Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History is something of a must-read for culinary buffs, whether your interest in food is in cooking it or merely in the eating thereof. Kurlansky does a solid job of explaining how the history of civilization, both in the West and several countries in Asia, has been directed and altered by the search for and use of salt.

The word “salt” actually refers to more than just sodium chloride, although that is the salt that plays the largest role in the book. A salt is one of two products of the reaction between an acid and a base – the other being water – and several other salts make appearances in Salt. Ancient Egyptians recognized that there were real differences between various salts, even if they didn’t understand the chemical compositions; natron, a naturally-occurring compound containing sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and sodium chloride, was used in mummification as well as in curing foods. Different types of culinary salts often served as measures of status, and the drive for whiter and whiter salt up until the last twenty years serves as a stark contrast to today’s marketing of pricier gourmet salts like French grey salt, black salt, and alaea red salt.

Salt also drove a number of scientific and technological advances. The curing and preserving process is obviously a major part of the book, since it determined the economic prowess of several European nations and is a major reason the Basques were able to survive as an independent people despite the fact that they have always been ruled by others. But some of the discoveries and advances are more surprising: Natural gas was discovered by the Chinese, who noticed that some salt miners would mysteriously lay down and die in certain spots underground, and that the same substance causing the deaths also appeared to be causing the sudden, massive explosions that plagued those mines. They eventually identified it as a fuel and figured out how to harness it, something which every home and professional cook should appreciate.

Kurlansky largely lets the tale of salt tell itself, although it might be a stretch to call it a tale, since there isn’t a single narrative thread as you might see in a biography. The book is more a collection of anecdotes and mini-histories in chronological order, with the bulk of the book spent on ancient uses of salt and on Europe’s mercantilist period. For a quick read, it’s packed with information, although I thought he gave somewhat short shrift to the aforementioned rise of artisan salts, instead focusing on the rise of Big Salt and the consolidation of the world salt industry. One note to fellow sticklers: Kurlansky’s grasp of grammar and vocabulary leaves a little something to be desired, and even his editors didn’t catch every stray comma or word error (e.g., using “parley” for “parlay”), but the mistakes weren’t frequent enough to get under my skin. Okay, maybe a little bit.

Those Holiday Inn commercials.

So in first place on the list of “worst current commercial campaigns” has to be the Holiday Inn ads with the three blond guys making fools of themselves, right? What exactly is the message that Holiday Inn is trying to send here?

  • “Only dorks stay at our hotels.”
  • “If you don’t want to talk to people like these guys, stay somewhere else.”
  • “Holiday Inn: We’ll make you uncomfortable in every sense of the word.”

Avis did something like this a few years ago, albeit not quite as bad, with their campaign “What if we didn’t try harder?” After which, you’d get 15-20 seconds of a customer having a very bad experience at an Avis rental car outlet.

Marketing and advertising are certainly inexact sciences, but to me, a good ad should have two or three things: recall, a positive message about the brand or product, and perhaps a call to action depending on what the commercial is advertising. The worst ads have great recall but leave the viewer with a very negative impression of the brand or product. The Holiday Inn ads are unmistakable – as soon as I see any of those three idiots on the screen, I’m flying for the remote – and they’ve made it clear to me that Holiday Inn is the antithesis of cool. And yet these ads have been running for over a year, and I’m sure we’ll be inundated with them again in the playoffs. Good luck cleaning up that brand image after you’ve spent a year and a half defecating all over it.

The Yankee Stadium squirrel.

I can take partial credit for this picture. I was at the game last night, and when I saw the squirrel on the scoreboard, that caption was the first thing that popped into my head. Thanks to Chris for executing my artistic vision.

Peach pie.

OK, this post isn’t really about peach pie, although it’s inspired by the one I made today, using probably the last of the local peaches we’ll see up here this year. I’ve made a peach pie every August for five or six years now, but it used to be more work than it is now because dealing with the peaches was such a pain in the ass. Making peach pie requires removing the skin from the peaches – something you don’t have to do to make peach preserves, which I also do every year – and taking the skin off a peach used to be as hard as taking a nickel from Carl Pohlad.

