Monday, January 31, 2011
"Beeefchhekk," my French neighbor Isabelle was saying...yes I'm making beeffchheek".
She grinned "I found a new butcher, today he had a whole half PIG in the window."
A Parisienne, Isabelle, looked thrilled that she'd found a great butcher in San Francisco near the French school where she teaches.
It took a few seconds for me to twig that yes, she must mean beef cheeks or maybe that was tete de veau? A brown sauce simmered on the stove.
Isaballe cooks little pastry puffs with mushrooms, can whip up a gallette de roi with almond filling in a few hours. She flings these culinary delights together in her small kitchen with a sang froid, I envy. One time she admitted, yes, in the interest of time, she'd used a store bought pate brise, but of course it was imported from France, full of butter. Brittany butter. Her husband Andi, no slouch, makes foie gras at Xmas
Isabelle and Andi, appreciate and savor ingredients. Cooking is part of their life. But they wouldn't call themselves 'foodies'. In America we might. But for the French, food embodies a way of life, an important thread that holds friends, families and work mates in a weave. It's a way to celebrate and enjoy, not a chore, but something they enjoy doing. Cooking and eating.
And like many French friends after dinner she eats yogurt. So I asked her why?
Isabelle grinned and said I will tell you about the discovery of the Yogurt.
It happened in very ancient times, she said, at the fringes of the Balkan peninsula and Turkey that one started to find the first trace of the yogurt in the local population.
In France, Isabelle said, we had to wait until the reign of François 1st (1515-1547) to see yogurt for the first time. The King was suffering from chronic intestinal disorder and he found a Hebrew speaking doctor who'd settled in Constantinople and specialised in curing such problems. According to Isabelle, the doctor visited the French royal court and for several weeks gave the king daily treatments composed of fermented ewe milk dairy products.
The king was cured and the doctor went back home, covered with gold, with his secrets and without anyone knowing what and how.
Thereafter, Isabelle continued, the yogurt disappeared for a long time ...
Until 1901, when Metchnikoff, the Russian scientist, was researching at the Paris Institute, on the aging of the European population.
He discovered that the Bulgarian people lived far longer than most wealthy Europeans. He conducted research studies to find the cause and discovered that long living poor Bulgarians fed themselves almost only with fermented dairy foodstuff called 'yogurts'.
Metchnikoff ordered a few liters of it to conduct chemical analysis. He isolated the first bacteria: watched the fermenting process and named it 'Bulgarius Lactobacillus'.
Then Metchnikoff isolated a second bacteria responsible for the pitching of the milk - Streptococcus Thermopilus - which was a taste bringing bacteria.
People in France, Isabelle related, began to culture and make yogurt but for only medicinal and digestive purposes. Moreover, when the French army came back from the Thessalonika campaign with very serious instestinal problems, the official doctors cured the sick soldiers with yogurt.
With excellent results the reputation spread into the ears of a young Spanish entrepreneur who, during the Roaring Twenties, took advantage of the new interest among European women for keeping a thin profile, he decided to launch the 'yoghurt fashion'.
European women, Isabelle said, grabbed those small yoghurt pots to get a thin profile.
This Spanish entrepreneur, called Carasso, built a small factory unit in Barcelona and achieved a real commercial success. His son Daniel, forecasting an even greater need of the market, decided then to cross the French-Spanish border and settled a bigger factory in France.
Even today, the brand name still resounds all over the world, Danone. Eh voilà, you have the discovery of the yogurt according to my French friend Isabelle.
Cara - Tuesday
Saturday, January 29, 2011
The event was the annual "Mystery on the Menu" -- 180 patrons, 15 mystery writers, several panels, a great lunch, and a fine buy&sign event to follow.
Lots of good writers and friendly library users, but the star was the library itself.
That's it, up there -- towering curves of hammered titanium inspired by Frank Gehry's Bilbao museum, that house one of the most beautiful and functional spaces I've ever been in.
This library should be a national destination and a national model for community priorities and self-reliance. Attention has been paid to absolutely everything, with special emphasis on kids. This is the entrance to the children's library.
The TV monitors are beamed from a camera that's pointed at a bench just to the right of the entrance. Kids sit there and mug at the camera and scream all the time -- they're superimposed onscreen over an animated dinosaur that keeps bending down to eat them.
To the left of this entrance is a floor-to-ceiling aquarium that kids flock to; it forms one wall of the kids' space.
And inside the children's library, what else? A tyrannosaurus and a cloudy daytime "sky" that slowly changes from day to night and back again. And kids -- kids with books -- everywhere.
When the commitment to this institution was first made, the ground the library stands on was used for growing strawberries. In fact, the first groundbreaking -- in April, 1972 -- was postponed for several months to let the final crop of berries mature. That knocks me out.
