Thursday, October 29, 2015

Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

2015 will go down in my memory as the year I read all the difficult books. I apologize for making you suffer through these posts about books that appeal mostly to scholars.  I promise I'll be reading more fun things soon.

The Life of Samuel Johnson has been on my mental to-do list for a long time, possibly as far back as high school.  I'm pleased to announce that I've finally read it, fulfilling my personal list and also another item from the fifty classics project.

Portrait of James Boswell

Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is best known for his Dictionary, completed in 1755.  In his early career, he was a teacher (the playwright David Garrick was one of his students) and later lived a life of rakish poverty in London, writing journal articles and essays.  The Dictionary gained notice as an important contribution to English letters and King George III granted Johnson a  yearly pension.  Johnson continued to write and his other works include an account of a journey to the Hebrides, and his Lives of the Poets (1781).

By the time James Boswell (1740-1795) came along, Johnson had quite a reputation.  I always imagined that Boswell was something of a pest who followed Johnson around like a groupie, a sort of 18th century Mel from Flight of the Conchords.  In reality they were close friends.  Young Boswell spread the word that he was dying to be introduced to the great Samuel Johnson and eventually got his chance.  The two men began to see each other often and attended evenings together, often in the company of other arts and literary figures like Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Sheridan, and Sir Joshua Reynolds.  After each of these meetings, Boswell would record as much of the conversation that he could remember, and so Johnson's pronouncements were preserved.

It was Johnson who said that if a man was tired of London he was tired of life.  He said a good many other things too: hilarious opinions about Scotland and the Scottish (hilarious to me anyway, perhaps not so funny to the Scottish although Boswell was Scottish), sharp remarks about Americans, a people whose fight for independence clashed with their practice of enslaving people, and many other memorable sayings that can now easily be found via google.

The Life of Johnson, in addition to containing a record of Johnson's conversation, includes the history of his early life, letters, and the sequence of his long friendship with James Boswell.  The two men traveled to Scotland together (the subject of Johnson's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides) and corresponded when Boswell was at home in Scotland.  They had occasional falling outs, and Johnson is sometimes sharp with Boswell in his letters to him.  Johnson admitted to being terrified of death (aren't we all) and the end of the book is sad.  Johnson suffered from heart failure (known as dropsy in the 18th century) and the last fifty or so pages are of the many letters he wrote during his last days, plagued by shortness of breath, sleeplessness, and edema.  He kept insisting that his symptoms were improving, as if he were trying to convince himself of this fact.  Johnson died on December 13th, 1784.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Texas versus Cincinnati

It was a chili cookoff weekend in our house.  Using the cookbook Stylish One-Dish Dinners by Linda West Eckhardt and Katherine West DeFoyd, I made Texas chili for dinner on Saturday night and Cincinnati chili on Sunday and we compared the results and decided on our favorites.

I didn't follow the recipes exactly, as both direct you go cook chunks of beef chuck on the stovetop for two hours, which I think results in tough, chewy meat.  Instead, I adapted both recipes for my Dutch oven and cooked our chili all day at low heat in the oven.

I started the Texas chili at 7:00 Saturday morning.  The recipe called for four pounds of meat to be dredged in 1/2 a cup of chili powder.  I buy the chipotle chili powder from Whole Foods (available in the bulk section) and it is hot.  Much hotter than normal chili powder.  I decided to use only 1/4 cup. I seared the chili-dredged beef chuck in batches on high heat.  By the time that was done, the bottom of my Dutch oven was coated with a thick layer of blackened chipotle chili powder.  I deglazed the pan with a can of beer and a plume of pungent steam arose from the pan and I found myself sneezing uncontrollably and then coughing fit to die.  A few minutes later, coughs erupted from the bedrooms upstairs.  Jon came staggering into the kitchen in his underwear, coughing and with streaming eyes and demanded to know what the hell I was cooking.  Seamus was similarly affected but he was more good-natured about it.  I realized I had inadvertently pepper-sprayed my entire household.  I'm sure we're not the first capsicum casualties in a home cooking incident and certainly won't be the last.

