Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

I'm always hesitant about writing about a book like this - a classic, one that's taught in schools (although not in any I attended). It's been analysed to death, there are books written about the book: so what can I say that will add to all this? Not much I reckon. Except that I did enjoy the book. I think too often I am guilty of thinking of this continent as Africa, in other words, forgetting that there are distinct countries, different peoples, that each clan, each individual is unique. And this book reminds me of that. It is a simple story, yet effectively told.

Achebe sets an ominous tone in the dark of the night: "Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string. And so on this particular night as the crier's voice was gradually swallowed up in the distance, silence returned to the world, a vibrant silence made more intense by the universal trill of a million million insects."

Okonkwo, a wealthy farmer and a great wrestler, lives in Umuofia, a clan feared by all its neighbours. He lives by the traditions of the clan, and has a strong mindset on how things should be done. This stems from the troubled life of his father Unoka, an ill-fated man who died heavily in debt: "With a father like Unoka, Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men had. He neither inherited a barn nor a title, nor even a young wife. But in spite of these disadvantages, he had begun even in his father's lifetime to lay the foundations of a prosperous future. It was slow and painful. But he threw himself into it like one possessed. And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father's contemptible life and shameful death."

There are parts that are difficult to read, difficult for me and perhaps most westernized readers to truly comprehend. The superstitions and the clan's stringent belief in evil spirits for example are intriguing. And what I found quite shocking was a medicine man's treatment of a dead child, believed to be "one of those wicked children who, when they died, entered their mothers' wombs to be born again." Of course, conversely, we would seem strange and baffling to them too.

But Achebe sets this scene in order for us to understand what happens when the white men arrive. Okonkwo breaks a custom of the clan, and he and his family are sent away for seven years. In the years of his exile, there is much change in his village. Missionaries have built a church there, converting some of the clan - among whom is Okonkwo's son - and bringing their ways of government with them. And this eventually breaks Okonkwo's spirit:

"Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women."

Read in March 2009

Fiction (novels) (12)
Chinua Achebe - Things Fall Apart
Kazuo Ishiguro - Remains of the Day
Edith Wharton - Brideshead Revisited
David Benioff - The City of Thieves
Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Memories of my Melancholy Whores
Aleksandar Hemon - The Lazarus Project
Elizabeth Taylor - Blaming
Raymond Chandler - The Big Sleep
Christopher Isherwood - The Berlin Stories
John Cheever - The Wapshot Chronicle
Timothy Schaffert - The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters
John Niven - Kill Your Friends

Fiction (short stories)
George Saunders - In Persuasion Nation

Graphic Novels (2)
Alison Bechdel - Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Alan Moore - The Watchmen

Non-Fiction (8)
Jared Diamond - Gun, Germs and Steel
The Waiter - Waiter Rant
Rachel Carson - Silent Spring
Peter Hessler - Oracle Bones
Dave Eggers (ed) - Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008
Calvin Trillin - Alice, Let's Eat
Slash and Anthony Bozza - Slash
Michael Chabon - Maps and Legends

Total in March: 22

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

From the blurb:
A charming city of avenues and cafes, a grotesque city of night-people and fantasts, a dangerous city of vice and intrigue, a powerful city of millionaires and mobs - all this was Berlin in 1931, the period when Hitler was beginning his move to power.

Here are Mr Norris, the improbable old debauchee mysteriously caught in the struggle between Nazis and Communists: plump Fraulein Schroeder, who thinks an operation to reduce the scale of her Buste might relieve her heart palpitations; the Landauers, a distinguished and doomed Jewish family; Sally Bowles, whose misadventures in the demimonde were popularized on the American stage and screen by Julie Harris in 'I Am a Camera' and by Liza Minelli in 'Cabaret'
The Berlin Stories is known by other names. It is, officially, two books: The Last of Mr Norris and Goodbye to Berlin. The Last of Mr Norris is also known as Mr Norris Changes Trains, but as Isherwood explains in his introduction, the American publisher found Mr Norris Changes Trains to be obscure. Goodbye to Berlin is comprised of four pieces published separately, Sally Bowles, The Nowaks, The Landauers, and Berlin Diary: Automn 1930. It's less complicated than it sounds, and you might already have an idea of some of the story of Sally Bowles already, if you've seen Cabaret the musical or the movie.

I far preferred the second story, Goodbye to Berlin, over the one on Mr Norris, whom I found rather unlikeable. I didn't quite understand Isherwood's narrator, William Bradshaw, who meets a stranger on a train (Mr Norris) and becomes friendly with him. And continues to remain friends despite the many oddities and seeming half-truths Mr Norris tells.

"Well groomed and witty, with money to burn, he must have been one of the most eligible young bachelors of his large circle; but it was the money lenders, not the ladies, who got him in the end."

Goodbye to Berlin is more comprehendable. It's a set of observations of the residents of Berlin, the friends he made when he lived in Berlin in the 1930s. It is his photobook of Germany: "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed."

It's about the characters, such as Sally Bowles, an English actress, who believes herself to be "a sort of Ideal Woman, if you know what I men. I'm the sort of woman who can take men away from their wives, but I could never keep anybody for long. And that's because I'm the type which every man imagines he wants, until he gets me; and then he finds he doesn't really, after all".

And Bernhard Landauer, who is "sympathetic, charming", but at the same time, Isherwood observed that: "he is not going to tell me what he is really thinking or feeling, and he despises me because I do not know. He will never tell me anything about himself, or about the things which are most important to him. And becausee I am not as he is, because I am the opposite of this, and would gladly share my thoughts and sensations with forty million people if they cared to read them, I half admire Bernhard but also half dislike him."

Isherwood casts his observant eye over pre-war Berlin, and his love for the city comes through in his simply brilliant writing. He feels for Berlin: "Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching". But perhaps it is the fact, the knowledge that the lives of these characters are soon to be turned upside down: "The newspapers are becoming more and more like copies of a school magazine. There is nothing in them but new rules, new punishments and lists of people who have been 'kept in'."

