Friday, August 30, 2013


When I joined The Classics Club, the first thing I did was go through the list on Kindle, to see which of the books were available for free or reduced fees. This is one of the great things about reading classics—many of those in the public domain are available at no cost for e-readers through the volunteers at Project Gutenberg. I figured I would load a couple of Kindle titles immediately so I didn’t waste any late night reading time, which is when I really enjoy using my Kindle. And one of the first items I loaded was M.E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. Lucky for me, a night of insomnia led me to yet another unexpectedly enjoyable classic!

Lady Audley’s Secret is often described as the quintessential Victorian “sensation” novel, providing a glimpse into that tightly ordered world by examining what happens when its conventions are completely abandoned. The novel begins with the poor but beautiful Lucy Graham winning the heart of widower Lord Michael Audley. Formerly employed by the local doctor as a governess, Lucy’s life before coming to Essex is veiled in some sad mystery. Lord Audley adores spoiling his young and charming wife, hoping to make up for her past unhappiness, to the disgust of his own daughter Alicia (who happens to be about the same age as her new stepmother).

Meanwhile, back in London, presumptive heir to Lord Audley’s title barrister Robert Audley runs into a dear old friend, George Talboys, just richly returned from a gold-panning expedition to Australia, who is searching for the young and beautiful wife he abandoned in an attempt to change their dwindling fortunes. The fortunes were dwindling, I might add, because George’s father disinherited his son when he rashly chose to marry the beautiful but penniless Helen. Alas, just as George triumphantly returns to England, her death is announced in the papers, breaking his heart. But fate brings the many threads of the story together at Audley Court – until, of course, George Talboys mysteriously vanishes, and Robert is compelled to find out the meaning of his friend’s disappearance – no matter the cost to his beloved family.

I like to think of it as the Grandmother of every radio serial and soap opera ever produced –many of the motifs that pack this 300 page novel are still playing out on the airwaves and Internet today: revenge, doppelgangers, orphaned children, unscrupulous parents. I read that it was originally printed in installments, which explains why each chapter adds some information about Lucy’s past – and ends in some kind of cliffhanger. Reading it all together makes for quite a rollercoaster. The seven deadly sins get quite a workout in Lady Audley’s Secret, but as you’d expect from a Victorian novel, the heavenly virtues are also in evidence, drawing a very clear delineation of those who live within society’s boundaries, and those who live without. There’s also a healthy dose of the occult. For example, Alicia’s dog seems to have a preternatural fear of the new Lady Audley:

The Newfoundland rolled his eyes slowly round in the direction of the speaker, as if he understood every word that had been said. Lady Audley happened to enter the room at this very moment, and the animal cowered down by the side of his mistress with a suppressed grow. There was something in the manner of the dog which was, if anything, more indicative of terror than of fury; incredible as it appears that Caesar should be frightened by so fragile a creature as Lucy Audley.p. 72

I thoroughly enjoyed every frothy, overwrought minute of this novel. It was so true to its time period, yet edgy in its confrontation of social taboos. I had never even heard of Lady Audley’s Secret until, trying to expand beyond Elizabeth Gaskill, I looked up a list of female Victorian authors and found Mary Elizabeth (M.E.) Braddon. The book also appeared on the Manchester Guardian’s 1000 Books Everyone Must Read: The Definitive List. That’s a pretty bold claim for any list, and I certainly found some striking omissions (not surprisingly, the list is very English-centric), but I think it’s a fabulous resource, conveniently broken up into genre: comedy, crime, family and self, love, science fiction and fantasy, state of the nation, and war and travel. I will definitely be culling this list for more ideas for future challenges, as the recommendations so far have been outstanding.

