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.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Squid Mixes: Yorsh

This concoction could hardly be simpler: pour the beer, pour the vodka over it, drink.  No need to stir.  "Sounds very Russian," my wife says.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.  It tastes like beer and vodka. 

Not sure I really see the point unless you've simply decided your beer's alcohol content is insufficient to your needs.  According to tradition, one is supposed to drink the whole thing in one go after a toast.  We didn't.

Drink responsibly, folks.

Yorsh dates to at least the 17th century.  Is it referenced in an anonymous Russian poem of that time period: "Tale of Woe and Misfortune."  However, the earlier version involved mead rather than beer.

Na Zdorovie!

Friday, June 22, 2018

A Window Above: So Lonely

Song: "So Lonely"
Writer: Sting
Original Release: November 2, 1978
Band: The Police
Album: Outlandos d'Amour

"So Lonely" is my favorite Police song.  It's a great song but my affection is owed entirely to nostalgic memories of my own high school garage band and one of the best summers of my life.  Game Designer and I had a band with two other friends, a pair of identical twins, senior year.  I was the lead singer - mostly by default as I didn't actually play an instrument.  Well, I did, but ours wasn't a funk band so the trombone wasn't much use.  We more or less perfected six songs by the time we all left for college and "So Lonely" was one of them.  The vocal line is on the high side, a bit of a stretch at that point in my life.  Both the bass line and the guitar solo are fantastic and remind me of the twins who played them with us.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Squid Cooks: Seared Scallops with Pan Sauce

Across the board, I am a far pickier eater than my wife but there are a few things I like a lot more than she does.  Scallops are high on that list.  As she was out of town for work recently, it seemed like a good time to try this recipe.

Scallops, like shrimp, are pretty easy and you don't even have to worry about peeling them.  My recipe came from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: The Basics.  Learning how to make a sauce is fun, though I'm not entirely sure I'm doing it right.  The end result was tasty so I suppose I can't be too far off.

Daughter was only moderately impressed - chewy, she said.  She ate all of hers - no seconds, though.

Monday, June 18, 2018

On the Coffee Table: George Orwell

Title: Down and Out in Paris and London
Author: George Orwell
Orwell is, of course, best known for his fiction classics, 1984 and Animal Farm.   This was my first experience with the author beyond those.  Down and Out in Paris and London was his first full-length work.  First published in 1933, the book is a memoir of the author's relatively brief experiences with poverty, first in Paris, then in London.

During his Paris adventure, the narrator eventually finds work in the restaurant industry, first in a large hotel, then in a newly opened establishment.  This material is, as my wife, expert in both reading and cooking, puts it, one of the cornerstones of food writing.  The pirate ship atmosphere of the professional kitchen would be familiar to anyone who has read more recent cook memoirs.  It would seem little has changed over the decades since, though I rather hope stricter enforcement of health regulations have had some impact.  In London, the narrator lives as a tramp for several weeks, moving from one wretched shelter to the next as his means allow and the law requires.  In both cities, his descriptions of the pathetic squalor of life among the poor are vivid and memorable.  The fun is in the colorful characters he encounters along the way.  It's Orwell so, naturally, there is plenty of social commentary on offer, too.

One recent writer who specifically cited the influence of this book on his own work was, of course, Anthony Bourdain.  Kitchen Confidential was my own introduction to food lit and I would still rate it among the best books I've ever read.  My wife and I went to see Bourdain at a book signing in New York in what must have been 2001 and were big fans of his TV travel shows for years.  Bourdain obviously didn't invent the foodie movement of the late '90s and early aughts but he is the guy who made it cool for the alterna-crowd of my generation.  For me, he was an inspiration as a writer, a traveler and a food enthusiast.

May he rest in peace.

Friday, June 15, 2018

A Window Above: Wig in a Box

Song: "Wig in a Box"
Composer: Stephen Trask
Musical: Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Premier: 1998, Off-Broadway

We have never seen the stage show Hedwig and the Angry Inch but we did watch the film adaptation a few years ago.  The book was written by John Cameron Mitchell, drawing on his own experiences as an army brat in both Berlin and Kansas.  Mitchell also directed and played the starring role on both stage and screen.  In a funny connection with a previous post in this series, Mitchell made his own Broadway acting debut as Huck Finn in Big River.

The story is extraordinary: Hedwig has disastrous lovers, a botched sex change and a topsy-turvy performing career while trying to build a quasi-normal and happy life.  Stephen Trask's music is wonderful, drawing inspiration from David Bowie, John Lennon, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. 

