Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Review and Simul-blog: James Hamilton-Paterson's Cooking with Fernet Branca

Take a snarky British gourmand; mix with a bohemian composer of Eastern European extraction; add a self-important British pop star and an aging Italian movie director, each with delusions of grandeur; ply with a seemingly unending supply of an obscure liqueur; place on the top of an Italian mountain and watch what happens next! This recipe for disaster is the essence of James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking with Fernet Branca.

Cooking with Fernet Branca is the funniest thing I have read in a long time. So funny that I wound up with tears running down my face. So funny I gasped while trying to read passages aloud to explain said tears. Not to be maudlin or anything, but ever since Douglas Adams left this world far too young, I have honestly believed no novel could ever make me laugh that hard again. It was a delight to find out how very wrong I was.

Of course, the problem with humor is that it is so darn personal – why did Gerald Samper and his former-soviet nemesis Marta crack me up so? In my case, it all comes down to a subtle, sarcastic and deadpan writing style that only a few writers can deliver on. And almost all of them are British. At one point, Marta describes the take over of her home (and her neighbor’s yard) by an Italian film crew:

And all the time there came suggestive sounds from outside and glimpses through the window of poor Gerry’s fence being forcefully dealt with. There were some loud splintering noises which did not at all imply intactness. There were also some blasphemies new to me – the men were all-too-clearly native Tuscans – the gist being that the Madonna was unpopular for having yielded her virginity to a series of farmyard animals and the absent Gerry for having used a nail gun instead of an ordinary hammer. p. 182

James Hamilton-Paterson wrote Cooking with Fernet Branca with alternating narration between “Gerry” and Marta. Amazingly, both “voices” are hilarious, barreling along the path to what they believe can only be glory, Marta through her dissonant musicality and Gerald through his bizarre gustatory endeavors.

Hamilton-Paterson is obviously a great observer of contemporary culture, and he skewers a number of trends in this book – particularly fusion cooking. What else to make of recipes like Garlic and Fernet Branca Ice Cream, Mussels in Chocolate and Otter with Lobster Sauce? But it’s Gerald Samper’s self-seriousness that takes it from ludicrous to comic genius. And that’s what makes James Hamilton-Paterson such a fabulous writer.

This was my first book for the Europa Challenge, but it is already making me rethink my list. I don’t know if I can wait to read Hamilton-Paterson’s follow-up titles, Amazing Disgrace and Rancid Pansies. This book is absolutely recommended for lovers of British humor – if The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is your idea of a great time, read this book!

I am simul-blogging today! Both Jess at Desperado Penguin and Colleen at Books in the City read this book with me, as part of the Europa Challenge. I can’t wait to see their take on Gerald and Marta.

Oops! Forgot to put this book into one sentence: Bitter liquor makes strange bedfellows.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book Review: Emile Zola's The Fortune of the Rougons

I think of myself as a pretty adventurous reader, so it’s surprising how often I realize I’ve never read a single book by a well-known author. I am not participating in the Paris in July Challenge, but a number of my blogging buddies are, so I’ve been enjoying a raft of reviews of French literature lately – and my limitations in that area are becoming apparent to me. For instance, after reading a fine review of Emile Zola’s Germinal by Karen at Books and Chocolate, I racked my brain trying to remember anything I’d read by Zola. I came up with nothing.

This led to an internet search, which led to Zola’s sweeping Rougon-Macquart epic, which led to the first novel in the twenty-book series, The Fortune of the Rougons. Since I generally prefer to begin at the beginning, and the title was available for Kindle, I decided to download it. Once I opened it up, I absolutely could not put it down!

Some background: The Rougon-Macquart novels tell the story of one family with two branches, one legitimate (the Rougons) and one illegitimate (the Macquarts), all descended from the same wealthy but unstable heiress, Adelaide Fouque. In the 20 novels of the series, Zola used France’s Second Republic as a kind of “incubator” for his ideas about evolution, and explored the impact of both predisposition and environment on various characters in the family line. In the first book, Zola sets up the “nature” elements of the book, by giving the Rougon and Macquart families particular traits, some distinct because of their different fathers, some overlapping because of they share the same mother.

