Saturday, March 30, 2013

Woodrow Wilson

When I first joined Goodreads some time ago I hoped it would be that virtual book club that would let you discuss whatever book you wanted to read with other like-minded people without spending time reading books you weren't interested in. I could never make it work that way for me. The 50-state mystery challenge, for instance, never generated any real discussion, only people ticking off another state. But what can you say, really, about a mystery set in Utah if no one else has read it?

So now I'm trying something different -- joining in a common reading of the biography of the 28th president by John Milton Cooper Jr. This is a lot like being in a real book club and deciding you like the book other people chose, but I have been interested in Wilson for some time. Also, there is actually a reading schedule of about a chapter a week and a discussion thread for each week.

If I keep with it and comment often enough, I will probably update this post with my successive comments. The first one, today, covered the Prologue and Ch. 1, pp. 3-32 in the book:

It's interesting how little most of us know about Wilson or how vague our impressions are. What struck me is the claim that Wilson was not "Wilsonian" any more than Marx was "Marxist." Put me down for one of those who thinks of Wilson as a woolly-headed idealist. I look forward to Cooper's evidence debunking that idea.

The other thing that struck me about these opening pages was the description of Wilson as a transformational president. This is certainly the aspiration of the current occupant of the White House and it will be interesting to compare notes on the two presidents.

Update April 14 (chs. 2 and 3):

This quote from Wilson about how he lacked a scientific mind caught my eye: "I have no patience for the tedious toil of what is known as 'research'; I have a passion for interpreting great thoughts to the world." p. 51 Cooper. Even though Cooper goes on to say it was not quite true, it's an insight into Wilson's brimming self-confidence.

What surprised me most in these two chapters was the portrayal of Wilson as a passionate lover of his wife and a father who plays tag with his children -- only because my knowledge of him was limited to stern photographs like the one on the cover. I might have thought he was a taskmaster and disciplinarian so these anecdotes certainly round out the picture.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Arctic Chill

It's hard to explain the charm of these Nordic thrillers set in the icy, dark winter, but I suspect it's the quality of the writing as much as anything else. At the end of this procedural by Arnaldur Indridason, his detective, Erlendur, is asking himself how people live in Iceland:
As so often before at this darkest time of the year he wondered how people had survived for hundreds of years in a country with such a harsh climate. The frost tightened its grip as evening fell, whipped up by the chill Arctic wind that blasted in from the sea and south over the desolate winter landscape....The wind howled and shrieked between the buildings and down the empty streets. The city lay lifeless, as if in the grip of a plague. People stayed inside their houses. They locked their doors, closed their windows and pulled the curtains, hoping against hope that the cold spell would soon be over.
Erlendur is, as this shows, the brooding sort. He broods about his wayward children, whom he neglected when they were growing up. He broods about his cases -- here the seemingly pointless death of a 10-year-old Thai immigrant child as well as a wife gone missing. He broods about his dying superior, whose hand he holds as he passes away and whose urn he buries shortly before the passage cited. Above all, he broods about his lost brother, whose hand slipped out of his during a blizzard and who was never found, dead or alive, though Erlendur survived by burrowing into a snowdrift. (The reader, of course, wonders if the brother some day will turn up alive.)

The plot, involving the child of a Thai mother and Icelandic father, dealt with racism and nationalism. The contrast between the sunny, optimistic disposition of the Thai woman and the dark, brooding Icelandic mentality intensified the racist undertones. And yet, the bigotry was of a relatively gentle sort, and the nationalism was not as heavy-handed as in Jo Nesbo's portrayal of Norway.

The names of the characters are wonderful. You feel like you've been transported to Valhalla or are sailing with a group of Vikings -- Ragnar, Sigridur, Elinborg, and so on. The only reasonably familiar name was that of the dying superior, Marion Briem, and one character commented how odd this name sounded. Indridason doesn't spare us the names of Reykjavik's streets or Iceland's mountains, but he is not nearly as punctilious as Stieg Larsson is with Stockholm.

The plot develops, quirky characters and potential suspects come and go, clues are tenaciously followed up and finally enable the detectives to unravel the mystery. Nothing can bring back Elias, the 10-year-old boy whose Thai name, Aran, meant forest, and who wrote in his exercise book, How many trees does it take to make a forest?