Friday, March 27, 2009

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Meet Alison's father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family's Victorian house, a third-generation funeral home director, a high school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with male students and a family babysitter. Through narrative that is alternately heartbreaking and fiercely funny, we are drawn into a daughter's complex yearning for her father. And yet, apart from assigned stints dusting caskets at the family-owned "fun home," as Alison and her brothers call it, the relationship achieves its most intimate expression through the shared code of books. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescence, the denouement is swift...graphic...and redemptive.

I told myself to save it for after (the many other books I borrowed), but I just couldn't help it and ripped into Fun Home by Alison Bechdel yesterday. It was a completely absorbing read. It was warm and funny and yet also very sobering (it is after all, titled as a 'tragicomic'.) I loved the (asides) she put in, such as "(Honest to God, we had a painting of a cockatoo in the library.)", and the bits and pieces taken from her childhood diary, which reminded me of my own random scribblings as a kid. I especially enjoyed her style of drawing, kept simple in black, white and blue. I know these thoughts don't really do justice to this great book, which I'm definitely recommending, whether you've ever picked up a graphic novel or not. So I'd like to point you to the far more comprehensive review in The Quarterly Conversation.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Read this (26 March 2009)

Raymond Chandler died 50 years ago today.

Zoetrope's latest issue is a Latin American one.

Smitten Kitchen's homemade chocolate wafers look amazing.

Sure you've seen black chickens in supermarkets in Singapore, but what about with their feathers on?

This recipe for spaghetti with sardines sounds simple and oh mouthwatering.

Journalist: Is there any emerging international cuisine you predict will take over the dining scene soon?
Anthony Bourdain: Year after year, I'm hoping for Singapore-style cuisine...It's a style of eating that we're sorely missing. (via)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Library Loot (25 March 2009)

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Alessandra that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
It took me a while but I finally found the tiny little graphic novel collection at my library.
This breakout book by Alison Bechdel takes its place alongside the unnerving, memorable, darkly funny family memoirs of Augusten Burroughs and Mary Karr. It's a father-daughter tale pitch-perfectly illustrated with Bechdel's sweetly gothic drawings and — like Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis — a story exhilaratingly suited to the graphic memoir form.

Meet Alison's father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family's Victorian house, a third-generation funeral home director, a high school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with male students and a family babysitter. Through narrative that is alternately heartbreaking and fiercely funny, we are drawn into a daughter's complex yearning for her father. And yet, apart from assigned stints dusting caskets at the family-owned "fun home," as Alison and her brothers call it, the relationship achieves its most intimate expression through the shared code of books. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescence, the denouement is swift...graphic...and redemptive.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
It's one of those books that's be on the 'I really should read this' pile for a long time.
Chinua Achebe's first novel portrays the collision of African and European cultures in people's lives. Okonkwo, a great man in Igbo traditional society, cannot adapt to the profound changes brought about by British colonial rule. Yet, as in classic tragedy, Okonkwo's downfall results from his own character as well as from external forces.
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
A Pulitzer Prize-winning classic originally published over 50 years ago, Rawling's timeless story of backwoods Florida and the tender relationship of a young boy and his tame fawn continues to delight and enthrall readers.
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta
This won the Kiriyama Prize and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
A native of Bombay, Suketu Mehta gives us an insider’s view of this stunning metropolis. He approaches the city from unexpected angles, taking us into the criminal underworld of rival Muslim and Hindu gangs; following the life of a bar dancer raised amid poverty and abuse; opening the door into the inner sanctums of Bollywood; and delving into the stories of the countless villagers who come in search of a better life and end up living on the sidewalks.
The Bostonians by Henry James
The plot of this novel revolves around the feminist movement in Boston in the 1870's. F.R. Leavis called it one of "the 2 most brilliant novels in the language. "The novel's many allusions to the historical and social background of Boston society are explained in the editorial material.
The Blue Girl by Charles de Lint
This is my first foray into de Lint's world.

When Imogene, her mother, and her brother move to Newford, she decides to reinvent herself — this time she won't go looking for trouble. She quickly gets to know two very different people. Maxine is a "good girl," following a strict life plan. Imogene helps Maxine loosen up and break a few rules, and in turn Maxine keeps her on the straight and narrow.

Imogene's other new friend is a little more unusual. His name is Adrian. He is a ghost. Adrian was killed when he jumped off the high school roof in 1998, and hasn't left since. He has a huge crush on her — so much so that he wants her to see the fairies that also haunt the school. The fairies invade Imogene's dreams, blurring the line between the unreal and the real. When her imaginary childhood friend Pelly actually manifests, Imogene knows something is terribly wrong. With Maxine, Adrian, and Pelly's help, Imogene challenges the dark forces of Faery.

This compelling novel from Charles de Lint, the acknowledged founder of the "urban fantasy" genre, is set in the city of Newford, home to some of his best stories. After reading it, you will want to live in Newford, too.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Slash by Slash and Anthony Bozza

"Sometimes the truth lies in front of your eyes and makes so little sense that you just don't see it; it's like confronting your reflection in a fun-house mirror - it's hard to believe that the twisted figure staring back is you. Guns had become a similar monster; we were such a bizarre version of what we once were that I could barely recognize us. But unlike the fun house, I couldn't escape; when I turned away from the glass, the reflection was still there."
Most people read a celebrity bio, especially of a sexdrugsrocknroll band, for the tales of excess, for the tales of debauchery, and for the gossip about the other band members. And in Guns, there's temperamental frontman Axl Rose. But Slash, in his autobiography, is incredibly gracious and rather forgiving when it comes former bandmate ie, there's little bitching or whining. While you can see the frustration Slash had with Axl, and sense the tension, he seems to be quite understanding about how it all turned out. He describes Axl as "a dramatic kind of individual. Everything he says or does has a meaning, a theatrical place in his mind, in a blown-out-of-proportion kind of way. Little things become greatly exaggerated, so that interactions with people can become magnified into major issues. The bottom line is, he has his own way of looking at things."

