January 10, 2017

The Surprisingly Compelling World of Argentine Folk Dance

A Simple Story, by Leila Guerriero, translated by Frances Riddle, (New Directions), 128 pages, release date 10 January, 2017

One of the pleasures of good nonfiction is that it can introduce you to a topic you know nothing about, one you wouldn’t expect to be interested in—and it can pull you in and make fascinating what originally seemed obscure. Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story is exactly this kind of nonfiction.

Guerriero’s focus is on particular competitor in a little-known Argentinian folk dance competition: the Malambo Competition held annually in the village of Laborde. While Argentina has any number of folk dance competitions, Guerriero tells us “The uncompromising spirit and faithfulness to tradition is probably what makes [the Laborde competition] the least-known festival in Argentina.” For U.S. readers, the most familiar form of Argentinian dance is likely the tango, and the most familiar form of this most familiar form is the kind of “show dancing” exhibited by touring companies and in ballroom dance competitions. Malambo is nothing like this.

Malambo still largely remains true to the gaucho tradition from which it arose. It is a grueling dance form combining remarkably fast legwork with a nearly motionless upper body and a face devoid of emotion beyond a stoic ferocity. While the shoulders face forward, the lower half of the body turns left and right—a pivot a bit like an inversion of an owl’s spinning head. Dancing the Malambo is not just a matter of artistry, but also of endurance. At the Laborde competition, dance performances require close to five minutes of nonstop action. The best comparison I can come up with for the demands of the Malambo form (though this would seem like a stretch to real Malambo enthusiasts) is synchronized swimming. Think of the muscle control, the range and speed of movement required—and all of this done while underwater with limited opportunities for breathing. Malambo, of course, is not an underwater art form, but it demands remarkable lung capacity and breath control. A true Malambo artist breathes only through the nose, never gasping or taking visible breaths. In fact, to dance Malambo is to court hypoxia.

Even if you can’t imagine yourself enjoying a book about folk dance, pick up A Simple Story and give it a try. Chances are, you’ll experience what I did—an obsessive need to keep reading and a burning hunger to witness the Malambo for yourself.

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November 01, 2016

Welcome Back, Tom Harper!

The Iron Water: A Victorian Police Procedural, by Chris Nickson, (Severn House), 224 pages, release date 1 November, 2016

Chris Nickson’s DI Tom Harper series continues to reward readers with both the plotting of the mysteries it presents and its examination of a fascinating historical setting: late 19th Century Leeds. The series’ cast of characters represents an interesting array of class status and political leanings, giving Nickson the opportunity to explore the novels’ settings from multiple perspective.

The Iron Water opens with the testing of a torpedo, a new naval weapon at that time. The torpedo brings a body to the surface of the lake in which it’s being tested; at almost the same time, a severed leg is found in the River Aire. While DI Harper explores these two—possibly connected—cases, the people around him are making significant changes to their own lives. Tom’s wife plans to sell her bakeries in order to work more intensively on women’s suffrage; these are bought by the wife of one of Tom’s former colleagues—a colleague with whom he has a very strained relationship. There’s also a mobster determined to buy his way into respectability and the usual cohort of politicians all too willing to make ethical compromises for their own benefit.

If you haven’t started reading this series yet, you’re in for a treat. If you already know DI Harper, you’ll be eager for the treat that’s in store for you in The Iron Water.

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October 04, 2016

Culinary Treasure

Bitterman’s Craft Salt Cooking, by Mark Bitterman, (Andrews McMeel Publishing), 176 pages, release date 4 October, 2016

Salt. Yummy, yummy salt. I dread the day that my blood pressure starts to rise and I have to start learning to live without salt. Until then, my philosophy is that I’m going to enjoy salt as much as I can. And on a salt-lover’s journey, there’s no one better to ride shotgun than Mark Bitterman. Actually, he should be doing the driving. I’ll ride shotgun and just keep murmuring “I am not worthy” under my breath.

If you share my passion for salt, you are going to want a copy of Bitterman’s Craft Salt Cooking. This book provides all sorts of salt-based pleasures: a history of the production and use of salt, a craft salt field guide, recipes for making your own craft salts, and recipes for cooking with craft salts organized by food type (meat, poultry, seafood and all the way on to sweets and drinks and cocktails). The book is beautifully illustrated with color photos, so your eyes can start picturing the tastes your mouth will soon be savoring.