The classic technique, found in both Joy of Cooking and Baking Illustrated, involves scoring the skin, blanching the peaches for one to two minutes (“blanching” means sticking them in boiling water), and then shocking them in ice water to kill any residual heat and prevent the peaches from cooking. This was a potential mess, since the peach skins didn’t always come off easily, the flesh underneath would always soften (trouble if the peach was already ripe), and you’d have two more things to clean.

So the real purpose of this post is to recommend a kitchen gadget. For Christmas of ’05 I got a Mario Batali serrated peeler as a gift, and I use it almost exclusively for one thing: peeling peaches. It’s also supposed to be wonderful for peeling tomatoes and plums, but who the hell peels plums besides Jack Horner’s mom? Anyway, the serrated peeler makes quick work of the peaches required for a pie, and I’d say saves me 15-20 minutes of prep, plus the cleanup time, not to mention all the swearing and aggravation that usually ended with me peeling the damn things with a paring knife anyway.

There’s also an Oxo version that’s $2 cheaper; I’ve got several Oxo products, including two straight-bladed vegetable peelers, and they do offer a good grip, although I find it annoying that the slits on the sides trap water in the dishwasher. I’m guessing there’s no real difference in how they perform, since I’ve never had a problem with any of the Oxo items I own.

Starting with Wodehouse.

So a friend/reader asked me today where he might get started with the works of P.G. Wodehouse. Here’s what I wrote:

Well, he has two primary series: Jeeves/Wooster and Blandings. Jeeves/Wooster is more famous, but I wouldn’t say it’s better, just different.

There’s a three-in-one set called Life With Jeeves that’s a great place to start with those stories. It comprises two collections of short stories, plus one entire Jeeves novel. It’s how I got started on Wodehouse, and since seven years later, I’m still enjoying his stuff, I’d say that worked out.

The first Blandings novel is Something Fresh and introduces the critical character, Lord Emsworth, who is something of a dingbat with an odd affection for his pig, the Empress. The book I mentioned in chat today, Galahad at Blandings, is much later in the series.

And if you just want to read a standalone book that’s not part of a series, I’m particularly fond of The Small Bachelor, a really funny book with some of Wodehouse’s best characters.

Chicago eats.

So I had some ups and downs in Chicago, but I’m glad to say that after some mediocre meals to start, I finished strong.

The Oak Tree Room is in the same building as the Four Seasons, at 900 N Michigan Ave. I had read that they offered excellent cranberry-pecan pancakes, and I wanted to get some exercise, so I walked up there … and was disappointed. The pancakes were dry and flat, and the dried cranberries tasted more like candied fruit than dried.

Vong’s Thai Kitchen on Hubbard (near the Billy Goat Tavern) was another disappointment, not least because the service was comically bad. I still have no idea who my server was, and I ended up waiting about ten minutes to order (past the point where my menu was closed) and ten or fifteen minutes for someone to realize I was done and offer me the check. A waitress, maybe “my” waitress, did eventually come and ask if I wanted to try one of their “mini” desserts (which are apparently about $1.50) each, but by that point I was annoyed enough to just want to leave. Plus I had a gelateria in my sights for the afternoon.

Anyway, the food at Vong’s was also disappointing, since it’s not so much Thai food as haute cuisine served on a bed of Thai food. I skipped the pad thai, my usual bellwether dish for Thai restaurants, fearing it would be too sweet – let’s face it, there were no Thai customers in the place, and that’s not a good sign for the authenticity of the food. I ordered panang curry with “pulled” chicken, and the chicken part was very good, still moist and indeed resembling pulled chicken. But the peanut-dominated sauce was heavy and slightly bitter, and there wasn’t much else in the sauce besides the chicken and some peas. The complimentary salad of shredded daikon and carrots in a “Szechuan” vinaigrette (can we just call it a sesame vinaigrette? Is that so freaking hard? And why would I want a Szechuan vinaigrette in a Thai restaurant?) was very good, but a poor harbinger of what was to come.

Just across the street from the Oak Tree Room is an Italian deli called L’Appetito that purports to sell gelato. They don’t. That stuff is ice cream, a claim I can support by pointing out that I couldn’t get my plastic spoon into the stuff. Next.

I had dinner with a longtime email correspondent and regular on Baseball Think Factory, who goes by the handle “Shredder.” He suggested La Creperie on Clark, which is close to Wrigley Field without being right on top of it. Their savory crepes are all made with buckwheat, and I went with a chicken, goat cheese, and tomato crepe. It was delicious; the goat cheese was the dominant flavor, and it worked nicely with the béchamel sauce that filled the crepe. The chicken was white meat, a little overcooked (I assume it was cooked first before it was added to the crepe), but since it was sitting in the sauce it wasn’t a big deal. The tomatoes were fresh, but really, I could take or leave tomatoes. This was about the goat cheese, and the crepe itself, which was delicious, slightly nutty but not overwhelmingly buckwheaty.

Thursday’s breakfast was at Lou Mitchell’s on W Jackson St, near Canal. They’re known for their homemade pastries, so I asked the waitress what one pastry I should order, and I got this answer: “They’re all good.” Yeah, you’re a big help, sweetheart. I can see why you’re not in sales. I went with a coconut donut, which was one of the daily specials; it was a cake donut, very moist, but the glaze was sickeningly sweet and I only ate about a third of it. The Greek bread that came with the meal was a much bigger success, almost like a challah bread with a soft interior and a very crumbly exterior. As for the meal itself, I went with my usual EMPT, going for two eggs scrambled with bacon. The “two eggs” bit is a joke; the meal came in a seven- or eight-inch skillet, and the scrambled eggs took up half the skillet, which has to be at least four eggs considering how thick they were. They were cooked through, a touch dry, but good overall. The potatoes were sliced very thinly and appeared to be cooked solely on the flat-top in a pile, so that some were just steamed while others were nicely browned. Total $10.42 before tip.

Lunch was at the Frontera Grill, accompanied by Jayson Stark. I went with the tacos al carbon, and asked the waiter whether I should get the skirt steak (traditional) or the duck, and he said it was a coin flip but he’d take the duck. Thank God for someone with the cojones to answer one freaking question. Anyway, before the meal came we had some chips and two salsas, one green, the other a dark red with some sort of roasted peppers in it, and both were outstanding, with the red salsa spicy but not at all hot, and both boasting gorgeous bright colors. The tacos al carbon ($15) came with a delicious and clearly fresh guacamole that had never seen the inside of a food processor, with good chunks of avocado still in it and hints of garlic and cilantro that didn’t overwhelm the fresh avocado flavor. The duck was delicious, but unfortunately had some gristle in it, something I haven’t encountered before, although to be fair I usually go with duck leg rather than breast. The meat was medium-rare, but more rare in some parts (where the gristle was) and medium in others. The best part of the dish was something I can only call a Mexican version of baked beans (frijoles charros), with red beans perfectly cooked (soft but al dente) in a reduced, smoky-sweet sauce redolent of bacon. Jayson ordered a shrimp dish ( camarones en salsa verde con hongos) that he said was one of the best things he had ever tasted.

My last meal in Chicago was probably the most interesting of the trip, mostly good, some less good. The place is called Twist, and it’s a tapas bar (tapas here meaning “small plates,” not Spanish food) down Sheffield, a block or two south of Wrigley Field. Overall the food was good, made from fresh ingredients and prepared right in front of anyone who sits at the bar (as I did). I ordered three dishes: braised beef tenderloin on a corn cake with feta and a spicy aioli, dates wrapped in bacon, and grilled “vegetables” (zucchini and yellow squash, as it turns out) on crostini with goat cheese. The last dish was the biggest hit for me; the bread used for the crostini was delicious, and there was just a dab of goat cheese sitting on a small spread of roasted red pepper purée sitting on the slab of squash. It was perfect, with accent flavors from the toppings complementing but not overwhelming the flavor of the squash, finished with a nice crunch.