The brooding Erlendur is a complex character whose preoccupations are not as obvious as Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander. Other characters also have some depth and in this book a whole new side of Sigurdur Olli, Erlendur's deputy, is developed. I liked Silence of the Grave and this confirms me as a fan of the series.

I picked up this book after two "fails." The cover and opening lines of The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri had beguiled me when I saw it on the table at Politics & Prose. It was the latest in his series featuring Inspector Montalbano, procedurals set in sunny Sicily. The Italian setting appealed to me and I knew there was a TV series based on the books. However, I just couldn't get into it. Montalbano was a scruffy old detective constantly firing up his cigarettes, arguing with his lady friend, and saying fairly inane things to his colleagues. Camilleri's descriptions of the environment had none of the detail or sense of place that Indridason brings to Iceland, let alone the sheer lyricism. The characters seemed shallow compared, in retrospect, to Erlendur, Sigurdur Olli and their cohorts. Maybe the earlier Montalbano books were better; maybe at some point I'll try reading them in Italian.

The other "fail" was The Coffee Trader by David Liss, which has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I liked A Conspiracy of Paper the plot involving coffee trading in Amsterdam -- in the same Jewish community that Spinoza lived in (as portrayed so dramatically in the play "The New Jerusalem") -- had a lot of appeal for me. I was well into the book when I noticed I was bored -- stiff. The stilted language which worked in the earlier book to carry the reader back in time simply seemed stilted this time. The pace was languid and it was when yet another character noted for the dozenth time that Jews were not allowed to trade with Gentiles under threat of excommunication that I realized I wasn't enjoying this book. Maybe another time, but I don't think so.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cooking tomes

(Cross-posted in my food blog)

There seems to be a trend toward cookbooks that go way beyond recipes and into lengthy disquisitions on food and its cultural context. These are the books that are getting the awards and notice and I have acquired a few of them recently.

For instance, after a particularly wonderful Thai meal at a friend's house and hearing for some time that Thai cuisine is influencing chefs all over the world, I wanted to get a good introduction to Thai cooking. So I bought Thai Food by David Thompson. One of the Amazon reviewers noted that the book, written by an Australian chef who fell in love with Thailand, gets nearly to p. 200 before you have the first recipe -- so I went in with my eyes open. Opening sections deal with the country and its culture, the Thai kitchen and ingredients before tackling recipes.

This not essentially different from Julia Child, but much, much longer. Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher were as much food writers as cookbook writers and many of their books take the form of the longer essays with recipes sprinkled through, so perhaps this new wave is simply a return to this more holistic view of cooking.

English writers seem to be leading the way. I recently bought two books by Nigel Slater, Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch and Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard. Like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's The River Cottage Meat Book before it, these lavish, long books are highly personal accounts of the writer's experiences with cultivating and cooking the meat, vegetables or fruit. I've never used many of the recipes from Meat, nor, truth be told, taken the time to read much of the author's musings on the subject. Nonetheless, there is something captivating about this approach and it might be rewarding to take more time with them.

I have a number of cookbooks on Italian cuisine, but still I fell for two new books in this cooking tome genre. One is truly a massive tome -- Culinaria Italy: Cuisine, Country, Culture. It is part of a series edited by Claudia Piras and published by H.F. Ullman, a German publisher. I had to order it from England. It takes a regional approach, describing the culture and foods of Italy's various regions. Like the others in this genre, this book has plenty of big colorful photos printed on thick-stock paper. No doubt part of the motivation for this trend is to provide a different type of experience from printing a recipe at Epicurious.

I also bought SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine by Shelley Lindgren and Matthew Accarino, who run a restaurant by that name in San Francisco. This is billed more as a guidebook, however, with on-the-spot descriptions of food and wine in Italy's central and northern regions. From what I've seen of the recipes, however, it falls into the usual trap of chef-written cookbooks of recipes that are complicated and use many hard-to-find ingredients. If it's only good to learn more about Umbria before we go there, it will be worth it.

