Bake Your Way to Fulfillment

Sourdough

By Robin Sloan

Sloan’s novel is about discovering yourself and about making really good sourdough bread. It’s a wry look at a woman finding herself amid the geeky world of high tech and food snobbery, at undercover baking and skunkworks food experimentation, at capitalism and personal fulfillment. In many ways it is a fantasy grounded in the real world of overarching ambition where a person can shed their past, cast everything aside, and be like Candide (who comes up in the novel), finding contentment by tending your own garden. It reads and feels as airy as a good loaf of sourdough.

Lois Clary leads a life as drab as her appearance, living in a small apartment in San Francisco, working at a company promising to change the world with robotic arms taught to take over human tasks. She begins discovering herself when she discovers a pair of brothers who run an illegal takeout restaurant from their second-story apartment. She tries and then thrives on their spicy soup and delicious sourdough bread. When they have to leave the country, they give their number one eater some of their sourdough starter. Soon, Lois learns how to feed it, then use it to make her own sourdough. It becomes a hit at her company and she begins turning her baking into a small business. That she enjoys it is revelatory to her.

She pursues her baking vigorously, even building her own oven in the apartment building’s backyard. All the while, she relates to the sourdough starter almost as a person, talking to it, playing music for it, nurturing it, and being rewarded not only with terrific bread, but with a friend of sorts that sings and delights her with light shows.

Confident, she seeks a spot in one of San Francisco’s markets, but ends up in Alameda at an experimental food emporium slash lab, where folks practice food alchemy in search of culinary perfection by merging food development with technology. She adapts one of her company’s robotic arms to the task of baking sourdough and stands on the cusp of success. Then avaricious capitalism intrudes and a major catastrophe results, the good kind that makes everybody rich who wants to be. Lois, however, has another type of dream. And this involves the brothers from whom she received the sourdough starter and a new life.

No baking or programming skills or interest needed to enjoy this quirky novel, just a liking for the quirky. w/c

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Live the Big Life in Singapore

Crazy Rich Asians

By Kevin Kwan

You know you are in a completely different world when you hear a character, Francesca, tell another character, Isabel, why she can’t marry the man she loves, a fellow just made a senior vice president at a large bank. Sure, there’s the issue of his low-ranking family. Even more to the point, Francesca and the other young women agree that he simply earns too little, and that poor Isabel will live life as a pauper, a shunned one at that. His income? As Francesca puts it, “… a measly eight hundred thousand a year.”

It’s a world familiar to none of us, assuming you readers are not in the top one percent. And then there are the cultural differences, very well highlighted and explained by Kevin Kwan, who grew up well-off in Singapore, the setting for most of the novel. Crazy Rich Asians reads like any of the Housewives shows on the most potent steroid imaginable. It’s possibly one of the most gossipy novels you’ll read. And it’s being turned into a movie, and what an eye-popping dazzler it will be if it translates even a quarter of the novel’s settings and fashions on to film.

The overarching story is simple. Rachel Chu, an accomplished woman living in New York, has been in love and living with the equally accomplished and super handsome Nick Young. When Nick becomes his best friend’s groom, Colin Khoo, he decides it’s time to take Rachel to meet the folks in Singapore. Rachel, however, has no idea who Nick and his family are (just the most powerful, influential, and richest of the rich) and the rough ride she’s in for. She meets literally an opera’s worth of people who variously regard her as a rival, a gold digger, and an invader. And they subject her to torments throughout the novel, most petty, mean spirited, and a couple soul crushing. It’s Mean Girls, though, again, on powerful steroids.

Kwan’s writing is serviceable to the task. But what he excels at, and what makes the novel a really delight to read, is how he immerses you in Singapore, from the wealth, to the sights, to the food, and to the customs. Where necessary, he uses footnotes to expand upon concepts and to translate the local lingo. So, what you get is a diversion and something of an education, too. We can only hope the movie is a good as the book. w/c

Richard + Bobby, Kisses, Alyce

Richard + Bobby,
Kisses, Alyce

Chapter 9: STATEN ISLAND, NEW YORK  (Part 8)

8

I let myself in and go up to my room unobtrusively to avoid my parents. I don’t yet know how much of Richard’s story I want to reveal to them. Hearing Richard’s father is a gangster, well it will not sit well with them. But the only other story I have is Richard’s fabrication. It’s bad, too.

