Thursday, August 06, 2020

Hiroshima: 75 Years

Hiroshima this morning remembers the atomic bomb: "The city set up about 880 seats, less than one-tenth of the usual
number, and scrapped sections allocated for general admission." 

The screen shot above is from a Japanese news story about the commemorative celebrations at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park at 8:15 AM August 6, 2020 (Japan Standard Time). It depicts the preparation of the seating for attendees at the event, which took place at the exact time when the first atomic bomb was dropped, at 8:15 AM August 6, 1945. In a story titled "Hiroshima marks 75th atomic bomb anniversary with call for unity in pandemic" and in the accompanying video, The Japan Times summarized the event, pointing out that the survivors, whose average age is now 83, are becoming a smaller and smaller group (link).

The survivors of the blast, the hibakusha, have always played an important role in envisioning a world without war, especially without nuclear war. Their numbers are now drastically diminished, as discussed in an article in the New York Times today, "Hiroshima 75th Anniversary: Preserving Survivors’ Message of Peace" (link). The widely spaced chairs in the photo tell this story:
"City officials and peace activists had envisioned a series of grand events to commemorate what will most likely be the last major anniversary of the bombing for almost all of the hibakusha (pronounced hee-bak-sha) still living. But the coronavirus forced them to curtail the events, moving conferences on nuclear disarmament online, canceling or postponing related meetings and reducing the number of attendees to around 800, one-tenth of the turnout during a normal year."
I see this image of distanced chairs for survivors of the atomic bomb as a chilling reminder that after a lifetime of anticipation that another nuclear war was always a possible threat to humanity, we -- humanity -- now face a new threat that's not at all what we expected. In recent years, besides the fear of nuclear war, new existential threats to our species and our civilization have captured my imagination and my fears. My horror at actions of the currently disastrous leadership of our country also lead me to some pretty depressing thoughts about alternate fates for humanity. But fear of nuclear war, which in a way haunted my youth, persists.

As an American, I have very complex feelings about World War II and the decision of our leaders to drop the two bombs on Japan, with all the disastrous consequences including 75 more years of living with the existential threat to humanity. If only the world would listen to the mayor of Hiroshima who said, "Hiroshima considers it our duty to build in civil society a consensus that the people of the world must unite to achieve nuclear weapons abolition and lasting world peace."

Blog post by mae sander copyright © 2020, photo as credited.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

"Luncheon of the Boating Party"


Renoir Self-Portrait, 1875.
Susan Vreeland's novel Luncheon of the Boating Party is a fictional account of how Pierre-Auguste Renoir created his very famous and much-loved painting of the same name. Fourteen faces appear in the painting of a beautiful luncheon outdoors at a restaurant along the Seine River in what was then the more rural part of Paris (now enveloped in the much larger city). All these figures (except one mystery face) have been identified: they were friends and acquaintances of Renoir. The painter did not include a self-portrait in this masterpiece, but I have included one that he painted in 1875, a few years before he painted the boating party.

Vreeland has woven a complex and highly enjoyable story of his relationships with this group, telling much about who they were and how they lived. Fortunately, a Wikipedia article has called them out with thumbnails of their faces from the painting, and I've selected a few favorites out of the fourteen faces in the painting, which I'll introduce to you here, while trying to give an idea of what's in the book:

 Louise-Alphonsine Fournaise – the girl leaning on the railing – was the daughter of the family that owned the water-side restaurant where Renoir's luncheon – and much of the action of Vreeland's book – took place. She worked in the restaurant, helping her mother who was the cook and helping her father with the customers. She was a remarkably self-educated woman, who knew about art and who encouraged Renoir's difficult task of painting a huge multi-person portrait outdoors from life: a very complex endeavor.