Besides needing to compete with digital media, these books probably respond to the growing demand, verging on fetishness, for people to get more deeply engaged with food and wine. For many people, as for me, cooking and eating and drinking have become real hobbies in our era of plenty. How else account for the popularity of books like Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History or Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World -- neither of which, I hasten to add, do I own -- and the book I'm currently reviewing for Washington Independent Review of Books, Pepper: A History of the World's Most Influential Spice by Marjorie Shaffer.

In short, a hobby cook is invited to become a veritable scholar of food. Perhaps it all began with Waverly Root, the Paris-based American journalist whose 1958 tome Food of France really set the standard for this type of food writing. Root was writing for the International Herald Tribune still when I went there in 1980 and I saw him in the newsroom a few times. It was at that time, too, that Patricia Wells arrived with her husband, Walter, and embarked on her highly successful career as a food and cookbook author.

How much all of this will translate itself into great meals on our own table remains to be seen. I generally report my (successful) cooking experiences on my food blog, so I will track the results of all these lavish tomes there.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Far Eastern Tales

This a special paperback collection of short stories by W. Somerset Maugham that I've had for some time and picked up to read after Monsoon got me interested in these exotic settings.

Maugham is considered a master of the genre and the stories collected here demonstrate why. In simple language and narrative they deal with big themes like love and infidelity, murder and suicide. The invariably feature white British men and women who are living or have lived in colonial territories in Asia, particularly Burma, Singapore and the Malay Peninsula. They portray the corrosive effects of the tropical climate and foreign culture, which often strip bare the flaws of the Europeans who might be better able to hide them at home. They take place largely in the expatriate clubs or residences of the colonial companies, or aboard a ship or other conveyance traveling to, from and around Asia.

Maugham is particularly focused on the relationships between men and women, specifically married couples. His characters often marry for the wrong reasons or discover that their spouse is not the person they thought they were. One bizarre story serving as a counterpoint is a short one about a nervous groom who flees his fiancee in a veritable odyssey of travel to remote corners of Southeast Asia, but who is relentlessly tracked down and married by the persistent woman (we are left to guess how that one turns out). Other cases include a wife conspiring to murder her husband, two suicides, and a woman who adores a false image of her husband but comes to loath him when she discovers he is a coward. A major sub-theme is the failure of some people to live up to their potential because of their voluntary exile in these remote locations.

I don't generally like short stories that much, but I've enjoyed these. Partly it is the exotic location, but mostly it is Maugham's caustic portrayal of human frailty. Those who fare best in his stories achieve only modest victories, but that is a happier fate than the disillusioned and disappointed characters who drive most of the plots. I haven't finished all the stories and will update if the later entries suggest something to add.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Choosing book club books

The dilemma is that you don't want to waste everyone's time with a lousy book, but that means you have to pick something somebody has read and loved or rely on reviews or word of mouth. For instance, in my new book club, the first book we read was Monsoon, which I recommended solely on the strength of other things I'd read by Robert Kaplan, so it was chancy.

Our choice for the second month was The Art of Fielding, which has gotten a lot of hype and become a big book club favorite. I put it down after just a few pages. I found the style stilted and false, the characters uninteresting, and I also discovered that even though I like watching baseball on occasion I have no interest in reading about it. (The last time I enjoyed reading a book about sports, I think, was when I read hockey books in high school.) When I checked with Andrea, who read it for one of her book groups, she agreed that she found it underwhelming. She encouraged me to attend the meeting anyway and explain why I didn't like it.

The choice for the third month, made at at our second meeting by the eight people who attended, was The Panda's Thumb. One guy had read it and liked it, and since it has been sitting on my shelf for literally decades, I went along with it. However, the fourth book, fiction this time, was again a book club favorite, The Garden of the Evening Mists -- in fact Andrea had already bought it for one of her groups. She was surprised that we picked something something so book clubby and chick litty. Me, too. It follows somehow from Monsoon, and looks like it could be interesting. We'll see.

I take Andrea's point that you should go to the meeting and discuss even when you don't like the book, but let's face it, you're not going to keep going if it happens very often. I can't complain, because I have three of the four books at home and I borrowed Fielding, so I'm not out of pocket. Having put it down, I read Past Caring (which I had suggested to the group but no one seemed interested), and now Trace of Smoke.

