CCCB: The Ticket That Exploded

For this week’s cake I’m making something called “tropical aroma”. I know you’re thinking “pineapple and mango?” now, but this is an old-school chocolate cake, and the tropical ingredients are cinnamon, nutmeg and coffee.

And possibly the chocolate. That’s tropical too, right?

I’m not a coffee drinker (I guzzle tea by the gallons), but I bought this coffee grinder for a cocktail project the other year and never used it, so I thought I’d give it a grind. I mean, go. It’s… a workout?

And then I used a press can. As I don’t really make coffee otherwise, I figured that was a safe option.

That’s… a very strong coffee? I think? It tasted OK, though, and the recipe called for strong coffee, so I think that should be fine. Possibly.

The cake batter is the normal stuff… Butter and sugar…

And then whisk in some eggs and flour and stuff.

The recipe calls for a teaspoon of nutmeg, and I started grinding away manually until I remembered that I have a Kenwood.

So I ground up a nut, and that was a teaspoon. I thought that was an insane amount of nutmeg, but I checked five different recipes and they all said to use that much.

After mixing everything together, I separate into two bowls, and add cocoa powder to half the batter.

Then… layer.

But very roughly and poke at it with a spoon to allegedly get fun patterns. I don’t quite understand why, but let’s go with it.

It has arisen!

The icing is just the normal stuff: Powdered sugar, butter, cocoa powder. And coffee.

Hm, it’s sunk a bit in the middle? Tsk.

Oh. That’s not very… patterney. Looks like the chocolate batter has just blended with the non-chocolate batter pretty thoroughly while baking.

Decoration time! I should get a job in a pastry shop, eh? Eh? As a scullery maid, you say? What? Rude!

OK, when you cut the cake, it’s less undifferentiated.

Quite moist-looking.

But now I have to pick a book! Quick! I want to taste the cake!

It’s slim pickings among the oldest, unread books now… and, man, what a lot of dust.

So I choose The Ticket That Exploded by William Burroughs, the second in this blog series.

I think this may be the oldest book in the collection: From the indicia, it may have been printed in 1986 (or sometime later), and the price tag has a somewhat oldee fashionee look.

I think the reason I’ve avoided reading it for over 30 years shouldn’t need an extensive explanation: I’d read Naked Lunch and enjoyed it, which is why I’d bought this book, probably, but Burroughs is… you know… a bit difficult. The Place of Dead Roads was pretty straightforward, as it turned out, but this is classic Burroughs. Let’s read the first two pages together:

Yup, that’s Burroughs in high mettle.

But you can’t not enjoy sentences like “He had been meaning Sexexcellency Sally Rand cunning Navy pilot Alan B. Weld two acts for three saints in outer space proudly registered in Phoenix was it are you sure that’s right infectious night biter Mo. 18 I’m going to answer the doorbell definitely definitely the first time in thirty years Houston’s outbreak the first time in who said Atlantic City?”

The introduction by John Calder says that Burroughs’ cut-up technique (started in Naked Lunch and developed in The Soft Machine) here was used more extensively. But I wonder whether sections like this is Burroughs just transcribing, verbatim, overheard conversations or snippets from TV, intermingled with the narrative (FSVO) he’s going for.

It’s not all like that, of course, because Burroughs isn’t Gertrude Stein. He’s more easy going.

But how does it pair with the cake?

Hm! That’s… quite a lot of nutmeg. On the first bite I went “this is way way too much”, and then either my taste buds were knocked out, or the coffee icing started complementing the nutmeg, because after getting halfway through the first piece, I thought it was jolly good. Nice and moist and lots of chocolate and coffee flavours.

If I’m making it again, I’m cutting back on the nutmeg, though, and perhaps making the coffee a bit weaker, to allow the chocolate flavour to shine more through.

And it’s perfect for reading Burroughs: Strong and weird.

I think this may be the most abstruse Burroughs book I’ve read… but it’s a fast read nonetheless. It has a certain flow, especially if you read it in Burroughs’ voice, and there’s not really much there to puzzle out. It says what it says.


And you get some footnotes.

Yes. Science. Pure science.

And we get a little essay about cut ups.

The thing is — it’s a miasma of words and scenes, but then you get these sudden flashes of narrative that almost make sense. It’s… pleasant.

Oh, “Miranda Sex Garden”? Is that where the band took their name from? Burroughs also inspired other band names, like Soft Machine… and… er… that’s all I can remember… Uhm… Oh, Spooky, That Subliminal Kid? Is that from here, too? I don’t know.

And then it ends on this note, which makes sense.

And then we get an almost verbatim repeat of that previous chapter where Burroughs was talking about cut-ups, but this time without punctuation and capital letters. And the notes on the last page says that this is by Bryon Gysin?

Oh, well, it makes as much sense as anything.

That Burroughs guy can write, dude. But my eyes did glaze over on some of the more cut-up pages.

CCCB: Magic Hour

I’ve never made a pie before, which isn’t surprising, I guess, because I’ve basically never baked in my life before starting this blog series. So I was just thinking about what to make, and the words Lemon Meringue Pie just popped into my head.

So I’m going to make that, even though I’ve never tasted one and have no idea whether it’s even good. But it’s sugar and lemons, so how bad can it be?

There’s fewer ingredients than I expected from a dish with several separate parts… I especially like that there’s exactly the same number of egg yolks and egg whites needed (yolks in the stuffing and base and whites in the meringue).

