There must be something about small, New England colleges that inspire literary minds. Maybe its the snow. Or maybe I’m just on a New England college streak. But I’ve read several novels recently set in the cold, (often-bleak) world of New England’s bastions of higher learning: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, My Education by Susan Choi (UGH, by the way), The Red Book by Deborah Copagen Kogen (another “no”), A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams, Mary McCarthy’s The Group. I’ve run across all of these within the past six months, and enjoyed some more than others, but none of them caused me to take notes fervently and stay up all night reading like Will Lavender’s Dominance.
In 1994, Alexandra Shipley is Dr. Richard Aldiss’ star student. Aldiss, a brilliant literary professor, entrances Alexandra and her eight classmates who are enrolled in a very special night class. So special, the nine students have been hand-picked and approved by Aldiss and Jasper College’s Dean Fisk in order to meet once a week, at night, in a basement where their professor is beamed into class via television. This is a necessity, as Dr. Aldiss is in prison for two murders.
This man’s face was harder, its lines deeper. He was in fact wearing a simple orange jumpsuit, the number that identified him barely hidden beneath the bottom edge of the screen. The V of his collar dipped low to reveal the curved edge of a faded tattoo just over his heart. Although the students didn’t know this, the tattoo was of the thumb-shaped edge of a jigsaw puzzle piece.
The professor’s eyes seemed to pulse. Sharp, flinty eyes that betrayed a kind of dangerous intelligence. The second the students saw him there was a feeling not of surprise, not of cold shock, but rather of This, then. This is who he is. One girl sitting toward the back whispered, “God, I didn’t know he was so . . .” And then another girl, a friend sitting close by, finished, “Sexy.”
Indeed. Sexy is as sexy does, so they say. And Aldiss takes every advantage of his looks, his mental acuity and his innate, preternatural powers of observation to do sexy. He begins the night class with the question: “What is literature?” A question Alexandra echoes at the outset of teaching her own course, at Harvard (no less), a decade or so later. After Alex has freed Aldiss from captivity by discovering the real killer and become somewhat of both a literary star and police heroine by doing so.
Alex has lost touch with her fellow night class students in the intervening years, but they have gone on to unique and varied lives. An insane asylum warden, a police officer, a goth soccer mom, an alcoholic actor and a failing writer among them. And then there’s Alex’s college flame, now a high school football coach and English teacher. At the outset of Dominance, the students are brought back together, a la Agatha Christie, in Dean Fisk’s creaky mansion to attend the memorial service of one of the nine who has committed suicide. Once all are gathered, a series of deaths begin among them which may or may not be copycats of the murders of which Aldiss was convicted (and then freed). And may or may not be related to the very strange novels of the very strange writer Paul Fallows.
This is a great, compelling, want-to-figure-out, can’t-believe-it-ended-that-way novel. Read it! But start on a Friday night.
Professor Aldiss prepares a seductive dinner for Alexandra that includes “stewed hare and exotic vegetables” and red wine. So … I did a little research trying to find a recipe for stewed hare. And apparently, hare, which is different than rabbit, is only available in the US if you shoot it yourself. Which I am unlikely to do. (But I can envision Professor Aldiss potentially strangling some with his bare hands.) If you want to try the hare, or just learn more about why Hank Shaw at Hunter–Angler-Gardner-Cook is such a fan, here’s a link to his blog with the recipe. http://honest-food.net/2010/02/11/hare-stew-hard-times/
But I myself, to avoid all Bugs Bunny/Glenn Close associations, I would go with something else. Maybe this Wild Game Stew recipe from my cookbook, Appalachian Home Cooking, by Mark Sohn. For this, you can use beef, lamb, venison, bear (really? Bear?), elk, wild hogs or buffalo. Here’s the recipe:
1 1/2 pounds of meat, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
3 cups water (I would use 1.5 cups water and 1.5 cups red wine)
1 pound cubed potatoes
1/2 pound carrots, scraped and cut
1/2 pound turnips, peeled, quartered and cut into 1 inch pieces
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Brown the meat over medium-high heat in a large saucepan. Add the liquid and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover the saucepan and simmer the meat for 1 hour. Add the vegetables and seasoning. Simmer, covered, until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
Exotic vegetables. Hmmmm. Wondering if that’s artichoke or Chopped-level exotic? Since I have the Appalachian cookbook open, and this sounds like it would be great together, how about Cushaw Casserole? I LOVE Cushaw but it is such a difficult vegetable to peel that most people don’t bother. The following is my own recipe:
Peel the cushaw neck, leaving it whole if possible and then cut it into 1/4 inch think rounds. Boil a large pot full of water and place several rounds at a time in the water, just until they soften when pricked with a fork. Cover the bottom of a buttered baking dish with the rounds and then add heavy cream to cover about halfway up the side of the cushaw, brown sugar and dot with butter. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes.
With the cushaw, you won’t need a dessert. But you might want a salad and some good bread or warm rolls to go with the stew.
THIS is making me hungry.
The perfect album for this book club meeting is one my mother has handed down to me that she played when I was little. It’s all piano music by Ferrante and Teicher on an album called “Moonlight in Vermont.” Dreamy, chilly and beautifully sensual. But the album is so hard to find, I can only find that one song on a Christmas album. So go with Rachmaninoff. Complex, intellectual, driven.
Alexandra: Claire Danes
Professor Aldiss: Richard Gere is kind of the obvious choice here, but I’d love to see Dennis Quaid or Pierce Brosnan
Jacob Keller (the football coach): Jason Segal
Christian Kane (the writer): Bradley Cooper
Frank Marsden (the actor): James Marsden
Melissa Lee: Kristen Wiig