My Frustrations with Ian McEwan’s Atonement

I don’t know about you, but I always have a collection of unread books on my shelves, picked up from used book stores or library sales. I always intend to get to them when I buy them, but sometimes they languish. Such was the case with a book by Ian McEwan, Atonement. I actually have two of his books on my shelves (the other is Saturday), but about a month ago a friend of mine recommended him as an author generally, and Atonement in particular, so I pulled the volume down and put it in the summer reading list stack.

On one hand, I should have good things to say about this book: I read it quickly, in two non-consecutive days, and so I can fairly say that I found it compelling. Additionally, McEwan’s prose itself is rendered with remarkable skill: it is evocative, with pitch-perfect tone. Despite my many frustrations with this novel, his writing alone makes me think that I’ll still get around to reading Saturday someday.

But oh, those frustrations. There were a few. Most notably how much I hated the main character of the book (I don’t think I, as the reader, was supposed to, no), but we’ll get to her in a moment.

Firstly, McEwan is a writer writing about writing in many parts of this novel, which is a pet peeve of mine. The above-mentioned main character begins to write little stories at the age of 10 (we see her primarily pursuing this hobby at 13). This is fair enough — I think that is about when kids who are so inclined start writing. But it is not merely a part of her character outline that she writes stories; rather, McEwan takes the opportunity to rhapsodize about the craft of storytelling. I’m exaggerating only slightly with my snarky italics. The problem with this sort of going on about the profound art of writing stories is that it’s self-aggrandizing horseshit. It is one thing to describe a character as one who likes to construct fiction, and to tease out what that might imply about that character: they have a tendency to live in their own mind; they are, perhaps, particularly observant; they are, perhaps, abstractly empathetic, by which I mean, while they can easily suss out the feelings and predict the (re)actions of others, they nonetheless are at a remove from other people, seeing others as objects of consideration rather than fellow subjects in the world. These are just my thoughts on the subject, perhaps others’ would be different, but my point is, it’s not a bad project for an author per se to make a character a writer. But there is some line past which the belaboring of the craft of storytelling becomes a reflection not on the writer character but on the author, and oh my, what a god of imagination he or she can be! In short, it becomes obnoxious, because all of the author’s reflections on the writer character and their pursuit of writing as an art are necessarily reflections on the author him/herself as artist.

I find this especially obnoxious because, as a failed writer myself, let me dispel a little conceit: writing is not a mystical labor of godlike intuition and profoundly creative compulsion. Being a writer requires natural talent, yes, and when one really feels inspired to write, doing so can be exciting and rewarding. But being a writer also requires practice, tedium, and, frankly, drudgery. Most writers are not successful; I certainly wasn’t. Being a writer is also a lot of luck, like any career in the fine arts. Most of the time, writing is just staring at drafts in frustration, and, let’s be honest, most writing doesn’t contain blinding insights into the human condition. It’s a skilled art, but its end result is usually not much more than an entertainment for consumers, and while it can rarely transcend that to become Important, that moment of importance is even still a brief brief moment in the life of a writer overall.

So basically, let’s take the self-importance down a few dozen pegs, OK Ian?

Moving on. The book itself as it’s crafted presented me with some quandaries. For one, the writing, although lovely, occasionally turns towards the … improbable. Take this passage:

“The silence hissed in her ears and her vision was faintly distorted — her hands in her lap appeared unusually large and at the same time remote, as though viewed across an immense distance. She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider at the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge. She brought her forefinger closer to her face and stared at it, urging it to move. It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was not the same as actually moving it. And when she did crook it finally, the action seemed to start in her finger itself, not in some part of her mind. When did it know to move, when did she know to move it? There was no catching herself out. It was either-or. There was no stitching, no seam, and yet she knew that behind the smooth continuous fabric was the real self — was it her soul? — which took the decision to cease pretending, and gave the final command.”

Now that sounds just lovely. But seriously, what the fuck? Go back. Read the passage again. In the first place, these are the supposed musings of a sheltered 13-year-old — really? For another, 5 demerits for describing the human hand as a “fleshy spider” at the end of one’s arm and “a machine for gripping”. Additionally, there is something just too precious about looking for one’s soul(!) in the “crest” of one’s intention to move a finger. This looking for the “real self” (NB: dear fellow writers, if you find yourself musing about the “real self”, stop, take a nap, and come back to reconsider) by navel-gazing one’s own reflexes is writerly and unrealistic — this is not how humans, even very thoughtful, precocious humans, consider the world, and especially not in such abstract language.

But it sounds nice! It sounds … deep. This sort of tipping into absurdity is a problem McEwan has occasionally, it would seem.