I got new stuff! I non-stick silicone mat to use when rolling out dough. Seems more hygienic, too.

And a pie tin.

For the pastry, I’m supposed to pulse the ingredients “until the mix starts to bind”.

I guess this is what they mean? There should be more pictures in recipes.

After rolling it out… how to get in into the pie tin? It rips easily…

Oh! I’m a genius! The bottom of the pie tin is detachable, so I can just slide it under the dough…

… and then sorta get it all into the tin! I bet nobody else has thought of that before!

I mean, except for everybody else.

And then trim and push and poke a bit. That looks awrite, dunnit?

Then into the fridge for an hour and a half to… er… get colder? One thing I miss from virtually any recipe is an explanation for why certain steps are done…

Meanwhile I’m making the lemon filling, which has a lot of lemon zest in it. I’ve made cocktails with lemon zest, but not a foodstuff, and I was surprised that the recipe didn’t say “simmer and then strain”, because I didn’t think the actual zest was supposed to end up in the pie.

But also a lot of citrus juice, so I finally got to use my squeezer thing that I haven’t used in a year.

And then it all turns into a custard with three egg yolks and one whole egg. It tastes very lemoney: very tart, and I was tempted to dump more sugar into it, but I resisted. I mean, there’s gonna be meringue, so I’m hoping that’ll even things ou.

Meanwhile, the pie shell is out of the fridge…

.. and lined with alu foil and with some ceramic balls to weigh stuff down. (Never used them before.) This is apparently called “blind baking”… because… you can’t see what the crust looks like?

It comes out of the 15m/200C oven very pale, of course.

But then I bake it for 8 more minutes without the foil, and it get kinda crispy and a nicer colour.

And I picked up the pie form wrong: It’s almost impossible to pick it up with one hand, because if you put any force on the bottom, it’ll just pop up. See? I ruined the crust on one side because of that.

They really should come up with a better way to grip those things. Perhaps handles would have been good?

And then the custard goes into the shell…

And then the egg whites and sugar (prepared concurrently; man there was a lot of bowls and implements used for this recipe) on top of the custard.

And then into the oven for 20 minutes.

Wow! I hadn’t expected the egg whites to expand when doing the meringue, so I was worried that there wouldn’t be a sufficient amount…

Getting the pie out of the tin was quite easy: Just push on the bottom, and the outer ring dropped down toot sweet. But getting the bottom out from underneath it seems impossible to me: There’s nowhere to grip on the pie. The shell is very crispy and I’ve carefully angled the pie here so the least broken bits are pointing towards the camera.

Such a cheat!

Let the pie sit in the tin for 30 mins, then remove and leave for at least another 1⁄2-1 hr before slicing. Eat the same day.

*looks at watch*

EEeek! It’ll have to wait over an hour before I can start eating, and I have to eat it all tonight? It’s 20 already!

Only six books to go! As usual on Thursdays, I have to pick a book I acquired in the early 90s, but have avoided reading since then.

I choose… Magic Hour by Susan Isaacs, in Norwegian translation.

My reasons for not reading this are pretty straightforward: As I went on at length here, I try to avoid reading books in translation if I understand the language they were originally written in. Which is the case here.

The other reason is that I got this book from the “free book” stash supplied by my sister who worked at a Norwegian publisher at the time. Somehow reading those never seemed as pressing.

And I know absolutely nothing about the author or what genre the book is, but from the cover design I’m assuming “literature”.

Hang on… Is that blood on those pool tiles on the drawing? Is this a murder mystery book of some kind?

Let’s find out!

Yes! After all this literature, this looks like entertainment. Already in the first page we have a murder, and the protagonist is a police detective or something.

The language looks to be very florid (no verb without adverb and no noun without an attending adjective) and witty, if not actually funny.

I’ll read some more and report back to you.

The translation is bizarre. There’s a lot of words here I’m sure I’ve never seen before. Just one at random: “Kamgarnsdress”. It’s a suit, apparently, but what kind?

Oh, right! A worsted suit. I know what that is.

But is that really a word in Norwegian?

Not really: There’s a whopping 172 hits, and the vast majority are from dictionaries.

There’s just so many of these that it makes me wonder whether the translator didn’t know Norwegian well and is just looking up words in dictionaries. If it had been a modern translation, I would have guessed that it was a machine translation, but it’s old, so I guess not.

And the incomprehensibilities just keep coming. “Klikk-klakker”? It’s an unknown term to me, but according to somebody on google, they’re clogs? Why would anybody be using clogs here? Does she mean flip flops?

At this point my curiosity about what the book really said just got the best of me and I bought it on Kindle.

Oh, yeah. Flip flops. Or “rubber thongs” as the character calls it… (Is he from Australia?)

“Borte i teltet svinset mennene” which means “in the tent the men were swishing”, and that’s about a bunch of cops…

Oh, “swarming”.

If I back-translate that last sentence in the first paragraph, it goes “perhaps Lindsay was just a rude, scornful, cold, emotional bitch”. Which makes no sense. Is she cold or emotional?

“maybe Lindsay was just an insolent, contemptuous, emotionally defective twat”.

*sigh*

At this point I decided to just give up: Reading the Norwegian version, there’s just so much that doesn’t makes sense. I find myself having finished a paragraph, lost, not quite knowing what just happened. I wonder whether the translator was just transliterating English into Norwegian and that’s why everything seemed so… abstract… But she’s not: She rearranges words into proper Norwegian.

