Thursday, June 30, 2011

Our Kind of Traitor

John le Carré is such a good writer it's hard to know if you actually like his books. The smoke and mirrors of the intelligence world have become fused with the smoke and mirrors of his style. His indirectness, his archness, his preciousness sometimes seem almost over the top. In this case, too, he seems to revel in his Englishness, pairing a don and a barrister, British yuppies to the core, as his protagonists, so that he can do his best comedy of manners in almost Wildean fashion. His description of Perry uses everything but the name Hugh Grant to conjure the British actor in all his stuttering glory.

Le Carré can do it so effortlessly, you think much of the time nothing is happening as you turn the pages. He flits back and forth in time for the first half, setting the stage for the long denouement.

The big question is always whether the writer who invented the Cold War spy thriller successfully made the transition out of the Cold War, and I think, as this novel again demonstrates, the answer is no. Who knows, maybe the intelligence games is actually played in the way le Carré describes here. Perhaps it is as realistic -- or unrealistic -- as it always was. But for sure it's harder to suspend disbelief now. His characters have too much character, bordering on satire or even a parody of the Cold War le Carré. The novel is moody, atmospheric, wry, but not really thrilling. The set-up is too artificial, the characters too pat for the reader to be really interested in their fate.

Late le Carré is coming to resemble late Picasso. The master has perfected his art, his works look like the original and he can dash them off now apparently effortlessly. But there's a certain grit, or intensity, that's just missing. My favorite post-1989 book of his is still The Constant Gardener, because of the intensity and passion he brings to this anti-drug company plot. Tailor in Panama also has some staying power. But this novel, like the banker stories before it -- Single & Single, A Most Wanted Man -- is readable but forgettable.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Decoding Air Travel

Cross-posted on
This book on navigating through the seemingly insane system for pricing and issuing airline tickets and getting the most out of your air travel experience is must reading for frequent travelers and illuminating for anyone who ever has to fly anywhere.

Nicholas Kralev, longtime diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Times and the Financial Times, has by his own reckoning logged some 2 million miles in the air. As he says in the foreword to this enlightening manual on beating the byzantine air travel industry, he hasn't sat in economy class in 10 years thanks to his strategies in collecting and using reward miles.

As a former journalist, Kralev writes well and guides the reader painlessly through the arcane process of matching a myriad of possible fares with flight inventories to build your own ticket that could well come out cheaper than any issued by automated services like Expedia and Travelocity. He peppers his manual with anecdotes flying around the world to cover four U.S. secretaries of State. Because of the expertise in air travel that he developed in connection with his work - he also wrote an air travel column for the Washington times - Kralev now works as an independent travel consultant with his eponymous firm.

Kralev first tells you what all the fare codes mean and how they work for the various airlines. He then introduces you to Web sites that provide raw airline data - the same data that Expedia et al. work with. In this way, you can manufacture your own ticket more advantageously than the computers who do the work in the booking sites. The author modestly refers to this as the Kralev Method, but it is available to any reader willing to follow his step-by-step description.

As any user of the booking sites knows, this information is in constant flux and one of the overriding messages in Kralev's book is to seize the moment - when you have a fare constellation you like, book it! It may not be there even minutes from now. But the author also tells you what days of the week you have a better chance of getting a good deal and what times of the year. He has reduced booking air travel to a science and he is sharing these hard-won laws of nature with the reader.

Beyond decoding the actual fares, Kralev describes the strengths and weaknesses of the various airlines and the global alliances they have formed. He discusses which airport lounges are desirable and the things he does to make his flight comfortable and enjoyable. He tells you how to predict flight cancellations and get ahead of the pack in making alternative arrangements, and how to get compensation from the airline when something goes wrong.

One of Kralev's main messages, along with telling the reader how to get the best fare, is the importance of getting elite status. This is where the casual traveler parts ways with the frequent flier. For those who do fly often, on business or pleasure or both, Kralev argues that it's important to focus your bookings on getting elite status in one of the alliances. Accumulating miles of course leads to free flights and upgrades, but the other advantages of elite status - preferred reservations, early check-in and boarding, free baggage, free change of itinerary, access to lounges, preference on upgrades, and so on and so on - are so significant that a frequent flier would be crazy not go for it and the rest of us can just stand by and watch with envy.

In general, both in booking and in awards programs, Kralev emphasizes the importance of focusing on the alliances - the Star Alliance with United, Lufthansa and numerous others; Oneworld with American, BA and others; and SkyTeam with Delta, Air France, and others. Booking on partner airlines is a way of getting the itinerary and fare you want, though it can be tricky, while, in general, award points won with any alliance airline is good for awards and elite status throughout the alliance.

Jet air travel is of course one of the wonders of our era, though it has become in many ways a bewildering and often frustrating experience for most of us. Kralev's authoritative book shows you how, as he puts it in the introduction, "to change that reality and improve your travel life."

Monday, June 13, 2011

Man with a Pan

My review of this book edited by John Donohue appeared today in Washington Independent Review of Books:
This book about dads who cook for their families is clearly designed and timed to become a present for Father’s Day, so let me say right away that if the intended recipient is an accomplished cook and comfortable in the kitchen, you would be better off getting him one of the really great new cookbooks on the market.

