The Kite Runner.

Closing Sohrab’s door, I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.

I’ve touted Beloved as the best literary novel of the last 25-30 years, perhaps of the entire canon of postwar American literature. It told a story of a woman while telling the story of a people, and it touched on the emotions and events that drive and define our lives by using small and large events in one character’s life as metaphors for universal themes. No book since then had come close to this combination of great themes rolled up in a great story told in brilliant language.

Until The Kite Runner, that is.

Published in 2005 and headed for theaters in a film adaptation this fall, The Kite Runner is easily one of the best novels I’ve ever read and meets all the criteria one could ask for in a work of literature. The plot is riveting. The emotions it describes and that it elicits are genuine. The characters are fleshed-out and compelling. The prose sparkles. The story behind the story is real, and the layers of metaphor only make the surface plot more interesting and believable. And the novel relies on very little in the way of coincidence or other ridiculous plot contrivances that ruin a lot of novels, especially first ones.

The main plot itself revolves around the narrator-protagonist Amir, starting from his youth in Kabul and his childhood friendship with Hassan, the son of the family’s servant and a member of an ethnic minority known as the Hazaras. Hassan is a completely devoted friend to Amir, and Amir eventually betrays him, setting off a lifelong quest for redemption through his acts, a redemption – or, perhaps more accurately, self-forgiveness – he can’t find until he leaves America (his new home) and returns to Afghanistan. It’s a sad tale with flashes of hope and a certain streak of faith and even spirituality in the face of horrors, both personal and societal.

And much as Beloved tells the history of African-Americans and Absalom, Absalom! tells the history of the American South, The Kite Runner tells the history of Afghanistan, through actual events that the characters experience and through characters who serve as metaphors for peoples and nations in the history of that country. The rape of Hassan represents the rape of Afghanistan, with Hassan’s loss of innocence standing in for the end of the one period of stability and economic progress in Afghanistan’s history. One female character’s barrenness stands for the devastation wreaked on Afghanistan, first by the Soviets, then by the Taliban. And so on.

While these other attributes contribute to the book’s literary value, Hosseini’s storycraft is what really sets The Kite Runner apart as a reading experience. His plot twists are rarely outrageous and never gratuitous; he doesn’t provide pat resolutions or twist characters to make them act differently in key situations. Instead, he lets the story unfold in a natural if accelerated way, directing his lens in and out of the action as needed. It makes a melancholy book where a handful of scenes of frenetic action are separated by long periods of thought and descriptions of emotions into a page-turner that you can’t put down.

Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, is now out in hardcover.

One other point that really hit me while I read The Kite Runner was the richness of Afghan traditions, particularly around Amir’s engagement and wedding. Although it is a typically Western view that such traditions – particularly if they’re tied to religion – are dated and restrictive and profoundly anti-intellectual, rituals and traditions are a part of our culture and they help define who we are. I often talk about my Italian heritage, but my identity is unabashedly American. I have no Italian traditions; even the simple Italian tradition of the long evening meal, still practiced at least on occasion in Italy, has never been a part of my life. Anyone I could ask about these traditions has forgotten or is already dead. I have no traditions, and as a result, I know less of who I am. If you have those traditions in your family, or still have someone who can teach them to you, do all you can to sustain them, so that you, your children, and their children will all know better who you are.

Long Beach eats.

Since I got to my hotel around 11 am Pacific Time, it kind of felt like I was caught in between breakfast and lunch. It seemed like a good time to try Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, recommended by at least two readers. Much to my surprise, I loved the chicken and didn’t care for the waffles. The chicken was “southern style,” although I’d dispute that since the breading was thin, but either way it was delicious, salty and spicy but not hot-spicy, and it had clearly just come out of the fryer. The white meat was still moist, which to me is always a good test of a kitchen’s frying abilities. The waffles, however, were pale and limp, clearly undercooked, with little sugar (needed for taste but also helps browning) and an overwhelming taste of ground cloves. I did order a biscuit on the side, just on a whim, and it was good even though it was no longer hot – nice flaky texture, buttery flavor, just lacked that crispy exterior I like in a good southern biscuit.

