Saturday, December 29, 2018

Readings: The "Eh?" Awards

I came across an interesting category on the LibraryThing's Top 5 Books of the Year lists: Dishonorable Mentions. While this may seem churlish on the face of it, it's still a worthwhile endeavor. What makes us dislike a book so many others have loved? Is it even possible to know? Still, this is my attempt to do just that, and I forthwith hand out the Eh? Awards.

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee: Rather than a novel, this a set of five long stories. I don't remember now if they are linked in any way, but I think they aren't. What I do remember is that the first story ended abruptly, almost rudely. The second one meandered along, seeming to take an unusual direction, then at the end I was left asking what the point was. And of the remaining, one was frankly a real slog. About a poor man who sets off to make money via a tamed, dancing bear, it was a long relentless jag of abject misery. I was left wondering if I judge Indian authors more harshly than other ones, but even if that were the case, I am baffled by Mukherjee's entire effort.

The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce: This one had an interesting premise as the title suggests. However, it gets bogged down in the telling. It felt like the author had a bunch of good and worthy ideas that he then didn't know how to tie together; they just hung there dejectedly among the flat and ordinary characters, waiting to come to life themselves. As it progressed I fully skipped the part about a dog- imagine me skipping the DOG part- and in the end cared not a whit about what happened. Still, I hope Pierce keeps at it. Heck, why not just pick up the manuscript of The Afterlives and go after it with a red pen and a glass bottle of wine for courage?

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick: My first by this much-feted author. The premise was wildly exciting- Germany wins WWII and rules the world, neatly dividing the US into German and Japanese domains. But again, the characters seemed disconnected from this reality, somehow. There was a whole skein of detail about some strange jewelry business and not enough about anything else. The narrative tone was disjointed in that some sections were written in an odd Japanese sort of style but abruptly, others were not. Then there were random stream-of-consciousness bits. In the end, I did not get what happened. What a frustrating read! This is considered a great classic. But for me it was almost totally inaccessible. 

Under the Skin by Michael Faber: Shudder. Yes, this was a paean to vegetarianism. Yes, it did in fact make you feel the horror of the meat industry. The central woman was even intriguing at times. Yet, that is all there is: unrelenting ick. Why, Faber, did you feel the need to write like this? Not a single redeeming factor in the entire pitiless thing. Sigh. I read through despondently because I was trapped on the world's longest flight, but I'm still sure that that mind-warp was not the cause of my misery. Faber was.

The Yoga of Max's Discontent by Karan Bajaj: I picked this up despite the title giving me a case of the WTFs. The first few pages I was thankful that I was giving it a chance, then that feeling dissipated as our Max arrives in India. In the Himalayas, no less, because he wants to discover the extreme yogis who live and meditate in the unreachable heights, achieving impossible feats due to their mastery of the mind-body-soul connection that high yogis practice. With this as the theme and the world's mightiest mountains as physical backdrop, nothing worked for me. I flipped on speedily and when I read the last words, didn't feel anything had been missed by skipping the entire middle portion.

Still, as long as I don't get my hopes in a lather before I pick up a book, things are generally not so bleak. I do usually manage that feat but I also hope that at the end of 2019 I will have so few doozies that I won't be able to make this list at all. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

French Movie Friday: Back to Burgundy

A quite perfect way to end the year, this was. A person less interested in vineyards than I one cannot find, but that's not the entire point of the admittedly worryingly-titled Back to Burgundy. (Why couldn't they stick to the much better original title Ce Qui Nous Lie?)

Jean is the oldest of three siblings in a vintner family, who comes back to Burgundy after an abrupt departure ten years before. Turns out he had issues with the old man, who now lies near death in hospital. Meanwhile the younger two, Juliette and Jeremie, have been running the show. 

Essentially, that is the crux. From here on out I frequently got the feeling that we were floating by in a boat on a sunny little stream, watching the three fight, work, make up, make decisions, mess up, confess, retreat. There was a good bit of wine-making what-nottery, but this was so engaging that even I wanted to get in on it. (Why should one spit when tasting, as Jeremie correctly points out in a hysterically funny outburst to his domineering father in law. Spitting is for ninnies.)

Then Juliette reams out her two brothers and the vineyard manager in a short but scorching burst toward the end. "Why can't I have some fucking elegance in my wine!" she thunders to the stunned trio, and this also was so effective that I burst out giggling. 

There are many such small but sparkling vignettes. Some found the movie lacking in any great impact, one even called it 'pedestrian'. But for me the reality and the beauty of wine-making in the dreamy countryside came alive with the three siblings. (I can be quite easy to please while watching movies, evidently, much more so than when reading a book.) So, Vive la France! Never mind that your wine gives me a headache, vintners of the world, I hope more movies like this are made because clearly y'all are pretty fun to watch.

Director: Cedric Klapisch
Overall rating: 7/10

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Year end musings

The food highlight of the year was undeniably Taipei. Despite coming off a bit poorly compared to Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong, it was still interesting. 

More interesting though were the specifics. Poor J was dying to try the locally famous oyster omelet. Finally, in the overwhelming Raohe St. market (correctly described as 'heaving' by one wise guidebook) I procured, after much discussion and frank bad temper, one of the things. Alas, and this is why I said 'poor J' it fell flat. Too gelatinous, he said glumly, pushing it around on the plate with his chopsticks. Me, on the other hand? I, surprisingly, attacked it with gusto. It had an intriguing smoky taste, so much so that I looked past the admittedly somewhat gummy texture. Who knew? I declared it a success. 

On to the next thing. Sweet potato balls! These we got without much ado at the end of the street where there was a bit of air. Again, J looked crestfallen. They were mildly sweet, a little hard, a little chewy. And there I was, much more enthusiastic than my good friend. Second strange success of the night!       