We'll see how it goes; I don't see any way around the dilemma. Andrea's group has at times picked a theme -- African writers, or non-white-men writers, or books about oppressors who end up suffering more from their oppression, or an epic when they skip a month in the summer. Over nearly 20 years, Andrea has as a result an impressive shelf-full of books. But her newer book group has fallen into the bestseller/book club trap, reading the same thing everyone else is reading because that's what everyone is talking about.

I suppose the best defense against it, in the end, is a good offense (pardon the sports metaphor!). I think I will continue to suggest books I have on my shelf that I have been wanting to read and just see how it goes.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Past Caring

Some fans consider this one of Robert Goddard's best books and I certainly ripped through it. It has everything I like about the author -- a great feel for the language, a penchant for flawed characters and a narrative that moves at a measured pace but really moves.

This a complex work with a substantial story within a story as a young history graduate, Martin Radford, takes on a commission to research the mysterious fall of an Edwardian politician, Edwin Strafford. The action begins in Madeira but takes place mostly in Devon and London.

It is a slow start and when Goddard launches into the long section of Strafford's memoir, the story within a story, it is via one of my least favorite graphical devices -- endless pages of italic print. But the story became engrossing enough that I was able to ignore this. The memoir interested me particularly because it is set largely in the same time frame as The Grand Mirage, and like my book counts the young Winston Churchill as one of the characters in the political intrigue of the time (Goddard even delays Churchill becoming Home Secretary so that Strafford can occupy that position in the first half of 1910).

Because he refuses to play ball with Lloyd George's conspiracy to oust Asquith, Strafford falls victim to a nefarious plot to discredit him not only politically but in the eyes of his fiancee, Elizabeth Latimer, who somehow comes to believe that Strafford has a nasty secret that makes her break off the engagement. Strafford, in his memoir, remains ignorant of what that is supposed to be, and Radford's task is to find out just what it was for Leo Sellick, a wealthy South African who bought the villa in Madeira where Strafford spent a long exile and left his memoir.

Goddard provides sufficient clues that an attentive reader can get the drift of where this is going, but there are some unexpected twists and turns along the way. The narrator/protagonist has his own connection to the Strafford mystery and some mystery of his own. He has lost his teaching job prior to the action of the novel through a scandal we learn only halfway through the book -- though it's not hard to imagine -- when it is used to discredit him in the eyes of his own love interest, Eve Randall, a Cambridge professor, much in the way that Strafford was alienated from Elizabeth.

Both protagonists -- because Strafford is the narrator of his long memoir -- are flawed and naive. Strafford subordinates his happiness to his political ambition, and Radford succumbs too easily to other temptations. Both are surprised that life should punish them so harshly.

Goddard succeeds though in showing how warring motivations can lead to bad decisions that do indeed have consequences and can result in irretrievable loss. Other characters, too, come alive with mixed motives and flaws of their own, creating conflict and drama that compels the reader as much as the mystery itself.

What first drew me to Goddard in Into the Blue was the setting in Greece, an exotic locale that came to life in the novel. This book begins in sunny Madeira, but quickly shifts back to rainy England. Nonetheless, it remains captivating. Goddard revels in the Englishness of the English countryside and painstakingly places each scene in some quaintly named location. We see the Exe River in Exeter and the Cam River in Cambridge -- it surely is no accident that both narrators are -fords. The pubs, the towns, the landscape all are vividly portrayed.

The "present" of the novel is 1977 (the book was first published in 1986), so that some characters can bridge the two narratives, and the author convincingly recreates each of these past periods. The novel also makes a stop in a 1951 so that the overall effect is that life indeed is a brief passage in time. Events come and go but people remain largely unchanged. The novel ends with Radford poised to make another decision about the future, and he must figure out how much is determined and how much choice we really have.

I corresponded at one point with an Amazon reviewer about Goddard. His opinion was that Past Caring and In Pale Battalions were his two best, with Painting the Darkness just behind that. In his opinion, the quality dropped off in the others. But that means I have least one more high-quality Goddard to read.