Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Bacon Pepper Bind

In the spirit of my ongoing and updating COVID-19 menu, I invented a new dish yesterday. Self-isolation and sheltering in place mean more slow-roasting; who has the time to leave a roast in the oven for hours on a workday? This time, I've concocted a cross between a jalapeno popper and a turducken.

The Bacon Pepper Bind

  • 1 bell pepper
  • 1 jalapeno
  • 2 bacon strips
  • Cream cheese in enough quantity to line the inside of a bell pepper
  • Pepper and/or other spices to taste (I used cardamom)
  1. Preheat oven to 350. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
  2. Cut the top off the bell pepper. Cut the inside out of the bell pepper so you have a bowl. Punch the stem out of the top of the bell pepper but leave the rest intact so it looks like a ring.
  3. Line the inside of the bell pepper with a thick layer of cream cheese.
  4. Insert the jalapeno (keep it whole) into the cream cheese-lined bell pepper so that the jalapeno’s stem looks like it could be the stem of the bell pepper. If you need to cut part of the jalapeno off to meet this height requirement, do so as necessary.
  5. Put the bell pepper ring on top of the jalapeno. At this point, you should have what looks like a whole bell pepper with a conspicuous-looking stem.
  6. Wrap the bacon strips around the bell pepper so that it is mostly covered. Ensure that there is bacon sealing the cut you made during step 2 above.
  7. Place the bacon-wrapped, stuffed bell pepper onto the foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 45 minutes or until bacon is crispy.
  8. Let sit for 2–3 minutes before serving. It should be steaming at this point. Enjoy!

You can also find this recipe in a Quora answer I wrote yesterday.

Coincidentally, the sunset from my balcony was roughly the colour of my cooking:

In the spirit of this blog, and my predisposition to assign rankings and ratings,

Ease of Cooking: 8
Nutritional Content: 5*

*The bacon and cream cheese add fat, including saturated fat, but the bacon pepper bind is gluten-free and effectively no-carb. I also used Longo's in-store-made light cream cheese, for whatever fat content that saves. The bell pepper and jalapeno, of course, are as healthy as can be.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Bonus Book! Call of the Wild

Call of the Wild by Jack London
Literature (1903 - 83 pp.*)

In Call of the Wild, Buck, a St. Bernard/Scottish shepherd mix, is kidnapped from his home in Santa Clara to be sold up north as a sled dog in Alaska and Yukon during the 1897 gold rush. Buck is sold numerous times, from French-Canadian prospectors Francois and Perrault, to incompetent fortune-seekers Hal and Charles, to John Thornton. Finally, in one of the few spoilers I will ever deliver on this blog, Buck finds that he belongs with a wolf pack in the wild despite being a lifelong pet with not a drop of wolf blood in him.

People new to Call of the Wild, perhaps from the movie released earlier this year, will probably be surprised while reading this book. According to the Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus of the 2020 film, "It's undermined by distracting and unnecessary CGI, but this heartwarming Call of the Wild remains a classic story affectionately told." Much as I compared White Fang to a slasher movie back in 2012, Call of the Wild has some gory scenes, such as the brutal gang murder of Curly early on, or when Buck and his fellow sled dogs fend off some starving, mangy mutts who are after their meat: "Buck got a frothing adversary by the throat, and was sprayed with blood when his teeth sank through the jugular. The warm taste of it in his mouth goaded him to greater fierceness." (218) The scene in the book in which a sled, its passengers and its dogs fall through the ice, killing them all, (250) is a less bloody but no less evocative vision of doom in Jack London's world. (Buck was supposed to be pulling that sled, but John Thornton bought him just in time. The whole scene has a Dion DiMucci during "The Day the Music Died" feel to it.) Buck's killing spree near the end of the book goes unsaid; this apparently was omitted from the new Disney movie.

Like any good dog, Buck responds to Pavlovian conditioning. He initially fails to understand why he is being clubbed, which obviously never happened at his house in Santa Clara, but learns quickly. Later in the book, when he is hungry for a slab of bacon, he takes it when the prospector's back is turned and then lets a less cunning dog take the blame. Buck is most upfront about his learning process when he sees the other dogs keeping warm by burrowing in the snow: "Another lesson. So that was the way they did it, eh?" (210) Buck applies his lessons when his rival, Spitz, is the one receiving the clubbing instead of him.

