Monday Shorts

A mystery in translation

For all of my love of reading books about Paris, they’re usually books written by English-language authors. Not French authors in translation. I found The Nicolas Le Floch Affair – a murder mystery that takes place in 1774, translated from the French – I grabbed it mostly as an intellectual exercise to see how French popular writing is different from English popular writing.

So, how is it different? Well, there is a LOT more attention paid to the food. LOTS. Meals were routinely described, with recipes given in the text of the novel along with complements to the chef. I’m not going to lie – reading this book made me hungry. Clothing, too, was described in more detail. Even though these are police officers, mostly un-fancy, they also did have to go to Versailles to talk to the king, and both their regular wardrobes and court attire were described. In short, between the food and the clothes: atmosphere matters.

The other difference that took time to get over was sentence structure. In English, there is an idea (probably from Hemingway) that shorter and simpler is better. The Nicolas Le Floch Affair had, in contrast, very rambling sentences. They would have been a disaster to diagram. There was definitely an adjustment period.

The mystery itself was fairly standard: a Nicolas’ lover is murdered at the beginning of the book, he stands accused of the crime and has to find the real culprit. It’s the fourth in the series, so there were some references to earlier books that I didn’t get, but they were easy to skip over.

I am considering reading the earlier books, just for more practice. Plus, the historical period is fun. The Nicolas Le Floch Affair is worth your relaxation time.

Miso-glazed salmon

I don’t know if it’s still salmon season or not – isn’t it usually over about now? But there was some delicious salmon at the farmer’s market this weekend, so miso-glazed salmon called my name. I served it with oven fries and fresh-made chocolate chip cookies for dessert. It was a good Sunday night meal.

3T white miso
5t honey
1T soy sauce (I used tamari, because: gluten-free)
2t mirin
1.5t toasted sesame oil
0.25t cayenne pepper
4-6oz center-cut salmon pieces
2T water
1T sesame seeds
1 scallion thinly sliced on diagonal

Whisk miso, 4t honey, soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, and cayenne together. Measure out 2t of sauce and brush onto tops of salmon. Let stand at room temperature for 20 minutes. Mix water and remaining teaspoon of honey into remaining sauce.

Evenly space filets, skin-side down on oiled wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet. Broil until thickest part of salmon reaches 115F (6-8 minutes). Transfer to platter, drizzle with 2T of remaining miso mixture. Sprinkle sesame seeds and scallion. Serve.

Are all melodramas shaggy?

Shadow of Night and The Book of Life are books two and three, respectively in the All Souls Trilogy. The trilogy itself is a fun adventure story, starring a woman, Diana Bishop. She’s a researcher and witch who has stumbled upon a book about the history of all of three creature types: demon, vampire, and witch. The book goes back into the library at Oxford at the beginning of the the first book in the trilogy, and the remaining books are dedicated to getting back.

There are countless characters and subplots and lots of world building details. The author is a historian, so all of that information rings true and is told with so much affection that you can’t help but also be drawn into that affection. But the story is longer than it should have been with more characters than there needed to be – I wish it had been tighter and concise.

But then it might have lost its soul – I wrote that the first book was a melodrama, and it was. The second and third books are too. Everything is heightened, and it’s not just the life and death of the characters, it’s the lives and deaths of the entirety of creature-hood. The shagginess of the tale might be a feature, not a bug. It’s a better melodrama because of the over-elaboration and too many characters. It would have lost its soap opera-ness without them.

The trilogy is fun and makes for a good light read when you have plenty of time for it. I both started and ended this trilogy on different vacations and that was the right time to read it.

A stranger comes to town

Many stories start out with either “a stranger came to town” or “xx decided to leave town”. Movement implies change and adventure, apparently. In The Near Witch, a stranger comes to the town of Near, but only Lexi, our main character, can see him. At least at first. His arrival coincides with children starting to go missing. As you can imagine, the townspeople, once they figure out that there is a mysterious stranger in their midst, immediately blame him. Lexi and our stranger have already started to look for the children and to prove his innocence. And yes, the witches of Near are involved, as the title implies.

The Near Witch is a re-release of V E Schwab’s first book, and you can tell that it’s a first book – the plotting isn’t as tight, everything’s a little shaggier than in her later books. But the story’s spark is there, and you genuinely want to know what’s going to happen and care about the characters. It reads a little more like a YA book than an adult book, even though it’s officially an adult book.

Recommended.

Read your broccoli

This collection of George Orwell’s essays was so interesting and relevant. I would say that if you are inclined to write about politics, even to tweet about them or write a post on Facebook, you would benefit from reading his essays. Orwell was famously interested in and wrote well about politics. His points about fascism in Britain during the 1930s and while WWII was going on are relevant to our current political situation.