Another problem with the way the novel is crafted: its engagement with World War II left me puzzled. Let me explain. The novel happens in three parts. The first occurs in 1935, on a single day and night during which we are eloquently introduced to a family and its moving parts (including that main character, the 13-year-old, whom I dislike so much), as they throw a small garden party in midsummer at their quasi-aristocratic British estate. This makes up the first half of the book or so (my copy is 350 pages), and it builds slowly, acquainting us with the characters of the novel until it concludes with an event the consequences of which play out in parts two and three. Part two of the book is set four years later; one of the characters is retreating from the Germans in northern France. I have sat and tried to think of why McEwan decided to stage this novel, at least in part, in battle in WWII. In the first place, the book did not seem to readily provide the answer to this question on its own. Don’t misunderstand, the book makes chronological sense and the plot is adequately tied to the setting, but: war is a loaded topic, McEwan is describing a loaded historical moment, and surely an author wouldn’t deploy such a time casually, for shits and giggles. I have considered that the transition from prewar to wartime Britain might usefully reflect on the maturation of the novel’s central character (the third part of the book takes place in London in 1940), and might parallel in some way the traumas and the strippings away of Briony’s (my loathed 13-year-old’s) adolescence, particularly in light of her crimes in the conclusion of Part One. (We’ll get there!) But that explains only the trajectory of the first and the third parts of the novel; the second part is set squarely in war-torn France as British forces fall back in hasty retreat, and again, this setting and this historical context seem too full, too fraught, to be deployed without larger symbolic purpose. One of the characters is at war, and it’s a trial for him, surely. But is that enough to justify 100 pages of disgraced battlefield? I kept looking for something that I don’t think was there, a significance the reader anticipates but is never rendered up. I am left with this feeling that McEwan — whom one can tell researched this portion of the novel ruthlessly for historical accuracy — wrote about the flight to Dunkirk because he thought it would be neat; I challenge this as a good decision, or, at least, as a fully realized component of the novel. McEwan left a lot on the field in this portion of the book.

Finally, let me come to Briony herself. To begin with, I should confess that books, movies, and television shows that are primarily about children and their concerns bore me. I have no desire to revisit the growing pains of my own youth, and I never found the reiteration of such struggles in art to be particularly useful or engaging for the adult version of myself. Again, frankly, I find children boring. But the recommender of this book does also, and so I took it on faith that McEwan must be doing something different in rendering youth.

Not really. Oh, how I hated Briony. The character as a young teen is precociously self-assured despite being so breathtakingly naive that I could not stop myself from spontaneously composing dialogue in my mind for the other characters to utter for the sheer purpose of humiliating Briony. She is also self-important and self-involved to the point of narcissism. These are deep character flaws, and yet they go unremarked upon by other characters or the author. And these flaws are not harmless — by the end of the first part of the book, her undeserved conceit — and her willingness to lie (though the character herself refuses to own up to the fact that she was lying, throughout the entire book, rather calling herself confused) — ruin the lives of a family friend and her own sister.

In the third part of the book, Briony is 18, but still cowardly, still apparently unclear as to the full dimensions of her own actions in the world, and, to me, still irritating for all that. But at this point in the book, I perked up a bit, as there seemed to be some hope for her — she seemed to be finally maturing, finally realizing her flaws. But then comes an epilogue. I don’t spoil much to tell you that it turns out a conceit of the book is that it is actually a non-fiction novel written by Briony, whom we encounter again in a first-person epilogue supposedly written in her late 70s. Still self-involved, still prattling about writing, the elder version of Briony is revealed to be profoundly uncharitable in her judgments of others, despite how much charity the forgiveness of her own young life requires. I was especially shocked by Briony’s lack of charity towards the character of her slightly older cousin (now an old woman as well) who was — again, I don’t spoil much here — a rape victim at 15. This ugly misogyny could be as much the unconscious fault of McEwan as of the character Briony, I couldn’t say for sure. But regardless, it’s a nasty note to bring the character out on.

And speaking of nasty, the “author” herself feels compelled in the final pages of the book to ruin its ending for “her” readers, out of what comes off as a selfish need to fulfill her own supposed obligations to truth, a compulsion I found laughably undeserving of the reader’s consideration; Briony, you have not earned the right to claim that you value truth above all else, or to be its defender in spite of its unpleasantness.

Long story short, I hated this bitch her whole life long. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think I was supposed to — I don’t think it was one of those books. So, you know, given that, that’s a problem, right? It actually might have been interesting if I thought I was supposed to hate Briony, given that the book is supposedly a true story written by her: the psychological implications of that are noteworthy. But even if that is the case, the revelation that the book is patially autobiographical comes too late, and is not given enough space on the page, for the reader to really work through those potential psychological implications. So while I don’t think I’m supposed to hate Briony, even if I am, the book still fails to give that idea the space and time it needs to really work on the reader’s experience with the character, assuming that forcing the reader to fully flip flop their understanding of a book after it’s already over is a cheap trick. (Which it is.)