More character study than chronicle, the narration moves about in time, starting at the birth of the Second Republic in 1852, but near the end of the book’s action, with the love story of Silvere and Miette. Silvere is a grandson of Adelaide’s and a staunch Republican, urged on by his bitter uncle, Antoine Macquart. Antoine blames his wealthy half-brother, Pierre Rougon, for disinheriting him and causing all his troubles – and he isn’t completely wrong in that regard. Zola creates characters of great depth and complexity, showing how their personal traits, social circumstances and decisions have brought them to that critical moment in the history of both the family and the nation:
There are some situations which benefit only persons of bad repute. These lay the foundations of their fortune where men of better position and more influence would never dare to risk theirs…The game was too risky. There was no one among the middle classes of Plassans who cared to play it except the Rougons, whose ungratified longings urged them on to extreme measures. Kindle location 1272

Not all of the books in the cycle are currently available in English translation, and some of the translations that do exist were censored for what was considered a more puritanical audience. I have read a lot of criticism of the translation I read, by Vizetelly, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I will be looking for even better translations for the other books, either in English or in Spanish – I now want to read them all!

So 2011 is the summer I fell in love with Zola. I hope I can participate in Paris in July next year! If you have any suggestions for what my next Rougon-Macquart novel should be, let me know!

This book in one sentence: A bitter seed bears a bitter harvest.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book Review and Giveaway: One Flight Up

One thing I really like to do in summer is read books outside of my typical fare. So when I got an opportunity to review Susan Fales-Hill’s debut novel One Flight Up I said yes, mostly because I haven’t read much fiction from contemporary African-American authors, and I’m always trying to make up for gaps in my reading resume.

One Flight Up tells the story of four high school friends approaching their 40th birthday, each trying to come to terms with where her choices have taken her – and trying to decide if there’s still time to make changes. Think of the Sex and the City crew with a multicultural vibe, now relying on control-top pantyhose to keep those expensive pencil skirts looking smooth, and you’re starting to get the idea. All of these women are privileged, wealthy and accomplished. But none of them is really happy with their current situation.

The omniscient narration centers on perfectionist India Chumley, a brilliant, mixed-race divorce attorney (her mother is a white stage actress, her black father is long dead) who longs for love but is determined to avoid all the mistakes she’s watched others make in their marriages – which predictably leaves her single. Her married best friends fare little better, though. Abby, a Jewish woman, adores her philandering WASPy sculptor husband, despite his churlish, needy attitude. Latina heiress Esme loves her true-blue WASP Tim too, but doesn’t find their conventional life stimulating, emotionally or sexually. Obstetrician Monique married her Harvard educated husband and built the perfect African-American power couple. And now that she has it all, she realizes that she gave up a lot in bed. Are you getting the idea that the relationships in this book revolve around sex? You’re on the right track.

This book was originally described to me as “beachy,” but I’m not sure I’d describe it that way. The themes were too serious for what I’d describe as a true beach book. The characters are not the one-dimensional icons that often inhabit beach reads – they’re actually really complex, flawed and interesting. In fact, looking at my own 20th wedding anniversary this year, I admit I found myself wishing that at least one of the couples could be happy in that romance novel sort of way. But this book doesn’t provide those kinds of easy answers.

My biggest issue with the book has to do with balance. Male cheaters were all considered dogs. Fine, I’m on board. But they also seemed to be the only “sexy” men in the book. The faithful guys were all rather a snore. That sets every relationship up for failure, which might make good drama, but also sustains a stereotype of modern romance that I don’t really appreciate. All the women’s infidelities, on the other hand, seemed somehow “explainable.” But I’d argue that makes total sense from the perspective of a group of girlfriends. There’s not a lot you wouldn’t forgive your best girlfriend, is there? That's what I'm talking about.

Even though One Flight Up wasn’t what I expected, I did enjoy it. Fales-Hill is a good story teller, and I’m looking forward to watching her technique mature. It was fun reading a book from a different cultural perspective, especially one that takes place in my hometown of New York. (I could have missed the copious descriptions of designer outfits, but that’s just me. I’m sure to some people it would be fascinating.) If you like contemporary romances, and are interested in a multicultural perspective in your reading, I'd suggest you give this book a try.

