The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own. -- Adam Gopnik

December 5, 2014

My first favorite Guido

Because this was Venice, the police came by boat, blue light flashing on the forward cabin. They pulled up at the side of the small canal behind the theatre, and four men got out, three in blue uniform and one in civilian clothes. Quickly they walked up the calle, or narrow street, alongside the theatre and continued through the stage entrance, where the portiere, who had been warned of their arrival, pushed the button that released the turnstile and allowed them to walk freely into the backstage area. He pointed silently to a staircase.
      At the top of the first flight of steps, they were met by the still-stunned director. He started to extend his hand to the civilian, who seemed to be in charge, but forgot about the gesture and wheeled around, saying over his shoulder, 'This way.' Advancing down a short corridor, he stopped at the door to the conductor's dressing room. There he stopped and, reduced to gestures, pointed inside.
      Guido Brunetti, a commissario of police for the city, was the first through the door. When he saw the body in the chair, he held up his hand signalled the uniformed officers not to come any further into the room. The man was clearly dead ...
      Brunetti turned his eyes away and glanced around the room, He saw the cup lying on the floor, the saucer not far from it. That explained the dark stains on the shirt and, Brunetti was sure, the horribly twisted features.
      Still only a short distance into the room, Brunetti remained still and let his eyes roam, taking note of what he saw, uncertain about what any of it might come to mean, curious. He was a surprisingly neat man:  tie carefully knotted, hair shorter than was the fashion; even his ears lay close to his head, as if reluctant to call attention to themselves. His clothing marked him as Italian. The cadence of his speech announced that he was Venetian. His eyes were all policeman.
Courtesy of Grove Atlantic and NetGalley, I had Donna Leon's forthcoming new mystery, Falling in Love, on my Kindle, ready to be my next reading treat. But then the publisher's note told me that the new book has a connection with Death at La Fenice, Donna Leon's first Guido Brunetti novel, and I realized that I had only fallen for this series sometime later in its life.  So this morning on the bus, after a week with another wonderful Guido, I met Brunetti for the first time.

I'm lucky that, on the way to work at least, I get off at the last stop.  Otherwise, with books like these, I might still be riding the loop between Cambridge and Boston. {That almost happened, once, on the way home.}

I hope your day has a moment like this, however it comes about for you. :)

December 4, 2014

Happy All the TIme

and I was, at least for every minute on the bus with this book. :)

Vincent Cardworthy and Guido Morris are third cousins and best friends. They are young but no long very young, cerebral, a little sappy, and vaguely dissatisfied with the women they are dating and their comfortable, unsettled lives. As they settle into their unusual jobs (Guido runs a family foundation, and Vincent studies garbage at an urban planning think tank), they spend a restless Sunday afternoon {on 'the sort of day that forced you out of the house and gave you nothing back in return'} at the Fogg Museum.

On the way out, Guido saw a girl sitting on a bench. She was slender, fine-boned, and her was the blackest, sleekest hair Guido had ever seen. It was worn the way Japanese children wear theirs, only longer. Her face seemed to print itself on his heart indelibly.
      He stopped to stare at her and when she finally looked back, she glared through him. Guido nudged Vincent and they moved toward the bench on which she sat.
      'The perspective is perfect,' said Guido. 'Notice the subtlety of line and the intensity of color.'
      'Very painterly,' said Vincent. 'What is it?'
      'I'll have to look iit up,' said Guido. 'It appears to be an inspired mix of schools. Notice that the nose tilts -- a very slight distortion giving the illusion of perfect clarity.; He pointed to her collar. 'Note the exquisite folds around the neck and the drapery of the rest of the figure.'
      During this recitation, the girl sat perfectly still. Then, with deliberation, she lit a cigarette.
      'Notice the arc of the arm,' Guido continued. The girl opened her perfect mouth.
      'Notice the feeblemindedness that passes for wit among aging graduate students,' she said. Then she got up and left.