It’s just that it’s so bad. From the antiquated choice of words, to neologisms that convey nothing or the wrong thing. For instance, our protagonist has fun names for everybody: There’s a woman he just refers to as Freckled Cleavage. The word the translator settles on, “Fregnesprekken”, is best reverse-translated into “Freckled Slit”, which, er, implies something quite different about their relationship.

ANYWAY! By switching to the English version, perhaps the book’ll make more sense.

OK, the pie has cooled off now… Hm… it’s certainly very moist… Or rather, wet. I had expected something more cake-like, but what do I know.

The pie crust is quite nice. Not soggy at all, but not desiccated either. The filling is very tart. Even combined with the meringue, it’s too sour for me. And the meringue itself should have been crispier, really. So should it have baked longer? Is this what it’s supposed to be?

Not one of the more successful baked goods in this blog series, but it was fun to make.

How does it pair with the book?

The book is about the murder of a rich movie exec. Which is so refreshing after having read a handful of modern thrillers last year. Perhaps they could just rename the genre How To Horribly Dismember Women instead to make things line up better with reality, because there’s nothing thrilling about reading yet another book about some psycho hacking away at a bunch of poor women. I’m now officially boycotting any mysteries where that’s the main plot, which means that I’m choosing to read zero mysteries written after 1995.

The protagonist here is a police detective, and I guess you could call this a police procedural? It’s well written and has a pretty intelligent plot, but the protagonist (who falls in love with one of the suspects, of course) is just so over-the-top sometimes that I wondered whether Isaacs was going to subvert the genre by having the book turn into a psychodrama about him really being totally loopy. For instance, in the sequence above, he’s apparently taken to calling her from random pay phones and hanging up after she says hello.

Because he wants to hear her voice.

PSYCHO ALERT!

But Isaacs doesn’t do anything with this, really. I get the feeling that she thinks this is kinda cute behaviour? Somehow?

But, no, they get together and find true love (OOPS SPOILERS) and spend chapter after chapter hiding out from the other cops (!) and talking and talking and (of course) solve the mystery.

Those chapters were really boring.

But well written, I guess. Isaacs has a nice way with words. Her sentences don’t always go the way you’re expecting: They have a zing to them. She’s not funny, per se, but she’s witty.

It’s an entertaining read.

However, the surprise reveal of the killer literally gave me cancer, because I’d figured it out two hundred pages earlier (it was the only one that made logistical sense, emotional sense, dramatic sense and structural sense for it to be the murderer) and was hoping for a surprise, and I’m now dead.

CCCB: Woman on the Edge of Time

Thursday is baking day, and I chose a cake I haven’t tasted in decades: The Tosca Cake.

It’s apparently named after that most jumpingest of all opera heroines. Perhaps it’s named after her because it’s a pretty heavy cake and Tosca fell like a rock into the river?

The comment on that page, however, claims that the inventor of the cake was Tosca Pladsec, an Italian/Yoguslav woman who won a Norwegian magazine competition on the 50s. However, Swedish wikipedia claims that it’s a recipe that has existed since at least the 1930s, and nobody else on the entire interweb has heard of Tosca Pladsec, so… You make up your own mind!

Anyway, the thing that makes the cake unique is that is has a caramellish (that’s a word) top which makes it kinda juicy and interesting.

If I remember correctly.

Let’s give it a try.

There aren’t many ingredients here: Just sugar, flour, butter, eggs, almonds and a teensy dash of milk.

I destroyed the ring to this Kenwood drum chopping attachment by putting it in the dishwasher (made of… pewter or something?), so I had to wait a few weeks while the replacement part wound its way to me from the UK. It’s a nice thing about Kenwoods: They sell replacement parts for everything.

So the almonds are supposed to be sliced (what’s called “flarn” in most Scandinavian languages), so I’m using this drum thing…

Look! It fits! I’ve never used this drum thing at all, and half the fun of baking is using new attachments…

Urr… that’s not very sliced… More like ground…

Oh! There’s several different drums with different er aperture openings (I’m sure that’s the right terminology).

Look! Sliced! It works! Nice Kenwood!

So you just whip up the eggs and the sugar, and then add flour and melted butter (and perhaps some baking powder, even if the recipe doesn’t call for it).

Baking powder a spring form…

Bake for 25 minutes, which seems a bit on the long side? Because we’re gonna be baking more…

… after we’ve make the topping, which is more butter (melted)…

Add sugar, a dash of milk and a dash of flour.

And then the sliced almonds.

Wow! That tastes really nice already! It looks a mess, but it has a wonderfully fresh, slightly caramelley flavour going on.

Then take the cake out of the oven.

Slather the goop over the cake and pop it back in the oven for 20 minutes more.

And this is what it looks like. Hm… I think I was right: I should have baked it less before adding the goop, and more after, to get a darker caramel look and flavour to the “lid”.

Let’s taste!

And now I have to pick a book from among those I bought in the early 90s but have somehow avoided reading for mumble years. Not that many to go…

I pick… Should I do Ulysses after doing Downriver last week? No, let’s go in the opposite direction! Yes! I pick:

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.

I’ve had pretty clear reasons for not reading the other books in this blog series before, but I don’t really know why I’ve skipped this one for so long. It’s just become a habit. Every time I’m looking at my bookcase for something to read I’m going “oh, there’s that sf book” and then I choose something else.