Sunday night I wanted sushi, and since my favorite place from last year (Kinokawa) isn’t open on Sundays, I tried Japengo in downtown Long Beach. It was excellent, with fresh and flavorful fish and very friendly and quick service. I ordered two nigiri, salmon and eel, and two maki, spicy tuna and avocado. A small edamame dish comes with dinner, and after I chatted up the guy making my sushi (from Mexico, but there was at least one Japanese sushi-ya behind the counter), I ended up with a freebie: a roll with salmon and avocado that had been tempura’d whole, served with two sauces, one teriyaki and one mayo-based that didn’t have much taste. I’m not usually big on semi-cooked foods like that – the salmon wasn’t cooked, but it wasn’t quite raw any more either – but I wasn’t going to insult the guy by not eating it, and other than that one objection it was excellent. I do think the salmon was farm-raised, since it was very pale, but it had a good flavor and I’m more concerned with that than I am with how it was raised. Japengo also gets points for very good green tea.

Monday breakfast was a return to the Pot Holder, which was my favorite of the two Long Beach breakfast spots I’d hit last year (the other being Egg Heaven a few blocks away). I went for the chorizo scramble, which – as you might imagine – is scrambled eggs with a healthy dose of chorizo sausage. If, as Mario Batali claims, parmiggiano-reggiano is the undisputed king of all cheeses, then chorizo is the king of all sausages, with a smoky, spicy flavor that can’t be replicated by any pretenders to its throne. The Pot Holder’s chorizo scramble was heavy on the chorizo; the eggs were a bit overcooked and so the whole dish didn’t really hold together, but let’s be honest: I was there for the chorizo. The dish also comes with some solid home fries, soft interior with a nice hard crust, and toast. Total cost for that plus tip was an even $10. I went back the next day and had one of the specials that included scrambled eggs (fine but slightly overcooked), link sausage (straight from a package), and pancakes (solid average).

Monday lunch was In-n-Out. I don’t want to hear it. I like their fries, and I’m not brooking any dissent here.

Dinner was with a friend from college at a place in LA right on the Santa Monica line called Sushi Sasabune. (This appears to be the restaurant’s home page, although it’s more focused on their Honolulu location.) I’ve never been to a sushi place like this. Sasabune bills itself not just as a restaurant that serves only traditional sushi, but as the veritable guardian of the sushi tradition. There are two signs at the front counter stating that they do not serve spicy tuna or other hand-cut rolls like California rolls. It’s not clear if there’s a menu for ordering à la carte; we ordered the omakase, which means that it’s the chef’s choice. As sushi arrived – usually two pieces at a time for each person – the waitress instructs the diners whether or not it is acceptable to use soy sauce on those pieces. The restaurant’s motto, which appears on the wrappers of the steamed hand towels served before the meal, is “Trust Me,” which one lengthy review posted on the walls outside the restrooms translates as, “Shut up and eat what I tell you to.” Such a restaurant wouldn’t likely stay in business long if the food wasn’t good – granted, it might stay in business a while because of idiots who would be drawn to the novelty of the thing – but the sushi here is amazing. The selection of nigiri included but wasn’t limited to halibut, salmon, yellowtail, two kinds of snapper, albacore, butterfish, and kampachi (a real standout, since I hadn’t liked it when I’d tried it previously but liked it here). The last item was a long uncut roll of minced crab and rice. Several of the nigiri came with a sauce already on them, and several had sliced scallions or other tiny accoutrements on top. What stood out about the fish was the amazing texture, which was softer than any sushi I’d ever had previously. The flavors were outstanding, and I can’t remember a dud in the bunch even though some of the sauce-sushi combinations were unusual (to me, at least). It’s not for the fiscally faint of heart: the total cost was over $50 per person. For that kind of money, I don’t just want good food, I want an experience, but Sasabune delivered.

