Archive for December, 2014

The World After Reichenbach Falls

Moriarty: A Novel, by Anthony Horowitz, (Harper), 304 pages, released December 9, 2014

One of the big questions for fans of Sherlock Holmes is the events of the three-year gap between the “death” of Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls and the Great Detective’s reappearance three years later. Anthony Horowitz, author of Moriarty, gives us a glimpse of this time, the first few weeks after Reichenbach when the disappearance of Holmes and Moriarty has left a gap at the peak of London’s criminal world.

Crime in London is spiking, becoming more violent and less “honorable.” A Pinkerton agent called Frederick Chase, recently arrived in London, may know why: he’s on the trail of American crime boss Clarence Devereux, who originally planned to partner with Moriarty and now hopes to take control of Moriarty’s criminal network. Chase finds himself partnered with Inspector Athelney Jones—a figure who appeared in several of the original Holmes stories and who has enthusiastically studied Holmes’ methods.

Watching (if reading can be described as watching) these two men build a relationship of increasing trust and grapple with crimes of international importance (before the book is over, they’ll have met Robert Todd Lincoln, the U.S. legate to Britain) is a delight. Jones is the quicker of the two, reading signs that Chase misses, but Chase is the more athletic. Eventually, these two men find themselves discussing the possibility of setting up their own consulting detective agency to fill the gap left by Holmes’ death.

Horowitz is a master of the just-one-more-chapter style of writing that makes a good detective novel so hard to put down. He parcels out information bit by bit, simultaneously feeding his readers and keeping them hungry.

If you’re a fan of Holmes, you’ll want to read Moriarty and start piecing together the tale of a London that’s lost the Great Detective.

December 30 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Pasta as Food, Pasta as Art

Flour + Water: Pasta, by Thomas McNaughton with Paolo Lucchesi, (Ten Speed Press), 288 pages, 100 photos, 75 recipes, released September 30, 2014

Thomas McNaughton’s Flour + Water is one of those cookbooks that completely transcends the genre. It’s got history, culture, and philosophy—and is so gorgeous it could serve as a coffee-table art book as well.

If you own a pasta machine (or just received one as a holiday gift), you definitely need this book. It has multiple dough recipes. It also has detailed photos illustrating the shaping you’ll need to do with many kinds of pasta post-machine. This is a book that can take you from the basics to levels of culinary complexity that are almost unimaginable until you’ve seen them documented.

But, even if you don’t own a pasta machine, this is a book worth looking at. For each of the recipes, McNaughton includes information on the best store-bought pasta substitutions. The fact that he does this makes what otherwise might be a daunting book approachable: first, because it simplifies the work demanded of a cook and, second, because it clearly signals McNaughton’s openness to different levels of ability and available time. He doesn’t make you feel like a culinary leper if you can’t match his competence and commitment.

He provides background information on all the dishes: the regions they come from, the way particular pasta shapes reflect local culture, the history of the different cheeses used, why and how different regions came to produce specific meats. In other words, Flour + Water makes for fascinating reading, even if you never try a single recipe yourself.

Some of the recipes are things I never would try myself—Squid Ink Chitarra with Sea Urchin, Tomatoes, and Chiles anyone? Or how about Red Wine Rigatoni with Beef Cheeks and Parsnips?

On the other hand, there are also recipes that make me want to head to the kitchen immediately. The mix of speck, braised cabbage, potato, and fontina sounds great—though I’d probably substitute prosciutto for the speck. I’m pretty sure some variation on the Asparagus Caramelle with Brown Butter and Meyer Lemon will be showing up on my dinner table in the next few days.

You can read Flour + Water the way you’d read any high-quality nonfiction or you can use it as a how-to book that will have you producing amazing dishes (with or without a pasta machine).

December 29 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

One More for the “Best Of” List

The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. Susan Bernofsky, (New Directions), 256 pages, released November 11, 2014

I’m glad I managed to get Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days read before the end of the year because it definitely belongs on my 2014 “Best Of” list.