I have read two other books by Marge Piercy: He, She and It and The High Cost of Living, and I liked them enough to buy this one, apparently? But then I never read it.

Oh, wow: It’s from 1976, and it was a selection of The Woman Today Book Club. And this is the twenty-second printing!? So it’s a very commercially successful book, especially for a science fiction book. Or, at least I’m assuming it’s a science fiction book: As usual, I haven’t read the back cover or the blurbs or anything.

Let’s read the first two pages together and see what it’s like.

Well, OK, I can’t really say that I’m responding to the writing enormously. We seem to be starting off with a woman that’s been beat up by some guy, but the descriptions of what the protagonist is doing is sprinkled with things like “the satin of the blouse” and “the good Dominican coffee”, which seems kinda pedestrian.

And, by Emacs, what a relief reading something written in this style on the heels of the Ian Sinclair book! This is going to breeze right on by.

Yay!

Let’s taste the cake with the book.

Uhm, yum. It has a deep and nice caramel flavour, especially out at the edges. The sponge is, as I feared, a bit on the dry side because it’s been in the oven too long, but it’s pretty good.

There’s a lot of good rage towards our society in general and the health industry in particular. Reading this, I sometimes found myself going “but they’re not that bad”, what with all the doctors and their insane experiments, but then I remember the Tuskegee “experiment” and I go “oh yeah”.

But this is, indeed, a science fiction novel, as I guessed from the title (and the author being Marge Piercy). We follow a woman locked up in a mental institution who can project into the future, which is all utopia and stuff. There’s pages and pages of the future people (who are kinda androgynous, live in harmony with nature, and are, like, you know, good people) explain their lives to her.

I think I understand what Piercy is trying to do: To present utopia as a real possibility. This is literature as a rallying cry; a call to revolution: A better future is possible.

But I don’t think it works storytelling wise. They say they don’t want to change the past, so they don’t help her much with her predicament, but they’re not shy about telling her everything about how society should be. And perhaps I just found the utopia presented to be a bit undercooked; it’s random musings on any subject of our lives about how they should be done to be better.

More plot is hinted at, but not really resolved.

We make one brief foray into an alternate future where things have gone very wrong: Everything is hyper-gendered, brutal, and the Earth is basically dead. And that does seem more real, doesn’t it?

Especially the listing of what’s on TV that day.

I found the book to be somewhat frustrating. I really felt for the protagonist, and there were exciting bits in there. The rage against the helpless situation she found herself in is effective. But I didn’t find the long protracted explanations about the future world to be compelling, although it certainly sounds like a nice place to live.

CCCB: Downriver

For the baking today, I’m going to do a slight re-run: A few weeks ago I did a knead-free pan bread. Which turned out delicious. But it seemed to me that the recipe just had a few more complicated steps than seems necessary: You’re supposed to fold the dough a few times before doing the second proofing (but why?) and pre-heat the pot to 250C, which makes transferring the dough to the pot kinda on the eek side.

So let’s try to just skip those two steps.

So mix flour, salt and dry yeast, add water, and mix until it’s, well, mixed. Then let stand for 18 hours.

I floured up the pan…

Beat the dough down a bit…

Beat beat!

Transferred to the pan and let it proof there for 90 minutes.

There.

Then into the oven for 30 minutes at 250C with a lid on and then 15 minutes at 200C without.

Still not very dark… I think 200C is too low temperature…

Then catastrophe! The bread sticks to the pan! On the sides! Where the flour wouldn’t stick! Gah.

Let’s taste it anyway…

It’s very nice! There’s less of a crust at the bottom, which is both nice and less nice, since there’s little crust at the top, either. So if you hate crust, this is perfect, but who does that? Let’s try it again…

Once more, let the dough rise for 18 hours.

Then… tada! Put some baking paper into the pot. I wondered whether this would inhibit contact with the metal to the point that there wouldn’t be any crust on the bottom, but we’ll see…

Beat the dough down a bit and then scoop into the pan. Put the lid on and let it proof for an hour and a half in the pan.

Then into the oven at 250C for half an hour (with the lid on). Then take the lid off, turn the temperature down to 220C, and bake for 20 minutes more. (I shifted it up in the oven to give it a chance to get some crust going…

And yes! It’s almost perfect! I could have given it five minutes more for more crustiness, but it’s nice and fluffy, and still chewy and glutenous and very satisfying.

Hah! I knew those complicated steps in the middle were totally superfluous!

I should write this up properly as a recipe blog post some day with proper instructions, because the NY Times recipe is way too complicated, and doesn’t give a better result, in my opinion. The only difference is that there’s more of a crust on the bottom of the bread, but whatevs. Totally not worth the bother.

And now I have to pick a book from among the remaining eight unread-since-1992 books to read while eating some bread.

And the winner is… Downriver by Iain Sinclair!

Now, why haven’t I read this one? Or perhaps a better question is: Why have I bought it?

I think the answer to the second question is “it was on sale” and “I was thinking of Iain Banks”.

One is an SF author and the other in Iain Sinclair.

I love shopping at book sales, but I have noticed that that seems to make them less of a priority to actually read. And couple with the Iain/Ian sitch, it’s probably not anything I would ever have worked up the enthusiasm to try reading. And I don’t seem to have made the effort; the book has that “never been opened” feel.