Cerritos is a widely diverse community -- mainly pan-Asian, but also white, Latino, and African-American -- with a broad spectrum of socioeconomic levels. And it's got books at its heart.
Oh, and it's also home to the top-performing high school in California. (And the third best in America, according to U.S. News & World Report.) Gee, wonder if there's any connection.
Tim -- Sunday
|"Smokey City" Pittsburgh, midday 1940|
|Sam Houston (1793-1863)|
But this is not about expressions of civic pride for Pittsburgh. This is about Space City/Bayou City/H-Town. And there are at least a half-dozen more nicknames for that southeast Texas metropolis down by the Gulf of Mexico created by two New Yorkers (the Allen Brothers) in 1836 and named after the President of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston. Yes, Texas was indeed an independent country between 1836 and 1845 and some down here seem to long for those days to return.
As far as I can tell, Houston generally gets picked-on in one of three ways: for having hot humid summers, no zoning, and one of the fattest populations in the United States. But the weather is really no different from Florida, there are beautiful residential communities to be found all over the city, and at least four other Texas towns rank higher than Houston on the “fat list.” Besides, “Fat City” is the nickname for New Orleans.
|Murder By The Book, Houston|
What is the real Houston? Let’s start off with a pithy description given to me by a Houstonian. “Houston is Los Angeles without the pretensions.” Having far more friends in Los Angeles than Green Bay, I hasten to say those are not my words, but at least it’s a place to start.
So, how do those two great cities compare?
|Downtown Los Angeles|
Both cities have terrific restaurants, shopping, and civic pride. Both have lovely residential communities, though the price of a home in Houston is likely to be one-tenth that of a similar one in LA.
|1956 film of Edna Ferber novel|
Stop! you say. Everyone knows Houston is redneck, while LA is
|Houston's Wunsche Bros. in Old Town Spring|
|Honorable Mayor of Houston|
And, oh yes, this redneck, conservative town just elected a new mayor, Annise Parker. A Democrat, female, and the first elected mayor of a U.S. city with over a million residents who is openly gay—something NYC, LA, and Chicago haven’t come close to doing.
Now, about managing that public image thing…win a Super Bowl (or seven), it does wonders.
|Downtown Pittsburgh today|
Jeff – Saturday
Friday, January 28, 2011
You're probably well aware by now that I have an interest in the lost or the missing, such as disused stations and tunnels, anything to which the term 'ghost' can be applied. Then you can imagine my excitement when I heard for the first time about a 'ghost village' in the UK. I've come across abandoned communities before, and visited one, Dunwich in Suffolk. But the people moved from Dunwich because of coastal erosion and while it was fascinating it had little of the creepy, ghostly feel I want from my deserted places.
Then I read about Imber, an isolated village on Salisbury Plain, just another dot on the map in Wiltshire. It's there in the Doomsday book, with a population of 50, and probably because it was so remote, its inhabitants hardly increased over the centuries. In the mid-20th century it is estimated 150 people lived there, but it boasted a glorious 700-year-old church, as well as a pub, and it seems like it was close-knit and friendly community. Until the Second World War.
When the war was over, the MoD intended to repair the properties damaged during manouevres and let the people back. Or so they said. Nothing happened. The villagers kept asking questions about when they could go home. Eventually the MoD said they would never be able to return: the land was going to be kept for training purposes.
This obviously went down like a bucket of cold sick. The villagers organised public rallies in support of their return. In 1961 a public inquiry was held which, unsurprisingly, found in favour of the army. The only sop thrown by those in power was a promise to maintain the church, and to open it to the public for services once a year, on the Sunday closest to St Giles' day (St Giles being the name of the church.) However, there was to be no homecoming for the residents, though one exiled Imberite was allowed his last wish of being buried in the church graveyard of his former home.
Plus I want to know what happened to those cans of food.
Dan - Friday
Thursday, January 27, 2011
|The Male hill|
|The Female hill|
|A penguin and two whales|
|Bushmen with semi-erect penises|
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
There is more sour news from here up north – the election for the constitutional parliament that took place late last year has been deemed illegal, leaving the 25 representatives that were to take seats at the beginning of February out in the cold. Luckily for my candidate - naked ass sailor guy - he did not get voted in so he remains at sea, fishing, possibly still in a state of undress. For one of the oldest republics in the world this High Court ruling or revelation regarding the election is something unacceptable. Turns out that the voting process itself was in so many ways misshapen that a randomly chosen election for third grade class president in any school anywhere, would prove to be more professionally conducted. The blogoshpere and the media are out for blood in their search for culprits but I don‘t personally care much where the blame lies, it is more the crumminess of everything lately that has me worried. Who in their right mind prints traceable, numbered ballots? Uses cardboard semi-partitions placed on desktops to makes election booths? Or transports ballots in open shoeboxes to the counting office? Really? I don't even want to know the names of those responsible.
