Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Traveling Husband

I always thought I'd make a great army wife--independent, able to tolerate the absences. That is not to say I never want my husband around, you understand. It's just that there are little perks, like reading in bed late into the night. Or traveling with him while somebody else pays the hotel bill.

Well, I got my traveling man and I have followed him to places that fed my appetite for exotic. Riiight, you say. You find something exotic about small towns in Texas that, even though they're 100 miles from the border, they feel like they're in Mexico? Or minor cities in Michigan where the calendar says spring but the morning air sure doesn't?

Hey--don't make me feel bad, OK? Maybe I would like to have grown up in a New Jersey suburb. The malls would have been great, not to mention that great pulsing city to the east.

Alas, I started this life somewhere a bit duller than that so, you see, I am way too easily entertained.

Then there is the downside to the traveling husband: when you're not tagging along with him, he leaves you behind with all his children.

It was never clearer, this downside, than at dinner time. Dinner is supposed to be a little oasis in the day. But when the kids were young, I was always jumping to cut their meat or catch their spills. This is not fun at all, I told myself many, many times. Then, when the kids got older and he left me behind, I had to answer all their trick questions like, "I know you said I couldn't play outside if I didn't practice piano, but my friend is lonely because her mother isn't home from work and she will probably hurt herself if somebody doesn't keep her company . . ."

Now that the kids and their trick questions have departed, dinner minus the traveling husband means that, whatever I fix, I will be eating for days on end. It had better be something that I like. To that end, I share with you:

Hobo Meatball Stew

I think the magic in this sweet-tasting stew is (now, don't make me feel bad again) the ketchup. See, it's not just something to smother over burger and (shudder!) eggs, is it? So, maybe there's enough cold weather left in your neck of the woods that one more night of stew will be just the thing.

Over on the Finished Book Pile, we have The Chosen Place, The Timeless People by Paule Marshall. Written in the '60s, this novel portrays Americans sociologists who descend on a Caribbean island bent on lifting the natives out of their poverty and backwardness. I think Ms. Marshall was a Caribbean native, so that tells you right there who the good guys are going to be. The pace ambles along as slow as a steamy tropical afternoon. I read it with a detached feeling until, far into the story, a couple of the them reveal the forces that drive them.

One of the weirdnesses of the book is all the African people living in towns with very British names.

Cow patties? Mostly a few whiffs, but one of 'em is long and uncomfortable and on the Brokeback-Mountain side of things.

Next up, Elizabeth Street by Laurie Fabiano, "a novel based on true events." It reads like a well-done family history, where someone has taken the trouble to set the scene and add dialogue. (Fortunately, unlike many family histories, Fabiano's Italian immigrant forebears lived through some horrific events. Not much fun for them, but great reading for us.)

Now, a well-done family history with scene-setting and dialogue is not quite a well-written novel. Midway through, Fabiano decides to stretch herself and add some plotting. The Black Hand kidnaps a family member (true event, I think) and a couple other family members whet their sleuthing skills a la Nancy Drew. "Whaaaat?" I say as I read on. "This woman is seven months pregnant and she tackles the bad guy? Especially when, two pages ago, she complained that her feet hurt her so bad. And a couple pages later, she's limping home on those bad feet again? This is so improbable!"

Why don't you just read it up to the point where the book goes awry and I'll tell you how the kidnapping turns out?

No cow patties.

Forget the Flowers, Forget the Lacy Card

In case you still haven't thought of anything to give to your sweetie on Valentine's Day, I know that I would think kind thoughts about anyone who gave me a plate full of --

Cookie Dough Truffles

The first time I tried these, I used milk chocolate, then served them to guests. How polite humans can be. Those things were sweet enough to gag on, but my friends never let on with any actual gagging. But they didn't take seconds either.

The candy coating can be as simple as the 1-oz. squares of semisweet chocolate found in the baking aisle. I thought it would have to be something special. My mom used to dip chocolates and they would discolor once they cooled. But my truffles, stored in the refrigerator, stayed a rich chocolate brown. Some leftover chocolate left out at room temperature, though, hardened up and took on pale streaks.

Over on the Finished Book Pile, we have Solar by Ian McEwan.

McEwan's been a pretty hot writer for the last few years. He's the kind of guy that could probably call up Oprah or Larry King (oh, wait. Are those even on anymore?) and get on their shows without having to beg or anything.

In his latest novel, he presents a middle-aged protagonist, Michael Beard, who won the Nobel Prize for physics. But that was long ago, when he was young. He hasn't had an exciting idea in decades. And his fifth marriage is failing. And he's growing a pot belly.

Suddenly, a freak event changes his career luck.

Michael Beard isn't a likable man, but his drily funny misfortunes had me squawking out loud. This is a mild spoof on the panic and do-goodism inspired by global warming.

McEwan's weakness, this time around, is never quite tying up all the plot threads by the final page. But it was a fun ride nonetheless.

Cow patty count is 4 out of 10.