Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Books I Read In July

'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'
As I have noted before, I come to read the Harry Potter series from watching the movies more than once each.  This book marks a jump in length from its predecessors; my edition had 636 pages.  As with the previous volumes I have read, the story largely focuses on Harry's life at school.  The adventure element forms a smaller part than in the movies.

The book introduces characters that do not feature in the movie, including magical creatures, additional house elves and members of the Ministry of Magic and of the Weasley family.  There is also a sub-plot about Hermione Granger campaigning for the rights of house elves, an enslaved species in the magic world.  The gaps between the three trials that Harry has to undertake are longer but the portrayal of the challenges themselves, especially the first one, are far shorter than how they are shown in the movie.  This is a shame especially as little Quidditch features in this book.  It also includes lengthy exposition especially towards the end.

I like the book because it has these various sub-plots and the reappearance of teachers who largely disappear in the movie.  It is also good at seeing the qualms in Harry's mind, both standard teenage concerns and the risks of facing his nemesis, Lord Voldemort who experiences a leap forward in strength in this book.  Overall it is not a bad book, but I wanted more of the adventure and less of the vacillations of Potter, but then I guess it is aimed at someone who is 14 and not 48.  As yet, however, I have not been put off completing the series.

'Rumpole's Return' by John Mortimer
Though, as I noted last month, Horace Rumpole, unlike the characters around him, never seems to age, in this book he has retired.  He has gone to live in Florida where his son is an academic.  Interestingly his daughter-in-law is pregnant but continues to smoke.  Rumpole soon tires of life in Florida and returns to his old chambers when called upon by a former colleague.  The story is pretty much a murder mystery with Rumpole and his son gathering evidence on both sides of the Atlantic to help Horace make a defence in a murder case.  The story is alright but is a little unsatisfactory in the comings and goings of Rumpole and the question whether he could really retire and then return.  He has not sold his London flat and his wife comes back from Florida after him too.  By the end of the book the status quo ante has been re-established.  I accept that some of this stems from the fact that these are stories based on what was proving to be a successful television series and so the drivers are those of broadcasting than how an author might work a novel or series of short stories.  The notable change especially from the first book in the series, is the lack of humour, the only funny bit is a repeat of a joke told in an earlier book.  It passes the time to see Rumpole and the quirky characters around him with the addition of interesting aspects of English law and forensic science, but it lacks the engagement of the first book and I do wonder if it is a case of diminishing returns.

'Flight of A Witch' by Ellis Peters
This is another of Peters's books featuring members of the Felse family.  This one was published in 1964 and so George Felse has just been promoted from Detective Sergeant to Detective Inspector and his son Dominic is a sixth former.  Both appear in this book, but as is common for Peters, they are supporting rather than leading characters.  As in many of her books set in England it is based in the border region with Wales, but unlike in 'City of Gold and Shadows' (1973) by which time George is a Detective Chief Inspector, the region is portrayed very bleakly.  The story is centred on an 18-year old girl (the age of majority until 1970 was 21 so people below that age were still considered children though they could have sex at 16, they could not vote), called Annet [sic] Beck.  One difference from the mid-1960s compared to today when more people have children in their 40s than their 20s in Britain, a child of a couple who had turned 40, as Annet is, was expected to be 'wrong' in some way.  Annet disappears for five days and is connected to a crime committed in Birmingham.  The bulk of the story is about finding out what happened to her during those five days and who was the man with her involved with the crime.  There are a range of suspects and George Felse aided by Dominic and a friend of his, plus one of Dominic's teachers, Tom Kenyon, seek to eliminate the suspects and force the actual man involved out of cover.

Ellis does jump around between points of view but less often than in some of her other Felse books.  The steady investigation and the elimination of a number of seemingly likely suspects is handled well.  The main problem is how bleak the book is.  This is not simply a result of the dreary setting, but also because so much of the story is seen through the eyes of Tom Kenyon, foolishly besotted with Annet who is the daughter of his landlord and bitter throughout as a result.  He comes across as a very pathetic character able to contribute much to developments and in fact spends the bulk of the climax a dumb, incapacitated spectator.  The trouble is that you often identify even if only distantly with the perspective of the one showing the story.  Looking through the eyes of George or Dominic consistently would have been alright.  However, seeing so much through Tom's eyes makes you feel dirty.  Unlike Annet he has no form of redemption or even like the criminal, of release.  He ends being humiliated by one of his pupils and has any potential for affection spured.  As a result you feel that his life is pointless.  That is no way to be engaged with a novel.