Yrsa - Wednesday
Monday, January 24, 2011
Should a country celebrate the work of one of its most venerated writers of the 20th century, even if he was also notorious as a vociferous anti-Semite?
That's the dilemma French officials struggled with last week, as they readied to honor Journey To the End of Night author Louis-Ferdinand Céline amid objections they'd be paying tribute to an unrepentant Nazi supporter. When I read Céline, a man of contradictions, his work gobsmacked me. As a doctor he treated the poor, prostitutes and worked almost exclusively with the underserved. His life was a maze of contradictions yet his novels are amazing. He grew up in the Passage Choiseul, near the Palais Royal, in a mezzanine space above his parents shop of which he writes scathingly. The son of shopkeepers, he left school, travelled, did odd jobs but later passed stringent entrance exams and put himself through medical school. No mean feat in France.
But the controversy erupted last week when French Holocaust historian Serge Klarsfeld went public with his hostility to an annual event celebrating figures from France's cultural pantheon that, this year, includes Céline. I posted about Serge Klarsfeld's work last year, http://murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com/2010/10/vichy-past.html
Journey To the End of Night remains one of the most translated books on the planet, and Céline's status as one of the most influential authors in the past 100 years remains intact. However, Klarsfeld maintains it's impossible to separate the artistic accomplishments of a man who, elsewhere, used those same talents to write ferociously anti-Semitic screeds--and whose support of the Nazis and flight to Hitler's Germany earned him a prison term and stamp of “national disgrace” from a post-war French court.
"Céline's anti-Semitism is a discredit to him as a both man and as a writer…(and) his talent must not allow us forget the man who called for the killing of Jews during the Occupation,” Klarsfeld said on Jan. 20, when he called for Céline to be stricken from the event the following afternoon. “The Republic must respect its principles.”
Richard Prasquier, president of the umbrella organization assembling most of France's Jewish movements concurred: “This writer spent the last years of his life in anti-Semitic madness. I can understand him being the object of a colloquium, but not a national celebration.”
By noon Friday in Europe, it appeared French government and cultural officials were intent on retaining Céline in the ceremony when it would begin last Friday despite protests. The reason? Though the author's hateful anti-Semitism is indisputable, Céline experts such as Sorbonne professor Henri Godard argue what's being honored is the equally incontestable mark his legitimate work left on French and global literature. Ignoring that, he contends, would be a similar denial of his place in literary history as turning a blind eye to his infamy as an anti-Semite would be in examining his entire life.
Though that sounds convincing to some, it now seems clear whether Céline remains among the French artists honored Friday afternoon or is pulled at the last minute, the controversy surrounding the event means no one attending will feel much like celebrating. Celine is also the author of three pamphlets violently anti-Semitic, including his widow, still alive, refuses to reissue since the end of the war.
Quite the paradox is Louis-Ferdinand Celine - 1894-1961 - since he's often considered the greatest French writer of the twentieth century with Marcel Proust. In 1962, a year after his death, the anthology of Lagarde and Michard, bible for generations of students, already summed it all: "The hatred that were thrown into excess: Bagatelles pour un massacre (1938), Ecole corpses (1939), Fine Linen (1941), have they ever disfigured the face of Celine?
"One can love Céline without being an anti-Semite as one can love Proust without being a homosexual!" French President Nicolas Sarkozy quipped during a visit to India in 2008. While Sarkozy’s reasoning was peculiar, it nonetheless reflected a dilemma that many lovers and caretakers of French literature wrestle with: how, and even whether, to honour the late author Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Half a century later, the disorder remains intense. Céline's still in the center of controversy. In the NYReview of Books Wyatt Mason has a penetrating article on uncovering Celine that goes into depth http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jan/14/uncovering-celine/
Saturday, January 22, 2011
I've argued with myself over whether to write about this here, and I'm happy to say I won the argument. This kind of thing doesn't happen all that often, and it's easily the most interesting event of my week.
It's especially interesting because it follows my being dropped by HarperCollins, which had dampened my spirits substantially. It also follows my agent's brilliant inspiration to ask HarperCollins, who were feeling a little guilty, to return to us the audio book rights, with which they had done nothing. Within 24 hours of the Edgar nomination, we signed a very sweet deal for the audio. And we get to keep all the money.
Now I want to know who's going to be reading the books aloud.
So as of today, Poke is Edgar-nominated but homeless and about to make the transition to audio.