The dates wrapped in bacon were excellent, except for one thing: the dates themselves were sugared, making for a bizarre, sweet note to finish the dish, not a flavor I’m used to experiencing in a savory dish. The bacon was perfectly cooked, and the dish came with a thick balsamic-based sauce with a gravy-like consistency, although I couldn’t tell you how much it contributed since “sweet” was the dominant flavor.

The big question mark for me was the beef tenderloin. The beef was marinated in something strong and acidic, most likely a red wine concoction, and was served shredded in a mound on a corn cake (very soft, with a consistency more like grits than polenta, and oddly enough, no actual corn kernels), with large hunks of feta cheese, chopped red onion and tomatoes, and then lines of a spicy “aioli” that was really mayonnaise with chili oil or hot sauce added. (True aioli doesn’t have egg yolks in it, but this sauce did.) Think about that flavor combination: the beef, cheese, onions, and tomatoes are all acidic and tangy, pleasant flavors in small doses but overwhelming in large doses. The only other flavor in the dish is the heat from the spicy aioli. The corn cakes weren’t sweet, and weren’t really salty, although it’s possible that all the sour/tangy/spicy numbed my mouth to the point where I couldn’t taste what they offered. The shame of it all is that the ingredients in the dish were good and the concept was as well: a piece of braised beef tenderloin, preferably served whole, on a sweet corn cake with corn in it, with a spicy aioli or mayo would have been perfect, simpler, cheaper to make, and less of a mess on the plate. There was a good dish hiding in here, but I couldn’t make it out because they went overboard with the additions.

All that said, I’d definitely recommend Twist as a pre-Cubs game hideout. At 5:40 on a Thursday game night, there was no wait, and the place wasn’t full when I left. The food was good, the place is nice, and you don’t have to deal with Cubs fans or tourists who view the game as an excuse to get hammered. I’m just hoping that the Twist chefs simplify some of their dishes to let the clean flavors of the ingredients come through.


I’m a big Hitchcock fan – I’ve seen over twenty of his movies, and when AllNight’s Jason Smith asked me (off air) the other day which was my favorite, I scuffled a little, because it’s hard to pick one. I eventually went with North by Northwest, although I considered Rear Window and To Catch a Thief (Two hours of Grace Kelly? Hell yeah!) first. But there’s one major Hitchcock flick I’ve yet to see, because I wanted to read the book first: his adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

My wife had a copy of Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn in the house for years, but I never considered reading it because it was a purple mass-market paperback that looked like a trashy romance novel (which is odd, because my wife never reads that crap). Then I noticed Hitchcock had adapted that book as well – it’s a 1933 film before he came to Hollywood, and the print that still survives is low quality, with horrible audio – and my wife told me I was being an idiot. It turns out that it’s an incredible suspense novel with a faint romantic element, and it has a steady crescendo that accelerates through the last two-thirds of the book or so. I enjoyed the book even more because I’d recently finished The Lighthouse Stevensons, a nonfiction book that describes the construction of lighthouses around the coast of England by the family that also produced Robert Louis Stevenson, and which gave me a lot of background that made the plot of Jamaica Inn clearer.

Rebecca is a different kind of suspense novel than Jamaica Inn, eschewing the protagonist-in-mortal-danger motif for a more psychological one, with jealousy as its dominant theme. The narrator, a never-named 21-year-old woman, marries Maxim de Winter, a 42-year-old widower who lives on an estate called Manderley in rural England. Maxim’s previous wife, Rebecca, was killed in a boating accident just under a year prior, and it appears that the staff, particularly the sinister Mrs. Danvers, are none too pleased about his quick remarriage. The discovery of the boat Rebecca was sailing when she died sets off a chain of events that put Maxim, his wife, and Manderley into danger, but largely danger of a psychological sort rather than a physical one. Jealousy flies in all directions from multiple characters, notably the narrator’s jealousy of her deceased predecessor and Mrs. Danvers’ jealousy of the narrator for taking Rebecca’s place.

