Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

1989 Comedy of Manners

Meeting the English, by Kate Clanchy, (Thomas Dunne Books, Macmillan), 320 pages, released 3 March, 2015

Meeting the English is a modern-day (set in 1989) comedy of manners: country bumpkin meets city slickers, but the bumpkin is more than he first appears and the slickers aren’t all that slick. In this case, “Bumpkin” means hailing from a mining town in central Scotland that no longer has a mine; “Slicker” means residing in London, convinced that one’s own sensitivity/intellect is superior to others’.

Struan Robertson (pronounced, STREW-in, not Strew-ANNE; it’s not an iamb) an exceptionally gifted student, planning to pursue a career in dentistry, takes a summer job working as an assistant to a fading playwright who has recently suffered a stroke. The playwright, Phillip Prys, is surrounded by a largely dysfunctional grouping of family and friends. His ex-wife (and mother of his two children) is a former actress, now losing money flipping houses (as we would put it today) in London’s falling real estate market. His current wife, a formerly wealthy refugee from Iran, paints post-modern Persian miniatures. His son is a self-absorbed want-to-be playwright who’s just been rusticated (in other words, kicked out for a year) from Oxford. His daughter is angry and lonely, sure she’ll never find love or happiness. His daughter’s best friend is a recovering anorexic. His agent is a semi-closeted gay man who finds Phillip demanding more and more time, while bringing in less and less revenue.

Hilarity (mostly) ensues. Some find love; some get their comeuppence; all are changed.

This is a great book to pick up when you want to laugh (not too unkindly) at others’ foibles. The style is breezy. The plot holds some surprises. If you’re starting to dream of vacation reading as you wait for winter to end, this book would be a fun title to put on your list.


March 04 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Plant-Based Dishes All Year Round

Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons, by Steven Satterfield, (HarperWave), 496 pages, release date March 3, 2015

I have a very specific list of things I want from a cookbook:

• I want interesting flavors: combinations I wouldn’t come up with on my own that work well together.

• I want recipes that feature fresh produce I can find at my local farmers’ market.

• I want recipes that use a minimum of refined carbs.

• I want recipes that minimize the use of meat—I like to think of meat as a type of seasoning, rather than the bulk of any dish.

• I want recipes that I can put together in a reasonable amount of time, so I can make a delicious dinner when I’ve finished work and still have time for some reading or knitting in the evening.

I can easily find cookbooks that meet a few of my criteria, but I rarely find a book that meets them all. Steven Satterfield’s Root to Leaf is one of those rare books that gives me everything I want.

Root to Leaf focuses on seasonal produce and is divided into four sections: spring, summer, fall, and winter. Each section features a dozen or so types of produce, the varieties they come in, and their various uses—and the description of each type of produce is followed by several recipes. “Fall,” for example, includes cauliflower, chicories, green tomatoes, mushrooms, and nuts, along with other fruits and vegetables.

A few of the recipes here are familiar enough that I don’t really need them—the blueberry coffee cake with streusel is one of these, as is the cucumber, tomato, and onion salad—but most differ in some key way from recipes available in other cookbooks I use.

For example, there are roasted carrots with red onion and thyme. Roasted carrots aren’t anything new, but the pairing with red onions is (at least for me). There’s a snow pea salad, which might sound pretty standard, but Satterfield has us julienne the snow peas and adds in a bit of Myer lemon sauce and a mix of fresh herbs. Creamed corn is familiar—but how about using corn cob broth to balance the richness of the milk and cream and adding in some mushrooms for extra flavor?

Some of the recipes are completely new: cold brine-pickled blackberries, for example. There’s Brussels sprouts leaves with pear, bacon, and pecans. I might have thought to pair two of these, but I wouldn’t have come up with a mix of all four on my own.

I particularly appreciate the sections on different lettuces and greens. Satterfield describes their various tastes in detail and explains the optimal way for handling each. In the section on lettuces, he follows the descriptions with several recipes for dressings, letting readers experiment with their own combinations of lettuce varietals.

Root to Leaf is also a beautiful book, full of pictures of individual ingredients and finished dishes. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to cook. Just flipping through a few pages can bring you to a recipe that needs to be tried now or can get you thinking about the wonderful flavors you can create with a few fresh ingredients. This is the kind of cookbook one keeps, because of both its practicality and its inspiration.