But let's hear the man speak on what he's best known for - music:

"Experiencing yourself out of context, divorced from your usual point of view, skews your perspective - it's like hearing your voice on an answering machine, it's almost like meeting a stranger; or discovering a talent you never knew you had. The first time I plucked a melody out on a guitar well enough that it sounded like the original was a bit like that. The more I recognized my own creative voice filtered through these six strings, but itwas also something else entirely. Notes and chords have become my second language and, more often than not, that vocabulay expresses what I feel when language fails me. The guitar is my conscience, too - whenever I've lost my way, it's brought me back to center; whenever I forget, it reminds me why I'm here."

The book could've used some tighter editing. It was a bit too conversational, with quite a few ' I'll tell you more about that later's. I've not read many other rockstar bios, except for the one by Red Hot Chili Peppers' Anthony Kiedis, so I'm not going to be able to say too much here. But I felt that Slash's book was more heartfelt, and focused less on the sexdrugs part and more on the rocknroll. I felt that I actually understood Slash more, whereas Kiedis' book just left me quite quite appalled. I liked that Slash wrote about the group dynamics of the band, and the songwriting process. And I couldn't help hearing the songs in my head as I read on.

"If you've ever wondered what the sound of a band breaking up sounds like, listen to Guns N' Roses' cover of 'Sympathy for the Devil', which was recorded for the Interview With The Vampire soundtrack in the fall of 1994. If there is one Guns track I'd like neer to hear again, it is that one."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Alice, Let's Eat by Calvin Trillin

"As it happens, health food does disagree with me. I tend to react to eating one of those salads with brown grass and chopped walnuts the way some people react to eating four or five fried Italian sausages. (I, on the other hand, react to eating four or five fried Italian sausages with a quiet smile.)"

Published in 1978, Alice, Let's Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater is not just about food, it's about Trillin's relationship with his ever-patient wife: "...marriage is sharing - not merely one's fettucine with one's husband if he is gazing at it adoringly and is obviously having second thoughts about having ordered the veal, but sharing the burden of finding the fettucine restaurant in the first place."

You can't help but admire Trillin's dedication to food. At a farmers' market in England, they return with:

"three jars of honey, one jar of raspberry jam, two cabbages, a jar of pickled onions, some Cheshire and Caerphilly and Cheddar cheese, a half-dozen honey lollipops, a carton of raspberries, a carton of blackberries, a bunch of bananas, a jar of tomato relish, an astounding number of shortbread cookies, a package of clotted cream, some bread pudding, a few tomatoes, a pound of hog's pudding, a pound of sunflower nuts, some extra-fruit strawberry jam, a lemon cheesecake, a half-dozen rock cakes, some fresh salmon, some fresh haddock, a cooked crab, six scones, a jar of runner-bean chutney, a jar of loganberry jam, one toy car, a jar of olive oil, a
bunch of grapes, some sunflower oil, some wine vinegar, a pineapple cheesecake, even more rock cakes, three kippers, two smoked mackerels, a knitted hat, two hundred-weights of chicken feed, a few lemons".

In case that hasn't convinced you, here's what he brought on a flight to Miami:

"a small jar of fresh caviar, some smoked salmon I had picked up at a 'custom smokery' in Seattle the week before, crudités with pesto dippig sauce, tomato-curry soup, butterfish with shrimp en gelee, spiced clams, lime and dill shrimp, tomatoes stuffed with guacamole, marinated mussels, an assortment of pate, stuffed cold breast of veal, a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet, a selection of chocolate cakes, some praline cheesecake, and a dessert made from Italian cheese-in-the-basket and fresh strawberries and Grand Marnier by Alice".

But he doesn't simply eat the food, he investigates issues such as the disappearance of crabs from Fisherman's Wharf, seeking out a scientist to ask why crabmeat that has been out of its shell for a while "tends to taste like balsa wood". (Answer: it's the oxidisation)

Ok ok, so it's really all about the food.

"Are you really going to England just because you want a potato latke?" Alice asked. "Of course not," I said, rather hurt. "You must think me a narrow fellow indeed. As it happens, I have just remembered the Great Dried Beef in the Sky we used to eat at the Chinese restaurant across the Golder's Green tube stop.""

There are so many more passages like this I'd love to type out. But then you might as well go out and get hold of a copy of the book. Now I have to go see if my library has a copy of American Fried.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Best American Nonrequired Reading

This was my first experience with best nonrequired reading - a collection chosen by Dave Egger and selected San Francisco high school students. It's a compilation of fiction, non-fiction, journalism, comics and other bits of humour. Among these bits is a list of Best American Facebook Groups such as 'I beat George W. Bush on the SATs'; 'Captain Planet taught me to recycle'; 'I wish Morgan Freeman narrated my life'.

While the fiction shorts were pretty good and include pieces by Andrew Sean Greer and Stephen King, my favourite reads were of non-fiction. One of them was an essay by George Saunders who joined Bill Clinton on a trip to four African countries to observe Clinton Foundation projects related to AIDS, malaria and poverty:

"The irony is not lost on us Press: we're traveling like royalty through some of the poorest places on earth, wherepeople are truly suffering, to write about some people nobly working to alleviate that suffering, although we aren't in a position to see much of that suffering ourselves."

Saunders also offers insights into being a journalist having dinner with this former President:

"...when Bill Clinton's at your table, you don't really want anyone else talking, and that includes you. When you do talk, you feel stupid. I mean, you are stupid. You are suddenly short of facts and full of intuition. You lack the conversational zing that comes with having once been leader of the free world. Have your previous dinner partners included Gorbachev, Mandela, Bono, Liz
Hurley, Stephen Jay Gould?"

Another essay I particular enjoyed was originally published in The Washington Post. The paper arranged for violinist Joshua Bell to play in cognito in Washington DC during rush hour.

"Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?"

Over a thousand people rushed past Bell on their way to work. Only a handful stopped to listen. And for Joshua Bell, it is a new sensation:

"'It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah...'
The word doesn't come easily.
'...ignoring me.'"
PS. Looks like this article is available online.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

I don't pretend to know China. Sure, it's where my ancestors came from, but the closest I've been is Hong Kong. so reading Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China is truly an eye-opener.

