripe for at least four months – into each popover.

Popover. Mostly air.

Popover. Mostly air.

And they were pretty darn good. The biggest problem was that they were too dark, flirting with being burnt. I think that might have been because of the sugar. It didn’t seem to have much effect on the flavor, so next time I’ll leave it out.

Leftovers. Still good for breakfast.

And yes, there will be a next time.

Although I’m wondering how it would work if I used pureed blueberries…the popovers would probably turn out purple, but what’s wrong with that? A little shock with dinner never hurt anyone.

Weekly photo challenge: Unusual

This week’s Weekly Photo Challenge theme is “Unusual”.

I’ve seen all sorts of unusual buildings – but this is definitely one of the strangest.

I don’t know what it is (does anyone recognize it?) – I only saw it from a distance. All I can really tell you is that it’s in Copenhagen!

Sunshine award

Thank you, Rajeev Kumar at Requesting Truth for offering me this award – it’s meant to recognize “bloggers who positively and creatively inspire others in the blogosphere”. And that’s not a bad description of what I want to do – hopefully entertain you readers out there as well – but it is so cool to be told someone thinks I’m succeeding.

(As an award winner, there are a few rules to follow: Thank the person who gave this award and write a post about it. Answer the questions below.Pass on the award to 10 fabulous bloggers, link their blogs, and let them know you awarded them.)

Questions:

Favorite Drink – good strong black coffee!
Facebook or Twitter – I’m on Facebook, but don’t use it much
Your Passion –  helping people, writing, singing (maybe not well, but loud), talking, cooking, reading – you know what? Just about everything is interesting, and worth being passionate about. (Maybe those are the top six, though. Tonight, at least.)
Giving or getting presents – welll…getting 😉
Favorite Day – Sunday
Favorite Flowers – Daylilies, because they come in so many colors and just come up every year and bloom for weeks without being pampered. Snapdragons, because they’re such an odd shape and once you plant them they keep flowering and flowering until the frost gets them. Peonies, because they’re big and sweet smelling and once you plant them they’ll come up every spring for forty years or more and give you lots of gorgeous flowers with no fuss. We do have a theme going here, don’t we?

Few blogs that deserve this prize
Lucid Gypsy
Chittle Chattle
Implicado
Chronicles of Illusions
Scribbles
Inside Out Cafe
Huffygirl’s Blog
ziggyshortcrust

Three-book third sentence Thursday

(What is Third Sentence Thursday? Open the book you’re reading to a random page. Post the third complete sentence on that page. Add a few comments about the book.) I started playing with Third Sentence Thursday last week, and I’m still reading multiple books. It seems like it’s in the spirit of the game to include – what else? – three of them.

The Summoning God, Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear, p. 237:

“‘What do they do with them after they’re cooked?'”

On page 237, we’re in the present-day part of the plot. (Another, parallel, story is happening among the Anasazi about 800 years ago.) “Them” and “they’re” refers to dead babies – bad enough – but the first “they” in the sentence are witches among the native peoples of the U.S. Southwest. And the young archaeologist who’s the unheard other half of this conversation is becoming convinced that he himself has been witched.

God Has a Dream, Desmond Tutu, p. 46:

“How do you tell your little darling that she could not go because she was a child but she was not really a child, not that kind of child?”

Archbishop Tutu is talking about raising children under apartheid in South Africa, and how impossible it was to explain to his little daughter why she couldn’t go play on the nice swings. He goes on, in this chapter (God Loves Your Enemies), to describe various hateful things that people have done to one another. But how can we move forward and not be trapped forever in pain and anger? Truth and reconciliation are called for. By God, and by practicality.

The Case of the Dangerous Dowager, Erle Stanley Gardner, p. 54:

“‘Let’s see if he’s got those IOUs.'”

Notorious lawyer Perry Mason is trying to settle his client’s gambling debts…but the manager of the casino is sitting at his desk, in his private office, shot dead. The casino’s co-owner Charlie Duncan has turned up at the most awkward possible moment and seems to suspect Mason. At the moment, Duncan wants an assistant to take Mason away and search him. (Mason has burned the IOUs and is busily chewing up the ashes mixed with a wad of chewing gum.) And what happens next?

186 Cookbooks – It’s no appetizer, but it’s good!

Another one of the books that I look at and ask myself “Why on earth did you buy that??” I’m not an appetizer-making person. I don’t remember when I last held the kind of party you’d serve lots of appetizers for. When I do need something of that sort, I make do with veggies and dip and chips and pretzels.

Well, it was on clearance. I guess I was in one of those periods when there wasn’t enough money to buy books at full price, but I needed to scrape together enough for the basic necessities of life (books), so I bought what nobody else wanted.

This time, it seems to have worked out.

Cilantro, shallots, tomatoes, lime, jalapeno, garlic. Yum.

Picking a recipe to test was a challenge – see above; I don’t make appetizers. Then I came across the Vietnamese Pork “Spaghetti Sauce” for Rice.

I really, really don’t see why this was considered an appetizer. It would be awkward to eat while standing around talking. It made enough for a main dish. It isn’t even deep-fried. On the other hand, that all makes it perfect, for me, as a test recipe .

And it’s a really really good meal. A bit high in sodium, even though I cut the quantity of fish sauce called for. But other than that, it’s fast, reasonably cheap, easy, and tasty. It even looks pretty. What more do you want?