Monday, March 29, 2010

'The Rum Diary'


I’ve probably read “The Rum Diary,” a novel written by then 22-year-old Hunter Thompson about a washed-up writer pushing his luck in pre-tourist infested San Juan, Puerto Rico, about 3,000 times now. Each read gives me sudden urges to close my eyes, spin a globe and move to wherever my finger lands without even thinking.

The book takes place in the late 1950s, where a traveling journalist in his early 30s named Paul Kemp takes a job at a decadent english-language newspaper called the Daily News. Kemp pretty much comes to San Juan as a suit-and-tie city boy, and before leaving, develops a vicious affinity for rum on rice and a series of un-healthy relationships with the people he encounters on the tropical island.

The book has shades of romanticism and deals with the fear of feeling over the hill and never having any meaningful direction in life. Although Thompson pitched this fictional book while trying to break through as an author in the early 60’s, much of the events are really based on Thompson’s experiences when he was actually living in San Juan and writing for various sporting publications.

Ironically, it bounced several times and was never published until toward the end of Thompson’s career, some forty years later. In between, Thompson went on to being the first to chronicle the Hell’s Angels, where he survived an infamous beat down by the gang before breaking ties. Those unfamiliar with his writing may have seen “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a Terry Gilliam film with Johnny Depp based on the book of the same name. Depp is reprising his role for a film adaption of “The Rum Diary” set to be released later this year.

This book is a quick and fun read, written in more of a Hemingway-esque prose than the aggressive and off-the-wall gonzo style Thompson is known for. In this book, everyone on staff has a chip on their shoulder.

There is the blatantly arrogant Yeamon, a nut-job who people avoid, a guy named Moberg who is always fanatically drunk, and a paranoid publisher who thinks everyone working for him is out to sink the paper. Throw in a beautiful blonde named Cheanult, and you’ve got a cast of characters that lay the work for a rampant, stream-of-conscious narrative that does things hard to do: It makes the reader laugh out loud.

Part of the fun in reading the book and being familiar with Thompson’s background is trying to figure out the parts that actually happened. There is a scene toward the end where Kemp and the other Americans get into a brawl with cops and end up in jail. In some of Thompson’s later recordings, he confirms the scene in passing conversation as having actually happened.

Although a work of fiction, Thompson was still writing his novel based on some sort of “truth.”
If you’ve got a few hours and a bottle of rum to kill, go read this book.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

'Mark Bittman's Kitchen Express'


I have a thing for cookbooks. I own shelves and shelves of them: Some glossy with beautiful full-page colors photos; some large hardcover tomes of recipe after recipe; some from famous chefs like Julia Child and some from unknowns.

Even with my vast collection, I find myself renewing the same book from the library over and over -- or as many times as they'll let me. "Mark Bittman's Kitchen Express" is like none other. Toss out any notion you may have of a traditional cookbook. Bittman scraps the ingredients list, throws format to the wind and doesn't even think about measurements.

Bittman is something of a celebrity in the food world. His face might not be as synonymous as say, Rachael Ray, but he's certainly on the scene. Bittman writes a weekly column for the New York Times, called "The Minimalist," with an accompanying blog and he brings that same realistic and simplistic approach in the kitchen to the recipes in this, his latest book.

The book is filled with 404 recipes -- broken down into 101 dishes for each season. Each recipe is just one paragraph and provides a quick sketch of what to do, with a short blurb before each explaining, describing, offering a variation or giving suggestions of what to serve alongside. Also, each recipe can be made in under 20 minutes -- some in as little as five.

First off, I love that Bittman has broken the book down by seasons. This is the proper way to cook. Good ingredients are the backbone of excellent home cooking, and you're more likely to find quality ingredients in season. "As it happens," Bittman says, "asparagus is best in spring, broccoli in fall, corn in summer, and so on." Bottom line: Mother Nature knows best.

The recipes themselves are fresh and innovative. They range from classics, like Caesar salad, to new takes on the common, like Gruyere apple grilled cheese, to full-on fusion, like an Italian tostada. And some are so eccentric (and wonderful!), they defy categorization altogether, like Nutella fondue. Are you drooling yet?

Each seasonal chapter begins with breakfast, goes on to soup and salad, then on to sandwiches and vegetarian cuisine before segueing into fish, chicken, pork, beef and lamb; next up it's pasta, and finally, dessert. As you can see, this is a very comprehensive approach to cooking and makes planning a whole meal -- from appetizer to ending -- a snap.

Lately, I've been delving into the Spring section, and recently made Bittman's chicken tandoori. Broiled on wooden skewers, I served it with roasted asparagus (yum!) and will soon be providing the recipe on my own blog, Live to Eat. It was incredibly easy and tasty, just like everything else I've whipped up from the book thus far. I'm also jazzed to try a few more of his springtime selections, including udon noodles with green tea broth, BLT salad, Middle Eastern pizza and bittersweet chocolate crepes with smashed fruit.

Looking into my culinary crystal ball, I can clearly see that the grill will get a lot of use this summer, and Bittman will be right there with me. From jerk chicken to Korean barbecued beef and the author's take on "a very good burger," I can't wait to get my food over an open flame. And for days when it's simply to hot to fuss, I definitely planning on trying out some of his cool summer stuff, such as a feta and watermelon salad or zucchini and dill soup.

