[Only peripherally a book review today, insofar as it pertains to moi, who writes books.]

This is a clip from the hour-long episode of Faces of Alaska, where host Kathleen McCoy is interviewing me about my family, and of course I have to tell stories. Hey, it's what I do.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muLZzcLAaHk&fs=1&hl=en_US]

Here's the Faces of Alaska page about me. The first week they talked to musher Lance Mackey, and this week they'll talk to Alaska Native leader Willie Hensley. I've never had better bookends. And the week after Willie Faces of Alaska will feature Alaska Olympian Holly Brooks.

You can watch us all on KAKM or listen to us on KSKA. Go to the website to see slideshows of the photos that ran during our shows and read Q&A's.

And email Pat Yack at pyack@alaskapublic.org to order a DVD copy of any or all of the shows.

# Permanent link to Faces of Alaska

Who, let's face it, had to put up with an awful lot from Zeus.

I don't know what I was looking for when I stumbled across mention of the Hera series, but I googled it and wound up on this page on Library Thing.

One of the books on the list was Cecelia Holland's Great Maria, a book set in southern Italy in the 1100's. Maria is the daughter of a robber baron who is married off to the strongest and most ambitious of her father's knights, and the next fifteen years are adventurous indeed. I read this novel when it first came out in 1974, and I remember how struck I was by Maria's strength, determination and independence, all conveyed without any sense of anachronism. Maria is a heroine, but she is definitely of her own time and place. And she sure isn't someone anybody, including her husband, wants to cross.

I decided it was time to read it again, and went to Amazon, where, lo and behold, I noticed that Soho Press had published a series called "the Hera Series." The other books are also historical novels about women written by women, like Gillian Bradshaw's Beacon at Alexandria, about Charis who escapes an unwelcome marriage to Roman emperor Festinus to disguise herself as a eunuch and study medicine in Egypt, and Nancy Zaroulis' Call the Darkness Light, about a minister's daughter in 19th century New England.

Since discovering the existence of the Hera series, I have reread Great Maria and it's even better than I remember it. I think I'll give the other titles a try.

# Permanent link to In Homage to Hera

Interview with author Pat Conroy on NPR, about his new book, My Reading Life.

As a child growing up in a military family, Conroy learned from his mother that books could be his constant companions as the family shuttled from Marine base to Marine base.

"What I remember about her, from the very earliest time of my life, is her reading to me," Conroy tells NPR's Scott Simon. "She had a great tone, a warm style, a terrific Southern accent. She read us lots of poetry ... I can still hear her voice." She read him Gone With the Wind, and gave all the roles to family members--Melanie Wilkes was an aunt, Frank Kennedy was an uncle.

Reading was a refuge for him, both emotionally and physically. Conroy's father wouldn't hit him when he was reading; he thought his son was studying and approved of it. "It was the one place you could go to get away from his fists," says Conroy. "And it worked every time."

# Permanent link to “Conroy’s father wouldn’t hit him when he was reading…”

Christopher Kimball, whom I know well from my subscription to Cook's Illustrated, finds an old cookbook in an older house and spends two years translating and testing recipes to put on a Victorian spread for twelve (using a coal stove, no less, which I find by far and away the most horrific part of the process). Along the way, Fannie's Last Supper treats us to a history of Boston by way of fresh oysters and calf's foot jelly, in Fannie Farmer's kitchen.

I love The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, it is my go-to cookbook whenever I pull something unidentifiable out of the freezer and need a recipe to put it in. I am seldom skunked by one of the recipes therein. So I was amazed to discover that Fannie was more of a marketer than a cook, but if she inspired my favorite cookbook, so what?

I would have preferred more about the preparation of the food and less of the history of Boston markets in this book, but there are wonderful observations and nuggets about Victorian dining habits that make the book well worthwhile:

"Victorians were also less apt to invite friends over for dinner. Dining in someone else's home was an intensely personal event, and an invitation was the "highest form of social compliment.""

and

"The essence of table etiquette in Victorian times derived from the disturbing relationship between eating and animal behavior. One manual said, "Eating is so entirely a sensual, animal gratification, that unless it is conducted with much delicacy, it becomes unpleasant to others." These dinner parties were, in effect, a test of one's control over bodily appetites."

I'll never make a Victorian, I like to eat too much, but reading the book I was immediately inspired to create an Alaskan-style Victorian menu. I'd make the punch directly from Kimball's recipe for Victoria Punch, it sounds fabulous, and he and his co-conspirators certainly made and sampled their share. I can get oysters right across the bay. If I could wrangle some moose bones from friends I could make a clear moose broth. The fish course could be either salmon or halibut, whatever is fresh out of the Kachemak at the time. Venison from Kodiak, I have a source. Poultry, hmmm, maybe duck? Or, hey, maybe ptarmigan, my dad used to serve a fabulous pan-fried, oven-finished, wine-soaked ptarmigan breasts dish.

photo15

Vegetable, a potato gallette, from Yukon Golds grown in Alaska, but of course! Raspberry sorbet, from Alaskan raspberries. Burned butter frosting cake, not particularly Alaskan, but one of my favorites, and I know I can make it successfully. The cheeses will have to be from Costco. Only one liqueur, my grandmother's framboise.

Serving twelve? Maybe eight. In two hours? Even Kimball could only manage four and a half. Still sounds like a lot of work, but as Kimball rightly says, "...cooking, it seems to me, offers the most direct way back into the very heart of the good life. It is useful, it is necessary, it is social, and it offers immediate pleasure and satisfaction."

They did a PBS special on it, too, I can't wait for it to be on DVD. The one thing lacking in this book is photographs.

# Permanent link to “These dinner parties were, in effect, a test of one’s control over bodily appetites.”

[How about a little shameless self-promotion for today, featuring author interview with Les Wanner of TheCrimeofitAll.com.]

Len Wanner: Should crime fiction get more critical attention?

Dana Stabenow: No, I think it gets plenty nowadays, both online and off.

LW: Have you read any Scottish crime fiction?

DS: Scottish crime fiction isn’t separated out as a separate subgenre on Amazon or at Barnes and Noble, so I don’t know.

LW: What are the merits of crime fiction for you?

DS: The merits of good crime writing are the same merits of any good writing: The better I tell a story, the more engaged the reader will be.

LW: Did you choose this genre because it gives a voice to those we rarely listen to?

DS: If I wanted to bang the drum for a cause I’d write non-fiction. I do believe evil exists in human form, however, and the snake always has the best lines.

LW: How do you see yourself as a writer?

DS: I’m an entertainer. I’m the one sitting around the fire, spinning tales, hoping to get a few coins in my bowl before turning in for the night. If I don’t deliver, no coins, and no supper.

LW: Would you say that crime fiction is becoming ever more popular because it offers ersatz justice?

DS: Yes. Most of the time in crime fiction justice prevails. If we can’t have the reality of social justice, at least we can escape to it in fiction.

LW: Can the genre be too heavy-handed on questions of corrective measures?

DS: Only by accident, if the writer is doing their job properly.

LW: Does the genre afford us an opportunity to identify with a person driven to crime?

DS: Some people are just plain mad, bad and dangerous to know. No crime fiction writer can afford to underestimate the human propensity for evil. But no crime fiction reader should forget they are reading fiction.

LW: What makes a hero?

DS: All the best crime fiction heroes share at bottom the core characteristic of decency and many of them a willingness to sacrifice for their code or an individual or the common good. That’s what makes them heroes, they are better than you and me.

LW: Is the crime novel read as the new social novel – to identify with people in distress, to feel that we are not alone in our fears and uncertainties?

DS: The social novel has disappeared? Wait, I don’t even know what a “social” novel is. This could apply to any novel in any genre.

LW: Would you agree that crime fiction is read with a view to sounding out one’s own lived experience through the contrast between idealized patriarchy and how things actually work?

