Where's the book?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Love means never having to take the veil

It’s an old story: star-crossed lovers from different worlds meet, love, part, perish. When Shakespeare penned it, he pitted the Capulets against the Montagues. When Erich Segal did it (did you get dizzy from that sudden change in cultural altitude?) in Love Story, he teamed fancy-pants-rich boy Oliver Barett IV with other-side-of-the-tracks Jenny Cavilleri (a vowel on the end of her name! heavens!). And, of course, there are those Jets and Sharks pirouetting around Tony and Maria from when Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim did it.

I’m talking about the old story of star-crossed lovers, of course, and book number 19 spotlights two of them: Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said.

I had read a book about the author of Ali and Nino. The Orientalist, by Tom Reiss, claims that Kurban Said was born Lev Nussinbaum, a Jew from oil-rich Baku, capital of Azerbijain. Reiss's research revealed that Nussinbaum converted to Islam and wrote under the name Essad Bey and, later, Kurban Said. But the introduction to my 1999 edition of Ali and Nino begins, “This remarkable book has a strange and cloudy history…” and claims the book was co-authored by two people—Bey and the Austrian Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels. After all his work, Reiss may take exception to the description of the book's history as “strange and cloudy”; I, on the other hand, take exception to the adjective, “remarkable.”

Set mostly in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, during the years of World War I and the Russian Revolution, the book tells the story of a wealthy Muslim boy, Ali, who falls in love with a Christian Georgian princess, Nino. But it’s really the story of contradiction and attempted reconciliation between old world and new, Islam and Christianity, male and female, and, ultimately East and West.

A mixed marriage in 1900 Baku
Ali is dark, Nino is blonde. Ali’s world is one of blood bonds and eunuchs, devishes and harems; Nino’s one of opera houses and Paris fashions. On the even of their marriage, Ali’s father advises him: “Do not beat her when she is pregnant.” Nino’s father tells him: “Man and wife must never forget that they have equal rights and that their souls are their own.”

The conflict between East and West seems relevant today, nearly a century after its time. At one point, Ali flees to the mountains of Dagestan, a land I had never heard of up until the recent coverage of the lives of the Boston Marathon bombers. At one point in the story, Ali and Nino argue about whether or not she will wear a veil after they are wed. The features of a woman, Ali informs her, should only please her husband: “An open face, a naked back, a bosom half uncovered, transparent stockings on slender legs—all these are promises which a woman must keep. A man who sees as much as that wants to see more. To save the man from such desires, that is why women wear the veil.”

It’s all our fault ladies. We’ve just got to protect those guys from their own beastly urges. I’m unwrapping my burqa as I write.

But despite some interesting moments, the book as a whole left me—well, maybe not cold, but lukewarm. The melodramatic violins-and-handkerchiefs style did not jerk my tears, it tried my patience. In the end, Ali and Nino felt more like different sides of an old argument rather than flesh-and-blood lovers whose passion tries to overcome a great divide. I’ll stick with Healthcliff and Cathy. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

#18: Something special (no, that's not the name of the book)

I can be pretty darn perverse. When everyone else is kvelling over some new novel, my first reaction is: nope, not interested. When all the people round me say, it’s beautiful, moving, brilliant, my first thought is: no interest. From earliest childhood I’ve always hated any sentence that started with, “You should...” But that’s a subject for another time, another therapy session.

However, you should read Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge. I didn’t when it first came out (see paragraph above) and now I have and I am so glad I did. I may just go out and pick up The Burgess Boys, her recently-published (to great reviews) novel and her two earlier novels, Abide with Me and Amy and Isabelle .

Olive Kitteridge is a series of interconnected stories, all featuring, to a greater or lesser degree, the retired schoolteacher Olive Kitteridge. Except for one story focusing on her husband Henry, most of the book is set during Olive’s later years. The writing is beautiful in its simplicity, reminding me at times of Jhumpa Lahiri’s compassionate, clear, unfussy prose. It also made me think of Jane Austen’s writings, in its observance, in the everyday, of all the many aspects of human behavior, the large in the small. The book takes a very tiny place—a coastal town in Maine—and sees the entire rich, dramatic, complicated world. I loved Olive, I hated Olive, I felt sympathy for Olive. It’s a marvelously human and humane novel and I loved every minute of it. 