March 04 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Mystery at the Meeting of Two Catholicisms

The Fifth Gospel: A Novel, by Ian Caldwell, (Simon & Schuster), 448 pages, release date 3 March, 2015

I was absolutely delighted to see a new novel out by Ian Caldwell, one of the co-authors of The Rule of Four, a literary puzzle novel built around (among other things) the Voynich Manuscript, an actual text from the middle ages, written in an unknown script and full of unusual illustrations.

The Fifth Gospel, Calwell’s new novel and a solo endeavor, shares many of the strengths of the first work. It’s highly intelligent, bringing to life questions of scholarship and church politics that quickly become more fascinating than they might appear on the surface. Instead of the Voynich, this book has two mystical centers: the Diatessaron and the Shroud of Turin. Most readers will have at least minimal familiarity with the Shroud—purportedly the burial cloth of Christ that was ultimately proved, using scientific dating techniques, to be a medieval forgery.

The Diatessaron will be less familiar. Assembled in the second half of the second century A. D., the Diatessaron was an early attempt to combine the texts of all four of the canonical gospels into a single text. Tatian, the compiler, wasn’t worried about contradictions among the gospels; he wanted completeness. Where the gospels disagree, he chose the wording from one, then edited it to include vocabulary and additional details from the other accounts.

Caldwell sets his novel within Vatican City (actually a country in its own right) near the end of the reign of Pope John Paul II. There are hopes of reuniting the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, and a new exhibit at the Vatican Museum focusing on the Shroud and the Diatessaron will provide an opportunity for representatives of the two branches of Catholicism to meet. Mere days before the exhibit’s opening, its curator, Ugo, is found dead by a gunshot wound in one of the papal gardens.

The novel’s action is recounted by Father Alex Andreou one of a pair of brothers who are both priests and who were both close to Ugo. Their father was a Greek Catholic priest (this denomination allows married men to become priests); their mother was the sister of a very high-ranking figure in the Vatican Hierarchy. Alex, like his father, is a Greek Catholic priest; Simon, his brother, is a Roman Catholic priest. Simon has been accused of the murder and refuses to defend himself. Alex is determined to prove his brother innocent.

The Fifth Gospel works wonderfully as a thriller. It’s one of those novels that keeps enticing one to read “just one more chapter,” followed by another and another. The sense of menace is palpable. The case hinges upon tensions among differing church factions.

If this were all The Fifth Gospel was, it would still be a rip-roaring read. What takes the novel beyond the thriller genre are Caldwell’s depictions of Biblical scholarship, cross-denomination conflicts, and the politics of the Vatican. The reader needs to sort fact from fiction—but this fictional tale has lots of factual scaffolding. One leaves it, not just entertained, but with richer understanding of the development of the Catholic Church—something that can fascinate regardless on one’s religious beliefs.

This is a book that should be picked up now—no waiting for the paperback edition. It is certain to spark all sorts of interesting conversations: literary, historical, and spiritual.

March 03 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Thirteenth-Century Pilgrimage

John the Pupil: A Novel, by David Flusfeder, (Harper), 240 pages, release date 3 March, 2015

David Flusfeder’s John the Pupil is one of those books you enter like a world. Within a few sentences, you find yourself living inside of it—and your immediate surroundings become no more than white noise. The thirteenth century, in which it takes place, is an era of terror and knowledge.

The John of the title is a student of Roger Bacon. Along with two of his Franciscan brothers, John has been sent on a pilgrimage to Rome with the goal of delivering a new book by Bacon to the Pope, Clement IV. This journey is traveled on foot for the most part, and in the tradition of their order the Franciscans are expected to preach daily for alms that will provide them with food and, sometimes, housing.

The pace of the book is slow, as is a pilgrimage on foot. John records events on scraps of parchment, labeling the entries with the names of the Saints’ Days on which they were written. One day is much like the next: sore feet, the constant threat of violence, and an inner dialogue that John uses to try to understand the meaning of his journey even as he undertakes it. This pacing is part of what makes the book so all-consuming—it pulls readers into the rhythms of life from seven centuries ago.

Flusfeder’s prose is both beautiful and unadorned, true to the book’s era as is the pace. Wording is simple, but precise. Sparseness, rather than rich detail, is what brings these characters to life.

