Thursday, October 31, 2019

Pulitzer Project: A Summons to Memphis

The Pulitzer Project continues to lurch from one extreme to the other, from work that is so horrible to read you wonder about the sanity of the judges to prose that sings, from books fat enough to double as doorsteps or ballast in a freighter to books so thin they barely qualify as books and not pamphlets. 1986 had Lonesome Dove, a tome so thick and heavy it was physically hard to read in bed. 1987 has A Summons To Memphis, a piece of lightweight fluff that feels so thin you kind of expect it to just float away.

A Summons to Memphis seems to fall into a familiar category among the Pulitzers, the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. Author Peter Taylor was an acclaimed author with numerous short stories to his credit. According to the cover blurb, however, A Summons to Memphis was his first novel in 35 years.

I must say the book is readable. Taylor could write. The prose flows. You keep reading despite the fact the narrative feels a lot like a Seinfeld episode -- a story about nothing -- and then you realize it's actually a subtle paean to the joys of being passive aggressive. This could be one reason it earned a Pulitzer. On a surface level, reading it from a purely superficial perspective, it feels almost whimsical. The narrator, a middle-aged man who has been collecting old and rare books since his college days, works as an editor for a publishing house in New York. The story is told entirely from his perspective: his recollections of his family's trials and tribulations, his observations of spinster sisters' odd behavior, his reluctance to spend much time around his parents and sisters since he left Memphis decades earlier. The book starts off light, returns sporadically to being very light, but an undertone of bitterness slowly creeps in.

The summons to Memphis he receives when the book begins is from his sisters. Their father, a retired wealthy attorney and relatively recent widower, has moved on to a fairly predictable stage. An octogenarian, their father had first allowed himself to be cossetted by the numerous widows in his age group. After a few months of going for tea, the old fellow moved on to frequenting nightclubs and apparently flirting with much, much younger women. He's now progressed to socializing with just one woman, a middle-aged matron he has actually proposed to. She's a respectable person not dramatically younger than him but still youthful enough for the sisters to recognize that the old man is a lot more likely to take a dirt nap before his intended bride than the bride is to predecease him. The assumption is that if he dies first, the widow gets everything. No surprise. The sisters want to prevent the wedding. The narrator recalls the classic Memphis fate of elderly widowers hoping to remarry: shuffled off to an old folks' home or moved to a family property so far out in the boonies they might as well be on a different planet. He wonders just what his sisters' plan for their father is.

And this is where the passive-aggressive behavior creeps in. The narrator's family turns out to be  good at saying they're doing something nice while actually making people's lives miserable. No one ever engages in direct communications, with the possible exception of the father. His personality is forceful enough that none of the children ever directly contradict or defy him, but it turns out they're really good at payback when they've got 30+ years of resentment built up.

Nothing dramatic happens, there is no grand denouement that ties everything up in a neat bundle. The book ends as quietly as it began with the narrator back in his New York apartment. Will he ever go to Memphis again? Probably not.

How would I rate this book on the usual 1 to 10 scale? It's in the middle of the pack. The writing is good, but the style was a little odd. I'd give it a 7. Maybe. Maybe only a 6. It's one of those damn with faint praise tomes. You know, "I've read worse." Would I recommend it to other readers? Only if they're as OCD as I am about reading (or at least attempting to read) all the Pulitzer Price fiction winners.

Next up on the list: Beloved by Toni Morrison. The L'Anse library actually has a copy on the shelves. Granted, it is the large print edition but at least it's there. No Interlibrary Loan for a change. And, given that this is another novel that gets described as "seminal," I'm hoping it turns out to be readable. Usually seminal is another way of saying "No one has read this book."

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Adventures in Volunteering: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

The S.O. and I spent the month of September functioning as campground hosts at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This was our second time at the Hurricane River Campground, which made the whole experience much smoother than the previous year. We knew exactly what we were getting into. The biggest mystery was what type of attagirl swag we'd get at the end of the month. Turned out to be coffee cups,  a whistle that can double as a key ring, and stickers. Last year we got baseball caps, lapel pins, and stickers. We'd have gotten the caps again this year except we already had some. (The baseball caps actually appear on the first day as a VIP; it's part of the uniform that helps identify the camp hosts to the public.)

