Adventure with philosophy. Or philosophy with adventure. Your choice.

I always feel uncertain writing about classics like Voltaire’s Candide. I mean, this was a book that was cited during the French Revolution in the 1790’s, and its influence is vast. Lots of thought has gone into Candide and its philosophy.

But chances are good you probably haven’t read it. So a quick summary: this is a short adventure novel with a lot of action and a basic debate between optimism and pessimism. Should Candide be an optimist or a pessimist? But that makes it sound boring and it’s not. Like I said, there’s a lot of adventure and hi-jinks and you can read it as a straight adventure story that’s only about 100 pages long. You can choose to engage in it at your preferred level. And I liked that.

I read it mostly as an adventure story – Candide does travel all over the world after all – but with some light philosophizing. Is it better to be a pessimist and never be let down? Or does optimism drive you to be better and do more? It’s not proscriptive; you get to decide for yourself.

Recommended, because there’s not enough thinking about optimism in culture today.

A simpler tale

Of the three Lady Sherlock books I’ve read, The Hollow of Fear is the best. You get the characters, you get what seems to be romantical progress but might not actually be, and most importantly, the mystery that’s being solved has been significantly simplified.

The earlier books seemed to delight in making the problem to be solved as complex as possible so the reader didn’t figure it out ahead of time. This book still has timeline trickery for maximum confusion, but at least you’re not figuring out how three different mysteries fit together. So that’s a win.


Shirley Jackson is funny

I continue to adore Shirley Jackson’s essays/nonfiction chapters about raising her four kids in a possibly haunted house in small town Vermont in the late 1940s-early 1950s. Life Among the Savages lived up to all my expectations about the essays’ hilariousness and strangeness.

To wit: I was giggling audibly while reading them on the sofa next to my husband. He asked me what was so funny, so I read him the paragraph that ends with her daughters’ singing “Baby ate a spider, baby ate a spider.” Then he started laughing.

Him: Who wrote this?
Me: Shirley Jackson, you know the woman who wrote The Lottery? [You know, that story you read in high school about the woman who ends up getting stoned to death? aka NOT FUNNY РKate]

I wasn’t expecting the first set of her essays to be so entertaining, but these lived up to every expectation I had. Definitely recommended.

Ancho Chile Soup

We mainly made the Ancho Chile Soup because it seemed like a quick, close-enough substitute for Chicken Tortilla Soup. Plus, it’s always good to try something new. Our verdict? Cook a chicken breast or two, then add it at the end. It needed a little bit more something than the recipe called for. Chicken was our thought, but you might think something else. Regardless, this was quick. We’ll be making it again, with the aforementioned tweak.

Ancho Chile Soup

4 medium ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded, and torn
1c boiling water
3T neutral oil
1lb vine-ripened tomatoes, cored
1 white onion, quartered
2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1.5t agave syrup
1t salt
1.5qt chicken broth
3c tortilla chips
sour cream
diced avocado
fresh cilantro

  1. Toast chiles in dutch oven over medium heat, pressing and flipping once, until fragrant and darker in color. Transfer to a bowl and add boiling water. Let stand for 10 minutes.
  2. Heat 1T oil over med-high heat until shimmering. Add tomatoes, onion, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until charred all over, 8-10 minutes. Transfer to blender, add agave syrup, drained chiles, and salt. Blend until smooth, about 2 minutes.
  3. In same pot, heat 2T oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add puree and cook, stirring constantly, until slightly darker and thickened, 5-7 minutes. (It will splatter, wear an apron and prepare yourself for cleanup.) Stir in chicken broth and bring to simmer. Taste and season with salt & pepper.
  4. Divide tortilla chips, roughly crumbled, amongst 4 bowls. Ladle in soup. Top with sour cream (I used Monterey Jack cheese – to each their own), diced avocado, and cilantro.

Now I want to read all of the Shirley Jackson

Let Me Tell You is a compilation of essays and short stories by Shirley Jackson, who you may know best as the author of “The Lottery”, a story about a stoning that takes place in what otherwise seems to be contemporary America. (In one of the essays, she talks about the genesis of that story. She’d been reading a book about human sacrifice, and, whilst walking her kids to school, started thinking about how such a thing would work in the small town in which she lived.)

It was deeply entertaining – some of the stories were better than the others – but the best part of a good book were her essays. One of the best was when she was describing the old house she and her family lived in, and its ghosts which were sometimes friendly and sometimes not, but by and large seemed to approve of them living there. The whole book was smart and entertaining.

Highly recommended.

Yes, pasta + potatoes. It’s delicious.