The blurb on the back of "Kitchen Express" notes that "this style of cooking is about three things: speed, flexibility and relaxation." I dig it. In fact, the idea of cooking foods in a fast, flexible and relaxing way is so appealing, I think I'll make it my own new culinary mantra.

'Up for Renewal'


“Up for Renewal” follows writer Cathy Alter as she takes on the task of letting magazines guide her life.

Alter, a divorced Jewish woman living in Washington, D.C., sets out on the task of letting "O," "Cosmopolitan" and "Glamour" teach her about love, sex and starting her life over. And in 12 months, she manages to do just that.

First, she learns how to wrap a sandwich to bring to work using a clingy plastic wrap. Then, she learns how to make a whole meal. She even learns to get rid of her "upper-arm jiggle," to be comfortable with going camping, how to live without washing her hair every day and how to paint her apartment.

One of the reviewers on the back cover of the book said it feels like you’ve made a new friend when you read it, and that’s really how I felt. While I chuckled slightly and felt significantly more domestic than Alter as she stumbled through her sandwich stage, I found her voice open and honest and it was very easy to feel sympathetic for her many failures.

Of course, the book isn’t for everyone. For one thing, there are several references to Alter and her co-worker having sex at work, which may be too much to handle for some. Others might just not understand Alter’s personality.

I lent “Up for Renewal” to a co-worker who was going through a renewal face, and she hated it.
“This woman can’t even make a sandwich,” was the first thing she said.
“But didn’t you think it was funny?” I asked.
“Not really. She gives all Jewish women from Connecticut a bad name.”

She quickly handed the book back, as if not wanting to be seen with it near her desk. But that’s OK. We can’t all like the same thing. I am currently having my “Monster of Florence” co-worker read it just to see if I’m crazy, or if she likes it too.

I’ll get back to you on how that goes.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

'Behind the Bell'


"Saved By The Bell" was one of the cheesiest shows in the history of television, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here when I say it was also one of the most beloved.

Don’t roll your eyes! You all watched it. All the boys had crushes on Kelly Kapowski and the girls argued over who was hotter Zack or Slater. We all thought Lisa was cute but maybe a bit asexual, and Jessie’s feminism was too “in your face” but she had legs that went all the way up to Ya Ya.

As for Samuel Screeh Powers, well, let's just say he may have been the most annoying TV character ever, right up there with Urkel. But, I must admit, I do remember laughing at some of his lame jokes. And I know you did, too.

"Saved By The Bell" was never “appointment viewing” or “Must See TV” but over the course of my lifetime, like many of you, I think I’ve seen EVERY episode.

I know most of the words to “Friends Forever.” I thought it was really strange when Jessie was addicted to caffeine pills and freaked out. I recall waaaay too many dance numbers that made you squirm in your seat yet smile at the same time. Remember Lisa’s sprained-ankle dance or Slater’s ballet number in the black unitard? Yeah, of course you do!

So, while I’m not embarrassed to call myself a fan of the show, I suppose I’m a little embarrassed to admit I just finished reading the book “Behind The Bell” by Dustin Diamond, aka Screech Powers (it was a fast read, took 2 hours).

It was marketed as a “tell all” – a behind-the-scenes look at what really went on when the cameras weren’t rolling.

Screech alleges in the book that everyone was sleeping together and that all the cast members (except Screech) were pot heads who smoked up during rehearsals and drank themselves silly on the weekends.

Years after the show ended, Lark Vorhies (Lisa) seemed distant toward men and flinched whenever she heard loud noises. While he never came out and said it, Screech alleges that she was possibly a battered woman.

Who knows what to believe and what not to? I, for one, am inclined to believe most of this. After all, when the show was filmed in the late 80s/early 90s, the cast was all teenagers. Of course they partied. Didn’t we all?

What bugged me most is that Dustin Diamond came off as the tattle-tale in school that nobody liked. But I am a little biased since I’ve always hated the character.

As some of you may know, late night talker Jimmy Fallon is trying to organize an on-air "Saved By The Bell" reunion. Pretty much everyone has signed on except for Screech who says he’s “too busy.” Perhaps Fallon should just read the book instead.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

'In the Woods'


I recently finished the novel “In the Woods” by first-time author Tana French. I had never heard a thing about it before I picked it up at Borders about two weeks ago. I read the back cover, then the first chapter. Twenty minutes later I was in the check-out line – book in hand.

"In the Woods" is the first book since "In Cold Blood" (which I read junior year of high school) to give me nightmares.

Set in the suburbs of Dublin, "In the Woods" is a multilayered story that combines the gritty worldliness of a police procedural with the eerie chills of a psychological thriller. Think "Law and Order: SVU" meets "The X-Files."

Detective Rob Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, must find a child-killer who has done his dirty work in the same woods where Ryan, 20 years before, was the sole survivor of a bloody incident that left him with a blanked-out memory. Looming on the horizon: the obliteration of the crime scene by a new highway.

