29 August 2007

Happiness Sold Separately. Lolly Winston.

I know where I was when I first picked up this book. It was in the new books part of the library, by the 5th Avenue entrance, the place where anyone who felt like taking the elevator up to the little observation platform at the top of the building would have been well placed to spit upon my head.

I know, too, where I read it, at home with my head reclining southward upon a dingy yellow cushion and my feet pointed toward the north, my right hand stretching out to the northeast after snacks and drinks that rested in that direction.

What I do not know, cannot so much as guess at or try to reconstruct, is what made me think it a good idea to remove the book from the library and introduce it into my dwelling.

That is where I went wrong.

18 August 2007

Instant Leftovers

Suppose it to be three o'clock Saturday afternoon when you decide that a good way to occupy the time left before you need to leave for your friend's dinner party would be to clean the refrigerator.

Further suppose that when you look in there you find there are some raw and perilously old chicken breasts sitting there in an old salsa container, and also half a can of skinny bamboo shoots.

You may then find yourself soaking black mushrooms, brewing jasmine tea to chill in a pitcher, and abandoning yourself generally to an Irrational Midafternoon Cooking Frenzy, with the end result that everything will go back into the fridge again, just in slightly altered form, while you conserve stomach space for your friend's chicken paprikash.

In the interim, this is what you will do.

Assemble (amounts approximate):

1 pond cooking oil
1 T Sichuan peppercorns
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/3 c Shaoxing wine
1 t salt
2 T chili bean sauce
3 T minced ginger
2 T soy sauce
1/2 can skinny bamboo shoots
5 rehydrated black mushrooms
1 t cornstarch mixed in water

Slice chicken and marinate in salt and Shaoxing wine. Remove stems from mushrooms, cut caps into narrow strips. Heat oil until quite violently hot. Throw in Sichuan peppercorns. Before they start burning, throw in the chicken, and stir it until it's pretty much white on the outside. Add chili bean sauce and ginger. When the chicken is mostly cooked, put in bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and soy sauce. Cook until flavor has gone into the bamboo shoots and mushrooms, add cornstarch, mix up, and remove from pan.

12 August 2007

Runaway Princess. Kate Coombs.

I somehow thought the princess might run away and meet with great dangers and greater triumphs, but then she ended up addressing small problems in a small way, sort of like Encyclopedia Brown, who (I vaguely recall) solved small mysteries by hopping over short chain-link fences into other people's back yards and cogitating there.

So this book was not as dashing and dramatic as I had hoped, but quite amusing withal. I was particularly pleased with what happened when a bunch of princes got turned into frogs, especially the effect on their battle technique once they found themselves human again.

11 August 2007

The Balloon Man. Charlotte Armstrong.

Many are the charming things about Charlotte Armstrong. One is that her sentences have, sometimes, a certain complexity that is seldom seen these days (or so I think, though I don't read as many mysteries and things as some of my acquaintance) but was perhaps more mass marketable in the 1960s. For instance:

By the time Sherry, having rested an hour, gone back to see Johnny briefly, and taken a bus, rang Mrs. Ivy’s bell (duty bound to thank her once again), it was 4 p.m.

Another is that she can render a baddie strangely sympathetic. She has the generosity of spirit to frame malevolence as the natural outcome of conjoined weakness and lack of imagination--to be combated, certainly; condemned, possibly; but in any case to be compassionated.

This aspect of The Balloon Man did serve, though, to make me admire Kate Atkinson yet more than I already did. In One Good Turn, the baddie appears at first to be but one of many befuddled bystanders, and indeed she is, like everyone else in the story, genuinely confused and surprised by each peculiar turn of events. She seems, in fact, so ordinary and confused that the occasional startlingly cold-hearted thought she is reported as having makes you think not that she is evil but that you yourself are quite normal and unexceptionable in your own evil-thinking ways. And then it turns out . . . well, I guess I won't actually say how it turns out, but that is one bad woman, and you liked her.

04 August 2007