Hessler was a clipper for a foreign bureau in Beijing in the late 1990s. As his job required only a few hours a week, he spent his time wandering around China and meeting people. And it's the people he met who make this book work. There's the Uighur middleman who sells almost anything and is trying to make his way to the United States, in search of a better life. Then there are Hessler's former English students Nancy Drew, William Jefferson Foster and Emily, who continue to write their teacher, telling him about their lives as migrant workers in the big cities, lives fraught with difficulties, mean bosses and all kinds of restrictions.

Oracle Bones is probably one of the better non-fiction books I've read so far. He integrated the engaging stories of these different people well, using them to illustrate 21st century China in a meandering yet thoroughly engaging narrative, told from different perspectives. This is a country that is rapidly changing. As Hessler puts it: "In Beijing, sentimentality was often just a year away."

Interspersed with these narratives are sections labelled 'artifacts', that discuss the language and history of Chinese civilisation. One of the insights I gleaned from this book is that some words in Chinese are actually Japanese in origin, as Japan had more western contact at that time, such as the phrase minzhu or democracy. Another was that Mao wanted a Chinese alphabet. Six systems were finalists but Mao and other leaders decided that they weren't usable. Instead they simplified certain characters - 515 of them.

I rather enjoyed Hessler's simple explanation about simplified and traditional Chinese: "For a traditionally educated Chinese, writing simplified characters is like walking thru the Kwik-mart 2 by sumthing." As a Chinese Singaporean, I spent 12 years taking Chinese as my 'Mother Tongue' language. I wasn't terrible at it but I still required weekly tuition, as I lived in an English-speaking household. And in Singapore, it is the simplified version of Chinese that is used (thus trips to Taiwan and Hong Kong require deciphering characters that look quite different from the ones I'm used to).

You don't need to have an interest in China to appreciate this book. If you're interested in today's world, in different cultures and people, and maybe some history, if you're interested in reading the stories of the ordinary people, read this.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders

A bag of Doritos beats up a young man: "'Who do you think you are?' the young man screams at the Doritos bag. 'Do you believe yourself to be some sort of god?' You're a bag of corn chips, with tons of salt and about nine colouring agents! That's all! That's all you are!' The Doritos bag takes a huge sword from behind the back of its bag and decapitates the young man."
The cogs churning George Saunders' mind never cease to amaze me. He comes up with these weird - and yet not entirely irrelevant - scenarios and technology in his short stories. In his collection of short stories, In Persuasion Nation, we have the 'I CAN SPEAK' technology which enables your baby to 'talk'; a type of sensor in one's shoes that personalizes ads as you walk around the city. Then there are SmallCows which are frozen mini-steaks that can be microwaved or have their "ThermoTab" pulled: "When you pull the ThermoTab,something chemical happens and the SmallCows heat up."

He plunges the reader into these worlds - although consumed with newfangled technology, still quite like the world today in its own way - with little warning, and when you finally emerge from it, it's not easy to head into another one. So these stories, I reckon, need to be gnawed at one at a time.

However, while I've loved most of his other works that I've previously read, such as Pastoralia, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, and Civilwarland in Bad Decline, I found In Persuasion Nation harder to get through. Quite a few of the stories were a little too out there, and I just couldn't get through them at all.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

"When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in."
I can never look at orchids the same way again. For in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, one of his characters describes orchids as "nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute". Those words are spoken by an old and "obviously dying" man, General Sternwood, who has hired Philip Marlowe
to investigate a blackmail attempt. The General had two daughters - Vivian "spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless" and Carmen, "a child who likes to pull wings off flies" are how he describes them.

Marlowe is not much of a likeable character. He is a hard man and abides by his own rules and morals. The other characters, especially the women, are even less likeable, and more 'argh! What's the matter with you?'

Although it's quite an exciting book, I was less enamoured with the plot than with Chandler's lush writing. He leads the reader into this world, in a time quite different from today. But he doesn't shove it in your face. Instead he takes your hand and leads you in, and then shoves it in your face - you can smell it on you, even after you put the book down. He is a genius at setting a scene, perhaps due to his previous screenwriting experience. One of my favourite descriptions is of a building:
"Numbers with names and numbers without names. Plenty of vacancies or plenty of tenants who wished to remain anonymous. Painless dentists, shyster detective agencies, small sick businesses that had crawled there to die, mail order schools that would teach you how to become a railroad clerk or a radio technician or a screen writer - if the postal inspectors didn't catch up with them first. A nasty building. A building in which the smell of stake cigar butts would be the cleanest odor."

And he doesn't restrict these descriptions to the scenery. Chandler definitely made me sit up when he described one of the supposed baddies as such: "His voice was the elaborately casual voice of the tough guy in pictures. Pictures have made them all like that." He hit the nail on the head with that one. Chandler himself is quoted in the introduction: "There must be magic in the writing but I take no credit for it. It just happens, like red hair."

It's magic all right.

Old Town Cafe

The trip to Dublin seems to be more about eating than about watching The Watchmen in Imax (which I thoroughly enjoyed, although I have yet to read the graphic novel. It was well-paced and had good backstories. And it did make me want to go and see what Alan Moore's version is like). After the 2 hour 40 minute movie, we emerged with tired necks (we sat a bit too close to the gigantic screen) and stomachs still full from the dim sum lunch. But since we had driven all the way out there, we figured we should at least give Singapore Old Town Cafe a try. As we waited for the servers to put together some tables for our party of seven, we noticed an award for "Best Satay". So that went on our list of things to order. Here's what else we had.

Teh Tarik (quite good actually).

Chow Hor Fun with seafood. Quite tasty. Very eggy.

Char Kway Teow. Lacked Oomph.

Beef Rendang. Beef was very tender but the gravy was quite forgettable.

I must say that the chicken satay was rather good. The beef was a bit tough. The sauce was a letdown. Where were the peanuts??

The Hokkien mee. Supposedly the most authentic dish but in the end, with all the high hopes, the most disappointing. It didn't have enough flavour in it.

The 'fish fillet mee hoon' (鱼片米粉) had a lot of giam cai (salted vegetables) in it. Tasted ok I guess.

So overall, the food was, eh, so-so. It looked authentic enough, but the taste, the flavour, it was just not quite there. It needed more oomph, more wok hei. I don't think I would head out to Dublin again (50-minutes each way, $4 toll on the return journey) for the Singapore food, but I would definitely return for the dim sum at Koi Garden!

