Monday, April 30, 2012

Now We Are Four: Happy Walpurgisnacht!

It's Walpurgisnacht! Witches! Wild partying! Bonfires! Mischief!

Well, maybe not for me. I went through the wringer last week, although all came out well. (Colonoscopy, with clean bill of health; car repairs, that ended up being a good deal less than I feared; and a situation at work that seemed to be all my fault for a very scary while, but turned out to be my boss' fault.) So this week I'm taking it easy and trying to decompress.

But Dust & Corruption is four years old and still going! That's ancient in blog years...

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Quoth the Raven, "Meh."

It was inevitable. I ran out to see The Raven. I even drove up to Baltimore. OK, not quite just for that; it was part of an outing with a steampunk group I've started hanging out with. We had dinner in Fell's Point, tripping over cobbled streets in the shadow of 19th-century buildings, and headed over to see the movie.

So, it's 1849. Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) is roaming Baltimore, broke, trying to cadge drinks in bars. He argues with a local editor, romances a local heiress Emily (Alice Eve), dodges her father's disapproval (Brendan Gleeson), and then suddenly finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation. It seems a serial killer is using the murder methods from Poe's stories. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) enlists Poe to assist him and hopefully nail the murderer. It gets nasty when Emily is abducted and held prisoner in a coffin, and Edgar is forced to solve a series of puzzles to win her release.

The setup sounds cool, to be sure, but in's all so empty. There's a lifelessness to it all. It's all handsome enough, with Budapest and Belgrade standing in for 19th-century Baltimore. But it often seems as if they were going down a checklist, not only of Poe material but of historical mystery cliches. Masquerade ball? Check. Crypt? Check. Backstage in a theater? Check. It seems as if they were obligated to go from one element to another, rather than simply letting the story take them where it will.

But it also makes a lot of gaffes. Who the hell is this Emily? Where did she come from? And one of the murder victims is Rufus Griswold, Poe's literary rival, who outlived Poe by eight years, was Poe's literary executor, and wrote an infamously snide obituary upon Poe's passing.

There's also goofs about Poe himself. Poe never called himself "Edgar Allan Poe" but "Edgar A. Poe." And at one point Poe is asked if he'd written any stories about sailors, and he says, "No." I wanted to stand up and scream, "YES!" because Poe's oeuvre contains sea stories like "Ms. Found in a Bottle," "Descent into the Maelstrom," and "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym." Heck, even "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" involves a sailor. They also have Poe using opium, which I don't believe is historical.

John Cusack is a serviceable Poe; he does try to capture Poe's self-importance and self-aggrandizing nature, as well as his desperation for money to survive. But we never get Poe's humor (he WAS an excellent humorist) or Poe's fascination with science (at this point in his life, Poe was segueing into being a speaker and writer on scientific topics). And his Poe never really comes across as being likable.

Another problem is that there's a question as to who the central hero is. Poe shares the top hero billing with Det. Fields, vigorously played by Luke Evans. I can't fault Evans too much as the script doesn't call for him to play anything except Stalwart and Determined, so it ends up being a one-note performance...but Evans makes it a good one-note performance. He's believable in his role, more so than Cusack, and I found myself wishing they could bring the character back. He was easy on the eyes, but also fit into the role well.

In fact, it would have been a better movie with one or the other in the hero role, but not both. The muddle of focus meant it lacked a clear point. The murderer was also easily spotted, at least for my own oddball reasons; the actor looked a lot like a young Michael Gough.

It's unfortunate, because it's got great trappings, and all the right visual elements. There's something about the clatter of hooves on cobblestones that sets my blood astir, and there's great Gothick scenes in the villain's lair and other spots. But others sometimes seem too perfect; the masquerade ball was just a little too much, and I kept expecting Annie Lennox to show up singing "Walking On Broken Glass" or something.

The movie is also about Poe's death, and gives its own solution, which is just too pat. Poe's death is one of the great mysteries of history, although John Evangelist Walsh gave a good theory in his book Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe that's always been my favorite. 