This book counts as my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge, hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much, and is my second book for The Classics Club. It was free for my Kindle, which keeps my total for that Challenge so far at $2.51. Since this is considered a crime genre classic, I am also linking it to the R.I.P. VIII Challenge, hosted by Carl V. of Stainless Steel Droppings, which started just a little bit early this year.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Welcome to the Perils of Fall: My R.I.P. VIII Challenge List

I’ve seen some sure signs that autumn will be cooling down the frenzied pace of summer very soon. The students have moved back into their dorms at the university. The leaves on the dogwood tree outside my kitchen window have already taken on a dull, red hue. And reading lists for the R.I.P. VIII (that’s R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril) Challenge, hosted once again this year by Carl V at Stainless Steel Droppings, have begun to pop up around the blogosphere.

This year at least two of my titles will overlap with my Classics Club list – I love those 2-for-1 reads! I’ve narrowed it down to 5 novels I’d like to read so far, but I am waiting for two of them via interlibrary loan, so I will probably read whichever gets here first (thanks, Big 10).

Peril the First:
Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by Jorge Luis Borges
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing
That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda
The Returned by Jason Mott

And if all goes well, I will also try to participate in Peril of the Short Story, reading The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. But it’s a bit early to tell how that’s all going to go at this point.

I’m looking forward to chilling – and hopefully chilly – two months of reading. What’s on your R.I.P. list?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Weekend Cooking: Green Beans to Quell the Inevitable Tomato Revolt

Sooner or later I know I'm going to hear it. “Just don’t make anything with tomatoes, please!”

At this point of the year, tomatoes, which were only five weeks ago the tantalizing taste of summer, have become something I can never quite believe they will turn into to when I’m craving them in the dead of winter. They’re boring. We’ve eaten them with salt, grilled them, tossed them, roasted them, stuffed them, layered them with mozzarella and basil, ratatouilled them, even canned 16 quarts of them! Inevitably, there comes a juncture in every summer where the girls get tomatoed out. And I have to think of something totally different to jump start their tired summer palates.

This year my inspiration to beat the Too-Many-Tomato Blues came in the form of some green beans, a couple of hot peppers and a fantastic bag of paprika that one of my students’ moms brought me from Hungary not too long ago. My original plan involved yogurt* – and I still think that would be an excellent (and let’s face it, lighter) choice. But seeing as my husband used the yogurt to make the chicken tenderloins, mayo became Plan B in my Eastern European green bean effort. I knew I had a winner on my hands when I asked my younger daughter to take a taste, and she went back for 4 green beans while she was supposed to be setting the table. After his taste, my husband actually told me to take a picture and write it down for the blog, which was a pretty big surprise. So on his recommendation, I’m sharing my totally inauthentic Hungarian green bean recipe – and there is not a tomato in sight!

Col’s Green Beans with Paprika Mayo

1 large onion, sliced
2 Hungarian wax peppers, seeded and cut in long slices
1 quart container fresh green beans
1 T grapeseed oil
3 T light mayo
1 t dried dill
1-2 t Hungarian paprika (hot or sweet, according to taste)
1 t sugar
Juice of half lemon
1 t cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Put the oil in a large, non-stick skillet on medium heat. Add the onions, peppers and green beans, stirring every few minutes to keep them from getting too dark on one side. After about 15-20 minutes, the onions will be dark, and the beans will be crisp tender.

2) While the beans are cooking, combine the rest of the ingredients together to make a thick sauce. When green beans are done, remove from heat for 1-2 minutes, then toss with paprika mayo, or simply serve the mayo on the side for dipping.

*If I had gone with the yogurt I probably wouldn't have needed all the acidity I did, so I'd taste before adding the lemon juice and vinegar.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Friday, August 16, 2013

DANGEROUS LIAISONS by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos was not what I expected. I blame advertising.

Let me explain. I happen to be one of the seven people on the planet who has not seen the movie versions of Dangerous Liaisons. Not the one with John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, both of whom I esteem as actors. Not even the one with my movie crush Colin Firth, which was for some reason titled Valmont. But what I do remember seeing was ads for those versions. Bunches of them. And from those commercials I came away with the impression that the book would be somehow in the style of a “light opera.” I knew there would be naughty bits – the titillating trailers were clear there – but I had the impression that it would somehow be humorous. So I went into this first book for The Classics Club and Back to the Classics Challenges thinking I was going to get a slow start.

