April 29, 2006

1001 Cookies, Gregg R. Gillespie

I had meant to get Rose's Christmas Cookies, because Rose Levy Berenbaum's tomes on bread and cake are thorough and useful. Her cookie book is ruined by "These unsurpassable cookies were first served me by lovely Friend Cabot on her grandmother's gracious Sèvres", etc., a species of cookbook-filler I reprehend, especially when it causes page breaks in the actual recipes. On suspicious re-examination, the bread and cake tomes do have more personal-history fluff than I approve of, but the ratio of fluff to recipes is tolerable.

"Gracious" is as self-destructive an adjective as "classy".

One of the Christmas Cookies is a beautiful gingerbread model of Notre Dame Cathedral, with a remarkably detailed rose-window made of melted sugar candies.

Anyhow, so, Gillespie's cookbook is extremely dense: no single cookie recipe takes more than a quarter of a page, there are useful tables of adaptations and weights and measures, and the cookies are ordered by name and then indexed both by type (bar, drop, refrigerator) and by ingredients. Excellent principles.

Most of the cookies aren't very good, though. I thought perhaps it was because they called for margarine rather than butter, but changing that didn't help; I've fiddled with the protein-content of my flour, in case "all-purpose" varies coast to coast; but no, they're always too sweet and too gummy. We might just have fundamentally different tastes in cookies. (One of these recipes has artificial bacon bits in it, for instance. Genius or madness? It's even better than that: they are Breakfast Cookies and the other flavorings are orange juice concentrate and Grape-Nuts. Next: Sartre's cookbook.)

Find in a Library: Rose's Christmas Cookies

Find in a Library: 1001 Cookies

Posted by clew at 12:06 PM

April 16, 2006

Dread Empire's Fall: Conventions of War, Walter Jon Williams

The cover art, the spongy paperback format with the proportions of a brick, the blurbs, the title all announce that this "towering epic of intergalactic war" has no subtlety of character whatsoever. It has more subtlety than Snobs, even though Snobs is about an existing society, is written by a member of it, and confines itself to plausible people and events.

Dread Empire has a lot of unsubtle entertainment, and spreads over many pages, but the human events -- the only ones that were not predictable at the beginning of the trilogy -- are not far from Phineas Finn &ff. Say, ...Finn with the addition of the few cheerful parts of A Farewell to Arms, set in a universe borrowed from E. E. "Doc" Smith. Lots of time is spent on invented space tactics that depend on imaginary science, and descriptions of fancy dinners and cute aliens; there's a murder mystery with no relation to the putative military plot; we get the id-pleasure of identifying with the protagonists as they blow things up and prove their superiors wrong. It's definitely fluff. And yet, the thread holding together the two main streams of plot is one Fellowes and Trollope used; how an entrenched class system co-opts most of its attackers and sloughs off the rest.

The character who seems most heroic to me, the genius who fights her way out of the gutter, passes as an aristocrat, and builds a successful resistance on a conquered planet, gets the least regard in the bells-and-banners triumph at the end of the plot. Perhaps this is historically obvious; museums have told me that, say, French Resistance fighters were rather an embarrassment to France until they were safely very old. Certainly she couldn't get all the prizes without making the story as frivolous as it pretends to be. But what happens to her? She walks offstage; to what? To be a philosopher, or a prophet, or a conqueror, or a hermit?

Worldcat/Find in a Library: Dread Empires' Fall: Conventions of War

Posted by clew at 08:21 PM

Snobs, Julian Fellowes

I would have left this as unconsidered fluff (bad behavior in high life; social system unchallenged; narration by insider pretending to be outsider), but I think I picked it up because someone compared it to Anthony Trollope, and there are coy internal cues that we're meant to compare it to Trollope.

It doesn't compare. It's true that most of Trollope's popular novels circle the expensive problems of the land-inheriting class, and the social and moral dilemmas of their sisters and daughters. It's certainly true that Trollope didn't expect England's class system to change, and that he didn't expect sainthood of anyone. But Trollope paid just as much attention to the interior life of his poor characters as his rich ones; I am thinking of two Reverends, one the undesirable Slope and one painfully moral, painfully poor one. Fellowes doesn't. Also, his characters seem to have only emotional crises, not emotional and moral ones; I suppose I can't rule out a diminution in moral feeling among the rich of England, but Joanna Trollope has characters with moral crises. Perhaps her characters aren't rich enough to be above these things.

Find in a Library

Posted by clew at 08:08 PM

April 07, 2006

Shifu, You'll Do Anything For A Laugh, Mo Yan

Some of these are ghost or supernatural stories, and some not. All of them are so full of tension and possible disaster that the appearance of a ghost can be something of a relief. This must have something to do with their background in China, in the starving 1960s and the changed social contract since; something like The Uses of Enchantment.

And some things might be more realistic than I knew; children eating coal, for instance. The April issue of Geotimes had an article on pigs eating coal; to the author's surprise, this is well-attested and might even do them good; people have used pigs to find coal seams.