DS: Judging by my fan mail, some do. Some just read for the thrill.

LW: Do you write crime fiction because this genre doesn’t hesitate when it comes to the extremes that human beings are capable of?

DS: Crime fiction is a very versatile genre. There is nothing you can’t do in crime fiction and make it work. So yes.

LW: Who does it best?

DS: Reading is a wholly subjective exercise, and every book has a different effect on each individual reader. You’re casting a pretty wide net here. I will simply say that lately I’ve been enjoying Ariana Franklin, Craig Johnson, Barbara Cleverly, PD James and Reginald Hill.

# Permanent link to The Crime of It All Interview

Historical novels are hot right now, and no wonder, with novels like C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake mystery series on offer. I, gulp, actually got the most recent one, Heartstone, in the signed British edition from the Poisoned Pen so I wouldn't have to wait a year for it to come out on this side of the ocean. It wasn't cheap. But it was worth it.

The series opens in London in 1537, where Matthew is an attorney. He has a hunchback, which renders him odious and unlucky to his fellow men, as well as ineligible to all of the beautiful women with whom he falls in love. He is honest and able and intelligent, but his strongest -- and his enemies would say, his most unfortunate -- trait is his dogged determination to get to the truth of every wrong-doing brought to his attention, and to see it set right, no matter how many of the nobility it pisses off. And it pisses off many of them, indeed, all the way up to King Henry VIII, he of many wives.

Some of the wives have at least walk-on parts in these novels, but what is even more interesting is the effect that Henry's, ah, acquisition and subsequent relinquishment of so many wives had on the English government and the people, which Sansom renders in uncomfortable and sometimes excruciating detail. The greed of the "new men" to grab everything they can get from every new order smells just as bad as the ordure in the street. The period detail makes these seriously enjoyable you-are-there books.

In the first novel, Dissolution, one of Cromwell's commissioners has been murdered in the commission of the dissolution of the Monastery of St. Donatus, and Matthew journeys to Scarnsea to investigate. There he meets Guy, a soon-to-be ex-monk who moves to London and becomes Matthew's private medical examiner in future novels.

In Dark Fire, Cromwell sets Matthew to track down the formula for Greek fire so King Henry may lay waste to the French, with whom he is perennially and disastrously at war. Jack Barak makes his debut, first as Cromwell's man and then as Matthew's clerk.

In Sovereign, Henry goes on progress to York with fifth wife, Catharine Howard, there to put down thoughts of rebellion in his uppity northern subjects, all of whom live far too near the Scots for his taste. Matthew, drawn yet again against his will (so he says) into political intrigue, this time by Archbishop Cranmer, investigates the case of a papist conspirator, which takes him into the barbaric north in Henry's train.

By Revelation, Henry's on his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, and Matthew, Guy and Jack are on the trail of what may be a serial killer. The case takes them into the Bedlam, a hospital for the insane where everything is for sale that makes today's asylums look a lot better by comparison.

In the fifth and most recent novel in the series, Heartstone, Queen Catherine hires Matthew to look into alleged wrongs against a young ward in the care of one of Henry's "new men," and he uses the opportunity to look into the history of a woman he met in the Bedlam in the previous novel. The Lady Elizabeth has a scene and a brief but fascinating literary discussion with Matthew over a recently published book on archery that not only sets up a relationship for future novels (I hope, I hope), but is also key to the solution of the mystery. The climax is a truly harrowing scene on board none other than the Mary Rose. (The British edition, so you know, is a beautifully produced book, with end maps in color, black-and-white maps beginning each part, and even a red ribbon bookmark sewn into the spine.)

Sansom includes an historical note at the end of each novel with additional details of the place and time and the people who lived then, which adds to the general feeling of traveling through time. The only complaint I have is that people are always saying something or smiling "sadly." And I can live with that.

# Permanent link to Matthew Shardlake, attorney, hunchback, seeker after truth