Imagine my surprise when I realized I was actually reading was a very dark explication of treachery, in so many different forms.

Dangerous Liaisons is an epistolary novel detailing the complex, sexually charged relationship between the Marquise de Merteuil, a beautiful widow leading a double life, and the Vicomte de Valmont, a well-connected roué. Former lovers, they share a frank enjoyment of seduction. The novel begins with the Marquise requesting Valmont’s help in humiliating her former lover, the Comte de Gercourt, by deflowering his convent school educated intended, Cécile Volanges. (The fact that Cécile is not only the daughter of her best friend, but also her cousin, doesn’t even register with the Marquise.) Valmont demurs, as he is already actively engaged in seducing the virtuous Présidente de Tourvel, but events later make him reconsider the conquest. However, by this point Cécile has already fallen in love with her music instructor, the Chevalier Danceny, considerably complicating an already complicated situation.

Although it was written in 1782, I found Dangerous Liaisons almost shockingly modern. At one point, the Marquise points out that Valmont’s supposed “skills” at seduction are really just the result of luck:

And, pray, what have you done that I have not surpassed a thousand times? You have seduced, ruined even, very many women: but what difficulties have you had to overcome? What obstacles to surmount? What merit lies therein that is really your own? A handsome face, the pure result of chance; graces, which habit almost always brings; wit, in truth: but jargon would supply its place at need; a praiseworthy impudence, perhaps due solely to the ease of your first successes; if I am not mistaken, these are your means, for, as for the celebrity you have succeeded in acquiring, you will not ask me, I suppose, to count for much the art of giving birth to a scandal or seizing the opportunity for one. p. 103-104

Happily, I enjoyed this book, despite my surprise at its darkness, as well as my inability to like most of the characters very much. Maybe it’s because I’m the mother of teenaged girls, but I found myself focusing on – and feeling very sorry for –Cécile. I was also angry at Danceny, who totally abandoned Cécile in the end – only Valmont seemed to notice that his behavior had not been so different from hers. The book certainly captures the double standard for sexual conduct that existed at the time. But I was disappointed we didn’t hear more from Cécile – her last letter comes well before the end, not allowing for her perspective on the climactic events of the novel.

You know you’ve really enjoyed a book when you find yourself thinking about it after you’ve finished. I found myself wondering what the reaction to this book must have been at the time. I even wondered if in describing society so frankly -- and amorally -- Dangerous Liaisons had helped contribute to the French Revolution. I heartily recommend this novel to anyone who thinks classics are “boring” – this will disabuse them of that idea from the first page. This was a great kick-off to my Classics Club Challenge, and counts for my 18th Century Classic in the Back to the Classics Challenge, hosted by Sara Reads Too Much. I got this classic novel for my Kindle at the bargain price of $2.51 – I’ve decided to keep a running total for the 5-year challenge, mostly because I have the idea that reading classics should be good for the book budget! I’ll be updating the total on my Classics Club page as well.

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

LOTERÍA by Mario Alberto Zambrano

I’m sure I’m not the first person to call Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano “devastating” – after all, any book about a child we encounter when she’s already in the state protective custody system is bound to be that. So the issue wasn’t about whether or not this would be a sad story, but whether or not this would be a sad story with a unique point of view, a story that somehow opened us up to sadness in a new way. I’m not saying that would be easy, but then I didn’t take up the challenge, Zambrano did. And in my opinion he was somewhat successful, but not entirely.

The book is in the form of a journal written by Luz María Castillo while she is being held by the State of California. Her father is in jail, her mother has disappeared, and her sister is in the Intensive Care Unit. She refuses to speak with the people assigned to help her, but at her Tía Tencha’s request she writes a journal entry for each of the cards in the Mexican bingo game La Lotería that she just happens to be carrying with her. I found this a bit far-fetched, frankly. Not her naïve aunt believing her journal would clear her brother of the charges against him – that made sense – but of her casual suggestion to use the cards as prompts. It felt too much like a “literary device” to me.