Du Maurier’s prose is fantastic, as she has a clear eye and an easy way of imparting the details of the environment, particularly anything out of doors, to the reader, and her dialogue is quick and intelligent. The story itself flows brilliantly, hinging on small twists of fate and relying more on the realistic actions of its characters to drive the plot forward. And the characters are given multiple dimensions, although the narrator’s timidity – overcoming which is a background theme in the novel – made me want to slap her a handful of times after she first arrived at Manderley.

Rebecca also owes a significant debt to Jane Eyre, another novel of a somewhat-forbidden relationship set in a large, foreboding country estate. I hate to apply the word “gothic” to any novel, given the connotations the word has today, but these are two clear masterpieces of English literature and transcend the limitations that “gothic” might seem to impose on a work of fiction.

All that said, I think I preferred Jamaica Inn for its intensity and the way it builds to a big, long climax to Rebecca‘s more grounded and perhaps more realistic drama of speech and situation, even though Rebecca stands up better to literary analysis … and is the only one that comes in a non-purple, trade-paperback edition.

NYC Eats.

Let me do this one a little differently by starting with the one out-and-out hit of the trip, the new king of gelaterias, one apparently already well-known to Manhattanites but new to me: Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Founded by Jon Snyder – also the founder of Ciao Bella, which he sold in 1989 for $100K – Il Laboratorio is his new venture and beats the pants off of what Ciao Bella is producing, which is high praise. Il Laboratorio’s primary revenue source is in creating customized flavors for the city’s top chefs, but they run a tiny retail outlet at 95 Orchard St on the Lower East Side, selling about a dozen flavors of gelato and four or six of sorbet (I don’t remember, but who cares about sorbet when there is gelato in sight?). Although they make a ton of unusual flavors for restaurants, and the wall is papered with reviews that recommend some odd ones for the retail customer (sesame and hazelnut were the flavors getting the most mentions), the flavors on the day I was there were fairly straightforward. I went with the dark chocolate and the coconut. The coconut tasted more like coconut than an actual coconut does, if that makes sense – rich, creamy, sweet but not sugary, ultra-smooth. The dark chocolate was about as dark as any chocolate ice cream or gelato I’ve ever had; Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy might be darker, but that’s a much higher-fat product. Which brings me to my only question – gelato is typically a low-fat, low-overrun (which refers to the air content of ice cream) product that gets its smoothness from egg yolks and the fact that there’s only about 10% air by volume. This gelato was the thickest and smoothest I can remember having on either side of the Atlantic, and I’m wondering if they ticked the fat content up a bit to boost the smoothness. That wouldn’t make me like it any less, but if they’re using a lot of butterfat, it’s not real gelato. (Speaking of which, one of the reviews on the wall said that they use a lot of “buttermilk” in their gelatos, saying this was traditional. One, it’s not traditional, and two, it would make the gelato sour. I’m thinking this was a non-food writer writing a food article. Bad idea.)

Since I started with the best food of the trip, let me follow with the dud, Dinosaur BBQ in Morningside Heights or whatever they’re calling that part of Harlem these days so that white people are willing to go there. Profiled on the Hungry Detective show on Food Network, which hadn’t let me astray before, Dinosaur’s Q is just not good. I had the pulled pork, which had too many hunks of fat left in it and virtually no smoke flavor. I went with Joe Sheehan (of Baseball Prospectus), who got a combo plate with the pork and with the brisket; the brisket was tender, but also had zero smoke flavor. I got the baked beans, which were soupy and overcooked, and apparently were cooked with Italian sausage in the pot. The cole slaw was the only good part of the meal, as the cabbage was fresh and it was pretty lightly dressed. Joe swears that Virgil’s, which is right near the hotel where I stay when I’m in Manhattan, is a thousand times better.