We often see her in connection with the food served in the restaurant, for example,
"Alphonsine brought up a plate of green beans, fried potatoes, and grenouilles, frog legs sautéed with garlic and parsley, a common dish here because frogs in marshy areas jumped right into your hand." (p. 22). 
"The main course was canard à la paysanne, braised duck garnished with carrots, turnips, onions, celery, bacon, and fried potatoes. Auguste didn’t know how he could sit still and eat. He was conscious only of the painting moving before his eyes. Conversations separated, blended, jumped from one topic to another. He didn’t follow them. Alphonsine brought out two large raspberry tarts. The light on her raised cheeks issued from within. She cut generous pieces, and lingered by the railing watching intently as each person took a bite. 'Did you make these?' Auguste asked. 'With a little help from the sun and rain.'" (p. 98).  
"She was amused by her mother announcing the entrées as she and Maman set the platters on the table. 'Pâté maison and asperges d’Argenteuil en conserve. The best quality in France, grown less than five kilometers from here. 'Pretty as a picture, madame,' Charles said and helped himself to quite a few spears. 'I love asparagus so much I had Manet paint them for my dining room, as a hint to my cook to prepare them more often.'" (p. 158).
Aline Charigot – shown with her little dog – was a beautiful but uneducated and nearly illiterate young woman. She appears in Renoir's neighborhood when he stops for a coffee:
"La Crémerie de Camille was crowded with young women chatting over their café au lait before heading to work at milliners’ shops or dressmakers’ lofts or laundries. Auguste greeted Aline, a seamstress with a Burgundian accent and a creamy complexion, and Géraldine, a pork butcher’s assistant with a meaty fragrance but with a silk rosebud pinned to her gray frock." (p. 59). 
Although Aline was not among the original subjects for the painting, once she's made part of it her importance becomes very obvious. Renoir begins to adore her and he has to convince her protective and untrusting mother to let her pose every Sunday at the boathouse.

Among other things, he tempts her with the fine meals they eat before each sitting for his painting:
“Every Sunday we have one of Mère Fournaise’s delicious meals. So far we’ve had canard à la paysanne with artichauts à la vinaigrette, poulet forestière with asperges d’Argenteuil en conserve, lapin en gibelotte, friture d’ablettes, de gardons et de goujons.' 'Mm. The duck must have been nice, but I’m sorry I missed the rabbit stew. It reminds me of home.' 'And for dessert, raspberry tarts and apple pastry.'"  (p. 260). 
At the end of the novel, one learns that soon after the painting was finished Aline began to live with Renoir. She married him after 10 years of living with him, and was the mother of his children.

Gustave Caillebotte was a very rich art collector, patron, and a highly original painter. He was very much a part of the boating party because he was also such an avid boat owner and boat racer. Part of the suspense – will Renoir be able to finish the painting? – is due to an upcoming boat race, which will require all the space on the restaurant terrace and thus disable Renoir's project. Caillebotte and his boats were very much involved in this race!

Caillebotte is famous today because he sponsored and subsidized the Impressionists while also painting in their style, and his collection and vision was critical in creating their long-term reputation. The circle included Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, and a few others.


Paul Lhôte was another associate who supported Renoir's project. One of his friends describes him:
“Paul Lhôte. A loose screw. Hungry for experiences. Reckless. A writer of articles and an amateur painter. He escapes his deadly conventional post at a shipping company by collecting unconventional adventures.” “Such as?” “Stowing away to South America on a packet ship. He lost his post for that escapade, so he immediately stowed away to Asia. On the isle of Jersey once he dared me to dive from a high cliff out over the rocks into furious waves. I thought he was crazy, but he did it, bare-assed, and came up laughing.” (p. 96).

Charles Ephrussi – the man with a top hat – was a wealthy art collector, and member of the circle of friends of Renoir and other Impressionists. The Ephrussi family is the subject of the book The Hare With Amber Eyes, which I wrote about here and here.

One of the other members of the boating party characterized him thus:
“Charles Ephrussi, only son in a line of wealthy Russian bankers. Self-taught art connoisseur who buys and sells profitably. He’s tapped his ebony walking stick on the marble floors of every bank on rue Lafitte....Always razor-sharp creases in his trousers. Always dignified, the true flâneur strolling the boulevards, observing, then retreating to his plush study to write esoteric articles about his observations while snacking on caviar on toasted rye. But here, ha! A fish out of water. Wait till he discovers that he’ll be posing with two sweaty men in singlets, undergarments to him, one with the air of a carefree sailor, the other as brawny as a pirate.” (p. 155).
An additional description of Ephrussi's palatial home and art collection:
"Even Ephrussi’s outer office was redolent with sandalwood incense, the exotic aroma of his past as the heir of a corn-exporting dynasty in Odessa. Although Japanese prints adorned the anteroom, Auguste knew he’d find paintings by his friends in Ephrussi’s private office." (p. 142). 
Vreeland's description discretely omits a fact about Charles Ephrussi that would have surely been quite important in Renoir's time: the Ephrussi family were not just Russian bankers, but were Jewish. Everyone would have been aware of this, as antisemitism was a critical factor in France during the final years of the 19th century. The closest Vreeland comes to mentioning Jewishness is in a quote about Pissarro, who was also Jewish: “Pissarro has no use for Degas because Edgar’s an anti-Semite." (p. 70).

