Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Top 100 Fiction and Non-fiction Books of All Time.
One Southern Man’s Opinion
No. 99
Fiction: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Non-Fiction: Aliens edited by Jim Al-Khalili

As I was going over my list for the top 100 books of all time, I ran into a bit of a problem—I had at least 150 of my favorite books, and I felt all of them deserved a seat at the table. I tried to weed some of them out, but could not. I mean, if I had, neither of these two books would have made my list, and they had to. I dearly love them both. Then it hit me that I was being silly. Very few Top 100 lists of books contain both fiction and non-fiction, so why should mine? I would simply separate the books I was considering into fiction and non-fiction. Problem solved.
And before I tell you why these two books deserve to be on my list, let me be honest—I’ve been keeping lists such as these since I was fifteen, and they never stay the same for long. The books within the list fluctuate, some moving out, others moving in. And they also fluctuate within the list, especially if I re-read a book after several years and find it as exciting as I did on the first read— if it’s still meaningful to me. Or, vice-versa. I recently moved The Wind in the Willows from 26 to 73. As a child it was one of my favorite books, and I still believe it to be a great story, but it just didn’t grab me on my last read the way a top 40 book should.
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. Fiction # 99.
 I can guess that those of you who were English majors probably feel I’m giving short shrift to The Canterbury Tales, listing it way up there at 99. I agree—sort-of. It’s a great work of literature, but then I have to ask myself: how often do I pick a copy up and read from it for pleasure? How many times a month do I say to my wife, “Hey, dear—how about a few lines from old Geoff C. before we hit the sack?” The answer to both questions is: not very often.
I do, however, read from it now and then. As a writer of fiction, I find The Canterbury Tales to be a great idea stimulator because of the wide range of topics Chaucer covers. I also enjoy reading about the pilgrims themselves—their prejudices, disagreements, and the way they used their stories to “get at,” to “bug” the other pilgrims, the ones they were not getting along with. As a young man, when I first began reading these tales, I enjoyed the bawdy, vulgar ones the most. And now that I’m older . . . I still do. “The Miller’s Tale” is a genuinely funny story, and I can read it over and over and actually learn something new about writing every time. Sometimes I focus on the story, itself, and other times on the pilgrims.
As with most books needing translations, it’s difficult to find a really good version of The Canterbury Tales. My favorite is the “New translation by Gerald J. Davis,” released in 2016. It is easy to read, and still poetic. But it always helps to have a CliffsNotes Canterbury Tales nearby.
Non-Fiction No. 99: Aliens. Sub-titled: “The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life.” Edited and with an introduction by Jim Al-Khalili.
Wow. I just finished reading Aliens and had to put it on my list. Over the next few months I’m sure it will rise, eventually settling somewhere in the 40s-50s, but I’m still digesting this gem.
Let me be up front on the subject of aliens—meaning space creatures, not people on the other side of the border. I started reading science fiction at 13, and have loved it ever since, so believing in aliens has been a no-brainer for me. I not only believe in aliens, I’ve seen UFOs. I never make a big deal about the UFOs. I saw them. I believed in them. Until now. Damn-it-all if Al-Khalili’s little book hasn’t left me thinking the same as one of the essayists—Lewis Dartnell, in his chapter, “(Un)welcome Visitors: Why Aliens Might Visit Us.” If there are civilizations beyond our solar system that have mastered space travel, there is no reason—none!—for them to come here, except out of morbid curiosity. And who travels a few hundred light years out of their way for nothing but curiosity? The fact is, we have nothing to offer them.
Once again, wow! It’s sobering to think that I’m a member of a civilization with nothing to offer an alien. But it’s true.
If you’re at all curious about this planet, its future, or aliens, or how and why life evolved, I recommend this book. It is both optimistic and pessimistic. Al-Khalili has done a fantastic job of rounding up essayists who give both sides of every important question mankind should be asking itself.
A sad conclusion I’ve come to after reading Aliens is that I now agree with several of the writers that humans, in our present form, will not ever travel to other stars. It isn’t cost efficient, and one thing we’re good about is watching costs. I always knew I would never travel to other stars, but always felt that someday my descendants would do so. I think not. We humans, in the form we now have, are earthbound. Forever. It might be possible for a robot of some type, perhaps with our DNA embedded within it, to travel to other stars—but not us. Not humans. We are not the ultimate life form after all. Damn. That’s a hard fact for a human to absorb.
As for aliens—do they exist? Of course they do. The odds, the chances, are on the side of life being almost everywhere. After all, in our tiny, quaint galaxy alone, there are several billion star-circling planets and we find more and more in the “earth-orbit-life-friendly” zone every day.  
Will the aliens resemble us? I doubt it. One of the essayists in Aliens tells about his studies of octopi, and how they are as alien to humans as anything we’ll ever find on other worlds. And we don’t know anything, really, about the octopi. Maybe we should learn all we can about our own world before we try to find life elsewhere.
See? This book will make you think long and hard about many, varied subjects. And, after all, isn’t that what a good book is for? To open up our minds?