Find in a Library

Posted by clew at 09:51 PM

The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester

The collaboration of the Professor (and first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary) and the Madman (also murderer, Civil War surgeon, and important volunteer for the OED) make a nice little story. Winchester fills in details of that little story which connect it to much else in history. I particularly like the light touch of the connections; Winchester is satisfied to point out coincidences or explain the context, the contemporaneous feeling, in historical connections, without writing as though he had found the puppet-strings of history.

One of the contexts was the interest of Irish regiments in fighting for the Union in the Civil War; on top of the crabs-in-a-bucket competition between the Irish and blacks, many in the Irish regiments were practicing warfare in order to throw the English out of Ireland.

Another was the unprovable-but-obvious connection between the English desire to make a Dictionary of their language, and the rise of science, with its new ability to define some things precisely.

Find in a Library

Posted by clew at 09:04 PM

April 06, 2006

Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Lizzie Collingham

Catsup was developed through a peculiar chain of misunderstandings and reinterpretations; soy-sauce amendments taken from China to India by the East India Company, British naval recipes that advertised themselves principally for long keeping (twenty years on a ship!), tomatoes no earlier than the mid-1700s, possibly introduced by Sephardic Jews who traded with the Americas.

A lot of food history is like that, as is most of this book. Collingham also pays attention to the imitation and the prejudice that food-habits have displayed, especially between Britain and India. She follows curries around the rest of the world, with the odd gap that her knowledge of US curries is limited to the East Coast, principally New York, when their epicenter is more likely Silicon Valley.

I haven't tried any of the recipes, but they look tasty and practical; Bengali potatoes, for instance.

There's a last chapter on how tea-drinking accidentally changed history, but The Empire of Tea covers that better.

Find in a Library

Posted by clew at 12:10 AM

April 05, 2006

The Academic Self: An Owner's Manual, Donald E. Hall

I find professionalized humanist writing stuporously dull. It doesn't help that Hall, who probably has enthusiasm and good taste and even a sense of rhythm, provides contrast by quoting Walter Pater and Carlyle and George Eliot. It does help that it's a short book, and I mean that kindly, although I can't make it sound so.

That aside, there's good in this book; it's about how to avoid misery in non-prestigious employment in the humanities without adding to anyone else's grief. Half the advice is a light course in time management, a little like 43Folders but less hilariously obsessive. The other half is how to find the will and alliances needed to fix the problems that cause the misery in the first place. I like the combination. Books on 'problems of the day' often get terrible reviews because the reviewer wanted a survival manual and got a political action plan, or v.v.; Hall's recognition that in any real jam you probably need both is not deep, but until it's broadly noticed it bears repeating.

Find in a Library

Posted by clew at 11:48 PM

April 03, 2006

Two too princesses

If one has to write cod-medieval adventures with the depressing parts of history toned down (and someone must: I read so many that if no-one else did, I would have to), I am mildly sympathetic to the over-representation of princesses. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland might explain why princesses were under particular social constraints not to act independently, but I can see throwing in a currently-believable spunky princess and getting on with the adventures.

(As I write this, I am losing my sympathy, because even if one has to have a royal character why can't she be a queen? Children in adventure stories are disproportionately orphans, and an orphaned princess should be a queen. Older brothers are rare, unless minions of evil, which ought to remove one from the succession.)

Both Poison Study, by Maria K. Snyder, and The Decoy Princess, by Dawn Cook, do not need princess-dom. They're nearly redshirts. The first heroine learns palace intrigue from other servants and soldiers, and the second is brought up as a princess but turns out to be a tethered goat for assassins; in both cases they have time and reason to practice suitable skills for going off and having exciting adventures.

And, in both cases, they turn out to actually be the princess-equivalents in, basically, magic ninja societies. These characters did not need to haul around that crutch. Oh, well.

Find in a Library: Poison Study, The Decoy Princess, or Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

Posted by clew at 09:27 PM

Feast: A History of Grand Eating, Roy Strong

I could not enjoy this catalogue of convivial excess because I felt a constant undertow of teleology, specifically that the purpose of all Western feasting (it has no other) was either to prepare for the English rich in the late 1800s, or to mourn their vanishing. Pleasant as mahogany and fish-slices are, I doubt they were either more convivial than the triclinium or more excessive than the nef.

The book may have begun as articles for Country Life, which might explain the slant.

Find in a Library

Posted by clew at 08:54 PM

Point of Honour, Madeleine E. Robins

Only in the last twenty pages did I realize that this is an actual noir story; until then I had been complacent and dismissive in the belief that it was a Regency romance coyly pretending to be a noir. I am grateful to have been so fooled; it reminds me of the line that 'you can't con an honest mark'.

I don't know why it needed alternate history, though. Surely the actual politics were sufficiently full of maneuvering and interest? I don't see that a Queen Regent makes a tough female character more likely: I didn't blog Charlotte : Being a True Account of an Actress's Flamboyant Adventures in Eighteenth-Century London's Wild and Wicked Theatrical World, but its subject was quite as reckless as any fictional heroine. (Her failure as a fictional heroine would be excess and inconsistency.)

Find in a Library: Point of Honour or

Posted by clew at 01:10 AM
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