The End of Days is powerfully built. The structure is original; the scope is broad. If I had to say what it’s about, I’d have to give three answers:

1. It’s a sequence of five “novels,” each a life story of the same woman. With a few events changed, the course of her life expands. In the first “novel” of this novel, she dies as an infant of what is most probably Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. By the time the reader reaches the fifth and final “novel,” she’s lived a long life, become an acclaimed writer, and is living in an assisted care facility.

2. It’s a devastating depiction of the many waves of anti-Semitism that swept Europe during the 20th Century.

3. Finally, it’s an examination of the hopes behind and the subsequent betrayal of European socialism, beginning with anti-WWI pacifism, extending through much of the history of the Soviet Union, and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Remarkably, The End of Days, succeeds at doing all of these without sacrificing any one of them to another.

The End of Days requires slow, careful reading. Part of this may result from the German original. I don’t know enough to say for sure, but I suspect that many of its muti-layered, multi-directional sentences are a result of the language it was originally written in.  The blessing of this demanding style is that it requires one to read at a pace that allows for close attention to details.

The End of Days is the sort of novel one should read when one is ready to do some real work in reading—and to reap the rewards this work generates. None of the central character’s lives ends well, but by watching her path through each of them, we are confronted with many of the failings of the century we’ve just left behind.

December 28 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Uncovering the Lives of Archaeologists

Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, by Marilyn Johnson, (Harper), 288 pages, released November 11, 2014

Marilyn Johnson would make a fascinating dinner guest—at least, that’s what her books lead me to believe. She’s written quirky, fascinating books about obituary writers (The Dead Beat) and librarians (This Book is Overdue!), and now one on archaeologists.

I’m pretty sure that every child who knew the word archaeologist wanted to be one, at least for a few years. In fourth grade I fantasized about living alone in the Egyptian desert and spending my days unearthing treasures from the time of the pharaohs. Marilyn Johnson had her own version of the antiquarian dream: “I assumed that everyone in the sandbox wanted to grow up to become an archaeologist. I spent my childhood digging with garden tools, hypnotically absorbed in the hunt for fossils.”

While archaeology is a much less glamorous career than it appeared to be in our childhood dreams, it is every bit as interesting as we thought it would be, making Lives in Ruins a truly pleasurable read. Johnson shadows a variety of archaeologists: a couple in Barbados leading a field school focusing on historical sites, an underwater archaeologist, an expert on alcoholic beverages of the past, a woman who’s spent her life excavating on a Greek Island that has no potable water.

Lives in Ruins is engaging in its entirety, but I was particularly struck by one of the later chapters: “Archaeology in a Dangerous World.” This chapter recounts recent collaborations between archaeologists and the military, a modern-day group of “Monuments Men” (and Women) formed after the pillaging of the museum in Baghdad during the early days of the U.S. occupation. Archaeologists now train many ground soldiers to spot unexcavated ruins, so they can avoid damaging them when possible. When the U.S. bombed Libya, archaeologists quickly compiled a list of the country’s most important archaeological sites—non of which were struck by U.S. bombs during the conflict.

One of the most ingenious products of this collaboration has been the production of decks of playing cards distributed to G.I.s heading overseas. There are card sets for Iraq, Egypt, and Afghanistan:

[R]egular fifty-two-card decks, but with images and information about archaeological practices, famous cultural sites, and notable artifacts; the revers sides [can] be pieced together to form a map of the most iconic site for each country.

Whether you’re a lover of history, science, or anthropology—or even a fan of Indiana Jones—this book will provide you with delightful hours of reading.

December 26 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Another Other Shakespeare

Martyr: The First John Shakespeare Mystery, by Rory Clements, (Witness Impulse), 448 pages, Released October 21, 2014

OK, so I recently confessed to my weakness for historical mysteries featuring Shakespeare’s relatives. Some of these get pretty campy and formulaic. Rory Clements’ Martyr is most definitely not one of those campy mysteries. It’s a carefully plotted novel rich in historical detail.

The premise here is that John Shakespeare (Will’s older brother) works as an intelligencer for Francis Walsingham, one of Elizabeth I’s secretaries. Not secretary as in “take a memo,” secretary as in Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense, to name some possible modern equivalents.

