Sunday, September 29, 2013

Toujours, Vive la France

Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in ParisMastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris by Ann Mah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anne Mah's food writing sings! This foodie memoir about France never falters when reminiscing about the food, Paris, people, and countryside of France. The personal memoir parts can be tentative, faltering, even at times whiny--reflective of the author's experience of a year spent alone in a new country without husband, friends, or family for emotional support and nurturing/nourishment. Her diplomat husband got a dream posting to Paris for a four-year stint, but then no sooner did they arrive and unpack, her husband was called to Baghdad for a year. What does a foodie do in this circumstance? Slowly but eagerly, start finding community through food. Food may be our homeland, but it is also how we discover and bond with the stranger.

The book's chapters are arranged by 10 regions of France, with a representative dish--its history, the author's discovery of its terroir, its variations, and a recipe for the home cook.  As the Anne Mah describes it, "...the link between history and place, culture and cuisine." Paris is itself a region and the author's home base. There are Troyes, Brittany, Lyon, Provence, Toulouse, Alsace, Burgundy, and Aveyron--not all of France--another book, I hope. Bistro steak, crepes, soupe au pistou--and seven more dishes to savor, to prepare or dream of preparing. The recipes are easy to follow, though some of them require many hours of preparation or cooking.

What Ann Mah discovered in France was that, "Separate from cooking, the very art of eating is in itself an art to master." Not only savoring the food, but sharing connection and community in a country that mandates, in law and culture, time for the pleasure of dining. As Julia Child (with her own itinerant life and diplomat husband) would say, "Bon appetit," to foodies and Francophiles.

I received a temporary e-galley of the title through the publisher and Netgalley. Netgalley reviewers are not paid.

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Rivers to the Heartland

RiversRivers by Michael Farris Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michael Farris Smith is a beautiful writer. His spare, thoughtful prose weaves a spell of immediacy, beauty, and wit. While comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are inevitable, Rivers carves its own path into apocalypse and dystopia. It’s speculative fiction about constant hurricanes along the Florida coast and the consequent breakdown of society. It’s about a man and his horse and his guns and his own two hard-working hands, and his dog and his true love and his grief and his honor and what he’s got to do when there are folks depending on him, with enemies all around. The true literary territory of Rivers is the Western. Science fiction, it’s not.

If you like to read Cormac McCarthy, Kent Haruf, Hemingway, Louis L’Amour, Elmore Leonard, and can handle some bleakness and despair, this book will knock your socks off.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Charming charms, because John Charming isn't

Charming (Pax Arcana, #1)Charming by Elliott James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's like the country song says, "Maybe I'm a real bad boy, but baby, I'm a real good man."

He comes from a long line of Charmings -- an illustrious family of evil-fighters dating back to before Rome. He was trained by the Knights Templar--vicious upholders of the Pax Arcana, established by the powerful Fae when they left this plane. The Pax prevents normal from recognizing the presence of the supernatural beings left behind. Sometimes there’s a lot of collateral damage in the Knights’ enforcement: the deaths of innocents.

John Charming is on the run from the Templars, but not from his geas to protect the innocent and fight evil, so he’s a goner in more ways than one when Sig the Valkyrie walks into the bar, followed by a vampire.

Charming hits all the notes I like in urban fantasy: snarky hero (female or male) with a heart of gold, check. Superpowers, check. Nasty villains, check. Disparate characters joining together to fight evil, check. Love interest secondary or tertiary plot element, check. We read in our genres and subgenres because we do want some common elements—yes, we do want to hear the same story over and over again, but different!

What draws us to urban fantasy, I believe, is that the lines are blurred—between this world and others, between right and wrong. Sometimes the only difference between the bad guys and the good guys is that the good guys have a conscience. So like real life. We all want superpowers, we all have a taste for violence, we all live in a world that discourages and condemns violence at the same time, and we all want to just hit something or blow something up sometimes! And boy, do we want that sarcastic comeback when we need it! Hence, fantasy.

Finding a new author, a voice with some originality, is one of a reader’s greatest pleasures, and for avid readers, a promise of more books from the same author, heaven. Recommended!

(Got a temporary e-galley from the publisher through Netgalley. Netgalley reviewers are not paid.)

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Read This, Eat That!

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and LongingMastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(I received a temporary e-copy of the book through the publisher and Netgalley. Netgalley reviewers are not paid.)

For any of the Boomer generation, or anyone interested in history, or anyone interested in a memoir in an ironically longing and nostalgic nicotine-boozy (New York! Russian!) tone--a must-read. It's the Cold War from the other side, fear and loathing in Moscow.

Von Bremzen, a James Beard award-winner for her first book, Please to the Table: a Russian Cookbook, and other food writing, takes us through Soviet history as she and her family experienced it. And I categorize the book as social history, more than memoir or food writing—it’s fascinating.

The author's maternal grandfather was a Navy Intelligence officer; her paternal grandmother, a tall, blonde, hard-drinking, chain-smoking scientist. Her dad worked in Lenin's Mausoleum, did drugs and was a playboy; her mother Larisa, an anti-Soviet, culture-loving idealist, named her after Anna Akhmatova and spirited her away to the United States in 1973, when she was eleven.