Perhaps a whole book devoted to salt sounds excessive. Believe me, it’s not. These are recipes you’ll turn to again and again. The field guide will have you going on your own journeys of exploration looking for unusual types of salt to experiment with. Unless salt is forbidden you for medical reasons, you are going to want a copy of this title in your kitchen within easy reach.

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September 27, 2016

Race and Baseball in the 1920s—With a Mystery As Well

The Babe Ruth Deception, by David O. Stewart, (Kensington), 304 pages, release date 27 September, 2016

David O. Stewart, author of The Babe Ruth Deception, is a constitutional lawyer, historian, and novelist, which means he’s got a pretty interesting body of knowledge to draw upon when working in any of these fields. The Babe Ruth Deception is his third Fraser and Cook novel, though it’s the first one I’ve read. Fraser is Dr. Jamie Fraser, a wealthy medical researcher and physician married to a Broadway producer. Cook is Speed Cook, who played in the major leagues before they were segregated and is now a promoter of Negro baseball. The pair make for an unlikely team. Between them they’ve got an interesting body of knowledge to draw upon—just like the author himself.

The Babe Ruth Deception is set during and after the 1919 Chicago Black Sox investigation. There’s a new commissioner of baseball, former judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who is determined to uncover any remaining corruption in the game. This is where Babe Ruth comes in: the Commissioner is now investigating the 1918 World Series in which Ruth played. Ruth has secrets he doesn’t want uncovered and seeks help from Fraser—the two men live in the same luxury apartment building. Fraser brings in Cook because of his knowledge of baseball. They face mobsters, who happen are unhappy investors in a film starring the Babe and produced by Fraser’s wife. They also face government investigators. And then there’s the bootlegging…

The mystery here is interesting, but the novel’s strongest point is the relationships among its characters. Fraser shares the racist attitudes of his time, and his individual respect for Cook is counterbalanced by a sense of paternalism and distrust toward the Negro community at large. When it turns out that Fraser’s daughter and Cook’s son are dating and plan to marry, neither Fraser nor Cook (nor either of their wives) is pleased. Fraser imagines his daughter becoming a social outcast; Cook imagines his son becoming the target of a lynch mob. A reader may pick up the novel for the puzzle it offers or for the pleasure of a glimpse of Ruth as imagined by a capable writer—but it’s the genuine tension among characters that propels this story.


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September 13, 2016

Flavors of Life

Umami, by Laia Jufresa, translated by Sophie Hughes, (Oneworld Publications), 240 pages, release date 13 September, 2016

I am deeply grateful for publishers like Oneworld that are offering contemporary international fiction in translation. There’s a special sort of bibliophilic treat in sharing literature’s now from another country.

Umami may seem like an unlikely title for a recent work of fiction set in Mexico City. For a Japanese novel? Maybe. For a cookbook? Yes, that’s been done. But Umami is exactly the right title for this novel, a fact that becomes clearer and clearer as one reads.

The novel’s characters live in a Mexico City mews owned by a widowed professor of Agriculture, the man who introduced the concept of umami to Mexico. He’s named the five small houses surrounding the mews after the five flavors: sour, salty, sweet, bitter, and unmami—the house he lives in. As the names of their homes might suggest, this little community has seen its share of both joy and loss. The Professor mourns his wife. Teenaged Ana—and the rest of her family—mourn the death of her younger sister Luz. Ana’s best friend misses the mother who abandoned her years ago and who appears briefly and unexpectedly before disappearing yet again. These are characters simultaneously familiar and new—and their newness springs not just from their cultural location, but also from Laia Jufresa’s ability to create surprising, yet satisfying personalities.

The novel is narrated from multiple perspectives, which adds to the richness of Jufresa’s characterizations. Each key moment in the novel happens in more than one way, and readers have the pleasurable puzzle of weaving together a reality from these different threads.

When you want a surprising, detail-rich novel with broad emotional range, Umami will offer just the literary meal you’re looking for.

