The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Ship Breaker
Paolo Bacigalupi

A plotful, well-drawn YA novel about a dystopian near future, one in which the Louisiana coast has become Bangalore, where salvage is big business and the distance between normal people and “swanks” is unbridgeable.

December 23, 2011 (permalink)

The War Room
Michael Holley

This is a study of New England Patriots Bill Belichick and two former assistants, Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff, and their approach to drafting new players and to designing professional football teams. Holley’s lively book is accessible to casual fans, but these are unlikely to be interested in the topic. Holley offers some choice insider gossip, but those who really care about this gossip will now have read the best quotes in newspapers and magazines. What is missing here, really, is a clear analysis of team construction and of its interaction with game and in-season management.

December 23, 2011 (permalink)

This sprawling, shaggy, and superb story explores the short life and long memory of a minor war poet. Cambridge student Cecil Valance comes to spend the weekend with the family of his chum, George Sawle, who has swept Cecil off his feet. Cecil seduces George, besots his sister Daphne, and perhaps also the handsome footman who is pressed into service as his valet. In a few short years he will be swept off to war and gathered to eternity, but he leaves behind a poem that will live forever in classroom anthologies, memories that will live in gossip and memoirs, and possibly an illegitimate daughter. In time, his life and work becomes a minor literary industry,

This novel is a wonderfully-observed chronicle of gay life in greater London from 1908 to 2008. On one hand, it makes a nice bookend to A. S. Byatt’s Possession with its serious (but also wicked) send-up of the literary world. On the other, it’s a masterful counterpoint to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, a wonderfully skilled and adventurous experiment in historical fiction. Holinghurst likes people less well than Egan – or at any rate he treats his characters with less kindness – and he likes forgotten books less well the Byatt. He might be less fun, but then, he might be right.

November 23, 2011 (permalink)

Did you know about Moroccan Hanukkah donuts? Neither did I.

They're called svenj.

And fortunately Claudia Roden knows all about them, and tells. What’s more, they’re incredibly easy, probably the easiest and most forgiving dough I’ve met. They’re made with orange juice (good for you!), you can add some whole wheat flour to the dough without catastrophe (health food donuts!).

This is an interesting cookbook because, while it’s about Jewish food, Roden is from Egypt and she doesn’t have a great deal of interest in Ashkenaz cooking, which after all is what most people I know think about when someone says as “Jewish food.” These recipes derive mostly from North Africa but some come from really far afield, like the Bene Israel cuisine of India.

The recipes tend to be simple and straightforward, with few tricky techniques or really exotic ingredients. This is, I think, the cooking of grandmothers in nice modern apartments who are making do with what the new world provides. But then, their grandmothers were making do, too; the spirit of the thing isn’t that different, and great grandmother probably complained that food today wasn’t nearly as good as it was in her youth. I wish there were more charcuterie and preserved foods; I learned to make pastrami from Ruhlman and that’s always a hit. But there’s plenty to try here in any case, and it’s interesting food even if you aren’t part of the tribe.

December 18, 2011 (permalink)

Paris 1906
Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas with Dave Beran

Available as an eBook from iTunes. Next is a Chicago restaurant with a unique plan that began as a fantasy. Chef Achatz had been diagnosed with tongue cancer and thought his life was over. Business partner Kokonas cajoled him: they were already on top of the food world with Alinea, so what would they do next? Achatz imagined a restaurant that would always be opening, that would have an entirely new kind of menu every three months.

So, Next opened with “Paris 1906”, recreating and reimagining Escoffier at the Ritz. The next menu was “Tour of Thailand.” The current menu, “Childhood”, is said to include a course served in a lunchbox and a course of paté de foie gras served on egg beaters – foie-sting.

This ambitious ebook explains in detail how to recreate each course of Paris 1906. Most of these are going to be out of reach of you and I; Next has a convenient supplier of farmed turtle meat for its potage a lat tartue claire, but your local fish market is not going to help you here. And who has a duck press fore caneton rouennaise a la presse?

Still, this is a fascinating exploration of classic cooking ideas, both in their turn-of-the-century forms and in modern dress. The Sûpremes de Poussin course, for example, was somewhat controversial because some people felt it was undercooked. This was, as I had speculated, the point:

Amazingly, this chicken proved difficult for some patrons. Too often, chicken is overcooked and relatively flavorless. The soft texture and hearty flavor is precisely the intended, correct effect this dish aims for, but it comes as a surprise.

There’s more going on here than meets the eye, because (unusually for this book) we have a taste here of Escoffier’s own cadence. He’s the fellow who begins his Guide by saying, “These culinary preparations define the fundamentals and the requisite ingredients without which nothing of importance can be attempted.”

And how does that little chicken course get put together? You take the chicken, butter garlic and thyme, and you cook them sous vide for 62°C for eighteen minutes. But you aren’t done! You need a blanquette base, which starts with a good chicken stock, and turns it into a double stock with a fresh lot of bones, the dark meat from the chickens, aromatics, and mushrooms. Then you take 200g of that base and add a liter of cream, 80g of foie gras, banyuls vinegar, and egg yolks. That’s your sauce.

