Hanns and Rudolf.

I only became aware of Thomas Harding’s new book, Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz, because of Harding’s recent piece in the Washington Post about the Kommandant’s daughter, Brigitte, who still lives in northern Virginia. The book’s publisher reached out to me after I tweeted the link to the article and sent me a review copy, which I tore through this weekend because I couldn’t bear to put the book down.

The subtitle is a little misleading, as this book isn’t so much the story of a chase as it is a pair of contemporary portraits of two German men whose lives headed in opposite directions with the rise of the Third Reich, setting them on courses that end in one hunting down and capturing the other after the war’s conclusion. The chase itself isn’t long, so most of the book is spent getting us up to that point. Harding’s achievement here is making both biographies interesting enough that the reader is compelled to keep turning the pages – and in presenting Rudolf in a neutral fashion even though he’s one of the worst monsters in our species’ history.

That Rudolf is Rudolf Höss, the man who oversaw the construction of the concentration camp at Auschwitz and devised the scheme where the pesticide Zyklon-B was used to exterminate Jews and other prisoners in huge numbers, with well over a million killed at the camp. Höss’ eventual devolution into a calm, apathetic architect of history’s most efficient mass producer of death starts from early childhood – including a fanatical father who died young and a lack of any close ties to family members – but also reveals a tremendous amount about the “just following orders” mentality of so many members of the SS, the Nazi Party, and of the German population as a whole. While running Auschwitz, Höss would return home each night to his villa just beyond the camp’s walls, where he lived with his wife and five children in a luxurious house staffed with slaves drawn from the prison.

Hanns, the hero of the story and the author’s great-uncle, is Hanns Alexander, a German Jew born into fortunate circumstances that would largely disappear before he fled to the UK with his family in 1936. Left without a state after the Nazi regime revoked their citizenship, Hanns chose to join the British army, which set up a separate unit for refugees seeking to fight their former countries that allowed them to serve in non-combat roles (because, you know, can’t trust ‘em). After the war ended, Hanns became a private hunter of war criminals in his spare time, eventually parlaying that into a formal role that led him to recapture the puppet ruler of Luxembourg, Gustav Simon, and to earn a command to track down Höss himself. Hanns’ own drive to fight against Germany – more than fighting for Britain or the allies – derived from the personal injustice that he underwent when he and his family had to flee from the Nazis, as well as the more general sense of outrage from the massive crimes the German state and its people had committed against the Jews and other so-called enemies of the state.

Höss’ testimony played a pivotal role in the Nuremberg trials because of his willingness to admit his own role in the Holocaust and in the chain of command that made the mass murders possible, which means Hanns himself contributed to the convictions and executions of many of the surviving leaders of the Third Reich. Höss comes across as a weirdly complex character, a loving father and family man who beat down his rare compunctions over gassing hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children because he refused to show weakness to his superiors or to those under his command. Did he do this for fear for his own safety in a regime where guards who showed mercy to prisoners would be beaten or killed? Or was he simply nursing his own desire for success and praise by trying to set an example of fanaticism that others would revere?

The conflict between Höss’ work and family selves, his apparent apathy toward his victims, and his unclear motivation for his actions at Auschwitz make him the far more compelling character than Alexander, whose life is much easier to understand. Hanns watched fellow Germans pull the rug out from under his comfortable life, and his personal fury combined with that from his moral compass to turn him into a rabid Nazi hunter, yet one who declined to discuss his role in capturing these criminals for most of the rest of his life. It’s a simple narrative for a man’s life, one that’s easy to fathom. Turning into a cockroach the way Höss did is a lot harder to understand, and it’s part of why I couldn’t avert my eyes from Hanns and Rudolf until he’d been hanged.

I’ve been busy plowing through more titles from the Bloomsbury 100 as well, but nothing that merited a long post here. Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which draws parallels between the swift decline of a noble Austrian family and that of the Hapsburgs’ reign, heading into the disaster of World War I that led to the breakup of their sprawling, unwieldy empire. It dragged horribly, however, with Dickensian descriptions and an absurd amount of moralizing over peccadilloes that barely merit mention today.

Theodor Fontaine’s Effi Briest, named by Thomas Mann as one of the six most essential novels ever written, was a stronger read, even though the morality play also fails to resonate today. Based on a true story from the late 1800s, Effi Briest tells the title character’s tragic history from her arranged marriage to a man much her senior through her extramarital affair with the lothario Crampas to her divorce and fall from grace. It’s far more believable than the similar Madame Bovary and less prolix than Anna Karenina, two similarly-themed novels, working more along the lines of The Awakening, another novel of adultery where the plight of the woman in a male-dominated, moralistic society takes center stage.

Eugenie Grandet is the second Balzac novel I’ve read, along with Old Goriot, both part of his Human Comedy novel sequence. It’s another tragedy, this one the story of Eugenie’s miserly father and how his parsimony destroys his wife, himself, and, even after his death, his daughter, when even a small count of generosity would have saved them all. I’ve found Balzac’s prose to be his great strength – I enjoy his phrasing and descriptions yet never find them slow or monotonous – but the story in Eugenie Grandet had less of the dark comedy that made Old Goriot a better read.

Next up: Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native.


Today’s Klawchat is starting as I post this, so the transcript will be at that link once it’s over.

