Book Review: In Winter’s Kitchen

Book Review: In Winter’s Kitchen by Beth Dooley

When Beth Dooley first moved to Minneapolis from New Jersey in 1979, she was dismayed by the poor selection of fresh food in the commercial supermarket.  She’d heard that Minnesota was a farm state, yet the wilted vegetables and sallow fruit seemed to come from somewhere else entirely.  But soon Ms. Dooley discovered the Farmer’s Market and other local food sources.  The first Thanksgiving in her new home wasn’t quite up to snuff, but since then she’s learned how to cook for a cold climate.

In Winter's Kitchen
“It’s the Circle of Food….”

Beth Dooley is a food writer who’s published six cookbooks and often guests on public radio.  She obviously loves cooking and writing about food.  There’s many sense words in the descriptions of land and ingredients, which makes this book mouth-watering.

The emphasis is on local food sourcing for the Upper Midwest, concentrating on Minnesota and western Wisconsin.  Each chapter focuses on an ingredient for a Thanksgiving feast, from apples to wild rice (and not forgetting the turkey.)  Along the way, she talks about relevant subjects from organic and sustainable farming through urban gardens to Native American rights.

There are tales of the friends Ms. Dooley has met during her searches, many of them independent farmers and small business owners who are struggling to get by.  She also frequently puts in stories of her family as well.   There’s also quite a bit of politics, which may come as a surprise to people who aren’t foodies, but is inescapable when you talk about locally sourced food.

One subtext that struck me is that Beth Dooley has always been well enough off that she could afford to pay a little extra for the better ingredients, and to take the extra time and effort to find them and make meals from scratch.  This perspective may rub people who work two full-time jobs and struggle even to pay for basics the wrong way.  She’s not concerned with “feeding the world” so much as doing well for the future of local “real” food.

After the main text are a number of yummy-looking recipes suitable for Thanksgiving, end notes and a list of books for further reading, all with a more personal touch than strictly scholarly.

Aside from some redundancy which suggests the chapters first appeared as a series elsewhere, the writing is top-notch.

Strongly recommended to foodies who have an interest in locally-sourced food, Minnesotans, and those interested in finding out where their food comes from.

And here’s a video of the author demonstrating how to shape Christmas bread:

Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

Manga Review: Ranma 1/2

Manga Review: Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi

Soun Tendou, a widowed martial arts instructor in the Nerima suburb of Tokyo, has three daughters: gentle Kasumi, cunning Nabiki and fiery Akane.  They are surprised to learn one day that their father made an agreement with his old friend Genma Saotome to marry one of them to Genma’s son Ranma.   Akane is unimpressed with the old-fashioned idea of an arranged marriage, especially as it turns out Mr. Tendou has never actually seen Ranma and knows nothing about him.

Ranma 1/2 1-2

Imagine their surprise when a panda shows up at their door with a young girl in tow, who claims her name is Ranma Saotome!  Akane immediately takes to her fellow martial artist, who is endearingly shy.  However, when Akane walks in on Ranma in the bathtub, it turns out he’s male after all!   Also, the panda is actually Genma Saotome.  A  couple of months ago, the two of them fell into cursed pools in a training exercise gone horribly wrong.  As a result, they change forms when splashed with cold water, returning to normal when exposed to hot water.

Soun decides that the engagement is still on, so Kasumi and Nabiki immediately dump the arrangement on Akane.  Citing Akane’s difficulties with boys, Nabiki points out that Ranma is a girl some of the time.  Akane objects, and Ranma makes a rude remark that gets him hit with a table.

The engagement stands, and the quarrelsome couple must learn to deal with each other while coping with other transformees, wacky martial artists, a love dodecahedron  and the continuing fallout of Genma and Soun’s terrible life choices.

This romantic martial arts comedy manga ran in Shonen Sunday from 1987-1996, and spawned an anime series, several movies and OAVs, and relatively recently a live-action TV film.  It (particularly the anime) was a gateway series for many American fans in the early 1990s.

Much of the comedy in the series comes from the fact that Ranma is a very macho young man, who is exaggeratedly masculine and often trapped in a short, busty girl’s body.   Raised in relative isolation by his none-too-socially-ept father, Ranma has heroic instincts but is rude and uncultured, often setting off Akane with unthinking insults.  Over the course of the series, Ranma learns how to use his female form to his advantage, but never fully reconciles himself to it or the social role it’s supposed to play.

Akane also struggles with social roles.  She’s very attractive (though you will need to take the story’s word for it) which has caused her problems with boys and other perverts, and exacerbated her hair-trigger temper.  She’s amazingly bad at most traditional feminine domestic skills, and her best strong point, her martial arts ability, is routinely overshadowed by Ranma and his opponents.  Since both the main characters are stubborn and cantankerous, even as they slowly fall in love they can’t admit it.

It should be noted here that most of the people in this series are jerks to one degree or another.  Much of the nonsense that drives Ranma and Akane apart even as they draw closer together could have been avoided if someone hadn’t decided to be a jerk at the wrong moment.   Even normally adorable Kasumi has her off moments.

Overall, the series is a lot of fun, with enjoyable art, funny jokes and silly characters.  And once in a while some tense action.  Like many long-runners, it sags some in the middle (the “introduce new wacky character” gimmick only works so many times) and the ending doesn’t really resolve anything.  But hey, it’s a comedy.

Given the premise, there’s quite a lot of nudity in the series; if your child is too young to be shown that girls have nipples, they’re too young to be reading this.  (One of the running jokes is that Ranma has no body modesty.)

