Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Man with the Baltic Stare by James Church

The Man with the Baltic Stare

This is my first time listening to the audio of this series. I am a great fan of Inspector O, and of James Church for imagining this character and his life. It is a truly unique mystery/spy series set in North Korea in the same way that Colin Cotterill’s Di. Siri Paiboun series takes a look at Laos in a different way. The fact that an old man is the center of each of these series gives the reader a long-range perspective and their sense of humor and justice. A young man would be confused and probably angry in countries as difficult to navigate as North Korea and Laos, so an older man has much to offer in terms of philosophy and history.

Part of the wonder of these series is the fact that they are each set in a remote locale in terms of international and social relations. We wonder, but can’t know much about how the populace lives and thinks. The joy of discovering familiar human wants and needs in a culture so distant is remarkably refreshing and reassuring. It makes us laugh all the harder at jokes poking fun at their own national idiosyncracies…after all, aren’t they letting us in on the joke? Of course, each of these books is written by a foreigner (American, British), but that must make it more accessible for those of us who will never travel to these places. The authors have a good sense of the contradictions and frustrations that us outsiders tend to find overwhelming, and reassure us that citizens of these countries also find these things confusing. They just find ways to carry on their lives in spite of the difficulties.

So, because I like the series so much, I am awfully disappointed in Blackstone Audio for not looking harder for an appropriate voice for the series. I’m sure Feodor Chin is a nice person and all that, but making the voice of a 70+ year old Korean spy sound like a 40-something American private eye from the 70s is really a distraction. His hearty voice bats slang with such American maleness that one cannot ignore any longer that this is just an old American spy writing in the voice of a Korean agent. When reading by oneself, a reader might ignore little inconsistencies and put one’s imagination to good use, but never does a reader comes to this series expecting an American private eye or point of view. Trying to make this series sound like a pulp mystery churned out annually by the chart-topping blockbuster novelists is a mistake…nay, a crime.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, January 12, 2012

In Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey

In Praise of Older Women: The Amorous Recollections of A. V (Phoenix Fiction Series)

On my first day back to reading friends’ comments on Goodreads after a hiatus of several months, I came across a reference to Stephen Vizinczey. For the months I was away, I hadn’t been able to concentrate on reading myself, but I was anxious to write again. Since my blog is about reading, however, I could only really write if I could read. The title of this book appealed to me and I would see if perhaps I could concentrate.

In Praise… is fiction in the guise of autobiography. The young male character is a little brash, but only because, it appears, he was dearly loved in his childhood. He grew up thinking that everyone would love him as much as did his relatives and the monks of his adopted Franciscan monastery. “This book is addressed to young men and dedicated to older women…” he writes in the preface. ”Modern culture—American culture—glorifies the young; on the lost continent of old Europe it was the affair of the young man and his older mistress that had the glamour of perfection.”

Right at the outset we sense the incisive mind of the writer. Rich with anecdote, Vizinczey’s descriptions of his character’s deflowering and sexual encounters with young and older women around the world are terribly amusing, and insightful into the differences between the sexes, and cultures. Relations with women in North America are painfully funny and catches males and females in our culture “in the nude,” so to speak, so clearly does he see our oddities and poke fun at our interactions.

This book is not new: it was initially published in 1965. I wish I had known of this lovely classic when I was younger, though I wonder if I would have enjoyed it so completely and without inhibition. That may be the author’s lesson when he recommends the charms of older women to young men. If I had only known when I was younger how difficult and painful it was for young men “to get any,” I like to think I would have been more accommodating and open to experimentation. But perhaps it is only these older eyes that are so generous and gentle.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

This is less the story of Rin Tin Tin (and his offspring) than of the man that owned him…and after that, of the men and women that sought to preserve the memory of him. I am a sucker for dog books, but since dogs don’t talk, one must be satisfied with stories of their owners. Just as Marley and Me was not so much the story of the dog than of John Grogan and his family, so Rin Tin Tin must be imagined through this book and the massive archive of film footage of him and his chosen successors.

What struck me from the century of history behind the name of Rin Tin Tin—the first dog with the name was born in 1918 in war-torn France—was how the first man to own him, Lee Duncan, never seemed to develop the same kind of love for any dog of the same name that followed. None had that unique set of qualities that so endeared Rinty to his owner in the first place. But a huge industry rose and fell on the tide of public opinion through the war years and after, carried on and on by men with more conviction than talent, more hubris than humility. When, many times, the rights to the Rin Tin Tin name could be passed on profitably to keep the flame alive, it was often sequestered and squandered, its value magnified to untenable proportions.

Susan Orlean must have wondered many times how she had gotten herself into this project. It required long, deep dives into the lives of obsessives, and it leaves one feeling slightly deranged and breathless to think that the story of that talented canine comes from the dark recesses of neglected warehouses and lives warped to fit the myth. I listened to the audio of this book, and I had to laugh at how many times I was sure the story was over—by her telling and the inflection in her voice--only to hear another section declaring itself on my mobile device. The name of Rinty was resurrected so many times under such improbable circumstances, that one simply has to credit the wild imaginations of the rights-holders, and one feels a little sorry that the original great Rinty is not alive to be celebrated.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

An Innocent Millionaire by Stephen Vizinczey

I was attracted to Vizinczey by the title of his first book In Praise of Older Women but thought the title of this book appropriate to the world we now live in. An Innocent… is a big comic novel, first published in the early 1980s, and has more stomach-dropping twists and turns than the big ride at the carnival. There is good in the world ”but evil is stronger,” says a lawyer late in the action. Whether or not the author agrees is still a question, for the open warfare between good and evil continue to the very last page.

