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Feb. 25th, 2017

The Devil’s Feast, by M.J. Carter. Putnam, 2017

In 1842 London, Captain William Avery finds himself inadvertently drawn into a possible murder investigation. At the end of a fantastic meal by celebrity chef Alexis Soyer at the Reform Club in the chef’s own rooms, one man sickens and dies. At first glance it looks like cholera, but a closer look at the symptoms proves it to be poison. And it turns out not to be the only incident; another death follows, and investigation turns up some possible non-lethal cases of poison before the first death.

Normally Avery’s friend Jeremiah Blake would be leading the investigation, but he’s vanished from the debtor’s prison where he was being detained. Avery worries that he doesn’t have what it takes to solve the case before more deaths occur. And he’s under the gun; in just a few days, the club will be hosting the son of the ruler of Egypt in a fantastic dinner with heavy political ramifications.

This is the third in a series of Avery and Blake mysteries. Blake is the brainy Holmes of this detective duo; Avery is the Watson who tells the tale. And it’s a fun tale to read if you’re a foodie. Soyer was a real historical person. He was the first chef who become a celebrity; he was not only a brilliant chef, but quite an inventor of kitchen gear and an innovator; he created tools and methods that are still used today. He was a fiend for cleanliness in the kitchen, promoted the use of natural gas for cooking, and encouraged women to become chefs. He also had an oversize personality that made him the center of attention at a time when chefs were becoming stars rather than just unseen food makers. Soyer is the heart of this novel, even more than the murders are.

I loved reading this book, in large part because of Soyer and the research that went into the descriptions of the food and the way it was made. The murder investigation itself seems to take the back seat to the food, however, and I’m not sure if this is desirable in a mystery? I was fine with it, but not sure if every reader will be. There is a lot of time spent questioning everyone from meat suppliers to waiters; there is a surfeit of suspects in these crimes and it becomes a little scattered. I started having trouble remembering who was who in the kitchen. I’ve not read the first two books in this series but this seems like a fun series.


Thought it would be brighter in the sun but it's actually not as brilliant as in incandescent light!
Ah, also, I dyed my hair magenta. It doesn't really look Crayola magenta, but it's awesomely bright fucking red- sort of cherry colored. Now to see how long it lasts...
Well, the internet has been down pretty much all day today. Which I found majorly irritating, even though I'm trying to cut back the amount of time I spend on it.

Yesterday was Hoover's big day- big day in that he took a car trip that he obviously thought was going to end in him being thrown into a ditch somewhere. Took him to the vet and got his attitude adjustment done. When we got home he slank off at top speed and hid somewhere. Around dinner time he came out, all happy cat (seriously, his big round head makes him totally a cheezeburger cat) and crawling all over me and wanting to be cuddled. Today he's been under my feet most of the time. They seem to have felt he was a trustworthy cat; he did not come home with a cone of shame.

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I'm very creative about hurting myself.

We have over 2 feet of compacted snow in our paths. But the last couple of days we've had rain, doing things to the snow. This morning I'm walking to the hen house, and the snow collapses and my foot goes clear down to the ground. I'm moving fast, so my body goes on forward and my knee hyperextends. I land in a very odd configuration. I get myself rearranged so I'm sitting. I try to get my foot out of the snow. It won't come out. I try leaning forwards. It won't come out. I try to stand up, and my other foot sinks down in the snow.

I decide I'm going to have to sit there until Tim comes home. At least I didn't fall in the turkey crap that's all over.

I finally get both feet back on top of the snow. The tops of my boots look like sno-cones. My back goes into spasm. But I still managed to go to town, go to the hospice office, go to the banks, go to the grocery store, go to Walmart. Then I came home and laid on the sofa and took pain killers.
Got the seed orders done today. While we won't be seeing the ground for quite a while yet, it felt like the official start of the gardening season. Mostly vegetables, but I ordered a good deal of flower seeds, too- 5 kinds of zinnias, all new, cool bicolors, among other things.

The new season of dance classes started today, and I actually made it. The classes are an hour and a half now instead of an hour. I used to just barely make it through an hour long class; I am teh dead now. Everything hurts. To be expected after not doing any dance for two months! But it was great to be back there. I missed it a lot. Hopefully I won't be missing any more classes.

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The Forbidden Garden, by Ellen Herrick. William Morrow, 2017

Sorrel is one of the Sparrow sisters, a trio (once a quartet) of preternaturally gifted women who have a connection with plants. Their nursery in New England overflows with gorgeous plants that grow and bloom fast- that’s Sorrel’s realm. Another sister works with herbs and healing; the third can make any food related plant bear lushly. For this reason, Sorrel has come to the attention of a wealthy British manor owner. Kirkwood Hall has been renovated and made open to the public part time. All is lovely- except for one spot. The old Shakespeare garden lies in ruins, as it has for a couple of centuries. Within its walls, nothing grows. Sir Graham Kirkwood asks Sorrel to come over and make it right.

