Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Blizzard Named Franzi and Another One Named Doris

We are supposed to hole up this week around here, to not go outside risking life and limb in the howling arctic winds.  But Bye-Bye Nesquik is running low on wet cat food, not to mention that her  mullet needs a trim, bad.

In fact, the winds just started up.  They make the house crackle and the kitten dash from room to room, her eyes all big and her ears perked up.  

We may be having a winter like the one described in Ashley Shelby's Red River Rising.  In 1996-97, poor old North Dakota got eight blizzards.  They named them, just like hurricanes:  Andy, Betty, Christopher, Doris, Elmo, Franzi, Gust and Hannah.  After days of confinement under roof-high drifts, they dug out and searched for their frozen-solid cattle.  Then they braced for the next one.

When the National Weather Service added up all those inches of snow, they warned the people who lived along the Red River of the North:  It's going to be a lot of water this spring.  Buy flood insurance, folks.

Only the middle third of Shelby's book was what I expected.

The first third described an alphabet soup of agencies attempting to guess how much water they might expect.  This part of the story was all about reconnaissance flights gauging the snow-pack, about scientists taking measurements from bridges, and other scientists drawing graphs.  Cities like Grand Forks wanted a number; at how many feet will the Red River crest?

They didn't want the number too low.  The river might rise higher and there they'd be, with water rushing down their streets.

They didn't want the number too high.  The river might not rise that much, even if they'd spent millions of dollars laying down even one extra foot of flood protection all up and down the banks.

I might just mention here that it didn't help that the Red River's mouth is in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  That's northward, folks.  I used to read about a river in Siberia that flowed north into the Arctic Ocean.  The frozen-up waters of its mouth blocked the river's flow, causing it to flood the blighted plain.  Well, thought I, that is why we are the Promised Land and they are not. 

Little did I know we had our own misbegotten river right here. 

But back to our story.

The middle third of the book is the story I expected.  The town filled sandbags.  Pretty soon, the exhausted citizens worked all night, lit by flood lights.  Pretty soon, they ran out of sand and dug up the golf course and a couple parks, all while listening to the eery sound of the river rushing louder, over on the other side of the floodwall.

And, pretty soon, it was time to grab the photo albums and a few clothes, then run, with a last look back at the house.  Because, when they returned, they found the door blocked by the china hutch, the couch upright against a wall, one shoe on a ceiling fan and its mate in the basement.

The last third was the recriminations.  Why didn't the the engineers and the hydrologists predict the right river crest?  How do we start over again?  Why are so many of us taking anti-depressants and attending city council meetings, raising our fists in the air?  

Naturally, people who survived such an apocalypse vowed "Never again!"  But when the engineers showed them the plans for the grand dike that would keep even an 8-blizzard spring run-off out of their streets and second-stories, this master project would swallow up the grandest avenue in town, with its lovely Queen Anne homes.   The flood had already stolen all their frontier-era downtown buildings.  People of more modest means lost their cherished neighborhoods.  Urban planners built new homes for the displaced, far from the river, out by the freeway.  All this loss of what little beauty existed in Grand Forks drove home the truth that their hometown lay on a bleak and lonely plain.

Red River gave a lot of pages over to scientific and political drama, most likely to place the human drama in context. But the explanations of graphs and the many, many names of government officials in the public favor today and out of favor tomorrow tested my patience.  Shelby's account of a city turned upside down was thorough, her elucidations of complicated science illuminating.  But her book is not casual reading. 

And now, as the wind continues shake the rafters, I give you tonight's dinner, perfect for a blizzard-y evening:

Creamy Chicken Rice Soup

Mozzarella Ham Stromboli

We added apple slices and some slightly under-baked chocolate chip cookies to our dinner.   

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Dark Side of the World

I have read the lawyer thriller and come out unscathed. So I recommend to you Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, with a few caveats.

It is one of those books where the emotion doesn't kick in until halfway through, when lawyer Rusty, charged with murder, begins to ponder the horrors of prison life.  Of course, once the courtroom drama commences, we have no shortage of emotion.  We get elation and despondency as each side wins and loses battles on their way to the final verdict.

