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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Medium Raw," "Nobody's Angel," more

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Washington Post Book Reviews
For You
Thursday June 24, 2010
Isabel Allende
ISBN 978 0 06 198824 0
457 pages

Reviewed by Marcela Valdes, a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University
It's one of the most dramatic stories of the 18th century, and the only completely successful slave rebellion in the world: In 1791, inspired by the French Revolution, hundreds of thousands of slaves revolted in the tiny French colony of Saint-Domingue, eventually creating the new, independent nation of Haiti.
At the time of the revolt, Saint-Domingue was one of the richest colonies in the world, thanks to its exports of sugar, coffee and indigo. It was also one of the most brutal. And when the slaves overthrew their masters, they exacted revenge for centuries of atrocities by burning plantations and slaughtering colonialists. The specter of such bloody fires haunted Latin America for decades and kept neighboring Cuba clinging to Spain for more than 100 years.
This extraordinary history forms the backdrop for Isabel Allende's latest novel, "Island Beneath the Sea." Yet, tellingly, Allende's most convincing characters are neither slaves nor rebels -- they're amoral rogues.
The first to enter the action is 20-year-old Toulouse Valmorain, a minor French chevalier who is brought to Saint-Domingue in 1770 by his father's impending death. In Paris, Toulouse had styled himself a man of letters and admired Rousseau. But in Saint-Domingue, the dandy confronts slaves dying of starvation and a father crazed with syphilis. His challenge: to preserve the family sugar plantation that keeps his Parisian relatives afloat.
Behind this reversal lies a great premise -- the Age of Reason meets the vicious slave culture that underwrites it -- but Allende doesn't bother detailing the process of Toulouse's inevitable moral corruption. In the novel's fictional universe, the good are always good, the bad are always bad. So she skips the corrosion and focuses on Toulouse's more essential flaws: vanity, selfishness and self-deception. Luckily, there's plenty to mine in these vices. In fact, the novel's fiercest bites come from contradictions in Toulouse's words and actions. For example, one evening after raping and beating a house slave, he tells her, "I have always treated you very well" -- and believes it.
Allende's other great character, Violette Boisier, is less deluded but equally determined to keep her own interests first. "The most sought after cocotte of the city, a free young woman with the reputation of being clean and healthy, African by heritage and white in appearance," Violette turns tricks with smiles and flattery. Once her clients have gone, she plots business maneuvers with her devoted slave. Cheery and shrewd, Violette is determined to die rich, and her ventures inject the novel with surprising Cosmo elements: beauty makeovers, sex lessons and interior decoration projects.
If Violette were at the center of Allende's story, "Island Beneath the Sea" might have been as much acid fun as Defoe's "Moll Flanders," which sent up a similar period in English society by showing it through the eyes of another canny whore. Alas, the star of "Island" is Allende's least believable character: a saintly, mixed-race house slave named Zarite Sedella. Bought by Violette for Toulouse (as part of a home renovation project), Zarite yearns for freedom, but she's soon turned into Toulouse's concubine. Toulouse also steals her firstborn, beats her and makes her care for his white son.
Our long-suffering heroine finds her foil halfway through the book, when the three main characters flee to New Orleans. There Toulouse marries a Southern woman as despotic and cruel as Zarite is self-effacing and kind, and the novel quickly descends from historical romance to farce. The face-off between Zarite and the Evil Wife produces scenes so broad that they'd fit easily in a Disney production of "Cinderella."
Amid such shenanigans, the novel's account of Saint-Domingue's transformation into Haiti begins to feel increasingly pro forma. From the start, the political passages in "Island Beneath the Sea" read like a warmed-over textbook. By the end, it's obvious that Allende's real interest is not Haitian history but plotting worthy of romantic opera. For in this novel, slavery and revolution are little more than a colorful setting for tales of incest and star-crossed love, which explains the novel's cringe-inducing takes on African religion and dancing. Among other startling suggestions, Allende implies that a taste for dancing is inherent to "African blood."
Later in the book, Zarite sneaks out to New Orleans' famous Place Congo, where, she tells us, slaves and free blacks "danced from midday to night, and the whites came to be scandalized, and to give them bad thoughts our behinds whirled like windmills, and to make them envious we rubbed against each other like lovers." But black culture was not merely a performance for whites, just as African religion consisted of much more than an ethereal belief in spirits.
Marlon James' recent, dazzling slave narrative, "The Book of Night Women," recognized the real intelligence at work behind these cultural practices, and I can't help wishing that Allende had made a more serious effort to do the same.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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ELSIE & MAIRI GO TO WAR: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front
Diane Atkinson
ISBN 978-1605980942
280 pages

Reviewed by by Carolyn See, who reviews books regularly for The Washington Post.
