Life Pirouettes   Leave a comment

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Once I was able to get beyond the similarities, of which there are many to the 1977 movie The Turning Point, I found myself enjoying Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me. Actually, what I appreciated, and what kept me turning pages, were the various characters in this ballet-driven narrative that blends unrequited love, the ideal of loyalty, personal disappointment, deceit and triumph.

The focal point is Joan’s infatuation with Russian ballet star Arslan Rusakov and her inability to convincingly let go of her feelings long after she has gone on to what can only be described as a normal life in the suburbs with her husband and son, Harry. Shipstead deftly portrays Joan’s transformation from an unhappy member of the (ballet) corps to contented, if not exuberant, resident of Southern California where she teaches ballet.

The story moves through different phases of Joan’s life from the mid-1970s to 2002. Arslan remains prominently in the background while the focus is on Joan, Harry, and Chloe, the girl next door. With Joan as their teacher, they ultimately become enamored with ballet so it becomes a force in their lives.

Again, the characters provide the strength of the novel. Chloe is particularly interesting as a young child and later as a young woman. Her parents may be caricatures of unfulfilled lives, especially her father, but their daughter consistently maintains a strong sense of self.

It also helps that Shipstead is an engaging story teller who incorporates humor (in small doses) and irony (in larger servings).

Astonish Me
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
257 pages

 

Podcast Binge   2 comments

 

Binge watching is old stuff, but podcast binging is a new all-consuming activity (for me). In under a week I listened to all 12 episodes of Serial, the This American Life production that debuted last fall.When it aired I couldn’t make a commitment to follow it. Now, with frigid temperatures and some time on my hands, I got hooked.  I’m glad I didn’t have to wait for each installment, and that I could listen to as much as I wanted in one sitting. It was media gluttony and I’m not a bit repentant.The premiere season of Serial follows the case of a Baltimore teenager, Adman Syed, charged with the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend. Journalist/narrator Sarah Koening details the crime through court records, interviews with Syed, lawyers, police, friends of the victim and accused, among others. Koening’s research is exhaustive – and gripping.

Much of the evidence against Syed is circumstantial with plenty of holes in the prosecution’s case. The recurring theme from those who know Syed is that violence is not part of his character. Although he was the only suspect to be tried, Koening provides other possibilities. She repeatedly states she’s a reporter not an investigator. Actually, she’s a good investigator, but the distinction is important. It means that she acknowledges speculation when facts are missing.

Koening and her crew spent 15 months to absolutely establish Syed’s guilt or innocence. The story is compelling in the way of all good murder/mysteries, because ultimately the listener becomes completely engrossed with the question of whodunit?

Serial
Five Audio Bookmarks
2014
http://serialpodcast.org/

Packing for a Long Trip   1 comment

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I’m a sucker for a good title and that’s the reason I read Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase. The book was included on the long list of the Tournament of Books. It didn’t make the cut to the short list, and I can see why.

Akhtiorskaya’s novel begins in 1993 with the Nasmeratovs who have settled in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach following the Soviet Union’s collapse. They are a continent away from their roots, but the new community is a little Russia where shops, restaurants and neighbors share the same language and customs. Assimilation isn’t necessary.

Pasha Nasmeratov is a poet and the one family member who remains on native soil. He visits his family in New York, but never commits to immigrating. His sister, her husband and their daughter live with Pasha’s parents in a crowded apartment. Pasha is the link to the past in many ways. Jump ahead to 2008 and Frida, his niece, is grown up. She’s intrigued by the mother land, but is rooted in an inability to embrace the future while clinging to the past, even one she doesn’t remember. Frida was young when the family left Odessa.

The problem is there’s too much jumping from one character or location to another. Still, the author’s writing is rich in clever turns of phrase and vivid imagery. Humor is a lively resident among the prose: “Frida stumbled past tidy strips of lawn, her favorite with a PLEASE CARB YOUR DOG sign…”

Panic in a Suitcase
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2014
307 pages

Stuck in Breakfast Gridlock   1 comment

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When the hostess at the Silver Creek Diner in Lone Tree told us that once we were seated we’d still have at least another 25-minute wait for our food, I laughed and asked if she wanted us to leave. She laughed, too, and assured me that wasn’t her intent. We’d already been waiting 10 minutes for a table. We decided to hope for the best. Wrong call.

Given that we had waited so long from the time we walked in the door to when the food arrived, it’s hard to know if we were simply so famished that anything would have tasted good. It wasn’t that Silver Creek was particularly busy, but the way orders were coming out of the kitchen it seemed as if all the cooking was done by one person with his/her hand tied behind his/her back.