Among other certainties, we knew that the one phrase we were going to be uttering a lot was, "Hey, you fucking moron, don't you know what 'No Parking' means?" Well, okay, we didn't phrase it quite the way we were thinking it. What actually came out of the mouth was "Excuse me, ma'am, but this is a fire lane. You can't park here. The sign right next to your car does say 'No Parking.' Seriously. You can not park here. Yes, you have to move to the parking lot. Really. The parking lot. Yes, it does mean you'll have a longer walk to the light house. Yes, it'll turn a mile-and-a-half walk into a mile and six-tenths one way." And so it went. . . the downside to the host's camp site being right next to the Au Sable Lighthouse Trail/North Country Trail, which at that point is a gated access road to the light station. People would pull up by that gate on a regular basis and then get annoyed when they were told to move.

That whole business with people being reluctant to walk an extra 500 feet never failed to amuse me. You're planning a round-trip walk of at least three miles, not to mention the wandering around the light station grounds and maybe climbing a fairly tall tower, but you can't handle having another 2/10ths of a mile tacked on to it? Unreal. The totally predictable part, of course, is that it was generally someone who looked remarkably fit who was reluctant to do any extra walking. The ancient old ladies dragging oxygen bottles and pushing walkers never complained. They just headed up the road with a determined look and came back a few hours later still with a spring in their step, sort of. Or as much of a spring in their step as anyone who looked like a relative of the Crypt Keeper could manage.
Au Sable Lighthouse Trail. People loved to park right in front of the gate (which has a no parking sign on it) or right next to the No Parking sign on a post to the left in the photo. 

I wasn't the only one who noticed that the geezers weren't fazed while the young dudes who looked like gym rats would be collapsing from exhaustion. One of the interpretive rangers who worked at the light station told me he regularly had ostensibly fit young people asking about a shuttle service back to the parking lot while the senior citizens just smiled and kept on truckin'. More proof looks can be deceiving -- just because someone looks healthy doesn't mean they are and vice versa.
Ever wonder just exactly what a brick shithouse would look like? Wonder no more. The Au Sable Light Station has two, one of which is in this photo. It's the small structure on the left. The other two small buildings are paint and oil lockers. 
Anyway. Pictured Rocks. Hurricane River. Wrote about both before but that's not going to stop me from nattering on a third time. Hurricane River is a small campground with a total of a mere 22 sites (including the host's). It is a true campground, completely basic, no amenities other than fairly new vault toilets and a source for potable water. There is a well with a solar-powered pump so people can fill containers. The sites in general are nicely laid out and are great for tent camping. For RV campers, though, probably not so much. The parking pads tend to be narrow even when they're long enough so anyone with slides could have issues. Most of the sites have the added issue of not being particularly level. I know with the Guppy the S.O. had to put a fair amount of blocking under the right rear wheels.
It's not obvious from this photo, but this is a great site in the lower loop for tent camping. It opens up a lot past the parking pad -- lots of space for a tent, a sun/rain canopy over the picnic table, nice fire ring, and lots of trees to screen you from the other camp sites. For an RV, though? Marginal for anything bigger than a Class B. The narrow pad has a distinct slope. 
We did not see many RVs this year, definitely fewer than last year.  Most campers used tents. For those who had an RV of any sort, the micro teardrop trailers seemed to be the most popular piece of equipment with pop-ups and Class Bs a close second, particularly on the lower loop. The upper loop is better suited for larger travel trailers and motorhomes, and we did see a fair number of both up there. The most astounding was probably a 40-foot Class A. They did manage to pick the one site in the loop that is  the easiest to back into, but that was probably sheer dumb luck and not planning. We heard from some locals that they had encountered that same Class A when its GPS sent it down an ATV trail instead of the county highway. They came into the campground to see if the people had managed to find Hurricane River after they'd told the driver how to get back to a real road.
Found at one of the camp sites. It had a cute little saying on the back. I threw it in the trash. Painted rocks, cute or not, are litter and in the same class as discarded water bottles and other debris. They violate the Leave No Trace ethic. 
We also saw a huge 5th wheel in the upper loop. They weren't as lucky as the Class A. We could tell from the tracks in the dirt that it had taken the driver multiple tries to get the trailer where it needed to go -- it was a very tight turn with a couple of rather large trees on either side of the parking pad. Never did see the owners when we were making our regular patrols through the loops. If I had, I'd have been tempted to ask them just how much K-Y they'd had to use to get the trailer on to the site.
Beelzebub napping in the Guppy. I wasn't sure how he'd take to being stuck in a space that small, but it turned out mice had moved in sometime in late August. He found ways to amuse himself. The mice did not have as a good a time. 
There had been changes at the park. Dogs are now allowed on the lighthouse trail. Last year they weren't so we were in the uncomfortable position of telling people if/when we spotted someone with a dog that they had to take the beast back to their car. I have some thoughts about the folks who want their dogs to accompany them everywhere they go -- I don't think it's such a hot idea to be walking a dog anyplace that's both crowded and has a lot of other dogs around because no matter how behaved your beast is you never know if some other idiot has Cujo on an inadequate leash. (Small digression: we were at Tahquamenon Falls on Labor Day and witnessed a couple walking a large dog that snapped and growled at every other dog it saw and almost bit a kid. That dog definitely should not have been in a state park on a super busy day.) But if the Park Service has decided dogs are now allowed on trails where they weren't before, I'm going to be quietly relieved that's one less thing I'm required to nag people about.