How accurate was Vreeland's narrative?

Somehow Vreeland brings all fourteen characters together every Sunday when it's possible for Renoir to paint them, and describes all the complications of getting such a crowd to pose for an unimaginably complex group portrait painted entirely live, never in a studio. What a book!

Vreeland's magnificent descriptions are perfectly integrated into the action and the amazingly fast-moving plot and interactions among the characters. She provides a wealth of detail about the food, the lives of actresses and women of the demi-monde as well as of the artists and the working class people they know, the rivalries and arguments within the Impressionist group, the exact names and costs of the pigments that Renoir needed for his painting, the poverty suffered by most of the group, and a wide variety of other topics.

Evidently, Vreeland did a substantial research to make it accurate. She wrote:
"My research included such broad topics as the history of the nineteenth century in France, French society and culture, as well as such specific topics as the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris, and the Commune; the changes in the marketing of art from the Salon to independent galleries, along with the famous art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel; the practice of the duel; dressmaking and couture of late-nineteenth-century Paris; Baron Haussmann’s sweeping changes in the look of Paris streets and squares, Montmartre, and quarters where Gustave Caillebotte, Charles Ephrussi, and Madame Charpentier lived; operas current at the time, cabarets and cabaret songs and singers, dance halls and dances, cafés; canotage, the new leisure of boating, styles of rowing craft, the specifics of river jousting, the organization of sailing regattas; transportation and currency; oil paints available at the time, art-supply dealers, color theory, Renoir’s palette and his preferred types of brushes; other painters who figure in the novel, Monet, Cézanne, Caillebotte, Degas, Bazille, Sisley; the tension among the Impressionist painters and the eventual break up of the group; publications popular at the time; the French character, gender roles, and early feminism." (source)
Earlier this week, I posted a set of Renoir paintings that relate to the famous Luncheon of the Boating Party (here).  This review is copyright © 2020 by mae sander. Images are as credited.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Renoir’s Tea Drinkers

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was one of the most famous of the Impressionist painters in Paris in the late 19th century. Everyone is familiar with his most famous paintings, especially several variations showing two young girls playing a piano. A generation ago a reproduction of one of these variations hung in a large number of homes, often above the family piano. Today you can see one of his original versions at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris.

Another of Renoir's most famous works, Luncheon of the Boating Party, is the subject of a very enjoyable book of the same name by Susan Vreeland, published in 2007. I've been reading it this week, and finding it very fascinating and full of wonderful details about Renoir and his friends, who were also very accomplished painters, art collectors, and writers.

The Luncheon of the Boating Party (Déjeuner des Canotiers). Philips Collection, Washington, DC.

One very striking feature of Renoir's painting is the wonderfully disarrayed table where the people in the painting have been eating lunch and drinking wine. I started to think about how often Renoir painted food and drink, and did some searching for more paintings where he depicted wine, tea, coffee, and more. I found many still-life paintings and scenes of people enjoying various beverages. Here are a few of these Renoirs:

Cup of Chocolate, 1914. Barnes Collection.
Oranges, Bananas, and Teacup, 1908, Barnes Foundation.
Lemons and Teacup, 1912
The McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas. Wikimedia Commons.
The Cup of Tea. 1906-1907. WikiArt.
La Fin du Déjuner, 1879. Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, Germany
Tea Time, 1911, Barnes Foundation.
Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette. 1876. Wikiart.
When I finish reading Vreeland's historic fiction, where she researched and imagined how Renoir painted the boating party, I'll write a review of the book. (UPDATE: done here) Today, however, I wanted to share these images with two blog parties: the Tuesday tea party at Altered Book Lover, and the August extension of Paris in July at the blog Thyme for Tea. This post is copyright © 2020 by mae sander; images of Renoir paintings are as credited.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Graffiti



The Huron River flows peacefully through the Michigan landscape, a lovely place to be on the water. West of Ann Arbor, railroad tracks go along the river bed, crossing it several times on low trestle bridges. The supporting structures are very popular with graffiti artists. Occasionally their work might qualify as a mural, but most of the time, it’s little more than just tagging; in fact, it’s close to pure vandalism. It’s sad, because Ann Arbor is a city that much appreciates murals, and the local art association has recently raised $50,000 to subsidize several murals on walls downtown – I hope these taggers don’t deface the murals!