Businessmen and lawyers take most of the heat in this novel, which makes it seem almost quaint considering what Americans have learned about the financial field since then. While businessmen poison their neighbors and lawyers manage to fleece clients and double-cross their peers, it is still puppy-doo compared with what realtors and investment bankers have managed to accomplish in the new century. We learned to be critical of big business and lawyers, but were blindsided by our bankers.

But of the writing: there is so much here of human nature and human foible that it is funny at the same time it is painful. Big sections are devoted to massive injustices in the world, but they never distract one from the hand-to-hand combat of interpersonal relations that comprise most of the story. Thanks to the author’s foreshadowing, one sees disasters before they arrive, but one never anticipates the next little bit the author throws at one after that. I can’t really tell you much about this book because even a sketch gives much away, but it begins with a young man seeking sunken treasure, surely a delicious thought…

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

The Bread Bible

Let me say first that Beranbaum is undoubtedly a master. After all, she developed most of the the recipes in this book on her own, using her own knowledge and the direction, ingredients, perhaps even the recipes of others. Let's just admit that writing a cookbook is darn hard work and nearly impossible. Aspiring cooks can't actually see and feel texture and notice those little indescribables that are so important in creating something completely new to them. All this is prelude to my frustration with her recipes. They seem to me to be overly complicated and particular to her. That is to say, they are not terribly sraightforward nor easily adaptable. I am used to adaptations of recipes for commonly used foods from around the world which tend to be simple enough for whole cultures to adapt to their tastes.

One thing that mattered to me this holiday season was making for the first time a Pannetone, my favorite holiday bread. I was determined to delight myself with making a loaf to celebrate my re-connection with the dear Italian friend who first introduced Pannetone to me years ago with a commercially-bought loaf purchased from New York City’s legendary delicatessen, Zabar’s. Presumptuously perhaps, I determined that Pannetone would be my gift for family this year—one sibling, one loaf. Little did I know how many weeks and how much treasure would be spent on trying to achieve a bread that pleasured four of the five senses: eyes, nose, tongue, as well as the “lightness” of touch. I am now proud to say I almost succeeded. However, “almost” was simply not good enough for me at first.

I flatter myself, I know now, that I am something of a bread master. I should have known this when I read in Daniel Leader's Simply Great Breads: Sweet and Savory Yeasted Treats from America's Premier Artisan Baker that one should attempt to master one type of bread and become known for that. Well, really.

Beranbaum has a recipe for Pannetone in her book. I almost never follow recipes exactly, usually because I lack all the called-for ingredients, but I did follow this one pretty closely (except for the suggestion that the ambient rising temperature be 75-90 deg F). At 2 a.m. (silly me, I should have just gone to bed & let it rise overnight), I rushed this into the oven because it needed to be on the road early the next day. It didn't have the rise I was expecting, but it tasted good. It was gifted to someone who had never seen a Pannetone, so they didn't care. But I did. After this, I went in search of other recipes, finding one I didn't end up using in my standard bread book, The Bread Bible: 300 Favorite Recipes by Beth Hensberger. I finally used my own starter and made a richer variation of Peter Reinhart's basic recipe in his classic The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread.

Why all the recipes call for low heat for an hour or more mystifies me. It dried the bread out terribly. I ended up going by internal temperature, which was reached far in advance of everyone's suggested baking times. Go figure.

Anyway, I did read much of Beranbaum's book, which is packed with information for those interested in breadmaking. I learned how to make the onion smear usually found on commercially-produced bialys, and I tried the bagels (not a grand success--prefer Leader's in his book referenced above). I also tried the Raisin Pecan Loaf which is her husband's favorite bread. It was exceptional and worth attention to detail.

View all my reviews
You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

How to Train a Wild Elephant by Jan Chozen Bays

How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulness

Those of you who follow my blog will have noticed I have not written in some time. This blog is about books, and even the most exciting fiction couldn’t compete with events in my own life these past few months. “Scattered” would be a kind way of describing my state of mind as I struggled to focus on tasks in front of me. I found myself murmuring “mindfulness” in an effort to keep my attention focused on things that perhaps matter more to others than to myself.

Jan Chozen Bays has written a book that brings us back to ourselves and calmly, gently, laughingly teaches us to focus on immediate tasks…not to get them over with but to be guided by the process. This is book meant to be read slowly, which is a good thing, for it took me a year. Each chapter is meant to be read one week at a time, giving us time to perform the daily exercise for a week. It gives us time to savor the moments of everyday life, not rush through them as though there were somewhere to be other than where we are.

Everyone can do these exercises. They do not require special equipment or set-aside time. They do require some flexibility, and the author encourages us to do them with a group that may meet at the end of a week and discuss the results. This seems a fine way to grow in closeness, since, as the author points out, intimacy is what we humans crave more than any other thing.

Whether or not one completes the exercises for a week at a time, just reading about them brings a sense of peace, lengthens the spine, deepens the breath. One wants to be in that place of mindfulness. And it is a book one can pull out again and again to remind oneself what it is to be “in the moment,” to focus, to notice. The group of exercises themselves will undoubtedly bring a sense of control, and of peace, to those that practice.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores