Phoenix revisited.

Not much new to report on for this trip to Phoenix. I made another visit to the Phoenix Ranch Market – still the best burrito with carnitas I’ve ever had, for just under $5, as well as phenomenal Mexican cookies (40¢ each) and aguas frescas, to Honey Bear’s BBQ, and to the Gelato Spot (try the coconut gelato), as well as the obligatory stop at In-n-Out. The new spots I hit weren’t much to rave about:

• Cien Agaves is a sort of upscale tacos-and-tequila place in Old Town Scottsdale that opened just over a week ago. I was there during Happy Hour, when all of their tacos are $3. The lobster taco is supposedly their best (ordinarily $7), but the lobster meat is chopped rather finely and is heavily spiced, so the delicate flavor of the lobster is obliterated. The fish taco was excellent, with the fish perfectly fried with a cornmeal breading and just a small amount of the lime-cilantro sauce. The shrimp taco carried some of the same spices as the lobster, but shrimp can better withstand that level of flavor and heat. But the main problem with Cien Agaves is their lack of quality control. I ordered a grilled corn side dish – one ear at $3 – and what came was a bland ear of corn, grilled inside the husk, then opened and doused in butter with a heavy dose of cayenne pepper. And the first corn that came out had a rotten spot on it. The server took it back, brought another one out five minutes later, and explained that he had to throw three others out that had similar rotting issues. Not exactly a confidence-booster – and the corn wasn’t taken off the check. They’ve been open for a week; they won’t be open for a year.
• Tacos al Caporal is a tiny Mexican place in a strip mall on Country Club Rd in Mesa. It looks like a family-run operation, and no one there speaks English, although all of the items on the menu will be familiar to anyone who’s eaten at an Americanized Mexican place. The tacos here are $1-$1.50 each and are very small; they’re served just as meat on corn tortillas, and you can fix the tacos yourself at a small “salsa bar” that has green and red salsas, chopped onions, and shredded lettuce, all sitting on a bed of ice. The taco al pastor was a particular hit, although the carne asada and carnitas tacos were also good. They offer two or three flavors of aguas frescas, including a not-too-sweet tamarind. The only worry here is that the place was empty on a Wednesday night around 6 pm.
• Bandarang, in Mesa on Country Club near Route 60, has received some positive writeups online, but the food was bland and their lunch special setup leaves a lot to be desired. The chicken in sweet basil sauce had a lot of red chili flakes in it, but no heat, and no real basil flavor other than the leaves served as garnish. The white jasmine rice that came with the dish had been cooked at least a half-hour previously and kept warm, and the side dishes that come with the lunch special (fried rice, fried wontons, and vegetarian pad thai) are all kept lukewarm on a side table to be served buffet-style. They seem to draw a good crowd, so there’s some turnover, but my rule of thumb is that if it’s not hot, it’s spoiled.

But seriously – go to Phoenix Ranch Market. It’s cheap, it’s authentic, and it is ridiculously good.

A win against intellectual property theft.

The Big Lead is one of a small number of blogs to earn a place in my RSS reader, but boy, did they ever whiff today with their comments on the Jammie Thomas decision, where the Minnesota woman was found to have illegally shared – not just downloaded – over 1700 songs via file-sharing networks:

this is some bullshit – the woman who downloaded songs lost in court. Isn’t the greed of millionaires astonishing?

Um, no. No, no, and how-did-you-tie-your-own-shoelaces-this-morning-NO. Sorry guys, I love the site, but you’re way off base here.

We’ve seen an appalling decline in the respect that people have for intellectual property. Musicians make money by creating something and selling it, and the fact that it’s no longer sold as a physical good doesn’t make taking it without paying for it legal or ethical. It’s theft, and people who do it should be punished.

But what Jammie Thomas did was worse: She didn’t just download songs – the RIAA hasn’t really gone after those folks – she shared the songs on her hard drive, making them available to anyone else on the same file-sharing network. This really isn’t any different from running a CD piracy operation, except that the number of people who could obtain copies of songs or albums from Thomas was not limited by production or distrubution constraints: Anyone who could find his way on to teh Interwebs could steal music with Thomas’ help.