But...OK, here we go...another problem that arose was that I kept thinking of another book I'd read a long time ago, Harold Schechter's Nevermore, that also involved Poe investigating a serial killer in 19th century Baltimore who was using Poe's stories as inspiration. It had a different murderer and had Poe teaming with Davy Crockett, but the parallels are a bit uncomfortable for me. I wonder what he has to say on it.

Is it worth seeing? I have to sigh and say, "Not really." Catch it on DVD or cable, but don't go out of your way to see it. Not to say I didn't have a good time on my outing, because I did, but the movie was the least of it. It's not BAD, per se, but just not all that good, either. It's meh.

The perfect film about Poe is waiting to be made....

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Required Reading: BRYANT & MAY OFF THE RAILS by Christopher Fowler

I'm way late on getting this started; his new book is already hitting shelves. But hey, at least it's here.

Bryant & May, the aging cops who star in Fowler's delightful series, are happy that their old team is reassembled and it looks like the Peculiar Crimes Unit (or PCU) is about to be officially reinstated. They're smarting from a double loss: the death of policeman Liberty Ducaine, killed at the end of the last book, and the escape of wily criminal Mr. Fox, a sort of funhouse-mirror version of Bryant & May themselves.

They're trying to pick up Fox's trail (tally ho!) when a series of crimes in London's Underground (for the uninitiated, that's London's historic subway system, opened in 1863 and often referred to as The Tube) catch their attention. There's a robbery during a flash mob dance, then a woman dies under odd circumstances. It appears she simply tripped and fell on the stairs, but there's an odd sticker on her back, and there's a strong possibility that she was pushed. But why?

Soon there's an attempted murder, a disappearance, and two more deaths, and the PCU is running mad through the subway system, trying to locate the killer. Are they related? What about the oddball group of college students? Are they anarchists? What's the story with that nightclub? Is it Mr. Fox? Is it someone else?

Fowler's obvious passion for London's history and landscape are evident, and his focus (obviously) is on the Underground. The personnel of the PCU are in their full eccentric glory, and Liberty Ducaine's brother Fraternity shows up. Mr. Fox is as evil as ever, and there's enough references to past cases to keep thing lively.

There's also a very amusing bit where one of the two detectives has been found to be writing his memories of some of his cases (obviously, the earlier novels in the series) and is criticized for playing fast and loose with the timeline and their own ages - obvious a fun nod to the fact that these two policemen haven't aged a jot since being introduced in 2003 and how, in the real world, they'd have been farmed off long ago.

Fowler manages his signature balance of humor and mystery, with enough simmering gothicism to keep things from getting too cutesy and twee. There's talk of how the PCU's new offices were once the HQ for an occult society (and I'm waiting for that to come into play in a future novel) and the general mishmash of London's King's Cross area. There's also a real life tragedy, the 1987 King's Cross Fire, incorporated into the story that gives a good insight into one character's psyche.

Fowler's new book, The Memory of Blood, is out now and I've heard he's got a new one waiting in the wings for later this year. (Dammit, man, I want to sit down and read them all in can I do that if you keep adding more? Oh well, might as well keep 'em coming.) Bryant & May Off the Rails is indeed off the rails, in the best possible way, and as with the rest of the PCU series, Required Reading.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wednesday Night at the Movies

It's unexpectedly chilly and rainy tonight, after reaching near-record highs a few days ago. At least the rain is washing away the pollen, and some in our little group are thankful to be rid of the sneezing and sniffling for a bit. We're digesting our dinner as we walk down the street, huddled under umbrellas and in our raincoats.

Tonight is a double feature, as always. First up is a bit of fun from George Melies, with his 1906 short Inventor Crazybrains and His Wonderful Airship.

And then our feature presentation: Paul Leni's 1925 classic The Cat and the Canary!

Cat was such an influential picture at the time; it codified the old-dark-house elements that became such mainstays of the 20s and 30s, and influenced modern works like Scooby-Doo and others. It may seem creaky and cliched now, but imagine how fresh this all seemed back then...

Anyway, once the show's over, we retire as usual to our favorite cafe down the street, as lively discussion follows...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

THE BRIDE OF NEWGATE by John Dickson Carr

No, not the Bride of Nougat, you ninnies. Newgate, as in the prison.