What Zambrano does very well is get us into the head of an 11-year-old girl, however. Her love of her family, her inability to contextualize her parents’ behavior, and her sibling rivalry all come through beautifully. She isn’t the easiest child to get to know, and so her circuitous inner dialog makes sense. She has been through a lot:

We locked the door and held each other like if we were waiting for an earthquake, afraid the ceiling might cave in. A chair would slam against the wall and we’d flinch. Glasses would break. The walls would tremble. They’d scream so loud it felt like wolves were tearing up the house, saying words that didn’t even make sense anymore, and the sounds that did come out of their mouths were like dogs. p. 143-144.

But while Zambrano does write beautifully, I found Luz’s story to be a bit contrived. To be honest, I am getting pretty tired of every book I read having a scene with a young girl having some kind of sexual encounter. I think it’s a dangerous thing to make a real problem – sexual behavior toward children – some kind of literary trope. Modern authors seem to think there’s only one way to show that a woman has had a rough time of it. In this case, I really don’t think the encounter with Luz’s cousin moved the story forward at all – it didn’t lead to more understanding of the characters or of their actions. So I found it distracting, rather than insightful.

Zambrano is a very talented writer, and I do look forward to reading his future works. He has an opportunity to give a real voice to the Mexican-American experience, and with his obvious talent I believe as readers we’ll all be richer for it.

FTC Disclosure: I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other takes on Mario Alberto Zambrano's Lotería, please follow the links here. Thanks, as always, to Trish for including me on the tour!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

CHOCOLATE & ZUCCHINI by Clotilde Dusoulier

I’m not trying to complain or anything. I am very fortunate to get to travel a great deal, both for business and for pleasure – and often a little of both. Still, an enormous hole in my life-long travel itinerary remains: I have never been to Paris. This is particularly stunning when you consider: a) three items on my bucket list involve France; b) after food and books, perfume is my next favorite thing on the planet; and c) I adore French food and wine! Until I can get there, I have to content myself with the tastes of the country I’m dying to go to, so I’m always on the lookout for a great French cookbook, which is why I wanted to review Clotilde Dusoulier’s Chocolate & Zucchini.

Who is Clotilde Dusoulier? A young Parisian computer-programmer-turned-food-blogger, Dusoulier says that it took a move to San Francisco after college for her to realize exactly what the French approach to food meant to her. Now back in Paris, she is author of the wildly popular food blog Chocolate & Zucchini, which is coincidentally the name of her first cookbook.

Take on Cooking: Every day contemporary French is probably the best way to describe Chocolate & Zucchini. Dusoulier’s stories illustrate how food is completely intertwined with all aspects of life in Paris, which I love. Like many French people, her meals seem to be made up of a combination of things she buys (bread, when you’re in France why make your own?) and things she makes from scratch. It’s a very seasonal and fresh approach to food, not at all stuffy.

The Delicious Parts: I loved how Dusoulier talks about her boyfriend, her neighbors and her family, all of whom inspire her cooking. She is willing to mess with tradition when it makes things better – replacing butter on the mouillettes for dipping in soft boiled eggs with an artichoke and goat cheese spread was genius – but not when it doesn’t, so don’t go changing the pan bagnat. She has a good sense of humor. I especially loved the story about her bakery ruining her favorite turkey salad.

My First Bites: I cooked four recipes from the book: Green Bean Salad with Pecans and Dry-Cured Ham; Soft-Boiled Egg with Artichoke Bread Fingers; Lamb and Prune Meatballs; and Zucchini with Olives. My family loved them all. My daughter especially loved the soft-boiled egg, and I was glad to be reminded what a fantastic and simple meal one makes (add a salad or steamed asparagus to this and you’re done)! The recipes are detailed and direct – you really can’t mess them up.

Not Quite To My Taste: This is a wonderful little book, and my only complaint is that it is little – I really wish there were more recipes. But wanting another helping is hardly a criticism, so I guess the book was entirely to my taste.