I had more sympathy for file-sharers seven or eight years ago, when there were no legal digital downloading services, meaning that to purchase a single song you wanted, you had to drop $15 or so on an album that included eleven songs you probably didn’t want. (Why this wasn’t considered an illegal tying arrangement is beyond me, but I’m not an antitrust lawyer, either.) Now, however, if you want to purchase a specific song, it’s probably available on iTunes and it costs a buck. So if you want the song, suck it up and pay the dollar.

So what exactly is “bullshit” about this? She violated federal copyright law, and she stole profits from record companies and royalties from musicians. Given a chance to present her side of the story to a jury – and I can’t see why a jury might be predisposed to favor the record companies – she could not convince them of her innocence. The RIAA pointed out that the file-sharing took place via her IP address, with the MAC address of her cable modem, via a username she’d used before on other services, and from a password-protected computer she owned, and the songs were found on her computer’s hard drive. It is, as the defense argued, possible that someone spoofed her IP address and MAC address, and that same person could have sniffed her username/password for other services and used it on the file-sharing network. But the defense also claimed the songs ended up on her hard drive because she ripped them from CDs, which doesn’t seem to me to tie to the evil-hacker theory. Someone knew the songs were there and set up this elaborate scheme to expose them on Kazaa, framing Thomas in the process? I don’t think so. She’s a thief, and she’s going to have to pay for what she did. At least she can take solace in the fact that she’s not facing criminal charges or jail time, since what the jury found her to have done is a federal crime.

And I really don’t get the “greedy millionaires” bit. If someone produces something of value, and it’s stolen, does he then have less of a complaint? Is it less of a crime? If I pick Mark Cuban’s pocket and walk away with $500, is it okay because he’s a billionaire – and is he “greedy” if he wants it back? I don’t get it. Theft is theft. And as someone who makes his living by producing intellectual property – which, unfortunately, I often find reproduced illegally on various message boards – I find this kind of theft, and any defense of it, particularly appalling.

Kitchen Nightmares: Original recipe versus extra snarky.

The American version of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, just titled Kitchen Nightmares, is off to a solid start in the ratings, so we’re likely to be treating to quite a bit more swearing and family drama over the rest of this season. Although it’s entertaining, it can’t hold a candle to the BBC original.

The main difference revolves around food: the original version did, and the American version doesn’t, with food almost an afterthought in the way the U.S. show is edited and presented. It’s clear that Ramsay spends some time – perhaps a lot of time – in the kitchens of the restaurants he visits and in redesigning the menus, but the show gives us almost none of that content, instead preferring to show us arguments (which are many and varied) and “confessional” clips, the staple of the American reality show perhaps known as the best opportunity for the morons in each show to either 1) claim that they didn’t actually excrete the shit that hit the fan or 2) show some fake tears.

Episode #3 (The Mixing Bowl) was a perfect example. The restaurant’s manager, Mike, is an obvious fraud; Gordon sniffs him out in about ten seconds (although Gordon was outright hostile at that point, making fun of Mike’s weight, which I thought was out of bounds and out of character for the BBC version of Gordon) and at the end tries to convince the chef/owner to fire the guy. Mike spends all his confessional time either claiming that his various screw-ups weren’t his fault or crying. I understand that the producers and editors can make someone look bad through selective editing, but they can only make you look bad if you do bad stuff. I’ve been in my share of restaurants, and the only time I’ve had a chef or manager sit down at my table to chat was when it was a relative of mine. Mike was sitting down left and right, and giving out 50% coupons. You can cry all you want and claim it was some teenaged waitress’ fault, but it doesn’t take a lot of tricky editing to make you look bad.

But what we saw remarkably little of in this episode was actual cooking. The BBC version emphasizes the food; nearly every restaurant Gordon goes to is failing because the food isn’t made from fresh ingredients, is too complicated, or outright sucks. (“What the fuck were you thinking when you put apricots in the mashed potatoes?” has become something of a running joke in our house – well, at least when my daughter’s in bed.) The show shows a lot of the food, both before the revamp and after, and the bulk of what Gordon is shown doing is either working with the chef or creating a new menu, and usually we get a healthy dose of both. There’s certainly some drama on the BBC version, with chefs walking out and one episode with a hilarious bit of sibling rivalry, but what we’ve seen in the first three episodes here trumps the worst of the BBC series.