Elizabeth’s England was a dangerous place. Older adults of the time would have witnessed their nation swinging from Protestant to Catholic then back to Protestant, with plenty of heresy-hunting on both sides. In this climate, Walsingham’s services to Elizabeth were invaluable. He invented and ran what might be called England’s first MI5, and paid for it out of his own pocket (Elizabeth was happy to drain others’ pocketbooks for her own purposes).

When the country returned to Protestantism after the death of Mary I (Bloody Mary), Elizabeth’s older half-sister, Catholics had to practice their faith in more and more secrecy. Failure to attend weekly Protestant services was punished with fines. The true loyalties of Catholics were in doubt—were they Elizabeth’s men or were they loyal to the Pope, who had declared Elizabeth a heretic?

English seminaries were established in several parts of Europe, training priests (Jesuits) who would be smuggled back into their home country after ordination. Some of these priests-in-hiding limited their activities to performing the mass and providing spiritual comfort to Catholics, but others were more actively involved in the various plots to remove Elizabeth from the throne and to replace her with Catholic Mary of Scotland, who had been living as a (rather cosseted) near-prisoner in England since her reign was overthrown by her son James.

Once Walsingham uncovered Mary’s complicity in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth, Mary was executed (after some dithering on Elizabeth’s part) and Catholics became more hated than they already had been. Despite Elizabeth’s oft-quoted statement that she had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls,” any number of her representatives were doing exactly that kind of window-peering, looking for treason. The fact that an individual identifying a Catholic harboring a priest would have rights to that person’s property after his (or her) execution only made the hunt that much more fervid.

This is the setting in which John Shakespeare works. At the novel’s start, he’s called to investigate the murder and mutilation (with religious overtones) of a young woman of high estate recently converted to Catholicism. In the course of solving this crime, Shakespeare also contends with unlicensed printers of anti-Tudor broadsheets, the murder of a brothel-owner, threats to Catholic friends, and persistent persecution by his nemesis Richard Topcliffe.

Topcliffe would make any modern-day “Ten Biggest Villains of Elizabethan Times” list. He reported directly to Elizabeth, was empowered to use any means necessary to uncover threats to her majesty, particularly Catholic threats, and took great pleasure in torturing suspects. In fact, he was licensed to have a torture chamber in his own house, so he could do such interrogations at his leisure, without having to travel across town to use the instruments in the Tower of London.

Clements brings this era to life with all its violence, religious zealotry, backroom political dealing, and blackmail. He also provides a mystery that keeps taking unexpected turns, even after the reader thinks all has been set to order. There’s a romance as well, which I could have done without, but it doesn’t hinder the detailed historical portrait Clements paints. If you like a mystery with substance, one that transcends the genre—and particularly if you’re interested in English or church history—you will find this novel quite satisfying.

December 22 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Disappearing Act

F: A Novel, by Daniel Kehlmann, trans. Carol Janeway, (Pantheon), 272 pages, released August 26, 2014

F is one of those novels that a reader picks up because the premise is interesting—something that will either be brilliant or disastrous. Arthur, a father who doesn’t believe in hypnotism, abandons his family after being told by a hypnotist that he must seriously pursue his dream of being a writer. He becomes a famous author; his sons spend their lives responding to his abandonment in different ways. Martin becomes a priest who doesn’t believe in God. Eric become an investment adviser, juggling accounts like Bernie Madoff while over-medicating himself. Ivan, a painter, finds himself unable to produce his own artwork.

Bottom line: brilliant. This book is brilliant. Each of the chapters has a different perspective. The story of the hypnosis is told in omniscient, third person style. The next three chapters are each presented in first person, each narrated by one of the three sons. Imbedded among these chapters is one of the stories Arthur writes after abandoning his family. The book ends in third-person again, this time focusing on Arthur’s granddaughter (Eric’s daughter) Marie.

While the first ten or twenty pages went slowly, after that I found myself reading at breakneck speed, fascinated by the different distortions in each son’s adult identity. But having read at such a pace, I already find myself wanting to go back to reread, to reconsider details, to think about new ways of piecing together this fragmented story.