But if the dad in question is a novice in the kitchen or worried about his manhood, he might well profit from these anecdotes about the cooking exploits of some famous and not-so-famous men. Novelists like Stephen King and Jim Harrison tell their tales, but so do Josh Lomask, a firefighter in Brooklyn, and Henry Schenck, a professor of mathematics at the University of Illinois.

There are nearly three dozen such stories in this book compiled by John Donohue, who is identified as an editor and sometime cartoonist for The New Yorker. Many of the stories are penned by the men themselves, while others are based on interviews.

For a book produced by someone who works for our most literate magazine, the writing is often surprisingly amateurish. And despite a clear effort to include diverse meals and experiences, there is an inevitably repetitious quality to the stories. At times it seems like watching your neighbor’s home movies or a slideshow of your colleague’s latest vacation ― all very interesting to the person but somewhat trite to an outsider.

But it may be that these homey qualities will make the book appealing to the amateur cook. After all, even Stephen King, with millions from his bestsellers, makes do with a Cuisinart bread machine and a George Foreman grill.

Some of the big-name writers seem to be gently pulling the reader’s leg. Novelist Jim Harrison shares his recipe for elk carbonnade, though he allows that antelope or buffalo will do if your local grocer is out of elk. Celebrity chef Mario Batali explains how he likes to kick back at home and cook simple things like duck testicles or monkfish liver.

A suspicious number of the contributors come from the same New York media scene as the editor, and one wonders if Donohue hasn’t indulged in a little roundup of friends’ recipes, much like the Charlotte North Carolina Women’s Club producing a cookbook of local specialties. Several participants are creative writers who sometimes seem to be trying too hard to show how creative they can be, as when Tulane University instructor Thomas Beller spends several pages trying to make the reader believe his time as a visiting professor at a small university in Roanoke, Virginia, really was very interesting.

There is some genuinely good writing. One standout is screenwriter Matt Greenberg’s spoof on “The Shining,” called “The Ribbing,” cast as a screenplay with typical barbecue instructions woven into the plot. And Manuel Gonzalez, one of those creative writers, tells an engaging tale of his job running a pie-baking company.

Each contributor includes one or more of his favorite recipes, ranging from a Low-Country Boil from Christopher Little, a high school football coach in Atlanta, to dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower’s Bacon-Wrapped Duck Breast Stuffed with Apples and Chestnuts, with Celery-Root Puree and Calvados Duck Sauce. Some of them add an “On the Shelf” note listing their favorite cookbooks. Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking seems to be the one that pops up the most, including on the shelf of best-selling cookbook author Mark Bittman. Jesse Sheidlower lists one of my personal favorites, The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth by Roy Andries de Groot.

An extra added attraction is a score of cartoons from The New Yorker, with their typical charm and sophisticated humor, including a good half dozen from Donohue himself.

So Man with a Pan is a mixed bag, which offers some entertaining moments, some tempting recipes and an overwhelming sense that men can indeed, if anybody still doubts it, survive and thrive in the kitchen. Published as an original paperback and retailing at $15.95, the book is indeed a simple and affordable gift for father’s day (or for dads whose children don’t read book reviews, a quick and easy purchase).

For that accomplished cook, though, and a somewhat bigger budget, a real cookbook might be more in order. There are any number of well-written, informative cookbooks, with numerous kitchen-tested recipes and ― de rigueur in an age when cookbooks have to compete with Epicurious ― beautiful color photography.

Some of my favorites that have appeared recently are For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking by Washington chef Barton Seaver, with his focus on seafood, and The Glorious Pasta of Italy by Washington Post food writer Domenica Marchetti. A little older, but a treasure house of tips and ingredients as well as great, easy recipes is Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Beyond by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox. But there are numerous others, depending on the recipient’s tastes and interests, and the right gift will be a boon to the whole family.

Darrell Delamaide, who took courses at the Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools when he lived in Paris, is a man with a pan and a couple of hundred cookbooks.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell continues his mesmerizing way with prose, telling a long tale that works on so many levels. I thought that unlike Cloud Atlas this might be a more classic, continuous narrative and it was, in a sense. But Mitchell once again glided from one world to a different one, shifting mood and voice as he portrayed first the claustrophobic Dutch trading post of Dejima, with all its characters and the main protagonist, Jacob de Zoet, and then shifted to two successive scenes on mainland Japan, and finally told the story from the point of view of an intruding British frigate and its gouty captain.

This is show, don't tell at its best, with a virtuosic command of dialogue and detail. The two main characters, Jacob and Orito, are finely nuanced and immensely sympathetic. The other characters offer a rich tapestry of late 18th century rogues, with the physician, Marinus, playing a deliciously enigmatic role. If anything, the villains -- the abbot Enomoto and the deputy chief Peter Fischer -- lapse into a one-dimensionality that fail to convince. When Enomoto's voice chills Jacob's spine, the reader does not feel that with him because the abbot's character is not sufficiently drawn to feel the threat.

But the overwhelming sense of repression and claustrophobia that characterized both Dutch and Japanese societies in this epoch is wonderfully captured in this story of a small island, cut off from the mainland by fierce cultural resistance and from its European roots by a wide, wide ocean. Jacob and Orito's heroic struggles to maintain their integrity amid truly incredible levels of corruption drive the story, along with their unlikely romance. (to be updated)