I looked askance at this recipe for a couple of minutes – I mean, pasta and potatoes in the same dish? That’s a lot of carbs. But then my husband suggested it and, let’s face it, carbs are DELICIOUS. So we tried it out.*

Pasta with potatoes, gorgonzola, and fried sage

12oz fingerling potatoes, cut into 0.5″ pieces
12oz pasta (the recipe calls for twisty pasta, but when you’re gluten-free you make do with what you can find)
3T olive oil
0.25c fresh sage leaves
2T white balsamic vinegar (yes, we just used the regular stuff)
3T salted butter
3T chopped fresh chives
3oz gorgonzola (or other creamy blue cheese)

  1. Mix potatoes, 2qt water, and 2T salt. Bring to a boil, cook over high until potatoes are tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer potatoes to colander with slotted spoon. Return water to boil and cook pasta.
  2. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. add sage and cook until crisp, about 1 minute. Remove cooked sage with slotted spoon. Return the pan to medium-high heat and add potatoes and 0.5t both salt & pepper. Cook until potatoes are golden, ~5 minutes. Off heat, add in balsamic vinegar.
  3. Drain pasta, saving 0.75c of water. Add pasta to skillet with potatoes, placing over medium-high heat. Add butter and cooking water, toss until creamy. Stir in chives. Sprinkle with gorgonzola, crush sage over the top. Serve.

* Apropos of nothing: the photo on the cover for the Milk Street Magazine that this recipe is in? Looks like it’s out of a 1970s cookbook. A roast with peppers and a hard-boiled egg inside? It might be delicious, but I can’t even with the picture of it. I shudder a little bit inside every time I see it.

More about the characters than the mysteries

The Lady Sherlock series is… fine? I recently read the first two books; they’re fun without being spectacular. I’m not sure I could tell you any of the intricacies of the actual mysteries, which always seem to be entirely too convoluted. One of Agatha Christie’s rules of mystery writing is that the motive should be something simple and everyday. These books do not follow that rule.

However, I’m not here for the mysteries. I’m here for the characterization of women in Victorian London figuring out how to be transgressive and get away with it. Charlotte Holmes losing her virginity and making sure it gets out so her father can’t marry her off; Mrs Watson coming from the stage; Charlotte’s sister starting to make her own living by writing down “Sherlock”‘s mysteries. Sherlock is a total fabrication created so that people will bring their issues to Charlotte.

The books are a mixed bag, and I still have the third one on hold at the library, so I’m enjoying them enough to keep going on the series.

Not quite weeknight pasta sauce. Still good.

Pasta with Weeknight Meat Sauce from the ATK How Can It Be Gluten Free is not quite actually a weeknight meal – it takes 45-60 minutes to prepare. Weeknight, to me, says 30-40 minutes for a meal; you might be different, I don’t know.

But this is yummy and it saves into convenient leftovers to take for lunches. So it gets made on the weekends, or on nights when we have time for that kind of thing.

1lb ground beef
2T water
0.5t baking soda
4oz white mushrooms, halved or quartered
1T olive oil
1 onion, chopped fine
3 garlic cloves, minced
1T tomato paste
2t minced fresh oregano (can sub 1t dried)
0.125t red pepper flakes
1-28oz can tomato puree
1-14.5oz can petit diced tomatoes
0.25c parmesan cheese
12 oz gluten-free penne

  1. Toss beef with water, 1t salt, 0.25t pepper, and baking soda in bowl until thoroughly combined. Let sit for 20 minutes.
  2. Pulse mushrooms in food processor until finely chopped. Heat oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add mushrooms and onions and cook until vegetables are softened & well-browned, about 10 minutes.
  3. Stir in garlic, tomato paste, oregano & red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant. Stir in tomato puree, diced tomatoes, 0.5t salt, 0.5t pepper, and bring to gentle simmer. Add beef mixture and cook, breaking up meat, until cooked through and sauce has thickened, about 30 minutes. Stir in Parmesan.
  4. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts of water to boil. Add pasta & 1T salt to pan. Cook till done. Reserve 0.5c cooking water. then drain pasta & return to pot. Add sauce and toss to combine. Slowly add water as needed for consistency. Serve.

Talking to ghosts, part 1

City of Ghosts is a middle grade ghost story that I read in the run-up to Halloween. Cassidy Blake almost died this one time; now she sees ghosts. Her parents are ghost hunters – which doesn’t work as well as you might think. They get an opportunity to go to Edinburgh, and Cassidy gets drawn into a drama in a city FULL of ghosts. Most of which, according to the author who is a sometimes-resident of Edinburgh, are local legends.

It was entertaining, and, since the framing is that Cassidy’s parents got a TV contract to look for ghosts in a number of different cities, this is only book one of many. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Can I interest you in some angry women?

Can I interest you in an angry woman? One who wants power and has been kept on the sidelines her whole life? One who gains the ability to turn people into ash, and still can’t get the men in power to take her seriously?

How about a different angry woman – this one is quiet and uses her super-power to look like other people. You don’t really know what she looks like until the end of the book, and it’s not the point anyway. But she is out for herself, and slipping between the cracks to hide after she’s taken what’s hers and that’s another kind of power.

Or maybe an angry teenager, one who is growing up slower than normal because her power to bring things back from the dead also makes her cold and her body function slower than it should. I don’t think she wants to be normal, per se, but her life is definitely not even close. She might like at least one normal teenage experience in her life.

How about two angry men, one who can control pain and the other who can heal, who are so alike it’s ridiculous, each determined to end the other?

I read Vengeful right after the Dr Christine Blasey Ford hearings. It was perfect for my mood, and it might be VE Schwab’s best book yet. It was definitely better than Vicious, her earlier book in this series, which was nothing to sneeze at.