Vincent was unhappy. The incident with Rachel Montgomery had truly horrified him. What he had thought of as a silly, social life had taken a turn toward the indicative, and what this indicated depressed him. Was he fated to be silly forever? Was it his destiny to fall in with married blond girls for the rest of his life? Did he have a tragic flaw? Was his luck the residue of his own design? Vincent began to consider his romantic conduct. He was unused to this form of thought. It turned his conception of the world upside down. He continued t see Winne when the Toad's schedule permitted, but he did so with a sinking heart. When he dialed her number, he gritted his teeth, as if it were a form of penance. Then he celebrated his birthday with Holly and Guido. This warm and happy evening left him miserable once he was home alone. Holly and Guido has just the sort of apartment Vincent had imagined:  it was on the tenth floor of an old building and it looked like a little French country house in the sky. Holly cooked his favorite meal and Guido poured his favorite wine. After dinner, they sat before the first fire of the autumn eating apples and drinking brandy. Vincent wanted to stay forever. When he left, he felt that domestic happiness was forcing the extra man out the door and onto the lonely streets.
       His heart was further burdened by a discovery at the Board of City Planning. Now that Vincent had stopped traveling, he had time to investigate his colleagues. One morning, Vincent had discovered a girl named Misty Berkowitz. He found her sitting in her office, slumped over her old-fashioned calculator stirring her coffee with a fountain pen. She had amber-colored hair that fell into her eyes and small gold spectacles that slipped down her nose. She looked bored and misanthropic. The sight of her caused Vincent's heart to leap in an unexpected manner. He poked his head into her doorway and said good morning in a cheery fashion. Misty Berkowitz looked up.
      'Get the hell away from me,' she growled.
      Later, she came to his office to apologize.
      'It's hell in the morning,' she said. Vincent was about to begin a conversation, but Misty Berkowitz had vanished.
Ah, romance. Everyone is moody, complicated, restless, emotional, articulate and groping for happiness, and I loved spending time with them.

Happy All the Time is Laurie Colwin's second novel, published in 1978.  Her books have just been re-issued as ebooks by Open Road Media, and I hope that more readers will discover her fiction this way. {I was very happy to receive a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for writing about it.}

November 28, 2014

Bookish things

I don't mean to sound dramatic, but when I turned on NPR in the car yesterday morning and heard a BBC reporter talking about P.D. James, my pleasure in that was brief because my second thought was that it couldn't be for a happy reason.  I have gotten so much joy-- reading joy and Masterpiece Mystery viewing joy-- from her novels, I have a long list of books and writers to explore after reading Talking About Detective Fiction, and from what I heard yesterday and remember reading in her memoir, she had a long, challenging, interesting life. I heard her speak many years ago, through a reading series organized by my wonderful then-neighborhood bookstore, and she was also charming and funny.  {I remember her story about asking a Harvard professor who she met to take her to a football game, and cheering enthusiastically for both teams.}

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I also remember someone asking her at the reading what she thought of the TV adaptations, and her saying very graciously that Roy Marsden was very good as Adam Dalgliesh but that he was not her idea of Dalgleish. My other bookish thing this week was bringing home the Canadian TV adaptation of Louise Penny's first mystery, Still Life, from the library.  In the special features on the DVD, the author talked (also gracioualy) bout how wonderful and moving it was to be on set and to see her characters come to life, but non, non, non, non, Nathaniel Parker is not my Armand Gamache.  {I even cringed a little during one added moment (that can't have been in the book} when he is explaining to Clara Morrow {and is there a 'spark' between them in the books? I didn't think so) why he has a plummy English accent.} The actor who played the disastrous Agent Nichol did well -- she was a wonderful character in the book. I realize it would be hard to capture everything that Louise Penny has created in one 90-minute film, but I'd stick with the books. I was so curious about this when I heard it, so happy to find it in the library, and so content to send it back. :)

November 25, 2014

A New York Christmas and Miss Buncle Married

I know I might seem like a store that turns on its holiday music in October, but then again, I know you understand about palate cleansers or comfort reading or the simple pleasure of a pleasant and untaxing book at the end of a long day.  It's been (up until today, when I knew things would calm down} an extremely busy and complicated six weeks at work, and my Kindle and the 20 minutes on the bus twice a day have been an important (and effective) part of my coping strategy. :)