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September 02, 2016

Adventures with Produce

Dandelion and Quince: Exploring the Wild World of Unusual Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs, by Michelle McKenzie, (Roost Books), 336 pages, release date 2 August, 2016

Michelle McKenzie’s Dandelion and Quince is a great book for adventurous cooks—or for cooks aspiring to adventure who have access to a good farmers’ market. Working your way through the 150+ recipes in Dandelion and Quince will introduce you to all sorts of new flavors. Not just figs, but fig leaves. And gooseberries, nettles, sunchokes, and burdock. McKenzie’s recipes are detailed,  but she also urges experimentation: learn the different flavor profiles of these new ingredients, then have fun seeing what combinations you can come up with. You’ll find many new kinds of delicious.

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August 23, 2016

Bound Voices

Celia, a Slave, by Barbara Seyda, (Yale University Press), 112 pages, release date 16 August, 2016

Barbara Seyda’s Celia, a Slave deservedly won the 2015 Yale Drama Series competition. I’ve been thinking about this review for a while and just don’t know that I can do this title justice, but I’ll give it a try.

The framework on which Celia, a Slave hangs is the trial of the play’s title character for the murder of her white owner. The play lacks a linear narrative (a statement of fact, not a criticism) so understanding that context helps, but theatre-goers and readers are left to construct a narrative for themselves out of the material Seyda presents. The play offers a series of non-chronological monologues that make substantial use of legal documents and archival records from that era. The voices of the play, African American and white, slave and master are real, not an imagining of what might have happened, been done, been said, been thought—but the actual words and thoughts as recorded at that time.

I hope someday to see a production of Celia, a Slave, but whether or not I do, the play itself is worth reading. It moves from monologue to monologue, using lighting to isolate the individual characters so that they stand alone, even on a stage that holds a number of actors. This series of individual presentations puts the reader/viewer inside each character by its elimination of an “outside,” of a more comforting, more acceptable voice one can listen to and identify with while being presented with painful truths.

The structure and voices of Celia, a Slave are challenging, but the truths the play uncovers are essential for understanding, not just Celia’s time, but our own as well.

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August 22, 2016

Lincoln and Speed: Springfield Detectives

These Honored Dead: A Lincoln and Speed Mystery, by Jonathan F. Putnam, (Crooked Lane Books), 304 pages, release date 9 August, 2016

These Honored Dead offers a compelling central premise: a young Abraham Lincoln, just arrived in Springfield, and Joshua Speed, a part owner of a local dry goods store, share a bed (as was common at that time) and find themselves working together to solve a mystery. The two men begin as ciphers to one another and their acquaintance develops gradually. Speed, the son of a plantation owner, comfortably accepts the institution of slavery; Lincoln is already opposed to it. When Speed’s younger sister arrives on the scene, determined to escape the life of a proper woman of her social class, she seems to understand Lincoln—and the mystery—more readily than does her brother.

These Honored Dead isn’t “high literature,” but its attempt at portraying a young Lincoln and placing him alongside a foil like Speed is certainly interesting. This is the sort of book that one hopes will have sequels. The developing Speed-Lincoln partnerships leaves ample ground for further development.

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August 18, 2016

Anarchists Past and Present

The Attempt, by Magdalená Platzová, translated by Alex Zucker, (Bellevue Literary Press), 224 pages, released 10 May, 2016

Magdalená Platzová’s The Attempt is one of those novels that rewards multiple readings—and the concise beauty of her prose makes multiple readings easily possible. This work of historical fiction ranges from the anarchist communities of 1920s Europe to the recent Occupy Wall Street movement.  Besides its two historical threads, this book offers a meditation on political resistance; it jumps forward and backward in time, looking at the interplay between individual lives and larger political constructs. When you want a book that will really make you think—not for a few moments, but at length—reach for this title.

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August 16, 2016

The Cultural Evolution of Hominim Fossils

Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils, by Lydia Pyne, (Viking), 288 pages, release date 16 August, 2016

In Seven Skeletons, science historian Lydia Pyne takes an evolutionary approach to some of the world’s best know human fossils. This evolutionary approach includes discussion of these fossils’ places on the tree of hominim development, but its real focus is their post-discovery evolution—the way they became the cultural icons they are today.

While occasionally repetitive, Pyne’s approach is fresh and engaging. Some of these fossils made a scientific splash from the moment of their discovery, but others were initially ignored or undervalued. Pyne also spend time considering Piltdown man, originally hailed as “the first Englishmen,” but consigned to the ranks of ignominy when the fossils were revealed to be a hoax.

Most of the fossils discussed will seem like old friends to readers. Learning about their “afterlives” adds to our understanding not just of them, but of ourselves.


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