Monday, September 26, 2011

"The Cut" by George Pelecanos.

I like to read mysteries and crime fiction.  I've read a lot of books in these categories.  A lot.

Some years ago I developed a hypothesis that if a character was killed in the first three pages of a book (and preferably on the first), then the book would be exciting.  If not, then the story would drag.  In testing this hypothesis over the years it has sometimes been proven wrong, but many times it is correct.  In the case of The Cut the hypothesis proved correct:   No one died on time and the book dragged for me.

The Cut begins with the protagonist, Washington D.C. investigator Spero Lucas, meeting with his occasional employer, criminal defense attorney Tom Peterson.  Peterson is defending a juvenile who is accused of stealing a car.  He hires Lucas to look into the matter and find an angle for the defense.  After Lucas successfully solves that problem, he subsequently accepts a job from the juvenile's dad.  The dad is a large-scale marijuana dealer named Anwan Hawkins.  Hawkins is in jail awaiting trial but still running his business.  He asks Lucas to discover who has been stealing bundles of his product.

While Spero works on the case for Hawkins, he takes time to have dinner with his mom, visit his dad's grave site, talk to a school group about his experiences as a solider in Iraq, hook up with different women, go to bars, etc.  This is not gripping reading material.  It is, as they say, a yawn.  And when the plot does ramp-up a bit later in the book it was too late for me.

The Cut isn't a bad book; it is an adequate way to pass the time on a airplane.  However, I want more than that from mysteries and crime fiction.  Life is short and reading time is limited.  I want books to be absorbing, exciting, transporting.  So with respect to mysteries and crime fiction, I'm going to keep looking for books that have word of a murder in the first three pages.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Cook Book Look: "Slow Cooker Revolution" from America's Test Kitchen.

What is the 'revolution' in Slow Cooker Revolution?  It is that, with effort, a variety of outstanding meals can be prepared using a slow cooker.  Surprised?  I was.

After owning a slow cooker for years, I had concluded that it is of limited utility in making good food.  Yes, it worked great for certain cuts of meat.  For example, in a slow cooker the large amount of collagen in a beef roast is slowly and perfectly broken down, allowing the meat to tenderize and develop delicious flavor.  I've also successfully used my slow cooker to prepare apples when making apple butter, and in cooking certain side dishes such as beans.  Experiments preparing meals in a slow cooker beyond these areas have resulted in unimpressive dishes.  As a friend once remarked, "Everything out of the slow cooker tastes the same." Yes.  And that sameness could be summed up in one way:  Meh.

Enter Slow Cooker Revolution, produced by the fastidious team at America's Test Kitchen.  This book offers an array of recipes, suitable for a slow cooker, that taste fantastic.  I prepared four dishes from the book.  The first, Chicken Bouillabaisse, was outstanding even with my substitution of a dash of vermouth for the quarter cup of pastis called for in the recipe.  There were a few minor wrinkles in the preparation.  For example, the recipe calls for various vegetables, including minced garlic, to be sauteed in a skillet for 8 to 10 minutes.  Not only did the cooking time seem a bit too long, but in my experience minced garlic should be added only for the last minute or two of sauteing to prevent it from turning into burnt bits.  Additionally, the recipe called for 3 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs.  That is an enormous amount of chicken!  I used one pound and kept the remainder of the recipe the same.  It was great.  (The other three recipes I tried were without such wrinkles).

As you may have inferred from my experience with the Chicken Bouillabaisse, there are more ingredients and more steps in preparing many of the recipes in Slow Cooker Revolution than are typically thought of in slow cooker cooking.  The Chicken Bouillabaisse requires 16 ingredients, plus the sauteing and microwaving of different items before placing them in the cooker.  The Italian Stuffed Bell Peppers, which were the best stuffed peppers I have ever prepared, uses 15 different ingredients and also calls for use of the microwave.  Farm Stand Tomato Sauce - fantastic - needs 11 ingredients and use of a microwave.  Even the Irish Oatmeal preparation calls for an added step:  the oats are lightly toasted in a skillet with butter before being placed in the cooker.  (Yes, the oatmeal was great).  In other words, if your idea of slow cooker cooking is putting meat into the cooker, dumping a can of condensed soup on top, and then leaving for work, then this may not be the book for you.

However, if you look at the slow cooker as a tool, rather than simply a time saver, and are willing to put in more effort, then buy Slow Cooker Revolution.  The recipes I tested produced great tasting food.  I'm looking forward to trying more.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

NYT's Marilyn Stasio Reviews "Black Diamond", a New Book by Martin Walker.

Author Martin Walker has a new book available in his mystery series set in the French countryside and featuring Police Chief Bruno Courreges.  The book, Black Diamond, received a brief review from Marilyn Stasio in her column for the New York Times Sunday Book Review.  Get the link to Ms. Stasio's column here.

I've read and enjoyed the first two books in this series, Bruno, Chief of Police and Dark Vineyard and will definitely check out Black Diamond.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Read "The Sisters Brothers" by Patrick Dewitt. It's dryly humorous, sad, and hopeful. Not bad for a Western!

Think you won't enjoy reading a Western?  Well, I think you'll like this one.  Although involving violent characters, The Sisters Brothers is dryly funny and has a contemporary vibe.  If you like the movie Fargo by Joel and Ethan Coen, you'll probably enjoy reading The Sisters Brothers.

The story takes place in 1851 and is narrated by Eli Sisters.  Eli and his older brother Charlie are widely renown for their murderous ways.  They work work for a rich man called the Commodore.  The Commodore has directed the brothers to travel from Oregon City to the northern California area to find a gold miner named Hermann Kermit Warm.  When they find Warm, the brothers are to extract from him details about his mysterious "formula" and then kill him.

Two elements make this murder-for-hire story offbeat and interesting.  First, author Patrick Dewitt populates the brutal California gold rush scene with interesting, and often sad, characters who are swept into and under the mania.  From miners gone loco by their isolation, to a booming San Francisco where merchants look to capitalize on the gold boom, Dewitt creates a memorable landscape. 

Second, the relationship between the brothers is interesting.  Eli and Charlie have each other's back, even while being sometimes brusque with, annoyed by, or just tired of the other.  Eli is dissatisfied with their lives.  He would  prefer to be a store keeper, misses his mother, and hopes one day to find someone who loves him. "I am not any one thing," he says.

When the brothers finally track down Hermann Kermit Warm, Eli's changing view on what they are doing with their lives causes them to pause:  Should they they finish the job, or do something else?

It's a good story that moves along at a brisk pace.  The Sisters Brothers is recommended reading.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sunday Poetry

Sunday morning is a good time to read and contemplate a poem.  Today I'm feeling a bit melancholy, thinking about ending-times, and the inevitability of loss and change.  Theodore Roethke's poem The Waking fits my mood.   It's a poem I like to read out loud:  "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.  I learn by going where I have to go."

Here's the link to the poem.  What do you make of it?