This book in one sentence: Guys who cheat get caught, and girls who cheat get designer accessories.

THE GIVEAWAY: Atria Books has kindly offered a copy of One Flight Up for me to giveaway to a Col Reads reader from the US! Just leave a comment with your email address below by August 2. I’ll number the comments, and will choose the lucky winner. Thanks to Cristina Suarez at Atria for providing this giveaway!

FTC Disclosure: Atria Books provided me with a copy of this book, in return for my honest opinion.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book Review: The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay

I once had a professor who said every book could be distilled into a sentence. My sentence for Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay is: “Despite its sexy, modern plumage, Bombay remains a traditional old bird.”

Lost Flamingoes tells the story of Karan Seth, a small-town photographer who arrives in Mumbai with a big dream: to capture the “real” Bombay in photos. Along the way he finds himself befriended by a glittering and rarefied social circle, including Bollywood actress Zaira, and Samar, her best friend, an openly gay concert pianist who simply stopped performing one day – and has apparently never looked back. He also encounters Bombay-native Rhea, a former artist who becomes his muse.

I have to admit to some very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, the narrative is strangely compelling, apparently based in part on an actual Indian crime story. Once I got into it, I did want to see what happened next. On the other hand, I found the greater part of the book really frustrating. The ending, in particular, left me totally cold, probably because I'd stopped feeling sympathy for the main characters by then.

One of the things that made this book an interesting read was its straightforward discussion of the rampant corruption in the Indian judicial system, as well as its explanation of the conservative Hindu movement. It made me wonder how the book was received in India. Do Indians distrust their government as much as this book indicates? I have no idea, but the book really made me want to know more. Since most Indian novels I’ve read tend to be multi-generational family epics, I enjoyed the “macro-level” perspective on India that Shanghvi provides in this book.

Unfortunately, other things didn’t work well for me. In particular, I thought Shanghvi was really lazy in his character development of Samar’s lover, Leo, and Karan’s lover, Claire. Both characters supposedly played significant roles in the lives of the book’s protagonists, but Shanghvi reduces them both to cultural tropes: “American” equals “selfish,” “English” equals “self-indulgent.” They deserved better treatment, if only so the reader could understand the main characters more completely. I also found the author’s writing a bit too flowery for my tastes – the metaphors run thick and furious throughout this book, sometimes elucidating, but many times just plain mystifying. For the sake of being mystifying, as far as I can see. Like the author was trying hard to be "deep."

The book does have a lot of the elements I tend to like in a novel – focus on culture, international setting, complex characters – but it just wasn’t a good fit for me. I know other people really enjoyed this book, though. In fact, Swapna at S. Krishna’s Books named it one of her top books of 2010 – her review is here. And Audra at Unabridged Chick had this take. You might want to read another point of view before you make a decision.

This book completes the South Asian Challenge 2011, and counts toward the GLBT Reading Challenge. So thanks to Swapna, Christina and Natazz for hosting.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Book Review: Exit the Actress

When spring turns to summer, and my daily uniform becomes shorts, tees and sandals, my reading tastes get really light and airy as well. This is my “Calgon” reading time: Books, take me away! Give me a regency romance, a comedy, even some contemporary chick lit, and I’m happy to sit by the pool or under a shady tree, and be transported to another time or place. No heavy commitments, no trauma, no pondering the mysteries of the universe – at least until September rolls around.

Still, I’m fussy enough to want well written, engaging lightness, if you know what I mean. So when Natalie at Coffee and a Book Chick reviewed Priya Parmar’s historical novel Exit the Actress earlier this year, I took her “must-read” recommendation and put it on my summer reading list. So I have to say thank you to her for a really fun summer read.

Exit the Actress is a novelization of the amazing life of Nell Gwynn, the orange-seller-turned-Restoration-actress who eventually became the favorite mistress of Charles II of England. She’s also the “mother” the Dukes of St. Albans, a line of the British peerage that exists to this day, through her son Charles Beauclerk, one of the Stuart kings’ many illegitimate children. It’s a great story, and it’s certainly been told before, in movies, books and on television. But Parmar’s version is different because she styled the largest part of it as a fictional journal. This may seem like a strange idea, since Gwynn’s biographers almost all agree she was illiterate. But if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and keep from quibbling, the device offers you a new way to look at an often-studied historical figure. (It’s summer, remember? Go with the flow.)

