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Riding the Rails   Leave a comment

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Although Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, is about slavery in the pre-Civil War era, it remains timely. Timely in the unfortunate way that malice and marginalization still exist.

The narrative follows Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation. She’s ostracized by the other slaves and hated in particular by the plantation owner, Terrance Randall, who embodies cruelty. Cora was abandoned by her mother who escaped years earlier.

Following a brutal beating, Cora agrees to flee with Caesar, an educated slave. Whitehead’s railroad is the real thing, complete with underground tracks, conductors and station masters.

Randall hires Ridgeway, a tenacious slave catcher, whose only blemish on his otherwise perfect record of returning slaves to their owners is Cora’s mother. Whitehead’s descriptions of the brutality, fear and first taste of freedom are gripping. They hold the reader throughout as Cora moves in her new world. Nonetheless, the horrors of what await her if caught cast long shadows.

Cora and Caesar arrive in South Carolina where they find paying jobs. Eventually, complacency, missteps, and a relentless Ridgeway force Cora back to the railroad. Her journey takes her to North Carolina and, later, Indiana where she encounters kindness, fear, deceit and Ridgeway.

Whitehead begins each section with an advertisement posted by a slaveholder offering a reward for the return of his property: runaway girls. The novel is often harrowing, but rousing. It’s also disappointing to consider that American society hasn’t necessarily progressed as much as we’d like to believe.

The Underground Railroad
Four Bookmarks
Doubleday, 2016
306 pages

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Charlotte Bronte and Hard-to-Read Books   Leave a comment

Villette

I admit I decided to read Villette by Charlotte Bronte because of the Masterpiece Theatre program “To Walk Invisible The Bronte Sisters.” I knew some background about the women who had to first write under male pseudonyms; the show whetted my appetite for more. I thought I should read something new-to-me.

It was difficult reading for many reasons — primarily the language and perspectives. I wasn’t surprised that reading the story written in 1853 might prove a little formidable, but I expected to eventually find my groove. I didn’t.

Villette is a fictional Belgian village. Consequently, Bronte incorporated a lot of French into the dialogue, as if things weren’t difficult enough. Translations are provided among the notes in the back of the book. But who wants to keep turning pages back and forth all the time?

The novel follows Lucy Snow, a young English woman without means. She leaves England, and finds work as a nanny and then a teacher at a private girls’ school in Villette.

Lucy is an introvert and at times also appears misanthropic. She does allow a few to enter into her world. She’s reconnected with her godmother, whose son is now a doctor. He and Paul Emmanuel, also a teacher at the school, stir Lucy’s interest. The relationships with the two take many twists. Yet, none are particularly captivating. This may be due, in large part, to the era in which the novel was written: relationships moved at an aggravatingly slow pace.

Villette
Three bookmarks
First published in 1853; Penguin Books Classic Edition, 2004
611 pages, this edition includes a chronology of the author’s life; a brief history of the Bronte family, an introduction, suggested additional reading, notes and glossary.

Above it All   Leave a comment

As names go, 71 Above is not exceptionally creative. It’s an obvious, albeit appropriate, appellation for a restaurant on the 71st floor of the tallest building in downtown Los Angeles.

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The views include the ocean far off to the west, the hills, other skyscapers, the Staples Center, Dodger Stadium and freeways – lots of traffic-clogged freeways. Each window table has a compass to help establish direction. Fortunately, the menu is mush easier to navigate.

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Eight first courses and eight second courses are offered. The firsts range from soup to Brussels sprouts, from steak tartare to grilled salad. Ricotta gnocchi was on the menu, but unavailable. Two of us opted for the charred Brussels sprouts served over a small amount of plain yogurt. This combination resulted in a creamy and smoky sauce. This dish could have easily been shared, but I’m glad I had it all to myself. The grilled salad featured two heads of bibb lettuce topped with green olives, golden raisins and shredded grana – a parmesan-like hard cheese.

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For the entrees, we each ordered something different: chicken, pork loin and flat iron steak. The latter, my choice, was the best of the three. Grilled to a perfect medium rare pink center and topped with chimichurri sauce, it was also a colorful plate. The pork, served with pears and mashed parsnip, was a little on the dry side. I didn’t sample the chicken, but it looked juicy and I coveted the grilled cherry tomatoes on the dish.

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71 Above
Four+ Plates
633 W. 5th St.
Los Angeles

Elementary, My Dear Holmes   Leave a comment

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We planned to arrive in time for “cruffins” the cross between a muffin and croissant, because why settle for one when a combo will work? The decision to get to Mr. Holmes Bakehouse in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles early was based on my brother’s experience in San Francisco. There, it’s not unusual for lines to wrap around the block.

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According to the lovely person behind the counter, the LA cruffins don’t even come out of the oven until 9 a.m. — unlike their northern California counterparts where they’re history before 8 a.m. “I think people like to sleep-in here,” she said by way of explanation.

Although the cruffin remains a mystery to me, I wasn’t disappointed by the pastries we sampled.