The S.O. working hard at camp hosting.
Another huge change is the park went to all campsites being available by reservation only. It is a real-time system. If you come to the campground and think a site might be available, you can get on the Internet, go to, check on the site, and pay for it immediately. I talked with campers who had reserved their site while stopped at the Grand Sable Visitor Center 20 minutes before arriving at the campground.

I think it's a great system. No questions about whether or not a site is available, no having to get to the campground super early in the hopes that someone is leaving. And no one cheating NPS by failing to put money into the envelope like they did back when camping was first come, first served and payment was on the honor system. We heard a few complaints from people who didn't realize it was now reservation only until after they arrived at the park, but considering the campground was close to 100% occupancy until the last few days of the month I'd say most people had done their research. I know one annoyance is now gone -- the large number of cars and trucks coming into the campground and circling repeatedly hoping to see that someone has vacated a site.
Hurricane River flowing straight out, at least for a day or two. 
We did have one site where people managed to completely ignore the multiple signs all saying camping was by reservation only and set up on a site. I had to give them the bad news the site was reserved by someone else and they had to take all their stuff down and leave. They weren't happy, but they complied without much argument. As camp hosts, we received a report each morning listing the names of incoming campers. It helped. Except for that one incident we didn't have anyone trying to squat on a reserved site, but it was still reassuring to be able to do random spot checks to make sure people belonged there. And for sure it helped a lot to have a clipboard in my hand with a multi-page printout as I told the unauthorized campers that if their names weren't on the printout they were SOL on that particular site. If they were lucky, the state forest campground a few miles down the highway had space -- and all state forest campgrounds are still walk-in, first-come, first-serve. (Michigan state parks do use a reservation system, but they also have staff on-site and offer more amenities than the campgrounds.)

One first this time around was people wanting to park vehicles on the tent pads. Had one guy who had one of those nifty tents that's mounted on the box of a pickup position his truck right on the tent pad -- his reasoning was that it was the one level space. True, but he was lucky he didn't get stuck. Tent pads are designed to be comparatively soft. They're periodically maintained to keep the dirt from becoming too compacted. Another dude backed his pop-up camper onto a tent pad using the same reasoning: the pad is level. Given that he was already on one of the flattest sites in the campground, I wasn't real sympathetic. Pop-ups are remarkably easy to level almost anywhere. I gave him the speech about never parking on a tent pad because they're soft and you can easily get stuck, too. I doubt if it registered.