"It's a wonderful feeling knowing that one is leaving England, the Island of Peace, and going straight into the most awful horror. ... I wonder what my fate will be in these next few months," wrote Mairi Chisholm, an 18-year-old upper-class Scottish motorcyclist as she rushed to cross the English Channel in late September 1914, with a hastily organized, privately managed ambulance corps. She was one of just a few members, headed up by an idealistic nudist. Like almost everyone else in England at that time, Mairi was champing at the bit, desperately eager to do her part for her country, but also totally clueless about what these years of war might bring, or even what "war" was, exactly.
At the same time, another woman, Elsie Knocker, was also packing to go along on the expedition. "It seems funny to think," she writes, that at "this time tomorrow night I shall be in Belgium -- in the midst of all the terrors of war."
So, it was a "wonderful" and "funny" thing to think about. In truth, it seems to have been such a long time since England had been involved in a full-on war that it appeared to many just a larky adventure. Then followed four years of horror and a staggering death rate, until the Armistice, when both sides retreated to their corners and began to prepare for World War II.
At first, the Great War resembled a pageant of improvisation. Besides the actual armed services, many individuals barged in, craving novelty, anything new. Mairi was -- or seemed to be -- merely a scatterbrain who dearly loved to ride in off-road races. Elsie was a divorcee who had married a dubious guy and lived in Singapore for a while, abused by her then-husband and finally locked out of the house. Now, as a single mother with a son to raise, Elsie found herself at loose ends. It was a time when 30 really was 30. Depending on how you looked at it, she was already an old maid or a divorcee (socially unacceptable) or a widow. She edited her life story and decided on the third option.
This turns out to be an interesting book, partly because it deals with logistics we usually don't think about. When that self-appointed ambulance corps landed, they checked into a good hotel and ordered up dinner. When Mairi's dad came out to visit the front (and also to bring his errant daughter back to the safety of England), he "caught a boat to Ostend, hailed a taxi and told the driver to take him to the front." Then, after a day or two, he "checked out of the Flandria Hotel and went back to England. As he was leaving he told Mairi, 'If it weren't for your mother I'd stay out here with you; you're having the most wonderful time, I wouldn't take you back for anything.'"
Indeed, none of this seems to square with the way we've been brought up to think of war. The Belgian setting -- dotted with Flanders Field and Ypres and Dunkirk, places that now carry such horrific connotations -- seemed to these ladies, at least, something of a playground. When Mairi and Elsie went out on a cold morning, bringing hot chocolate and vegetable soup to Belgian soldiers in the trenches, "sometimes German sentries called out, asking Elsie and Mairi who they were and what they were doing. Cheekily, Elsie would reply, 'Do you want a cup of hot chocolate? There's one going spare.' ... There we were, with the Belgian sentry, and the German sentry imbibing chocolate, right out in No Man's Land. I mean it was just too silly for words."
The women set up camp in a deserted basement. They drove around the countryside looking for wounded. Elsie had some training as a midwife, but neither of them was a nurse. They were girls on a lark. They seem to have spent most of their time "handing out such patent medicines as they had and mugs of soup and cheering hot chocolate, in the belief that if the troops were looked after properly 'one could save big illnesses.' ... The cases they treated were mostly ailments such as cuts, coughs, constipation and burns." They wrote home, asking for "woollen underclothing, scarves, socks, mufflers, chocolate, tobacco." They asked for, and got, tents in which off-duty soldiers could "play cards, dominoes and draughts, read and smoke."
In other words, they were like a mini-mini USO. Officers were forever dropping in for tea. The girls put together lovely suppers with flowers, chocolate and champagne. They returned home on frequent fundraising jaunts. Official photographers came out to the front and took pictures of them lounging against ruins. The divorced Elsie snagged a baron for a husband who turned out to be a pretty tricky character, but then so was she. Soon Elsie and Mairi were celebrities, collecting medals from the Belgian and English governments. The only real conflicts came when two other ladies in their tiny group got decorated or had a morale-rising book written about them.
The war in their particular neighborhood was comparatively peaceful; early on, Belgium opened its sluice gates so that the low-lying land in their area turned into a vast, shallow lake, making it difficult for the Germans to do much in the way of attack. Then, in the last year of the war came the Battle of Passchendaele, and suddenly it (BEG ITAL)was(END ITAL) war. Elsie and Mairi were gassed and evacuated, and that was that. At home, Mairi found a lifelong woman friend and was happy for 60 more years. Elsie, an adventuress with few skills beyond motoring and bossing people around, tried with moderate success to keep her position as a public figure.