Oh, Lordy, Ian McEwan. I don’t know what to say. McEwan’s writing talent is self-evident (not just in his prose, but in his composition’s balance and momentum, his characterizations, and his emotional acuity). But as I couldn’t stop myself from going on about above, this novel so frustrated me that I don’t know if I can call this a good book or not. I’ll leave it for you to decide. As I said, I will probably take on Saturday in the not-so-distant future, if you want to consider that. I hope there are no children in that one.

2nd Annual Memorial Day Weekend at The Trailer

It was Memorial Day Weekend, which means it was time to visit the The Trailer.  I’ve mentioned The Trailer previously on this blog: Sarah’s parents own a trailer in Great Valley, New York, and last Memorial Day Sarah decided she would request its use for a small vacation and invite Ted and I to join her.  Last year’s trip was a success, so we decided to make this the 2nd Annual Trailer Weekend.

 

The first upshot was that Sarah has a new car, so while Ted and I still managed to get a little carsick on the drive up — Route 28 North and Route 66 through Allegheny National Forest are both pretty roller coaster-y — at least there was air conditioning.  Sarah’s old PT Cruiser didn’t have air conditioning; frankly, that car was kind of a lemon, and we don’t particularly miss it.  Anyway, we arrived slightly nauseous but cool.

 

Here’s the thing about The Trailer: there’s nothing to do.  Now, I bet that would get boring after more than a couple of days, but for a long weekend it’s pretty ideal.  Because here’s the thing: “staycations” are bullshit.  Utter bullshit.  I’m not saying that Pittsburgh doesn’t have lots of awesome stuff to do, but look: let’s say Ted and I had “staycationed” over the weekend.  1) Had we actually done the stuff in Pittsburgh that’s cool to do, the only money we would have saved would have been gas money, because it’s not like cool stuff is free, even where you live.  2) You can’t do nothing at home without feeling guilty, because there’s always something you could be cleaning or fixing or organizing or whatever.  But at The Trailer, there’s literally nothing to do, so you can just kick back, snack, and drink.

 

A Tim Horton's donut -- mmm, the Great North.

 

Chiefly that’s what we did: snacked and drank.  I brought a bunch of snacking provisions, like cheeses, olives and peppers and artichoke hearts, dried fruits, cured meats, and a loaf of bread; Sarah brought three(!) different kinds of Doritos and we both brought a fair amount of booze.  Plus also, I got a Tim Horton’s donut, since we were in the Great North, and they have Tim Horton’s up there.  Also, Sarah made us knock-off Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits, since they’d come up in conversation recently, and so we had a Biscuits and Beer Break, which led me to decide that in the future, I’m going to invite my baking-inclined pals over for a Biscuits and Beer party, cause seriously, how good of an idea is Biscuits and Beer?

 

Biscuits and Beer

 

To be fair, there isn’t nothing to do near The Trailer.  On Saturday night, we went to Myers Steakhouse and Inn, which is actually in nearby Salamanca; Sarah’s cousin, Jennifer, is married to the co-owner of Myers, so we met Cousin Jennifer and her husband Trevor for drinks and dinner at his establishment.  Cousin Jennifer is pregnant, which is a little startling, but only because I always think pregnancy is somewhat alarming in any context.  Also somewhat alarming: a lamp made out of taxidermied deer legs.  On previous trips to The Trailer, I had noticed that decorating with dead preserved animals is a Thing up north, and, OK, I guess that’s just different strokes.  But for some reason I was really weirded out by the deer leg lamp.  It seemed like it was a step beyond just mounting a trophy buck’s head on the wall — it was too ingenious.  Like, it’s what a deer serial killer would do.

 

It's like, the Devil's lamp.

 

Luckily the lamp didn’t follow us into the dining room, where we shared crab-stuffed mushrooms and bruschetta (the crab-stuffed mushrooms were particularly good, especially because they were covered in a creamy cheese sauce); Sarah had haddock covered in a fruit compote with a balsamic sauce; and Ted and I shared the Chicken Wisconsin, which was chicken covered in a sharp cheddar bacon sauce, and “Myers’s Seafood Explosion”, which was a creamy garlic pasta with lobster, shrimp, and bay scallops.  So it’s not like you can’t get a decent meal near The Trailer.  Two interesting points about the meal: 1) everything was served with a little side of homemade creamed corn, which I loved, probably because I’d never had homemade creamed corn before, and 2) the salads had really good croutons because they fried the bread instead of baking it.  Genius!

 

Chicken Wisconsin

 

After dinner it was back to the trailer for drinks, naturally.