Blog post © 2020 mae sander.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Quietly Reading


The weather this week has been beautiful and just the right temperature to sit outside and read a book. The book I read: Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell.

There's only one word for the style of this book – here defined by the Oxford UK dictionary:

Thus Was Adonis Murdered,
By Sarah Caudwell (1939-2000).
Published 1981, cover art by Edward Gorey.





arch2

Pronunciation /ɑːtʃ/ 





ADJECTIVE

  • Deliberately or affectedly playful and teasing.

    ‘a somewhat arch tone of voice’

Origin

Mid 17th century from arch-, by association with the sense ‘rogue’ in combinations such as arch-scoundrel.
The narrator of Thus Was Adonis Murdered is an academic scholar named Hilary Tamar.  At the beginning, Hilary and his friends, a small circle of lawyers based in London, receive the news that their colleague and friend Julia Larwood has been detained for questioning in Venice, accused of murdering one of the other participants in a week-long art tour. Hilary and the lawyers determine that they must rescue Julia.

From the beginning, Hilary writes in a highly exaggerated style; moreover, Julia's letters to Hilary and the lawyers, which tell most of the story, reflect a similarly affected and condescendingly nonchalant style. Besides their rather annoying superciliousness, the characters are pretty self-centered and consistently self-congratulatory. Thus the book, in my opinion, is arch.

For example, Hilary writes, as they are discussing how to obtain information from some of the art tour participants, now back in London, who may have by chance seen or heard some evidence to help free Julia:
"However things may be done in Cambridge, in the metropolis it is unfortunately not possible for one private citizen to arrive unannounced on the doorstep of another and to submit that other to a rigorous interrogation, using, if necessary, rack and thumbscrew. I asked if any of them might know anyone sufficiently acquainted with either suspect to enable us to make a more sophisticated approach." (p. 199) 
Or a conversation between Hilary and one of the other amateur sleuths:
"'Benjamin,' I said, 'when you make these remarks ... are we to take it that they have some basis in fact?' 
"'Hilary,' said Benjamin, large-eyed with reproach, 'we are colleagues – fellow scholars – I hope I may say, friends. Do you think me the sort of man to say such things if they were not true? Or at least partly true? Or at least widely believed to be at least partly true?'
"'No, of course not,' I said. 'But which?'" (p. 208)
In spite of constant artifice in narrative and dialog, the novel manages to build suspense, and the plot about the characters' thoughts and actions is surprisingly well developed. From the start, my curiosity was piqued, and I read the whole book, attempting to ignore the most irritating stylistic choices. 

Clearly, this novel could easily be unbearable. But it didn't go that way, at least not for me, not this time. You might have a different reaction, and be either less bothered or more bothered! 

This review is by Mae Sander, © 2020 for mae food dot blog spot dot com.

Friday, July 31, 2020

A Quiet Month in My Kitchen

What a quiet month July has been! Here in Michigan, many restaurants and businesses tried to go back to some sort of normal. However Len and I have remained isolated because the coronavirus isn't really disappearing. What's worse: the consequences of contracting the disease are turning out to be more severe and long-lasting than was first believed. So we're still eating every meal at home, having almost all groceries delivered, rarely getting take-out food, and keeping away from even our relatives -- though many people have started going out again. We did invite friends for a distanced outdoor visit once or twice.

But to get to my kitchen, where we are doing our own cooking, still avoiding most beef and pork purchases, still eating little chicken, and not changing much that's been true for the last 3 months. So what can I tell you about? We bought one new thing: a set of storage containers for flour: not interesting enough for a photo. The food we've cooked & eaten this month was not very different from earlier months of lockdown, but here are a few pictures:

Local tomatoes are best... we can't always get them
because safe shopping options are limited.
Pizza dough from Len's sourdough starter.
We defrosted one piece of beef, bought before we swore off.
We grilled it along with sweet potatoes made in the grill pan.
We bought one chicken, which we also grilled.
Len made cinnamon rolls. What a treat!
Pasta with sugar snap peas and herbs.
More vegetarian food: packaged squash ravioli cooked in butter
and sage leaves, served with mushrooms and green salad.
Savory pancakes with fresh garden herbs, a fried egg, and salad --
as usual, these use up the starter discard.