After that, the chili settled down and I put it into the 200 ° oven for the day.  Due to the chili powder situation, I changed the recipe quite a bit from the original--added more garlic and eliminated the tabasco sauce and a chopped jalapeno pepper, but with excellent results.  The chili was hot--I had to eat mine with a big mound of salted Greek yogurt to combat the heat--but the meat was as tender as butter and Jon and the kids loved it, but the next night unanimously declared that they preferred the Cincinnati chili.

For the Cincinnati chili, other than using the Dutch Oven method (which involves reducing the amount of liquid and increasing the cooking time) I stuck to the recipe in the book.  You sear the beef chunks, then cook onions and garlic in the same pan you used for the beef.  The spices involved here are more varied than those used in Texas chili: paprika, cumin, coriander, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, oregano, chili powder, vinegar, and molasses.  About fifteen minutes before serving, you add half a pound of spaghetti to the pot and let it soak up the extra liquid.  We ate this with oyster crackers and shredded cheddar.  You're supposed to offer kidney beans as a topping, but I forgot to serve them.  This chili had a kick (2 tablespoons of chipotle chili powder) but it wasn't as hot as the Texas version, and I liked the bite of vinegar, smoothed by the hint of molasses.

Cincinnati Chili

 I love doing cooking experiments like this and we did something similar with shepherd's pie one weekend last weekend.  Any suggestions for other dishes?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Lorna Doone

Lorna Doone is a classic historical romance by R. D. Blackmore.  It's heavy reading--literally.  My 500-page Alderman library volume was too heavy to take to work for lunchtime reading.  I think the guilding on the pages added a lot of weight.

R. D. Blackmore was a masterful storyteller and Lorna Doone has many satisfying plot points and a few well-drawn characters.  It's set in the 1670s and has all the romantic characters associated with that age: courteous highway robbers, cavalier soldiers, blackguard villains, and beautiful ladies in distress.  Since reading John Evelyn's diary, I had been wanting to read something set in the 1600s and Lorna Doone satisfied that desire.

John Ridd is a young boy from Somerset, England, an area infested with the terrible Doone clan. The Doones, aristocratic Catholic refugees from the turmoil earlier in the century, are sequestered in a carefully guarded valley.  They make their living by plundering the countryside and robbing travelers and one fateful evening, they murder John Ridd's father during a roadside altercation.  A year later, thirteen-year old John accidentally crosses the boarder into the Doone's secret valley and encounters a beautiful little girl who says her name is Lorna Doone, granddaughter of Sir Esnor Doone, the clan's leader.  The years pass, Lorna and John reach young adulthood and fall in love, which is problematic, due to Lorna's criminal family and the fact that she is expected to marry the villainous Carver Doone. You can see where this is leading, and there is a lot of action and some plot twists even up to the last chapter of the book.

Overall, I enjoyed Lorna Doone, but with some reservations.  The book was written in the 1860s, and the Victorian sentimentality in the writing clashes with the more prosaic 1600s setting.  John Ridd himself is something of an oaf.  He's physically huge and perhaps a tiny bit slow .  However, he's sexy when he's angry.

The real problem is Lorna Doone herself, who is hardly a character at all.  She's almost entirely passive and doesn't do much of anything other than allow herself to be rescued.  According to the infatuated John Ridd, Lorna's perfections are endless.  She is so beautiful and dainty and good-tempered!  She has a tiny waist and a nice figure, and hardly opens her mouth except to say complimentary or loving things to John.  The emphasis on her daintiness is particularly infuriating. When she borrows a dress from John's sister Annie, the waist has to be taken in.  When she's locked up for days without food by the evil Carver, John rescues her and produces a mince pie, but Lorna can only manage to eat half a portion because of her dainty fairy appetite.  John remarks that in general, Lorna eats only about one fourth the amount that his sisters and mother do.  I found myself rooting for Ruth Huckaback, Lorna's rival for John's affections.