Tuesday’s only new place was Kinokawa, the sushi place I’ve mentioned in chats before. I ended up eating a smaller dinner than normal; I went with soup, salad, some salmon and some unagi – very fresh – plus a cut roll that’s worth mentioning. Last year, they had some ridiculous cut roll (maki) that caught my attention; I remember it had shrimp tempura in the middle and salmon on the outside, and avocado in there somewhere. Well, this time they didn’t have it listed anywhere, so I ordered something similar in the hopes that it would be the same thing or close to it, but it wasn’t. The one I ordered, called the Frederic Roll (I’m sure that’s the traditional Japanese name, too), had shrimp tempura and avocado in the middle and spicy tuna on top. That was fine, but the whole thing was covered with ponzu sauce and a bit of a mayo sauce, and it was just gluttony – too rich, too sweet, too heavy for sushi. I usually avoid fancy rolls because they obscure the taste of the fish, but I was trying to unlock a memory, and unfortunately the teahouse was out of madeleines.

The last good new spot was another breakfast place, The Coffee Cup on 4th. I was pretty happy with the Pot Holder, but I have to say now that the Coffee Cup’s food is better – it’s just better prepared. I went with a special that included two eggs, two sausage links (better, but still generic), and two pancakes, and I ordered a side of toast. The scrambled eggs were cooked just right, barely cooked through but not runny. The pancakes were actually a little overcooked on the outside, with a slightly burned taste, but the cakes themselves were very good, with a light texture. (They came slathered in butter, which is really too bad, because there’s no way I wasn’t going to eat that part first, no matter how bad it is for me.) And unlike at the Pot Holder, the toast at the Coffee Cup wasn’t cold when it reached the table. I’d still have to try a chorizo scramble-type dish at the Coffee Cup to make the switch, but I’m just about sold.

One last note – I did try the Green Field churrascaria, just east of the park where Blair Field is located. Turns out that this is a chain, and I’ve been to one of their locations in Allston, Massachusetts. The food really isn’t that good. It’s not authentic churrasco, since the meat isn’t anywhere near seasoned enough, the feijão is bland, and there were no fried plantains (I don’t know if that’s really authentic, but I’ve had them at other churrascarias, and who cares if they’re authentic or not – they’re plantains, and they’re fried). And this particular place was very disappointing – one of the meats was beyond rare in the middle, while the lamb was well done (that’s not good), and the sides on the buffet table (bad sign) weren’t hot. Skip it.

Off to San Diego…

Absurdistan.

So Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan was apparently one of the great critical successes of 2006, landing on a half-dozen or so Top Ten Books lists (including that of the New York Times) and otherwise garnering ridiculous praise. I’m mystified by this; the book certainly had its high points, but I preferred it in its first incarnation, when it was called A Confederacy of Dunces.

I’m not the only one to make this connection; Josip Novakovich’s review for the Washington Post, quoted on every online bookseller’s site, and the review in Publishers Weekly both point out the resemblance, but almost wave it off as irrelevant. But whereas the humor in Ignatius J. Reilly comes from his personality, his actions, and his words, the humor in Absurdistan comes from the situations and places that its antihero protagonist, Misha Vainberg, comes across, almost an unwitting victim of history in motion.

The plot of this book is almost irrelevant: Misha, a Russian-born secular Jew and the son of a dissident-turned oligarch, has become Americanized but is currently banned from the United States because his father killed a man from Oklahoma. Returning to New York is his sole goal, so he travels to the former Soviet republic of Absurdistan to buy a Belgian passport. While he’s there, the Absurdi government collapses and Misha ends up in the middle of a civil war while he’s “popping” the daughter of the leader of one of the factions.