Recommendation? Devour, Split, Send it Back to the Kitchen? Devour, definitely, if you are looking for a contemporary take on French food! And Split if you want to dip your toes in the water of French cuisine. One whole section of the book is on entertaining, and considering how straightforward the directions are, I’d say anyone could look like a whiz in the kitchen if they planned an event around her buffet items. I will be sorry to see this one go back to the library, but I’ve already added it to my Christmas List (hope Santa reads this blog).

One Great Recipe: Clotilde Dusoulier’s Courgettes aux Olives

Zucchini with Olives

1 ½ t. extra virgin olive oil

12 black olives, such as Kalamata, pitted and chopped

1 large onion, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 ½ lbs. zucchini, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 t. herbes de Provence

1/3 c. dry white wine

1) Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add three of the olives (reserve the others) and cook for a minute, until fragrant. Add the onion and garlic and cook for four minutes, until softened, stirring regularly to avoid coloring. Add the zucchini, sprinkle with salt, pepper and herbes de Provence, and stir to combine. Cover and cook for 5 minutes.

2) Add the white wine and the reserved olives, and stir again. Turn the heat to medium-high and cook, uncovered, for 5 to 7 minutes, until most of the juices have evaporated. Serve hot, at room temperature, or cold.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

FTC disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review.

Monday, August 5, 2013

My Classics Club List

A number of the bloggers I follow are members of The Classics Club. I have actually wanted to join for a while, but found the idea of putting together a list of 50 books to read in 5 years very daunting. On the one hand, there are so many books to read. On the other hand, where to begin?

Feeling like I was missing a party I really wanted to attend, I finally hit on a two-part strategy. The first part of my list came from my existing TBR on Goodreads. That part of the list contains “classic” classics (if that’s a thing) that I just haven’t found time for – a.k.a., I wasn’t assigned – like Eliot’s Middlemarch and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

The second part came from an imprint that I absolutely love, and wanted to explore more thoroughly, NYRB Classics. I love this imprint because of its broad range: history, biography, memoir, mystery, humor, and romance are all represented. Because of the nature of the list, these books are more international in nature, decidedly modern, and maybe a bit more obscure, including titles such as Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel and Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love.

There are no re-reads on my list, which is a bit scary. A majority of the authors are completely new to me as well. But I feel like I will have accomplished something when I finally get through the list. Hopefully, that will be before August 5, 2018!