Overall, this is a nice, cozy, book for winter reading.  It also has been translated into film several times and published in many different editions with interesting cover art:

John Ridd and Carver Doone fight to the death

This is a movie poster, but it illustrates Lorna's wimpy behavior

Monday, October 12, 2015

Real Talk about Fall for Basic Bitches

Do you love fall?  Is it your favorite season?  Is it really?  That is so interesting. How are you going to celebrate this, the most savory of seasons?  Are you going to wear boots and chunky sweaters and scarves and cup your chilly hands around steaming mugs of tea?  Are you going to go to Whole Foods and buy one of those albino pumpkins and arrange it on a black-painted antique table with a few artfully drifting autumn leaves and then take a picture of it and post it to instagram? Are you going to imply to facebook that you baked an apple pie, even though you didn't because, fatty fat carbs? Are you going to walk swiftly through the Halloween candy aisle staring straight ahead with a fixed expression because it's super important that your legs stay skinny for legging season?  Are you going to roast marshmallows over a campfire, while wrapped in a plaid wool blanket and wearing nerdy heavy-rimmed glasses even though you can't possibly be nearsighted because you've never read a book in your entire life?  HAVE YOU HAD YOUR PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE YET?

PSL with mason jar of bittersweet berries

I was like you once.  I loved fall.  Want proof? Exhibit A: my my very own diary:

Fall is coming and I am happily planning my wardrobe. I ordered a turtleneck, corduroys, and a pair of tights from J. Crew. Mom is supposed to be getting me a skirt from J. Crew for my birthday. Ordering my fall clothes makes me feel so intellectual!  I can't wait for school.  It is much easer to read Shakespeare in a sweater.*

I wrote that on August 5th, 1988. So don't think you invented this fall-love nonsense. What were YOU doing in 1988? Probably wetting yourself, if you even existed.

Fall is no longer my favorite season.  It signals the coming of the Darkness, and the narrowing of the gap between today and the day that I sob into the cookie dough and scream, "I HATE CHRISTMAS."  I do it every year.  It's practically a ritual.  Maybe this year Santa will bring me some seratonin for Christmas.

Do you want to know why the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte is so good?  Because it doesn't actually contain any pumpkin.  Because pumpkin and coffee are disgusting together.  The other day I went to a local coffee shop and ordered a "real" pumpkin spice latte.  An artisanal pumpkin spice latte if you will. It was....thick and not very good and the barista rolled her eyes when I ordered it. The Starbucks pumpkin spice latte is the one instance I can think of in which the bland, corporate chain's fake product is better than the real thing.  Every year I go to Starbucks and order a PSL. On a scale of zeto to basic, that ranks about a Gwyneth Paltrow but I'm not ashamed.  It's fucking delicious.

And pumpkin?  It tastes like library paste. Pumpkin is one of those foods, like tofu, that only tastes good if you add a bunch of shit to it. And then all you're tasting is the cinnamon or the brown sugar or whatever  is masking the pasty pumpkin flavor. I pinned a recipe for oatmeal pumpkin chocolate chip cookies and then realized that the results would be gross.  Chocolate and pumpkin will never work. Just stop with these chocolate-pumpkin recipes.  I had a pumpkin pie martini one time. I felt silly ordering it but I did it for science. It was vile. There's yet another thing pumpkin doesn't go well with: vodka.  And yet the pumpkin pie martinis persist.  I saw one in my instagram feed the other day and it looked gross.

Unfortunately, the sad conclusion to this post is that complaining about how basic it is to rhapsodize about fall is almost as basic as rhapsodizing about fall.  You just can't win where fall is concerned. Wake me in February.

*NOTHING is more cringeworthy than reading your old diary.  I can see why people burn the journals of their youth.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington

If ever a woman wanted a champion, it is obviously Laetitia Pilkington. --Virginia Woolf

Laetitia Pilkington was my constant companion in Ireland because I packed her memoirs to be my main read on our trip. And how appropriate, because she was Irish. (I know, WHEN am I going to shut up about Ireland?  Right after this post, I promise.)