'Stars and Stripes Forever' by Harry Harrison
I know there is a current tendency for many authors to write 'what if?' novels which accentuate the greatness of the USA or show how it would have benefited from having more of the attitudes of the Confederate States in its make-up.  This book published in 1998 can certainly be seen as one of the first such alternate history books.  It starts well, looking at the real incident of the stopping of the British ship, the 'Trent', in 1861 which was carrying two representatives of the Confederate States to address Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III, by a Union naval ship.  This was violation of Britain's neutrality in the American Civil War and added to British support for the CSA.  Due to its military failings, Britain never formally recognised the Confederate States but did build warships for their navy.  In this alternative, Queen Victoria is angered and her husband Prince Albert is weakened by the illness that was killing him, slightly earlier than in our world.  As a result a strongly worded ultimatum goes to President Lincoln and this leads to Britain entering the war on the side of the Confederates.  So far, so feasible.  These elements take you to almost half way through the book.

Of course, some people argue that no 'what if?' book is feasible, because it is not what happened.  This is despite the fact that in real history it is the least likely thing that happens.  In this book, one British naval party makes a mistake in bad weather and so assaults Biloxi, a Confederate town rather than Deer Island which is occupied by Union troops.  The British forces go on the rampage for some reason through the town looting and raping.  This is seen as sufficient to immediately encourage the Confederate forces to call for a ceasefire from the Union.  Within a day of the British mistake, Union and Confederate troops are fighting side-by-side against the British both in the Mississippi and then in New York state.  Very quickly President Lincoln meets with Jefferson Davis, President of the CSA and they agree on joint action against the British in 1862, setting aside the two years of civil war and the issues that provoked it, very speedily.  The combined forces not only go on to eject the British from the USA, but provoke the French-speaking Lower Canada to break from Britain, then seize the remainder of British territories in North America bar Newfoundland and easily capture all the British Caribbean islands.  A Francophone uprising against British rule is probably the most feasible of those steps, there having been one in 1837-38 which had to be put down by the military.  Setting that aside, at the same time the CSA Congress agrees to the ending of slavery and then abolishes itself effectively returning all the seceded states to the Union by 1863.

There seems so much which is rushed through in this alternative.  Yes, Lincoln wanted to end the war but would not do so at any cost.  He did not recognise the CSA as a legitimate state or Jefferson as a proper President.  Meeting him in the way he does in this book would suggest to many that the CSA was being treated as a sovereign country.  In our history, even after the CSA had been soundly beaten in 1865, many found ways around abolition of slavery and did not roll over easily.  Harrison points out that at the end of the war in 1865, combined, the USA and CSA had an army larger than any European country and he believes that this army could have defeated all those armies fighting in unison, let alone just the British armed forces.  This overlooks the fact that it took the Union Army until 1865 to defeat the Confederates, even with a comprehensive blockade.  Furthermore it overestimates the strength of the Confederate forces, dependent on poor equipment, to fight British regulars and win easily.  Somehow, overnight the two sides of the bitter conflict set aside their differences and they are empowered, especially the Confederate troops, with a new vigour and indeed skill.

The other thing is that the British keep making mistakes and the Americans make none.  In addition, new equipment and weapons are pressed into service with minimal difficulty and are used appropriately throughout; the ships needed are always in the right place at the right time and do not malfunction when needed for victory.  The British, in contrast, cling to old ways.  The war portrayed is largely a re-run of the War of 1812, which is a fair estimate of what might have happened.  However, everything that could go wrong does so for the British and even the civilian population of Washington D.C. prove to better, more committed fighters than British regulars.  The Confederates are shown largely, with a few notable exceptions, as being happy in an instant to stop fighting the very men who drove them to leave the Union and throw over their hard-won allies, the British immediately, making no use of them to leverage any concessions from Lincoln; they simply swallow return to the Union as it was and abolition of slavery just because John Stuart Mill says it is the right thing to do.

Overall the book suggests somehow that the American Civil War was simply an error and the two sides were only fighting half-heartedly for what they believed in, despite their differences being so severe to lead to war in the first place.  To Harrison it only needed a rather feeble invasion in a couple of points to overcome these differences in a matter of days and set the USA to be able to severely damage the largest empire of the day with a handful of iron-clad ships, almost always in perfect working order.  This book starts well, but then Harrison slips into a jingoist fantasy.  He could have reached a similar conclusion much more feasibly, especially given that this is the first book in a trilogy.  Yet, for some reason he feels compelled to rush it all through making it highly unrealistic.  I can only think this comes from a great deal of arrogance as he writes at the end of the book: 'Events, as depicted in this book, would have happened just as they are written here.'  Even an author of a novel about true historical events cannot claim that.  In this case many historians and authors would argue that the path this book lays out is far from having been likely even with the British error.  This could have been a far better book, but for a fan of alternate history books it will be very frustrating to read.