Old Town Cafe
4288 Dublin Blvd,
Unit 109
Dublin, CA 94568

Monday, March 16, 2009

Dim Sum Sunday

It was well worth the 50-minute drive to a place we've never been before for this dim sum lunch. And not to mention the 40-minute wait for a table (dim sum places here never seem to take reservations). This is Koi Garden. Now this is what dim sum is about!

Like the previous dim sum lunch we had at Hong Kong Saigon, there were ladies pushing around carts full of century egg porridge and other dim sum, but most of the dim sum purveyors here carried their wares around on red trays, as this restaurant is too crowded to be push-cart territory. The restaurant also has a list of other items that have to be ordered, as we found out when trying to get a plate of zha leung (you char kway or dough fritters wrapped in cheung fan or rice rolls). We ended up with heaps of Amazing food, but paid just $17.50 per person.

And now for the highlights:

Have no idea what this is called, although I've had it before - my dim sum knowledge is very basic lah. Please help to fill in the blanks (I'm looking at you, DSD!)

Steaming har gow, filled with plump prawns.

One of R's favourite's - Carrot cake

Something I really wanted (after staring at lucky diners from outside the restaurant) - really crisp and crunchy siu yoke or roast pork served with chewy jelly fish. Don't think I had enough of this one!

I loved the teapot in the hole in the middle of the lazy susan.

I learnt that these are called lau sah or salted egg custard baos. We also ordered the non-salted version, but these were far superior. Didn't care for the eggplant dish beside it.

Kueh lapis! And some very vegetarian beancurd skin dish, which was ok, tasty enough for a vegetarian dish, and made me think of Taiwan and all its mock meats.

Ah, the zha leung, with its incredibly crunchy you tiao!
Another must-have, the egg tarts.

But the best of the sweet stuff were the doughnuts. Very crunchy, very eggy, not as doughy as the Chinese doughnuts in Singapore. Best eaten hot. It was fantastic. In the background is the muah chee, filled with black sesame, and rolled in some crushed peanuts and coconut flakes. Not too bad, but not really the surprise star of the day.

I think the highlight of R's day was the discovery of the Kee Wah Bakery just downstairs, where we picked up Chinese sponge cakes (I just had one for breakfast and they are so much better, eggier than those I've had elsewhere. Plus Kee Wah's stuff looks so much better than Sheng Kee, which is by the Marina supermarket where we pick up groceries). Kee Wah is also in Milpitas, and we'll definitely be stopping by there soon.

Koi Garden @ Dublin
Ulferts Center
4288 Dublin Blvd Ste 213
Dublin, CA 94568
Tel: (925) 833-9090

Kee Wah Bakery
4288 Dublin Blvd. #107,
Dublin, CA 94568

Friday, March 13, 2009

linky links

The finalists for the 2009 Indie Choice Awards are out, says Three Percent.
Here's the list of nominees (needless to say, I have not read most of them. However, I do think that City of Thieves is one of the best books I've read so far this year.)

Widmerpool's Modern Library Revue

In case you haven't heard, the Tournament of Books is on. Guess what? I've read only one of the books (I'm obviously not a hip reader). The Lazarus Project is up in the next match.

I do so like Sarah's 50-word fairy story

I remember Moby Books, do you?

And hi Carrie! Thanks for the compliment!

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

"Rarely does a single book alter the course of history, but Rachel Carson's Silent Spring did exactly that. The outcry that followed its publication in 1962 forced the government to ban DDT and spurred revolutionary changes in the laws affecting our air, land, and water. Carson's book was instrumental in launching the environmental movement. It is without question one of the landmark books of the twentieth century."

Carson does not argue for a total ban on chemical insecticides, instead, she contends that "we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge" and that "we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife and man himself".

For a book published in 1962, Silent Spring is still entirely relevant today. The more I read, the more I couldn't help wondering - what about today? What is happening out there today - in the fields, in the waters, in the food that we consume?
"As crude a weapon as the cave man's club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life - a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructibe, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways. These extraordinary capacities of life have been ignored by the practitioners of chemical control who have brought to their task no 'high-minded orientation', no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper."
She writes in a narrative way, such that someone like me, who never did too well in the sciences in secondary school, can understand (although the eyes glazed over at some too-chemical details) and her argument is peppered with examples, some quite horrifying, making this book slightly easier reading than I was expecting.

The afterword, written by Edward O Wilson, helps set the scene for those, like me, who were not around in the 1960s, and who cannot fathom the seeming ignorance and negligence. It was a time when conservation biology didn't exist, and the environment was sidebar to economic growth: "ecology was near the bottom of the scientific disciplines in prestige and support; few Americans even knew what the world meant".

More here:

Al Gore introduces Silent Spring

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Library Loot (12 March 2009)

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Alessandra that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

Where did my week go? Ok it went into playing Lego Star Wars and catching up on old CSI eps. I did some reading, and returned four books (one of which was a fabulous cookbook). So despite holding four books hostage at home already, I untied my leash and leapt into the library, leaving with five books.

Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever
I think I might have read some of his short stories before, I don't remember. But with Cheever in book news everywhere (there's a new biography out), I figure it's time I ought to read something by him.
"The Wapshot Chronicle is the telling of the history and circumstances of the eclectic Wapshot family. The small, perhaps antiquated, New England river town of St. Botolphs is the home of the Waphot family: Honora, born on Oahu of missionary parents but raised by her paternal Uncle Lorenzo; Leander, an aging and gentle ferryboat operator and would-be suicide; his wife Sarah (Coverly) Wapshot, mother of Moses, the errant and mischievous elder brother to Coverly, the adoring and somewhat lambent brother. The Wapshot Chronicle is an exploration of the clash between pious and bourgeois respectability, the slippery mores of a new and vigorously changing America and the inner drives of hearty, small-town New England stock."
Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon
(It's on sale for just $5 at the McSweeney's online store)
Michael Chabon's sparkling first book of nonfiction is a love song in 16 parts — a series of linked essays in praise of reading and writing, with subjects running from ghost stories to comic books, Sherlock Holmes to Cormac McCarthy.
Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
First published in the 1930s, The Berlin Stories contains two astonishing related novels, The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin, which are recognized today as classics of modern fiction.
The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008
- edited by Dave Eggers
I sat and read the interview with Judy Blume at the library, before deciding to take the book home with me - I found it rather affecting that she related how reading a book by William Wharton while writing her novel made her insecure, making her think 'What am I doing? I can't write this well. I'll never be able to write this well. I might as well quit now'.

