Saturday, June 9, 2018

essential ingredients

The School of Essential Ingredients is the first novel by Erica Bauermeister, which I picked up in paperback at my library's on-going book sale. Lillian owns a small restaurant in a quiet neighborhood, tucked into a old house with a front porch and small gardens in the yard, where she mixes flowers with herbs she uses in the kitchen. Once a week, Lillian hosts a cooking class, on Mondays when the restaurant is closed. The story opens with Lillian, and why she got into cooking, what she thinks it did for her, and how she thinks that it may help others to connect or re-connect with people, feelings, memories, and their own sense.

Each of the following chapters is focused on one of her students in this particular class, what their history is, what they bring to the class and its explorations of flavor, memory, confidence, and connectedness. Lillian sees food as more than sustenance, she sees it as one of the essential ingredients in life. The point seems to be, that there are a number of things that we as human do throughout our lives, maybe even most of our lives (such as work) which are really essential to human life. What we need is food, water, air, and in some or most cases shelter, clothes, and to procreate. That's it. Of that short list, only food gives us the opportunity to dazzle all of our senses, or perhaps just comfort them.

The cooking class is not really about food--although the descriptions of the food and the cooking are well done, and help form the backbone on which this sweet story is about. This story is about the people in it, and how slowing down and allowing their senses to indulge can help unlock other feelings they may not have been allowing themselves to have.

It was an interesting, and sensual look at what simple pleasures can do for us, and how they may not be so simple after all. This is a great first book, and I bet was popular with the book club folks, and cooking clutch folks as well.

Monday, May 28, 2018

prisoner of heaven

I picked this book up at the library book sale because I recognized the author's name, and was pretty sure I'd read one of his books. Carlos Ruiz Zafon may be a prolific writer, but perhaps not all of his books are translated and brought to the US, what do I know. The title credits in the frontmatter of the hardcover I just read only list a few books.

I think the book I read was The Shadow of the Wind,* which is part of Ruiz's Cemetery of Lost Books series, as is this one: The Prisoner of Heaven. The way the series is described on the book jacket, these stories are related, but they don't need to be read in order. Which is probably good, as I don't think I've read any of the intervening books.

This was good. A fast read, pulled me right in. I read a lot more of this one at each siting than I did the last one. see below The story was dark, a little Gothic, romantic, sweet, sad, with a little intrigue, and glimpses at larger unseen things in the background.

The translation was done by Lucia Graves, and it appears to be British rather than North American English. After a quick look, Graves is indeed English, and a writer herself. She's also translated a lot of her father's works (Robert Graves.) I liked the translation. Sometimes translations are obvious, they seem to be a separate thing, that kind of floats over the author's work, and obscures as much it reveals. I like how Graves translates the feeling, or the meaning, rather than just the words. She finds idioms and phrases that may not match word-for-word what Ruiz has written, but they do match what he means, or needs to convey in the story. Brava Lucia Graves.

Unrelated: So, where have I been for over a month? Reading has been difficult with my house under construction; its hard to find books that are either packed away or hidden behind piles of stuff. After a couple of false starts (reading a few pages of things that I could find, but wasn't really interested in reading) I went to the library and picked out a book--Jerusalem by Alan Moore, of graphic novel fame--and its got, like 2000 pages or something. Its new so its in the 14 day book group, which means that you can only take it for 2 weeks, and then you have to renew it, which I did (once) then gave up. Its not often that I do, give up on a book that is. I felt like this one had something to say it just took... so... long... to... say it. I just couldn't get that book rolling. I've had slow starts in books before. You know, it takes 50 or a hundred pages for the author to lay out the premise and get you up to speed sometimes.

200+ pages in, in a month! and I'm still reading completely disjointed tales from the POV of a bunch of, as of yet, unrelated characters from Northampton or "The Boroughs" (Moore's hometown) and I'm not getting it. I've had this book twice as long as I'm supposed to have had it and I don't even know what its about. Might have been good, I think it could have been. A little purple however. Moore seems to suffer from trying to paint as colorful a backdrop as he can in a graphic novel with words. If each frame in a graphic novel is indeed worth a thousand words, then it appears that is about where he was headed.

This ends up being a partial review of Jerusalem as well, I guess.