We converged at the dessert place around the corner in that here J was finally happy with his choice: a thick and pleasant taro milkshake. And I, yet again, happy with my own impressive order: a gigantic bowl of shaved ice flavored with lychee syrup and a heap of fresh lychees on the side. We've been looking for the taro treat in these parts, but have yet to succeed.                                 

Thursday, December 13, 2018


Who would have thought that an entire year would go by and I would have made zero purchases of perfume? Back in my youth I had a wildly rotating cast of favorites. One day I would smell woody and deep like my father's old scent, the next day like a magnolia, as a fine-nosed friend detected. (He works in the fragrance business.) 

Then, our first Christmas together J gave me a bottle of this one perfume that would go on to become my signature. It reminded him instantly of me, he said, and he had sampled dozens by then. 

Well! Quite a compliment that is, I thought. This scent is complex, warm, mysterious, soft and evocative all at once. It changes subtly in character as the night wears on. The packaging itself is a rare shape and color, somewhere between deep rust and burgundy. And the very first time I wore it, I was in love. Even to my poorly-calibrated nose, there were the hints of chocolate and sandalwood. And tea. And...cedar? In any event, I still have a bottle of it. I can see myself wearing it even when I am dancing the tango at 80 at a milonga in another hemisphere. 

But it's the only one I really own anymore. The other two on my shelf are presents from my sister. They smell like roses and delicacy; they are elegant, young. Another compliment...she said they fit me well. Ha! She must not have noticed my rapidly-aging fearsome self no longer possesses long shelves of any kind of perfume. 

On the other hand, my clean, unscented forehead is J's favorite scent. How do I smell? I've whined so many times, desperate to know. I can't sniff my own forehead now, can I? J's answers are always enigmatic and thus, frustrating. The latest answer? Like a vacation. 

I suppose that's a good thing. But I have still started going back to the old favorite; and I make an effort to use the others too. Interesting, this, though. What brought on this change in olfactory preferences?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Going abroad

Of late J and I have been going back to that small Armenian grocery near dad's old place. In the old days we'd stop by only occasionally (J said it was a sketchy corner) but all these years later it seems to have cleaned up, wholesome now. 

Thankfully the store itself is not any bigger. You have to squeeze through the aisles still; or, in my case, disappear almost into the back room (where some wonderful handmade yogurt-like thing was being packaged) in order not to inconvenience the formidable-looking granny who would clearly not brook any blockages of her single circuit of the store. The service is somewhat patchy in that English is not wholeheartedly embraced, and several back-and-forth exchanges must occur before an order for grilled goodies is accurately placed. Then, there is no help for picking up finished orders. Smiles and small talk do not exist. Other customers casually run into you, jogging your elbow heedlessly as they scrutinize the homemade tabouleh. 

All this is a welcome relief. J and I both snicker happily at being thus ignored, spending the entire 20-minute wait squeezing in and out of the aisles, picking up this and that, and finally ending up with a very interesting haul of young walnut preserves, some strange dried sheets of cheese, preserved plums, and our recently-grilled dinner. 

Well, the destination for J's long-dreamed-of big trip is still undecided. Might we head to the Caucasus?

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

How the kids have grown

"Don't be a dramatic valley girl," said aid-worker friend on the phone the other day. I was talking about the cold in L.A. "It gets down to 5 or 6," I reminded him, Celsius that is. Ha, take that! Of course, as he reminded me, we do not have concrete floors and stone walls that hold on to the cold like resentment...such are the perils of spending your life trying to do good works in Rajasthan. 

As for myself in this land of perpetual sunshine, what a long way I have come from my first cycle of seasons here. The first time, I shrank from the dark like a frightened mole. The cold pervaded my soul and made me long for the heat of my childhood when a cold heap of grapes was the prize of the day. Every evening I would sit huddled miserably on the couch trying to read and failing, aware that it was not yet 5pm and the world was dark. Lights blazed all day in our apartment that year. 

And now? There I sit in my cozy socks, a cup of liquorice tea steaming gently on the side, Christmas fairy lights adding to the glow. A book on my lap. I wait for the moment the street lamps go on. Every evening, well before 5, when I catch it, it still seems like magic. 

Monday, December 10, 2018

Readings: The Crow Road

This much-acclaimed novel reminded me of the long-ago favorite movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. It has that same sense of tight-knit familiarity when the protagonists grow up together, those same loves and resentments. Yet the fine The Crow Road is so much more, too. 

Prentice, middle son of the McHoan clan of Gallanach, Scotland, is our main storyteller. There are others too, most notably his father, Kenneth. But almost because of the other points of view, it felt like I knew Prentice that much better; can there be a more intimate way to know a young adult than to have known him as a child? Prentice has an extended and somewhat eccentric family that also has a strong sense of wit at all times. (What fun it must have been to attend one of their parties!) Then there are the friends who remain friends for life, all intersecting and separating in various tragic and lovely ways. 

As to the plot, there is none in the beginning. Still, I was happy with this; save for a few sections I didn't have to skim through because let's face it, everyone in Scotland is so entertaining. Ha. (I'm hopelessly biased now, first having been enamored of the Scots while watching the discontinued series Monarch of the Glen three years ago.) Then later, bit by bit, something dark begins to emerge. Prentice's young, frequently booze-addled brain begins to join the dots. Family secrets, betrayals, marital strife, adolescent love, sibling struggles, murders...? Everything and nothing happens to the McHoans and the associated Urvill family. (There's even a castle!)

I was so immersed that I tore through Prentice's meanderings in two days, resulting in this novel landing as a late addition to the 2018 favorites. And now I must go order a pile more from Iain Banks, since he's obligingly written dozens to choose from. Also Banks himself has landed on my rapidly-growing list of older British crushes, but this he will never know. 
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