As you may have noticed, I'm very fond of Anne Perry's two historical mystery series, the one about William and Hester Monk and the one with Thomas and Charlotte Pitt. More recently {though I was surprised to see that this is the eleventh!) she has also been writing shorter holiday novels, borrowing characters from the latter. In this one, the Pitts' daughter, Jemima, who is now 21, is invited by a wealthy English industrialist to accompany his daughter Delphinia (Phinnie) to New York for her wedding to Brent Albright, the son of his business partner.  They seem to be marrying for love, although the marriage means that Brent will eventually control the families' business interests. In Gilded Age New York, and the society wedding of the year, there almost has to be a family secret waiting to be exposed, and in this one, it's Phinnie's mother Maria, who abandoned her husband and child many years ago and is Not Talked About. But there's a rumor that she has come to New York to see her daughter, and Brent's imperious older brother persuades Jemima that they should find her and persuade her to stay away, with terrible consequences for Jemima.

Except that this is the kind of book where you know what's going to happen, long, long before it does. :)  I did enjoy this, but as light reading {which has its place}. There just isn't the same suspense, or deeply drawn characters, or even setting and atmosphere, that Anne Perry does so well. If this premise had been developed in one of her longer books, I think it would have been outstanding! 

Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for the very welcome chance to read this.
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My other very lovely bit of comfort reading was Miss Buncle Married, the second book in the series by D.E. Stevenson.  {I'm sure it's because of my love of series mysteries that I am so drawn to other writers who bring their characters back just when we feeling sorry to see them go.}  In this one, Miss Buncle has married her publisher, Mr. Abbott, and they find themselves desperate to move to a new place, in part because of Miss Buncle's fictional exposing of village life and in part because, unknown to each other, they both hate their endless round of dinner parties and bridge games. They are also coping with Mr. Abbott's nephew Sam, a young man about town who is not settling down. It doesn't really surprise me that this book just didn't have the same sparkle as the first one, but then again, I loved reading it, and I'm already looking forward to The Two Mrs. Abbotts. {I think that's  a spoiler ... sorry!}

If I'm not here again or visiting you before Thursday, I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving!

November 18, 2014

Celebrating Laurie Colwin


A long time ago it occurred to me that when people are tired and hungry, which in adult life is much of the time, they do not want to be confronted by an intellectually challenging meal; they want to be consoled.
      When life is hard and the day has been long, the ideal dinner is not four perfect courses, each in a lovely pool of sauce whose ambrosial flavors are like nothing ever before tasted, but rather something comforting and savory, easy on the digestion -- something that makes one feel, if even only for a minute, that one is safe.
from 'Nursery Food,' in Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin
Laurie Colwin has always been one of my favorite writers; if she's only been mentioned here in passing it's only because I read all of her books so long ago, and they're long overdue for re-reading. So I could add that when a person is tired and hungry, and stuck in traffic on the bus ride home, and the day has been long, the most comforting and savory thing possible is to get an email announcing that eight of her books will be back in print (in e-book form) and offering me two of them :).
She wrote short stories, novels and food essays, many of which were published in Gourmet {in the days when I enjoyed reading that, too}.  Just looking at the titles of the chapters in Home Cooking -- 'How to Disguise Vegetables,' 'How to Avoid Grilling,' 'Stuffing:  A Confession,' 'Easy Cooking for Exhausted People,' 'Chicken Salad' -- reminds me of why I loved them.
I remember her fiction {first published in the 1970s and 80s) as being warm, New Yorky, filled with quiet humor ('they preferred the company of their fellow Solo-Millers to that of any other clan'), and with interesting, smart, happy, foibled people that I wanted to read about. Family Happiness has always been my favorite;  '...In it, she tells the story of a woman from a remarkably strong and attractive family, herself a happy wife and mother, who one day finds herself embarked on a completely unexpected, sweet and painful love affair, exploding all her beliefs about herself and the rightness of her life' {from the original book jacket).  This is the one I want to re-read next, after Happy All the Time. That one is set in Cambridge (my Cambridge); I don't remember it as well, but I'm sure the title describes how I'll feel when I've finished it.
According to the biography provided by her new publisher, Colwin worked in publishing before she turned to writing full-time, sold her first short story to The New Yorker when she was 25, wrote four novels and three collections of short stories, as well as the column in Gourmet, and died suddenly at home when she was only 48 (I remember how sad that was, too.). 
Open Road Media is publishing eight of her books -- Passion and Affect, Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, Happy All the Time, The Lone Pilgrim, Family Happiness, Another Marvelous Thing, Goodbye without Leaving, and Home Cooking -- as ebooks today. I hope this means that more people will discover her.  Or have you read her already?
Thanks to Open Road Media, I received complimentary copies of two of these ebooks in exchange for joining in the celebration here.

