Fribble Friday: Everybody knows the secret, everybody knows the score (1 Samuel 1–3)

Some of you might have expected me to do Ruth next. If you’re Christian, that’s probably what’s next in your Bible, since the various Christian canonical orders try for chronological continuity (and, also, the book of Ruth is biblically motivated by the appearance of David in 1 Samuel, so it needs to come first to set the stage). But the Tanakh, whose ordering I follow, considers the books as belonging to three major categories: the תורה or law, the נביאים or prophets, and the כתובים or writings. Ruth’s in the third section, so we don’t see her until much, much later.

Short, snarky summary: Another barren woman miraculously conceives, but gives her son away. Meanwhile, priests behave really badly because it is the lawless pre-monarchial times.

Groping towards unity

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Corbenic, by Catherine Fisher

Corbenic moves in some well-trod circles, but it manages to execute them interestingly. It’s an urban-fantasy (as I understand the term) coming-of-age story, but it’s pretty far afield from the Chosen One battling fantasy monsters fare which characterizes so much young adult fantasy (and urban fantasy, if I understand it, just means the monsters are in present-day New York or London or somesuch). This review contains moderate spoilers.

Notably, Corbenic leaves it extremely openended as to whether (a) there is anything paranormal or fantastic at all happening, (b) whether the protagonist actually has any sort of special destiny, and (c) whether he accomplishes anything at all. The story wears its fantastical trappings lightly, and being filtered through the perceptions of a young man who reasonably fears he may be suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations makes our narrator just untrustworthy enough that, really, one could argue nothing fantastical happens at all.

Now, more about that narrator. Cal (who it is intimated has a full name of deep mythical resonance, but the obvious choice, “Percival”, is not something which would generally be shortened to “Cal”) is actually an awfully unpleasant young man. Raised in poverty, his only apparent desire in life is for the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle; hounded by his clingy, schizophrenic, and addicted mother, he’s tied in awful knots of love and hate and guilt. Cal is not unsympathetic: it’s clear why he would think the way he does, and he does indeed seem to have had a god-awful life, but it’s hard for an average fantasy reader to ride around in the head of someone who, on a trip into town, buys and lusts immoderately over a silk necktie, and attempts to hock the clearly magical sword given to him by the Fisher King. Unlike in so many stories, the resistance to the call of adventure isn’t mere Campbell-flavored window-dressing: it’s kind of at the core of the protagonist’s identity, and he keeps resisting abnormality until he’s managed to fuck things up hopelessly (harming several people profoundly in the process).

Don’t go into Corbenic expecting par-for-the-course fantasy fare, is my basic point here. It’s not actually urban fantasy so much as fantasy-themed psychodrama. It’s done well, and it’s an easy read. The prose doesn’t entirely sparkle, but it more than serves its purpose.

Bánh mì in Louisville (part 16 of an onging series): Against the Grain

Last of the backlogged Louisville reviews! This is from Octoberish, I think.

[Photo of sandwich from Against the Grain]Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse on UrbanspoonAgainst the Grain (401 E. Main Street) is a microbrewery and restaurant close by Louisville Slugger Field. They do short runs of a staggeringly large variety of beers, rotating their six main taps each among one of a hoppy, smoky, dark, malty, session, and wildcard brew, with additional seasonals and outside beers making frequent appearances. They’re serious about their beercraft and also make damn fine barbecue sandwiches and platters.

But how does such a place end up in my bánh mì reviews? Well, in among the pulled-pork, sausage, and brisket sandwiches, there’s also something they assert is a “turkey banh mi”. And of course I had to eat it. It’s a $10 item, although that does come with slaw or chips.