Vegan curry with cauliflower, bell pepper, tomatoes,
potatoes, red lentils. This is becoming one of my go-to recipes.
Carrot, raisin, and lime salad to go with curry.
Blondies: bars made with brown sugar, chocolate chips,
pecans, etc. Hard to get a clear photo!
This is a long-time favorite recipe.
Ciabatta!

What I feel in my kitchen...

In my kitchen, I feel sad. A variety of food news is very depressing (other news too, but that's not for this post). I am very sad for the restaurant owners and for the food-service workers whose livelihoods are so endangered. The restaurant industry before the pandemic was 10% of the work force, so that's a lot of people suffering! I feel sad for the farms that supplied restaurants, I feel sad for the meat packing workers who have repeatedly been forced to work in dangerous contagion (which is why I'm not buying meat), and I feel sad for the workers on fishing boats who have been exposed or infected. I feel sad for the many people who are challenged to put food on the table.

In my kitchen, I feel gratitude, because we have enough to eat, plenty of choices, a variety of food delivery options, friends who bring us food, and many other things to be grateful for. But we are lonely in the kitchen for the friends and relatives who often visit and cook with us or bring food for potluck meals.

We had take-out once during the entire month, and definitely did not go to any restaurants, even to eat outdoors with tables widely separated. Too risky! We virtually never go to bars anyway, so this is a great time to keep staying away from them. A lesson to us: Michigan has the distinction of having suffered a record number of cases at Harper's Bar in Lansing:
"To date, 144 patrons – average age 21 – who visited Harper’s from June 12 to June 20 have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Ingham County Health Director Linda Vail, who said that eight-day span qualified as a 'super spreader' event. Another 44 people caught the virus from those patrons later on, she said." (link)
In sum: my kitchen this July is a lucky place, with summer produce, home-cooked food, Len's great bread and rolls, and our great fortune to have enough to eat. However, it's a sad place, especially thinking of the huge number of people whose lives have been turned upside down by job loss, by poverty, by children out of school, and by disease. I'm sharing this with Sherry at the blog Sherry's Pickings and with the other bloggers who also share their kitchen stories each month.

Blog post © 2020 mae sander for maefood dot blog spot.com

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Book List: Wrapping Up Paris in July

Participants in the blog event Paris in July have been busy all month describing a variety of recipes, books, book shops, music, personal experiences in Paris in the past, aspirations for future travel, and many other impressions of Paris. I've been enjoying all their posts, and thanks to some excellent reviews, I've discovered a few new authors. To see the final wrap up posts, check out Tamara's blog.

Among the books I learned about, I recently read a police procedural by Fred Vargas: The Chalk Circle Man, translated by Siân Reynolds. The book's blurb explains:
"Fred Vargas was born in Paris in 1957. A historian and archaeologist by profession, she is a number-one bestselling author in France. She is the author of eight novels featuring Commissaire Jean-Baptise Adamsberg, including Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand and This Night’s Foul Work. Her books have been published in thirty-eight countries and have sold more than four million copies.
I found The Chalk Circle Man different from English and American police procedurals that I'm used to reading. I was somewhat surprised by the extreme quirkiness of Commissaire Jean-Baptise Adamsberg and his fellow detectives, as well as of the suspects, and eventually the perp. These characters reminded me a little of the exaggerated personalities created by Boris Vian in his ever-popular French cult classic L'écume des jours, published in 1947. Right up front, we learn that Adamsberg "had solved, one after another, four murders in a way that his colleagues had found uncanny, in other words unfair and provocative." (p. 14). There are various bon mots like "a caress is no substitute for a good cup of coffee." Or "Mathilde sat up and pushed her dark hair back with both hands. Right, she thought, I’m just having a little attack of metaphysics and it will pass."