I lie on my bed and grab a book from my nightstand. Three pages later I can’t recall a word of what I’ve read. I toss it aside in favor of a textbook, algebra. I figure a subject requiring my full attention will allow me to concentrate on something other than Richard and his parents. I’ve worked through several problems, when my mother yells there is a phone call for me. I close the book and go downstairs to where the phone is, in the hallway. My mother is waving the phone. “It’s Richard.” I can’t determine if her tone is anger or irritation; it is not pleasure. I don’t think she is upset with Richard, or that Richard is phoning me. She’s unhappy with me, displeased I haven’t told her about my afternoon with the DeSantis family. I take the phone, put it to my ear, and wait for her to leave.

“Richard,” I say.

“What you doing, Babe?” he asks.

“Algebra.”

“Why not take a break? I got Bobby’s car. Let’s cruise.”

I am resentful of Bobby, of Richard’s friendship with him, that Bobby can do things for Richard I can’t. But I want to see Richard. I want to talk about our afternoon. I know he’ll be resistant, but he’ll concede to me. Maybe I’ll feel better afterwards.

“Sure,” I say.

He says he’ll meet me in front of my house in five minutes, but I tell him to pick me up around the corner in fifteen. I hang up and dial Angie. Her mother answers. Angie comes on the line a minute later. I speak softly, filling her in on my lunch with the DeSantis clan. I skirt the details and leave it that we had a pleasant lunch, that Richard’s mother is a remarkable cook, that Richard’s parents are charming. All true. I explain Richard and I want to drive around for a while. I ask her to phone me in a couple of minutes. She understands. I hang up and nosily trot upstairs. I want my mother to know I am back in my room. I solve an algebra problem before the phone rings and my mother yells, “Angie.”

I run down and take the phone from her. I shoo her away, and commence whispering secret girl talk to which no one, not even loving, caring mothers, may listen.

“Thanks, Angie,” I say.

“Share with me when you’re done,” Angie says.

I promise I will.

I’m on the phone for less than a minute. I pop into the kitchen, where my mother mops an already immaculate floor. She works constantly, labors like Penelope keeping house, hearth, and family hail and together. She tires my father, who cannot bear to watch her and usually retreats to the living room, to his chair, to contemplate the landscape on the backs of his eyelids.

“Mom, can I go out with Angie? She has to tell me something.” I speak with studied and practiced frenzy.

She stops swirling the mop. “What were you just doing with Angie?”

“This is private talk,” I plead. “You know, prying ears.”

“Hmm,” is the sum total of her comment, deeply cynical, mistrustful, challenging, a declaration she’s no fool.

“Ears, eyes, whatever. It’s a little too spicy for the house.”

“Spicy,” she exclaims. “I hope you girls aren’t doing anything you’ll be sorry for.”

“Oh, it’s nothing like what you’re thinking,” I say. “You certainly have a tendency to imagine the worst.”

“Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the worse,” she retorts, probably conjuring images of the dastardly Uncle Phil, long banished from the family portrait, but not forgotten.

“Angie has a new boyfriend and she wants to fill me in. That’s all.”

“You tell Angie to mind herself, and be back in an hour. Tomorrow’s a school day.”

I walk quickly away from my house, down the street to the corner. As I make the turn, I see Bobby’s car. I despise the car. It’s like Bobby himself, a crude and rude machine. Richard is behind the wheel and when he sees me he raises a hand. He’s parked toward the middle of the block on the opposite side. It’s an old Chevy Belair two-door, two very large and heavy doors. I have to strain to open and close those doors. The thing is a sickening color, two-tone blue, sky and sea. It’s dented all over, as if Bobby banged little pockmarks in for a reason known only to him. And it’s loud. Not pleasant loud, or expensive loud like some sports cars, but sloppy loud, neglected loud, poverty loud, angry loud, as it needs a new muffler, a tune-up, a complete overall, or more mercifully, a trip to the junkyard. All very odd, oxymoronic, considering Bobby’s one skill. Worse, it smells of Bobby, the rank foulness of somebody who lives his life under a layer of crud.