The moral of the story

Friday, May 17, 2013

At lease one good thing came out of colonialism

Leave it to the French: the finest product of their colonial period in Indochina had to be edible, right? I loooove a good sandwich, and the bành mì is one super-delicious specimen of the genre.

If you’ve never experienced a bành mì—pardon me while I weep—it’s a combination of many delicious things that add up to far more than the sum of their parts. The term “bành mì” is Vietnamese for bread, more specifically the individually-sized baguette. In Vietnam, the bread is airier, lighter, with a thinner crust. Ergo: perfect for sandwiches. A bành mì is filled with a combination of French (pâté, mayonnaise) and native ingredients (cilantro, hot sauce, pickled vegetables).

There are bazillions (or as my figlio minore used to say, brazilians) of possibilities, but some of the more popular bành mì start with pork (belly, sausage, patties, meatballs), grilled chicken, pate, cheese, fried eggs, tofu, or fish. Add a layer of vegetables like fresh cucumber slices and pickled carrots and daikon. Then a sprinkling of cilantro. The bread is spread with spicy chili sauce and sliced chili peppers. 

Voilà! A combination of spicy, meaty, zingy, sweet, and tangy that is absolute perfection.

This version is fairly simple. Although it may look daunting, it’s really just a long list of ingredients with some very easy instructions, and much of it can be done well in advance. Don’t be put off: If you have to go out and buy fish sauce or sriracha for this recipe, that’s a good thing (pace Martha). I promise you will love them. Fish sauce (also known is nam pla or nuoc nam) is available these days in most supermarkets. And sriracha has so many uses, you’ll soon be leaving it on the table along with the salt and pepper.

I make these for dinner along with a big salad and some oven roasted spicy fries. It’s a great easy meal, and the leftovers…wait, I’ve never had any.

Bành mì with spicy pork meatballs

Serves: makes 4 sandwiches (you’ll need more for a hungry crowd)


2/3 cup mayonnaise
2 green onions, finely chopped
1 TB hot chili sauce (such as sriracha)

1 pound ground pork
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 green onions, finely chopped
1 TB fish sauce (such as nam pla or nuoc nam)
1 TB hot chili sauce (such as sriracha)
1 TB sugar
2 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp coarse kosher salt

1-2 cups coarsely grated carrots
1-2 cups coarsely grated peeled daikon
1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp coarse kosher salt
1 TB Asian sesame oil
4 10-inch-long individual baguettes or four 10-inch-long pieces French-bread baguette
Thinly sliced jalapeño chiles
16 large fresh cilantro sprigs


Stir all ingredients in small bowl. Season with salt.
DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill.

Gently mix all ingredients in large bowl. Using moistened hands and scant tablespoonful for each, roll meat mixture into 1-inch meatballs. Arrange on baking sheet.
DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill.

  1. Toss first 5 ingredients in medium bowl. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour, tossing occasionally.
  2. While the veggies are marinating, cook the meatballs. Heat sesame oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the meatballs (don't crowd them, cook in batches if necessary). Sauté until brown and cooked through, turning meatballs often and lowering heat if browning too quickly, about 15 minutes. Keep them warm in the oven while you cook the remaining meatballs.
  3. Slice each baguette or baguette piece horizontally in half. Scoop out enough bread from each bread half to leave 1/2-inch-thick shell. Spread hot chili mayo over each bread shell. Arrange jalapeños, then cilantro, in bottom halves. Fill each with 1/4 of meatballs. Drain pickled vegetables, place atop meatballs. Press on baguette tops. (You can also put all the finished ingredients on the table and let your diners create their own bành mì to their liking: as spicy, tangy, or meaty as they prefer.)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Forget-me-not? No. Forgettable? Oh yeah.

Have you ever read a book that vanishes from your memory as you are reading it? Like dry leaves in the wind, the story and characters of Carry the One by Carol Anshaw flew from my mind every single time I closed the book. I would read a chapter, put it down, pick it up an hour later and—abracadabra—the entire story had disappeared.