Laetitia Pilkington (1709-1750)

Mrs. Pilkington's memoirs caught my notice after reading about them in Virginia Woolf's Common Reader.   She was born into a respectable upper middle class Dublin family with aristocratic connections.  In her teens, she caught the eye of Matthew Pilkington, a young clergyman who courted her, although without the support of Laetitia's parents.  Or so she says, but then reports being rushed into a marriage with him.  One wonders if Laetitia is entirely a reliable narrator.  

Anyway, they settled down into what appears to be a charming domestic life.  Laetitia and Matthew were both diminutive in stature and they occupied a little house in Dublin with a sweet little garden and a tiny summerhouse in the back.  (I tried to find it in Dublin, but could find no clue online as to what the address may have been.)  They were friends with Jonathan Swift and Laetitia appears to have been the model wife, as she describes herself as "always breeding."  Five tranquil years passed.

Unfortunately it wasn't a good idea in the 1700s to be smarter than one's husband. Because of her quick wit, talent for verse, and ability to provide a snappy answer, she became a great favorite of Jonathan Swift.  One suspects that Matthew became disgruntled over being outshined by his wife's wit.  And here the marriage breaks down.  Matthew spends some time in London and Laetitia takes it upon herself to visit him there and discovers she isn't wanted.  I won't go into all the details.  It suffices to say that Matthew Pilkington turns out to be a right shit.

Here's another thing about the 1700's:  if you end up divorced because your husband has accused you of infidelity, men will just show up at your house and think you're going to have sex with them on the spot.  You're officially a whore now.  (Her former friend Jonathan Swift called her "the most profligate whore in either kingdom.")

Was Laetitia Pilkington unfaithful to her husband?  Her side of the story is that she wanted to borrow a book from a gentleman, who wouldn't part with it, so she was forced to stay in his bedroom late into the night, reading the book to its end.  At any rate, Matthew was certainly unfaithful to Laetitia.

Anyway, there she was, divorced, penniless, homeless, and in the late stages of pregnancy. All she had were her wits, which she used to her advantage, eventually moving to London and earning a meagre living selling her poems to gentlemen who then passed them off as their own.  This isn't a super stable way to support oneself, and Laetitia becomes more and more distressed, going without food, moving into a progression of cheaper apartments and eventually, prison.

The book reads like a long catalog of all the ways that people suck, but it's not entirely hopeless.  You have to hand it to Laetitia, she had spirit. For a woman in her time and situation, the only available path to survival was prostitution, and she managed to use her brains and hang on, though barely, to respectability.  That was a triumph. 

A note about the book:  It's not particularly easy to find, although UVA's Alderman library has a copy.  When I went to the library, it wasn't on the shelf, which was a huge disappointment.  I almost resorted to google books, but returned to the library to search again. I suspected that it was simply misshelved.  I will often find books that are off by just a few places.  I worked as a library "page" in high school and one of my responsibilities was "reading" the shelves and putting all the books in proper Library of Congress order.  My grandmother was a librarian and my mother was an activist on behalf of public libraries, so I'm really into libraries and rely on them for most of what I read.  Anyway, on this second trip to the library, I searched more thoroughly and found Laetitia!  She was more than a few places away from the correct spot.  She wasn't even on the wrong shelf, but in an entirely wrong bookcase.  Now, when I return it, she'll be shelved correctly and others will be able to find her.  On the OCD satisfaction meter, this scores at about a 10,000 for me.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Ireland wrap up

Our first trip to Ireland was a great introduction, and I'm really grateful that we got a chance to travel there but there's so much we didn't see, I'm already planning what we'll do on our next visit.

I didn't realize that Ireland is such a paradise for hikers.  When we go back, we'll pack hiking gear, drive out to the tip of the Iveragh Peninsula and get a boat out to Skellig Michael and climb its stairs.  I considered doing it for this trip, but we didn't have time, and it turns out they were filming Star Wars on it while we were in Ireland, so I imagine tourists were banned. We could see the island from Dingle and Beara.  So near and yet so far!