The production of the U.S. version also leaves a bit to be desired. I could do without the confessionals, which add nothing other than showing that Americans – at least those who work in restaurants – are immature little twits. (In other news, Kitchen Nightmares is the #1 rated show in France.) The free restaurant makeovers are a bit of a joke; in the British version, most of the improvement comes from hard work, not hitting the decorating lottery. And Gordon feels a lot more scripted. Not only is he generally more ornery, but even his asides to the camera seem like they’ve either been written for him or they’re the result of numerous retakes. The spontaneity of the original isn’t there. Finally, the U.K. version’s final segment, running five to seven minutes, includes a second visit by Gordon to the restaurant about a month after the initial trip, and he often has to review some of his major lessons or to just air someone out a second time. And sometimes business is just wonderful and it’s all hugs and roses (and f-bombs). But the U.S. version skips that; just one of the three episodes has had a real second look, two weeks after Gordon left and without Gordon there at all.

I haven’t deleted my Season Pass to the U.S. version, in spite of all of these flaws. I like Ramsay and I want to hear what he has to say between f-bombs. I’m also strangely riveted by one particular type of drama – seeing what an unaware or meek boss will do with an employee who is lazy, incompetent, or both. And I hold out hope that they’ll cut the gimmicks and let Gordon and the food rule the show. Gimmicks wear thin, but good food never does.

Never Let Me Go.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is not what it first seems to be. Set up initially as a wistful remembrance of a childhood in boarding schools, with an apparent destination of an adulthood encounter that brings old wounds to the surface, it turns out that it’s a drama of ethics within a romantic tragedy.

And if you want to read this book, I suggest that you stop here and go pick it up. There’s no way I can write about Never Let Me Go without revealing an early, major plot twist, and the experience of reading the novel will be much more enjoyable if you either figure it out (it’s not that hard) or if you come let the big revelation take you by surprise.

It turns out that Never Let Me Go is set in an alternate universe that is very much like our own but for one detail: Human clones are created and raised to adulthood so that their vital organs may be harvested for donations to conventionally-created humans. The three central characters, including the narrator, are all such clones, being raised in one of the few enlightened wards for these human livestock, and the narrator takes us back to their childhood, then adolescence (including the time when they learn their ultimate fate), then to the period of their “donations.”

The novel’s two parts – the dystopic horror story and the romantic tragedy – are perfectly integrated, but they weren’t equally effective. The romantic tragedy fell short for me; Kathy, her moody and often malicious friend Ruth, and the slightly simple but passionate Tommy end up in a sort of love triangle, and we’re to understand that Kathy and Tommy are in love with each other but are kept apart to a degree by Ruth. That feeling never came through in the characters’ words or actions, or even Kathy’s thoughts; she and Tommy are clearly friends, with a bond stronger than that between Tommy and Ruth, who are an actual couple during part of their time in boarding school and their time in the “cottages” where they spend their college-aged years. Kathy’s feelings towards Tommy seem to range from friendship to an almost older sister/younger brother dynamic, but romantic love didn’t come through until the two do become a couple as adults, when Tommy has begun his donations and Kathy is a “carer,” a visiting nurse to donors who will eventually begin her donations after a few years in carer service.

On the other hand, the quasi-morality play which Ishiguro presents to the reader is powerful and disturbing. The clones themselves seem to accept their fate without overtly questioning it – Ruth at one point asks, “It’s what we’re supposed to be doing, isn’t it?” – yet they show clear signs of humanity as well, falling in love and hoping they can find a way to defer their donation periods to enjoy a brief period with their mates, thinking and dreaming about living normal lives with normal jobs (Ruth dreams of having a routine 9-to-5 office job), and looking for the “possible” from whom they were cloned (much as an adopted or abandoned child might look for his/her biological parents). There are even discussions of whether the clones themselves have “souls” – Ishiguro seems to presume that they do, at least within the story’s context – and we see glimpses of the ethical discussions that go on in the fictional world of how to treat these clones: as people or as livestock (my word, not Ishiguro’s). Ishiguro even presents us with an argument that might sound very familiar to anyone who is squeamish about the idea of meat and poultry coming from the deaths of living creatures when he has one of the school’s teachers explain that people want organs to save the lives of their loved ones so long as they don’t have to know anything about where the organs come from.