Buck's lessons turn him wild, in his observations, in his traits, and even in the way his fur feels to the touch. In an uncharacteristic one-liner, London notes: "Mercy was a thing reserved for gentler climes." (228) In contrast to Santa Clara, where Buck was the ruler of the demesne (London's word) and the other dogs seemed barely capable of pulling a popsicle stick wagon, the Klondike turns Buck into a literal ball of energy: "When Thornton passed a caressing hand along his back, a snapping and crackling followed the hand, each hair discharging its pent magnetism at the contact." (270) Buck is shown to be faster and smarter than huskies who had spent their entire lives up north. In these few tender moments, Buck is a true companion, a cross between a pet and a sentinel. London anthropomorphizes Buck most when Buck processes the outside world in a way no other dog can: "Buck possessed a quality that made for greatness - imagination." (228)

My favourite part of Call of the Wild, a scene I'd never heard discussed, is when John Thornton bets on Buck being the strongest dog in the town. Other prospectors bet on their dogs being able to pull 500, 600 or even 700 pounds on a sled; Thornton, in a fit of enthusiasm, bets that Buck can pull 1,000 pounds. (Thornton's overenthusiasm is evident in his failure to bet on 750 or 800. If you ever have a chance to select a teammate for The Price Is Right, don't pick John Thornton.) London tracks each inch of Buck's Herculean effort to pull the sacks of flour. (259-262) The whole time, the reader is spirited away from the harshness of the wild and cold in order to root for Buck.

Eight years later, finally returning to Jack London was even more fun than I thought it would be. Call of the Wild is an extremely fast read, clocking in at about an hour and a half for me, including a break to get my morning coffee. London is nowhere near what 2020 audiences would call politically correct, especially in his treatment of the Yeehats, although in the world of Buck, virtually everyone except him or Thornton is a bad guy anyway. The north is cold and isolating, but a dog like Buck, part hero, part victim, part avenger, finds his home there.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 2

*My edition of Call of the Wild is a two-part compendium that also includes White Fang (1906), which I reviewed back in 2012. Call of the Wild's pages run from 195-278.

2020 has been a fun year for this blog so far. In keeping with my tradition of not reviewing the same author twice in the same calendar year, I've accidentally punted or forgotten some of my favourite authors. During the venerable Book a Week of 2012, I last read H.G. Wells (In the Days of the Comet) and first read Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; I also read The Restaurant at the End of the Universe in 2018).

Last month, I read Life, the Universe and Everything, raising my Douglas Adams count to 3. Earlier this month, I read The Food of the Gods, raising my H.G. Wells count to many more than that, although most of my Wells reading far predates this blog.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

April's Book: The Post-Office Girl

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
Literature (1982/2008* - 257 pp.)

The Post-Office Girl follows the life of Christine Hoflehner (b. 1898), a young woman in interwar Austria who lives with her mother in poverty after the family business collapses during World War I. Christine's life is forever changed by an invitation by her mercurial and largely absent aunt, a former dress model who has moved to America and married into money. They vacation together in Switzerland in Part One, after which Christine can no longer be content at the post-office again. Curmudgeonly in her home village in Part Two, where everyone takes note, she soon meets Ferdinand, who may be the love of her life - or play a different role entirely.

One of Zweig's immediate strengths is the way he builds the dark, crushing atmosphere of provincial Austria during and directly after World War I. Only two hours outside Vienna, the veneration of the Habsburgs and the cult of militarism are absent, whereas the reader feels each vivid family crisis: Christine's father's illness and destitution, her brother being drafted, and then, especially, the ominous letter from her brother's commander on the front lines. Much of the first thirty pages discusses the robbery of Christine's childhood, how she brims with simultaneous contempt and jealousy at the carefree nature of the postwar generation, how she feels, at age 28, like her only missions are to work her loathsome job at the post office and to care for her ill mother.