After Skellig Michael, we'd drive to Dingle and take the ferry to Great Blasket Island and do the 6.5 km hike around the island and perhaps some of the other Dingle hiking loops.  From Dingle, we'd take the Tarbent ferry across the Shannon into County Clare and see the sites there, particularly the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren.  Then we'd head north to County Mayo, where a big branch of my family comes from.  I love fantasy-planning travel!

And now I give you way more pictures from our visit than you probably want.

Trinity College

This was our neighborhood for our first two-night stay in Dublin.  The other side of the street was the DART embankment. Possibly not the greatest neighborhood, but the house itself was very nice inside and comfortable and there was a convenient Aldi nearby and we were still within walking distance of the city center.

Downtown Cork
The bell tower in Cork that we climbed. (Note the Salmon weathervane.)
Approaching the belfry.  We had to wear protective headphones.
I took this picture from the top of the ladder in the belfry. Not a great pic, but it was scary to take it. I guess the bells are hanging from that mess of supports at the bottom. It was actually too dark to see much.  This is all just blown out with flash. Essentially, you're looking at the ceiling of a belfry.
At Dzogchen Beara
Meditation room at Dzogchen Beara
Village of Allihies, Beara Peninsula
Our hike around Allihies.
Fishing boats in Castletownbere
Driving to Healy Pass
Healy Pass
Looking down from the top of Healy Pass
Killarney National Park
Killarney National Park

Dingle town.  The yellow and green bunting are the Kerry colors for Gaelic football.  Luckily, we were in Galway when Kerry lost to Dublin for the All-Ireland SFC title.  We were in Dublin for the celebratory parade down O'Connell St.

Slea Head Drive.  The space between the dashed yellow lines is for two way traffic. That wider bit is a parking lot.  See the bus taking up the entire road?  And the cliff?  Luckily, most people are driving clockwise around the peninsula.  My favorite Irish road sign was, "ONCOMING TRAFFIC IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD."  The speed limit was always 20 kmh faster than what felt safe.

Bee Hive dwellings on Slea Head
The closest we got to Skellig Michael--the pointy island in the distance
Blasket Island Ferry
Slea Head selfie
Lynch Castle, Galway

A pub in Salthill.  Somewhere along the line (in Dingle, I think) I asked a bartender if it were possible to order a beer in a portion smaller than a pint.  He was like, "I can pour a HALF pint," perhaps a tad sarcastically.  Those half pints saved me.  I know it's feeble, but I can't finish an entire pint of beer.

At a roadside overlook.
In case you're wondering why I'm wearing the same outfit in practically every picture--I packed two sweaters and two pairs of similar black pants and alternated them for the duration of the trip. I had an assortment of clean underwear and shirts.  My green down vest, which appears in a lot of my Ireland posts, was the perfect outer layer for Ireland in September.

Dublin Gargoyle--Christ Church Cathedral

Ancient inscribed cross at Glendalough
10th century cathedral ruins, Glendalough
Round Tower, Glendalough.
You might want to reconsider a trip to Ireland if you have a sheep phobia.  There are sheep everywhere.
The hike to the upper ruins at Glendalough
Jon sits in the ruins of St. Kevin's Cell
Rainbow on the Wicklow Mountains
Insouciant James Joyce statue on O'Connell Street

Dublin Castle.  I forgot to mention this in my "last day in Dublin" post. We didn't go inside because we couldn't find the door, although we did blunder into the subdued (though free) Revenue Museum trying to find the door.  I'm not even sure if the castle itself is open to the public.  We were so over sightseeing at this point, we didn't particularly care if we got in or not.  After Dublin Castle, we tried to find a sector that was labeled on my map as an "antiques district," got lost, gave up, and started pub hopping our way back to our hotel.

Titillating display of drug paraphernalia at the Revenue Museum.

Jon has a whole collection of pictures of me stranded at crosswalks that he recklessly ran across.

Bridge over the River Liffey in Dublin.