Is the new murder related to the earlier disappearances? Are the anti-highway protesters involved? Will pursuing the case unlock Ryan’s memory – and does he really want it unlocked?

When the killer was finally revealed I must admit, I was not SUPER shocked at who it turned out to be, though I was shocked of the motive behind it. However, it’s the story of what ( may or may not have ) happened to Rob Ryan and his two childhood pals 20 years earlier that had me spooked and re -reading chapters trying to piece together the mystery myself.

I recommend this book to the casual reader and I can’t recommend it enough to those of you out there who like a good crime novel with a “whodunnit” storyline.

And while a few mysteries in the book may leave some scratching your heads, the answers are all there for you, it’s just a matter of whether or not you let yourself believe them.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

'The Monster of Florence'


A co-worker first recommended the book “The Monster of Florence” in November. I got it for Christmas, and I finished reading it a couple of weeks later.

The book by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi takes you through 14 brutal murders in and around Florence, Italy, dating back 20 years, and the Italian law enforcement’s search for the killer. But this is also a story of how a local newspaper journalist becomes a monster expert through his own investigations and great reporting, and later a suspect in the murders.

It is a story of how the Italian legal system lacks oversight, how prosecutors tell investigators what to look for (and what to find), and how innocent people can be convicted of heinous crimes with almost no physical evidence to back up the charges.

The story is extremely timely and relevant as 22-year-old American Amanda Knox was just convicted in the killing of a British exchange student in Perugia, Italy, in December.

At the center of both cases is prosecutor Guiliano Mignini. Mignini was indicted and charged with abuse of office in 2006 and "abetting" in the Monster of Florence case after he ordered wiretaps on several journalists – especially those who wrote about him critically – and area judges, but he was still allowed to keep working as a prosecutor despite the charges against him. He was convicted of abuse of office in January.

There seems to be a bias in prosecution in both the Knox case and the Monster case. Once the prosecutor made up his mind about who he thought was behind the Monster of Florence crimes, Mignini disregarded not only physical evidence, but also common sense. It seems he has done the same in the Knox case.

According to CBS blog Crimesider, Mignini quietly appeared in court on and off for his own trial since April 2008, while waging a highly publicized prosecution against Knox.

Did Amanda Knox really kill her roommate? I don’t know. But she should at least be allowed a fair trial, and not a trial overseen by a man who did not let people have fair trials.

After reading this book, I hope Knox gets a chance to appeal her conviction and that a separate set of eyes – people who are not on Magnini’s payroll – will re-examine the evidence against her.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

'In the Middle of the Night'


When I first picked up the controversial book about the July 2007 murders in Cheshire, I was hoping to learn more details of the actual case. I wanted to read about what had happened that morning as Dr. William Petit became the only survivor in his family of a brutal home invasion that ended with a beautiful New England home going up in flames.

As I started reading “In the Middle of the Night,” however, I quickly realized that Brian McDonald’s book is more a disguised love store with one of the suspects arrested in the case, Joshua Komisarjevsky; it is the story about a homeschooled child raised in a Christian home, who had overcome so much, but still turned to crime at an early age.

I really didn’t want to read about Komisarjevsky’s grandfather renovating his barn in the 1980s, nor did I want to read about his family and what they have accomplished – it is simply irrelevant to this case and I quickly skipped over several pages when his family history came up.

Two men committed this crime and are currently awaiting trial for it, and it is clear that one person is featured in a favorable light (as if the author is saying "I understand why you did this, it's OK") and the other is blamed for most of what happened ("he was a fat, clumsy, not so bright guy from Winsted" - my interpretation of what the author wrote, not actual quotes from the book).

This deadly home invasion happened on a quiet street not more than 15 minutes from where I’ve spent most of my years in Connecticut. It was in a safe neighborhood, where nobody locked their doors, and it happened to an average family, who had no connection to the brutal criminals who broke into their house as they lay safely in their beds.

I want to read THEIR story – the story that Dr. Petit will one day tell, and may has already shared with some of his close friends. I want to know what gave him the courage to keep going after everyone he loved was gone.

What I definitely do not want to read is a glorified version of events from the viewpoint of one of the two criminals currently on trial for the tree deaths, a man who was not supposed to have any contact with anyone on the outside except his lawyer, but somehow managed to write pages worth of letters to a mediocre author who wanted to make some money. And, it should be said, the author also managed to lie his way into prison to visit Komisarjevsky, by pretending to be an attorney.

In Cheshire, many protested as the library was set to buy copies of the book. The library said it is part of the town’s history; residents said nobody should support this book because of the horrible events it portrays and how McDonald went about writing it.

I say, let the library have it – that way, nobody needs to waste any of their money on buying it, and McDonald won’t sell anymore books.

In December, only a little over 21,000 copies of the book had sold on, something a local judge pointed out as he denied an attorney's request to have the triple-murder trial moved to a different court. The defense attorney for Stephen Hayes claims the book blames his client for setting fire to the house and says this is taining the jury pool so it will be impossible for Hayes to get a fair trial. The judge did not agree, and the trial is set to start any day now in New Haven (last I heard jury selection was under way).

I'm glad a review copy of the book landed on my desk - I certainly would have never paid to read it.

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