Monday, July 16, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Rohinton Mistry

Title: A Fine Balance
Author: Rohinton Mistry
Mistry, an Indian-born Canadian writer, has won a lot of literature's big prizes in his career: Neustadt, James Tait Black, Booker shortlist, etc.  It's the sort of resume that suggests he's likely to win the Nobel one day.   A Fine Balance, published in 1995, was his third book, second novel.

A Fine Balance covers a long, dramatic sweep of Indian history:  1947-1984, Independence to the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination.  The story follows four characters: Dina Dalal, a 42-year-old widow born of a wealthy urban family but determined to make it on her own after her husband's death; Ishvar and Om Darji, two tailors from the countryside, their lives torn apart by inter-caste violence and Maneck Kohlah, student and son of a grocer in the far off mountains.  The four live together in Dina's apartment.  Their relationships initially fraught with tension, they eventually form a strong familial bond. 

The heart of the tale takes place in 1975-76 during Gandhi's Emergency.  In a society built on centuries-old social injustice (aren't they all?), the crackdowns on the poor are especially brutal during this time.  The tailors always manage to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Easy as it is to roll one's American, Caucasian eyes and think, "Oh boy, India...", it's not much of a stretch to imagine an African-American or Native American or Latino-American or most any other minority family in the United States feeling they have also been victims of history for generations on end.

Mistry's acclaim is well-deserved.  The text is elegant without overwhelming in detail.  Few characters truly disappear in the story, nearly every chance encounter coming around full-circle to play a meaningful role later in the narrative.  The symbolism can be a bit heavy-handed, especially with a quilt Dina produces. The fine balance of the title is between hope and despair.  Most of the narrative weighs to the despair side but the moments of hope are genuinely touching.  The ending is rotten and unnecessarily so.  Dazzlingly artful through nearly 600 pages, Mistry resorts to the worst of all narrative cop-outs just before the final curtain. 

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Window Above: The Final Cut

Song: "The Final Cut"
Writer: Roger Waters
Original Release: March 21, 1983
Band: Pink Floyd
Album: The Final Cut

After fully immersing myself in the Beatles for a year or so in my early teens, I was ready to explore beyond.  Pink Floyd was the next band I pursued with any depth.  While the heart of the group's opus is contained on three masterful albums - The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall - there are plenty of treasures to be found beyond those.  

One late album drew my early attention: The Final Cut, especially the title track.  Whereas far too many of Roger Waters's lyrics are devoted to former band member Syd Barrett's descent into schizophrenia, The Final Cut is instead dedicated to Waters's father.  Waters felt the ideals of his father and the rest of the War Generation were betrayed when Britain entered the Falklands War.  The album's material is the usual Pink Floyd dark but unusually political.  The title track, however, is deeply personal.

Here's the funny thing: until I started putting this post together, I'm not sure I'd actually listened to the song or the album in at least 25 years.  I owned it on vinyl back in the day and never upgraded to CD.  As closely as I connected with it in my adolescence, it's not exactly cheery stuff.

I didn't know a lot about love at that age but I knew enough to understand the fear of betrayal.  "The Final Cut" goes beyond the typical petty jealousy one finds in every fifth song.  Even now, I would say I am a fairly guarded man and easily relate to a reluctance to be vulnerable with people.  Over time, if you're lucky, you surround yourself with people you trust but I didn't really have much of that at 14.  Rather, I did but not in the places I was looking for it.  The line about selling "your story to Rolling Stone" is an honest appraisal of the pitfalls of love for a famous man, which Waters certainly was by 1983.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Kafka on the Shore

Title: Kafka on the Shore
Author: Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore is really two stories intertwined.  In the first, teenage Kafka Tamura runs away from home in Tokyo to escape a difficult relationship with his father and find his long-lost mother and sister.  In the second, the aging Nakata follows a calling of his own which he doesn't even understand.  Both paths lead to Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku, a city I have visited myself.  Unfortunately my most prominent memory of the trip was getting brutally ill.  Kafka's story is a mix of Sophocles and John Irving with a touch of surrealism.  Nakata's is that of Buddhist pilgrimage. 

A library plays a prominent role in the novel, particularly Kafka's thread.  Libraries have become a big thing in our family, too.  Our daughter (14) went on a job shadow at a local college library.  Historically, she has been shy about expressing dreams for her own future but walking into that big building entirely devoted to books was definitely a wide-eyed, cathedral moment for her.  We just got back from a family trip to Europe and libraries were a major theme, along with oysters and ice cream.  We visited four in total: the British Library and the Wellcome Collection in London; the National Library of Scotland and the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinbrugh.

Music is important to the book, too.  Nakata's disciple Hoshino, a truck driver by profession, has an unexpected love affair with Beethoven's Archduke Trio.  Kafka listens to loads of different music over the course of his story but Schubert's Sonata in D Minor gets the deepest discussion.