Absurdistan isn’t really about Misha, though; it’s an attempt at a satire of modern foreign relations, of life in post-Soviet Russia, of the American government, and of a few other things I probably missed or just ignored because I was getting tired of figuring it out. There is humor to be found in all of these areas, but in trying satirize all of them, Shteyngart ends up creating a farce, where his portrayals of the local Absurdi (divided into Svanï and Sevo, who disagree over the direction of the footrest on Jesus’ crucifix) are superficial and companies like Halliburton (mentioned by name, oddly enough) are accepted as corrupt despite figuring heavily into the plot.

Shteyngart, whose first novel was called The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, isn’t above a bit of self-parody, as one never-seen villain in Absurdistan is the Russian émigré novelist/professor “Jerry Shteynfarb,” whose first novel was called The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job. And that’s one example of the facet of this book that bothered me the most: Its unrelenting crudeness. Shteyngart seeks to mine humor from bodily functions, from physical disfigurements and defects, from the fat and from the stupid (OK, I’ll admit I’m comfortable with that last one), and his heavy use of vulgar language – not just profanities – amounts to beating the reader over the head with the words, almost as if he was a twelve-year-old boy who has just learned a half-dozen terms for the female genitalia and wants to show them off to his friends. It gets in the way of the humor, and all that crudeness coming from the mouth of the main character made him even less sympathetic than he already was. Yes, there are some funny lines, but he beats even his better jokes to death, like the fact that Misha and his friend Alyosha-Bob enjoy American gangsta rap. (I particularly enjoyed the reference to DJ Assault, a real hip-hop artist whose song “F*ck You Hoe” remains the all-time pinnacle of unintentional comedy in rap.)

I’ve loaded this review with some criticisms of the book because most of what I’ve read about it has been praise, often without restraint, and the fact is that this book has its flaws. Shteyngart is not a humorist like Waugh or Wodehouse, and he lacks the insight into personalities that Toole displayed in that one masterwork. What Shteyngart does very well in Absurdistan is build up – and then, in his way, tear down – a ridiculous situation that almost resembles an elaborate con. Had he focused his sights more squarely on foreign relations in an age of short attention spans and a surfeit of media outlets, he could have produced a brilliant satire for our age that sums up the way wars are created more than fought, a modern take on Waugh’s Scoop that added the dimension of the economic depression that the Soviet Union is still foisting on its unfortunate progeny. But in my opinion, Shteyngart set his sights too low and lowbrow and missed his opportunity. I liked the book enough to go back and read his first novel, but from a critical perspective, this book just didn’t cut it for me.

Suggestions needed for Cali eats.

I’ve been told California knows how to party, but what I care about is whether they know how to eat. I’ve got a trip to Long Beach and then San Diego coming up, and I’m looking for suggestions for some eats. Breakfast and dinner in Long Beach, all three meals in SD (downtown or near USD or SDSU). I’ve got some spots from last year that I’ll hit again, like Kinokawa in Long Beach (unreal sushi), and I’ll make the obligatory stop at In-n-Out, but that won’t get me through the week. Fire away…

Lance Armstrong.

So over on the blog Vandermint Auditorium there’s a snarky piece that makes the argument that because Lance Armstrong consistently beat cyclists who later admitted to or were caught doping, he must have doped as well. (The piece doesn’t make this argument directly, but instead is written in a sarcastic way that makes the writer’s intent pretty clear to me. And it comes off as snarky.)

But he doesn’t mention this interesting study done on Armstrong’s body, which found that his heart can pump an abnormally large amount of oxygen, that he increased his muscle-efficiency rate through an intensive training regimen, and that his muscles produce abnormally low amounts of lactic acid. While I suppose that that doesn’t prove that Armstrong was clean, it does put the lie to the VA argument that Armstrong couldn’t have possibly beaten cyclists who doped unless he doped himself.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows full review.

So I’ll do my best to review this one without spoilers, although if you still intend to read the book, you may want to stop here to be safe.