Well, AtG is another roundeye joint, so I don’t expect authenticity. In the end, it’s pretty far afield from being a bánh mì at all, although in fairness I must confess it’s actually a pretty good sandwich. The biggest problem I saw with its Viet authenticity is the meat. Turkey’s not really a standard meat (chicken is and it’s not too far afield from that) but the bigger problem was the preparation method. Smoked meats are kind of the AtG food service’s raison d’être (not to be confused with the Dogfish Head fruit-infused beer of the same name), and their turkey, true to form, is aggressively smoky. That makes for a very nice meat and a very nice sandwich in its own right but is the entirely wrong dominant flavor for bánh mì. The smokiness completely overwhelmes the other elements: the slaw seemed a bit sparing, and I didn’t see any cilantro at all, so really there’s no mitigating elements reminiscent of the proper Viet form. Even the roll was off form: it’s a hearty bun from Breadworks, perfect for piling brisket high on, but whichever baker claimed it’s a baguette might have to have his toque blanche taken away.

So, yeah, I can’t in good conscience recommend the bánh mì at Against the Grain, unless you really hanker for smoked turkey. There are other sandwiches there which better showcase their talents, and places which do a more well-balanced bánh mì.

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot

So I was studying 19th-century literature last winter, and my parents were reading Daniel Deronda for their book group (a rather unusual choice: it’s a Jewish book group, and their usual material is contemporary literature with Judaic themes). So I decided to read along (which also gave me an excuse attend the group, a thrill in its own right, as this group has been around in some configuration since I was a wee sproglet not mature enough to take part). I was nowhere near done when the book group met to discuss, but I’ve finished it since.

It is a very strange book. I’m not quite familiar enough with George Eliot’s oeuvre to actually put it in its place, but I can see why it’s not regarded as one of her best. It is very well-crafted on the level of sentences and chapters and characters but has some severe structural problems. The most striking problem is that it is not at all clear who the primary character is. We get about 20% of the way through the book before meeting the title character, and almost all of that pagecount is spent on an unlikeable girl named Gwendolyn Harleth (incidentally, it’s a very long book. 20% of it is a pretty sizable wodge-o’-text). Ms. Harleth (later Mrs. Grandcourt) remains a pretty major character, no a plot strand which is pretty much entirely divorced from the activities of Mr. Deronda himself. The plots merge to some extent late in the story, but in a purely one-sided direction: Gwendolyn depends tremendously on Daniel, and her dependence on Daniel tremendously drives her story, but Daniel’s own plotline is one to which Gwendolyn is completely irrelevant.

So why was a Jewish book group reading a novel about the lives and loves of a bunch of Brits written by a 19th-century Christian? Well, Daniel’s plot is actually aggressively Judaism-influenced and even proto-Zionist. See, he takes in an impoverished Jewess (it’s a 19th-century novel, so they use that word), and decides to help her find her family, which sends him neck-deep into the Jewish communities of London, where he feels surprisingly comfortable. Meanwhile, there’s some confusion about Daniel’s own identity, since he’s the ward—emphatically not recognized as a son—of a gentleman (who happens to be Mr. Grandcourt’s uncle, part of the tenuous connection to Gwendolyn). So midway through the novel, Daniel is basically wearing a neon sign on his head saying “I am the bastard son of my guardian and some Jewish lady”.

To Eliot’s credit, he’s not actually Sir Hugo Malliser’s son. He is, however, totally Jewish and spends a lot of the book figuring out what this means to him. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn gets happily widowed and her plotline kind of peters out as Daniel goes off to be all Zionist in Palestine.

I make it sound worse than it is. It’s actually a very good, well-observed book, with mostly good characters, excellent prose, and some interesting plotting. The actual pacing’s a bit off, and the text seems to move in fits and starts, but it still seems to mostly work. It’s just unfortunate that everything having to do with Gwendolyn seems like so much irrelevance. That includes the character (and rather sudden dispatch) of her husband. Mr. Grandcourt is a fairly thoroughgoing villain, who seems to ooze jealous malice. It’s never entirely clear why he’s such a nasty piece of work: he doesn’t actually seem to much care about or for Gwendolyn, but makes her life miserable for the sheer giddy hell of it. I mean, yes, we’re all glad when he dies, but can we get some reason for why he lived the way he did?