Slash by Slash with Anthony Bozza
I've been on an 80s rock kick lately and have been listening to a lot of Guns N Roses. So I couldn't help but be thrilled to see the Slash autobiography hidden in a dark corner, as if its cover might scare the rest of the books. I remember reading on The Millions that this book was favourited by some writers. Here's what Charles D'Ambrosio said about it:
"Continuing along the line of problem selves, I just read Slash's memoir, which, according the cover, "redefines sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." Memoir is a fairly hifalutin word for the stupefying heroin binge recounted in the book, which doesn't so much redefine sexdrugsrocknroll as attempt to push the limits of it in a world already without limits. The drug stuff gets old - there's only so wasted you can get, so that element turns repetitious - but when he's talking about playing guitar or writing songs or being in a band the whole thing comes to life. It's like suddenly this immoral, pathological, cruel, cold, blind, very limited, supremely indifferent person is replaced by a really intelligent, sensitive, ambitious, subtle, singularly focused, deeply soulful guy with gravitas and integrity. Clearly people achieve things partly because they have a greatness in them but part of that greatness owes something to their severe limitations. Slash cared only about his band. It was a replacement universe. And inside that universe, he was a human being. Outside - a fucking animal!"
The Millions compares Slash's and Axl's memoirs:
"Slash's honesty and openness endear him to us - the book literally begins with a bang, with an account of his defibrillator implant going off mid-show - whereas the reports of Axl's anger and manipulation in W.A.R. make it far easier to identify with the former band members he forced out."
Can't wait to read it.

Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor

I first heard of this Elizabeth Taylor from the book blog world, maybe early last year, and couldn't help be intrigued. The Atlantic described her as being "best known for not being better known", and lists her contemporaries - E. H. Young, Rose Macaulay, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann, Mollie Panter-Downes, Sybille Bedford, Barbara Pym, and Edith Templeton - almost all of whom (with the exception of Bowen) I have yet to check out.

My library had several of Taylor's books, but I was headed straight for Blaming, which is on the '1001 books to read before you die' list, which I often use to pick my next to-read books.

The book is a story of two women, who meet on a cruise of the Mediterranean. The middle-aged British couple, Amy and Nick, meet Martha, an American writer: "The three of them, knowing nothing of one another, were cast together by their language and nothing else."

Nick has only recently come out of a hospital stay after a surgery and he dies suddenly while on board (it's not a spoiler). And Amy heads on back home, with Martha accompanying her. Amy is reluctant to have any further contact with the rather rumpled Martha, but she manages to secure herself a visit to Amy's home. Martha is a constant source of irritation to Amy, they being two diverse characters: "Yes, she is just like a tiresome child, Amy thought - but unlike a child, she can't be reprimanded".

But Amy has almost no one - few friends, and her family makes the usual pitying motions, but hardly wholeheartedly. So the two women settle into a new relationship. "Martha became part of the passing of time", she "came and went in Laurel Walk, rather taken for granted than welcomed".

It is not easy to like either Martha or Amy. Amy is quite a sad creature, having lived her life for her husband, as her daughter-in-law Maggie opines: "Amy was simply his guardian, companion, the one who had so often made barriers to protect him, even from this family. Her life was null, otherwise, Maggie considered. She did nothing for anyone but Nick, and nothing like as much as he had done for her. The wrong one had died". And Martha is indeed, quite irritating and untidy, not someone I would want as a houseguest myself! Instead I find myself leaning towards the very cute Dora, Amy's granddaughter, who says some very funny things - Taylor I think truly shines when she puts words into the children's mouths; and also Ernie Pounce (what a name!), the manservant and his dentures and smoked salmon sandwiches. I love the world which Taylor so effortlessly creates.

Blaming was written when Taylor was dying of cancer and published posthumously. I definitely look forward to reading her other books - according to The Atlantic article, she wrote 12 novels, four story collections, and one children’s book in 30 years.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A little bit of home

in every bite of toast.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sunday in Berkeley

We went across the Bay Bridge and up north to Berkeley, mostly to check out the North Face outlet. I left empty-handed, but at least half of the party got themselves something. With our stomaches still running an hour behind (the clocks were moved forward), we lunched at 2pm. The best thing about Sundays is that breakfast is an all-day situation.

At Jimmy Bean's, a Roast Pork Loin sandwich (ok so that's more of a lunch option), that was layered with some juicy pear slices. And a delicious, and very neat-looking, corn beef hash with two eggs and an English muffin.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Library Loot (5 March 2009)

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Alessandra that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

I forgot to post this last week, so here's my haul from last Thursday's trek to the library.

Silent Spring - Rachel Carson
Rarely does a single book alter the course of history, but Rachel Carson's Silent Spring did exactly that. The outcry that followed its publication in 1962 forced the banning of DDT and spurred revolutionary changes in the laws affecting our air, land, and water. Carson's passionate concern for the future of our planet reverberated powerfully throughout the world, and her eloquent book was instrumental in launching the environmental movement. It is without question one of the landmark books of the twentieth century.

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China - Peter Hessler
In Oracle Bones, Peter Hessler explores the human side of China's transformation, viewing modern-day China and its growing links to the Western world through the lives of a handful of ordinary people. In a narrative that gracefully moves between the ancient and the present, the East and the West, Hessler captures the soul of a country that is undergoing a momentous change before our eyes.