At the start of this book a mysterious set of events is occurring in Paris: someone is drawing chalk circles in the streets, and in each one appears a strange bit of trash or some object of no apparent meaning. Commissaire Adamsberg finds this odd sequence of actions significant. He demands that the police force pay attention. He collects people who seem to know something about the chalk-circle man, and they are eccentric too. As he interviews these possibly knowledgeable people, he always seems a bit inattentive and distracted, and he has a habit of making sketches of the people in the room. For example:
"Then she looked at Adamsberg, who was not drawing but was sitting with his legs outstretched, one hand in his trouser pocket, the other holding a cigarette in his fingertips and seeming so disorganised and nonchalant that it was hard to know how to approach him. But Mathilde sensed that he was quite capable of doing his job, even looking like that, or perhaps especially when looking like that."(p. 130).
Smells play a role also, in what seems a strange way:
"‘A thousand witnesses, a thousand noses,’ he added, smiling and spreading wide his long arms. ‘A thousand noses, a thousand different interpretations. A thousand interpretations probably add up to a thousand childhood memories. One person thinks of rotten apples, another vinegar, and tomorrow we might have people talking about what? Nutmeg, furniture polish, strawberries, talcum powder, dusty curtains, cough mixture, gherkins . . . The circle man must have a smell that reminds people of their childhood." (p. 145).
I was a little disappointed in the final resolution of the mystery, but no spoilers here. I might read another book by Fred Vargas, and I'm glad that Lisbeth at The Content Reader recommended her.

Other Finds from Paris in July

The Woman Who Didn’t Grow Old by Grégoire Delacourt, translated by Vineet Lal was reviewed by Annabel (AnnaBookBel). She wrote:
"If you enjoy the books of Antoine Laurain or Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, you’d probably enjoy Delacourt too." 
Intrigued by her review of this author, who was new to me, I read his book The First Thing You See, which I reviewed last week (link). It was very enjoyable! Eventually I think I'll read other books by this popular French author.


Lisbeth at The Content Reader also introduced a favorite thriller writer, Michel Bussi with the book Time is a Killer. She writes:
"Michel Bussi is a professor of geopolitics and one of the most popular French authors today. He has written numerous novels. I have earlier read After the Crash and Black Water Lilies. They are both excellent. I enjoy thrillers and mysteries that have an interesting story. Bussi provides this in all his books. The stories are often very sad, and the murderers become killers by pure accident."
I hope to try one of his books soon.


Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne also was reviewed by Annabel (AnnaBookBel):
"There is nothing like this trilogy to capture the Zeitgeist of recent years, Despentes (and Frank Wynne’s wonderful translation) captures the despair and frustration, the polarisation and depression, and makes the reader feel part of it. Yet amongst all this negativity, there is friendship and some cause for optimism."
While I had heard of the TV series, this review gave me much much more information about the three books of the series. I probably won't read these or watch the TV series, but I'm glad to be more informed about them.

Finally, I'm intrigued by The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, which was reviewed by vvb32reads, who recommended several other interesting books. Also, Nadia at A Bookish Way of Life recommended Didierlaurent’s book The Rest of their Lives. And I thank my fellow bloggers for lots more very tempting reviews of French books and films that have been posted this month.

As a lover of Paris, I have visited there many times. I hope that the world situation will clear up so that I can go back again some day not too long in the future. Meanwhile, I've enjoyed the many virtual visits to Paris that I took in my own blog and on other blogs this month, Paris in July.


This review copyright © 2020 mae sander.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

"The Night Tiger" by Yangsze Choo

The Night Tiger, published 2019.
Yangsze Choo's novel The Night Tiger is a highly enjoyable novel. The author combines historic fiction with magical realism and folklore in a very exotic setting -- a little-known province of Malaya; that is, present-day Malaysia. In the novel, multiple cultures interact: Chinese people from different areas of China, English colonials, and local natives. The excellence of the book comes from the vivid characters, profound dream sequences, complex relationships, a colonial setting rather long ago in 1931, and a fascinating plot.

Ji Lin is one of the five central characters in the novel. At the beginning we learn about her name:
"The Ji in my name wasn’t commonly used for girls. It was the character for zhi, or knowledge, one of the five Confucian Virtues. The others were benevolence, righteousness, order, and integrity. Chinese are particularly fond of matched sets and the Five Virtues were the sum of qualities that made up a perfect man. So it was a bit odd that a girl like me should be named for knowledge." (p. 15).
The other four central characters, it turns out, possess names that incorporate the other four Confucian Virtues. In the course of the novel, the reader is made to understand how these names determine the characters' fates. Doesn't this sound contrived? That's the absolutely amazing thing in the book: it's not contrived at all! However, it's very suspenseful so I will not give away any spoilers.

The chapters of the book alternate between a first-person account by Ji Lin and an omniscient narrator telling about the other characters, especially the life story of a very young kitchen boy named Ren and his two masters, both English doctors. Each household has a number of personalities including servants, and in addition there are many other characters who are connected to the hospital where one of the doctors works.