Let’s read the first two pages together.

The most striking thing here is, of course, that the margins are tiny. Especially the bottom margin, which makes it physically unpleasant to read the book, because my fingers are constantly getting in the way of the text while reading.

I’ve got plenty of other books by Paladin (the literary but cheap imprint of HarperCollins, kinda like Picador (which is… Penguin?)), and they’re usually set better than this. Did they do it to keep the page count down? If there’d been normal margins this would probably have been a 500 page paperback instead of a 400 page one. Or did they just keep the typesetting from the hardback but cut down the paper size?

ANYWAY!

The other thing you noticed is that this is a very, very early-90s British novel. Very literate and excruciatingly erudite. Post-modernism was over, so we’re back to modernism, I guess?

But how’s the bread with the book? Well, if probably would have made sense with a darker, more complex bread, but this is a quite satisfying combination. The full-on sweet wheat experience coupled with random acts of bizarre violence and even weirder exigesises (that’s a word) on the meaning of each London neighbourhood complement each other well.

Downriver is very much a product of its time. Sinclair, for instance, predictably rails against nouvelle cuisine, as did all other older authors at the time, it seemed like. And the writing style is what I remember as being diagnosed at the time as “word processing novels”: It’s not that authors didn’t write long books filled with convoluted sentences before; it’s just that the word processor made it so easy to go over and over the text, revising sentences into maximum cleverness. And “[…] a side of bloody Aberdeen Angus, with all the coronary trimmings” is witty — but there’s just so much of this stuff. Everything is tortured into a kind of samey, erudite mush.

On the other hand, there’s amusing dog hatred like this (“the first bite is on the house”), so who am I to complain?

Hey! I know what he’s talking about here: Railway Time. Before railways were a thing in the UK, towns didn’t really feel the need to remain synchronised, so everybody just set their watches by whatever means were agreed-upon in that hamlet. But when railroads were introduced, you had to have a way to write accurate time tables, which led to the railways being the ones who standardised the time (i.e., Greenwich Standard).

So here Sinclair is taking that bit of trivia and using it as a starting point for imagining what perhaps could result in rebelling against that standard. Sounds cool, right? But as with any springboard in this novel, nothing leads anywhere: It all ends in some inconsequential petit guignol or other, and at this point I’m losing faith that Sinclair knowing what he’s doing.

Is it coked-up épater la bourgeoisie all the way through?

I guess this particular bit disappointed me more than all the other disappointing bits in this book because it reminded me of what Thomas Pynchon did with something not altogether dissimilar in one of his books (Mason & Dixon, I think?): The shift from Julian to Georgian calendars. Pynchon takes the factoid and really builds something on it; making it into this entire paranoid What Happened To Those Lost Eleven Days mystery, making the reader care because we trust that it’s going somewhere. And it kinda did!

It was thrilling.

This book isn’t. There’s plenty of funny bits (like Sinclair making a movie with The Corporation (i.e., BBC)), but it’s all so inconsequential.

And I can’t really imagine anybody wanting to read this at all in a few decades, because most of the references (and it’s a book that’s 75% reference) will be completely incomprehensible by then.

Let’s see what contemporary readers think! Let’s try Amazon, because that’s where people people hang out. (Let eye rolling commence.)

:

He’s not good at plot, satire, character, or structure in a work this length, but Downriver is still conventional enough in style (realism punctuated by historical visions) that it isn’t really a formal experiment, or a Thomas Bernhard-style dynamic rant either.

The highest-rated review here is a two-star review, which is pretty unique. It means that people really loathe this book.

This one’s pretty amusing, too:

Neither I nor anyone in my book-group liked this book, in fact I was the only one to finish it. I should explain that I downloaded the book so my husband, whose sight is not good could read it in enlarged type from my computer, I had the Penguin print copy. My husband read the first chapter and abandoned it. This was pretty well what the rest of the group did. I should say that there are ten of us and all have either a degree or a professional qualification, reasonably intelligent, well read people – all equally baffled. I realise the book has been well received and has won prizes but I think I can honestly say it is the only book that I have read and resented the time wasted in reading.

Yeah, I know, most of the other reviews are favourable, but then they usually are on Amazon.

Sinclair has a flair for doing very vivid descriptions (“The furniture was impregnated with ancestral flatulence (bad meat, verruca’d potatoes, cabbage boiled to a nappy-like consistency)”), and while you immediately get it, I started wondering whether some of the most imaginative things are standing expressions or what. I mean, “verruca’d potatoes”? While on one level obvious, on another… what would that really be? Warty potatoes? Is that a thing?

Nope: It’s a Sinclair Original. Or is he thinking of a different… dish… called something similar? The expression seems annoyingly familiar in a way.

The cover blurb on this edition is by Michael Moorcock, and the quote from Angela Carter is on the back. In the latest edition, Carter’s quote is on the front. It’s not surprising, but it’s kinda amusing.

I may have mentioned this before, but Sinclair’s go-to literary device is list-making. In this little paragraph I count… five?… lists of things. And there are chapters in this novel (or “tales” as Sinclair calls them for some reason or other; they’re definitely more chapter-ey than tale-ey) that have a surfeit of these paragraphs.

I say “I may have”, because it’s taken me a month to read the first half of this book, so the first bits I wrote in this blog post have been lost in the mists of my bad memory. I decided that enough was enough and forced myself to read the last two hundred pages over two evenings.