* None of Ruiz's books show up here, so if I read some of his stuff, it was before 2009, when I started writing this stuff down. And that's why I started thing, so I could keep track of what I've read, and not buy the same book 3 times.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

lion for easter

So for those of you who don't know, I typically try to predict whether or not March will actually go out like a lamb, and I usually make the call around the 15th ides of march, right?

Given that I can cheat my way through by waiting until the middle of the month, I'm typically pretty good at guessing, but this year, because Wednesday is no longer Prince Spaghetti Day in the Boston area, its Nor'easter Day, I blew it.

The bet I made this year is: If I'm right we'll have lamb for Easter. no brainer But if I'm wrong we'll have lion. Little did I know how difficult it would be to make good on this bet. Its really difficult to find lion meat, as it is (of course) illegal, but I did find a source on line you have to dig pretty deep and took a ride to Vermont yesterday to meet a guy who brought it over the border from Canada. Don't think its legal in Canada either, but I didn't ask a lot of questions. I won't say any more, as I'm sure that the guy I met with isn't looking for publicity.

So, one squishy package into a cooler in the trunk, and some last-minute advice to try juniper berries to help with the gaminess from my guy really, where the hell am I going to find those? and I'm off home to try and cook this stuff up. I've had it in a brine all night, with salt, peppercorns, vinegar, bayleaf, and rosemary (which I read on line is a pretty good substitute for juniper berries.)

It just went into the oven to slow roast for dinner, I'm going to deglaze the pan with gin, which is flavored with juniper berries! I hope it comes out good! In any case, I'm glad its April.

Happy Easter everyone!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

barbershop libraries

From their InstaGram (without permission)
Today I heard a story about Barbershop Books on public radio. Barbershop Books is the brainchild of Alvin Irby, a ex-kindergarten teacher, and stand-up comedian, who decided to do something about encouraging--inspiring, even--black boys to read. In an interview, Irvy made a point about the reading that is assigned in schools, that has always bothered me, the negative storylines in books assigned to young people to read. My kids understood the formula, and made jokes about it, before they finished elementary school, which runs through grade 6 in my town. Here's how they described the books they read, year after year: victim of Nazis, victim of racism, or victim of Nazis AND racism.

Irvy summed it up this way (I'm paraphrasing) What are the role models black boys read about in school? Old, dead, black men who's stories don't touch their lives, and that they can't relate to. Irvy has curated a select list of 15 books that he installs on a shelf somewhere in a participating barbershop. Books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, and The Snowy Day.

These are books want to read, can relate to and are fun. The idea is to encourage reading, by making books available in a safe space. Irvy has chosen barbershops because they typically are home to men. Men interacting with one another in a comfortable, friendly, normal way. Young and old. Many of them father figures. Ingenious.

This is library.

Here's the mission, in their own words (used without permission):

"In an increasingly global and knowledge-based economy, poor reading skills among young black boys today will produce black men who are unprepared to compete in the workforce of tomorrow. Four key factors contribute to low reading proficiency among black boys: (1) limited access to engaging and age appropriate reading material; (2) lack of black men in black boys’ early reading experiences; (3) few culturally competent educators; and (4) schools that are unresponsive to black boys’ individual learning styles."

Visit Barbershop Books, and see for yourself. Kudos to Alvin Irby and Barbershop Books.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

in like a lion

Lion and Lamb Eyes
I'm a little late getting my March calendar up this year, but figured I had to get with it with a big storm coming to the Northeast. Might be rain, might be a foot of snow, might be nothing. We won't know until tomorrow. Today was a bull, and tomorrow is a moose. Either one could be trouble, so we'll have to wait and see what happens.

Last year, March was so bad, I ended up changing the whole month to lion. I hope that's not the case this year. Enjoy!

Here's how it stacks up this year. yes, its the same every year, that's why we call it a tradition.