Breakfast is standard; lots of egg possibilities and pancakes.  The latter aren’t the “ridiculously large ones that some places serve” we were told. The Blueberry Pancake Plate featured two eggs, hash browns, choice of breakfast meats (bacon, sausage or ham) and two cakes full of fresh blueberries. It was a lot of food.
Silver Mix
The Hash Brown Mix blended crispy and creamy shredded potatoes with diced red and green peppers, onions, eggs and choice of bacon or sausage. Two size options are available, and even the smaller of the two is a substantial amount of food.

In truth, it all tasted fine, but I can’t say the time spent waiting for it was justified.

Silver Creek Diner
Three Plates
7824 Park Meadows Dr.
Lone Tree, Colo

 

Self-inflicted Isolation   1 comment

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All the Living by C. E. Morgan is one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve read; unfortunately, the story doesn’t reach the same level as the words that embrace it. It’s not bad; it just doesn’t rise to the same level as the well-crafted images. I must admit that the opening sentence immediately grabbed me with its element of intrigue: “She had never lived in a house and now, seeing the thing, she was no longer sure she wanted to.”

She is Aloma, a young woman, who spent her early years living with relatives in a trailer before being sent, at age 12, to a “mission school” – essentially an orphanage. There, she discovers a talent (and passion) for the piano. Otherwise, there is little to set her apart.

The house, on a tobacco farm, is Orren’s. When his mother and brother are killed in an accident he asks Aloma, whom he had recently met, to join him as he tries to maintain the homestead. A young preacher who befriends Aloma is added to the mix, which also includes the harsh, isolated landscape.

There’s no time frame but basic amenities are evident; it’s clear this is not a back-in-the-day tale. The house has an old, hopelessly out-of-tune piano. Orren has the farm and a reticence that comes from grief and the responsibilities he’s inherited.

Possessing little, but more than they realize, Aloma and Orren’s story isn’t just about being lonely even when others are present, but about love and self-awareness.

All the Living
Three-and-a-half bookmarks
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009
199 pages

An Urban Food Court   2 comments

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Angelinos have shopped at Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles since 1917. Today, they’re also enjoying cuisine prepared by various vendors sharing space with the grocers. My mom recalls going there as a child with her mother and aunts to do much of their weekly shopping for everything from produce to dried beans, from meat to cheese.

There’s still a butcher, but a more upscale one and the same is true of the cheese purveyor. Many of the transactions for produce are spoken in Spanish. Much of the food is traditional ethnic street fare; some is on the trendier side. It’s a food court with character and characters.

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Before a recent visit we created a list of the places we wanted to sample: Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, Sarita’s Pupuseria, Texas barbecue from Horse Thief, Sticky Rice and Bel Campo. We made it to the first two and were too stuffed to eat anything else. Well, except for ice cream from McConnell’s.

The tacos were massive: mounds of carnitas doused in a blend of spicy red and green salsas. Although the tacos were huge in size and flavor, the best part may have been waiting in line (line is used loosely here). I didn’t have enough confidence in my Spanish to order but I understood what those beside me were having and what the men behind the counter were asking.

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Sarita’s Pupuseeria was also a popular spot and the line (this one appropriately named) moved slowly. While you wait it’s fascinating watching the women make the thick pancake-like shapes. We tried some filled with refried beans, cheese and pork with cheese. The latter was the tastiest thanks to gooey cheese and shredded pork, but it was also the greasiest.

We’re looking forward to another visit so we can cross the other places off our list.

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Grand Central Market
Four Plates (and lots of napkins)
317 S. Broadway
Los Angeles

Half Crazy Over Daisy   2 comments

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A fire truck parked outside Daisy Mint recently was cause for concern insomuch as it meant there weren’t likely to be empty tables inside. The small Thai restaurant is popular among a diverse crowd that includes students from nearby Pasadena City College and the occasional celebrity: John C. Riley. Although there may be a wait to secure a seat, it won’t be long. And once seated, service is attentive and food is brought out quickly.

My brother regularly frequents Daisy Mint and had some recommendations: Summer Rolls and curries. We started with the former which were so fresh they tasted as if most of the ingredients had come straight from the garden: mixed greens, cucumbers carrots and cilantro. The peanut sauce had a slightly sweet undercurrent we couldn’t quite place.

We opted for Crying Tiger one of the evening’s specials: marinated flank steak served with a spicy sauce of minced green pepper, garlic and shallots. The thinly sliced strips of beef were tender and absorbed the sauce well. The dish came with sticky rice, which is sweet and so glutinous it’s like a magnet for anything it comes in contact with.

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Chunks of pumpkin, which were soft and potato-like, with peas, carrots and chicken swam in the Panang Curry, a velvety sauce of coconut milk and basil.

Servings are plentiful and though the Crying Tiger is not a regular menu item, I would be more than happy to repeat the exact meal at Daisy Mint on my next California visit.

Daisy Mint
Four-and-a-half Plates
1218 E. Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena, Calif.

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