Give yourself the pleasure of reading this book. Let yourself settle into its rhythms and language and experience a world we left long ago.


March 02 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Poetry, Paternity, and the Cold War

The Neruda Case: A Novel, by Roberto Ampuero, translated by Carolina De Robertis, (Hardcover: Riverhead, 2012; Paperback: Riverhead Trade, 2013)

I fell in love with The Neruda Case when I first saw the cover of the 2012 hardback edition. I couldn’t afford to buy it at the time, but I’ve never forgotten it. So a few months ago, I was delighted to see a copy of it on remainder at my local independent bookstore, Bookshop Santa Cruz.

This is one of the cases when the book itself is every bit as wonderful as the cover, offering a narrative that functions on several levels.

First, The Neruda Case is a darn good detective novel. Cayetano Brulé, originally from Cuba, now living in Chile with his Chilean wife whom he met in New York, is struggling to create himself. His marriage is falling apart. He’s never managed a real career since his move to Chile. Now, he’s trying to set himself up as a detective—and his first client is an aging Neruda, soon to die of cancer. The poet, childless in his 80s wants Brulé to track down a former lover and her daughter—who may or may not be his child.

On another level, The Neruda Case is a novel of the cold war world, and particularly of the failure of the socialist experiment in Chile led by democratically elected Salvador Allende and toppled by Chilean generals with U.S. support. Allende’s presidency lasted three years. The military dictatorship that followed lasted for seventeen.

Brulé’s investigations take him to Mexico, Cuba, East Germany, Bolivia and back to Chile—so we see not only the Chilean experience, but also life in each of these nations during the cold war.

Since I read this novel in translation, I can’t say anything definitive about Ampuero’s prose style, but if De Robertis’s translation is any indication, he is the master of the long, rich sentence. Let me give you one example of these sentences, this describing the current President of Chile and the nation itself:

President Bachelet was a clear sign that this stiletto of land, which extended from the Atacama Desert (the most arid and inhospitable one on the planet) to the South Pole, and which balanced between the fierce waves of the Pacific and the eternal snows of the Andes, always on the brink of collapsing with all its people and goods into the ocean’s depths, was a unique place, inimitable and changing, that swung vertiginously from euphoria to depression, or from soidarity to individualism, like one of those complicated hieroglyphs from the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann that no one could entirely decipher, and that one loved or hated, depending on the circumstances, changes in mood, or color of the season.

Now, that’s a sentence! An entire book of such prose would overwhelm, but Ampuero knows when and how much to serve up. These occasional sentences emerge delightfully every few pages or so—like sips of a good wine accompanying a hearty meal.

Keep your eyes open for a copy of this book and give it a read. You’ll have the fun of a detective story paired with a haunting look back at recent history.


February 27 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Magic and Magic

The Hawley Book of the Dead: A Novel, by Chrysler Szarian, (Ballantine Books), 352 pages, released 23 September, 2014

The Hawley Book of the Dead is a gripping thriller: the tale of a woman who’s a magician and also is magic. Her particular gift is the ability to disappear instantly, which adds considerably to shows she and her husband, also a magician, perform in Las Vegas.

Reve (short for Revelation, an old family name) finds her life turned upside down when an unknown person puts live bullets in a gun used in performances. In front of an audience she shoots her husband in the chest, killing him almost instantly.

Reve realizes that someone is stalking her, planning more violence against her family, so at the urging of her grandmother she returns to Hawley Five Corners, an abandoned town deep in the New England woods, where her family has roots.

At this point, the book moves into the realm of the supernatural. Reve is learning family history that her grandmother has withheld for years. There are ancestresses accused of witchcraft, magical connections to a sort of fairy folk who went underground after the arrival of humans to their lands, and devices with magical powers.

This is escapist reading, in the good sense of the word. It’s paced quickly and keeps offering new complications. When you need to take a vacation between the pages of a book, The Hawley Book of the Dead will work nicely.

February 26 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Documenting Congo

Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen: An Ordinary Family’s Extraordinary Tale of Love, Loss, and Survival in Congo, by Lisa J. Shannon, (PublicAffairs), 240 pages, release date 3 February, 2015

I finished Lisa J. Shannon’s Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunman a week ago and have spent a good chunk of the time since then mulling over what, exactly, I have to say about the book. The subject matter is timely; the author has done important work on behalf of Congolese women.