Daniel Deronda is an intriguing work, not least as a viewpoint from a fascinating 19th-century Christian woman who developed an extraordinary and atypical interest in Judaism and Hebrew (George Eliot was remarkable in many ways, among them her scholarly pursuits into Judaism and her proto-Zionist leanings). But I’m not sure it’s actually her best work or even in her top class: it’s structurally a real mess.

Bánh mì in Louisville (part 15 of an onging series): Wiltshire Pantry

Still quite behind on the bánh mì reports, I’m afraid. I’d been noticing Wiltshire Pantry for a while, and Shannon and I finally dropped by, like, last autumn. This is how out of date I’ve gotten.

[Photo of sandwich from Wiltshire Pantry]Wiltshire Pantry Bakery and Cafe on UrbanspoonWiltshire Pantry (1310 E. Breckenridge Street) is a spinoff business from the upscale Wiltshire on Market, which is one of the several linchpins of the East Market neighborhood’s culinary flowering. The Wiltshire Pantry serves three needs that the original eatery doesn’t, and comprises a catering business, a bakery, and a café focusing on light meals. The second and third purposes particularly dovetail, as the café is generally showcasing sandwiches on a selection of chosen breads from their stock. As luck would have it, when we visited, the baguette was being highlighted with a $9.50 bánh mì, but the menu changes frequently enough that I wouldn’t walk in expecting to find a bánh mì here.

As mentioned previously, price is one of the things I’m a stickler for, having come into this game among the $3 sandwiches of San Diego. $9.50 seems a mildly crazy price to me, but we’ll soften the blow with geography (east of Preston we’re no longer in dive territory with dive prices), pedigree (Wiltshire on Market is proportionately more expensive, with quality to match, than downmarket competitors), and meal completeness (the quinoa salad and pickle spear, if culturally a mite dissonant, felt like they improved the value proposition).

Ignoring price, though, my conclusion is that Wiltshire does many things well, from a general sandwichcraft standpoint, but that the bánh mì as a whole felt like it lacked a certain depth of flavor. Let’s start with everything that worked: the bread, as befits a place which claims to be a bakery, was quite good. It wasn’t, of course, a Viet-style baguette with the rice flour snap, but asking them to do a one-off bread product when they’re trying to showcase their main line of products might be too much. Nonetheless, it was a nice robust baguette, with a light but crisp exterior and some softness inside. My main nitpick as regards bánh mì suitability would be shape: it’s a somewhat narrow loaf akin to a flûte when my ideal bánh mì loaf would be wider and closer to a bâtard. The pâté was unsurprisingly excellent and provided the primary flavor component; I felt it was a little too smooth but now we really are getting into pure nitpickery.

My main disappointment was in the lack of Viet-specific flavors. The daikon slaw and meat are places when the flavor really pops in a lot of these sandwiches, and they were somewhat muted in comparison to the pâté, so somehow the magic of the bánh mì never quite came thtrough, but I’d give this one props for being one of the more authentic offerings provided by a place whose cuisine is not actually Vietnamese.

Wibble Wednesday: The sin of Sodom, revisited (Judges 19–21)

Loyal readers, you may have thought I disappeared! I kind of did. End of the school year was crazy, and life has been otherwise complicated as well. But I return to finish off the book of Judges.

We can finish out Judges, disjointed selection of myths that it is, and move on into a subject dear to the authors’ hearts: namely, the foundation of the monarchy. But first, as a segue, we’re going to see just how bad non-monarchical Israel really is.

Short snarky summary: Some towns in Israel are full of rapists. Surprisingly, the rest of Israel recognizes this as the extraordinary aberration that it is and seeks to eradicate it. They manage to fuck it up horribly and end up deciding that the best way to fix it is with more rape.

One of the few places where the Bible is unambiguously anti-rape.