 

This is Sarah in front of Ellicottville.

 

The next day, we headed into nearby Ellicottville, where our first stop was the Winery of Ellicottville.  They use only local New York grapes, and tastings are very reasonable at $3 and $5 each for six-wine samplers; we each had two.  The wine was … well, a lot of it was much too sweet for me.  I mean, New York wine is New York wine, it’s not gonna be amazing. But Ted and I each found a wine we liked — I favored the chardonnay, he the Traminette — and we brought a couple bottles home, to remind us of our Trailer Weekend when we finally crack them open.

 

Some New York Wines

 

Next we encountered Sponge Candy.

 

See? Sponge Candy.

 

Sarah was surprised we’d never heard of Sponge Candy, though I’m not sure why, because I’m pretty sure Sponge Candy only exists in about 40 square feet of Ellicottville, New York.  Of course, we had to go in to Watson’s Chocolates and buy some.  We sat down immediately to sample this strange new thing.

 

Ted Displays the Sponge Candy

 

I have absolutely no idea what the sponge consists of.  It’s a kind of crunchy orange … substance.  Sarah also doesn’t know what it is.  It’s the sponge.

 

The Sponge

 

So that’s a thing in the world that you now know about.

 

Sponge Candy secured, we headed onward to the Ellicottville Brewing Company.  We’d been here last year, and bought a growler, so I figured we should return — I mean, if I only get one chance a year to fill a growler, I should take that chance.  We also had dinner there.  We started with pierogies “made by a gentleman in Hanover, NY”, and soft pretzels with beer cheese sauce.  Mmm, beer cheese sauce.  Adorably, New Yorkers appear to believe that pierogies should be served with peppers as well as onions. I actually didn’t mind this, but still.  Also, Sarah noted that the pierogies were a bit dry.  By “a bit dry” what she really meant, I believe, was “not swimming in a lake of butter” — so, clearly, New York has a thing or two to learn about pierogies.  I got a ceasar salad as my entree, as well as an appetizer crab cake; Ted had the fish and chips, Sarah had the shepherd’s pie. I was frankly just glad to have some leafs in me at that point.  We had several of EBC’s beers, and all of them were good.

 

Pierogies and Pretzels: A Taste of Home

 

Then it was back to the trailer for more drinking. Naturally.

 

Monday came and it was time to go, after a leisurely breakfast and some tidying.  Ted and I had to make a ginger ale — pretzel — Dramamine stop in Marienville on the way home, but again, at least there was air conditioning.

 

Truly, it was another successful weekend at the trailer.

 

Chief demanded lots of cuddles when we got home, since we left him for three days.

Thoughts on Gentrification, Race, and Some Delicious, Fraught Fried Chicken

If you like to go out to restaurants in Pittsburgh, you probably know the name Kevin Sousa. He’s the chef behind Salt of the Earth, arguably the best fine dining restaurant in town; he was nominated for a James Beard award this year. He also owns two other restaurant properties, Station Street Hot Dog, which is kind off by itself over on Broad Street, across the busway from the Target, by the East Liberty post office; and Union Pig and Chicken, which is on Highland Avenue, a block back from Penn Circle North. Station Street Hot Dog has been a hot dog place on and off since 1915. Likewise, Union Pig and Chicken is in a store front that has been variably occupied for as long as I’ve lived in the city, but was most recently Steel City Rib House.

I’ve been to Salt twice and it really is amazing food. Sousa put the restaurant into a formerly abandoned building in Garfield, just up Penn from Negley, several years ago. If you live in the city, you know that the Penn Avenue corridor has been slowly improving for years. Fancy lofts came to meet Sousa’s Salt, as did the upscale Mexican restaurant Verde (which is also very tasty). Penn is the dividing line between Garfield to the north and Friendship to the south, running more or less west to east up from where it divides Bloomfield to the south from Lawrenceville to the north. On the Larryville side of Penn, UPMC built the new Children’s Hospital, which has been a boon to the more westerly end of Penn. Likewise, East Liberty, which had at one time been one of the largest commercial districts in the commonwealth, but then was destroyed by terrible city planning in the 1960s, becoming a poor black neighborhood thereafter, has in recent years shaken off its blight and is now home to trendy bars and restaurants along Centre Avenue, which runs into Penn at the Target. The transformation in the neighborhood is now creeping onto Penn as well at this easterly end, which currently houses a number of predominately black businesses — and a fair number of empty store fronts. With the rehabilitation of the Highland Building into upscale apartments now underway, I don’t see how Penn Avenue can fail to go the way of Centre in this area.

My Mom and the Unfinished Boards.