While I might argue with the liberties Parmar takes with history and the English language (the writing style was far too “modern” considering that the book is supposed to take place in the 17th century), I think overall the diary style of the book made Nell’s life more understandable and accessible. I loved Nell’s openness and bewilderment. But her self-effacing humor, legendary to this day, fails to shine. I’d have to call the book a bit uneven in terms of the writing – I didn’t think the intermittent gossip column entries added much, and I disliked the long periods of time that were uncovered by any information at all. And frankly, for a book about one of the world’s best known courtesans, I’d call it pretty tame – like Parmar felt a need to to sanitize Gwynn’s life to make her more likeable, but I don’t feel it was necessary in the 21st century.

Still, the book grabbed me from page one - Parmar is a writer to watch. Her debut novel is a solid, beachy read. I’d recommend it to lovers of historical fiction and romance, and those who like novels written in the diary style. It won’t change your life, but it will give you an interesting take on a fascinating woman. It may even lead you to seek out some weightier books on the subject when September rolls around!

I think Natalie liked this one even better than I did. If you'd like to read her review, you'll find it here.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Weekend Cooking: The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen

It’s hot, it’s humid, and it’s hard to think about cooking dinner. Still, the farmer’s market is brimming with vegetables that beg to be eaten. What cookbook do I find myself reaching for a couple of nights a week? Donna Klein’s The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen. It hasn’t let me down yet.

One of the things that I really like about this book is that it focuses on meals that would be meatless and cheeseless in their original forms: I am not a meat or cheese substitute person, nor am I a tofu eater. At first, I worried it might feel like something was “missing,” especially in the pasta dishes. But Klein’s Ditalini with Cauliflower was so surprisingly zingy with capers and saffron that no one even asked me for cheese. The New Potato and Young Green Bean Salad is our new family standard, no mayo needed. And it tastes even better the next day, if there’s any left.

The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen chapters are broken down by courses: Appetizers, Soups (okay, those will wait until autumn, because no one in my house will eat cold soups), Salads, Breads and Desserts (I am not a dessert maker, but these look light and fruit-based). There are two main course chapters: one on Pasta, Rice, and Other Grains, and another on Vegetables and Legumes. It’s a very comprehensive book, and uses a wide range of ingredients, so I’ve found there’s virtually nothing I can bring home from the market that I don’t already have a good recipe for. That is, of course, if you have the Mediterranean staples around anyway: you won’t get far in this book without basil, garlic, tomatoes, pasta and good bread!

Klein’s Crostini with Pureed White Beans and Sautéed Wild Greens appetizer has become a favorite in my house: cannellini beans pureed with vegetable broth, olive oil, and sage, then topped with garlicky sautéed greens on crunchy bread, makes a fantastic lunch when paired with a tomato and cucumber salad. I’ve modified the recipe for my daughters, using spinach or Swiss chard rather than the dandelion greens or escarole suggested. And I bumped up the flavor of the bean spread with some garlic after the first time I made it. But getting kids to eat greens for lunch is a win in my house anyway you look at it. We even took the bean spread and a loaf of good bread to a July 4th picnic, and it was a huge hit on its own.

For those who aren’t used to cooking complete vegan meals, Klein includes a “Meals in Minutes” section with suggested pairings for Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter, to make the most of in-season produce. The book covers a wide range of cuisines, drawing on recipes from Spain to Turkey, and from Israel to Morocco. The offerings aren’t all light and summery – those just happen to be the recipes I’ve been making lately. I’m looking forward to Persian-Style, Multi-Bean Noodle Soup and Tomatoes Stuffed with Herbed Rice, Provençal Style as soon as the weather turns cooler.

The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen has quickly become one of my favorite cookbooks, and I heartily recommend it, not just for vegans and vegetarians, but for anyone trying to add more vegetable dishes to their repertoire – which is about everyone I know! Klein walks novices through the basics of vegan cuisine with well-written directions and mouth-watering descriptions. But experienced cooks can use the recipes as great starting points for their own adventures in meatless cuisine. Bon Appétit!