March 1 - Lion: Of course. Its in like a lion, right?
March 2 - Tiger: Up to 11-feet, and nearly 700 pounds!
March 3 - Bear: Oh my! Definitely polar bear this year.
March 4 - Shark: Everyone knows that shark week is not really a thing, right?
March 5 - Wolf: The Timber variety. They're coming back, baby!
March 6 - Bull: One word: Pamplona.
March 7 - Moose: Brake for moose, it could save your life.
March 8 - Eagle: Don't leave your pets outside... or your chickens.
March 9 - Scorpion: Step on it before it steps on you.
March 10 - Dingo: No, its not a stray dog.
March 11 - Hawk: Not hawkish. That's for scared people, pretending to be strong.
March 12 - Lynx: No honey, that's not a tom cat, don't feed it.
March 13 - Bat: Wanna put on your Batman suit, party on!
March 14 - Monkey: They're cute but can also throw poop! HBD Coleen!
March 15 - Snake: The Ides of March. Snakes are known for wisdom, and treachery.
March 16 - Ox: Hard working in a plodding kind of way.
March 17 - Elephant: Wise, big, powerful... gray.
March 18 - Raven: Nevermore.
March 19 - Stag: Power and compassion. Might make a good patronus.
March 20 - Crab: This one can sneak up on you. First day of spring!
March 21 - Goat: Stubborn and tough going.
March 22 - Horse: Strong and reliable. Sometimes crappy on the back end.
March 23 - Pig: Smart but messy; wear your boots today.
March 24 - Dog: Friendly and good-natured; take a walk.
March 25 - Dolphin: Fun and wet; bring an umbrella.
March 26 - Rooster: Get up early and wake the neighbors.
March 27 - Turtle: Muddy, but adorable; boots again.
March 28 - Toad: Similar to turtle, but a little squishier.
March 29 - Robin: I guess you could wear your Robin costume today. You cosplay nut!
March 30 - Rabbit: Roasted with rosemary and potatoes! HBD Kelton!
March 31 - Lamb: Mmm... arrosticini. Smells like spring!

According to one source I read "This phrase has its origins with the constellations Leo, the Lion, and Aries, the ram or lamb. It has to do with the relative positions of these constellations in the sky at the beginning and end of the month." Sounds like a stretch to me. My guess is it comes from someone making up a story to tell children around a fire, or something equally as mundane.

In any case, March is the month that brings us Spring, so it can't be all bad. But the weather might be.

Sheep eyes are weird. That's all I'm saying.

UPDATE: Happy Easter everyone! We made it, tho I was tempted to change this year to lion (or some other vicious beast) everyday. This March was one to remember. Wednesday was Nor'easter Day this month. Seems like we got one once a week all month, but it WAS sunny and warm yesterday, so lamb-like it was.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

piano shop

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank was apparently pretty popular when it came out in 2001. Its not a long book, 300 pages or so, and it traces the author's rediscovery of the piano. The sub-title: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier gives you a little more info on where Thad Carhart is coming from.

Carhart is an American living in Paris, with his family. Carhart spent years in Paris as a child with his own family, where he took piano lessons, and enjoyed playing the piano for himself, but was never interested in pursuing piano as a musician, and certainly not as a career. It was his childhood impression that once his teacher's learned that, they weren't as interested in teaching him. That may or may not be true, but he eventually left Paris and returned to the US, leaving his piano lessons behind.

As an adult, who has moved back to Paris with his wife and two school age children, Carhart steps into a piano shop in a quiet neighborhood on the Left Bank, and his love for the piano is reignited. What follows is Carhart's re-immersion into the world of pianos, their history, construction, maintenance, tuning, restoration, and differences. Carhart's decision to write about it, inspires his delving into the finer points of fine pianos, what makes a piano fine vs. what makes an inexpensive piano crummy (in most cases) and even leads to a visit to Fazioli Pianoforti.

I would imagine this book will strike a chord with pianists especially, which I am not, but I did enjoy Carhart's matter-of-fact style, and how he is able to share his love for these old, mysterious pieces of furniture. It was also nice to look inside the neighborhood life of Paris and some of its people. The descriptions of the people he meets and the friends he makes along the way are just as fun to read.

Saturday, February 24, 2018


The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is some kind of joint venture by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. I've read a bunch of Neal Stephenson's stuff, but I don't know Nicole Galland. Its not clear to me whether these two met somewhere and decided to collaborate, or if their publisher or agents put them together. I have no idea how these things work.

DODO is obviously an acronym. The text is lousy with them, but that is--I guess, in some ways--the point. There isn’t too much I can get into without spoilers so I’ll keep my comments superficial. The story obviously follows the rise and fall of DODO and is focused on the original developers of DODO, which starts out as a small research project and grows to worldwide proportions over a few short years.