We did tell the park we'd be happy to come back next year. September is a great time to be at Pictured Rocks. The bugs are gone -- Hurricane River would be an obvious mecca for mosquitoes and biting stable flies in the hotter months; there's a lot of swamp around it -- and the weather has that nifty crisp feel to it. When the sun shines, the sky is an incredible shade of blue and so is the Lake. And when it's rainy and the wind is blowing, the wave action on the Lake is nicely dramatic. Large waves always mean getting to play the "which way will the river flow out now?" game. The mouth of the Hurricane River changed on an almost daily basis. Sometimes it went straight out, sometimes it swung west, sometimes it swung east, and on at least once occasion it split: long sand bar right in the middle and the river going around it. You know life is good when the biggest question each day is which way is the river flowing now?

Monday, October 7, 2019

Times have changed

For some bizarre reason I woke up thinking about politics, a topic I've been studiously avoiding in the interest of preserving my sanity. I'm going to blame the book about John F. Kennedy I've been slowly reading for the past couple of months. The book, An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek, goes into excruciating detail about JFK on both the personal and political levels. Which is why it's been slow going. I love trivia as much as the next person, but I tend to zone out pretty fast when it comes down to describing Cabinet meetings down to the level of one step away from details like the design of Schlesinger's tie or what type of shoes Bobby Kennedy favored.

Nonetheless, overkill on minutiae notwithstanding, it is an interesting book. At this point the author has gotten Kennedy et al. up to early in 1962 and the political calculations involved in trying to ensure the right type of Democrats end up elected to the House and Senate. Kennedy wants more allies in Congress so he can get the legislation he wants passed actually passed. Democrats did enjoy a majority in both houses at the time, but that didn't meant they automatically approved everything the President wanted. A number of things Kennedy pushed for (Medicare, stronger civil rights legislation) did not in fact get passed until after his death.

But that's not what I was thinking about this morning. Nope, what was on my mind was the current slowly shrinking crop of potential presidential candidates. I have no problem with the large pool of wannabes. I was pretty happy to see that most of them are not old enough to be on Medicare and actually enjoy a strong chance of staying healthy through a presidential term and not drifting into senile dementia like the Current Occupant of the White House. It does annoy the bejesus out of me that the media want to stay focused on the frelling geezers -- shouldn't Bernie's cardiac event and emergency stent insertion be a huge red flag that it's not a good idea to back candidates who are so old they no longer buy green bananas? Let's face it. The top three candidates in terms of media hype are all ancient.

Okay, so Warren isn't quite as ancient as Bernie and Biden, but she's also Not Young. She's not even middle-aged. She's elderly. People hesitate to have grandparents who are in their late '60s babysit toddlers. Why would anyone want another geezer (geezette?) in the White House?

I was also thinking about how damn early this whole process started. The Human Yam had barely finished bitching about the vote count being wrong and that the crowd at his inauguration was so bigly there'd never been another that came close to being so bigly before potential nominees were out in Iowa kissing up to hog farmers and ethanol producers. I swear the jockeying for position for running in 2020 began before they'd even finished counting the votes in 2016. And then every other day (or so it seemed) for the past 2 years we've had another presidential wannabe crawling out from under obscure rocks around the country.

I have no complaints about the way the Democratic National Committee decided to structure the winnowing of the gazillion candidates in their attempt to figure out who the actual strongest contenders are except for one thing: Why the hell did it all start so early? 

By the time the actual election gets here. . . fuck, by the time the first primaries roll around. . . people are going to be so burnt out on hearing about the 2020 election that the only people going to the polls will be the True Believers, the fanatics, the fringes of both parties. The few sane Republicans running against Trump won't have a prayer, especially when they don't have a lot to recommend them to begin with. And the Democrats? I have a hunch the progressives who want Medicare for all are still going to be a lot more committed to voting than the ones who lean toward preserving the status quo (translation: Biden will be toast).

Which brings me back to JFK. He did some quiet exploratory stuff, mostly speaking engagements around the country, but dodged questions about presidential ambitions until the 1960 general election was less than a year away. Do you know when he formally announced his candidacy? The first week of January 1960, approximately ten months before the election. I repeat, ten months. 