Col Reads’ Classic 50

1. Baker, Dorothy: Cassandra at the Wedding

2. Bengtsson, Frans G.: The Long Ships

3. Borges, Jorge Luis: Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi

4. Braddon, Mary Elizabeth: Lady Audley’s Secret

5. Cather, Willa: Death Comes for the Archbishop

6. Choderlos de Laclos, Pierre: Dangerous Liaisons

7. Collette: The Pure and Impure

8. Collodi, Carlo: Pinocchio

9. De Balzac, Honore: The Unknown Masterpiece

10. De Maupassant, Guy: Alien Hearts

11. Dundy, Elaine: The Dud Avocado

12. Edwards, G.B.: The Book of Ebeneezer Le Page

13. Eliot, George: Middlemarch

14. Eliot, T.S.: Murder in the Cathedral

15. Fearing, Kenneth: The Big Clock

16. Fermor, Patrick Leigh: The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey through the Caribbean Islands

17. Fielding, Henry: Tom Jones

18. Finley, F.I.: The World of Odysseus

19. Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby

20. Gadda, Carlo Emilio: That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana

21. Gaskell, Elizabeth: North and South

22. Gogol, Nikolay: Dead Souls

23. Grossman, Vasily: An Armenian Sketchbook

24. Hawthorne, Nathaniel: The Blithedale Romance

25. Hemingway, Ernest: A Moveable Feast

26. Hughes, Richard: A High Wind in Jamaica

27. Hurston, Zora Neale: Their Eyes Were Watching God

28. Inoue, Yasushi: Tun-Huang

29. Ishiguro, Kazuo: The Remains of the Day

30. Jansson, Tove: The True Deceiver

31. Kerouac, Jack: On the Road

32. Malory, Sir Thomas: Le Morte d’Arthur

33. Mitford, Jessica: Hons and Rebels

34. Mitford, Nancy: Voltaire in Love

35. Murakami, Haruki: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

36. Nabokov, Vladimir: Lolita

37. Pepys, Samuel: Diary of Samuel Pepys

38. Pirandello, Luigi: The Late Mattia Pascal

39. Pym, Barbara: Excellent Women

40. Sabbatini, Rafael: Scaramouche

41. Simenon, Georges: Act of Passion

42. Sorokin, Vladimir: The Queue

43. Taylor, Elizabeth: Angel

44. Twain, Mark: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

45. Van Vechten, Carl: The Tiger in the House

46. Von Arnim, Elizabeth: The Enchanted April

47. Warner, Rex: Men and Gods

48. Wharton, Edith: Ghost Stories

49. White, T.H.: The Once and the Future King

50. Zola, Emile: The Belly of Paris

I'll be tracking my progress on a separate blog page. Right now the 0/50 has me pretty motivated to get moving on some classics!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

NIGELLA EXPRESS by Nigella Lawson

I had never seen Nigella Lawson on television until I went to England and Wales this summer. Exhausted from a conference – oh, and from running around London with a tween looking for Harry Potter filming locations – we were thrilled we could “veg out” in the evening with the Food Network UK. (Ah, the comfort. Ah, the bacon!) Our schedule (and jet lag) introduced us to two new-to-us shows: Nigella Kitchen and Bitchin’ Kitchen. Back home, I looked for accompanying cookbooks because my daughter had enjoyed the shows so much, and Nigella Express was the first one I saw. Which is why Nigella has the (dubious) distinction of being my first Rent Before Buying review.

Who is Nigella Lawson? Self-proclaimed “Domestic Goddess,” daughter of a former Chancellor of the Exchequer of Great Britain, and until this week the wife of the advertising-made bazillionaire Charles Saatchi. She is a self-taught cook, and her curvaceous appearance and flirtatious delivery helped to define what media critics refer to a “food porn.” Lawson is an icon in the UK, with a string of successful cookbooks and cooking series to her credit.

Take on Cooking: Nigella Express is Lawson’s ode to the busy working mom – someone she knows more than a little bit about, what with running a media empire and being a mother of three! It’s all about giving yourself a break and getting good tasting food on the table fast.

The Delicious Parts: The book is beautifully photographed, and Lawson’s personal stories make it an entertaining read. She comes across as down-to-earth but just a little bit edgy– kind of like the Anti-Martha Stewart. And Lawson has a real talent for putting together flavors that work well together. There’s plenty of spices and seasonings, with some unexpected combinations.

Not Quite To My Taste: The “express” part of the title comes with some shortcuts that we don’t usually use, including a lot of processed products –mixing jarred spaghetti sauce, broth and pasta for minestrone seems a bit too express, if you get my drift. Also, the “comfort food” aspect of the book meant that a lot of the recipes were very fatty. So I wound up adding steps and substituting ingredients to make meals for my family. The book is dessert heavy, because sweets are definitely Lawson’s thing – but we aren’t habitual dessert eaters, so a lot of the recipes would go unused (although I’m pretty sure my daughter would be happy if I used them).

Recommedation? Devour, Split, Send it Back to the Kitchen? For me, it’s a definite split—it’s going back to the library, and I don’t have to purchase it. But I can see why others would devour it, especially dessert lovers, and those looking for one cookbook with a broad set of recipes! I could see this as a great shower gift or new parent gift – perfect for someone not used to getting a meal together every night.