And either that helped a lot, or Sinclair changed tack for the last hundred or so pages completely. I mean, that’s what I expected him to do, sort of, so I’m not that surprised, but I acknowledge that the difference may be in the reader and not in the book.

I’ve read more than a handful of books where the author pummels the reader at the start of the book, and then eases up in the last bit, and then we all enjoy ourselves. It’s a Stockholm Syndrome thing combined with a masochistic streak in the reader: It feels so great when the tiresome bits of the novel are over.

Because the last hundred pages or so are a hoot. Sinclair goes all pomo and includes a section of (supposed) notes from the (perhaps imaginary) editor of the first chapter of this novel. Now we’re talking!

In the last chapter, Sinclair sends a letter to one of the characters in the novel and asks him to finish the book. Sinclair’s typewriter, you see, has broken down and he can’t find anybody to repair it.

So now “I” is a different person, which is a callback to the notes from that editor up there. It all ties together!

I’m so enthused by the ending (not shown above; that’s a few pages before it ends) that I contemplated starting to read the novel from the start again. But, by Emacs, no! No!

Bad book!

Bad!

CCCB: Miracle of the Rose

When I went to the kitchen equipment store and asked for the stuff I needed to bake these things, the shop assistant asked me “you’re making smultringer (literally “lard rings”) after Christmas?” incredulously.

Which was slightly weird. These are things one makes in Scandinavia at Xmas, but they’re eaten all year long, because these are the Scandinavian version of donuts.

That is, it’s dough that you deep fry, but there’s an important difference: These aren’t made from yeast dough, but uses baking powder and horn salt (ammonium bicarbonate). This page explains the origins more in depth.

It’s basically just a pretty normal (but moist) dough (look at me, I’m an expert after making like a handful of things), but it has the aforementioned horn salt (which smells very er invigorating) and lots of eggs and cream and butter.

WHERE DID THAT BEER COME FROM.

Oops.

Whisk whisk whisk.

Add the dry bits.

Mix. Done. And then you let it rest in the fridge until the next day.

That’s it! The dough is the easiest I’ve made, I think?

But then comes drama! Deep frying! I’ve never deep fried anything in my life, so this is the exciting part (for me).

The fat comes in half kilo blocks. You traditionally use lard, as the name implies, but these days everybody uses some kind of plant-based fat (this is coconut, shea and palm, I believe).

Then catastrophe! The dough is very sticky. I mean… stickier than an HSTS policy! I nervously tried to get some more flour into the dough while everything was sticking to everything else, and I finally wrestled it into some kind of submission.

But since it’s so sticky, getting any kind of ringy rings out of the dough was a challenge. Which I failed as. As you can see.

Oops! I had started the deep fryer with the cubes of fat in the basket, which meant that they didn’t touch the heating element, which meant that the heating element gave off a not-very-pleasing smell of overheated electronics. Gaaah!

Did I mention that I’ve never used one of these before?

I quickly pulled the plug and then dumped the blocks of fat right onto the heating elements.

And got the powder fire extinguisher out of the closet.

But look! I didn’t burn the house down! (If ever my neighbours happen onto my blog they must be so reassured.)

Mmmm… Crispy on the outside and sweet and fluffy on the inside…

Masses of lardy … shapes!

Ok, time to choose a book that I’ve avoided reading for like 25 years…

Eenie… meenie…

I choose Miracle of the Rose by Jean Genet, and I know exactly when and where and why I bought this, and why I’ve avoided reading it: I bought it in London in 1993 at the big Foyle’s (I was in London for the 4AD festival called Thirteen Year Itch (it was 4AD’s 13th anniversary)), and I bought it because it was an author whose name was familiar to me, and I had to buy something, and I didn’t read it because I’d read some Genet while in high school (not as an assignment) and I didn’t like his books.

See? It all… makes… sense…?

The other reason I’ve avoided reading this is that this is a translated work: If I want to read something badly translated, it might as well be badly translated into Norwegian and not badly translated into English. In my experience, English language translations are often of high quality, but sometimes tend to go more for authenticity (i.e., preserving the other language’s cadence and grammar) than legibility.

But let’s read the first two pages in the book.

Hm!

There was a hole in the seat, and when my gripes got too
violent because of the jolting, I had only to unbutton.

Hm? Gripes? Complaining? Unbutton? The opposite of buttoning up? No… er…

Oh!

gripe (grīp)
v. griped, griping, gripes
v.intr.
To have sharp pains in the bowels.

(If you didn’t get hit, he shat down the hole in the seat.)

Is that related to “having the grippe”?

This book was written in 1951 and translated into English in 1965 by one Bernard Frechtman. Looks like he’s done a bunch of Genet books.

And my reservations seem to be warranted: The text has a very Frenchie flow to it, and I’m guessing that he’s using quaint English words to emulate other quaint French words.

The book purports to be about Genet himself in prison, and that may very well be true, for all I know. He did spend a lot of time behind bars, didn’t he? I’ve done no research.

The translator is footnote happy. (It’s like gun crazy, but with footnotes instead of guns.) Genet writes a lot about language in this book, and expounds, say, on the differences between “Les Bijou” and “bijoux” which of course makes the translator chime in. As much as I hate footnotes, the translator doesn’t really go overboard with the explanations, even if he sprinkles them generously throughout the book.