Even after a good night’s sleep, I still think this book was the best of the series. When I evaluate a book, I focus on three things: plot, prose, and characters. I’ve always thought Rowling excelled at prose – more on that in a moment – which propelled the first two books through some fairly simple plots and characters that were a little one-dimensional. Whether it was part of a plan or just Rowling’s growth as a writer, her plots became significantly more involved, with multiple subplots and a number of additional characters getting more screen time. And her characters really started to develop in the third and fourth books, with most of the central characters becoming three-dimensional by books five and six. Deathly Hallows didn’t disappoint in any of these three criteria, although I did find it odd that the character who develops the most is one who’s already dead when the book opens.

Rowling’s prose has come under a little criticism recently, although it’s possible that this has been going on all along and I just missed it. (To see what I mean, Google “Rowling clunky prose” and see how many hits come up – it’s almost as if one writer used that phrase a few years ago and every blogger on the Internet has picked it up.) The CNN.com review said “Rowling has attracted much criticism for her often clunky prose;” I couldn’t disagree more: Rowling’s prose is straightforward and descriptive, evoking images in a way that no other writer I’ve encountered is able to do. When I read a well-written book, I “see” the action in the book, almost like a movie playing in my mind as I read. The clearer the movie, the better the prose must be, and I have never run into an author who produces such incredibly well-defined images with her prose. That doesn’t necessarily mean she spends the most time on describing the scenery – I’m pretty sure Charles Dickens has that title sewn up – but that she strikes a perfect balance between descriptive text and active text. I understand that J.R.R. Tolkien’s works are more literary, but for readability, Rowling destroys Tolkien, who hails from the Dickensian tradition of giving us too fine a level of detail. Clunky prose gets in the way, slowing you down, throwing you off of the story, whereas good prose lets the story stand for itself. A good story is like fresh fish or a high-quality steak: You don’t foul that kind of food up with a heavy sauce or with overrich side dishes or with less-than-fresh ingredients, so why foul a good story up with prose that gets in the way? You want clunky prose, go read James Joyce or Henry James – if you can stomach it. I’ll stick with Rowling’s because it gets the job done.

I don’t want to talk too much about the plot for fear of introducing spoilers, but I’ll speak a little in generalities. In the context of the entire series, I don’t think Rowling could have done much better. The resolutions for the main characters worked for me, although I echo one commenter’s post on the prior thread about the epilogue being a bit too sparse; the deaths Rowling promised/threatened were reasonable, and clearly a few of the “good guys” had to die for the plot to have any semblance of believability, even within the fictional world.

The action sequences were some of Rowling’s best, with none of the muddled details and running about that made book five my least favorite in the series (due to the entire sequence at the Ministry of Magic towards the book’s end). What really worked for me in book seven, however, was the way Rowling uses a couple of major anecdotes and a few recurring characters to give both the global view of what’s going on in the wizarding world and the local view of what’s going on with Harry in the search for the Horcruxes.

She also works heavily with a few major themes – including the related themes of disillusionment and of faith – making this probably the deepest of the seven novels. Harry learns some unsettling details about Dumbledore’s past while he’s struggling to formulate a plan for locating the missing Horcruxes, leading him to wonder about the wisdom of continuing to carry out the mission Dumbledore assigned to him before his death. Harry’s relations with Ron and Hermione and the relationship between those two vacillate for much of the work as the quest goes less than smoothly and the three spend an inordinate amount of time together in uncomfortable conditions. I’ll be honest – I’m not reading these books for their deeper meaning, and while I thought I sensed some allegory about faith and trust, I was too busy enjoying the story to worry about any of that.