The history of Congo since its “discovery” has been brutal. For some three decades, Congo was unique in being the only African colony owned by a private individual: King Leopold of Belgium. Leopold’s Congo was a hell of forced labor on rubber plantations. “Control” of native Congolese was documented through the removal, collection, and counting of Congolese hands. Yes, hands. Over the course of Leopold’s rule, the population of Congo fell by perhaps as much as one-third. After an international campaign to end Leopold’s rule there, Congo became a colony of Belgium in 1908.

Congo achieved independence in 1960. After more than a century of occupation and uncompensated export of Congo’s resources, independence presented significant challenges. Although Congo had a population of roughly 15.25 million at that time, Shannon notes that “When the Congolese people gained their independence… only nineteen Congolese people had college degrees and fewer than fourteen thousand were enrolled in secondary school.” Congo’s first democratically elected president, Patrice Lamumba was killed in 1961, most likely with CIA cooperation motivated by the growing ties between Congo and the Soviet Union.

The history of Congolese independence is one of constant civil war. Multiple guerilla militias have preyed upon the Congolese people, most recently Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). In 2005 Kony and four other members of the LRA were indicted by the international criminal court for crimes against humanity, including genocide, forced relocation of populations, child sexual slavery, and the use of child soldiers. It is this Congo in which Shannon’s narrative takes place.

Shannon is the founder of Run for Congo Women, a series of thirty-mile runs held in multiple locations with the goal of raising awareness of and support for Congolese women. Her first book, 2010’s A Thousand Sisters, tells of her experiences visiting Congolese villages and interviewing women affected by the violence.

Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunman chronicles Shannon’s second trip to Congo. Along with her friend Francisca Thelin, she travels to Thelin’s home village of Dungu. While the women’s purposes are complimentary, they are different enough to create a tension that lies in the heart of this book. Thelin, whose family has lost members to the LRA, is more interested in a visit home to spend time reconnecting with her remaining family members. Shannon is determined to document the recent violence using Thelin as an interpreter to such an extent that Thelin has much less time with her family than she’s hoped. In addition, Shannon’s and Thelin’s experiences documenting the violence are significantly different in that Thelin is related to nearly every Congolese individual interviewed. Unlike Shannon, for Thelin, these aren’t “just” atrocities—they’re family stories.

Because of Shannon’s and Thelin’s competing purposes, I felt distinctly uncomfortable reading the book at times. Shannon notes when Thelin is a less-than-enthusiastic interpreter and records Thelin’s repeated requests for more family time. Yes, these stories need to be told, but it feels wrong to have their telling depend a woman who has already lost so much to the conflicts in Congo.

That said, one of the strengths of Shannon’s book is that it offers more than a series of descrptions of atrocities. Shannon provides historical background to contextualize the current state of Congo. She also provides suggestions about how readers can contribute to the movement for peace and justice in Congo. Among the groups she highlights are Invisible Children, the Enough Project, Resolve, and Women for Women International.

In a way, the tension at the heart of this book feels appropriate. It feels right that the process of gathering this information should be uncomfortable and that Shannon documents this discomfort so carefully, even at the risk of making herself less appealing to readers.

February 25 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Magic and Music

Echo: A Novel, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, (Scholastic Press), 592 pages, release date 24 February, 2015

Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Echo is a young adult novel that transcends the genre. Yes, younger readers will enjoy this book, but its magic works for adults too.

Echo presents a trio of real-world stories framed by a fairy tale—and all of these are connected by one very unusual harmonica. The harmonica is graced with the voices of three captive princesses who will be released only after they have saved a soul. From this magical beginning, the harmonica moves to our world, traveling from one owner to another and transforming all their lives: there’s Otto, in Nazi Germany in 1933; Mike, in an orphan’s home in Philadelphia in 1935; and Ivy, in 1942, whose family is taking care of the home of a Japanese farming family who have been interned as the U.S. enters World War II.

This is a long novel, really three novels and a fairy tale, but it never drags. Each of the central characters is deeply engaging, shaped in some way by music and wrestling with some of the biggest challenges of the times they live in. If you know any younger readers who are looking for a book they can settle into for a long stay, Echo will suit your needs well. And, Echo will provide the same enjoyment for older readers who can appreciate a tale touched by magic.