It’s an uncomfortable read, but despite the slight failure of the romantic tragedy to capture my interest, it’s a riveting one that you probably won’t be able to put down once you’ve started it. I couldn’t, even though at times I wanted to once I realized that something was seriously amiss in the novel’s world, and that these characters were, by and large, just accepting their fates. It will force you to consider questions you’d rather not try to answer, because to many of them, you won’t find answers you like.

Pittsburgh eats.

I lived in Pittsburgh for two years while I attended the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon – that’s car-NEH-ghee, people, not CAR-neh-ghee – but we lived in Shadyside and my wife worked in Squirrel Hill, so we didn’t spend much time in downtown Pittsburgh. Of course, the fact that downtown Pittsburgh was kind of a dump didn’t help either, but at least that has improved since we left town in ’99.

My one dinner outside the press box was at Seviche, a new “tapas” place on Penn Ave. Since I wasn’t starving, tapas sounded appealing, and I thought I might get some authentic seviche for my trouble. While that may have been a logical assumption, the folks behind Seviche take a fairly substantial liberty with their namesake dish. What they call “seviche” is actually raw fish, more like a Japanese sashimi preparation than an actual seviche. Seviche is raw fish that is chopped and marinated in a citrus-juice mixture for hours or even days; the acidity of the marinade denatures the proteins in the fish, “cooking” it without heat, and of course killing any little beasties that might call the fish flesh home. I sat down and saw the chefs preparing the seviche (the kitchen is half-open to view), so I asked the waitress what the story was, and she told me everything was prepared to order. Um, no, that’s not seviche, sweetheart, and you’re going to kill someone if you’re not careful.

Anyway, she swore up and down that she eats the stuff all the time and hasn’t gotten sick, so I tried their “traditional” seviche with tuna. The fish was indeed very, very fresh – I was not aware you could get fish this fresh in Pittsburgh, but between this place and Nakama on the South Side, someone has figured out how to obtain it – but the sauce was overpoweringly tart. That may be a way to compensate for the lack of marinating time, but it made the dish a little tough to eat.

I ordered two other dishes, both of which took some liberties with authenticity. The salmon croquettes on the menu had been replaced by chorizo croquettes, but the finished product was very greasy and the contents weren’t whipped or puréed smooth as they would be in proper croquettes; I ate one of four and left the rest. The barbecued-pork and queso blanco “empanadas” were probably the best-tasting dish; the pastry was delicious and the pork was smoky but still moist. However, by serving one large empanada sliced into four pieces, the chef let half of the heat out of the pastry and it was already lukewarm by the time I got to piece #3; they also get points off for listing queso fresco (which I really like) on the menu and substituting queso blanco without telling me.

Café Richard is a small sandwich shop with short hours located in the Strip District, on Penn near 21st Street. A side project of the chef behind Nine on Nine, which I am told is a highly-regarded fine-dining restaurant in the ‘burgh, Café Richard is cute, done up to look something like a little French boulangerie, and it has a fairly extensive menu of sandwiches. I went with the pan bagnat, a classic sandwich of southern France that is a salade Niçoise on a split baguette or bun, and that is typically pressed or weighted down for a few hours so that the vinaigrette really penetrates the bread. Well, Café Richard got most of it right, using good olive oil and very clean-tasting anchovies, but the sandwich was made to order and not pressed at all, so the bread was a little tough when a real pan bagnat is softened by the oil and vinegar. Great value at around $9 including a bottle of water.

I also revisited one of my old haunts from my Tepper days, Pamela’s, a local chain of greasy-spoon diners best known for their breakfast potatoes and their huge, thin pancakes. I went to a new location (new to me, at least) on the Strip both mornings for breakfast. The first meal was excellent – standard EMPT meal, but it’s all about the potatoes, a hybrid of hash browns and potatoes Lyonnaise that are soft and delightfully salty in a food-Gestapo-run world. On day two, though, whoever was manning the flat-top was a little liberal with the butter, and the pancakes – delicious with their trademark crispy edges – were drenched in the butter that greased the stove, as were the eggs I got alongside them. I probably should have sent them back, but I was in a bit of a hurry and just ate what I could. I can vouch for the pancakes, at least at the Shadyside location (on Walnut Street), which are usually outstanding and don’t need to be wrung out before you can eat them.

Sleepwalking Land.

When it comes to it, we take stock in the middle of our existence and ask ourselves: do we have more yesterdays or more tomorrows? What I wanted was for time to slow down, to stop like the wrecked ship.