It's 1815. Lady Caroline Ross must marry in order to achieve her inheritance. Being a cold sort with no use for men, she decides to marry a convicted murderer who's due to be hanged. The man she chooses, handsome Dick Darwent, is a fencing instructor convicted of killing a man in a duel, but Darwent insists he is innocent. And then a spanner is thrown in the works: his execution is stayed, and it turns out that when he was convicted, Darwent had just unknowingly inherited the title of Marquess of Darwent (as the people who stood between him and the title had died at Waterloo), and the conviction was invalidated since, as a peer, he could only be tried by the House of Lords. Whatever shall she do?

The Bride of Newgate, published in 1950, is thought by many to be the first historical mystery novel. Carr is an inconsistent writer, but Bride is one of his better works and is something of a mystery classic. It holds up well in the 21st century, as Carr strives to give an honest portrait of the era's class distinctions and of life in the Regency. One good segment is set at an opera house, describing a rowdy performance based on actual records, only throwing in a fire and sword fights for fun.

Carr's characterizations are often paper-thin, but in Bride there's better-than-usual work. Caroline warms to her reluctant husband and it becomes obvious that they are a true meeting of the minds. However, it's all handled very abruptly and matters settled far too quickly and the resolutions are too pat. Plus, Darwent's mistress from before his marriage is dispatched in an overly-convenient way. I found myself wishing that Carr could have collaborated with Georgette Heyer on this; his plotting matched with her extraordinary talent for characterization and psychology would have been fabulous. (And yes, I like Georgette Heyer. Want to make something of it?)

Carr's genius was plot, and this is a good one, with dastardly doings in the Regency's upper crust, and the reader is given duels and amatory bouts galore. One good quality this has is a compactness of narrative; you don't have 200 pages of story stretched out to 400+ pages as one finds so often with modern bestsellers. (Or even worse, something given novel treatment that's really only enough for a decent short story, or novella. Anne Rice's The Tale of the Body Thief comes to mind there.) He doesn't waste time, although the subplot about his mistress could have been handled differently, but one can see how it was used to bring in certain characters.

The Bride of Newgate is out of print, but copies are likely available at your favorite used book emporium, and it's worth seeking out.

Monday, April 9, 2012

In Praise of the Midnight Supper

It's late. You've just finished defeating the supernatural menace in that old mansion a few miles away. Or you've just caught the fiendish Blue Fox Murderer. Or you and your cohorts have just successfully removed an ill-gotten art treasure from the home of a billionaire with questionable morals.

You're hungry, and you need a bite.

OK, more and the gang have been out at the theater. Or the symphony. Or the opera, or at a burlesque show or rock concert, or as I did a few months ago, stupidly wander into The Mysteries of Lisbon not knowing it's a five-hour movie. Or perhaps returning from a day trip and ended up being caught in traffic, or spending too much time hunting for fossils or taking photos of the sunset over the bay or touring some historic site.

Anyway, it's late, you and the gang are hungry, and a meal is in order. There's always the all-night diner, and that sort of thing is OK every so often, but c'mon, they're usually greasy and unhealthy. And if you've been at the symphony, you're likely too dressed-up and not in the mood for that sort of thing.

So you, with your best smile and your eyes shining, turn to the others and say, "Why come by my place? I can whip something up in no time. It's right nearby; we can relax a bit before everyone goes their separate way. No, it's no trouble; it'll be fun! Do come by."

A midnight supper, when everyone's relaxing after a full evening (or day), is simultaneously glamorous and raffish. There's a sense of naughtiness, perhaps a touch of conspiracy as everyone gathers around the table at night. It's delightfully louche while also being somewhat proper, if informal. Ties are loosened, hair patted back into place, makeup retouched hastily in the bathroom. Sleeves are rolled up, jackets draped over the backs of chairs, wingtips and high heels kicked off and sore toes massaged.