This doesn’t look just like what you’d have seen at the Ritz back in the day, but it’s getting the same effect. Time change and we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven –that which we are, we are, and that means foie gras and labor costs are not the same for us as they were at the end of that first gilded age. Our chickens are less tasty and our knowledge greater, and we still wonder “what’s for dinner?” Any $5 eBook that can shed new light on these old questions is a terrific idea.

November 27, 2011 (permalink)

This delightful book explores nothing less than the delights of adventurous reading. Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, and the great detective is central here, but Dirda also explores the delights of The Lost World, The White Company, the stories of Brigadier Gerard, and lots more. Dirda chronicles the delightfully daring deeds of the Baker Street Irregulars with the same glee and detachment he accords Dickens and Zola; he is uniquely a critic without a trace of snobbery, one who weighs each writer’s merit without regard to genre or high purpose or reputation.

November 22, 2011 (permalink)

Gabe Lightfoot is the executive chef of a grand Picadilly hotel. He’s planning to leave to open his own place. He’s planning to marry Charlie, a lovely girl. His plans are about to go awry. No one in this novel is very likable, and while Ali has a nice sense of place, she doesn’t have much affection for this place, and while she does have a certain affection for these characters, it’s rather late in coming. The setting of In The Kitchen is trendy but a wasted opportunity, as nothing much happens in the kitchen that couldn't have happened back in the mill where Gabe’s father worked. Perhaps that’s the point.

November 7, 2011 (permalink)

Three Stations
Martin Cruz Smith

It’s been thirty years since we first met Arkady Renko Gorky Park. History ended, Russia changed and then changed some more and somehow was it was still Russia. Arkady is still wildly unpopular with his fellow investigators and despised by his superiors, yet somehow he still has a job and, despite every incentive to go along and get along, somehow he figures out what happened to the prostitute someone found in a trailer behind Kazansky Station.

October 16, 2011 (permalink)

The opening chapters of The Invisible Circus are crafted with stunning density and a lyrical touch, as Egan effortlessly unfolds the complicated, multi-layered emotional life of a small San Francisco family with naturalness, concision, and without contriving a lot of distracting incident. Phoebe, the youngest child, is graduating from high school, and impulsively heads to Europe to follow the path that her wonderful older sister, Faith, took some years before. It’s the early 70s; Dad knew the Beats, Faith knew the ’60s, and Phoebe suspects she was born just a little too late, that she was too young when it happened and now the circus has folded its tents.

October 14, 2011 (permalink)

After two dark books that told one dark story. Laurie King sends Russell and Holmes on a romp, sleuthing odd behavior in a British film production company. They’re filming a silent movie about The Pirates of Penzance, or rather a movie about a production of the operetta. Oddly enough, we’re filming on location – not in Cornwall, but in Lisbon and Morocco. Mary becomes travelling secretary to the troupe, responsible for the well-being and comfort of the thirteen daughters of a very modern Major General, a matching set of pirates who are surprisingly piratical, and also a half-dozen strikingly-handsome constables.

October 3, 2011 (permalink)

A PR firm pitched this book to me with exceptional skill, and since I’ve been wanting to explore some North African braises and stews this winter, I went along. So far, it’s been a tasty trip.

The market-imposed format promises 150 recipes, so you’ll get your money’s worth. No one needs 150 recipes. First, we don’t want 150 things to cook, not unless we’re Carol Blymire or Julie Powell . We want one or two new things to cook that are delicious and new and that we can vary along one or more dimensions when we’d like to change them.

The book starts with an exceptionally good and direct rundown on tagines as cookware, including a frank and supportive discussion of the comparative merits of Le Creuset and Staub adaptations that use new materials for Western kitchens. There are good discussions of North African and Mediterranean spices and spice mixes, too. What I miss here is a clear feeling for the difference between a tagine and a partly-covered cocotte or Dutch oven.

150 Best Tagine Recipes
Photo: boo_licious

Similarly, it's not entirely clear to me, after casual leafing and after cooking a recipe or two, exactly how a tagine differs from other braising techniques – from what you might see in Provence, say. Is it mostly about spices? About cooking in water rather than stock and wine? About eating with your hands? About cooking for a very long time? Some questions of technique seem obscure, too; should we sometimes brown the meat but sometimes not? Should we brown vegetables?

Despite these objections, last night’s lamb, stewed for hours with apricot and pear and lots of berbere – a new discovery for me – was very tasty indeed. And, despite the unpromising cover, it wasn’t underspiced or timid, but had lots of full-throated heat and depth.

October 3, 2011 (permalink)

It was time to revisit this, the best of the postmodern vampire novels – the vampire novel after Reagan and after the plague. Hambly plays be the rules but nonetheless crafts a wonderful vision of vampires with great powers and terrible vulnerabilities.

October 3, 2011 (permalink)