Then her aunt Klara invites her to Switzerland for a vacation. Christine is initially intimidated by the high society she encounters when she leaves the train: "Once shame touches your being at any point, even the most distant nerve is implicated". (36) After Christine's return from Switzerland, her old appearance revolts her to the point that she does not know how she could have ever endured it before: "She got up furiously, got dressed furiously: the old underthings, the repulsive black dress." (153)

A wardrobe and a makeover later, though, she sees herself as their equal because she can look like the people she meets at the hotel. She undergoes a 1930s-era version of What Not to Wear, in which Klara refits her, and then she feels alive: "Now the eyes are quite openly and proudly laughing at her, and the parted red lips seem to acknowledge with amusement: 'Yes, I am beautiful.'" (55) Christine's lack of experience in luxury settings shows when her gambling victory initially confuses her, (80-81) but she also forgets to check her mail from home, showing that she is not succeeding in either of her worlds. The irony that Christine's slight improvement in life upon returning home is due to her gambling winnings is not lost on her.

The greatest question The Post-Office Girl asks, though, is: Who am I? Much as anyone who's taken a high school English course has heard that William Shakespeare mastered "the human condition", Zweig constantly forces his characters to consider their own identities. In turn, the reader does too. In Switzerland, Christine becomes so consumed by discovering how she relates to her suitors, clothes and new name of Christiana van Boolen that "She's discovered herself for the first time in twenty-eight years, and the discovery is so intoxicating she's forgetting everyone else." (91)

When Christine meets thirty-year-old Ferdinand, he is wondering the same thing about himself. He concludes, and she agrees, that staking his own place in life is all that will satisfy him:
Christine was taken aback. The man beside her had just said what she'd been thinking all this time; he'd expressed clearly what she'd dully felt - the wish to be given one's due, not to take anything from anyone, but to have some kind of life, not to be left out in the cold forever while the others were warm inside. (184)
Ferdinand's words near the end of the book show the choice he has to make,** that Christine, by being with him, has to make as well. Whether Christine is at home in her village, which she hates, or in Switzerland at the whim of her aunt and uncle, she is either in thrall to her precarious finances or to the opinions of everyone around her. Ferdinand directly, correctly, associates accomplishment with making one's own decisions:
There [the world] was, so bright and beautiful, so full of warm and sunny life, and there I was, still fairly young and quick and spirited. I reckoned everything up and asked myself what I'd actually accomplished in this world, and the answer was painful. Sad to say, I haven't acted or thought for myself at all. (239)
Zweig's wordsmithing is crisp and witty, especially during Christine's introspections, but parts of the book are dragged down in exposition. A discussion of the future of socialism dominates a portion of Part Two, to the point that after page 191, there is no paragraph break until page 194. Opening the book to pages 192-193 reveals a perfectly rectangular block of text, which would be difficult enough in a science textbook but is eye-popping in fiction.

Sadly, Zweig was never able to see The Post-Office Girl's legacy. Although he wrote The Post-Office Girl in the 1930s, it was not published until 1982, forty years after his death. It has lived on most notably in Wes Anderson's 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is one of my favourite movies of all time.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 4

*I use a double publication date whenever I review a translation. The first date is the original publication; the second date is the English-language edition I'm reading. Recently, I have reviewed three other Central European translations:
My German and Polish are nowhere near advanced enough to read full-length texts like those, especially not an academic history text, so I greatly appreciate the work of the translators whose affinity for multiple languages brings these great works to life for English-speaking audiences.

Aside: All three fiction translations I've read in the past thirteen months take place in the 1920s, at least in part, although all three were written in subsequent decades. After World War I but before the Great Depression, the 1920s left an indelible mark on fiction across continents.

**As much as I would love to write about this part of the book in more detail, I would be violating my (almost) no spoiler policy. I was stunned by the book's last few pages. I hope future readers are just as surprised by the twist as I was.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Happy Earth Day! With Comets and Monkeys!

Once again, April 22nd is Earth Day.

Happy Earth Day!

If there are two things to share, they're uplifting nature photos and wacky environment-related news stories.

I took all of the below pictures today.