Non Fiction
'The Economic Impact of the Cold War' by James L. Clayton
This book was published in 1970 so only covers the first half of the Cold War and it is primarily focused on the impact on the US economy.  It starts by looking at a range of economic/political perspectives on what defence spending does to an economy.  However, its central focus is a very astute analysis of the so-called military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower identified in 1961, i.e. the intimate connections between government departments, especially the Department of Defense and big companies particularly in aeronautics, ordnance and engineering.  It shows that despite the USA portraying itself as the home of free enterprise, in fact the billions of dollars in defence contracts from 1941 onwards led to a large chunk of the US economy really being a complicit cartel, a kind of corporatist economy more familiar in Fascist states than democratic ones.

The book draws on a wide range of contemporary sources, putting both sides of the case, both broadly, e.g. on whether defence spending boosted or drained the economy and on specifics such as the Vietnam War and ABMs (Anti-Ballistic Missiles) both of which were controversial at the time.  The book is very interesting on how uneven defence spending has been across the USA and shows that the current day prosperity of California and Texas was promoted by vast defence-related spending in these states in the post-war period.  It reminds of schemes that have long been forgotten and highlights the waste and poor quality often produced from such expenditure.  Thus, the analysis is of the kind which could be applied to governmental spending today as we are familiar with similar stories for example in software developed for the health service and air traffic control.  It is also the only book that I have read that presents a negative view of the US efforts to put a man on the Moon and how the money spent on the missions provided little benefit for the country and could have been better spent.

While the book looks at a single country over a particular period of its history, the way it analyses the situation and provides frameworks for this analysis, it is an engaging book which can be taken forward to use as a basis for analysis of state-commercial relations especially on vast schemes the output of which is difficult to measure in tangible terms of success.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Omelette Exploration 4: The 'Bliny' Omelette

If you are not familiar with 'bliny', they are pancakes, with savoury or sweet fillings, originating in Eastern Europe.  The singular is 'blin'.  They are also popular in the USA, largely as a result of their use in Jewish cooking.  A bliny pan is a frying pan about the size of your palm.  Naturally it can also be used for making omelettes.  All the rules I have outlined in previous Omelette Exploration postings, i.e. that you need butter for the cooking, good free-range eggs and should avoid an excessive amount of filling, still apply.  The question of the filling is even more important with the 'bliny' omelette than the standard, larger omelettes that I have written about so far.

Heat is also a vital factor.  This is something that people often get wrong and there is nothing wondering about clouds of butter smoke pouring from your pan and yet, you tend to want a golden colour to your omelette.  People tend to forget that the pan itself gets hot, it is not simply about the flame or electrical glow beneath it.  Indeed if making a number of omelettes as you will tend to do with the 'bliny' approach, by the end you will find you can do quite a bit of cooking actually lifting the pan away from the heat source and using the heat retained in the metal of the pan to finish them.

Cooking bliny omelettes is a fast process and you will need to make sure everything is in place, including the people who are going to eat them.  The quantity of egg liquid you pour into the pan each time will probably be equivalent to the contents of a third to half an egg.  Be sure that you can pour your egg liquid in with care and not just dollop in too much that will prove difficult with the small plan usually ending up with egg liquid wasted all over your cooker.  Keep the filling to no more than what you might hold between three fingers.  It tends to go into the centre of the omelette rather than being evenly distributed as with standard omelettes.  Indeed you may fold the bliny omelette over in half to effectively make an omelette 'sandwich' of the contents.

The bliny approach allows you to vary the fillings from omelette to omelette so catering to a range of tastes at your table.  I did this approach with four people none of whom liked the fillings favoured by the others.  As before, cheese is a good ingredient for sticking together; herbs are not problem, but make sure that heavier fillings like ham or bacon are cut into small pieces, smaller even than with a standard omelette, otherwise they will break the structure.  You can then easily end up rather than a perfect sunshine disc of omelette with simply lumps of omelette adhering to bits of filling.