His essays cover many topics, not just politics (though if you want to own your own copy of Politics and the English Language, it’s in here), but also how terrible it actually was to live at a boarding school, how terrible books start to seem when you have to work amongst them all the time, and what it was like to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Just be aware that this is more about eating your broccoli – necessary and good for you – than the fun of eating dessert. Luckily, you can break it off into small, essay-sized chunks.

Thoughtful Kindness

Evvie Drake is a mess. Her husband – a terrible person, shown mostly in flashbacks – dies in a car accident in the first scene of the book. Evvie is in a complicated emotional space. She was in the process of leaving him when she got the phone call. Emotionally, she’s a disaster, both mourning her husband and convinced that she’s a horrible person.

Enter Dean, a former Yankees pitcher with the World Series rings to prove that he used to be one of the best. He’s retired early from the game due to a case of the yips that no one has been able to diagnose. He’s a friend of a friend and needs a place away from everything to figure some things out. Evvie has an apartment on the back of the house, so that’s convenient.

They both need to heal. Evvie Drake Starts Over is about how you heal – the time it takes, the dumb things you do and say, the arguments you have, the way you ignore therapy as a solution until you do something so stupid that you finally give in.

And yes, Evvie and Dean have a relationship beyond just landlord-tenant.

Overall Evvie Drake Starts Over is so sweet and kind and thoughtful that I didn’t want to put it down. And it’s not due back at the library for a couple of weeks, so I might just read it again, for a double-dose of likable characters who are trying to do the right thing.

An academic travel book

I picked up Paris to the Past because of The Earful Tower’s Book Club. I’m not sure I would have found it otherwise; it’s much more an academic book than a leisure read.

Robert Caro is Ina Caro’s husband – I don’t like pointing out people’s relationships to other people as a reason for them to be noteworthy, but I do think this is a note worth making because Robert Caro is famous for writing a super-in-depth biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson – it’s currently at 4 volumes and is only up to 1965-ish. So if you’re wondering how well-researched this book about touring around Paris and the Ile-de-France is, let me tell you that she has learned her research habits, with multiple visits and multiple tours of each site and fact-checking.

She arranges the book by historical era, which I thought was a great idea. How brilliant to arrange your site-seeing by era, so you can see how the architectural styles flow into each other and the history and who is related to whom makes more sense and is more memorable.

Think of Paris to the Past as research and not as a fun book to read by the beach and you’ll do much better with it. I liked it, but it’s not for everyone. I want to read more of her books.

Vietnamese Cucumber Salad

Glass bowl with cucumber salad, including peanuts, cilantro, and jalapeños.

Let me be the 12 millionth person to recommend Salt Fat Acid Heat, both on Netflix and in book form. This is Samin Nosrat’s Vietnamese-style cucumber salad. I served it with pan-seared chicken thighs and rice, and it was the interest in an otherwise unremarkable meal. The extra dressing from the salad made a nice sauce for the chicken.

2lbs (about 8) Persian or Japanese cucumbers
1 large jalapeño, seeds removed if desired, thinly sliced
3 scallions, finely sliced
1 garlic clove, crushed
0.5c coarsely chopped cilantro
16 large mint leaves, coarsely chopped
0.5c toasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
0.25c neutral-tasting oil
4-5T lime juice
4t rice wine vinegar
1T fish sauce
1t sugar
pinch of salt

Using either a mandolin or a sharp knife, thinly slice cucumbers, discarding the ends. In a large bowl, combine cucumbers, jalapeño, scallions, garlic, cilantro, mint, and peanuts. In a small bowl, mix remaining ingredients and stir until salt & sugar are dissolved. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and mix. Taste and adjust with more salt or lime juice. Serve immediately.

Sarah Dessen and found family

Sarah Dessen books are often about the family we find for ourselves outside of our immediate family. The Rest of the Story is no different – Emma Saylor, known as Emma in town, ends up spending the summer with her disgraced mother’s family one summer. There, they know her as Saylor, and she hasn’t been there since she was four years old.

Emma, of course, grows as a person and also, of course, finds a boy. But the romance storyline isn’t as strong as it’s been in her previous books. This one really is more about Saylor’s development into a person whose life is defined by more than just her mother’s screw-ups. Ironic, then, that visiting her mother’s family is what finally allows her to develop beyond being defined by “try as hard as you can to not turn into your mother.”

The Rest of the Story isn’t as strong as some of Dessen’s previous books but it was still enjoyable and I’m glad I read it.