Friday, July 31, 2020

The Glass Kingdom by Lawrence Osborne

An air of menace always lurks through Osborne’s novels. It’s here in this absolutely stunning novel as well. Bangkok, with its tropical monsoons and accelerating civilian unrest threaten to envelop Sarah Mullins, a criminal farang on the loose from New York. The Kingdom, the high-rise where she lives, is its own brooding entity throwing the already uneasy Sarah off her game. As Sarah befriends two women in the building, she gets sucked into a whirlpool of missteps. Always suspenseful, never overwrought, this brilliant novel illuminates how survival of the fittest plays out on the bottom rungs of the food chain.

The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation

It might make sense today that Lady Liberty is holding aloft a bunch of arugula but remember when President Obama got flak for complaining about the rising cost of the greens? This rollicking book, published in 2006, chronicles how U.S. French dining made way for California and New American haute cuisine. It profiles a series of chefs along the way; Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters all get prime time. The book misses connecting the dots between these chefs and everyday people though: what changed in society that made people embrace microgreens and kombucha? An entertaining if incomplete history.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova

The restlessness that attends the immigrant experience is a familiar trope in writing. Sofia native Kapka Kassabova’s sharp and wistful memoir/travelogue is hands down the best I have read in the genre. For the longest time, Kassabova’s favorite outfit as a child was a pair of orange trousers her scientist parents brought back from Amsterdam. In describing even that one acquisition, Kassabova captures much of the simple joys of childhood. Decades after the family moves to New Zealand, Kassabova returns to a changed Bulgaria. The country, Kassabova finds, has moved on, but she hasn’t. Just brilliant. Read this book.

The Tummy Trilogy by Calvin Trillin

Get your silverware ready and tuck into these wry tales with one of America’s favorite food writers. I love Calvin Trillin’s work in the New Yorker and admire his passion for chasing after good eats. These volumes are peppered with an empathetic look at food and the people who love it, like Fats Goldberg, the pizza baron.After digging into this trilogy I realize though that his food commentary is best eaten like an amuse bouche, a little at a time to whet the appetite. Too much gluttony makes even the best food too rich and you tire of it. 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Devil's Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee by Stewart Lee Allen

The delightful premise of chasing down a cup of coffee around the world is not enough to rescue the tone of this food history and travelogue, which looks at its human subjects with detached amusement at best and outright harshness at its worst. The author labels India “dirty, undereducated, lazy, muddled, poor etc.” and mocks Islam as a religion that “insists half the species walk about with a bag over their head…” The writing is supposed to be “sardonic” — I can’t believe the empathetic Anthony Bourdain actually endorsed this book — but it’s just the white gaze cloaked as humor. Just like bad coffee, it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Villa Pacifica by Kapka Kassabova

The fevered dreams that travel writer Ute experiences in Villa Pacifica might be related to the wild animals or the tropical environs she and her husband Jerry are trapped in. Traveling to a South American country, the couple find themselves in a strange mansion run by a couple of firangs. A suffocating sense of doom weaves itself throughout the narrative until Ute finds herself slowly doubting the play of events. Is everything not as it seems or is she going mad? While built on an intriguing premise, Kassabova’s fiction packs less of a punch than her powerful nonfiction travelogues do. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Migrations by Chalotte McConaghy

The Arctic tern’s migration is legendary: it travels all the way from the Arctic to the Antarctic Circle every year. Franny Lynch is determined to track these threatened birds as a way to redeem a past filled with her own flight from tragedy and the people she loves. As the story unfolds against the backdrop of accelerating climate change, we learn of the parallel reason for her ice-saturated voyage. Swashbuckling ride on rough seas notwithstanding, this is an extraordinary novel with plenty of room for quiet meditation, one that explores grief and familial bonds. Proof that still waters run deep. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater

One billion cubic feet of snow fell in Boston during the winter of 2015. There was so much snow that the city just quit plowing alleys after a while and carved out paths instead. You an igloo. After that bruising winter, I remember how excited we all got when we saw the first blade of grass. When my in-laws visited us that spring, she asked why Americans got so super enthusiastic about spring. How to tell her about the snow? The cold? The numbing winds? Instead I said, “Imagine how you feel when the monsoon breaks after that insanely hot summer. It’s much the same feelings that spring brings about.” 
Even more so than spring, monsoon in India is tinged with awe and plenty of romance: the songs, the slow-roasted corn sold on the streets, the mini paper boats that children float on those sudden rivulets.
A native of Mumbai, known for its biting wind-driven monsoons, I was excited by the premise of this book: chasing the first monsoon rains all across India. Frater, an Englishman, starts from the very southern state of Kerala and moves north on to Goa, Mumbai, a huge jump to Delhi, Kolkata and on to Cherrapunji, the wettest place on earth. 
The travelogue that emerges is witty and engaging told with generous doses of empathy. I especially loved the sections on Trivandrum and Cherra. Because the author has to chase after the breaking of the monsoon across the subcontinent, he doesn’t linger. Which is a pity because after the initial joy comes the weary dampness that seeps into your very bones, which too would have made for great reading and a more measured view of the live-giving rains.
It’s hard to ignore the white colonial gaze here. Yes, it takes an agonizing two weeks and a painful walk through the notorious Indian bureaucracy for Frater to receive permission to visit Cherrapunji but only a native will recognize how easy it is otherwise for the author to lean on his whiteness to get access. At one point, Frater describes how Herman Kisch, a British Civilian officer, staved off devastating famine in India. While indeed commendable, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at Frater’s labeling it as “a triumph of humanitarian engineering and one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed on India by the British.” Sure, that might be true but the lack of context is glaring.
All told, this is still a lively and quirky account that’s a revealing slice of India and its people. Tastes better when consumed with samosa and chai.
For the record, my favorite capture of monsoon in Mumbai still remains this Bollywood song from the ‘70s. Moushumi Chatterjee in a sari and Amitabh Bachchan in a suit (!) and the sheer abandon of giving in to the rain. Be still, my heart.
Editor's Note: This review is a departure from my usual 100-word capsules.

The Searcher by Tana French

The Irish countryside seems like the perfect refuge for Cal Hooper, a retired Chicago cop who’s still raking over the ashes of his failed marriage. But storm clouds threaten to take over. Trey, a taciturn teen, worries there’s something sinister behind his older brother Brendan’s disappearance. Soon Cal is knee-deep in the Irish bog and in the mystery. French’s writing is in fine form here but those expecting a fast-paced Dublin Squad-style thriller will be disappointed. The denouement too is more of a whimper than a punch, which is probably just as well, in keeping with the setting’s languid atmosphere.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Young Black Edie’s getting swept up in an affair with an older white man is not typically my jam. But Leilani’s vibrant writing and Edie’s gradual awakening bowled me over: “So, sure, an older man is a wonder because he has paid thirty-eight years of Con Ed bills and suffered food poisoning and seen the climate reports and still not killed himself, but somehow, after being a woman for twenty-three years, after the ovarian torsion and student loans and newfangled Nazis in button-downs, I too am still alive, and actually this is the more remarkable feat.” See what I mean?

Monday, July 6, 2020

Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom by Katherine Eban

A scathing expose of the generic drugs industry, Eban’s reporting, especially in notoriously difficult-to-access India is commendable. The revelations will make you hesitate to ever settle for generics again. My small quibble with the narrative is that too much of it is trained on the misdeeds of one Indian company and too little on lax American oversight. It takes two to tango. Sure shocking manufacturing practices are to blame. But so is our bloated healthcare system which forces us into relying on sketchy outsourcing in the first place. A damning indictment of the lax oversight of the American pharma industry.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan

Contrary to the title, Miwako Sumida did not have a perfect world. So much so that she committed suicide. Ryusei, a fellow student at Tokyo’s Waseda university, whose feelings for Miwako go unrequited is determined to find out what drove his friend to kill herself. What unfolds is a surreal otherworldly mystery that travels from Tokyo to a remote mountaintop village. The lurching narrative misses a step occasionally and the storyline’s seams connecting Ryusei’s story to that of his sister, begin to strain after a while. But those looking for a light read might find this one worth their time.