I’ve been in the air a lot lately—Spain, Boston, Texas—and soon I’ll head to Maine.
That means a weighty carry-on, stuffed with books--give me real pages to turn any time—plus little bags of walnuts and candied ginger, a tiny vial of Fracas and a cashmere shawl for cocooning.
I have just one criteria for reading aloft—the book has to transport me to another place, far far away from hungover seatmates, stale air and hours of turbulence. Tibet, London, China, the Amazon…I’ll go anywhere, as long as it’s not in the here and now.
Do you ever read two books at once?
In the Kitchen is Ali’s second novel. (Her first, Brick Lane, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.) Set in London, it’s the darkly humorous story of Gabriel Lightfoot, a failed superstar chef whose plans for a comeback restaurant are sidetracked when the naked corpse of a Ukranian porter is found in the basement of the decrepit Hotel Imperial, his current place of employment. Ali’s mordant wit infuses Gabe’s running inner monologues, all of which are told in the third person.
Here Gabe slips up while using a fig, an avocado and a chili to get his creative juices flowing:
“But what was he doing? ….Had he forgotten what the restaurant would be? Classic French, precisely executed. Rognons de veau dijonnaise, poussin en cocotte Bonne Femme, tripes a la mode de Caen. Not dishes thrown together like a TV celebrity –chef challenge, like a trainee competition, like an anything-goes-with-chili-and-balsamic school of cuisine.
“…Goddamn. He’d touched his eye. He hadn’t washed his hands after slicing the chili. Oh my God!
“He gripped the worktop ledge.
“How could he make such a stupid mistake?
“Maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t meant to be a chef.”
In The Last Chinese Chef a paternity claim against her late husband’s estate leads a grieving food writer to Beijing where, for a magazine assignment, she also interviews an up-and-coming Chinese-American chef from Ohio who is competing for a place on China’s 2008 Olympics culinary team. There are mouthwatering descriptions of dishes like beggar’s chicken, but I love the “excerpts” from a 1925 "book" on Chinese cuisine by Liang Wei, the “last” Chinese chef and grandfather of the young man about whom the journalist is writing.
Liang Wei and his book are figments of the author’s imagination, but his insights into Chinese cuisine are compelling. For instance:
“Chinese cooking accumulates greatness in the pursuit of artifice. Although we say our goal is xian, the untouched natural flavor of a thing, in fact we often concoct that flavor by adding many things which then must become invisible. Thus flavor is part quality of ingredients and part sleight of hand….The gourmet loves nothing more than to see a glazed duck come to the table, heady and strong with what must be the aromatic nong of meat juices, only to find the “duck” composed entirely of vegetables. The superior cook strives to please the mind as well as the appetite.”
Longing to glide down the Amazon with the glorious rainforest all around?
Two books that will take you there, but make you very glad that you are reading from the comfort of 35,000 feet are The Lost City of Z and The River Of Doubt. The Lost City of Z is, as they say, a ripping adventure yarn about Percy Fawcett, a near-legendary 19th- century explorer who disappeared into the Amazon gloaming after numerous failed attempts to discover the kingdom of El Dorado. It’s a story of deranged obsession—Fawcett bankrupted his family and presumably took his favorite son with him to his death—but his tale so intrigued author David Grann, who also writes for The New Yorker, that he launched his own ill-conceived expedition following in Fawcett’s murky footsteps.
Luckily Grann survived, but he had some moments: “Occasionally I slipped in the mud, falling to my knees in the water. Thorny reeds tore the skin on my arms and legs, causing trickles of blood. I yelled out Paolo’s name, but there was no response. Exhausted I found a grassy knoll that was only a few inches below the waterline, and sat down. My pants filled with water as I listed to the frogs. The sun burned my face and hands….I was slapping a mosquito on my neck when I heard a noise in the distance…a strange cackle, almost like laughter. A dark object darted in the tall grass and another, and another. They were coming closer…”
After he was trounced as the Bull Moose candidate in the 1912 presidential election, Theodore Roosevelt decided to heal his wounds by joining a Brazilian expedition to map an unknown tributary of the Amazon. Candace Millard’s River of Doubt is the story of a journey that was a disaster almost from the beginning. Not only was the expedition outfitted with the wrong boats, the wrong clothes and the wrong food—“whole cases of olive oil… mustard, malted milk, stuffed olives, prunes, applesauce…[e]ven Rhine wine…” but flesh-eating insects, monstrous rapids, exhausting portages, attacks by unseen Indians, malaria, murder, drowning and starvation nearly destroyed the entire party—Roosevelt himself wanted to commit suicide, and he later died of a lingering infection he contracted in the wilds of Brazil.
And there was rain, lots of it. “The forest either steamed with thick humidity or sagged under a heavy downpour. Rain drummed on the river, ran off their hats, dripped down their backs, and pooled in the their shoes. It soaked their tents and filled their canoes. Their clothes hung in heavy, clinging folds, and they never completely dried…Within a few days, they would all forget what it felt like to pull on a dry pair of socks.”
The charting of the Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt) by TR’s traveling companion, Colonel Candido Rondon, was successful, by the way, and put a previously unknown 400 mile-long river—now called Rio Roosevelt-- on the map of Brazil.
For reading aloft, there’s often nothing so engrossing as a good mystery novel. Not long ago I discovered Eliot Pattison’s Tibetan series. These books—there are only five—feature Shan Tao Yun, a Chinese investigator exiled to a Tibetan work camp after running afoul of a powerful Beijing bureaucrat. They are not exactly detective novels, though there are clues to follow and murders to be solved. They are really about courageous Tibetans who go to extraordinary lengths to keep their religion and culture alive despite horrific oppression by the Chinese.
Pattison writes so evocatively of the Tibetan landscape that it becomes a living, breathing character in all his books. Here’s a passage from Bone Mountain:
“Shan breathed in the fragrant smoke of the juniper branches they had brought to burn at the water’s edge and watched as a meteor flew over a low distant shimmering in the sky, the only hint of the snow-capped mountains that lined the horizon. It seemed he could reach out and touch the moon. If the earth had a place and a season for growing souls this was surely it, the chill moonlit spring of the high Tibetan wilderness.”
I’ll be reading the fifth novel, Prayer of the Dragon, in which Shan must save a Navajo Indian—how did he get to Tibet?—from being executed for murders he did not commit.