Sunday, July 27, 2014

On Lab Rats

Our lesson this week is:  give the author a chance.

When I opened M. T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing and read the first pages, I wasn't planning to stick with this story of a strangely grown-up-sounding boy surrounded by scholars.  They drill him in Greek and Latin and violin lessons.  They weigh everything he consumes, then weigh again when he excretes.  They exact capricious punishments when he answers a question wrong. 

But young Octavian grew on me.  He and his mother were captured in Africa.  She was royalty.  He has no memory of the old continent.  And now they are essentially lab rats at the Novanglian College of Lucidity.  Well, privileged lab rats.  When the college throws a soiree, the mother acts the hostess.  She's royalty, after all, a shimmering beauty with whom every man would like to converse.   

When the benefactor of the institute dies, a rich young lord from England arrives to examine the premises with a mind to sponsoring these scholars.  He strikes up a flirtation with Octavian's mother and makes her an offer--with a boatload of catches. 

This is Boston, just before the American Revolution.  The colonists' rumble with discontent.  Oh, and fear, too.  They suspect the British may foment a slaves' uprising, whence masters' throats will be slit as they sleep soundly in their beds.

So, no more Greek and Latin for Octavian.  He might get too smart.

Then there is the Pox Party.  Whether for the cause of pure science, or to keep war and soldiers at arms' length, the scientists sequester themselves with a few friends (and their slaves), infect them with a "mild" strain of smallpox, promising to nurse them through it with every modern remedy at their disposal.  This, we are told, is far preferable to getting one's smallpox epidemic-style. They can all play whist and stage evening music salons while they break out in pustules together.

I won't give away any more.

Anyway, for a book that held all the promise of a financial statement, the story sure picked up.

Neither did it hurt to read it while I sat on a fine bench in the town square of one of those charming suburbs that I love so much.  The "village" was having sidewalk sales that day and the streets were full of slim ladies in their yoga pants, shopping bags swinging from their arms as they tried on shirts, or strode past the granite walls of the bank building.  Children played in decorative tufts of prairie grass.  Stroller wheels clattered on the sidewalk bricks.  A couple commuter trains clanged by.  And cicadas sang.

Every town should be like this.  We especially need a version where we don't all have to spend a million or so to buy a house there.

Now that I'm back to ordinary life, operating the ByeByeNesquik College of Recipe Experimentation, it's looks like the lab rats are in for a week of sandwiches.  The fanciest one is BROCCOLI HAM RING.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Cobb Salad of Books

I would just like to know how many Post-It Notes littered Michael Connelly's walls as he worked out the plot to The Brass Verdict. 

We introduced the hero, Mickey Haller, last week.   Remember the man doing all the lawyer homework?  Yes, well, as his movie producer case proceeds to trial, the reader may want to take few notes, just to keep track of the bribes and the double agents and the grainy photos of people with possibly fake mustaches and maybe even the detective that brings Mickey these photos and acts as if he's protecting Mickey from all the murders going around.

I don't know whether to admire an author that can assemble such a Mexican train of surprises, or worry that he has counted up all the plot twists in his competitors' books and vowed to outdo them.

The result is a lot of action swirling around people I didn't care a whole lot about.  But if gets you through a plane ride, well, job security for Mr. Connelly. 

The tossed-in feel of Brass Verdict isn't so much different than what we ate this week.  Some lady in Iowa took a simple piece of chicken and kept adding things.  When you do something like that, how do you know when to stop?  All I know is, I liked it better this week than the first time I fixed it.

After eating this delicious chicken, I opened the microwave the next day and found the bacon still sitting on its greasy paper towel.  

I wonder if Mr. Connelly found a few Post-It Notes he forgot to use in his book. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Big Bucks Homework

At my age, I should be beyond dreaming that I'll be a ballerina or an astronaut when I grow up.  But Michael Connelly's The Brass Verdict has got me imagining that I can be a dandy defense lawyer someday.

That may be a weakness in his story.

His protagonist, Mickey Haller, stepped away from his law practice for awhile.  Something about getting hooked on pills.  Then a colleague turns up murdered and Mickey ends up with the man's entire practice.  First item on the to-do list: defend a movie producer accused of a double murder.

Isn't a lawyer novel supposed to have a lot of leaning against the dark wood of the witness stand and popping surprise witnesses on the prosecutor?  In this story, I'm getting more about Mickey writing stuff on his legal pad, or telling his staff where to meet him for a working lunch. 

It also didn't help that, just before I got serious about digging into the book, I watched a movie about a man taking a dreadfully dangerous business trip.  A movie like that uses up all one's adrenaline.  However, in this case, I saved some for reading Connelly's novel.

But it's all rather procedural, a lot of carrying around files instead of running from guys with knives and bombs.

So, even though Mickey Haller's problems don't have me worried like a weak bladder in a spook alley, at least I'm dabbling in my lawyer fantasies.  Yes, I too could stay late at the office, drawing a time-and-action flowchart of the night of the murders, studying crime scene photographs with a magnifying glass.  This is just homework with big bucks attached to it.  I'm sure I could get up to speed on this.  Although I think I'd stumble big time trying to guess the prosecutor's strategy.

Now, if I stayed late at the office all the time, making those big bucks, I wouldn't have time to make big dinners, would I?  But I might be able to throw together:

I first tasted this at a restaurant called Tom + Chee, where they get creative with grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup (Ooh, another career idea!).   You can order up the basic sandwich, or you can go fancy and add some hummus, or even some macaroni and cheese. 

It's in-a-hurry simple:  Make a salad on your plate.  Besides greens and tomatoes, I think theirs included carrot chips, sliced mushrooms, maybe a few strips of bell pepper.  I'm pretty sure they threw some cucumber in there, too.

Next, make a grilled cheese sandwich.  Cut it up into about sixteen pieces, place it on top of the salad and you will never again feel the same about ordinary croutons.  

Pour on your favorite dressing.  I think French dressing is ideal.  It fits the tomato-soup theme and it looks pretty.

How handy it is, eating my grilled cheese sandwich with a fork.  Keeps me from staining my lawyer files   Kindle with buttery fingers. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Gettin' All Beachy

Pretend with me now:

You have set aside the laundry and the kitchen and messy garage.  You have left behind the big-box stores and the roundabouts and the doctor appointments.  You have traded it all for a tastefully decorated house, the best part of which is that you didn't have to decide where to put the little pots of decorative beach grass, or the artfully-placed conch shells, or the wall hangings that proclaim "At the Shore."

Hopefully, this house is on a shady street in a sleepy town.  Hopefully, it has a settin' porch and no hurricanes to bother you while you sit out there.

What will you do with yourself?   I don't know.  Can you lift a heavy book?  Might you want to try Diana Gabaldon's Outlander Series?  It starts with The Outlander, wherein a World War II nurse visits Scotland with her husband and finds herself tossed back to 1743.  How will she hide all her 20th-century nursey knowledge?  How will she protect herself, all alone in the middle of a bunch of warrior-clansmen?  And how the heck does she get back to her dear modern-day husband?  How long might it take?  What will he think of her absence?  When she returns, might things get a little complicated?  Especially if she were pregnant?

But wait!  Before you get started, maybe you should make a little something to eat.  LAYERED PICNIC LOAVES won't take very long, and these sandwiches are supposed to sit in the fridge for a hour.  So assemble them, then read awhile, then take them off to a picnic, throw away the paper plates and read some more.  You might be up late tonight.  No, let me rephrase that: you will be up late.  (There's cow patties, but between married people.)