The seventh book’s character development is middle-of-the-pack for the series, in part because the three major characters were already pretty well developed by the end of the sixth book. Ron does end up maturing during the seventh book, but the point where he loses faith in Harry wasn’t much of a surprise and I felt like I’d seen it in an earlier book. Harry himself shows some growth towards the end of the seventh book, although this was a necessary element for the plot to reach its denouement. The character who develops the most is Albus Dumbledore, who dies at the end of book six, but whose character and background were never fleshed out previous to this book, with him serving as more of a benefactor and protector than as a full-fledged character. What you see in the back half of book six is a taste of what Rowling offers on Dumbledore in book seven. We also get some more insight into Snape’s character, but like that of Dumbledore, it’s by flashback, rather than by the characters developing as a result of the action and dialogue in the book’s present. The fact that the Big Three don’t develop much, and that the necessary direction of the plot means we don’t get to see as much of the better secondary characters (the various Weasleys, Luna, and Neville), made the lack of character development and the very heavy focus on Harry and Hermione the one big disappointment for me, although I’m obviously very invested in those characters and still ended up completely engrossed in their actions.

As I mentioned at the top, if a book has good plot, clean prose, and compelling characters, I’m in. I’ve been hooked on Harry since book one and if anything, I’m disappointed that the series is over, and the characters I know so well have seen their stories come to a close. (I did spend today in my typical post-Potter melancholy, which always hits me after I finish one of the books for the first time.) But before I let the subject drop, let me throw one story at you about what that first Harry Potter did for me.

I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Rowling’s work from people (including Harold Bloom and A.S. Byatt) who say that because the Potter novels aren’t real literature, they’re not going to lead people to read the classics or to otherwise up the quality of their reading materials. I can only speak to my own experience, but for me, that is absolute bollocks. I was a bookworm when I was younger, but my tastes were typical teenaged-boy – science fiction with a strong dose of countercultural books like Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and any number of books by Vonnegut. The “great books” forced on me in high school bored me to tears, and as soon as I got free of those requirements, I stopped reading them altogether (which isn’t to say I read everything that was assigned to me, either). When I got into my 20s, I more or less stopped reading fiction for pleasure, period, reading nonfiction when I wanted a book for a long flight.

In the fall of 2000, my wife picked up the first two Harry Potter books, tore through the first one, and gave me the old, “You have to read this!” line. So I took it on a business trip to California and started it on the plane ride home – and I was hooked. In 2001, I read the next two books, but also found myself getting back into the reading habit; I discovered P.G. Wodehouse and started perusing used book stores for the first time in a few years. I read Goblet of Fire in January of 2002, and ended up reading 75 books that year, including Moby Dick, Silas Marner, and The Sound and the Fury. Since I read that first Harry Potter book, I’ve read over 300 books, hitting Tolstoy, James, Dostoevsky, two Brontës, Fielding, Hemingway, more Faulkner, Stendhal, Hardy, Nabokov, Morrison, Eliot, Foster, Defoe, Proust, Flaubert, and the entire catalogs of Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The universal statement that the Harry Potter novels will not lead anyone to read the classics is wrong. J.K. Rowling reminded me that I love to read, and I will forever be grateful to her for that.

Indeed, I think that the criticism of Rowling’s work is a bit of literary snobbery, a reflection of the dismay that the exclusivity once offered to those who put the time into reading “great books” is losing currency in a world where great storytelling trumps metaphor and symbolism and all of the other things that our English professors told us were important without ever telling us why. Reading the classics has become its own reward, rather than a prerequisite for graduating from Eton before moving on to Oxford and then a job in the City, and our definition of “classics” is likely to change as well, with verbose authors like Richardson and Trollope sliding from view while new voices emerge from outside the Western canon. I won’t deny that there is tripe to be found in the fiction section of every bookstore in the United States, but lumping Rowling’s output with that tripe is unfair to her and to those of us who have loved her work to the point that it kindled – or rekindled – a love affair with the novel.

UPDATE: JC Bradbury weighs in on the Potter book – and its possible effect on baseball attendance over the weekend – on the Sabernomics blog.

Finished!

Just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I’ll write more tomorrow, but my brief review now is this: Best book in the series.

Conrad, Le Carré, Greene, and Shelley.