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The California Croissant and the blue cheese bacon danish were our savory choices. The California featured smoked salmon, nori and wasabi all encased in a buttery, flakey croissant. It was a baker’s version of a sushi roll – it even came with a small packet of soy sauce.

I’m a fan of bacon and bleu cheese, the addition of diced dates made me even happier.

The Matcha croissant, featuring Matcha green tea, was a new-to-me flavor. The churro croissant featured another spin on familiar goodies: cinnamon with dulce de leche filling. It’s a surprise that the cookie dough croissant, filled with cookie dough mousse, was not overwhelmingly sweet.

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The pastries we had were impressive, and now I know I can sleep longer the next time I go to Mr. Holmes.

Mr. Holmes Bakehouse
111 S. Ave. 59
Los Angeles, CA

Bestia, the Besty   Leave a comment


Reservations at the highly-rated Bestia in industrial Los Angeles are hard to snare. Although unable to reserve a table, we did, nonetheless, get two seats at the chef’s counter. (Thanks to my brother.)

Some people might not have appreciated the view. However, we were thrilled to have our line of vision occupied by the well-orchestrated crew preparing colorful, creative salads. Interestingly, we didn’t begin our meal with a salad. We ordered one later.

Our well-versed server suggested sharing several small plates. His subtle nod of approval when we decided on the crab crostino suggested we were off to a great start. Ordinarily, squid ink aoili, crab and Thai basil might vie as the leading flavor. Instead they all win.

I can’t resist bone marrow. It’s served here with spinach gnocchetti that we scraped it into.

Next, agnolotti, one of six pasta offerings; house-made, of course. The mini ravioli-like “parcels” were light and savory. Coated with brown butter and filled with braised oxtail, it was silky and surprisingly light. Toasted pistachios and currants added texture and sweetness.

Finally, the chopped salad, a combination of Brussels sprouts, endive, mint, salami, and fried lentils — all thinly sliced, er chopped.

We had to have dessert. Really! Imagine bananas Foster with peanut butter ice cream. I couldn’t. The ingredients, only a playful mind could conjure, was childlike in the best possible way: fun, crunchy, salty and sweet. The ice cream is made in-house.

Bestia is in a reclaimed warehouse. It’s loud, lively and its accolades are well deserved. I can’t wait to return.

Bestia
Five Plates
2121 7th Place
Los Angeles

A Different Mother and Son Reunion   Leave a comment

 

The NixSomebody get Nathan Hill an editor! The author of The Nix is creative, daring and has a good – no excellent – story to tell. The problem is that it’s about 250 pages too long, including an 11-page sentence. Really?!

Moving back an fourth between a tumultuous Chicago in 1968 just before the Democratic national convention and a calmer 2011, the novel ‘s focus is on the relationship between Samuel Andresen-Anderson and his estranged mother, Faye. It’s been decades since he last saw her. When Samuel was a child, Faye abandoned him and her husband.

Samuel teaches literature at a Chicago university. His heart isn’t in his work; his students are neither inspired, nor inspiring. After hours, on his faculty computer, he plays an immersive video game. He is also 10 years behind on a book that he’s been contracted to write. Samuel is a likeable guy and it’s painful to consider him a loser. But.

Hill is at his best in his descriptions of Samuel’s childhood, before his mother left. It’s vivid, engaging and explains so much about this character. Equally engrossing are the sections about Faye’s youth in a rural town in Iowa.

Less appealing are some of the other characters and situations, if only because the depth of their portrayal is extraneous. Take the sentence that is a chapter unto itself. It chronicles the symptom-by-symptom, reaction-by-reaction experience of a compulsive gamer as his body shuts down.

Ultimately, all the reader, like Samuel, wants is to understand why Faye left.

The Nix
Almost Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
620 pages

Irish Jig of a Mystery   Leave a comment

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In the Woods by Tana French is a double mystery. The first occurred in the mid-1980s and the second takes place 20 years later. There are numerous common threads, not the least of which is Adam Robert Ryan, the main character.

Ryan is also the narrator. His tone is engaging, self-deprecating and intelligent. Known as Rob, he’s a detective in Dublin’s Murder Squad. He and his partner, Cassie Maddox, work to solve the murder of 12-year-old Katy Devlin, whose body is found in the same general area where three pre-teens went missing all those years ago. One was Ryan who went by his first name, Adam, and was found covered in blood with no recollection of what happened to him or his friends.

Are the disappearance and murder related? Will Ryan’s memory be jarred? Should he even be involved in the more recent investigation? These questions drive the well-paced novel; the characters make it an interesting and intense journey. French provides plenty of suspects and plot twists. The result is a richly nuanced suspenseful novel.

Only Maddox knows of Ryan’s past. The two are close friends; they’re like siblings in their banter and knowledge of each other. As partners on the case they complement each other in their skills, thought processes and a shared, ironic, disrespect of authority – at least when it comes to their superintendent.

Anyone looking for resolution to both mysteries may be disappointed. This doesn’t necessarily require a spoiler alert, but it should add to the intrigue.

In the Woods
Four-and-half Bookmarks
Viking, 2007
429 pages

Posted April 10, 2017 by bluepagespecial in Uncategorized