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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Let It Melt Away

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 2.10.10 PMIt’s almost automatic for me, tuning into NPR on my commute home. I’m a bit of a news junkie, and my job(s) involve a lot of driving. Unexpected tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing can shake you out of the comfortable ritual of news consumption. This event was unexpected, incoherent, if nothing else, an impetus to pay closer attention to each other and the many forces at work in every individual. My heart goes out to the victims, the spectators, and even the perpetrators who are suffering right now. I’m sure that the healing process will require many small, tedious steps, putting one foot in front of the other. This recipe is one small token of solidarity.

Lemon Meltaways

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen Key Lime Meltaways

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temp
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
Grated zest of 4 tiny or 2 large lemons
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (aka 2 cups minus 2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt

Measure Your Ingredients

  1. Measure butter and 1/3 cup sugar and put in bowl of electric mixer.
  2. Measure out lemon juice/zest and vanilla and set aside. In a medium bowl, measure and whisk together flour, cornstarch, and salt.

Mix It Up

  1. Cream butter and 1/3 cup sugar in bowl of electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add lemon juice, zest, and vanilla; beat until fluffy.
  2. Add flour/cornstarch/salt mixture to butter mixture and beat on low speed until combined.
  3. Shape dough into two, 1 1/4 inch diameter logs and chill for at least 1 hour.

Melt It Away

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Place remaining 2/3 cups sugar in a resealable plastic bag. Slice logs into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Place on baking sheets, about 1 inch apart.
  2. Bake cookies until barely golden, about 15 minutes. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool slightly, just three or four minutes. While still warm, place cookies in the sugar-filled bag; toss to coat. Bake or freeze remaining dough. Store baked cookies in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
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[Photos: “Key Lime Meltaways,” Rennings flickr photostream]

Terrorists In Love

Screen Shot 2013-04-10 at 7.39.58 AMTo borrow from Peter Bergen’s foreword, Terrorists in Love “reveals a universe of militancy that is so strange that at times it seems suffused with the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” Author Ken Ballen profiles six jihadis and their conversion to militancy,  interviewing over one hundred former terrorists at a resort-style rehabilitation center in Saudia Arabia. Ballen was a federal prosecutor and now runs a non-profit organization called Terror Free Tomorrow, and in this book, he applies his access to high-level terrorists and his expertise with federal interrogations to a set of strange, haunting narratives about the process of radicalization. We get a unique picture of the strangeness of this process, the necessary convergence of many disparate forces, including but not limited to mental illness, repressive cultural norms, and ancient Islamic traditions, such as reverence for dreams. Of course these stories contain many political implications, but the stories in themselves are so fascinating that the more interesting, pressing questions have to do with our common humanity.

In the case of Ahmad al-Shayea, a listless, sensitive teenager with an abusive, hyper-conservative father, a dream about his father causes him to join the militants. It seems like a dignified alternative to joy riding through tribal regions in his friend’s convertible, something more worthy of his father’s respect. After a few weeks of training, Ahmad is unwittingly sent by his superiors on a suicide mission, only to survive the third degree burns. The end to his story is poetic, sweet — he develops a fiercely pro-American stance thanks to the kindness of a U.S. soldier who nurses him back to health.

Kamal is the youngest son of Saudia Arabia’s Sheikh, an elderly religious patriarch who is second to the king himself. A child of privilege who has always been an outsider, Kamal was born to the Sheikh’s “summer bride,” whom the other wives rejected. She left the compound and an Indonesian servant named Indah served as Kamal’s surrogate mother, passing on her native, more expansive brand of Islam, her smiling, Indonesian mannerisms, and her servant’s humility, subtly different traits that Kamal, too, adopted. In his twenties, this isolated heir to the sheikdom realizes that he is gay. Not only that, he is in love with his cousin.

Interestingly, the realization that he is gay doesn’t phase Kamal. It seems that his family’s religious authority and elite social standing strengthen the courage of his convictions. He justifies his feelings by adopting the view that equal love before God is more holy than the lack of equality he sees in his father’s relationships. The future Sheikh quietly disagrees with both conventional and radical Islam, leading a closeted romantic life. This lasts until his relationship is discovered and his cousin is sent to America. At university, he turns to jihad, is outed and beaten by jihadi radicals, then shipped off to a rehabilitation center by his father. At the rehabilitation center, Kamal’s faith is what saves him, as he chooses the “war of the pen” over the “war of the sword”:

“From the other jihadis, Kamal saw firsthand the easy path of Al Quaeda and its allies: how seductive it was to turn God’s demanding gift of mercy inside each human to simple anger; how glamorous and self-important to switch the painful continuing struggle to better yourself before God (the Greater Jihad) into black-and-white contempt for others. He’d learned too from his time at the Care Center that only those who love one another were on Jihad for God.”

It is a surprising ending to a book that defies expectations, that a potential leader of the Islamic religious establishment has reclaimed the traditional, sacred definition of Jihad — a struggle toward self-improvement — after engaging in terrorism and a romantic relationship with his male cousin.  In the introduction, Ballen writes that a successful interrogation “leaves everyone feeling vulnerable.”  Perhaps this same aspect of vulnerability, the “demanding” nature of God’s mercy, is what makes “the Greater Jihad” so difficult — while the battle against terrorism is ongoing.