There’s a lot of little bits in this book that I absolutely adore.

I wanted to become rich in order to be kind, so as to feel the gentleness, the restfulness that kindness accords (rich and kind, not in order to give, but so that my nature, being kind, would be pacified). I stole in order to be kind.

Or what about this one:

He is indeed vulgar, but with a vulgarity that is haughty, hard, maintained by constant labour. His vulgarity is erect.

I mean, you can’t quibble with that.

But these glimmers of brilliance are mostly submerged in a swamp of semi-opaque, meandering recollections. Genet doesn’t have much of a structure going on here… or perhaps vaguely shifting back and forth between various people and times and situations is a structure as good as anything. You can’t really say that there’s much sense of progress in the book, because we return to the same things so many times; sometimes we learn a bit more than last time and sometimes not. Genet glides around as if writing by nothing more than free association. Still there’s a sometimes satisfying connectedness to these pages.

But… I agree with my teenage self. I don’t really like Genet’s books. Getting through this one was mostly a chore, but with some real points of interest. I can see why he fascinates.

So how does the lard not-quite-ring pair with the book?

Well, they’re delicious, and, of course, makes the book a lot sweeter.

Nom nom nom.

CCCB: Jane Eyre

Thursday is book’n’bake day.

The bready hype the last few months has been the no-knead bread recipe from the New York Times. (Were they the ones responsible for the one-pot pasta travesty that was all the rage a couple of years ago? That thing was vile.)

But let’s give it a go.

You basically just combine the ingredients and then let it sit for 18 hours.

After which you fold it a bit and then let it sit for 90 minutes more…

Before plonking into a pot.

And then bake with a lid on for 30 minutes.

I should have floured the baking paper more: This dough is sticky, and transferring it from the paper to the piping hot pan was a challenge.

Then pop the lid off…

And then bake 15 minutes more.

I wondered whether I was supposed to continue baking until it had, like, the right colour, but the bread felt OK… Perhaps I should have put it higher up in the oven.

Let’s let it rest a bit while I pick out a book to read from the cache of my oldest avoidingest books:

And I chose Janë Eyrë by Charlottë Brontë. (Is that the correct number of rock dots?)

As with Oliver Twist, this book was an assignment for my University English class. And as you can see from that dog ear up there, I got to page 13 before abandoning it: Not even making it past the introduction.

And my stypid reason for giving is basically the same as for Oliver Twist, so I won’t repeat it here. But I’ve learnt one thing since 1991: NEVER READ INTRODUCTIONS!

So I’m just skipping to the start of the novel, with a nice facsimile of the original title page…

I had been very positively surprised by Dickens, so I’ve got high hopes for this one, too. The language seems a bit more old-fashioned than Oliver Twist, despite being written some decades later…

But how does it pair with the bread?

I was worried that the bread wasn’t cooked all the way through (because it was kinda light) or that it was going to be very compact (since it’s flat-ish), but it’s perfectly baked inside and very fluffy.

It’s a very nice bread! The best I’ve baked, ever. It’s fluffy, but not insubstantial. The bottom crust is nicely crusty, while the top could have gotten a bit more heat. It’s perfectly chewy on the inside, with perfectly wheaty glutenous action going on without being sweet. I mean, it’s just wheat, salt, yeast and water: No sugar or syrup added, which is a common trick to avoid dryness.

Well, this is a bread I’m definitely going to bake more of. Good reporting by the New York Times once again!

And how does Jane Eyre read?

“[…] under her light eyebrows glimmered an eye devoid of ruth”. It’s fun how some of Brontë’s language could sometimes be modern smarty-pants writing (ruthless -> devoid of ruth).

Brontë does tend to go into great detail about just about anything, but I’ve never read anybody that uses so long sentences that still manage to have them so clear and compulsively readable. She’s got a huge variation in what tricks she uses to keep on going, and on the reader goes with her.

Oh, yeah, this is a strange thing that I’ve seen in a lot of English writers (from the oldee time): Using just the first letter of place names; here it’s “L-“. Are we meant to understand what town this is? Brontë has “stony street” in quotation marks, so is the referring to some L town that famously has a stony street?

If that’s not the point, but just keeping things vague to make them … less specific, then you could just have dropped the L altogether…

I should do some research; I’ve seen this phenomenon in more than a handful of books.

Oh! Another canem auris! So I stopped reading the introduction pretty fast, and then read until chapter seven of the novel before abandoning it.

I think I can see why I stopped reading just here, because the preceding page is a bit snooze-worthy, but reading Eyre now, I’m plenty entertained. Brontë isn’t funny the way (say) Dickens is, but the story is interesting and, like I said, I really like her reading on a sentence by sentence basis…

I thought things got way less compelling once we get to Rochester. He just doesn’t seem that interesting to me, and yet Jane Eyre is riveted by him. I mean… it’s still a good read, but things grow progressively more conventional as the book progresses.

I guess all book-reading British people were expected to know some French at the time… and the weird thing is, I’m just about able to parse that, too, even if I don’t know French. But, after all, it’s a seven year old who makes these French utterances, so I guess it’s pretty basic French.

Hm…

The novel has also been the subject of a number of significant rewritings and reinterpretations, notably Jean Rhys’s seminal 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea.

Oh! I’ve read that book. It was good? It’s been some decades.