In Persuasion Nation - George Saunders
It's George Saunders! But in case you need more persuasion:
"Saunders's work is as effective as social commentary as it is at exploring the frontiers of fiction. Many readers will be glad that they don't live in Persuasion Nation, though the most perceptive will recognize that we already do." Kirkus Reviews
Blaming - Elizabeth Taylor
When Amy's husband dies on holiday in Istanbul, she is supported by the kindly but rather slovenly Martha, a young American novelist who lives in London. Upon their return to England, Amy is reluctant to maintain their friendship, but the skeins of their existence seem inextricably linked as grief gives way to resilience and again to tragedy.
Alice, Let's Eat - Calvin Trillin
Across time zones and cultures, and often with his wife, Alice, at his side, Trillin shares his triumphs in the art of culinary discovery, including Dungeness crabs in California, barbecued mutton in Kentucky, potato latkes in London, and a $33 picnic on a no-frills flight to Miami.
The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler
When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in.

Saturday down south

Saturday was an Italian affair, starting with scallop pasta for lunch.

Then dinner at the very crowded Buca di Beppo, where we had to wait 20 minutes for our 7pm reservation for nine. Dinner started with buschetta and calamari, but I was too hungry to take pictures. Family-style dishes followed (cheese ravioli with meat sauce, seafood pasta and beef short ribs).

A red, white and green birthday cake.

And then some pineapple-orange konnyaku jelly

and a homemade pineapple cake (which was much better than the too-sweet free cake from the restaurant).

Thank you Dorie Greenspan!

For Baking From My Home to Yours. For in your book, I found the recipe for 'My Best Chocolate Chip Cookies', and with a name like that, who can help trying out the recipe? And they are really THE BEST chocolate chip cookies ever.

They are chewy and soft (even on the third day of gloriously sinful eating) and just nicely chocolatey and not too sweet. In other words, chocolate chip cookie heaven! Or more specifically cocoa chocolate chip cookie and coffee chocolate chip cookie heaven, because I headed straight for two of your variations.

And thank you also for writing a book with recipes that are easy to read and that come with great tips and hints. If not for those, I might've gone ahead and baked two trays at once to save time, and the cookies probably wouldn't have turned out that well.

So thank you Dorie Greenspan for 'My Best Chocolate Chip Cookies'!

Friday, March 06, 2009

If only we could live on dessert alone

I would bake every single day.

But in this reality, I only bake on Fridays (so as to unload some of the goods on other people). And today is Friday! So I'm looking forward to the smell of something chocolate-y wafting throughout the apartment.

And in the world of guilty pleasures, Make Me A Supermodel is back! I don't get Bravo as we only have basic cable, so I'm glad they have the full episodes (well, episode, as there's only 1 so far) on their website. And there's always the fun of reading Project Rungay's recaps.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

Its first chapter has movie trailer quality. Chicago 1908. Lazarus, a young man, a "foreigner", one with soiled shoes and a "swarthy face" knocks on the door of Chief Shippy's home and hands him an envelope. Instead of taking said envelope, there is gunfire. There is drama as shots are fired. There is one account, which doesn't seem to tie in with what actually happened (and this actually did happen in real life). The foreigner lies dying.

Cut to present day America, where Brik, a Bosnian immigrant who writes a column for the Chicago Tribune is obsessed with the story of the shooting of Lazarus:

"I wanted my future book to be about the immigrant who escaped the pogrom and came to Chicago only to be shot by the Chicago chief of police. I wanted to be immersed in the world as it had been in 1908, I wanted to imagine how immigrants lived then. I loved doing research, poring through old newspapers and books and photos, reciting curious facts on a whim."

But there are holes in his story, and he is unsure of himself, of his story, which he tells to a long-lost friend from Bosnia, Rora, a photographer who now lives in Chicago. Rora convinces Brik that he needs to trace Lazarus' life before America.

"I needed to reimagine what I could not retrieve; I needed to see what I could not imagine. I needed to step outside my life in Chicago and spend time deep in the wilderness of somewhere."

And I find myself wanting to read slowly, to pause an reflect on Hemon's writing. But with a storyline which evolves between different eras, from 1908 Chicago to present-day eastern Europe, this book is full of interesting layers and I often feel the need to read on, ponder later. For there is Lazarus' story, as well as his sister Olga's; there is Brik and his relationship with his wife; there is Brik and his friendship with Rora; then there is Rora and his many tales of Bosnia

"Is this world for the dead or the living?"

"If there are more dead than living, then the world is about death, and the question is: What are we to do with all the death? Who is going to remember all the dead?"

Why is it that Birk (and Hemon himself) is obsessed about the death of a young man a long time ago? As the lives of Brik and Lazarus become intertwined, what about the similarities between the character Brik and the author Hemon himself?
"Every time, you think maybe this here is a different world, but it's all the same: they live, we die. So here it is again.”
I started out thinking this was a straightforward story but as I read on, I realised that it was more than a story about a murder that happened a long time ago. It is a tale about tales, one of smoke and mirrors, reflections and light.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Waiter Rant

"Today waiters are expected to be food-allergy specialists, sommeliers, cell-phone-rule enforcers, eye candy, confessors, entertainers, mixologists, emergency medical technicians, bouncers, receptionists, joke tellers, therapists, linguists, punching bags, psychics, protocol specialists, and amateur chefs."

Waiter Rant started out as an anonymous blog, it's a simple premise - guy chronicles his life as a waiter in a restaurant, "The Bistro". As he says in the preface: "After you read this book I doubt you'll ever look at your server the same way again. And maybe you'll learn how to be a better customer in the process."

While I enjoyed the stories of nutty, drunk or just plain rude customers, I think they would have worked better as blog entries. The waiter's life is just not as entertaining as his customer's antics, and I skipped over the bits about his pre-waiter experiences. Too often, he tries to tie his anecdotes to something bigger, but that didn't really work for me. All said, it's a quick easy read, and yes, I did learn more about the world of waiting tables than I need to know. However, I'd suggest you read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential (or read it again if you've already read it!) than read this one.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Read: Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

"The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin."

So begins Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novella, Memories of My Melancholy Whores. In 115 pages, Marquez offers a tale of an unnamed narrator, a former news editor who now barely scrapes by writing a column and some pieces on the arts. He describes himself as "ugly, shy and anachronistic" and is a bachelor living in a house his parents lived in, in which he has "proposed to die alone, in the same bed in which I was born and on a day that I hope will be distant and painless".