November 9, 2014

The Language of Food: a linguist reads the menu

What makes group cooking special ... is that the meal benefits from what everyone brings, quite literally, to the table:  their favorite ingredients, their culinary techniques, their family spices. ... this 'stone soup' metaphor is exactly what underlies the foods created by the great meetings of civilizations that also created our modern world. Ketchup, syrup, aspic, turkey, macaron, sherbet, and arrack {an early kind of rum] are linguistic fossils of the high-class meals of the Persian shahsm Baghdadi caliphs, Provencal princes, New York Astors, but also of Fujianese sailors, Egyptian pharmacists, Mexican nuns, Portuguese merchants, Sicilian pasta-makers, Amherst poets, and New York bakers, as each food passed along and changed to comply with the implicit structures of the borrowing cuisines, macaroons and marmalades losing their medieval rosewater and musk, fruit sharbats becoming luscious ice cream, vinegary meat sikbaj becoming Christian fish dishes suitable for Lent. Although the foods change, the words remain behind, mementos of our deep debt to each other from our shared past, just was the word turkey reminds us of tiny Portugal's obsession with naval secrets 600 years ago and toast and supper remind us of medieval pottages and toasty wassails.

How we talk about food also reflects human aspirations: our desire to live a healthy, natural, authentic life, to identify with our family and culture, and our deep strains of optimism and positivity. And it reflects our cognition: the link between vowel perception and the evolution of the human smile, ... advertising 'tomato' ketchup, overmentioning fresh or tasty on aspirational menus or health on junk-food packages.

I left for college planning to major in linguistics, a path that lasted about halfway through my first semester and Linguistics 101. Looking back, I realize that I had no idea what linguistics was, just a fuzzy and romantic idea that I would learn twelve languages and spend some time as a simultaneous translator at the UN. But, in hindsight, if I had known I could be a food linguist, things might have been very different. Reading this book, by a linguist and computer scientist at Stanford --  a combination of culinary history, language studies and psychology, with a few medieval recipes and glimpses of life in present-day San Francisco added in for good measure -- made me think I could have born the computation studies and statistical regressions if the rest of the work was included.. :)

Each chapter focuses on something interesting, subtle and sometimes sneaky in the way we've come to talk about, read about, or even eat food:  from what's written on a menu, to what's written on a potato chip bag (there are very funny bits suggesting that menus in cheaper restaurants are more likely to mention how fresh and good the food is, because we're afraid it won't be, or how the makers of gourmet, expensive chips try to convince us that they're a healthy snack, while ordinary brands don't bother}, to the often ancient origins of words (and foods) like ketchup, ceviche and turkey, to the 'grammar' of a meal {and why it's different in China than in America} to an experiment in which people were convinced that an imaginary ice cream whose name had a vowel formed in the back of the mouth (like 'Frosh') would taste creamier than one whose name had a 'front' vowel (like 'Frish'). {It all has to do with how animals show aggression.}  Along the way, in this very approachable book, I learned a little more about the concepts in linguistics -- like 'semantic bleaching,' the process by which a word loses its original meaning -- which I think I would have found very interesting if I had taken another course or two.  I enjoyed this book very much.