Literary critic Jerome Beaty felt that the close first person perspective leaves the reader “too uncritically accepting of her worldview”, and often leads reading and conversation about the novel towards supporting Jane, regardless of how irregular her ideas or perspectives are.

Ah. It was the first novel written as a first-person narrative? Then I do understand why it’s so famous now. Because reading it I’m a bit disappointed.

CCCB: Last and First Men/Star Maker

Wow, it’s Thursday, so something must be baked. And it’s not me!

Years ago, there was a fabulous cookie in the stores here. They were made by Walkers, and they were “stem ginger” cookies. They were glorious. Chewy, flavourful, in your face.

Apparently nobody else liked them, because they disappeared only to be replaced by Walkers shortbread “stem ginger”… things… and like all things shortbread, they’re not any good.

So now’s my opportunity. I can make them myself! Here’s a recipe! But what is even “stem ginger”? I mean, all ginger is “stem”. Or rhizomes. Or roots. Or whatever those things are.

This explains it, kinda. When you cook ginger (first for a while in water and then in sugar), it becomes something called “stem ginger” in many parts of the world, and it’s not quite the same as candied ginger.

So I went a-boiling and then put them in a container and let them sit for a week, and:

Look how… de… lish… ous?

Yeah, OK, they look like Satan’s wet farts, but they taste nice.

Got all my ingredients…

Uhm… my Muscovado sugar looks a bit… er… solid? Yes, solid.

Hah! I’ve got tools!

After blitzing that block of sugar in the blender for a while it got very powdery.

Perhaps a bit too powdery: See that haze over the blender? Yes, I think I inhaled a lot of aerosol sugar. That’s not unhealthy, is it? IS IT

The rest went without mishap. Dry stuff mixed with butter…

Chop chop chop.

Blend blend blend.

Mix mix mix.

Roll roll roll and then into the fridge for 20 minutes because of reasons that aren’t explained.

Chop chop chop.

I never know how much these things are going to expand in the oven, so to avoid to get a Continuous Cookie Landscape thing happening, I went way wimpy this time and only did six cookies in the first batch.

And…

They didn’t expand to 12x their sizes! Who knew!

OK, that’s half done (and I froze the rest of the dough for later, which, according to the recipe is A-OK).

I didn’t quite understand the “Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of gently simmering water, making sure that the water isn’t touching the bottom of the bowl” part of the recipe. Vaguely holding a bowl over water doesn’t like something that’s going to make a lot of chocolate melding action happen, does it?

IRC to the rescue: What they’re talking about is this principle:

Trapping the vapour under the bowl. Well, I don’t have a copper Bain Marie, but I’ve got plenty of small pots and pans:

Hah! Take that, oh so Bain Marie.

Melt melt.

Dip dip.

Done!

Well, this is a bakin’ and readin’ blog, so I have to pick a book from my collection of books from the early 90s that I have managed to avoid reading until today.

I pick Last and First Men/Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon.

There’s two reasons I haven’t read this book until now. The first one is silly and the second is deadly:

I hate reading collected editions. It makes reading seem like a chore, somehow. When I’m done with a book, I want to go on reading something else, not more of the same. So I avoid buying collected editions, and will gladly spring for buying five separate smaller paperbacks instead of one giant collected hardback.

But I bought this book, probably in like 1989, because Samuel Delany wrote somewhere that he thought that this was the bee’s knees.

I think.

At least some author I respected thought that this was good.

But when I started reading it, I found it tedious in the extreme. Like, way beyond reading calculus, which I also had to do at the time.

And I haven’t changed my mind there at all.

The book is one of the first science fiction books, and Stapledon is a horrible writer. First and Last Men is the history of humankind from the 1930 on, where we learn of the soon-to-come French/British war, and then the German/Russian one, and then…

It’s all told in the manner above: As written by some omniscient historian from the year 2 billion CE.

I think there’s probably some people who would like this thing. For instance, people who like reading recaps of stories instead of reading stories. And there’s a lot of those, so perhaps this would be a brilliant read for somebody who isn’t me?

Reading this was a soul-deadening experience, and, Reader, I have to admit I couldn’t get through it this time either. I failed! I had to start skimming, and then I started skipping chapters, and then I just skipped to the end.

Here’s the end, on page 246:

Well, that’s not too bad, is it?

BUT THEN THERE”S ANOTHER NOVEL! THIS IS WHY I HATE COLLECTED EDITIONS!

Well, OK, this one doesn’t seem to be written in exactly the same tone, so I’ll give it a go…

Oh, I was going to try the stem ginger cookies while reading.

Mmmm… yum… they’re crispy but also chewy. They could have used more stem ginger, to give them even more chewiness. Next time I’m baking these, I’m doubling the stem ginger.

Dee-lish.

While the first novel was about the history of humanity, the second book is more… lateral. It’s about a person who goes around (in his mind perhaps) around the galaxy, visiting planet after planet, and joining up with minds from each of these planets. So they collectively visit all kinds of strange planets… for page after page after page (did I mention “page after page”?) after page.

This is, after all, a pretty original structure for a novel, so I had expected to last longer, but I just can’t.

It’s deathly dull.

As a catalogue of wonders, it just doesn’t work. Stapledon cycles through all possible extrapolations from the current state of the art (of 1937), and he’s a smart cookie. But he lacks spice.

Mmm. Ginger.

Oh, right…

Well, I started skimming and then skipping and then jumped to the end of this novel, too.

I’ve let everybody down!