Our bachelor enlists the help of a brothel owner, who finds him a young plaything. But as he watches the girl of 14, who works in a factory attaching buttons, as she lies sleeping the first night, "as naked and helpless as the day she was born", something changes. He leaves the brothel "determined never again to provoke fate" and feeling like a different man.

He continues to return to the brothel, but only to watch the sleeping beauty, although sometimes he's not entirely sure if she's real or an illusion: "it troubled me that she was real enough to have birthdays". But he does know that he loves her, whoever she is. "Thanks to her I confronted my inner self for the first time as my ninetieth year went by." So love can change a man, no matter how old he is.

This tale of obsession is a little creepy. It does start out sounding like the perverted last romp of a dirty old man but somehow ends up bordering on what seems to be an adolescent love affair. I'm not entirely sure if I liked it or not.

Reading and eating (3 March 2009)

  • Nick Hornby has a table full of his book picks at Waterstones bookshops. I especially like this part from his Times article:
    "...it’s one of the reasons why I am a constantly hopeful reader, even now, prepared to believe that the paperback I’ve just picked up will absorb and inspire and change me"
  • More from Waterstones: They've picked 12 "new voices" of which I've only heard of two.
  • From Books on the Nightstand, a book club I would love to be part of:
    "When Nova Scotia's Loquacious Compendium Book Club grew too large to meet in members' homes, they didn't just split off into smaller groups. Instead, they did what any good book club should do: they built a bar."
  • Iain Sinclair talks about Hackney in this great video and interview with The Guardian.
    "The rhythm of Iain Sinclair's life has always gone something like this: walk, write; walk, write; walk, write. There have been interruptions, of course. In the old days, before he was a published author, he had to make a living just like everyone else - he painted the white lines of the football pitches on Hackney Marshes, he mowed the grass outside Hawksmoor's London churches - and there were his children (Farne, William and Madeleine) to be fed, watered and generally brought up. Mostly, though, there has just been the walking and the writing, the writing and the walking. His books, sprawling and arcane, would not, could not exist without the walking, which means that to visit him and then fail to propose a walk would be wilfully perverse, like meeting Lucian Freud and turning down the chance to see his studio."
  • With the whole Korean tacos fad going on in LA (which we'll have to hear from my sister about, as she was chasing the taco truck on Saturday), Serious Eats has a Korean burrito recipe.
  • Over at Smitten Kitchen, some crispy chewy chocolate chip cookies that make my mouth water.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Read: City of Thieves by David Benioff

David Benioff's second book opens with a screenwriter who is tasked to write an autobiographical essay and decides instead to write about his grandparents' experience during the siege of Leningrad. They now live in Florida, on the Gulf Coast, in a house built "by an architect who would have become famous if he hadn't drowned the same year". But they are quite unlike the other retirees that flock the state: "the front door is usually unlocked and there is no alarm system. They don't wear their seat belts in the car; they don't wear suntan lotion in the sun. They have decided nothing can kill them but God himself, and they don't believe in him."

It's a great and tightly written set-up, essentially and intentionally informing the reader what to expect: "mostly he talked about one week in 1942, the first week of the year, the week he met my grandmother, made his best friend, and killed two Germans". No surprises here.

So the grandfather's story begins. He is 17-year-old Lev living in Leningrad. His family has left for safer ground but, too young for the army, he stays to fight fires, he stays for his city. Thrown in prison for looting a German paratrooper's corpse, he meets Kolya, who sounds like he belongs in an Abercrombie catalogue ("high Cossack cheekbones, the amused twist of the lips, the hay-blond hair, the eyes blue enough to please any Aryan bride"). Kolya, a private in the Red Army, is accused of being a deserter. Their lives are spared but an impossible task is forced upon them by a hardened colonel - find a dozen eggs in six days in order for his wife to make their daughter's wedding cake.

Their bizarre hunt takes them through a Leningrad that is skin and bones, where rumours of eggs are mere rumours, but tales of cannibalism are not. Young Lev starts out not being too fond of his fellow egg hunter. He doesn't like Kolya's seeming ease and experience with women, and the way Kolya fancies himself an expert on Russian literature. There are many humorous conversations that evolve around those topics (which sound like they were written with a movie-to-be in mind).

Can there be two more different characters thrown together? One small and dark, the other tall and blond. It is inevitable that despite their earlier grievances, they form a bond as they chase the impossible through the city of ghosts, and out into German-occupied territory, where they fall in with some peasant women kept by Nazi officers, then with a band of hard-edged partisans, among whom is a sharp-shooter, a small, tough young woman named Vika.

City of Thieves is action-packed and exciting, but it is more than a war novel. It is a story of friendship, bravery, humour and love, which transcend the horrors of war.

(NPR has an excerpt here)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

First dim sum of 2009

Finally! Dim Sum!

Saturday lunch was my first dim sum meal of the year. We drove up to a strip mall, passing a pizzeria and a Vietnamese place and there was the queue for Hong Kong Saigon Seafood Harbor Restaurant, which spilled out into the carpark (they don't take reservations). To stave off the hunger pangs, R and I popped into the Chinese supermarket next door for some prawn crackers and saltines, while the rest waited for lucky number 25 to be called.

We nearly finished a bag of prawn crackers before the host called '25? Number 25?' and led us into the bustling restaurant. It's the dim sum on wheels type of restaurant, which is always fun, but also means it depends on your luck and the speed at which the trolleys reach you. I was, as always, wanting some char siew bao, and with none in sight, trolley after trolley, we had to order it from a passing waiter.

The baos were good, as were the wu kok and the egg tarts. The rest (such as pork ribs, carrot cake etc) were not too bad. The big disappointments were the cheong fan, which had too much skin, and the siew mai, which I have to say was among the worst ever, as the pork was tough.

So for the first dim sum of the year, it was quite decent. It was just fun to be in a that kind of busy bustling atmosphere, looking out for the ladies with the trolleys of steaming hot dim sum.

Hong Kong Saigon Seafood Harbor Restaurant
1135 N Lawrence Expy
Sunnyvale, CA 94089