But what to make? If you've got some experience under your belt as a cook, you're likely to come up with something fun. You should always have something on hand that could be quickly and easily prepared, even if you end up with an improvised omelet or scrambled eggs. (I don't recommend that, though; I'm not a fan of breakfast foods for your late-night meal.) Ideally, midnight suppers are light, just filling enough without overdoing it. I'll make an exception for nights when you've been clubbing and have had a few already; what you may need then is something a bit substantial, plus a few glasses of water and maybe a cup of coffee or two.

Here's something I came up with on my own one night; a friend dubbed it "Penne Pesce Fiorentino di Vagrarian."

Boil up some penne pasta, the amount depending on how many there are of you and how hungry you are. Cook al dente and drain; leave in the colander. Thinly slice some garlic cloves (2-3, up to 5 if you're doing a lot), and warm up some olive oil in a 12-inch skillet. Dump in the garlic and saute slowly until blonde. Open a can or two of tuna, drain, and dump into the skillet, stirring around for about 30 seconds, then dump in the pasta. Saute until you can see the pasta is developing a nice crust on it; you want a mix of soft and crunchy here. Dump in several handfuls of washed spinach, preferably the "baby" kind you can buy in bags at the grocery store. Stir over heat until the spinach wilts. Scrape into a serving bowl, or onto plates, and serve. Should need only salt & pepper. Goes well with a dry white wine, and maybe a bit of fruit to follow.

There's lots of fun things you can serve, though. And you don't want to be too labor-intensive, unless it's something you can rope friends into helping. For something lighter, here's a classic Italian recipe for Stracciatella, or "Roman Rag Soup."

Bring 4 1/2 cups of chicken broth to a boil in a saucepan. While it is heating up, beat 2 eggs in a small bowl. Beat in 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan, 2 tablespoons bread crumbs, and a dash of nutmeg. Stir in 1/2 cup of cold stock. When the broth is boiling, stir 1/2 cup of broth into the bowl with the eggs, and when the broth is boiling, reduce heat and pour in the egg mixture, stirring constantly. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring all the while as the egg mixture turns into tiny flakes. Serve at once, garnished with parsley. Again, goes with a good white wine and maybe a salad, bread, cheese, and fruit.

Of course, midnight suppers can also be seductive. Maybe you're just inviting James over (or Laura, which ever your preferences are), and maybe this is a first caress before something more daring. You may have already invited them over and are taking a break to fortify yourselves. Who knows?

And perhaps you thought ahead. In fact, there's nothing wrong at all with telling your friends beforehand, "That show will go on till late; why not just grab a sandwich or something early in the evening and we'll have a late dinner at my place afterwards? It'll be fun!" And then you can prepare in advance. Have something in your slow cooker? Why not? Or maybe have something that can be quickly reheated, plus some other things that can be quickly cooked and served a la minute. The sky's the limit.

It's always good to have some meals under your belt that can be cooked in 30 minutes or so. There's cookbooks galore that focus on that; Rachael Ray's whole career is based on that, but I personally find her grating. I was given one of her cookbooks once, and have yet to be impressed with any of the recipes I've tried. Her ultra-perky persona drives me mad, and I often joke that one of my dreams is for her to come down with Tourette's in the middle of a live event. Imagine it. "Yum-o! WHORE!"

Still, let's stick with the scenario. You and the gang have been at the symphony, and after the Beethoven and Debussy program, you invite everyone over. You know you have everything set up at home; you were expecting this.

So you're in the kitchen; you've got the veal chops and olives at the ready, and are fussing over the skillet with them, knowing it'll only be a few minutes. Viola, heedless of that vintage gown hugging her mature curves, warms a bag of frozen veggies in the microwave and tosses the salad, keeping up a lively conversation as only she can. James has undone his bow tie and has lit the candles and pours the wine while May sets the table. Ramsey has already prepped and plugged in your vintage percolator; by the time the meal is done, there'll be hot fresh coffee. Laura is setting out the bread and the pickle tray, and turns the radio on low, to the classical station.