One of the various lists of books I’m working through is the twelve greatest African books of the twentieth century. Mia Couto’s Sleepwalking Land is the fifth I’ve read of this list, and it’s probably the most abstract of the group, but also features the most advanced plot, with two stories intertwining and perhaps – depending on how you interpret the book – connecting as well.

Couto was born in Mozambique, although unlike the other eleven authors on the list, he’s white. He lived through the country’s independence and the resulting seventeen-year civil war, between the country’s first government, a Soviet-aligned Marxist government that shut all the country’s religious schools, and a pro-democracy guerrilla group, RENAMO. Sleepwalking Land tells the story of that civil war by focusing on its effect on the population, eschewing any depictions of actual warfare.

The novel contains two narratives. One tells the story of a pair of refugees, an old man and a young boy he has saved from a refugee camp, who take up shelter in a burned-out bus, where they find a suitcase containing the notebooks of a dead man whose body was found nearby. The young boy reads the stories in the notebooks to the old man, with unusual consequences for their immediate environs. Those notebooks tell the story of Kindzu, whose life story appears to be part allegory for the history of Mozambique, but with a focus on what has been lost through colonialism, civil war, and corruption. He is guided by a dwarf who came from the heavens to a woman named Farida, who gave up her son to adoption many years earlier and begs Kindzu to try to find him. Kindzu’s search for Gaspar yields the occasional clue but he never seems to get close to his quarry, symbolizing the way innocence, once lost, can’t be regained, but along the way he meets many villagers and acquaintances of Farida, whose stories further depict the horrors of civil war.

Couto’s style makes heavy use of magical realism, while his prose mixes the simple structures of African literature (like Things Fall Apart) with the more poetic and metaphorical style of Western literature. It was an easy read, although I couldn’t shake the feeling that a lot of the symbolism was flying over my head due to my unfamiliarity with the history of Mozambique. (For a more detailed and informed review of Sleepwalking Land, you might want to read the New York Times review of the book.)


“The heart,” he said, “is a dark well; its depth unknown. I have lived eighty years. I am still drawing water.”
“Draw a little for me, Dad.”

I found John Galsworthy’s 1906 book Fraternity via a book trail: One book mentioned another book which mentioned this book. I’ve had pretty good luck with book trails in the past; one of my best finds via a book trail was discovering Booth Tarkington by a mention of one of his novels in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.

Fraternity itself is a quirky book, something of a satire of upper-middle-class attitudes towards the lower classes in turn-of-the-century England. The plot of the book revolves around the slow-burn relationship between Hilary, the emotionally estranged husband of Bianca, and a young model named Ivy who comes to pose for a portrait Bianca is painting. But the book itself is more concerned with the way that the extended family of which Hilary is a part views “those people” – the truly poor, but also simply the working classes, the less fortunate but not poor (like Ivy), and the riffraff who inhabit the parts of London where decent folk simply aren’t seen.

Galsworthy showcases a dry wit, sprinkling the novel with smart-assed rejoinders and silly names (the pious, loyal butler named Creed; the socialite named Mrs. Talents Smallpeace; the intimidating activist named Mary Daunt), and also treating the upper-class denizens of the book with just a touch of disdain for their snobbery. The story moves along quickly, in part because of copious amounts of dialogue – both real and imagined, as Galsworthy likes to describe facial expressions with quotes that explain what the person might be thinking – and also because of the various minor subplots among the various characters in Hilary and Bianca’s family. It’s a minor work of literature that for whatever reason seems to have been swept aside, perhaps because of the wave of more serious English novels that followed in the 1910s and 1920s.

Cleveland eats.

Not much for good eats in downtown Cleveland, unfortunately, but the real overriding theme was mediocre service. I’m not saying bad service, or rude service, just a lot of indifferent service.

First meal was at Fat Fish Blue, at the corner of Prospect and Ontario, serving a sort-of Cajun menu – sort of because they’ve supplemented a lot of Cajun classics with some other dishes more befitting a casual-dining chain. I stuck with the classics and was one for two. The chicken-and-sausage gumbo was a disappointment; the flavor was OK, with a lot of andouille, but the gumbo was thin (meaning that the roux was underdeveloped), and the bowl was about 1/3 gumbo and 2/3 overcooked and not-all-that-hot rice. The shrimp po’boy, on the other hand, was almost dead-on, with the only flaw being the cook’s failure to scoop out the doughy part of the French bread, which is de rigueur for an authentic po’boy. The fried shrimp were perfectly breaded (cornmeal with a little black pepper) and not even a little bit greasy, and the remoulade on the po’boy was delicious, although mayonnaise is more traditional.