My caveats are:

The sexy scenes.  We discussed Carolyn and male fantasy last week.  Rusty went nuts over her, but I yawned.

The darkness.  Rusty's father survived World War II, not as chipper American soldier who handed out chocolate bars, but as a desperate Croatian or some such, fleeing gunfire.  Survival required desperate measures, so desperate that, after he settled in the United States, he lived as though life would always be as tough and unpleasant as what he had left behind.  Lawyer Rusty inherits that pessimism.  To him, life breaks people, end of story.

Next week's book is all doom and gloom too.  I think this calls for a recipe of unremitting darkness, as in dark chocolate.  Perhaps you should not attempt Turow's book without a plate of Caramel Fudge Cheesecake nearby.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Boys with Br**sts

Maybe I lack the legal-eagle mind, but Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent has not gripped me like a good book should, which is to say, like velcro on pantyhose.

I'll probably finish it though.  The courtroom jargon that lies ahead should be more tolerable than the grating part that I just waded through.

Which was a character named Carolyn.

Actually, she's not around anymore.  Somebody murdered her before the opening scene.  But the narrator, a fellow lawyer, had an affair with her a few months before her demise.  So we must bear with narrator Rusty while he catches us up on his fascination with Carolyn, not to mention how she, um, disturbed all the other red-blooded lawyers in the office

I've met this Carolyn before.  She's beautiful.  She's stacked.  She's a hardened soul with many notches in her belt who, when she loves her men, runs hotter than a race-car engine and, when she drops them, turns cooler than a frosty light pole.  "Carolyn" shows up on at least seven TV shows per season.  She gets a part in every movie with where men blow things up, as well as the ones where they steal treasures or hunt treasures or bury treasures.  Among my fellow writers, she showed up recently in a spacey time-travel piece as well as in a murder saga where she, a hard-bitten reporter, distracts the lead detective.

She is not like any woman I know.  In fact, she sounds more like a man.

Which reminds me of one of the most amusing passages I ever read.  In Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, the alpha-male lead character dumps his wife for a young trophy.  The rejected wife, in an effort to build her a new single-woman life, hauls herself to the gym.  She huffs through her killer workout, attempting to rein in her very feminine hips.  She gasps and wipes away all the sweat, knowing that, if only she had hips like a man, she wouldn't have to torture herself like this.  In fact, she realizes, that's what every man wants:  a boy with breasts.  They want male hips, male conversation, a male taste for crack adventure, a male tendency for no-strings attached lovin' and, of course a male hot-and-ready attitude.  All that, but with breasts. 
Carolyn is a creature of male-author fantasy.

We could discuss, another time perhaps, the kind of fantasy creature that appears when women do the writing.  But that would require me to read one of those books with a shirtless, long-haired male on the cover (they want a girl with pecs, as Tom Wolfe might say), grasping a heroine who is about to burst her bodice. 

I'll just stick with Turow's legalese for now, thanks.

And forgive me if I prevail on a theme of things soft and pillowy, and share my recipe for Sweet Potato Crescents:

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Dispatches from the Arctic Circle

The wind blows.    The snow piles up.  At the end of the driveway, it sticks up higher than the pompom on your stocking cap.  I don't know who is responsible for this--Mr. Nesquik, who has shoveled twice already, or the snowplow. 

We have switched to the emergency menus, the ones that call for ingredients tucked away in the freezer and pantry for days such as this one. Even so, I still found myself at Meijer two days ago, standing in long lines with the hordes that picked the shelves clean of bananas and eggs.  Maybe bread and beer, too, though I didn't scout out those aisles.   

So while the wind picked up and all my Facebook friends bragged about the snowmen they just built, I labored away at  Chicken with Peach Stuffing, which really wasn't that much labor: 

We ate this tasty stuff with green beans, and brownies.

Thanks to those who wish us well, as in telling us they hope we have a plentiful supply of hot chocolate on hand.  Bye-bye Nesquik buys Costco-sized bags of chocolate chips and hides them away (though everybody finds them anyway) so she doesn't notice the lack of hot chocolate.

And now I'm off to read Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, a thriller about murder among the prosecuting attorneys.  I haven't gotten very far yet, but this winter looks highly promising for working our way through the entire west wing of the town library.