I hit two breakfast spots, both okay, neither great. The Comfort Diner, on East 45th between 3rd and 2nd, does a daily pancake special, and I think that’s the best bet. The day I tried it, the special was blueberry and pear pancakes, which I ordered with a side of sausage links. The pancakes were very light and had plenty of fresh fruit in them, but there’s one hitch. I usually taste any pancake or waffle without syrup first, just spreading a fine layer of butter on and taking a few bites. I like syrup, but it tends to overwhelm the flavor of anything it’s on. Usually, it’s not a big deal because the pancake or waffle has some sweetness in it, but the cakes at the Comfort Diner tasted like they had almost no sugar in them. I guess that’s fine, but you could give a brother a warning, too. The sausage links were very good, not straight out of a box from the freezer, although they were a little overcooked. The second day I went to the Comfort Diner I went with the standard two eggs-meat-potatoes-toast option. The bacon was greasy and the potatoes were deep-fried and a little dry (but very, very crispy, so it wasn’t all bad), while the eggs were nothing special. They do get points for offering a selection of Harney’s teabags.

The other breakfast spot was the Red Flame, a really popular diner on East 44th just east of 5th Avenue. Their eggs-meat-potatoes-toast plate – I’ll just call it the EMPT from now on – was much better. It’s the first place I’ve been to in a long time where I ordered two eggs scrambled and got two eggs scrambled, clearly cooked in their own skillet to order. They were very good, and the bacon was cooked just right to that point where it’s crispy but not like balsa. The potatoes were nothing special, and I’m trying to figure out if I’ve ever been to a place where I’d compliment the toast. Second visit was a Belgian waffle, which was solid-average, maybe a tick above, pretty light inside, a bit crispy on the outside. On the downside, order hot tea at the Red Flame and you get Lipton.

I also made a trip to Flushing, having lunch at a place called Spicy Taste, a block away from the last stop on the 7 (Flushing Main Street). I ordered a lunch special: shredded pork with bamboo shoots, which comes with rice and hot and sour soup. The soup was fine, but generic, and not all that hot or sour. The pork was very good, perfectly cooked, and the bamboo shoots still had good crunch. One of my dining companions warns that the chicken with garlic sauce was a “bad call,” as the chicken wasn’t trimmed and was still on the bone – which I realize is somewhat traditional, but I find it’s really hard to eat.

I couldn’t leave Flushing without a trip to the Tai Pan Bakery, which has amazing Chinese pastries, some savory and some sweet, at ridiculously low prices. I’ve had their barbecued pork bun before, which is excellent, but since this trip was about dessert, I got a coconut bun (filled with a coconut-sugar paste) and a cream-custard bun (sort of like pastry cream inside, but not as smooth), plus a sago or “bubble” tea. The buns are big, five or six inches long, and are made of a sweet dough that’s somewhere between a Parker House roll and a brioche. If you’ve ever had tsoureki, a Greek Easter bread that usually has citrus in it, it’s like that without the citrus flavor. Best part: total cost was $4.65.

Don’t Look Back.

Reader Abel Wang was kind enough to first recommend and then lend me a copy of Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, a straightforward detective novel that won the Glass Key Award for the best detective novel written by an author from any of the five Nordic countries.

Don’t Look Back is a very quick read, and I knocked it off in a few subway trips over a 24-hour period in New York City. The main character, Chief Inspector Konrad Sejer, isn’t the hard-boiled type I like most (Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade), but is more of a stoic without a strong personality trait to define him. He’s a young widower and a grandfather, and both characteristics bring some touches of humanity to his approach to this particular case, but given that he’s the central character and now has appeared in a series of detective novels that followed this one, he could use something to set his character apart.

The story is set in a small Norwegian town, where a fifteen-year-old girl is found dead near a lake, her body naked except for an anorak laid on top of her. What set this novel apart from most mass-market detective books was the gradual unfolding of the back story behind the victim and behind the various suspects and witnesses Sejer and his partner Skarre interrogate. Most pulp detective novels today unfurl the story in a small number of very large discoveries, wow moments that seem more designed for a film adaptation or just to shock the reader into feeling excited. Fossum instead brings out the details slowly, in small doses, often presenting them as facts without immediate relevance, which strikes me as a lot more realistic and is definitely a lot less contrived.