Breakfast the next morning was at the Inn at Coventry, which won the Citysearch readers’ poll this year for Cleveland’s best breakfast. It’s a good value, but the food didn’t blow me away. The best thing I had was their popular “blues and chews” pancake, with blueberries and cashews; they get bonus points because you can order just one cake as a side. The pancake was a little flat but had a great butter flavor. The eggs etc. were all ordinary. This was, however, the best service I received at any restaurant on the trip.

For lunch on Wednesday I decided to hit Lola, the downtown restaurant by Michael Symon and I’d say one of the two best-known (to outsiders) restaurants in Cleveland at the moment. Lola offers kicked-up comfort food, and they have a lunch menu with a great you-pick-two option. I went with a chickpea salad and a chicken-salad sandwich on flatbread, and both were very good. The salad included chickpeas, rocket (okay, arugula, but “rocket” sounds so much better), yellow onions, and a few julienned pieces of japalenos; the chickpeas were a little undercooked, and the whole thing was overdressed, but the taste combination was excellent. The sandwich was served on a fresh pita; the chicken salad was slightly spicy (curry powder, perhaps) and it included pickled onions and julienned red peppers. I wouldn’t change a thing about it. So here’s my mediocre-service story: I sat at the bar and asked for sparkling water to drink, which is my usual. The bartender doesn’t tell me that they only sell it in liter bottles, and I end up paying $5 for just one glass of the stuff.

Wednesday’s dinner was at Zócalo, a pseudo-Mexican restaurant right across from Lola. I knew I was in trouble when the chips and salsa came and the chips were glittering with grease. The entree was no better. Avoid.

Thursday’s breakfast was a small adventure; I walked to the Second Street Diner only to find that it no longer exists, so I wandered back over to Euclid and went to Sammy’s, a little lunch-counter/greasy spoon tucked in the National City building. I went for an EMPT, and while the bacon (already mostly cooked, just reheated to order) and potatoes were nothing special, the short-order cook takes his egg-scrambling very seriously. He has a tiny metal bowl and a two-tine fork just for the purpose, and when he scrambles the eggs, he gets his whole body into it. The eggs were perfectly cooked, soft, fluffy, but totally cooked through. And it’s just nice to find the occasional place that still cooks eggs to order.

I picked up a sandwich to go from the Juniper Grille, and when I said I was there to order something to go, the waitress who greeted me immediately changed her whole demeanor to make it clear I was a second-class citizen. The turkey club wrap was good and came with potato chips that tasted like they were fried in-house, but I was left with something of a bitter taste from the way that waitress and another one inside treated me.

Last bite before I left was the Strickland’s frozen custard at the Jake. I’m a big frozen custard fan, since it usually has an ultra-smooth texture, but this stuff was a little icy and grainy.

Empire Falls.

The moral of this story is that I need to listen to my readers when they recommend a book, because they’re two for two so far. The most recent successful suggestion is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls.

The book’s jacket describes Russo as a “compassionate” writer, which sounds like something that some halfwit in marketing came up with after reading two or three pages of the book, but it turns out to be an incredibly apt description of the way Russo creates and develops his characters. Empire Falls is set in a declining mill town in Maine, and the plot centers on the slightly hapless Miles Roby, manager of the Empire Grill, father of a teenaged daughter, en route to a divorce from his longtime wife Janine, who is leaving him for Walt Comeau, the “Silver Fox” who owns the local gym and is forever challenging Miles to an arm-wrestle. His daughter, Tick, is having her own troubles, including an ex-boyfriend with anger issues, a classmate with a terrible family life and who never speaks, and difficulty dealing with her parents’ divorce, which she squarely blames on her mother. And Russo has populated the town with a number of other characters, all surprisingly well developed despite limited screen time, from Miles’ kleptomaniac father, Max, to the young and possibly gay Catholic priest Mark, to the omnipresent town matriarch, Francine Whiting, who has Miles and perhaps the rest of the community by the balls. Yet with perhaps the sole exception of that last character, everyone in the book is presented with some degree of compassion or at least understanding – people are shaped by their circumstances, some of which are beyond their control, and while many people manage to overcome disadvantageous backgrounds, it’s too easy just to pile blame on those who can’t or won’t.