Other potential candidates were equally quiet, with the possible exception of Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson, despite having been kicked to the curb twice by voters, cherished fantasies of being the nominee a third time. In retrospect it seems hard to believe anyone seriously considered giving him another shot at it but apparently a lot of people thought he could beat the obvious Republican choice, Eisenhower's vice president, Richard Nixon. I find myself thinking that would make an interesting alternate history novel. What if Stevenson had been the nominee? What if Nixon had won in 1960? When I have thoughts like that, I kind of wish I was either more creative or more ambitious -- the possibilities are intriguing.

But, as usual, I digress. Bottom line is campaigning for elections in this country now starts way too soon. We need to reform the whole system. Eliminate the electoral college, get rid of corrupt campaign financing, and shorten the lead time. If politicians want to network and maneuver for position behind the scenes, fine, but don't make the rest of us listen to them until the election is a whole lot closer than it is now. Is there some way to return to the infamous smoke-filled rooms while most of us get to live in blissful ignorance until the countdown to the election is measured in weeks instead of years? 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Adventures in silviculture

Behold a $30 apple. Back in 2015 I purchased a Wolf River dwarf apple tree. The tree did nothing the first year, of course, and then we had to move it the following summer so it wouldn't get smooshed by the well driller's rig. That meant it also did nothing the next summer. It took the summer of 2018 off, too.

Oh, it kept growing -- put out new branches, leafed out nicely, and looked reasonably healthy, although it did develop a distinct list to one side thanks to wind and snow. But that's all it did.

This spring it finally bloomed. There must have been a good dozen blossoms on the shrub. Who knows? I might have gotten lucky and harvested enough for a pie. No such luck.

The apple pictured is The Apple, the full extent of the tree's yield for this year. Considering that it was the only apple to make it through the summer, one would have expected it be a tad larger. It is perhaps the size of a tennis ball. After waiting through five summers for the tree to produce something that apple had better be edible.

On the positive side, it does come close to being a perfect apple. No blemishes and no sign that codling moth larvae have tried turning it into a condo. It looks good, albeit a tad lonely.

Wolf River, for those who are interested in such things, is a heritage variety. It dates back to the 1870's and is known for its cold hardiness and natural resistance to fire blight, mildew, and scab. I would have preferred to plant a standard size instead of a dwarf but when I spotted a Wolf River for sale at Shopko I grabbed it despite its diminutive stature.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Still channeling Mary Berry

Sort of. A few weeks ago I spotted Almost Vegetarian, on the New Books shelf at the library. The book looked intriguing. It wasn't 100% vegetarian, just kind of targeting people who are leaning toward including more plant-based dishes in their diet. It includes recipes for chicken and fish but no red meat.

Flipped through it and discovered it included some intriguing options, like leek and fennel flan. I had a hard time wrapping my head around that one. Now I know intellectually that a flan can be savory but years and years of encountering flan only as the dessert version, the sweet custard with the caramel sauce that's a staple of Mexican restaurant menus, had me doing a double take at the idea of making a flan with leeks.

Not that I have much personal knowledge of leeks. I've never cooked one. I just know they look like green onions on steroids.

I'm also not super interested in turning into a vegetarian. I do, however, have a number of friends and relatives who won't eat anything that might be smarter than they are. I figure it's good to have a few vegetarian and/or vegan recipes in the repertoire as a just-in-case we ever invite any herbivores to dine with us.

So I checked the book out, took it home, skimmed it, found a fair number of recipes that looked like they might be edible. You know, stuff that could function as a main dish, variations on savory pies. I scanned a few pages, printed out the recipes, and then decided to try the Carrot Pie.