F offers a unique reading experience—experiences, really. It’s a book most readers will carry with themselves long after reading it.

December 20 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Olives, Memoir, and Inspiration

A Bowl of Olives: On Food and Memory, by Sara Midda, (Workman), 128 pages, released October 7, 2014

I’ve just received a review copy of Sara Midda’s A Bowl of Olives and must say that it’s a sweet little thing. This book defies easy categorization as it’s a melange of memoir, cookbook, and art book. The illustrations are all Midda’s watercolors, reproduced in miniature and in vibrant colors. The written passages are brief: a memory, a list, a very unstructured recipe.

Midda’s is the sort of book that makes the perfect gift for anyone who enjoys cooking—and eating, of course. It’s not a beginner’s book; rather, it’s a book for people with years of cooking under their belts who enjoy reflecting on their own dishes and who enjoy experimenting in the kitchen.

The recipes are very simple, with few ingredients and minimal instructions. A recipe for a delicious sounding cucumber salad boils down to “add this and this and this and this together.” That’s it. No quantities. Midda trusts that an experienced cook will have a good sense of the balance of ingredients she will find most delicious.

This is the kind of book one leaves out on a table for leafing through at odd moments. Sometimes one can just enjoy the illustrations, other times one can find cooking inspiration, and at all times, readers are invited to to enjoy their own culinary memories. (Do note that the typeface is small and light, so this book unfortunately won’t make a good gift for anyone with aging eyes.)

December 18 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Boredom Punctuated by Terror

The Human Body, by Paolo Giordano, (Pamela Dorman Books, Penguin), 336 pages, released October 2, 2014

Paolo Giodano’s The Human Body has been on my to-read list since the moment I first heard about it. Originally published in Italy, this book traces the experiences of a small company of Italian soldiers serving in Afghanistan. I’ve read and been impressed by  several recent novels coming out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You. As a result, I was curious to see one of these conflicts from a European perspective—what would be the similarities and differences in story arc, in characterization, in understanding of the purpose and the value of the conflict?

As it turns out, there are far more similarities than differences. This isn’t to say that I found The Human Body predictable. What was predictable (and simultaneously completely unpredictable) was the experiences of the soldiers: the blurred line between comaraderie and bullying, the long stretches of boredom broken by moments of terror, the day-to-day discomforts of life in a war zone.

The character’s in Giordano’s novel include a young man who has enlisted despite his widowed mother’s protests; a career soldier whose selfishness has kept him alive and whose cruelties have kept him amused; a soldier attempting to build a relationship with a woman he’s only met on line; a female soldier trying to make her way in this male-dominated environment; a low-ranking officer and part-time gigolo who’s just discovered one of this clients is pregnant; a medic who copes by keeping himself half-numbed through a mix of drugs and indifference. In one sense these characters are “types,” variations on the platoon members we’ve come to expect in films and books about war. But Giordano’s writing makes each of them engaging and individual.

At the heart of this novel lies an ill-chosen mission to accompany a group of Afghan drivers who have worked for the Italian forces as they leave the war zone in hopes of returning home: a thirty mile trip that would take less than an hour outside of a war zone and that takes nearly a week in the novel’s setting. Movement is slow, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are everywhere, and the soldiers suffer from a variety of illnesses and injuries even before the mission starts.

The Human Body makes for gripping, but uneasy reading. One worries about the fates of different characters, especially as their weaknesses become clear. Giordano’s work is an extraordinary accomplishment rendered into beautiful English by translator Anne Milano Appel.

December 16 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Black Prophetic Fire

Black Prophetic Fire, Cornel West in Dialogue with and Edited by Christa Buschendorf, (Beacon Press), 248 pages, released October 7, 2014

In Black Prophetic Fire, Cornel West and Christa Buschendorf wrestle with two questions: “Are we witnessing the death of Black prophetic fire in our time? Are we experiencing the demise of the Black prophetic tradition in present-day America?”