Once she gets there, Sorrel finds a happy extended family. There is only one grim spot- Lady Kirkwood’s brother, Andrew. An Anglican priest on sabbatical, he’s recovering- poorly- from a broken heart. He provides the romance in this combination romance/mystery, as Sorrel and the Kirkwood’s try to not just make the Shakespeare garden beautiful again, but to find out *why* it’s lain fallow for so many decades. Then there is the legend that any Kirkwood entering the garden will fall ill and die…

This is a pleasant enough story, with the extended family (that includes the head gardener, the inn keeper, and Lady Kirkwood’s brother) searching for clues while Sorrel designs and plants the garden. Basing it both on other Shakespeare gardens and glimpses of it in the tapestries, she creates a formal arrangement of parterres and knots that bursts into growth and bloom the minute she puts the plants in the ground. But things don’t work out easily; the garden’s curse is still alive.

As a gardener and a foodie, I couldn’t help but love the descriptions in this story. Herrick brings to life the look, feel, and scent of the plants. The meals the family eats are described just as lushly as the plants; I was hungry most of the time reading this! The mystery was interesting, although it largely came down to people deliberately hiding information. But the book is not without its faults; this is the second book of I assume a series, and as such referred constantly to events of the first book. Those references took up far too much of the narrative, and it’s far too repetitious. Also, for a mystery, it’s not a very tense story- it dwells on the relationships too much to make us worry much. It’s like the book couldn’t decide if it was a mystery or a cozy woman’s story. Still, I’m going to find the first book and read it. Because plants.
Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson. Riverhead Books, 2016

Steven Johnson has a broad definition of ‘play’; he speaks not of just toys and sports but of anything that seems frivolous or unnecessary that brings happiness to people. He puts forth a pretty good argument that pleasant things were the driving force behind many of the world’s advances; we all know of how the lust for spices drove exploration, trade, and, sadly, slavery and colonialism, but there have been many similar events. When those same traders brought cotton fabrics back from India, women found them amazing and very desirable. Not only were the much cooler and more comfortable to wear, but they could be woven in lovely patterns. This led to cotton being planted in the New World- and of course led to the slave trade in America. The urge to automate weaving patterns in silk led Jacquard to developing punch cards to control the loom; those cards reappeared in the late 1950s and were a staple in all 60s and 70s computer labs. As soon as computers appeared, people wanted to use them to play games, which led to building bigger and better computers. It seems that people will go to great lengths for things that no one actually *needs*, but which add grace notes and interest to life. I love social history, and this was an interesting read. Some reviewers have complained that he doesn’t back up with sources, but there are fairly extensive notes and a bibliography.
The Perpetual Now: A Story of Amnesia, Memory, and Love, by Michael D. Lemonick. Doubleday, 2016

Lonni Sue Johnson was a person of huge abilities. She was a gifted artist who, among other things, created many ‘New Yorker’ covers. She was a skilled and passionate violist. She got her private pilot’s license and had her own plane and airfield. She wrote a newspaper column. She, with a partner, started an organic dairy. When she was interested in something, she flung herself headlong into it and mastered it. She never met a challenge she couldn’t best.

Then she got sick. She ran a high fever with encephalitis. For a while it looked like she wouldn’t live, or, if she did, that she would have severe brain damage, and possibly never wake up. The fever burned out the temporal lobes of her brain- the hippocampus- which is where our memories are made and stored. While she remembered her family, she remembered little else of her past. And she couldn’t lay down new memories- everything that happened to her was forgotten in ten or fifteen minutes. Anyone other than her sister and mother were greeted with “Hello. My name is Lonni Sue; what’s yours?” even if the person has just returned to the room after an absence of mere minutes.

Her abilities, on the other hand, remain intact, although they took time and work to regain. She can play the viola, but her music is deemed emotionless. She can draw and paint, and her passion right now is creating word search puzzles that are embellished with drawings. But… the four page puzzles are never finished. Not a single one. Something makes her give them up before that final page is created.

She has been endlessly tested by neurologists, and has contributed to the knowledge base about the working brain. She charms everyone she meets; scientists and techs love her as a subject and a person.

The book is a combination of personal history and neurology, including information on another famous case of hippocampus destruction, H.M., although in his case, the hippocampus was removed surgically in hopes of stopping uncontrolled seizures. While the book is interesting, it’s not in the same league as other neurology/neuropsychology books like those written by the late Oliver Sacks or V. Ramachandran. There are a large number of pages devoted to Johnson’s family (who dedicated their lives to keeping Lonni Sue as normalized as possible), and to her past that, while they make us closer to her, don’t really advance the story of her brain. It’s an okay book, but not a really gripping one.
The Poison Diaries, by Jane, Duchess of Northumberland Illustrated by Colin Stimpson. Abrams, 2007

‘The Poison Diaries’ is a book for children- and adults. The story is short- an abusive apothecary takes on a young boy named Weed as an assistant and puts him in charge of the poison garden- but it works as a fairy tale, has a moral, and is an emotional story. It’s the illustrations that are so marvelous, along with information on the poisonous plants that’s included. As Weed tends the poison garden, the plants take turns speaking to him, telling him their tales and their medicinal and toxic uses- and their hatred of the apothecary. It’s a dark tale, and the illustrations are dark, too- even the brightest pages have a pale gray wash on them.

Some reviewers have said that they didn’t think this would be a good book for children, but I know I would have loved this book when I was in elementary school, and I know a lot of others who would feel that way. It’s in the same vein as many of the tales in the various books of fairy tales; they get pretty bloody and grim and kids love them.

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