I acknowledge Richard, and shutter at the car, and walk quickly to the middle of the block. I look both ways. It’s a quiet street, the typical Creek Falls street, narrow and empty. Except today it isn’t empty. At the end of the street, I see a car, an odd blue car, monotone blue the shade of bright sky and weirdly familiar, a grotesque doppelganger of Bobby’s. It’s lumbering, drifting toward the middle. I judge I can easily stroll across the street and seat myself beside Richard before it passes the Belair.

I’m halfway across when I sense something isn’t right. There’s a roar in the air, a fire-breathing explosion of hell let loose. I turn in the direction of the onslaught of screeching rubber, thumping metal, billowing exhaust, and I see the lethargic car now transformed into a malevolent monster of motion, charging me. I want to move. I need to move. But I’m frozen.

Above the approaching racket, Richard’s voice rings through and I turn and focus on him. Strangely, he’s thrusting himself through the door window of Bobby’s junk heap, draping over the door, a giant slab the size and weight of a vault door that I struggle to open and wish I were battling with this very moment. Richard is smiling at me, dazzling me with bright teeth, brighter than human teeth could possibly be in the real world. Maybe I am in another world, a different dimension, where bright blue cars materialize on small town streets to harass young women like me. Richard gestures at me, encouraging in the most lackadaisical manner to come on over, put a move on it lazy bones so we can putter away. Why, I wonder, isn’t he rushing to me, snatching me into his arms, and racing me away from harm?

I have to get going. I turn and see the bright blue car is nearly on me. I have to get going. I’m thinking this when the car suddenly dips under me, launches me skyward. I summersault onto the hood, where I slide up to the windshield and come face to face with the driver. He’s dressed completely in blue to match his car—blue fedora, blue shirt. The fedora, brim snapped over the eyes, nearly touching the bridge of his noise, obscures his face. But as I crack the windshield and fly up and over it and bounce once on the roof, once on the trunk lid, and land on the pavement, I am convinced the man is Fred, the betrayer. Maybe he fears I will reveal his true identity. And Richard, why didn’t you help me? “Why?” I ask, my last word as my eyelids close.

In New Orleans’ Underbelly

Airline Highway

By Lisa D’Amour

Lisa D’Amour’s play introduces us to people tossed aside by life but who have found something resembling family at the Hummingbird Hotel, a wreck of a place that early on we know is doomed, as the area is undergoing gentrification witnessed by the building of a new Costco nearby. It features a large cast of failures, from the affable hotel manager, to the down and out prostitute, to the transgender performer, the burned out poet, the guy who got out (with the best name, Bait Boy), and the matriarch of the place, the dying former burlesque queen, Miss Ruby.

The play progresses through a day and it’s a monumental one as Hummingbird occupants, in love and gratitude to Ruby, are granting her wish and putting on a funeral party (Act II) for her, as she wanted in advance of her death while she could enjoy it (though she is enfeebled to the point of confinement to a concocted wheelchair and the ravages of dementia).

The dialogue overlaps and spins around the set, giving the production a built-in fast pace, but which requires audiences to pay close attention. Often it’s raw, as you would expect from folks kicked around by life and dumped on the road to the airport, and funny, too. But it also mines quite a bit of sentimentality, more sympathy for the characters, less empathy.