Ji Lin leads a kind of a dual life at home with her mother, step-father, and step-brother; at her work as an apprentice dressmaker; and at her better-paying secret job as a dance hall girl. Her occasional descriptions of making and wearing stylish clothing contributes to the exotic atmosphere of the story; for example, she wrote about going to a funeral: "The only suitable dress I had was a plain grey Mandarin-collared cheongsam that I’d made as part of my apprenticeship. A cheongsam is an unforgiving, formal Chinese dress to tailor." (p. 46).

In both narratives, I was delighted to read many descriptions of the local fruit and vegetables, the local cuisine, the more exotic Chinese cooking done in the kitchens of the story, and the odd combination of English and local foods eaten by the colonial doctors and their friends who are a main part of the story. For me, the food descriptions are a delightful reflection of the multiple cultures that intersect in the complex and wonderful plot. Besides food, the story is full of the supernatural. Especially there's much folklore about tigers and about people who are really tigers or tigers who are really people.

I want to share some of the food quotes from Ji Lin's narrative:
"I brought a treat to make up for the fact that I wasn’t homesick at all. Today it was rambutans, the hairy, red-skinned fruit that snapped open to reveal a sweet white interior. They’d been selling them by the bus stop, and I’d bought a bundle wrapped in old newspaper. As I sat on the bus I rather regretted it, as the rambutans were crawling with ants." (p. 27).
"Going to the wet market had always been one of my favorite errands. You could buy almost anything there: piles of red and green chilies, live chicks and quail, green lotus seed pods that resembled shower sprinklers. There were fresh sides of pork, salted duck eggs, and baskets of glossy river fish. You could eat breakfast, too, at little stalls serving steaming bowls of noodles and crispy fritters." (p. 46). 
"Dinner that night was a silent affair, despite the luxury of a whole steamed chicken rubbed with sesame oil. It sat, expertly chopped into bite-sized pieces, on a large platter. None of us had touched it." (p. 33).
"At the canteen, I wanted to try the exotic Western food— sardine sandwiches, chicken chops, and mulligatawny soup— listed on the blackboard." (p. 114). 
"Koh Beng sat down and started eating. Noodles again, with thin succulent slices of pork liver ladled on top of the steaming hot soup. I wished I’d ordered that as well. “Want some?” he asked." (pp. 153-154). 
"I sat on her bed. “Are you working tonight?” I’d hoped that she was free to have dinner at one of the roadside stalls that grilled stingray wrapped in banana leaves, but she was clearly getting ready for an evening out." (p. 172).
"... both locals and expatriates came to drink at the long bar and order Western dishes prepared by a Hainanese chef: sizzling steaks and chicken chops, washed down with icy beer." (p. 175).
"They’d brought an enormous bag of mangosteens and a tiffin carrier of steamed pork buns, as though we might starve before reaching Singapore. It would be a long journey south: four hours to Kuala Lumpur, then an overnight sleeper of eight hours to Singapore. A total of about 345 miles— farther than I’d ever been in my life." (p. 363). 

And I want to share some quotes from the omniscient narrator: 
"Since William is at the hospital, Ah Long has put together some simple noodles in broth. Shredded chicken and boiled greens are piled on top, with a gloss of fried shallot oil. Ren notices that Ah Long has given him a larger portion than usual, with extra meat." (pp. 43-44). 
"... the monthly party, a much anticipated social event where people dine on canned food sent from Europe— peas, lobster, tongue— drink too much, and congratulate each other on having a wonderful time out in the Colonies. It’s his turn to host, and he must remind Ah Long to lay in extra wine and spirits and discuss the menu. William would rather eat fresh local food than something that has died and been sealed in a can, like a metal coffin. He shudders at the thought and quickens his pace to catch up with Rawlings.  
"The hospital cafeteria is an open, airy space with a thatched roof and a poured concrete floor. The daily menu includes both Western and local food. Rawlings stands in line at the counter and demands a kopi-o, strong black coffee with sugar, and a slice of papaya in his deep bass. Queuing behind him, William asks for the same." (p. 90). 
"'TUAN, are you going to church?' asks Ren. While William ate breakfast, he polished his master’s shoes with brown Kiwi shoe polish, purchased yesterday in town, till they were bright. William inspects them and says they remind him of ripe chestnuts, though Ren has no idea what he’s referring to. Some kind of fruit, he thinks, though he can’t imagine a fruit that looks like shoes."  (p. 139).  
"Three plump chickens are in the wooden coop at the back. They’ll be made into chicken cutlets and Inchi Kabin, crispy twice-fried chicken served with sweet-and-spicy sauce. Local beef is tough and lean, and comes from water buffalo, so Ah Long will make beef rendang, slow-cooked dry curry with coconut, to round out the main dishes." (p. 164).
"Ah Long is already busy in the kitchen, stirring a large pot of beef rendang, slow cooked with coconut milk, and aromatic with kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, and cardamom.  ... dessert comes out. Sago gula Malacca, pearls of tapioca drizzled with coconut milk and dark brown coconut-sugar syrup, and kuih bingka ubi, that fragrant golden cake made from grated tapioca root." (pp. 199- 205).
I'm grateful to Carol for recommending this book!