Conifers in the background

CNET is reporting that Borisov, a comet, is "strange": Interstellar comet, visiting from deep space, is stranger than we thought

Both studies [Hubble and ALMA] show Borisov is extremely rich in carbon monoxide. It's not strange to find carbon monoxide in a comet, but the levels seen by Hubble and ALMA are off the charts, measuring about three times higher than comets from our home solar system. Because carbon monoxide only freezes at extremely cold temperatures, the research teams suggest it likely formed at the dark, outer edges of a distant star system before being flung toward us.
Comets in our solar system are extremely rare, but we're lucky enough to see Borisov as it enters our solar system, meaning we should be able to see its entire sojourn here. That makes me want to dust off my old telescope...

Rushing river

The month's worth of news on how COVID-19-related self-isolation measures have diminished air pollution appears to have come to a head. Fewer people on the streets also means more wildlife on the streets, as the Associated Press reports: As people stay home, Earth gets wilder and cleaner

As people across the globe stay home to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, the air has cleaned up, albeit temporarily. Smog stopped choking New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world, and India’s getting views of sights not visible in decades. Nitrogen dioxide pollution in the northeastern United States is down 30%. Rome air pollution levels from mid-March to mid-April were down 49% from a year ago. Stars seem more visible at night.

People are also noticing animals in places and at times they don't usually. Coyotes have meandered along downtown Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. A puma roamed the streets of Santiago, Chile. Goats took over a town in Wales. In India, already daring wildlife has become bolder with hungry monkeys entering homes and opening refrigerators to look for food.
As someone who lives in an upper-floor apartment, I have no worry about my building being taken over by goats. My fridge is full, though, thanks to the magic of online grocery ordering, so I may have to monkey-proof.

Macro needles!

Happy Earth Day again.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The COVID-19 Menu So Far

I've been self-isolated for a month today. I haven't entered a store in that time. (Hooray for online groceries!) I haven't been on public transit in that time. Some days, I go little farther than the dumpster outside my apartment building.

I've been reading extensively, although I've only written one review so far. (More to come! Soon!) 

What I have done is cook a lot more recipes that need time to bake, roast, simmer or otherwise absorb all their great flavours. The advantages of being stuck at home...

Chicken leg with okra and maple BBQ seasoning:

Hot dogs with sautéed onions, Dijon mustard and sriracha:

Schnitzel with brown butter sauce:

Moroccan lentil and rice soup:

Cheese dreams:

Bacon mac 'n' cheese:

Black bean curry soup:

May your social distancing be tasty!

Sunday, April 5, 2020

March's Book: Bring the Jubilee

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore
Alternate History (1953 - 199 pp.)

Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee takes the reader on a wild ride through alternate time: the South wins the Civil War (to the characters, "the War of Southron Independence"), the North becomes an oppressed backwater, abolitionist characters have to hide their views, World War I is drastically different, and Germany (the "German Union") and Spain become superpowers, with a German-Spanish war set to occur at some unknown future date. As if this were not jarring enough, our protagonist, Hodge Backmaker, endures a series of bizarre events including a mugging, six years as a bookseller's assistant punctuated by frequent philosophical discussions, and then over a decade in the Haggershaven think tank, where he obtains permission to use a time machine that he uses to go back to the Civil War. The best summary of the book is its opening line, which is arguably the greatest opening line in mid-20th-century American literature:
Although I am writing this in the year 1877, I was not born until 1921. (1)
Throughout Bring the Jubilee, Moore's characters grapple with the ethics of the alternate world. Backmaker's dissatisfaction with the current (i.e. independent South) order foreshadows his eventual time travel: “Spectator? Why not? Spectators had no difficult decisions to make.” (43) In traveling through time to change history, Backmaker becomes the ultimate participant. Moore, through Backmaker, also praises the value of general knowledge, which was not lost upon the contemporary community of World War II veterans and general business managers: “Specialisation, the division of labour, is certainly not cheap in anything but dollars and cents, and not always then.” (106) The Southern victory, and its attendant survival of slavery, leads America down a race-obsessed path that Moore could see, in our timeline, in Jim Crow laws: “Only the Americans, in the United States and the Confederate States, too, judge everything by colour.” (147) Bring the Jubilee succeeds in alternate history in that it shows the real world (true events) through the telling of a fantastical, non-existent timeline (false events).