While it is definitely fun and colorful to watch, especially an immersive black box production, it may leave you feeling a bit less than fulfilled or with any more insight into the condition of marginal society, other than that people can create and need community even in the most awful circumstances. w/c

The Unforgettable Couple: Nick and Nora

The Thin Man

By Dashiell Hammett

Here’s one of the best, if not the very best, comic private detective mysteries you’ll ever read. Nick and Nora Charles, and their dog Asta, visit New York City for the Christmas and New York  holidays at the close of 1932, also the last days of the ill-fated temperance experiment, Prohibition (December 18, 1917 – March 22, 1933, ratification of the 18th and 21st Amendments, respectively). They are there to party, and as Nick likes to say, drink. However, the disappearance of an old client, Clyde Wynant, an eccentric and erratic millionaire inventor, followed by multiple murders, sets them off on finding Wynant and the killer in their midsts. Along the way, they run into an assortment of odd characters, including Wynant family members and a Runyon-esque gallery of rogues.

As with most mysteries, it’s less about the mystery itself than it is about the characters and the telling. What distinguishes The Thin Man is Hammett’s sharp wit, as expressed by Nick and Nora. What’s more is the copious amounts of alcohol consumed by Nick and Nora. On nearly every page, they busy themselves preparing cocktails, regardless of the time of day. Nick frequently imbibes upon waking before taking his breakfast. Of course, Hammett himself was an alcoholic, a disease that he led to his death.

Such a popular novel gave birth to an equally popular film adaptation. While the film departed from the novel in places, it did capture the essence of Nick and Nora, and gave personality to Asta. Once you’ve seen the 1934 film, you’ll find it hard to picture and hear Nick and Nora any differently from William Powell and Myrna Loy. As a matter of fact, it’s probably safe to say that most people will think of Nick himself as the thin man. In fact, the real thin man is Clyde Wynant, but such is the power of the visual association of trim Powell and the film’s title.

If you have never read the novel, it comes to you highly recommended, to be followed by a viewing of the 1934 film adaptation. And the best way to watch the film, of course, is with a shaker of Martinis at hand.

Here for your viewing pleasure is the film’s trailer and a compilation of Nick and Nora’s drinking exchanges. One thing you’ll notice almost immediately: the serving size of drinks is considerably smaller than what you see today. And everybody dresses to the T. How things have changed in the past eighty years. w/c

Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 9: STATEN ISLAND, NEW YORK  (Part 7)

7

We’re halfway to my house, when I touch Richard’s arm and ask him to stop.

“What’s up, Babe?”

“Why did you lie to me, Richard?”

“Lie? About what?” He’s calm, perfectly composed.

“About your parents and their unhappy marriage. About your father cheating on your mother.”

His eyes flicking up, flicking down signal a subtle change.

“Where do your get that from?”

“Richard, your parents obviously care for each other. I’d have to be blind not to see how much they like … love each other. You lied because you didn’t want me to meet them and I want to know why. I’m thinking maybe you’re ashamed of me.”

“Ashamed? Babe, I love you. You’re the best. You’re beautiful. You’re smart, smarter than me for sure.”

“Then why?”

He hesitates. “It’s my father.”

“What about him?”

“We didn’t move here because he landed a fabulous job. The truth is, Babe, he has no job. I mean no real job like your father.”

“But you said he drives for CF Gravel.”

He shakes his head. “He lies low,” Richard says. “That’s his job, keeping out of sight.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He’s hiding from some very angry and bad people.” He fidgets. “Look, I shouldn’t be telling you this.”

“Why not?”

“It’s secret,” he says. “If it gets out, if the wrong people hear … I don’t know.”

“What did you father do?”

Richard looks around, and I follow his eyes, expecting to see somebody lurking in the scrubs. “He ratted.”

“Ratted?”

“Talked. To the FBI. About people.”

“Gangsters,” I blurt, half excited, half fearful.

He puts his hands on my shoulders and adds pressure gently.

“Shhh, will you.”

“You think they’re here?” I whisper.

“You never know. You don’t know, ever. They come up behind you and bang.” He imitates a handgun with a finger and thumb.

“Your father’s a gangster.” I can’t reconcile his latest story with the man I’ve just eaten dinner with. It’s incongruous.

“A little one,” he says. “A bookie.” When I don’t react, he expands, “He takes bets, illegal bets, on horses, games, numbers, just about anything. Well, I mean he did. But not any more, according to him and my mother. Now all he does in keep a low profile. That’s what he calls it, a low profile.”