The premise is interesting, as you might expect from a Neal Stephenson story, but I'm not sure the story really comes off as well as some of his other endeavors. I don't have any frame of reference for Nicole Galland, so I can't comment on how it compares to other things she has written.* The story revolves, as I said, around the original developers of DODO, and as a young man and woman, thrown together in this crazy story, I could pretty quickly see that some kind of interest could develop between them, and as I expected, the sexual tension is pretty thick at times.

If I had to guess, I think the story may suffer a little bit from tropes: new project results in amazing scientific discovery, and isn't the government always showing up, talking about weaponization? Isn't there always an archetype cast-of-characters that shows up in a story like this too, like the tech geek, and the yes-man, and the alpha-type who wants to take over? It just felt like I've been here before, and even though these tropes were hung on an interesting story idea, they ended up covering over the interesting bits with their sameness.

I'll keep my eye out for the Neal Stephenson story, and as this may be probably is my first experience with Nicole Galland, she'll get the benefit of the doubt. Because I'm like that. If I had know ahead of time, I may have skipped this one.

* A quick look at Galland's website shows that she writes some historical fiction, perhaps similar to Stephenson's historical fiction. Is that the connection between the two authors and this story? I guess so. 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

word freak

I picked up Word Freak at a library book sale, thinking my wife would want to read it.


Word Freak, with its ridiculously long sub-title; "Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players" is by Stefan Fatsis, the writer and author who you sometimes hear on NPR, talking about sports. It looks like Fatsis went looking into the world of competitive Scrabble, to get a better idea of the strange world he only saw glimpses of in pick-up games in the park, played by sketchy-looking folks with time clocks--a la chess.

After digging into this weird, obsessive, sub-culture, Fatsis found himself losing his objectivity. Yeah, he went down the rabbit hole.

Now I guess Fatsis would say that he never lost his objectivity, and I guess that's probably sort of true, but if he was there originally to simply report on competitive Scrabble as an interesting sub-culture, somewhat related to sports do sports writers report on chess and crap like that? then I think changing that intent, or allowing it to evolve, into more of a spectator/autobiographical story, has a little taint of rationalizing after your project has gone off the rails. Fatsis makes no bones about the fact that he pretty quickly became obsessed with the game, and is now, incidentally, one of the higher ranked competitive Scabble players in America.

Word Freak* traces Fatsis's trip down the rabbit hole, his struggles with the game, the obsessive studying of words and anagramming, and perhaps most interesting, is the history of Scrabble, and the personalities of the people who play competitively. It was an interesting romp.

* Hasbro, the new-ish Owner of Scrabble in the U.S. wouldn't allow the use of their trademarked board game in the title of Fatsis's book.

Friday, December 29, 2017

house of spies

House of Spies is another installment of the Gabriel Allon adventures, by Daniel Silva. My wife is a fan, and she bought this one in hardcover, so I grabbed it now that she is finished with it. This is a follow-up to Black Widow, which I read in September, just after she bought that one along with this one. After reading Black Widow, I needed to take a break from Silva; Widow seemed a little too heavy-handed for me. I'm happy to report that that is not the case with this one.

There are a couple of interesting tidbits in this story that I think are worth pointing out, and I don't think rise to the level of spoilers. If you'd rather not read anything about the content, you can skip to the next paragraph. Silva appears to have predicted Trump's statement about Jerusalem being the capital of Israel. I don't follow politics enough to know if Trump said as much on the campaign trail or not, but there you have it. Second, Silva has also indicated that Israel--and possibly other countries--who work in conjunction with the US on counter-terrorism and counter-espionage projects, sometimes allow the US to take credit for the work that they or other countries may have done. This may be a plot twist only, or it may be Silva's personal belief or suspicion about the way things are done in the spy business. and American politics

Allon seems like a busy guy, and it appears that he continues to have trouble delegating as much as he should, perhaps, but that is a character trait we've come to understand about him. There are a few situations in this story that I had a hard time suspending disbelief over, and I think that it has come up in Allon stories before, namely, putting civilians in harms way. This device allows for some pretty dramatic situations, but I can't believe that an intelligence service would allows these situations to occur.

Overall House of Spies was fun and fast moving, and I'd rate it right up there with the rest of the series, and a little better than the last installment.