Sooner than anyone realizes, you're all laughing and exchanging opinions of the concert, gossiping about friends, discussing books and movies. Plans are hatched for another outing, and more adventures to come. Coffee is ready just in time to cut into the cake; it dispels the late-night fog. Laura scintillates, while May is at her sarcastic best. James tosses in a well-timed comment or two, while Ramsey is quiet, but with that familiar amused smile and dancing eyes. Viola laughs and adds her own jokes, and you just bask in the glow of friendship and comfort and good food and drink.You just drink the moment in, filing it away with other happy memories.

Don't do the midnight supper too frequently; then it becomes familiar and mundane. Keep it for times when you're up for it, and you know you'll have good company and something to talk about.

Midnight suppers are an adventure. It's something you're taught not to do ("Don't eat so late! You'll have nightmares!") but the concept brings to mind all sorts of possibilities. One can imagine late-night passers-by, glancing up at the flickering light in your window, wondering what's going on and maybe feeling a stab of envy. There are thoughts and ideas that seem to exist only late at night; impulses that never come to you during the day seem like everyday ideas at midnight. You never know WHAT may happen...and that's all part of the fun.

So do it. Practice some dishes, and invite friends over. Or practice on yourself. Or have fun with a loved one. Explore the possibilities.


Child, Julia. The Way to Cook. This classic guide taught me how to cook when I was depending on canned soup and burgers. It has its flaws (overly dependent on the food processor, for one) but overall a great guide for the beginning cook.
A good standard recipe book, like The Joy of Cooking, or perhaps one of those Better Homes & Gardens or Betty Crocker collections.

Child, Julia. The French Chef Cookbook, the companion to her first TV series, has a number of quick recipes, including several 3-course meals that can be cooked in half an hour. From Julia Child's Kitchen, the sequel to that, has some other recipes and a general good attitude. (OK, I adore Julia C.)
Lawson, Nigella.  Feast contains a section called "Midnight Feast" for stuff best eaten late at night. How to Eat has a number of quick recipes as well.
Maxwell, Brini. Brini Maxwell's Guide to Gracious Living has a few recipes for quick cooking and some cool cocktail recipes, but also a great bohemian, can-do attitude. Plus Brini herself is a blast.
Urvater, Michele. Monday-to-Friday Pasta is dedicated to recipes that can be done in about 30 minutes. She's somewhat overdependent on bell peppers, which I abhor, but otherwise good. She did two other Monday-to-Friday cookbooks.

For the amatory:
Allende, Isabel. Aphrodite is a book-length meditation on the connections between food and sex, and makes for great voluptuary reading. Also a great selection of recipes that can be cooked in a flash.
Sheraton, Mimi. The Seducer's Cookbook is out of print and the recipes aren't always ideal for the late-night cook, but is a hoot to read and can provide great inspiration.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Dust & Corruption Calendar for April 2012

It's April, the azaleas and other flowers are starting to bloom (early), pollen is everywhere. My sympathies to those suffering through allergy season.

But April brings its own's a few...

4/7 - Epic Win Burlesque! Nerdy burlesque, magic, and comedy, hosted by vaudevillian Nelson Lugo (who I find rather dishy). Red Palace, 1212 H St NE, Washington, DC. Shows at 8 and 10:30, tix $10 in advance, $12 day of show.

4/8 - Easter, for those who celebrate.

4/12 - "Anthropodermic Bibliopegy:  Books Bound in Human Skin and the Stories Behind Them" Lecture by book collector, bookbinder, and publisher Daniel K. Smith. The Observatory, 543 Union St, Brooklyn, NY. 8:00, $8.

4/12 - Deanna Danger's Boom Boom Basics Burlesque Studio Student Showcase Showcase. Virginia's premiere school of burlesque presents its first show at the Red Palace. Doors at 8:30, tickets $10.

4/12 - Countdown to Yuri's Night! Night of visual and performing arts, honoring man's conquest of space. Burlesque, bands, art, dancing, drinks, and a moon bounce. Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd, Arlington VA. Go here for more info and tickets.

4/13-22 - Congress of Curious Peoples, a series of lectures and performances, based on a broadly-defined concept of curiosity. Full schedule and tickets available here. All events at the Coney Island Museum, 1208 Surf Ave, NY, NY.