Now, in the 21st century, Anya and Larisa decide to cook their way through Soviet history, one representative meal for each decade, from the fall of the Czars to WWII and the USSR's beginnings, through the travesties and tragedies of Lenin, Stalin, Kruschev, Gorbachev and Brezhnev. In their two tiny New York kitchens, they cook these sumptuous feasts to commemorate the past. (There are recipes for a few of the dishes at the end of the book. Yum--mostly. I haven't met a gefilte fish I like yet, but maybe this is one.)

Food is the unifying theme throughout this history. Food is all about memory and desire. When it's scarce, you want it. When it's plentiful you want it. You can invest all your senses, your imagination, your soul in it. Our food is our homeland, and we try to take it with us wherever we go. Access to food delineates the wealthy and healthy from the sick and poor. Food is the sublime and the ridiculous; food is life.

Food was all about mayonnaise in the USSR in the 50s and 60s, too! It’s actually scary to see how mirror-like we were during the Cold War, the anything-you-can-do, I-can-do-better balancing act of the MAD (mutually assured destruction) years. Scary, too, to look back through the years and see what happens when the gap between haves and have-nots widens so far that society implodes and the carefully crafted veneers of unity crack and crumble to ruin, prejudice and hatred shining through. This is history.

You laugh, you cry, you drink, you sing--and you put on the table whatever you can, however beautifully you are able. For me, this book is more than a memoir of food. I can't remove myself from the history of this book--it's my own history, from the other side. My parents, too, saw the Kruschev-Nixon Kitchen debates. I started an international cooking club with my high-school friends--our first dinner, Russian--borscht and Beef Stroganoff. I lived and live with Cold War nuclear missiles next door.

The food writing is lovely, evocative--and despite its unifying factor, the tone of the book is at once detached and dramatic, reflective of the world we grew up in, poised on the edge of destiny and despair, ready to go either way--because the future is unsure. By all means, let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow--who knows?

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Empty Mansions, Full Life?

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American FortuneEmpty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think it's obvious from the reviews that this book has something for everyone. Examples of Carnegie and Vanderbilt wealth, history, mystery, peculiarity, suggestions of chicanery and madness, families fighting over money--and a gentle, protective portrait of a woman and her century+-long life. It's not the kind of book I usually read, but I am interested in thee kind of stories (Grey Gardens--still haven't seen it!). Sidebar: I blame Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle for that.

Bill Dedman, an investigative reporter, was drawn into the story when he ran across one of Huguette Clark's untenanted mansions while house-hunting. He was not allowed onto the grounds and he was curious, but it's not the kind of story he usually does, either. A few years later, in New York, Huguette's story was making headlines. She spent the last 7,000 or so nights of her life in a hospital room--though she was not ill--and her palatial New York apartment, her mansions and estates, remained empty, save for caretakers and staff.

Did her lawyer, accountant, caregivers and the hospital take advantage of a frightened, incompetent, lonely woman? Did the far-flung family, who never saw her in the last twenty years of her life (by her choice, or theirs?), deserve to inherit her estate?

Dedman, a Pulitzer winner, has teamed up with Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin of Huguette's, to create this
tapestry of history and human interest story. Huguette's father made his fortune in the copper mines of Arizona and Montana--he was a contemporary of Vanderbilt and Carnegie, as well as their peer in wealth. Huguette was the daughter of a late-in-life second marriage. I leave it to the reader to discover all the scandal and wonder contained in these pages--there is plenty of both.

I especially loved the ending chapters of the book. I don't like revealing too many details of a book, or what's the point of reading? I will say that Dedman, who started out offended at the waste of maintaining empty properties not for sale, then drawn into outrage at the possibility that Huguette was being taken advantage of, in the end offers a multidimensional tale of a time and a life we can only wonder at. In the end, he is so tender that it's obvious he has fallen under Huguette's spell--as have all the men and women who really got to know her. As have I.


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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Bones of Paris

The Bones of Paris: A Novel of SuspenseThe Bones of Paris: A Novel of Suspense by Laurie R. King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Bones of Paris, Laurie R King's new novel (outside the "alternate Holmes" series),  is a tour through the underbelly of postwar (WWI) Paris. In the garrets and grunge of artistic Paris, where rich girls go to slum, some are disappearing. When he's asked to look into the disappearance of Philippa Crosby, our hero Harris assumes that she's shacked up with an appropriately inappropriate boyfriend. But the trail takes him from interviewing the famous and infamous to the rich and creepy--through mansions built above the crypts, houses decaying and full of decay, and the theater where death is staged as realistically as possible, the Grand-Guignol. Who is the villain? The famous photographer who likes his girls young and submissive? The artist who likes detached limbs and clean bones? The aristocrat whose forbears are mentioned in the same tone as the Marquis de Sade?Harris also has his personal demons to follow and face, after the events of Touchstone, King's earlier book featuring him and the intriguing Bennett Grey. In addition to loyal King fans, this book should appeal to readers of Jacqueline Winspear and Charles Todd. More books, please! 

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