Events in the alternate universe between the Civil War and Backmaker's birth are believable and safe rather than distracting from the novel's main points. Although William Jennings Bryan becoming President of the United States is realistic in Moore's alternate timeline, as the Republican Party would no doubt have gone into hibernation if the South had won the Civil War, it is completely unexplained why Bryan's first term would begin in 1896 rather than in 1900. (173) Bryan (Nebraska), William McKinley (Ohio) and Grover Cleveland (New Jersey) were all from the North. Similarly, although Spain as a 20th-century superpower seems farfetched to us now, the lack of a powerful United States means that the Spanish-American War never happens, which combines with Spanish neutrality in World War I to create an at least somewhat plausibly more powerful Spanish Empire: “He [the Spanish diplomat] had patiently pointed out that a Spanish subject was a citizen of a wealthier nation than the United States; as an heiress she could enjoy the luxuries and distractions of Madrid or Havana and eventually make a suitable marriage.” (141)

The failure of the alternate history United States is reflected in the failure of its institutions, a concept that in 1953, when Bring the Jubilee hit the market, would have been utterly terrifying. Moore anticipates later non-fiction authors in having Backmaker's friend and sometime romantic interest Barbara decry the state of American higher education: “The colleges have not only decayed, they have decayed faster than other institutions. They are mere hollow shells, ruined ornaments of the past.” (89-90) If you ascribe to the view William Deresiewicz takes in Excellent Sheep (2014), Moore's line is not alternate history at all. Similarly, as the North is humiliatingly poor but proud to the end, a customer in Roger Tyss's bookshop notes about the poor Northerners: “Necessity makes ‘em have a lottery; Puritanism keeps ‘em from buying tickets.” (67)

As a book of alternate history, Moore meta-analyzes his own work by discussing the nature of historiography itself. An alternate Henry James, who appears as a UK citizen in the court of a fictitious King William V, embraces the sort of nihilism one might expect if the nascent United States had been smashed in the Civil War: "'History,' said Sir Henry [James], who had renounced his United States citizenship and been knighted by William V, 'history is never directed or diverted by well-intentioned individuals; it is the product of forces with geographical, not moral, roots.'" (38) This sentiment reflects Backmaker at the beginning of the novel: a drifting youth who is desperately searching for purpose. Moore later combines philosophy with foreshadowing when he tips off the reader as to the immensely difficult task awaiting Backmaker, to travel in time back to the Civil War: “There are no shortcuts in writing history.” (160)

Backmaker's romantic interests needle him profusely, but sometimes Backmaker needles them back.* Tirzah Vame, one of the earliest friends Backmaker makes upon his arrival in New York City, demonstrates a cynical attitude toward money and one-upmanship. When Backmaker tries to divert her from operating as a paid companion to the few wealthy New Yorkers who remain, she rebuffs him:
“There are other things besides money.”
She [Tirzah] drew away. “That’s what those who can’t get it always say.” (48)
During one of the Haggershaven scenes, when Barbara decides not to write a book, Backmaker's response is hilarious and insightful. As those of us who have written unpublished novels can attest, book writing is not a financially secure endeavour. Backmaker goes one step further in decrying the waste of writing materials:
‘Hodge,’ she [Barbara] said, her grey eyes greenish with excitement, ‘I’m not going to write a book.’
‘That’s nice,’ I answered idly. ‘Saves paper, time, ink.’ (149)
Backmaker marries another of Haggershaven's residents, Catalina "Catty" Garcia, a shy but extremely intelligent woman a few years younger than him. When they confess their love for each other, a moment that figures prominently in Backmaker's memoirs, he notes: “The shock of desire was a weight on my chest, expelling the air from my lungs.” (145) One of the book's tragedies, of which there are many, is that travelling back in time costs Backmaker the rest of his married life.**

One of Moore's underappreciated talents is his ability to invent characters' names. Surnames like Pondible and Backmaker sound realistic, but a Google search of either shows no one with either last name; accordingly, no real-life reader can have that name. A Back-maker is apparently "a trade useful to brewers", according to Malachy Postlethwayt's The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, Volume 1 (1774), though. For those less inclined toward complete fabrication, this list of extinct surnames is useful for everything from good uses like writing novels to bad uses like making fake IDs (or, if you agree with Backmaker, writing novels).