I turn this over every which way, hoping to find the bright side. I try always to look on the bright side of situations. Angie scoffs at my habit. She says it’s a great way to end up a first-class fool.

I say, “So, it’s good news, Richard, isn’t it? What your father did was right, putting some criminals out of business.”

He laughs bitterly. “What he did was … was get us exiled to nowhere.”

I touch his arm. “Creek Falls is somewhere. It’s where I am.”

“Sorry, Babe. But, you know, one day I’m pretty happy. I have friends, guys I’ve known since grade school. I like my school okay. I get to see my friends everyday. I’ve got a good rep. Then, suddenly, he’s arrested. He disappears on and off and really vanishes. There’s not a word from him for months, maybe a year. Finally, a couple of FBI agents show up. They tell us we’re moving, and not next week, but immediately. Just pack what you need and come with us. Just like that. New name—”

“New name?” I say. “DeSantis isn’t your name?”

“No,” he answers.

“What—”

“I can’t tell you, Babe. I shouldn’t be telling you anything. DeSantis is our name, my name, now.”

“Richard, I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, thanks. You should of seem my mother. She protested like hell, excuse my French. Nothing they could do about it. My mothers says, ‘What about the relatives? What about the neighbors? What about school?’  Can’t be helped, they tell her, us. You’re not safe here. We have a safe place for you. They wouldn’t tell us where. Say they can’t. It’s not safe. Poof, we’re history. I wonder what story they gave. Maybe everybody back there thinks we’re dead. Who knows? I think about it.”

I’m speechless.

“See why I didn’t want to tell you?”

I come close to him and embrace him. “I love you. What your father is, was, doesn’t matter.”

He hugs me back and smiles. “Forget it. Hey, let’s see a movie.”

“I can’t, Richard. I have to get home.” I do want to go to the movies with him. He was honest with me and I don’t want to leave him alone. I’m not sure how he feels, but I know it can’t be good.

“Sure, I understand. Your parents expect you. You don’t want to worry them.”

We stroll across to my part of town in silence. At my door, I kiss him.

“You’re going home?”

He shuffles, and I know he’ll be with Bobby.

That Old Time Religion Explained

Pentecostalism in America

By R. G. Robins

Faith healing (deliverance), speaking in tongues (glossolalia), end time predictions (Revelation), God working full-time on the planet, what is this stuff and who are these people who embrace these, and more, as pure gospel? They are believers who pretty much, with variations, accept Jesus Christ as Savior, as Baptizer in partnership with the Holy Spirit; that Christ is healer and that He is returning as King. They have produced interesting, colorful, and to more rational minds, outrageous preachers and leaders, such as Aimee Semple McPherson, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, and many others whose names aren’t nearly as well known, as least not to the population at large. Additionally, they comprise a substantial group in their various iterations, approaching 15 million in number. And while historically concentrating their efforts on spiritual and salvationist affairs, since the 1960s, they have and are asserting themselves in the secular social, economic, and political world. Reasons enough to become familiar with their history and belief systems.

Robins makes some cogent observations regarding this throughout, but non clearer of what is happening currently than this in the latter portion of the study: “Americans of more liberal persuasion … welcomed the sweep of post-civil rights changes as the arc of progress, a vital widening of participatory democracy, personal liberty, and social justice. But conservatives responded with outrage and alarm. Taken together, these trends introduced a new source of conservation solidarity: the conviction that an unholy alliance subsumed under the general heading of secular humanism has laid siege to Christian America, placing the spiritual and political foundation of the nation, indeed, the very fabric of society, at risk.”

In this monograph, Robins, himself raised among what some used to call (perhaps still do in certain quarters) shouters, introduces readers to Pentecostal origins, beliefs, branching, organizations, and entry into secular society as warriors against the humanistic ideas of modernity. In other words, worthwhile reading for “nonbelievers.” As an extra inducement, Robins prefaces the study with a personal introduction that recounts his young years most will find unexpected and entertaining. w/c