Prophetic as it’s used here isn’t referring to to fortune-telling or predicting the future. The authors use prophetic in the biblical sense—a calling out of what is wrong in a society and a demand for change. West and Buschendorf see this tradition threatened by “the fundamental shift from a we-consciousness to an I-consciousness… a growing sense of Black collective defeat… [and] a Black embrace of the seductive myth of individualism in America.”

West and Buschendorf address their questions through a series of conversations (later edited by Buschendorf) each focusing on a diffferent Black prophet and the movement that prophet was a part of: Frederick Douglass; W. E. B. Du Bois; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ella Baker; Malcolm X; and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

For the reader, getting to “eavesdrop” on these conversations is an exhilarating and challenging experience. Both scholars have such extensive knowledge in multiple academic fields, that their dialogues become lessons by extension—not because the writers’ tone is didactic, but because few other thinkers would be capable of synthesizing and analyzing this disparate material.

Simply put, this is the most intellectually and ethically engaging book I’ve read in years. Topics of discussion range from the increasingly globalized visions of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the role of religion in each of these prophet’s lives; the differences between the charismatic leader and the group-centered leader.

The book has a sense of immediacy (and emergency) because these conversations are grounded in the events of the time in which they occurred. And what was occurring at the time that West and Buschendorf were conversing? The occupy movement. As a result we also see the authors move along a trajectory from excitement to disappointment to hopefulness.

If you have any interest in issues of justice and the power of individuals, this book is absolutely essential reading. It’s not just the figures featured in each chapter who are prophets—West and Bischendorf deserve the title of prophet as well.

December 11 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Words at War

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II, by Molly Guptill Manning, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 288 pages, released December 2, 2014.

I first learned about Armed Services Editions (ASEs) when my mother brought an ASE copy of Anna and the King of Siam home from a book sale. She’d picked it up, not because of the particular title, but because it was an ASE: one of the books sent free of charge to service members during World War II. It represented the best this nation was capable of and—it was a book, always a valuable commodity in itself in our home.

Molly Gupta Manning’s When Books Went to War offers a detailed, engaging history of the production and distribution of ASEs. An outgrowth of book drives to provide service members with reading materials (which gathered far too many outdated and unwieldy books), ASEs became a symbol of what the U.S. was fighting for.

Part of the Nazi agenda in Europe was the eradication of books considered insufficiently Aryan. This movement began with book burnings in Germany led by college students. The German Government created the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), an office charged with assessing the contents of libraries (and museums and other cultural institutions) in newly occupied territories. Desirable books we confiscated and sent to Germany for use there; undesirable books were destroyed.

The extent of the ERR’s work was horrifying. Manning tells readers that “In Eastern Europe, the ERR burned a staggering 375 archives, 402 museums, 531 institutes, and 957 libraries. It is estimated that the Nazis destroyed half of all books in Czechoslovakia and Poland, and fifty-five million tomes in Russia.”

In contrast to this cultural holocaust, the U.S. produced millions of books for distribution to service members. These books were published in lightweight, small (but unabridged) versions, designed to fit into the pocket of a military uniform and to weigh no more than a few ounces. The choice of titles was deliberately broad, ranging from classics to contemporary literature to how-to manuals. Despite a Congressional effort at one point to limit the topics acceptable for ASEs, these books were chosen to represent a range of viewpoints. Some titles, such as Strange Fruit, were released as ASEs even as they were being banned in some U.S. cities.

The ASEs were extraordinarily successful. They gave soldiers a form of occupation during the war’s “hurry up and wait” moments; they were read in hospitals, chow lines—any and every situation service members found themselves in; they were even, yes, read in fox holes between bombardments.

As Manning explains, the ASEs lead to significant changes in U.S. society after the war. The popularity of ASEs was one of the inspirations for the GI Bill granting service members educational benefits. The GI Bill democratized U.S. higher education, which had largely been an upper-class purview until then. ASEs also ushered in the era of the pocket book. These small, portable editions remained popular with soldiers and also were embraced by the general public because of their low prices and portability.

For any lover of books, any reader of U.S. history—When Books Went to War is an essential delight. This part of our country’s story deserves to be better known. Fighting fascism with presses yielded benefits we still enjoy today.

December 09 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

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