As with the mille-feuille omelette, there is something aesthetic about the bliny omelette.  With the former you are looking for the layers when you cut through it.  The bliny omelette is about a row of discs of omelette.  I suggest a minimum of four per person's plate, lined up, slightly overlapping each other; perhaps with a different filling in each.  Unlike with a standard omelette, however, they are not at the centre of the dish, they are the accompaniment.  Thus, you might want to keep to vegetable fillings, e.g. finally chopped onions, especially red onions or spring onions, or mushrooms, maybe even fresh chunks of tomato, rather than meat.  Your main item on the plate may be slices or ham or even cold fish, a piece of peppered mackerel will go well with a set of bliny omelettes.  I tend to do this approach with my diners ready to eat straight from the pan.  However, there is nothing to say that you cannot produce a range of bliny omelettes and then store them to eat later, especially at a picnic.

Cooking four to sixteen bliny omelettes in the same pan is going to mean it is hot.  By the end you will find that the egg liquid will cook on contact with the pan surface.  For this reason you may want to leave plain/unfilled bliny omelettes in your set to last.  Of course, there is something elegant about a whole set of unfilled omelettes anyway, well, in my view.  What you will find unless they are being coloured by blackened butter in your pan, is that you will not get to the golden brown shade on the outside that you will find with standard omelettes.  They will be the yellow or (hopefully if you are using good eggs) orange shade of the egg liquid.  This is fine.  As they are thin and small, they are certain to be cooked right through, a great phobia still of British people eating omelettes.  In addition, the trick with some olive oil, that I have mentioned before, can help give them a golden tinge.

The bliny approach is different to the typical one of going in with big omelettes jammed full of stuff.  They allow you to produce omelettes for a range of tastes around a single table and to provide what I feel are an attractive food especially for going with summer dishes.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Biscuit Blog: Co-operative Truly Irresistible Fruit and Oat Cookies

Co-operative Truly Irresistible Fruit and Oat Cookies

These biscuits highlight some of the trends that I have noted in passing in recent months in terms of biscuits.  As you see the Co-op is using the term 'cookie' in the same way that Tesco is, i.e. to signify a thicker biscuit containing something and again, in this case, a soft biscuit rather than one with a snap.  These are also in a vertical cardboard box rather than a horizontally orientated plastic packet.  This format apparently designates better quality, emphasised by the 'Truly Irresistible' tag you can see at the top left.  You do wonder if they have a 'I can take them or leave them' range which is that bit cheaper.

Co-op has had a good reputation for baked goods in recent years and their biscuits are sound.  These seemed to have less fruit in them than indicated in the photograph which seems to show genuinely homemade biscuits.  They are soft, almost to the extent on verging on being cakes, but not crumbly in the way shown in the picture.  That was no problem for me as I do not want to lose chunks of my biscuit as I bite into it.  They had a reasonably fruity flavour and the 'fruit', i.e. raisins were not tiny dried specks but had some moistness about them.  I could not detect oats particularly within these biscuits, from them I would have expected a chewier even snappier biscuit.  These had a good level of moreishness, but I was felt that with a little more effort, i.e. more snap and some other fruit like orange zest, they could have been excellent.  I mark them down a little for seeming to lack the oat input promised on the box.


By the way, in the UK, the way, legally, that a biscuit is distinguished from a cake is that a biscuit goes soft when it is stale whereas a cake goes hard when stale.  This is why Jaffa Cakes are cakes, even though they look like biscuits, if you leave them, they will go harder than when at purchase, rather than softer.  I did not try the staleness test on these to see if they had crossed the biscuit/cake line.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tower Gate Fruit Shortcake

Tower Gate Fruit Shortcake

Back in March, I discussed before the difference between 'shortbread' and 'shortcake' biscuits:

However, it was only recently that I found out that the 'short' is a lump of fat used in the cooking process.  Fruit shortcake biscuits are different from the standard shortcake biscuits you will find in our supermarkets, what I used to term 'tractor biscuits' due to the distinctive diagonal patterning around the edges.  Fruit shortcake biscuits are circular rather than rectangular and are usually around a third of the thickness of a standard shortcake biscuit.  They lack the diagonal pattern but instead have small holes on the upper side, a crimped edge and a kind of 'weave' pattern on the underside; the one pictured is of a classic design in this respect.  They can often have white sugar sprinkled across the upper side.

As mentioned before Tower Gate are a Lidl provided brand notably for biscuits.  Thus, they are aiming at the cheaper end of the market.  These fit the standard pattern, but were a little thin. The biscuit did not have a distinct flavour and the fruit which was present in about the right quantity did not really bring the sweetness I expected.  They had a sightly limp snap on being bitten.  Thus, they were alright but not fruity enough really to mark them out from a standard shortcake biscuit and lacked the creaminess of some fruit shortcakes to allow them to compete against rich tea biscuits.  They get slightly marked up for value.