Moore's influence is felt, as in other places, in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), Another scenario I've looked at on here include Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt (2002). What all these authors do is say "how would people respond to living in a world that, for some key reason, is radically different from our own?" In The Man in the High Castle, the mechanics of how Germany and Japan partition the United States are irrelevant; what is important is the way in which they, as well as the Americans and the British, all act so reprehensibly that the reader is left queasy about the Americans' attitudes toward dropping the bomb. The Man in the High Castle is about moral relativism, not U-boat strike capabilities. In The Years of Rice and Salt, reincarnation occurs as an obvious alternative when most of Christian civilization is wiped out; precisely how the Black Death kills 99% of Europe is beyond the point. Similarly, if the South winning the Civil War in Bring the Jubilee seems unrealistic, consider that the other main storyline involves time travel. I, personally, view time travel as less realistic than the South winning the Civil War, but to each their own. The fact that the HX-1 time machine's physics are completely unexplained (165) is an asset, not a liability; the reader's focus remains on the ethical and political struggles the characters face.

The only qualm I have with Bring the Jubilee is how late in the novel Backmaker travels through time. The stunning visuals of the Civil War battlefield are relegated to the last 10% of the book, which spends far more time in Tyss's bookshop and Haggershaven. Although the characters' philosophical debates challenge the reader, the reader is left to eventually wonder: "When will we see the Civil War already?" much like a child during a long car ride asking "Are we there yet?" Backmaker's seemingly trivial actions during this time alter the course of history irreparably, locking him into the past, and leading to Backmaker's observation that shows at once the climax and the denouement:
A poisoned continent, an inheritance of hate. Because of me. (193)
Read in 2020, Bring the Jubilee becomes even more labyrinthine. Hodge Backmaker is born in an alternate 1921, lives out the years 1921-1952 in an impoverishment rump state, then turns an alternate 1863 into our actual 1863, and then, finally, writes his memoirs in the real 1877. When Bring the Jubilee was published, a real-life Hodge Backmaker was the age I am now. Backmaker in an alternate 2020, if he had somehow missed the opportunity to travel through time, would be almost a century old, writing memoirs of a world we could barely fathom but that, in some small way, would remind us of our own.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 1***

*The arch-example of romantic needling is probably F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, which was released during the same year Ward Moore turned 17. I have not seen any extant interview or diary in which Moore notes having read This Side of Paradise, but the latter's jittery banter would not be a surprising influence on Moore. Contrast Philip K. Dick openly discussing Bring the Jubilee in the acknowledgments to the first edition of The Man in the High Castle.

**Contrast Richard Matheson's Somewhere in Time (1975/1980), in which the protagonist has a doomed love life in 1971 but meets the love of his life almost immediately upon traveling back to 1896. It is highly likely Matheson read Bring the Jubilee, as Matheson's "Born of Man and Woman" and Bring the Jubilee itself were both published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in the early '50s.

***Alternate history is, by definition, the one genre in which the author must be describing falsehoods. While other genres may include events that are wildly unrealistic, the question What if reality were different? presupposes events that have a probability of zero. This leads to the conclusion that realistic-seeming, but false, past events have the same probability (zero) as fantastical past events. For example, I didn't go grocery shopping yesterday, rendering the phrase "I went grocery shopping yesterday" completely, 100% false. I also didn't ride a dragon yesterday. The phrases "I went grocery shopping yesterday" and "I rode a dragon yesterday" are equally false regardless of how likely they might have been if I'd been able to run a hundred simulations of my life. Real life isn't a series of simulations, though; it only gets one iteration. Keep that in mind when you read alternate history. Even the most realistic possible deviation from the course is just as likely as dragons.