So look, what’s the problem? Well, on one hand, there isn’t a problem, right? I mean, Kevin Sousa put three very good restaurants at three different price points into three empty store fronts in a somewhat blighted neighborhood. It’s hard to argue that something isn’t better for a neighborhood than nothing, and something good and popular isn’t even better than that. And though I haven’t been to Station Street yet, I can tell you that Union Pig and Chicken has some of the most delicious fried chicken I’ve ever had in my mouth, a fact I discovered on Friday when my mother and I went there for lunch.

But on the other hand, we know how gentrification works: a poor neighborhood, often a predominately black neighborhood, is down in the dumps. Working from a variety of intentions, from an honest desire to see a neighborhood get back on its feet to the cold calculation that you’ll make a killing if you get in on the ground floor of the Brooklynification of a city neighborhood, a crowd of wealthier, predominately white folks moves in and starts sprucing up the place. Except they always seem to spruce it up for themselves rather than the people who already live there — let’s be honest, it would seem that the Venn diagram of what black Americans and white Americans like to do with their disposable income does not completely overlap, which is fine, unless all of the businesses in a black neighborhood that catered to the black community get pushed out in favor of Stuff White People Like. Or, a worse scenario perhaps, or at least a more disconcerting one: where there is overlap in what black folks and white folks like, a black business providing it gets supplanted by a white business doing the same damn thing — like selling ribs and fried chicken.

Lemonade is served in mason jars. For some reason.

Look, Sousa didn’t push Steel City Ribs out of business: its doors had been shuttered for a couple of years before he started selling his pig and chicken. And I’d never eaten at Steel City, so I couldn’t tell you how good the food was. (Sad to say, I, like a lot of people I bet, feel more interested in trying Sousa’s comfort food joint — and maybe a little more comfortable — than an anonymous black business owner’s comfort food joint.) So I don’t want to sound as if I’m blaming Sousa for the gentrification of East Liberty, or for running the black residents of the neighborhood out of town, though that is likely to happen eventually if history is a reliable guide to what happens when trendy young white people get ahold of lower class black neighborhoods. I’m just saying that Union is emblematic of something happening in East Liberty right now that’s a bit fraught. I wish improving the neighborhood would raise all boats, so to speak, but I doubt that’s going to happen. And to disclose my own small responsibility in the affair, I’m sort of happily complicit in this — I patronize the new, gentrified businesses in East Liberty a fair amount: Abay, BRGR, Kelly’s, Plum, et cetera, and now Union Pig and Chicken. I prefer having a nice neighborhood full of shit I like right nearby to having an uninviting (to me), kind-of-run down neighborhood there instead.

It is the case that the Urban Redevelopment Authority has tried to keep new housing in the area at a mixed income level, and I hope they continue in that effort. And, to go back to an earlier point, it’s fair enough that the Kevin Sousas of the world would look at an empty store front in a neighborhood that’s had some tough times and say, “I can put something good in there and make this whole block better” — that’s not a bad inclination, nor one I’m trying to fault him or anyone else for.

I’m just saying the whole thing’s sort of fraught, OK?

This fried chicken was so fucking moist and wonderful.

For what it’s worth, here’s the restaurant review. The atmosphere of Union Pig and Chicken is almost satirically spot on to what a fancy version of a Southern/soul food restaurant should be: unfinished wooden boards make the walls, wooden tables and benches make the seating, and there is a single head-high slit in the back wall allowing the staff to see the customers without being so exposed as to interrupt the New Northeast Picnic feeling of it all; they play bluegrass on the stereo. There are three yummy sauces at every table setting, a BBQ sauce, a hot sauce, and a vinegar sauce. Half a fried chicken is $11, and it is absolutely delicious. Seriously, I want more of this chicken in my mouth, though next time I go back, I feel I should try something else, like the ribs or the pork shoulder — I also hear great things about the brisket. The sides don’t come with, and are $3-$5 apiece. I had the mac and cheese, and frankly, though it was absolutely fine, I was expecting more from Kevin Sousa mac and cheese. Mom got the potato salad and thought the same thing. Next time I’ll try the greens. I also got a fancy lemonade, which had lemonade, mango, vanilla, and rose in it, and it was very good. They have a nice cocktail list that I avoided because I was already suffering from a hangover, but I would definitely try a whiskey drink when next I’m there. So, anyway, there you have it. I’ll totally go back.

I’ll just feel a little fraught about it.

Union Pig and Chicken  on Urbanspoon

Let’s Talk About Mushrooms, Baby (And a Pasta Recipe to Put Them In)

This is a recipe I make all the time, and it’s not particularly complicated, though it is particularly tasty.  I never know what about cooking is or is not self-explanatory: I cook a lot, food is kind of my vocation, so this recipe seems self-evident to me, but if you’re new to cooking from scratch, maybe it’s not.  In any case, though, writing it up gives me the opportunity to talk about mushrooms.