One Great Recipe: Nigella Lawson’s Curry in a Hurry

2 T. canola or other oil

3 T. finely chopped scallions

3-4 T. green Thai curry paste

2 ¼ lbs. chicken thigh fillets, cut into strips about 1 ½ inches by ¾ inch (I used considerably less, only about a pound, and for the four of us the proportions were fine)

1 14-oz can coconut milk

1 cup boiling water + enough chicken bouillon or concentrate to make 2 cups (I used veggie broth)

1 T. fish sauce

1 ½ cup frozen peas

1 ½ cup frozen edamame

1 ½ cup frozen slender beans (I used fresh because they are in season)

3 T. fresh cilantro

Cooked rice or noodles (I served this with a spicy chili rice)

Lime wedges

1) Heat the oil in a large saucepan, on that owns a lid, and drop in the scallions. Cook, stirring for a minute of two, and then add the curry paste.

2) Add the chicken pieces and keep turning over heat for 2 minutes before adding the coconut milk, stock, and fish sauce, and then the frozen peas and soybeans.

3) Simmer for 10 minutes, then add the frozen green beans and cook for 3-5 minutes.

4) Serve with rice or noodles, as wished, sprinkling over the cilantro as you do so. Put a plate of lime wedges for people to squeeze over as they eat.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

FTC disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review.

Friday, August 2, 2013

MY FRIEND MAIGRET by Georges Simenon

There is something very comforting about a classic police procedural. A corpse shows up at the beginning of the mystery – often accompanied by an exotic murder weapon or ornate crime scheme – and by the end the murderer is delivered to justice by either the keen intellect or daring intuition of some hardworking police detective. Writers as diverse as Ngaio Marsh (New Zealand), Erle Stanley Gardner (USA), Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Sweden), and Peter Robinson (UK) have all delivered on the same concept for more than a century, all adding something unique to the formula – often in the understanding of how very different the legal systems in which the detectives operate actually are.

It makes sense that the French would have a unique take on the genre. And by some accounts, Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret remains the quintessential French police detective, even though he made his debut in the 1930s. My Friend Maigret was my second novel in the series (both read completely out of order). I enjoyed this one, not because the mystery was so fantastic, but because it gave me a great deal of insight into some of the inherent differences between the French and British legal systems. This was because Maigret spends the book being shadowed by Mr. Pyke of Scotland Yard, who has been sent to study Maigret’s crime solving “methods.”

In this case, Maigret gets a call from Inspector Lechat on Île de Porquerolles indicating that a local ne’er-do-well has been murdered on the same night he was overheard bragging in a bar about his “good friend,” the famous inspector Maigret. The Inspector does indeed remember Marcellin, a man who he put away for taking part in an inveigling scheme – and his TB-ridden accomplice, Ginette, whom Maigret took pity on, and sent to a sanatorium. At one point, Maigret discusses the relationships that develop between habitual criminals and the police with Pyke:

“I wrote to him, I recall. I don’t know how you deal with them in your country.

“Very correctly.”

“I don’t doubt it. Here we sometimes knock them around. We’re not always gentle with them. But the odd thing is that they seldom hold it against us. They know we’re only doing our job. From one interrogation to the next, we get to know each other.”

“This is the one who called himself a friend of yours?”

“I’m convinced he was sincere.”

Kindle location 173/2176
Intrigued by his alleged link to the thug’s death, and relieved to have an interesting case to work on with Pyke, Maigret heads off to beautiful Porquerolles. And meets the colorful locals and strange boating tourists. And drinks white wine. And observes. Actually, it looks like nothing is happening. And then all of a sudden he has the mystery solved. I’m not sure what Pyke learned about his methods, but I know I didn’t learn much. Still the motive was pretty clever – I just didn’t feel like I was gathering the same clues Maigret had in the end.

I said at a dinner party recently that I found murder mysteries very relaxing, and everybody laughed. I wasn’t actually joking. Sure, depending on the era and country in which they operate, these fictional heroes have different constraints, and different social ills with which they contend. Not to mention murder. But to my mind, what ties police procedurals together is a belief that somehow front line civil servants – at least most of them – are trying their hardest to protect the public. My Friend Maigret certainly falls into that category. And while in this case the ending wasn’t as satisfying as usual – either for me, or for Maigret – I still find something very comforting about that.

FTC disclosure: I did not receive a copy of this book for review.