February 24 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Searching for Truth in a Demon-Haunted World

Plague Land: A Novel, by S.D. Sykes, (Pegasus Crime), 336 pages

A historical mystery with the word plague in the title and a cover featuring a painting by Bruegel the Elder—who could resist? Plague Land is a great read on multiple levels: a solid mystery, a detailed depiction of life in rural England in the mid-1300s, and also a study of the role of Plague in reshaping the political and social order of the time.

For the first third or so of this novel, I thought I was reading something pretty good, but not necessarily great. Later in my reading, I realized that Plague Land was the first thing I reached for when I unexpectedly awoke at 6 a.m. On a Saturday. It takes a special novel to trump an extra few hours of sleep on the weekend.

The narrator and central character, Oswald de Lacy, a third son destined for life as a monk, is called home as lord of the manor after his father and two older brothers are struck down by Plague. Not long after his return home, a murder is uncovered. Oswald, an agnostic who nonetheless was comfortable with his life in the monastery, is already having enough trouble stepping into his unexpected new role. Then the local priest starts stirring up the community claiming the murder is the work of cynocephalae, demon-possessed, dog-headed men.

At first Oswald is something of a cypher. He tells his story, but shares little of his inner life, so while readers are engaged by events, they feel at arm’s distance from him. But slowly Oswald’s actions begin to speak for him, and as readers learn more about his world-view he becomes increasingly interesting.

Though the plot is less complex, this novel reminds me (in a good way) of Eco’s The Name of the Rose. A young postulant who remains innocent of the “ways of the world” is troubled by the new view of humanity he’s gaining. His mentor, in this case the apothecary at the monastery where Oswald’s been living, tries to interpret the world for him, simultaneously protecting and enlightening him.

I bought this book for the cover, and I have no regrets. Sykes’ blend of puzzle, history, and analysis makes for fascinating reading.

February 23 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Thinking About Food

Relae: A Book of Ideas, by Christian F. Puglisi, (Ten Speed Press), 448 pages, released November 11, 2014

If you know any foodies, particularly foodies who take their own cooking seriously, Relae could make a striking gift book. The book shares the name of author Christian F. Puglisi’s Copenhagen restaurant. This is a substantial book, filled with gorgeous photos, and beautifully bound in a sort of eco-industrial style.

Relae isn’t really a cookbook, though is has a generous recipe collection. Instead, it is, as its cover states, a book of ideas. The idea sections begin the book and are marked by notches in the manner of an unabridged dictionary. Headings include “Liquids,” “Animal,” “Manipulations,” “Texture,” and “Theory.” Each section is composed of a series of short (usually two-page) essays. The “Liquids” section, for example, has essays titled “Water,” “Wine,” “Fruit Vinegars,” and “Extra-Virgin Olive Oil.”

One of the pleasures of this book is sifting through the essays, using them as starting places for one’s own culinary explorations. For example, I hadn’t thought of water quality as an issue in cooking—it comes out of the tap, and I use it. Puglisi, however, has a special water-processing system also used by one high-end Copenhagen coffee roaster. (I also learned from my wife that her employer, the U.S. coffee roasting company Peet’s, triple filters all the water used in the roasting process and in the drinks they serve at their retail shops.) While this might seem pretentious at first, Puglisi reminds us that “A cup of coffee is 99 percent water…. It doesn’t take a degree in chemistry to figure out that when reducing a stock… as the water evaporates [it becomes] even tougher for all the flavors and aromas to come through.” These are the kind of ruminations at the heart of Relae.

Many of recipes in Relae strike my non-Scandinavian palate as quixotic: Lumpfish Roe, Daikon, and Almonds; Pickled Skate, Mussels, and Celery Root; Potato, Seaweed, and Peccorino. Fankly, I really won’t be using the recipe half of the book except for a few of the “Herbivorous Starters.” Cooking them will require determined searching-out of ingredients and plenty of time for the multi-step preparations.

If you’re looking for a book of recipes you can serve for dinner on weeknights, Relae won’t do you any good. It may even be too ambitious for your more complex entertainment cooking. But if you like thinking about cooking and food in all its various forms, you’ll find Relae a title to pick up for interesting reading.

February 19 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

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