 

I love mushrooms.  They’ve got a great, rich umami flavor that lends oomf and savory glory to vegetarian dishes, they keep well, they’re cheap, and since they’re a vegetable, I’m going to assume they’re nutritious.  But I sometimes run into people who claim to hate mushrooms, and I think I’ve figured out whence comes their hate: people don’t cook mushrooms right.  They crowd the pan, they undercook them, and the end result is a slimy, rubbery, gross, too-wet mess.  Well, it’s easy to not arrive at this dreadful state: you’re just not cooking your mushrooms long enough or hot enough.  Period.

 

Allow me to demonstrate.

 

First of all, get a BIG pan.  Do not overcrowd your mushrooms — in fact, the mushrooms I’m showing you are a little overcrowded.  Seriously.  Make them in batches if you have to.  Secondly, use a little oil, and turn the heat up to medium high.

 

The mushrooms at first. Look how happy my spoon is.

 

Now, let the mushrooms cook, stirring occasionally. They’ll shrink in size and release a lot of moisture.  They’ll start to stick to the pan a little.  Keep going.  These next mushrooms?  THEY’RE NOT DONE.

 

NOT DONE. STILL RUBBERY.

 

Keep going.  I don’t know how long it takes — 15 minutes, maybe?  Just watch them.  Refer to my illustrations.  Now, these mushrooms down here?  They are ready.

 

Mmmm ... caramelized.

 

They’re not rubbery, they’re not slimy, they’re not wet — in fact, they’re just barely moist and delightfully toothsome.  They’ve also taken on a delicious deep caramelized flavor.  All it took was space, heat, and patience.

 

Now, here’s how I use these mushrooms, though you’re welcome to think of other applications.  You’ll need:

1 pound of mushrooms, sliced.  I like to mix crimini, white, and chanterelles, but if you can only get one, go crimini (or “baby bella”).

2-3 tablespoons of oil.  I mix canola and olive oil, olive oil for the flavor, canola for the heat tolerance, but if you can only use one, go canola.

1-2 cups white wine, something hearty, like a dry chardonnay (but not too oaky)

3-4 cloves garlic, crushed or minced

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

0.5-1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

asparagus, chopped (or spinach, chopped, or green beans, chopped, or … you get the idea)

1/2 cup of peas, fresh or flash frozen

1.5 tablespoons flour

2 cups half ‘n’ half or light cream

1/2 cup of grated parmesan, or pecorino, or a mix of the two

1 bag/box of pasta

 

Wash and slice the mushrooms, heat up the oil in the pan, and do to them what I showed you above.  Meanwhile, boil water for the pasta and cook it to al dente.  When the mushrooms are ready, add the garlic and give it a second to get aromatic and golden.  Then deglaze the pan with the white wine, scraping up all the scrumptious mushroom bits.  Add the salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, fresh veggies, and peas.  Bring to a simmer, and let it simmer away until the fresh veggies are getting tender and the peas are heated through.  In a separate little bowl, mix the flour with enough of the half ‘n’ half or cream to dissolve it.  Pour this into the pan, and then add the rest of the cream and the cheese.  Stir and allow to simmer for just a bit, until the sauce thickens a little — it should be loose but not watery, so it coats the pasta easily but doesn’t run around your plate.  Drain the pasta and mix it in with the sauce.

 

Mushrooms, veggies, wine, cream, cheese. Yum.

 

Voila.  I promise, people who say they don’t like mushrooms will change their minds.  An interesting thing about this sauce is that it has an under-taste that’s just faintly cinnamon-y, even though clearly there’s no such thing in the recipe.  I have no idea what chemical process makes this happen, but it does, and it’s pretty nifty.

 

The Completed Dish

ETA: I submitted this post to my friend @javelinwarrior’s Made with Love Mondays food blog!

JWsMadeWLuvMondays

Crime and Punishment

I kicked off my Summer Reading List with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. By kicked off I mean, I read the first 150 pages or so of the book over Winter Break, and didn’t pick the book back up again until Spring Term was done on May 2. Over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to read the greats of Russian literature that no one forced me to read when I was younger. Though I’ve been teaching in the Slavic Department for years, my formal education was primarily in English departments, so there’s been a fair amount of self education I’ve undertaken about Russian history, culture, and literature. (Though the interpretative skills and teaching techniques I was trained in while getting my degrees are the same across disciplines, so it’s more a matter of teaching myself the background than it is some actual skill.)

Anyway, over the past couple of years I’ve taught Dostoevsky’s The Double and Devils, and I’ve also read The Brothers Karamazov on my own. (I also read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I actually liked War and Peace — don’t let the heft scare you off. And do read Ivan Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album: it’s absolutely lovely.) So, y’know, on to Crime and Punishment. There’s an entire Dostoevsky Studies subdiscipline in Slavic Studies, and I don’t have anything to add to it here: these are just my impressions and observations. It strikes me that people don’t read a lot of classic literature for entertainment, and I think that’s a shame sometimes. Some of it’s really interesting.