4/18 - DC Variety Open Mic. Burlesque, comedy, and sideshow stunts, hosted by Mab Just Mab and Swami Yomahmi. Red Palace, doors 8:30, tickets $8.

4/21 - Valentine Candy Burlesque Presents Something Fishy. Burlesque and comedy, hosted by my pals Rev. Valentine and Candy del Rio, with special guest Corn Mo. Red Palace, shows 8:30 and 10:30, tickets $10.

4/22 - Hot Todd Lincoln's 40th Birthday-a-Palooza-thon. My good pal Todd's celebrating a landmark birthday. (I'm not exaggerating, he's one of my besties, and gave me confidence by giving me friendship and support when I was coming out of a dark place.) Burlesque and comedy and good times; I'm guaranteed to be there. Red Palace, 8:00, $10.

4/22 - Tilted Torch: Modern Elegance. Light-based burlesque, dance, and comedy, in Tilted Torch's signature style. Bossa Bistro & Lounge, 2463 18th St NW, Washington, DC. 8pm, tickets $10. 

4/25 - I have my first colonoscopy. (Anyone free to give me a lift?)

4/26 - "The Science of Death: What Lies Within Mutter and Beneath Laurel Hill" Lecture and tour of Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery, sponsored by the Mutter Museum and part of the Philadelphia Science Festival. Laurel Hill Cemetery Gatehouse, 3822 Ridge Ave, Philadelphia, PA. 6:30, tix $20, advance tickets required (go here to get them).

4/27 - Swami Yohmahmi Presents: Dr. Who Burlesque! Really, imagine it. Just wait for the Tardis jokes. Featuring Rev. Valentine, Candy del Rio, and Eerie Twilight. Red Palace, shows at 8:30 and 10:30, tix $10 advance, $12 door.

4/27 - Tilted Torch: But Wait! There's More! More of TT's signature style of burlesque, dance, and music, in a new venue. Opera House Live, 131 W German St, Shepherdstown, WV.  Doors at 7:30, $15.

4/28 - Mad about Mod! Burlesque tribute to midcentury fabulousness, featuring Baltimore's Gilded Lily troupe with guests including Rev. Valentine and Candy del Rio. The Windup Space, 12 West North Ave, Baltimore, MD. 8:00, $15.

4/28 - Obscura Day, an international celebration of unusual places. The main website has general information and a listing of events all over the place. I'm thinking of getting a team together for the Art of Darkness Scavenger Hunt at the National Gallery.

4/29 - "The Pathological Sublime and the Anatomical Unconscious," illustrated lecture on bizarre anatomy and those fascinated with it. Cornelia Street Cafe, 29 Cornelia St, NY, NY. 6:00, $10 (includes drink).

If you know of anything I left out, leave a comment. If you go to anything and want to tell us about it, drop me a line...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Phantom Concert Hall: Viennese Shivers

Tonight we're back in our bohemian finery; James in his grandfather's dinner jacket, Viola in one of her many vintage gowns, Ramsey is in tweed, May's in a tuxedo herself. We meet in the lobby, smiling and joking, and head in for the performance.

One of tonight's specials is Anton Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, published in 1909.

Anton Webern (1883-1945) was a Viennese composer of the so-called "Second Viennese School." He was a student and follower of Schoenberg, that master of atonality, and himself was a master of twelve-tone technique. Webern's music was declared "degenerate" by the Third Reich (or what was called Entartete Musik at the time), and he had a hard time finding work or recognition during his lifetime. He moved to Salzburg after the war, but was shot and killed by an American soldier when, despite a curfew, he stepped outside to smoke a cigar as to not disturb his children. The soldier who shot him was overwhelmed by remorse and drank himself to death a decade later.

Webern didn't publish much during his lifetime, and rarely got to hear his own work played. He's thought of by many as the most minimalist of the Second Viennese School, and many of his pieces are very brief. Some are just a couple of minutes long, some less than a minute. His works can be very spectral and macabre; some of his works for smaller ensembles are very ghostly and disembodied-sounding. His work was an influence on post-war avant-garde composers, and thus on modern music in general.

Feeling unsettled after the concert, we take our coats and head back into the night, not paying attention to the footsteps following us....