"Wig in a Box" is the showstopper.  Apparently, the song occurs at different points in the stage and film versions but at an emotional low in both cases.  There are many videos of stage performances, including Neil Patrick Harris in the show's Broadway revival, but I love the film version:

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Riad Sattouf

Title: The Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985
Writer and Artist: Riad Sattouf
This is the second volume of Sattouf's childhood memoir.  My reflection on the first is here.  The Sattouf family spent 1984-1985 living in Syria, though the book does include one trip back to France to visit the grandparents.

The insights into Syrian life are interesting: the differences between urban and rural society in the Arab world, the status of women in a traditional family, schools, etc.  The book is good but not exactly gripping.  I'm curious about Riad's world but there's no strong, broader story to latch onto.  I want more of a reason to care than I'm getting.  There is a third volume out now that covers 1985-87.  I think I'll take a pass, at least for now.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Squid Mixes: Trilby Cocktail

The Trilby cocktail comes in many forms.  It is essentially a Manhattan variant, though what exactly varies is not consistent.  My recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide switches out the rye for bourbon.  Other versions use orange bitters rather than Angostura.  It's tasty.

Friday, June 8, 2018

A Window Above: Promises I've Made

Song: "Promises I've Made"
Writer: Emitt Rhodes
Original Release: 1970
Performer: Emitt Rhodes
Album: Emitt Rhodes

"Promises I've Made" was a Pandora discovery for me.  I loved it so much that I couldn't believe I'd never heard it before!  After all, late '60s and early '70s pop is my wheelhouse (in case you haven't noticed).  One would think a McCartney-derived song by such an obviously gifted artist would have come across my path before.  But no.  I'd never even heard of Emitt Rhodes, though I learned soon afterwards that his song "Lullaby" (same album) had been featured in The Royal Tenenbaums.

The Emitt Rhodes story is a sad one, that of a huge talent chewed up and spit out by a heartless recording industry.  His first album met with considerable critical and modest commercial success, peaking at #29 on the pop charts.  Like his musical hero Sir Paul, Rhodes played and sang all of the parts, then over-dubbed.  However, because of this time-intensive process, he was unable to meet the demands of his contract.  Dunhill, the recording company, sued him and withheld royalties.  Understandably embittered, he moved on to other things, working mostly as an engineer and producer for Elektra Records.  There is an apparently excellent documentary about Rhodes called One Man Beatles, available on various streaming services.  I haven't watched it yet but I'm curious. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Squid Mixes: Snakebite

A snakebite combines cider and beer in equal parts.  The cider definitely provides the dominant flavor.  A side-by-side comparison with straight cider might be interesting sometime.  The color might actually be the biggest difference.

Friday, June 1, 2018

A Window Above: Ultraviolet

Song: "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)"
Writers: U2 and Bono
Original Release: November 19, 1991
Band: U2
Album: Achtung Baby

I have mixed feelings about U2.  On the one hand, they are one of the most dependable bands in the world, producing a vast catalogue of engaging music over several decades.  On the other hand, they've been successful and enduring enough for reasonable comparisons with groups like the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd or even Led Zeppelin, the Who, Stones and Beatles.  I have never felt the boys from Dublin quite measure up.  The songs are good, even occasionally great, but not genius or innovative.  Bono's a top front man but as instrumentalists, the others definitely fall short of the masters.  No group of their ilk has benefited quite as much from sound production, either, suggesting that their success is owed as much to the likes of Brian Eno as to any of the band members themselves.  (Yeah, I hear you throwing Pink Floyd back at me on that one but David Gilmour and Roger Waters were far more involved in the production of their own music than the U2 boys have been.)  Maybe 50 years from now, history will judge U2 more kindly in comparison than I do now... but I doubt it.

That said, I do like U2.  I've even seen them live, the Zoo TV tour, 1992.  Even if they're not in the very top tier, they're significantly better than average.  Do you want to know the secret of the band's success?  It's not Bono, at least not entirely.  It's the drums.  Larry Mullen Jr.'s fast, driving rhythms behind the much slower melodic rhythm is every bit as emblematic of U2's sound as Bono's sexy crooning.  The effect is most noticeable in "With or Without You" and it is an element of the band's music many others have sought to imitate. 

My favorite U2 song, though, is "Ultraviolet."  Unfortunately, it was the one song from Achtung Baby that they didn't play at the concert I saw.  It has served as one of their encores - as a prelude to "With or Without You" - in the years since but alas, not that night in Ames.  Mullen's drums are especially effective in this one.