But that having been said, let me just come out and say it: Crime and Punishment is about 175 pages too long. (My copy was 630 altogether.) All 175 of those unnecessary pages come in the first half of the book. (Though there are vivid gems of insight and powerful writing in this front half as well — the scene in which Raskolnikov dreams of a childhood memory of a drunken peasant beating an old mare to death for sport basically punched me in the throat, and I found myself hastily brushing tears away at the bar, where I was reading over a happy hour beer.) In one of my classes, the students read Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman“, Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman“, and Dostoevsky’s “The Double” one after the other, and we discuss the different forces that each author seems to posit as the starting point of madness. Pushkin and Gogol wrote the pieces I assign contemporaneously, and I basically agree with James Billington that Pushkin’s work highlights the overwhelming power of natural and historical (including political and governmental) forces as a source of chaos and madness for the common man — that is, the natural disaster of the flooding of the Neva coincides and works with the descriptions of St. Petersburg’s monumentality and the will of Peter the Great, who built the city out of a wasteland over the bodies of the thousands of men who died in their conscripted labor; together these forces assault the lowly clerk in ways he’s powerless not only to contravene but even to fully grasp. Pushkin’s Yevgeni might be the first “humble clerk” of Russian literature — he’s also the victim of forces that Pushkin seems strangely ambivalent about, which suits Pushkin’s biography: an aristocrat with a Western cultural bent, he points to the destructive power of government without indicting it. On the other hand, Gogol’s “Diary” is a partisan attack on social immobility and the toll it takes on his own humble clerk — read in tandom with “Nevsky Prospect“, another short work of his from around the same time that deals with the theme of madness, Gogol’s opinion of class relations in Russian society is harsh and clear: the cruelty of a social structure that puts people in their place will, in fact, make you crazy.

Dostoevsky’s work comes later, and his themes are much more psychological. When HIS humble clerk goes mad in “The Double”, it seems to be from a combination of his own existential crises; the inhumanity of others towards him; and HIS inhumanity towards THEM. Dostoevsky is consistently driven to explore this rift between people — it’s a central concern of Brothers K as well. He’s also the great psychologizer of characters: it’s not what’s happening around them, it’s what’s happening within them, at least in large part.

And yet, whereas we spend most of Crime and Punishment tracking Raskolnikov’s inner state, as he hovers close to insanity and is finally redeemed, what I find most unavoidable about the novel is the constant presence of the crushing poverty that Raskolnikov and all of his fellows are borne down under. For me, anyway, it’s impossible not to see Raskolnikov’s claim that certain Napoleons among men have a (a)moral “right to crime” as arising from his destitution. Though Dostoevsky doesn’t formulate it this way, it strikes me that the sheer unfairness of Raskolnikov’s situation — how hopeless and overwhelming is his lack — has to be the source material for the conclusion that certain men can and may do anything necessary to rise above the rest of the (squalorous) world. Maybe I just want to make Dostoevsky a Marxist critic because that’s my wont — he himself had no such leanings, as he was explicitly opposed to radicalism and particularly the nihilism of Russian revolutionary circles — but having accurately depicted the crushing world of Raskolnikov, he’s led me, probably against his will, to radicalism over the poverty Raskolnikov et. al. suffer under. (Though Dostoevsky DOES want to document the sickness of Russian society, and DOES want to fix it; however, he wants to fix it with a return to religion and “traditional” Russian cultural values, not with like, socialism. So he and I differ in that. Ahem. ANYWAY.)

And certainly, if whoring is a crime, poverty is directly responsible for Sonya’s sins, though she is actually the moral redeemer of the tale. This brings us to the seeming central concern of the book: Dostoevsky is desperately trying to convince either us or himself of the redemptive power of Christ. In the three major works I’ve read by him, Dostoevsky confronts again and again a problem that I myself — and I would suspect many modern Christians — have come up against over and over again: the problem of the desire for belief in an atheist world. (This is another idea that Billington has mused upon.) By atheist world, I mean that thinking people, intelligent people, like Dostoevsky and myself, are familiar with and are bound to accept the truth of scientific and cultural conclusions that situate one squarely outside the realm of traditional, orthodox teachings about Christianity (and many other religions). And yet there is the yearning for belief — how are these things reconciled? Dostoevsky once wrote in a letter, shortly after he was released from a labor camp, “If someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth.” Such a thing may be an affirmative choice; but it is also, ultimately, an unreconcilable position. And so Dostoevsky spends literally thousands of pages “proving” the effectiveness, the affectiveness, of this choice. In Crime and Punishment, Sonya, who is described explicitly by Raskolnikov as a holy fool (a uniquely Russian concept that is deeply fascinating and maybe I’ll tell you about sometime), ecstatically reads the passage from John’s gospel about the resurrection of Lazarus to Raskolnikov — and though the breakthrough is not immediate, it is this encounter that forms the beginning of his redemptive journey: turning himself in, going to a labor camp, and, finally, arriving at a literally mysterious and apparently mystical epiphany of love and dedication, which Dostoevsky assures us, on the last page of the novel, is in fact a real and irreversible moment of redemption and transformation. Well, then.