It's a lost, antique, opaque England that Diane Atkinson evokes here -- fascinating if you like that sort of thing. But the narrative -- both the characters and the way these characters are treated -- tastes faintly disrespectful and sour. This is the same war, after all, that jolted Hemingway and many other writers and soldiers into decades of depression. There's something a little demeaning and, yes, flippant here, which turns the Great War into a series of vaguely absurdist jokes.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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MEDIUM RAW: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook
Anthony Bourdain
ISBN 978-0-06-171894-6
281 pages

Reviewed by Michael Dirda. Visit Dirda's online book discussion at
The paperback cover of Anthony Bourdain's cult classic, "Kitchen Confidential," depicts the author as a lean Hollywood heartthrob, James Dean in chef's whites. Certainly, Bourdain's early writings about "the culinary underbelly" are those of a rebel with a cause. Cooks rule! In his essays, he assails the food establishment, explains why you should never order fish on Monday, portrays chefs as sexual athletes (to whom even brides succumb during their wedding banquets) and writes with an altogether piratical exuberance and chutzpah.
Look now, as Hamlet might say, on this other picture. Ten years have passed since "Kitchen Confidential," and the cover of Bourdain's latest book, "Medium Raw," no longer suggests some dashing musketeer of the gas range. Instead, it shows us a Mafia godfather at the height of his power. Bourdain wears a dark suit, dark blue shirt, dark tie. The face is still handsome but somewhat puffy, there are bags under the eyes and lines around the mouth, a bit of jowl. The once-black hair is now salt and pepper. Still, the look in the man's eyes is as piercing as ever -- and he delicately fingers a long chef's knife, a quiet reminder to anyone who might question his authority.
As Bourdain emphasizes repeatedly throughout "Medium Raw," he has grown older. He tells us that he wrecked his first marriage, went through a period of extreme dissolution even by his standards (oiled supermodels!), and reveled in his travels around the globe for his popular television program, "No Reservations." Now in his mid-50s and remarried, the former heroin addict, cokehead and eager Lothario has actually become a family guy, settled in sybaritic ease on New York's Upper East Side.
But does all this mean that Bourdain has lost his chops as a writer? That he's suddenly cast off his maniacal Dr. Gonzo persona and settled into the harrumph mode of a New York Times columnist? Not at all. If anything, he's probably more unrestrained now, knowing that he can get away with pretty much anything. Even the snarkiest blogger could learn from Bourdain's effortless mastery of vulgarity, profane and obscene language, and acrobatic sexual imagery.
But the man is clearly obsessed with the idea of having sold out. Bourdain admits he would have "given Oprah a back rub and a bikini wax, had she asked me when her people called. Fifty-five thousand copies a minute -- every minute Oprah's talking about your book (according to industry legend)? ... So I guess I knew -- even back then -- what my price was."
While candidly relishing his celebrity, he does so with a slightly mocking tone, almost a guilty conscience, like an aging '60s radical who's been co-opted by the establishment and suddenly finds himself a mortgage banker. Only partly tongue in cheek, Bourdain at one point describes himself as "a loud, egotistical, one-note (obscenity) who's been cruising on the reputation of one obnoxious, over-testosteroned book for way too long and who should just shut the (obscenity) up."
As many others have remarked, Bourdain's prose at his wildest can sound like Hunter S. Thompson's, yet he can also produce much quieter work, such as "My Aim Is True," a brilliant portrait of Justo Thomas, the man who fillets the fish for Le Bernardin, New York's great seafood restaurant. A.J. Liebling couldn't have done it better. Above all, when you read Bourdain, you never quite know what's going to happen in the next sentence, but you can be sure you're in for a treat, a shock, a surprise.
For instance, one bittersweet reminiscence, "The Rich Eat Different Than You and Me," opens this way: "I was holed up in the Caribbean about midway through a really bad time. My first marriage had just ended and I was, to say the least, at loose ends. By 'loose ends' I mean aimless and regularly suicidal."
Then Bourdain meets a rich, beautiful woman, and they enjoy each other's company -- until the cracks in her facade start to appear:
"I am not a fan of people who abuse service staff. In fact, I find it intolerable. It's an unpardonable sin as far as I'm concerned, taking out personal business or some other kind of dissatisfaction on a waiter or busboy. From the first time I saw that, our relationship was essentially over. She accused me of 'caring about waiters more than I cared about her,' and she was right."
Whatever Bourdain writes, he makes personal. In his most hilarious essay, he relates his ongoing campaign to poison his daughter's mind against fast food by insinuating that Ronald McDonald has cooties. Other pages of "Medium Raw" might almost be called service pieces: an outline of the basic cooking skills that all young people should know, a plea that hamburger be made of real meat rather than trimmings and scraps soaked in ammonia, an elegy for small-course tasting menus as no longer fun or worth the time and money.