This review copyright © 2020 by mae sander. 

Wordless Wednesday



Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Streaming TV In Our Living Room

Street Food Latin America

The new Street Food Latin America is fabulous! David Gelb never disappoints us, never insults us, and most important always respects the cooks and customers in the countries that he writes about. Ever since Jiro Dreams of Sushi, released in 2011, he's been great. We've watched two of the new series, and I'm looking forward very much to the remaining episodes.



"Cursed"

We can't stop watching this creepy mash-up of clichés which retells the Arthur legends in a sort of modern fanfic style.

Pluses: Good production values. Well-done graphic art sequences to advance the action. Creative casting using actors of various races, though this could also be interpreted as a negative in various ways. The characters are haphazardly borrowed from a wide variety of earlier retellings of the stories, sometimes a bit strangely, sometimes sort-of creatively. For example, Gawain IS the Green Knight.

Minuses: Horrible dialog that sometimes sounds like a parody of "Clueless" and sometimes sounds like a parody of the 19th century novels of Sir Walter Scott. No character development worth mentioning. Spotty acting techniques -- some pretty good, some awful. Very little plot, overall.

Ambiguous: At first I thought that the relentless anachronisms and inconsistencies were a negative feature, but I decided that they didn't matter. No effort seems to have been put forth for anything but a science fictiony setting where anything goes. For example, a Dutch-style windmill appears in one repeated landscape. If Arthurian England was in the Dark Ages, then what's a considerably later technological innovation doing there? Or a mention of the Minotaur? Or characters with sci-fi makeup that look like they were found on a planet explored in Star Trek? Never mind.

We have watched most of the episodes, though at times they put me to sleep. We will probably finish though I suspect they'll leave lots of loose ends for an infinite number of additional seasons of the show.


Classic Movies

Our rather recent HBO+ subscription includes lots of historic films, including classic Hollywood, French New Wave, the Studio Ghibli films, and more. Most recently watched: eternal classic The Maltese Falcon. 


Blog post © 2020 by mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Tea in Paris

In a shop dedicated to tea and nothing else:
Dammann Frères, Paris, Place des Vosges.
This is the last week of July and the 1,000,000th week of coronavirus lockdown. The blog event Paris in July (link) has inspired me to revisit earlier trips to this beloved and beautiful city while I'm unable to go more than a few miles from home. And the blog event "T is For Tuesday" (link) has given me the idea of looking at tea from a Paris perspective. It's fun to see what other people are doing to keep their equilibrium during these challenging summer days, and to share experiences from the past with them. Looking at tea...

Dammann Frères, Paris, November 2018 (photo by Tom).
This shop has been in business since 1692. Several other Dammann shops
are in other neighborhoods in the city. Other specialist tea-sellers
also have shops in various areas of Paris.
We visited Dammann Frères during Christmas season, so it was busy.
Their variety of single-origin teas from around the world is endless.
They also blend tea with many aromatic herbs, dried flowers, leaves, and other flavors.
Evelyn is the tea drinker in the family, and she bought a few packages of tea.
Customers inside the shop (photo by Tom).
The shop is in the arcades that line the Place des Vosges.
(Photo by Tom).
Before we went into the tea store, we looked around the Place des Vosges. Miriam and Alice are just to the left of the statue.
An amusing shop window elsewhere in Paris showed some clever tea pots.

"Patisserie Salon de Thé" (photo by Evelyn).

Blog post and all photos © 2020 mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com.