Jospeh Conrad’s Nostromo represents his lone appearance in the The Novel 100, and it’s apparently considered his best novel. It is an intensely political and psychological work, a comment on the inherent and perhaps inevitable corruptibility of man when confronted with temptations of power or money. Set in the Sulaco province of the fictional South American nation of Costaguana, which sits on the brink of revolution at the novel’s start, the novel’s plot centers around the re-opening of the San Tomé silver mine, owned by an Englishman who has become a full-time resident of Costaguana, and that mine’s relationship to the ensuing power struggle.

The plot weaves several storylines together on top of this structure, including a doomed romance, several independent searches for redemption, and the shadowy presence of the folk hero and reluctant revolutionary Nostromo. (Although I don’t believe it’s ever spelled out, “Nostromo” is a contraction of the Italian phrase nostro uomo, meaning “our man.” In spoken Italian this would sound very much like “nostromo.”) Nostromo barely appears in the first section of the book, but his own corruption as he feels the betrayal of the people of Sulaco becomes the central theme and driving plot element of the novel’s final half.

Conrad’s stories are always strong, and his characters are well-developed, but his prose is a little slow, so I don’t think it makes sense for a reader new to Conrad to start with a complex novel that runs a little over 400 pages. Either the novella Heart of Darkness (the book that became the movie Apocalypse Now) or the more straightforward intrigue The Secret Agent would be better introductions to Conrad’s work.

John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of the better spy novels I’ve read, built around a simple deceit that folds back on itself repeatedly, leaving the reader to try to figure out who’s lying and which characters are the “good guys.” It revolves around a British spook who’s out on one last mission, ostensibly to try to eliminate one of the top men in the East German intelligence service. The spook, Alec Leamas, goes through an elaborate charade to make it appear that he’s lost his marbles and is ready to turn traitor, only to find himself embroiled in a power struggle between his target and that man’s top lieutenant, with accusations of treason flying in both directions. Leamas’s situation is complicated by his brief fling with a girl, Liz Gold, who ends up folded into the drama as well. I won’t spoil the end, but the entire meaning of the book hinges on what happens in the last five or six paragraphs, which also reveal just how deep the deception runs. Great airplane reading.

I’m a big Graham Greene fan, and Orient Express was the ninth of his works that I’ve read, and probably my least favorite. ( Our Man in Havana remains my favorite, the perfect blend of the styles of his serious works and of his “entertainments.”) Orient Express revolves around a group of people on the famous train, headed for Constantinople but largely sidetracked in Yugoslavia when one of them, a Communist returning from exile to face trumped-up charges and certain execution in Belgrade, is pulled from the train by the authorities. Each character is flawed, some more deeply than others, and while every character has a goal or set of goals, none of them is remotely admirable. I understood the novel’s themes of alienation and the fungibility of many of the relationship types we employ in our lives, but the lack of a compelling character and the somewhat awkward way the novel ends (failing to really wrap up the plot line of Carol Musker, perhaps the most sympathetic of the characters) overshadowed the novel’s depth.

And I finally read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein … I’m not sure there’s much I can add here, other than to say that I was surprised to find that it’s not a horror story at all, but a morality play that’s built on a horror story, and a generally sad and bleak book at that. Anyway, that brings my tally of Novel 100 books read to 61, which is about the best I can say about this particular book.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows review to come Sunday or more likely Monday…

Those annoying Verizon FIOS commercials.

So in a past life, I worked for a couple of high-tech firms (mostly in the networking arena), so I’m a little bit familiar with some of the jargon – familiar enough that those new Verizon FIOS commercials, with their talk of “dB hot” and “true qualm” (whatever the bleep that is), set off my BS detector. And it turns out that I’m not alone. Turns out that Tom Wright-Piersanti thought the commercial was a little too slick, and he had enough technical knowledge to root out the truth behind those terms. It’s a good read if those commercials have gotten under your skin as they did mine.

San Francisco eats.

My first meal in San Francisco was a dud, a sushi/Japanese place called Hana Zen. The fish was fresh, but totally tasteless, and the prices were on the high side. Skip it.