Definitely a fun read and my favorite Murakami so far.  The story is weird but not over the top - just enough to draw you away from realism from time to time.  Not as much eye-popping prose as in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (reflection here) but I found Kafka more captivating.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Squid Mixes: Americano

My Americano recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide: sweet vermouth, Campari and sparkling water with a lemon peel garnish.  It's sort of like a Negroni with bubbles, though sweeter without the gin.  The bitter/sweet balance is quite pleasant, in fact.

The drink was created by Gaspare Campari in the 1860s.  In Italy, it was originally known as a Milano-Torino as it combined Campari from Milan and vermouth from Turin.  The Americano name was an homage to the boxer Primo Carnera, the first Italian heavyweight champion in the United States.  The Americano, not the vodka martini, is also the first drink ordered by James Bond in the first of Ian Fleming's original novels, Casino Royale.

Friday, July 6, 2018

A Window Above: Sister Christian

Song: "Sister Christian"
Writer: Kelly Keagy
Original Release: October 1983
Band: Night Ranger
Album: Midnight Madness

Our daughter is pretty good at navigating the frequently divergent tastes of her parents.  There are interests she shares with Mom but not me: costume dramas, stinky cheese, mushrooms.  There are interests she shares with me but not Mom: Star Wars, superheroes, power ballads.  She was especially shocked when she found out her mother doesn't care for the song "Sister Christian."

"It's okay," I reassured her.  "Not everyone likes awesome things."  And so, a family running gag was born.

"Sister Christian" was by far the biggest hit for Night Ranger, a hard rock band based in San Francisco.  Lead singer and drummer Keagy wrote the song about his younger, teenaged sister, distressed about how quickly she was growing up.  The song title is the result of a mondegreen.  Keagy's sister was actually named Christy but guitarist Jack Blades heard it as "Christian" which stuck.

The song plays during an absolutely bizarre scene in Boogie Nights.  I love the fact that the tape stops in the middle of the song - a completely obsolete technological concept now.  Apologies for the adult material in the clip, definitely a leap beyond my blog's usual PG-13 standards but well worth it.

The band does a fantastic acoustic version:

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Squid Mixes: Gimlet

The gimlet is our first summery cocktail of the season.  My recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide indicates 6 parts gin, 2 parts Rose's lime juice.  A sweeter ratio is featured in the Raymond Chandler novel, The Long Goodbye:  "a real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's lime juice and nothing else".

As with many classic drinks, both the gimlet and Rose's lime juice have nautical pasts.  In the eighteenth-century, the British navy was eager to find ways to fend off scurvy and citrus was the answer.  Captain James Cook provided his crewmen with a daily ration of lemon or lime juice, both of which combined very nicely with their daily gin ration.  The alcohol preserved the juice and the juice improved the flavor.  This is also, of course, how British sailors came to be known as "limeys".  In 1867, Lauchlan Rose patented a method of preserving lime juice with sugar rather than alcohol.  Not coincidentally, he opened his first factory for the product right by the docks in Leith, Scotland.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: June 2018

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Dark Star
Author: Alan Furst
Dark Star is the second book in Furst's Night Soldiers series.  My reflection on the first book is here.  The series now totals 14, all espionage thrillers based in Europe, 1930s-40s.  Most of the stories have no direct connection to each other, though book #1 is referenced a few times in #2.  Like Night Soldiers, Dark Star follows the career of a single spy, in this case AndrĂ© Szara, a Soviet journalist of Polish/Jewish background.  The story covers Szara's life from 1937-40.  While most of the early action takes place in Paris, he also makes stops in Brussels, Prague, Berlin and Moscow.  He makes it to Poland just in time for the outbreak of war, when the story makes a sharp and desperate turn.

I enjoy Furst's style a great deal.  An early passage establishes Szara's character nicely:
What he remembered later was not that he had fought bravely, he had simply decided that life mattered more than anything else in the world and had contrived to cling to it.  In those years he had seen heroes, and how they went about their work, how they did what had to be done, and he knew he was not one of them.
Furst is not as gritty and believable as le CarrĂ© nor does his location research seem as exhaustive as David Downing's.  But the elegance of his prose exceeds both.  The portrayal of Poland just as the country is coming to grips with its historical fate is especially impressive. 

There are a lot of characters to keep track of which can get confusing.  At the beginning of part 2, there is a diagram of Szara's intelligence network, definitely helpful.  But it mostly pertained to the people below him on the chain, whereas I was more likely to mix up the people above him.  The characters are rich, though, and mostly likeable, especially his lovers.

Some of the pacing towards the end feels off, seemingly glossing over what could have been some interesting parts of the narrative.  I wonder if Furst initially had a longer series devoted to Szara in mind or if an editor simply told him enough was enough already.  There's also a weird plot summary passage, depicted as Szara's own musings, as if Furst didn't quite trust his readers to paste all the pieces together on their own.  

Even with a few flaws - or simply choices that I didn't quite agree with - I'm definitely up for book #3: The Polish Officer.

Finally, a shout out to Random House's customer service department.  In the midst of reading, I discovered my volume was missing a huge chunk of text: pages 53-84.  After a quick email exchange, Random House sent me a new copy, no fuss.  Well done!

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post July's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is July 27th.