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Review: Vintage Murder

When I decided to take The Golden Girls Challenge in Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge at My Reader’s Block, Ngaio Marsh’s Vintage Murder was one of the first books to go on my reading list. Murder-by-Champagne-bottle sounded so darned classy. But what I hadn’t anticipated was the technical complexity of the mystery presented by Marsh, which made the book quite unique among the others I’ve read for this challenge.

The story is set in New Zealand – famed detective Roderick Alleyn is taking an extended holiday, apparently recovering from some surgery. He winds up sharing a train carriage with a troop of London actors, one of whom recognizes him from a previous case. They befriend him, inviting him to the opening night of their performance and the after-party, celebrating the birthday of company star, Carolyn Dacres. However the party comes to a frothy halt when the theatrically planned release of a jeroboam of Champagne is re-rigged to kill the party host, Dacres’ husband and the owner of the company, Alfred Meyer.

I admit was a bit concerned when the book started with both a diagram of the theater and an extensive list of characters. And I wasn’t wrong in figuring out what this meant – the mystery gave me a lot to track. Marsh apparently started her career in theater, and her extensive knowledge of stagecraft is the key to the murder, as well as its solution. Having no such knowledge, though, I had to go back over the details of the weights and counterweights used to raise and drop scenery more than once. But don't let that put you off. Marsh must have known that readers might find the arcane nature of the crime a bit off-putting, so she helps out the reader with some well-placed letters from Alleyn to his buddy Detective Inspector Fox at Scotland Yard.

Like many books from the time period, this book contains some disturbingly racist and colonialist elements. I’m still amazed by how easily characters in early 20th century novels discuss the inferiority of “brown” people and “colonials,” although I understand it represents the prevailing sentiment of the time – and I agree there’s value in remembering that. There’s particularly dreadful treatment in this book of an English-educated Maori physician, who’s referred to by a local policeman as “ninety per cent civilised.” – and it’s clearly meant to be a compliment. It really made me squirm.

That aside, I think this is a vintage mystery that many readers will love discovering again. I’d especially recommend it for those readers who enjoy a complicated plot. This was my first Ngaio Marsh title, and I definitely plan to read more of her works. So thanks once again to Bev at My Reader’s Block, the host of the Vintage Mystery Challenge. I’ve had a ton of fun with that challenge this summer!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Europa Challenge 2011: My Dinner with Europa

Looking at my original list of books for the Europa Challenge 2011, I realized I had a theme going. In fact, the titles read like a night having friends over to dinner– or maybe even a date night. I’ve included the descriptions from the Europa Catalog, in case you’re interested!
  • Cooking with Fernet Branca (James Hamilton-Paterson): A delicious comedy of manners nominated for the 2004 MAN Booker Prize.
  • The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (Alina Bronsky): Told with sly humor and an anthropologist’s eye for detail, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is the story of three unforgettable women whose destinies are tangled up in a family dynamic that is at turns hilarious and tragic.
  • The Proof of the Honey (Salwa Al Neimi): A bestseller throughout the Arab world, a tribute to sex, eroticism, language and liberty, The Proof of the Honey is a superb celebration of female pleasure.
  • Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio (Amara Lakhous): A shrewd mix of social satire and murder mystery.
I absolutely loved this idea, so I went through the catalog to see if I could find any other “courses” for my “dinner with Europa,” and I came up with these fantastic titles:
  • The Woman with the Bouquet (Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt): An exceptional collection by one of Europe’s most beloved authors.
  • Bone China (Roma Tearne): A beautifully crafted story of hope and survival set in Sri Lanka and England that will appeal to all readers of White Teeth and The Inheritance of Loss.
  • The Goodbye Kiss (Massimo Carlotto): After years on the run, he's back and willing to do anything to claw his way into respectable society.
Of course, they looked so interesting that I now want to read them all. So while I’ve committed to being a Europa Ami (4 books), I think it’s possible I may wind up a Europa Haver (7 books) when it’s all said and done!

Feel free to join me for dinner with Europa -- everyone's invited!