The thing is, Dostoevsky writes so smartly about the interior of the human mind, he observes the outside world so acutely and precisely, that after he has demonstrated to the reader for many, many pages how sharp and how true are his observations and interpretations that he would seem to have built up the authority necessary to then render a mysterious, imprecisely drawn, and apparently unconveyable moment as though it, too, were the absolute and unavoidable truth. This happens at the end of Crime and Punishment, it happens at the end of the The Brothers Karamazov, and I’ve got The Idiot on my list, so I’ll let you know, but I’m not getting into any bets against it. I think Dostoevsky has a lot of people convinced — but I’m not sure I’m convinced, and I’m not sure Dostoevsky’s convinced, though both of us want to be. At the end of Crime and Punishment, I wasn’t thinking about Raskolnikov’s salvation, I was thinking about Dostoevsky’s doubt. The former is a great and hopeful triumph — the latter is profoundly tragic. Or maybe I’m wrong, and Dostoevsky was an unquestioning believer.

But I doubt it.

Lasagna

Amid my recent searches for recipes involving ground meat, I perhaps inevitably stumbled upon recipes for lasagna. In general, I have mixed feelings about lasagna. On the one hand, it seems like a sort of meal that’s ripe for variation, and in classic form, lasagna contains all the great flavors of Italian cuisine that beg for candlelight, checkered tablecloths and hearty red wine. On the other hand, lasagna can turn out very boring very easily. There aren’t a lot of good recipe variations to be found. It can also get dried out and rubbery, especially upon subsequent reheating (and, really, who eats an entire casserole in one sitting).

The last lasagna I remember truly loving was the creation of my friend Lisa Di, who made lasagna with paper-thin homemade noodles. The delicacy and freshness of the noodles made all the difference, as I recalled, though it had been many years since I’d eaten it. Having tried a successful noodle recipe a few weeks ago, and finding myself with a lazy Sunday, I felt ambitious enough to try out a recipe.

SARAH’S LASAGNA

Lasagna1 tablespoon butter
1 onion, chopped
1 teaspoon minced garlic
3 (8oz) cans of tomato sauce
1 (6oz) can of tomato paste
2-3 plum tomatoes, chopped
4 oz of beer
1/2 teaspoon salt
cayenne pepper, to taste
fresh basil and parsley, to taste
1 lb. ground meat
water, as needed
15 oz. ricotta cheese
1 egg
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup sour cream
lasagna noodles, cooked and drained, or straight out of the pasta maker
1-2 cups shredded mozzerella

Saute the onions and garlic in the melted butter in a medium saucepan until onions are softened. Add tomato sauce, paste, chopped tomatoes, beer, salt, pepper and herbs. Cook until heated through; fresh herbs should be wilted in the sauce. Process with an immersion blender (this was my lazy step so that I wouldn’t have to chop the herbs, but it can be skipped by cutting them up ahead of time). Add the meat and continue to cook (I like to cut up the ground meat first so it’s easier to break up as it cooks).

Meanwhile, combine the ricotta, the egg, the parmesan and the sour cream in a separate bowl. When the meat is cooked in the sauce, and the lasagna noodles are ready (i.e. either cooked, or made fresh through the pasta maker), spread a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of a 9 X 13 square glass baking pan.

Put down the first layer of lasagna noodles. Spread with a layer of ricotta mixture and then another layer of sauce. Repeat layering: noodles, cheese, sauce. Finish with a layer of noodles, sauce and mozzarella on top.

Bake at 350 for 45 to 60 minutes, until mozzarella is golden and crisp.

LasagnaIf you have extra mozzarella, that can be included as its own layer, but I had a limited amount that I wanted to save for the top, and I’m not a huge fan of having too much cheese stringiness amongst the lasagna slices.

If you’re tempted to make your own lasagna noodles, the the above referenced noddle recipe makes just the right amount at the thinnest setting (number 9 on my pasta maker), and I definitely recommend using the thinnest setting. I was afraid, at first, that the noodles might be too thin, that they might dissolve in the sauce, but they held up wonderfully and the entire recipe turned out swimmingly!