Breakfast on Saturday was at an upscale but very tiny restaurant called Canteen that does a simple weekend breakfast. I went with my standard plate. The scrambled eggs were really perfectly cooked, not runny but still soft, and the eggs were obviously very fresh. The hit for me was the home fries, made from red potatoes that were parboiled and then finished on a flat-top with just enough oil (or butter) to keep them from sticking. They’re not home fries, but they’re good. The chicken-apple sausage was either homemade or locally made, but it was not cooked enough for me. They do get extra points for nice presentation and for having green tea available as an option.

Saturday’s lunch was a visit to a sushi joint I hadn’t hit in six years, and wasn’t even sure I knew how to find. I stumbled across it while wandered around on Friday afternoon. It’s called Akiko, and it’s on Mason Street, not far from the Powell Street BART station and near Union Square. The place is tiny – four chairs at the sushi bar and maybe eight tables – but the fish is really fresh. The salmon was awesome, deep pink with a great texture, soft but not too soft. The unagi was great, although I’ve rarely run into bad unagi. Even the miso soup was good, tasting fresher than any I’ve had in ages. Just when I thought I was too stuffed to eat anything more, the last item I’d ordered, a spicy tuna hand roll, arrived. The thing was enormous, a good four inches or so long, with a generous serving of spicy tuna that had just enough sauce to flavor the tuna without ever making me think, “ugh, mayo.” And their prices are reasonable for sushi.

Memphis Minnie’s – The smoked andouille sausage was to die for, easily the best Q’d sausage I’ve ever had. It was like butter, but it was still thoroughly cooked, and even though it was a little spicy for my tastes, I ate every last bit of it. The pulled pork was good, smoky, just lacking a little bit of that sweetness that I’ve had in good pulled pork in the South, although it was easily remedied with any of the three sauces (North Carolina vinegar, South Carolina mustard, and Texas red) on the table. The texas beef brisket was good, but definitely a little dry, and it was the only meat left on my plate when I was done. The sides were a little disappointing; the cornbread (comes with every meal) was very sweet and had coarse-grind corn meal, which has a great taste but really needs to be cooked thoroughly (like polenta) before it’s added to cornbread batter. The baked beans were solid, with a heavy smoke flavor, but light on the brown sugar. I went for the French fries because they were hand-cut, but they weren’t any better than, say, In-n-Out’s hand-cut fries. Oh, forgot one thing – the sweet iced tea, named the best in SF in the most recent issue of Where magazine (or whatever that thing in my hotel room was), was like candy. Granted, I like my iced tea unsweetened, but this was practically iced tea syrup.

Dottie’s – This place was worth the visit for one thing alone: The scone. They make their own baked goods and the varieties change every day. I went for an apricot oat scone and was treated to a piping-hot wedge the size of a slice of a deep-dish pie. It was unbelievable – just slightly moist (like a scone should be), with huge chunks of avocado and the nice, complex sweet/nutty flavor of an oatmeal cookie. The meal itself was so-so; the scrambled eggs were cooked properly but were light on salt, the bacon rashers were thick and a little undercooked (I like ‘em crispy), and the potatoes were really light on salt. All of their egg plates come with two slices of homemade buttermilk dill bread, which was a very high-quality bread with a dense crumb, although I’m not big on dill.

My last meal in San Fran was a bit upscale, at a place near my hotel called Fino. I ordered a special, a grilled salmon with artichoke hearts and mushrooms, served in a white wine sauce with whipped potatoes. The salmon was fresh, clearly Pacific, cooked perfectly, and the sauce was light and thin so the fish’s flavor could come through. The “chocolate Fino” dessert, however, was a complete waste of time. It’s a chocolate pudding on a little raspberry sauce, and it’s bruléed before it’s served. Aside from the fact that I burned my finger on the glass bowl, the chocolate pudding was milk chocolate. Why bother? If I wanted a glass of milk, I would have ordered one.