So there you have it. If you read—if you study— The Canterbury Tales and Aliens, you’ll never have to worry about running out of subjects to talk about at the next party you attend. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Fantastic Meals. The Top 100 (Mostly Southern) Meals and Side Dishes of All Time.
by Earl G. Fisher

Number 91
Summertime Soup

     When August drifts around every year, there is little to celebrate here in the Deep
South. It's hot and humid one day, hotter and more humid the next. A day or so ago

the humidity was at 99%. I thought we had to be under water to get a 99% reading. 

     There is one good thing about August in the South, however, and that's the

proliferation of summer vegetables. Tomatoes, peppers, okra, squash, and cucumbers

will grow like weeds if there's enough rain. And that's the reason I developed a recipe

for Summertime Soup--it's chock-full of tomatoes and peppers, along with a few other


     During our horrid summers I have a favorite vegetable market I go to once a week

in Millbrook, Alabama, just a few short miles from my house. I like this market over

other ones in our area because one of the family-owned farms--Penton Farms, out of

Verbena, Alabama--sells me a weekly box of "seconds" tomatoes for a very good


         "Seconds" are the tomatoes most buyers don't want, because they usually

consist of over-ripe, under-ripe, small, or blemished fruit. I don't care what they look

like or if I have to toss several of them in the compost pile. I'm not looking for perfect

tomatoes. I use them to make tomato juice, one of my reasons for living--especially in

the summer. Once they become juice, who cares what they used to look like? 

     Now--the recipe for my homemade tomato juice is also on my list of top 100

dishes--it's in my top 10, as a matter of fact. But it's not the dish I'm telling you about


     Summertime soup is a derivative of my tomato juice, however, because once I

squeeze most of the juice from the tomatoes, I have a large pot of  leftover tomato

carcasses--the pulp and skins of the guys who sacrifice their juice so that I can make

it through another awful August. This leftover pot of tomato pulp makes fantastic 

spaghetti sauce, chili sauce, and, of course, Summertime Soup.

     The other main ingredients of this soup are potatoes and peppers, and today I have

some red potatoes, along with some bell and banana peppers that came from the same

farming family that sold me the box of tomato "seconds." The only problem I have

with bell peppers is that most Americans think bell peppers are green when they're

ripe--like limes--making the ripe ones difficult to find. I won't buy green bell peppers.

I like them at the peak of their ripeness, bright red or yellow. This means I often have

to buy banana peppers, which are almost always good and yellow--in other words,


     I don't care which kind of peppers I use--banana or bell. I like them all. 

     So here you go--the ingredients for Summertime Soup.

          2 tbs. good oil, either olive, grape seed, or canola.
          4 cloves garlic, minced
          2 good-sized onions, chopped. I use Vidalia, or other type of sweet onion.
          4 cups peppers, chopped. Red, yellow, banana, bell--it doesn't matter.
          4 cups potatoes, skins on (I always eat the potato skins.)
          1 - 32 oz. container of chicken broth.
          4 cups tomato pulp (or, if you don't have any leftover tomatoes, use two 15 oz.
 cans of stewed tomatoes.
          1 tsp., more or less, Tony Chachere's Original Creole Seasoning.

     Sauté the onions and garlic in the oil. Add the peppers, potatoes, and chicken broth. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes. Add the tomatoes and seasoning, bring back to boil and simmer another 10 minutes. Allow to cool slightly. Add, in batches, to a blender and blend until smooth. Pour a big bold bowlful, add a little more Tony Chachere’s if you dare, and enjoy the fruits of summer.

     Years ago I didn't blend this soup, preferring to eat it with chunks of vegetables,

instead. Now, however, I prefer it smooth, with all the various veggies blended

together. Try it either way, or put some aside before you blend it and have some both

ways. And if you can't have your soup without meat in it, sauté a pound of ground

beef and add it after you blend the veggies.

     No matter which way you choose to make this soup, it's one great way to get

yourself through our danged hot-as-hell summers.