On one level the Carrot Pie didn't seem much different than the lanttulaatikko (Rutabaga Casserole) that's a favorite Finnish Christmas holiday meals dish. Smashed carrots, nutmeg as a spice, On another, it did include cheese and was supposed to be wrapped in a crust. A free form crust, a crust that would be rolled out but not placed in a pan. I'd have to shape it up and over the carrot filling without anything to support it. Having seen some of shaped crust disasters on the Great British Bake Off (which has mutated into the Great British Baking Show, lost Mary Berry, and acquired two rather odd hosts in the process, but that's a topic for a different post) I was not particularly optimistic about dealing with the crust.

Turned out I worried for nothing. The crust is a yeast dough and easy to work with. It's actually a rather good crust. I could see using it for homemade pizza or calzones. I'm not sure I'll ever make it again to enclose a carrot pie, but you never know. Maybe I'll freak out the family the next time there's a holiday meal. You know, tell the daughter and grandkids that, yes, I'll bring a pie. Oh, and by the way, it'll contain carrots.

Making the pie wasn't especially difficult. It did end up looking a little odd, but going by the description in the cookbook it wasn't destined to look like something in a case in a French patisserie. Free-form crusts are always a bit rough looking, kind of like a preschooler's first attempts at working with modeling clay.

As for the taste? Also a bit odd. Not bad, just different. I don't think I'd actually want to have it as a main dish, but for a side? Sure. And the crust is good.

The recipe(s):
Dough for Savory Pie

1 teaspoon dry active yeast
1/2 cup tepid water
1/2 teaspoon dry malt or sugar
3/4 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt (I only used 1/2 teaspoon; I do reduced salt in everything I cook)
1 large egg, slightly beaten
3 tablespoons nonfat sour cream (screw the nonfat; I used the real thing)

In a small mixing bowl, stir together yeast and water. Let sit until frothy, about 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Make a well in the center and add the egg, sour cream, and yeast mixture. Stir to make a soft dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead briefly until smooth. 

Clean the large mixing bowl and return the dough to it. Cover with plastic wrap or a light towel and place in a warm spot until doubled, about 45 minutes. Use the dough for Savory Carrot Pie. 

Savory Carrot Pie

1 recipe Dough for Savory Pie
3/4 pound (6 to 7 medium) carrots, peeled and sliced
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 cup fresh orange juice
2 cups water (or to cover)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch ground nutmeg
Pinch dry marjoram, crumbled
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 cup part skim ricotta cheese (screw the skim, use the real thing)
1/2 cup grated imported Parmesan cheese (don't be a snob; no one's going to notice you used the cheap pre-grated store brand when it's mixed in with everything else) 

Prepare the Dough for Savory Pie. 
In a large saucepan, combine the carrots, bay leaves, ginger, orange juice, and water to cover. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down, simmer until the carrots are mushy, about 20 minutes (it'll probably take longer). 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pick out the bay leaves. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the carrots to the work bowl of your food processor. Puree in pulses so the carrots don't become watery. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, and marjoram, and process briefly to blend. Transfer to a mixing bowl and stir in the egg, ricotta cheese, and Parmesan cheese until thoroughly combined. 

Roll our the dough on a 12-inch square piece of parchment paper into a round 10 inches in diameter. (Parchment paper is amazing. Why wasn't this stuff around 50 years ago when I was first learning to bake? It makes clean-up so much easier.)  Pile the filling in the middle and spread it out leaving a 2-inch margin all around. Bring the dough up around the sides as though you were going to encase the filling but leaving a window 6 inches in diameter at the top. Crimp the dough around the sides to hold it in place. Transfer to a baking sheet or preheated baking stone and bake until the crust is deep golden and the filling is set, about 40 minutes. If the crust browns before the filling has set, cover with foil, lower the heat to 300, and bake about 10 minutes more. 

Theoretically Carrot Pie has 388 calories per serving. The recipe as prepared supposedly serves 4. Based on just how filling it is, I'm thinking it serves 4 only if this dish is served at Eid al-Fitr or you're cooking for lumberjacks. I'd guesstimate 8 servings would be more accurate. 

If I make it again I'll cut back on the ginger for cooking the carrots as it was kind of overwhelming and eliminate the marjoram entirely. And, as noted above, the crust is quite good. Maybe I will work up the ambition to make some calzones one of these days.