One especially long chapter lists Bourdain's current heroes and villains, another offers a cook's tour of some of his favorite cuisine from around the world, starting with Vietnamese pho and ending with Sichuan hotpot. Not least, there is a sustained attack on critic Alan Richman, a substantial profile of the eminent chef David Chang, and a meditation on Alice Waters, the legendary founder of Chez Panisse. About Waters, Bourdain is full of complicated feelings -- he agrees that one should use organic, regional produce but finds the woman herself immensely irritating.
Perhaps she is. Many people will doubtless appreciate "Medium Raw" even more than I do: I've never watched the Food Network, know how to cook only a small number of rather ho-hum dishes, and would hardly describe myself as a gourmet or foodie. No matter. Once we read Anthony Bourdain because of what he told us about restaurants and chefs, but now we read him simply because it's Anthony Bourdain.
Still, it does seem paradoxical that "Medium Raw" is more like a bag of potato chips than a fine dining experience: Anyone who starts the book is liable to lose all control and simply gobble it right up. I certainly did.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Jack Clark
Hard Case Crime
ISBN 978-0440208280
219 pages

Reviewed by Patrick Anderson, who regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post
There are two interesting things about Jack Clark's "Nobody's Angel." The first is how it came to be. Clark was a Chicago cabdriver for almost 30 years. In the early 1990s he wrote a novel about the taxi business, and after rejections from several publishers, he self-published 500 copies and sold them to passengers for $5. Now, thanks to Hard Case Crime, which specializes in reprinting classic and neglected noir fiction, his novel has its first professional publication. (Eventually, a lawyer to whom he gave a ride agreed to serve as his agent, and another of Clark's novels, "Westerfield's Chain," was published in 2002 and nominated for a Shamus award.)
The second interesting thing is that -- no matter what you might expect from a novel by a cabdriver -- "Nobody's Angel" is a gem. For what it is, it's just about perfect. I won't urge would-be novelists to forsake their writing classes and become hackers, but they would do well to read Clark's story, which doesn't contain a wasted word or a false note. Summed up briefly, for Clark's cabbies the world is largely divided into two groups: the passengers who stiff them -- i.e., leave no tip or a tiny one -- and those who want to kill them for the cash in their pockets. The novel, one must note, will strike some readers as politically incorrect because almost all the drivers we meet, both white and black, avoid picking up black passengers or venturing into Chicago's huge, mostly black housing projects.
Our narrator, Eddie Miles, is middle-aged, divorced, hard-working, cynical and not terribly happy. His ex-wife won't let his daughter speak to him. He has sex on weekends with a woman who lives in his dingy apartment house, but otherwise his only friends are his fellow cabbies. They often meet when the shifts change to drink coffee and retell old stories, like the driver who claims to have charged an eccentric Brit $12,000 for a ride from Chicago to London, which was achieved with the help of an ocean liner.
Because Eddie works nights, he encounters a lot of drunks, often obnoxious men who insult him, and women who come on to him. All he really wants is their money. Offered a tip of two dimes on a $12 ride, he says, "Thanks, pal. I'll buy the kid a shoelace." After an unpleasant exchange with a fare, he reflects, "Everybody wants a driver who speaks English until you actually say something." He advises a new driver, with reference to certain housing projects, "Don't go too far south. Don't go anywhere west. Be careful when you go north."
The rookie asks, "What about east?"
"Can you swim?" Eddie replies.
Much of the novel simply shows Eddie at work, interacting with passengers and reflecting on Chicago. He loves the city and is nostalgic for its earlier, less gentrified days. Here Eddie returns to a neighborhood where his family once lived but left after race riots: "We were in the center of the riot zone now. There was nothing but rubble for blocks. But I could still detect the faint scent of charred wood decades after the last ember had died. I knew the smell was just a trick of memory but all the same there I was standing on the roof of the building my father loved so much. We were watching the smoke from the riot drift over our heads."
In one fine episode, Eddie reluctantly drives a wealthy white man to a shabby, now-black bar he'd patronized in his youth. It's past midnight, and Eddie fears for his life, but the two white men are greeted warmly by the black owner and patrons, and they drink and talk for hours. It would help, in reading this novel, to know Chicago's streets and neighborhoods as well as Clark does, but the poignancy of his view of the city still comes across.
The novel's plot concerns two crimes. In one, Eddie finds a teenage black streetwalker all but dead in an alley. He calls the police and holds her hand until they arrive, and the girl calls him her "angel." Later, he visits her in the hospital and tries to find the man who mutilated her and left her for dead. The other plot involves the murder of three white cabbies, one of them Eddie's best friend. Here, too, Eddie plays detective and almost gets himself killed. These crimes add suspense and realism to the novel, but its real beauty lies in Eddie's bittersweet existence and the special romance and danger of the cabdriver's life -- lives we often glimpse but rarely give a second thought.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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