Now, I’m not as young as I used to be (such an interesting expression—is anyone as young as they used to be, even one minute ago?). And my memory might not be as strong a muscle as it was back when I was listening to…what was his name again? The guy with the guitar and the songs…? When I lived in…where was I living then?

But despite my dwindling powers of retention, I can generally keep up with who’s who is a novel that I’m reading every single day. Except for this novel. Everything about it is so uneventful, so dull, so uninteresting, that it disappeared as if the words were drifting sluggishly off the page. It was insert. Comatose. Dead.

Death is an appropriate metaphor, since the novel is built around a car accident that causes the death of a ten-year-old girl. It sounds like such an interesting premise: A carload of celebrants are driving home a few hours after a joyful wedding. They hit the girl and we follow them and a few other related characters through the next twenty-five years as they “carry the one," i.e., live with this horrific shadow over their lives. Historical events make Forrest Gump-ian appearances, such as the the Take Back the Night rallies of the 1980s and the attacks of 9/11. There is love, marriage, divorce, children, triumph, pain, drugs, death, and lots of should-be-hot-but-it’s-not sex.

Carry the One got some pretty darn excellent reviews. Entertainment Weekly said, “If you love Jonathan Franzen, you’ll love this compelling book.” I hope Franzen sued. In the New York Times, the venerable Michiko Kakutani said the book was, “beautifully observed…the novel grapples with the many sadnesses of life…with lyricism and humor. We are pulled along by [Anshaw’s] uncommon ability to describe just about anything.” I must have missed all that. 

But my favorite “review” came from amazon, where one astute reader said, “My book club chose this book based on a review. It was unanimous that none of us liked this book. At the end I felt like I had finished a book for a school report just because I had to.”

My book group chose the book, too. And it was also unanimous that none of us thought very highly of the book. I finished it—because I felt I had to—and immediately, thankfully, forgot virtually everything about it. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Book #16: A wild ride with Junot and a visit with Anna

Before I get to the book of the blog, can I just take a sec to tell you my favorite book-related quote of the last few weeks? Yes? Thanks.

My new bff
It's from the Sunday Times Book Review "By the Book" column, which each week asks a famous author to answer some questions on favorite books, favorite characters, etc. A couple of weeks ago it was Anna Quindlen's turn in the hot seat. The first question was, "What's your favorite book of all time?" Anna had me at hello when she chose "Middlemarch" because, "I think of it as perfection." Her other two choices were "Bleak House" and "Pride and Prejudice," which, given my passion for 19th-century Brits, made me fall in love with her even more.

Best Elizabeth Bennet
She went on to say her favorite character from literature is Elizabeth Bennet and her favorite childhood character was Jo March. If I have to tell you what books those two are from then you and I can't be friends any more (jk: "Pride and Prejudice" and "Little Women," respectively). I liked her reason for choosing my dear friend Jo: "She wanted to be a writer. She stopped caring that she wasn't pretty. She sold her hair...I even forgave her for not marrying Laurie." I had a hard time with that decision, too, until she met Professor Bhaer. He made not marrying Laurie forgivable.

But my favorite quote of the interview was when Anna (we're on a first-name basis now) was asked what kind of books she steers clear of, and she answered: "I think 'experimental fiction' is a synonym for 'Give me a break.'" Wonderful, no?

As for my latest read (#16; I'm a little behind my one-book-a-week plan), it's "This Is How You Lose Her" by Junot Diaz. I had read and loooooved his "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" and although this time it wasn't love and adore, it was definitely liked a lot and thoroughly enjoyed.

The new book is a lot shorter and less dense than "Oscar." It's a series of inter-related stories, most of them centering around the amorous adventures of Yunior, familiar to readers of Diaz's first two books. The Times called his writing "turbo-charged" and that's the perfect word; the book is an electrifying roller-coaster ride and all you have to do is buckle up and hold on tight.

The stories, for the most part, center around love, the ups and downs and then downs some more, of his passionate and troubled relationships. But calling them "love stories" would sell them short. They are also about family, about being an American and not-an-American, about Dominican culture, about fathers and sons. You can read the book in a day or two (mainly because it's so hard to put down), but you'll think about it for much longer.

And when it's over, you'll have just one desire. To read more. Write faster, Junot. Please.