One other thing HarperCollins hadn't done much about was foreign rights. The day after the Edgar nominations were announced, an international e-newsletter called "Publishing Perspectives" led its front page with a suggestion to publishers all over the world that they take a look at The Queen of Patpong and three of the other nominees in different categories. I hope somebody reads the newsletter in Japan and Germany, because those are the two "big" markets (in terms of advance) where Poke has not been sold.
The full list of Edgar nominees in what I like to think of as "my" category is:
Caught, Harlan Coben
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Tom Franklin
Faithful Place, Tana French
The Queen of Patpong, Yours Truly
The Lock Artist, Steve Hamilton
I'd Know You Anywhere, Laura Lippman
That's a strong list, although I have no idea why all seven of the writers on this site aren't on it. Year in and year out, there's one book that didn't get on many people's radar and makes them scratch their heads and go, "Huh?" and this year I wrote it.
If I'm going to be honest, I have to say that the nomination completely and totally blindsided me. I hadn't given it a thought. The world is such a small place these days that the first person to send me congratulations was Ken Bruen, over in Ireland. Then the e-mails came in twenty and thirty at a time, and all my friends at Murder Is Everywhere were among the early responders.
So, world, what's next?
|Montparnasse Piano Bar, Mykonos, Greece|
|Little Venice at sunset|
|Steve Allen and Jane Meadows|
|Nikos and Jody, Proprietors|
|Mykonos' Grand Diva, Phyllis Pastore|
|The scene of the crime|
|"Curses, foiled again!"|
|Good conquers evil|
Friday, January 21, 2011
I'm a bit of a Titanic nerd. Or at least I am now. I was always interested in the sinking, but, because of the project I'm involved with, during the past year or so I calculate I've read more than twenty books on the disaster, as well as a number of journals and newspaper cuttings, archived records and online reports. It's an endlessly fascinating saga, which throws up so many questions and mysteries (not just the obvious ones about why it was going so fast despite all the warnings about ice, but less explored conundrums, such as: given all the ice warnings, and the fact other ships in the area saw numerous icebergs and fields of pack ice, are we really expected to believe that Titanic hit the first berg it came across? The reality is almost certainly that the ship was passing icebergs right and left before it struck the fatal one, which makes those responsible even more negligent and reckless.)
However, reading all these books, and there are several new ones released each year, addressing all these unanswered questions, watching documentaries about people diving to the bottom of the ocean searching for clues as to why it sank, it becomes easy to forget that what caused it to sink isn't really that important. The time for justice has passed. Lessons have been learned. What is often glossed over is that Titanic was a human tragedy, a loss of life on a vast scale. Talk of floating palaces, icebergs, confused helm orders and watertight compartments forget that men, women and children, many of them the poorest on board, died freezing, agonising, often prolonged deaths. In all the theories and conjecture, much of which seems to have been hijacked by naval architects and engineers intent on arguing the toss over at what degree angle the glancing blow was struck, the simple story at the heart of it all gets lost, and that's the tale told by the passengers.
Much is made of the lessons learned from the sinking of Titanic. It has become a cliche; anything of any import that meets a sticky end trails with it a reference to the Titanic (my favourite subversion came via spoof chat show host Alan Partridge, when a guest indicated his dire opening show meant his new series was about to endure the same fate as Titanic. 'Titanic? Titanic?' he rants. 'Let me say this. What people forget about the Titanic is that there were four days of very serene, pleasurable cruising before it hit the iceberg.') The fact is, we do ignore the lessons at our peril. It might never happen again, but you don't have to look far to see that man's hubris, his willingness to ignore the power of nature, has hardly died out. A volcano erupts in Iceland, bringing the airline industry to a halt across much of Northern Europe. Rather than sitting in awestruck wonder at ability of nature to remind us her of her powers, the newspapers are filled with moaning minnies complaining that we are too mollycoddled and weak to even put ourselves at the slightest risk. I'd like to think the kids staring at that crumpled top hat, or putting themselves on the deck of the listing ship, being separated from their fathers and brothers, and loaded on to lifeboats in the middle of the night (if they were lucky) might grow up with a different view.
Hear, hear. Reading through much of the contemporaneous reports and inquiry transcripts, a rather nasty, snobbish racism emerges; the upper class English speaking folk took their fate like they should, without much ado, or any kind of show, unlike the 'continentals' and the penniless who screamed and ranted, and tried to get off the ship in all kinds of ways, even - shock horror - jumping into the lowering lifeboats! Egads. 'Be British,' Captain Smith was rumoured to have urged crew and passengers at one point, which presumably meant meekly and humbly accepting your death at the hands of others incompetence and negligence. I'm reminded of the joke: 'I hope I die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather. And not shouting and screaming like the passengers in his car.'
Dan - Friday