Victorian Novels + Hearing The Grass Grow

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 1.24.41 PMI have always liked nineteenth century Victorian novels. I find them only too true. They have a keen way of getting at the heart of things, you know. (I just finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. Please pardon me if I can’t quite shake his roundabout, flared-nostril rhythms.)

When asked to describe my favorite books — George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady – it can be awkward to enthusiastically endorse white male authors who wrote about aristocrats. (Okay, George Eliot was a white female writing under a pseudonym.) However, like a hipster with her Indie musician, I take reverse pride in my appreciation for these thoroughly vetted classics.

What is so revelatory? George Eliot puts it this way, in her masterwork Middlemarch:

“If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

It’s the nuanced narration of ordinary life that turned me on to Henry James when I read Portrait of a Lady, often cited as his best book and inconveniently for me, his first book I read, sending me down an ever-loyal slope of slightly more underwhelming reads from Daisy Miller to Wings of a Dove until I hit bottom with his last and most excessive book, The Golden Bowl.

Zadie Smith has an essay called “Middlemarch And Everybody,” which I discovered in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. She talks about James, Eliot, and a variety of other topics. I had always felt the similar strain of psychological complexity running through Eliot and James, but I was glad to find a kindred, more articulate spirit in Ms. Smith. As a successful writer of contemporary fiction and not inconsequentially, a person of color, she states with added authority and eloquence what the Victorian novel offers to our modernized sensibilities:

“Why do we like them so much? Because they seem so humane. We are moved that…[Eliot] is so alive to the mass of existence lying unnarrated on the other side of silence.”

She summarizes George Eliot’s unique style as poetic, in the language of one of Eliot’s characters:

“To be a poet is to have a soul…in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge…”

This discerning, feeling voice sounds a lot like Henry James’s “sympathetic narrator,” the stylistic gift that led me to suffer through all 1496 pages of The Golden Bowl. I have emerged less blinded by the light, and can provide a bottom-line analysis for anyone who is entertaining a first-time foray into James:

Portrait of a Lady

Isabel Archer is a young, single, recently orphaned American facing a precarious financial situation and possessing a strong will to live independently. We meet her on an estate in London, the home of her British aunt, Lydia Touchett, who has invited her to experience Europe. James paints a vivid profile of Isabel’s charms — her combination of naiveté, sincerity, pride, curiosity, and innate intelligence — capturing the reader’s sympathies and the affections of Isabel’s uncle, Daniel, several rejected suitors, and her sickly cousin, Ralph. When Daniel dies, Isabel inherits a vast portion of his estate.

Ironically, Isabel becomes less and less in control of her destiny after inheriting her uncle’s estate. Due to her own misjudgments, her seemingly charmed fate slowly deteriorates. After turning down several suitors, she accepts the proposal of a snobby American expat who objectifies her and cheats on her.

Isabel’s disappointments feel tragic because James so carefully establishes her competence, then carefully, sympathetically describes how she faces the task of living with her mistakes. Maybe it’s such a beloved classic because it’s an eloquent meditation on the simple fact that life isn’t fair. “Once she saw through a glass, darkly, now she is the less deceived… Of how many Victorian novels could that sentence serve as shorthand” — this is Zadie Smith’s succinct analysis.

As for The Golden Bowl? Yawn. It’s all this stuff about seeing through the glass darkly, being deceived, plus oppressive, repetitive symbolism (a golden bowl that shatters at the peak of the deception, really?) told through choppy, cloying syntax, separated by oh, so many commas. But I can’t say it was pure misery. It transports you to a different universe, and true to form, the seemingly naive protagonist turns out to be the most interesting and calculating character of them all. Feel free to read the plot summary below, or if you’re a glutton for punishment, the whole thing. I’ve finally had too much of a good thing and I’m ditching Henry James in favor of Mary Karr’s memoir, Lit, with sentences like “my first therapist’s name was — I shit you not — Tom Sawyer.”

The Golden Bowl

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 6.49.45 PMMaggie Verver is the daughter of a rich American art collector. She and her father have an unusually intimate relationship, having served as each other’s primary companion for many years, traveling the world on behalf of his collection. The book opens as Maggie prepares to marry an Italian prince. He takes a patronizing view of his future wife, openly wedding her for financial gain. Meanwhile, Maggie has trouble cutting emotional ties with her father.

To assuage Maggie’s guilt and to escape the older women now vying for his attention, Mr. Verver eventually marries Charlotte, Maggie’s childhood friend, a poised, cosmopolitan young woman, less privileged than Maggie. However, Charlotte and the Italian Prince have a lingering romantic connection that is first established when Charlotte and the Prince go shopping for Maggie’s wedding present and come close to purchasing a golden bowl.

Charlotte gradually enters into an affair with the Prince, Maggie becomes increasingly suspicious, and her suspicions are confirmed when she visits the London antiques shop with the golden bowl. The shopkeeper shows her the bowl and she suddenly realizes the truth.

The golden bowl then becomes a metaphor for the pristine, perfect deception that all four parties have partaken in, living in close, claustrophobic proximity on a lavish London estate. Maggie observes it in restrained silence with increasing comprehension. When she eventually confronts the Prince, her restraint seems to alter his perception of both Maggie and Charlotte, to Maggie’s advantage.

In the end, Charlotte and Mr. Verver move back to America. Maggie triumphs, given a fresh start with the Prince and their son. Wah wah.

[Photos: “Henry James,” mr lynch’s photostream, under CC by NC SA 2.0, “Golden Bowls,” mararie’s photostream, CC by SA 2.0]

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