The story revolves around Miles Roby’s divorce and some of the events in his life that the arrival of the actual legal event (as opposed to the end of his marriage, which happened some time prior to the book’s opening) sets in motion. He has spent twenty years of his life at the restaurant, forever awaiting the day when Francine Whiting will give him the restaurant, probably through her death, which doesn’t seem all that imminent. Russo tells Miles’ story through intermittent flashbacks and changes in perspective, revealing in stages the history of the Whitings, Miles’ family history, and even some of the stories behind the other characters. And since the town is so small, all of the stories intersect at multiple points with other stories, characters run into other characters, and in very thin sheets Russo gives us more and more details on each of them.

The book also reads as an allegorical history of small-town New England, which is dotted with slumping or failing former mill towns that have never really recovered from the end of the area’s textile industry. Empire Falls residents continue to cling to hopes that the mill will re-open and that those who remained will get their old jobs back, remembering, perhaps, good old days that weren’t all that good, and that aren’t coming back even if the town does find a new industry.

The story finally turns in its last fifty or so pages on the one real event of the book, the external stimulus that shocks Miles out of his emotional stupor. It was foreshadowed for a while in the book, but Russo handled it deftly and quickly, almost as if he disdained writing about action when he had dialogue and introspection to write.

A couple of quick notes:

  • This is the seventh winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that I’ve read, and it’s been a mixed bag. Beloved and To Kill a Mockingbird are among my favorite novels, but Independence Day was disappointing, and I thought The Shipping News managed the twin feat of being vulgar and uninteresting.
  • I was helping out at the Tepper School of Business’s table at an MBA recruiting event on Sunday, and had my copy of Empire Falls sitting on the table. One prospective student noticed it hidden behind a sign, pointed, and just said, “Great book.” Turns out he’s a Mainer and thought that Russo did a fantastic job of capturing the culture of the state’s small towns.

Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.

So I’ve gotten hooked on a BBC show (seen on BBC America on DirecTV) called Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. The commercials originally sold me on it because it looked comical, but it’s more than just funny. The premise is that foul-mouthed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay is invited to visit certain failing restaurants around the UK (invited by the restaurants’ owners, that is) and spend a week there to try to straighten them out. Needless to say, these restaurants are universally – to borrow one of Ramsay’s favorite expressions – in the shit. The food is usually horrendous. The menus are overcomplicated and overlong. The kitchens are terribly run, and often not even clean.

The episode I caught last night – “Clubway 41” – was one of the more shocking ones. The Blackpool restaurant had won an award as the best restaurant in the town from the local tourism board, but Ramsay found the food disgusting, from the salmon, strawberry, and watercress salad to the pork medallions in a brie and nectarine sauce with parsnip crisps (which Gordon managed to bend in half without breaking). It turns out that the chef had gone to culinary school in the 1970s and hadn’t been in a kitchen since, leading to a rough exchange between Ramsay and the chef where Ramsay airs him out for his inability to perform basic cooking tasks like making a casserole or cooking mussels. Ramsay went back several months later, only to find that they’d cancelled their dinner service after just eight weeks; he tries to relaunch it based around simple-to-cook comfort foods and short-order meals, but the restaurant appears to have closed not long after that. There was some controversy over this episode, as the chef-owner and the tourism board both took issue with how they were depicted, but I find it hard to be sympathetic to a chef who clearly can’t cook and who admits that the food on the night of the first relaunch was prepared by the TV show’s chefs, not by himself.

I just find the fact that these complete kitchen incompetents think they can run a restaurant kitchen amazing, and the lack of common sense on the part of most of these owners and chefs – like the one owner who wouldn’t pay her chef for prep time and bought all ingredients at the local Tesco – provides for a lot of unintentional comedy. And the best news of all is that there’s a U.S. version coming, debuting Wednesday night at 9 pm on Fox, just called Kitchen Nightmares, with at least one controversy already underway. If you like cooking, the restaurant business, or f-bombs, I highly recommend you watch it.