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Lost at Sea   1 comment

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It’s not often that I give up on a book, but I’m calling it quits after 78 pages of The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge. I tried, I really tried to get into this book. I wanted to, but it wasn’t happening.

In less than 100 pages I knew little more of what novel was about then I did on page one: zilch. That’s an exaggeration; I had gleaned a little info from the book jacket. The problem is that the synopsis and the narrative didn’t mesh well  — at least not in the first 80 pages.

The Night Ocean is part of The Tournament of Books Summer Reading Challenge. I’m a fan of the Tournament of Books, which happens around the same time as the NCAA basketball tournament following a similar bracket formula. The Summer Challenge involves two books, La Farge’s and A Separation. I put library holds on both; I’m still waiting for the latter.

The premise of The Night Ocean is a woman’s search for her presumed-dead husband, his obsession with H.P. Lovecraft, the 1930s horror writer who had an affair with a 16-year-old boy (who later gained fame as an Aztecs scholar). Why wouldn’t that be intriguing?

Most of what I read involved Lovecraft, including pages and pages of his journal entries. His style and tone were off-putting: “Down at y’Dockes againe this night, seeking Subjects for y’Worke.”

Challenge or not, I don’t want to toil this hard for a summer read.

The Night Ocean
Penguin Books, 2017
389 pages

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A Look at Lost Causes   Leave a comment

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It’s always good to learn something new from a book, but I admit I hadn’t expected it to be the explanation of the distinction between rowing and paddling. I got this and only a little more in History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. I anticipated many references to the predatory animal.

Instead, the theme is about parental neglect, in one case benign and another intentional based on religious beliefs. (This reference is meant as foreshadowing, which the novel heavily incorporates.)

Linda, the teenage narrator, lives with her parents in a cabin once part of a commune. They are the only ones left from that off-the-grid lifestyle. The setting is a mostly-isolated wooded area on a northern Minnesota lake. Linda is an observer, rather than a participant. Her parents have a minor role in her life since she generally navigates the world on her own.

A family moves in across the lake and captivates Linda’s imagination. She watches them from a distance, but eventually meets Patra and Paul, the mother and her young son. She soon becomes part of their world by babysitting and being away from her own home.

Interspersed with the development of the relationships among the characters are references to a trial (thus the foreshadowing) and descriptions of Linda’s life as a young adult.

The narrative is slow paced which doesn’t improve as discomfort surfaces when Leo, who’d been away on business, returns to his wife and child.

By the way, paddling is what propels canoes; rowing is done in boats.

History of Wolves
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017
279 pages

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

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