More problematic is that “girls hitting boys that make them angry, even by accident, is hilarious” is driven into the ground in this series.  Akane is the worst offender, being the female lead, but most of the other girls are just as awful proportionate to their screen time.  Even by the 1990s, social attitudes were shifting, and by now it can make for some uncomfortable reading.  Also, some of the things Genma does to Ranma as “martial arts training” would get him arrested for child abuse, and the perverted old master Happosai is treated as an annoyance rather than a sexual offender.

The series does not so much deconstruct Japanese gender roles so much as poke them repeatedly with a sharp stick.

The anime is also good (and has a lot of nice music) but relies heavily on filler (episodes that are anime-only and often have continuity issues) and ends when Ranma’s long-lost mother shows up (about 2/3rds of the way through.)  Later season have poorer animation quality as production was moved to cheaper studios.

Viz originally brought Ranma 1/2 over using the flipped-artwork process to make it read left-to-right; between that and their then deliberately slow release of volumes, it took forever to come out in the U.S. (so the anime was a bigger influence on the fanfiction.)  It’s now being reprinted in the otaku-friendly right-to-left format, with each volume containing two of the Japanese volumes.

In Volume 1-2, the one to hand, the main characters are introduced.  Ranma is assigned to the same school as Akane, and we meet Dr. Tofuu (a practitioner of traditional Japanese medicine and Akane’s first crush) and Tatewaki Kunou, the belligerent and amorous upperclassman who’s done the most to cause Akane’s attitude towards boys.   Kunou starts a feud with male Ranma while falling in love with female Ranma (this does not stop him hitting on Akane, and Kunou never fully grasps that the two Ranmas are the same person.)

Just as it looks like Ranma and Akane’s relationship might be warming up, Ranma’s martial arts rival Ryouga appears.  Although he’s very strong, Ryouga has a terrible sense of direction, and is cursed to turn into a cute little piglet.  Ryouga blames Ranma for that last thing (for the wrong reasons)  and is bent on  revenge.  He also falls in love with Akane.  In this first story arc, Ryouga is a clear “heel” but eventually has the most positive character development of anyone in the series.

Ranma and Ryouga have reached something of a stalemate when a new challenger appears, Kodachi Kunou (sister of Tatewaki), who is a mistress of Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics and plays very dirty.   After she cripples the Fuurinkan High gymnastics team, Akane is called in to save their honor.  Too bad she doesn’t know anything about rhythmic gymnastics!  A teacher appears, but Kodachi is determined to end the match before it begins….

Highly recommended to fans of Inu-Yasha and those with an interest in poking fun at gender roles.

Book Review: Creature from the Black Lagoon

Book Review: Creature from the Black Lagoon by Vargo Statten

When marine paleontologist Dr. Carl Maia’s expedition into the Amazon rain forest discovers a unique fossil, which looks like a webbed hand, he asks for a full expedition to the area by his colleagues at the Morajo Institute of Marine Biology.  He is joined by the institute’s money-conscious  director, Mark Williams, ichthyologist David Reed, research biologist Kay Lawrence, and Dr. Thompson, whose specialty is not obvious.  They engage Captain Lucas and his river boat, the Rita, complete with crew.

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Back at Dr. Maia’s base camp, the expedition is shocked to discover that the guards have been killed, apparently savaged by a wild beast.  There’s no sign of the animal itself, and it does not seem to be around while they look for fossils.  Coming up empty, they decide to head down the nearby branch river, which the natives claim runs into a place called “the Black Lagoon.”  It’s supposedly a place from which no man returns.

As it turns out, there’s a bit of truth to that story.  For within the Black Lagoon lurks a creature, a surviving member of a species from the Devonian era.  And it’s not fond of visitors….

The 1954 movie Creature from the Black Lagoon was a huge hit for Universal Pictures, spawning two sequels, the last of their monster franchises.  For the movie’s international debut in Britain, they hired Vargo Statten (pen name of John Russell Fearn) to write a novelization.   Unlike other novelizations, which generally have to work off an early script, Mr. Fearn was able to use the finished product, making the book very faithful to the film.  The book was considered a superior example of the type, and has become a collector’s item, running in the thousands of dollars.

This is the first American reprint, and Dreamhaven Books has done it up well, with a new cover, an introduction explaining the background of the film and book, many movie stills and production photos, and a biography of Vargo Statten.

The actual reprint part is relatively slim, as was the custom for paperbacks of the time, and sticks very closely to the movie with additional dialogue.  The plot works well enough, but you shouldn’t think about the science too hard.  Many of the scenes are cinematic in nature, and at times the reader will need to pay close attention to follow the action.

The book shares with the movie a heavy dose of Fifties sexism and gender politics.   It’s suggested to Kay, for example, that “science” and “feminine” are contradictory personality traits.  She’s constantly being told that things are too dangerous/tough/frightening for a woman.  And Kay seems to enjoy two handsome fellows quarreling over her.

Meanwhile, Dr. Williams and Dr. Reed suffer from toxic masculinity; fighting over Kay’s affections, competing over what to do about the creature, and rushing to the attack when running away would have been wiser.  Dr. Williams uses his position as Kay’s boss to pressure her into not completely rejecting his romantic advances.

And then there’s the poor lonely Gill Man, who wants Kay for…something, it’s not quite sure what.  If only these other dratted humans would go away!  Yes, the Gill Man is a monster that kills several people due to them invading its territory.  But we can sympathize with its wish not to be captured for Science! and put on display or vivisected.

This is a fun read with good extras, and I highly recommend it.  It’s a must-have for the Gill Man lover in your life.  Please consider buying it directly from Dreamhaven Books to support small press.

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