Fossum also manages to fold in small details about characters who ultimately have nothing to do with the resolution of the main mystery, but whose interactions with Sejer lead to something small further down the line – for example, when he interviews a Turkish family that has had some trouble assimilating into the community, the father offers a suggestion for Sejer’s eczema … and several chapters later, in an offhand sentence, it appears that Sejer has followed his advice, implying even that Sejer went to the family’s store to pick up the folk remedy in question.

This subtle, fine-pointed approach has an obvious downside, which is that readers used to the big wow are going to find the book dull and the climax anticlimactic. That approach felt a lot more real to me than the constant crescendos of the typical detective novel and of the typical TV crime drama, and I enjoyed the way Fossum depicted Sejer slowly gaining understanding through diligence and through dialogues with his partner. While I prefer the stylings of Hammett and Chandler, for a more contemporary and straightforward detective story, Don’t Look Back was right in line with what I like to read.


A.S. Byatt has briefly been a target of mine for her criticism of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, so I thought it was a good idea to read one of Byatt’s novels to get a better idea of her views on literature. Possession made TIME‘s list of the 100 greatest English-language novels published since the magazine’s inception – another list I’m working my way through – so I made that my first stop on the Byatt train. It’s a good novel from a lot of perspectives, and a fairly deep one from a thematic viewpoint, but I saw a few major flaws in its construction and one major problem to the reader.

Possession revolves around the discovery by a milquetoast poetry researcher/grad student type of two unfinished letters by the great (fictional) English poet Randolph Henry Ash to a previously unknown correspondent, the minor (also fictional) poet Christabel Lamotte, who has become a cult hero to those who study literature from a hardcore feminist/lesbian point of view. That researcher, Roland Michell, and another researcher whom he contacts for help, the sort-of feminist Maud Bailey, begin to follow the trail of letters like a pattern of clues to unravel what exactly the relationship was between Lamotte and Ash, while their attempts at secrecy attract attention from several competing researchers who want to find the answer and/or any related documents for their own purposes. Through the correspondence of the two poets, and some further correspondence from Ash’s wife and Lamotte’s female companion (it’s not clear whether we could call them lovers in any modern sense of the word), we gain windows into discussions of the nature of love, poetry, literature, religion, and the afterlife.

And if that doesn’t sound like a thrilling plot, you’re right. Possession‘s major problem, to steal a phrase from Michell and Bailey themselves, is that it lacks “narrative greed.” The characters are driven forward by an almost primal desire to learn what happens next in the story of Ash and Lamotte, but it rang hollow for me. These characters have invested much of their adult lives in learning about one of the two poets, giving them a sense of urgency that it would be impossible for the reader, who has never heard of either poet because Byatt invented them both, to acquire. Add to this the fact that the plot’s denouement ultimately hinges on a quirk of English copyright law and there’s not enough narrative greed to keep me rolling through 555 pages without having to push myself forward at times.

Compounding the problem with the plot was the lack of a single compelling character. Michell is a dull, meek man, whose emotions all seem variations on the color gray, and who is completely tone-deaf to the feelings of the woman with whom he lives (Val) and is sort of seeing. Bailey is sort of prissy, emotionally restrained, often curt, and tinged with a sadness that is never explained. Ash, Lamotte, the various “villains” (including the American researcher Mortimer Cropper, a ridiculously two-dimensional character who almost seems inserted to provide one person against whom the reader can root), all are thin, and the various people with whom we’re expected to connect emotionally are unsympathetic. In fact, the most likable character of all is Euan, a lawyer who ends up playing roles in two plot threads and who has a sense of humor and a set of bollocks that would make him a good protagonist for his own novel.

I give Byatt credit for ingenuity, including the creation of miniature catalogues of material from Ash and Lamotte, with several entire poems, excerpts of epic poems, and a short story by the fictional writers appearing in the book. Unfortunately, those were exceedingly boring, and when I came across the occasional chapter that comprised only verse written by one of the characters, I skipped to the next batch of regular prose. Possession felt more to me like an achievement, a demonstration of cleverness and of ways of using different styles of narration (mixing poetry, omniscient narration, and the epistolary novel) to weave concurrent plot lines together into a cohesive whole. It just would have been a lot better if she’d done anything to make me give a damn about what was going on in the book.