Arctic Monkeys have been superstars in the UK since prior to the release of their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, but have seen little breakthrough here in the U.S. other than having HGTV rip off their song “Fluorescent Adolescent” for the theme music to the show “Income Property.” Their first album was smart, often obnoxious, and punchy, a nod to old-fashioned rock-and-roll values but with more thoughtful and clever lyrics than their influences could ever deliver. Lead singer Alex Turner showed an innate sense for melody and drama, which he developed further over the Monkeys’ next three albums as well as with the baroque-pop side project The Last Shadow Puppets, but the band’s overall sound seemed directionless as they moved further from what made them instant stars in the first place.

Their fifth album, AM, released earlier this week, represents the band’s first clear, deliberate step forward since their debut, an evolutionary shift that regains the immediacy of Whatever People Say I Am… while introducing heavier elements, larger influences from the soul and funk genres, and ever-sharper lyrics. It’s their best album yet and worthy of the Mercury Prize nomination it earned the day after its release.

AM begins with the seductive “Do I Wanna Know?,” the first single released in advance of the album, with a Bonhamesque percussion line mimicking a heartbeat beneath Turner’s trademark wit and wordplay, even messing with meter on couplets like “So have you got the guts?/Been wondering if your heart’s still open and if so I wanna know what time it shuts.” That slower yet more intense drum-and-bass aesthetic permeates the entire album, with greatest effect on the mid-tempo tracks like the opener and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”

Track two, the 2012 one-off single “R U Mine?” (which made my top 40 songs of 2012), fits remarkably well into the new sound of this album, pairing a vintage Turner guitar riff – tuned down and turned up for 2013 – with a heavier but slower drum line, backing up vocals where Turner again plays with rhythm and meter in slightly unusual ways. That heavy feeling hits hardest on my favorite song from the disc, “Arabella,” which borrows the signature two-note guitar riff from Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” for its chorus even though the song is an ode to a woman with “a ’70s head” whose “lips are like the galaxy’s edge,” picking up the pace for the dramatic rush to the coda. Turner’s natural feel for irony and contrast works best on this track, where it falls short on songs like the morose “No. 1 Party Anthem” or the just slightly more upbeat “Mad Sounds.”

AM‘s back half, after that two-song lull, brings in different influences from the first half, starting with the Last Shadow Puppets-esque “Fireside” as well as the rousing call-and-response “Snap Out of It,” both of which wink at the earliest decades of rock music, where the genre was almost synonymous with pop. That latter track highlights Turner’s obsession with creating contrast between his music – here a mostly sunny jangle-pop track – and his lyrics, here telling an ex-lover to snap out of her delusions before life passes her by. I’ve also long admired Turner’s use of imagery where most pop lyricists rely on the same trite phrases and references to intangible feelings, from rhyming Tabasco with rascal on “Fluorescent Adolescent” to pairing “sky blue Lacoste” with “knee socks” on AM‘s penultimate track. Turner refuses to talk down to the listener regardless of the theme, an incredibly welcome attitude when so few bands, even alternative ones, seem to put the same effort into their words as they do into their sounds.

The influence of Turner’s friendship with Josh Homme – Turner appeared on Queens of the Stone Age’s 2013 album …Like Clockwork, and Homme appears on two tracks here – is evident throughout the album, as the Monkeys have borrowed a bit of QotSA’s blend of melodic sludge rock on tracks like “Arabella,” “Do I Wanna Know?,” and “One for the Road,” with Homme singing background vocals on the last one of those. The key to QotSA’s popularity has always been that Homme has the heart of a pop songwriter, and has the ability to translate that sensibility into other genres, like the stoner metal of Kyuss or the bar-blues of Eagles of Death Metal. Turner showed he could branch out with The Last Shadow Puppets, whose underappreciated album was like a lost 12-inch from the age of mono, but now he’s bringing that broader songcraft back home with an album that is heavy and slow, sinuous, and eloquent. It’s his best work yet, more mature and confident without ever seeming cocky, functioning as a complete work as well as a collection of great singles. If America doesn’t catch on to the Arctic Monkeys now, they likely never will.


Recent ESPN content includes my Perfect Game All-American Classic recap, a piece on the Giants’ AZL team, and this week’s Klawchat, plus Behind the Dish with Cubs senior VP/future GM candidate Jason McLeod.

I’m a little behind on recent eats, so before that gets any worse, I’m going to write up the marquee meal from my recent trip to California, dinner at Animal with my former colleague Kiley McDaniel, now of Fox Sports.

Animal is among the most famous and trendiest places going now, appearing on Bon Appetit‘s list of the twenty most important restaurants in the U.S.*, while its two founder-chefs served as judges of the fried chicken challenge on the most recent season of Top Chef. Friends and readers have been recommending it for what seems like ages. I had to go there. And that’s before I heard they had crispy pig ears.

*I’ve been to five: Animal, Cochon, Momofuku (just the Ssäm bar, though), Husk, and Shake Shack.

Every dish but one was spectacular, even if it did produce a bit of a meat hangover. Kiley and I ended up with a lot of pork, although I find pig offal far more interesting than offal from cow or … well, I’ve never had deer offal or kangaroo offal or anything, so I’ll stop there. The three pork dishes were all superb. The pig ears were served the only way I’ve ever had them: braised, julienned, and fried like french-fried onions, served with a chili-lime dressing. Animal’s version has a sunnyside-up egg on top that the server recommended we break and toss with the ears, sharp counsel that paid off by giving some richness to balance the bright tartness of the lime. Once you’ve had fried pig ears, no other fried product can ever quite measure up.

The crispy pig head was a tremendous, rustic twist on what is better known as “head cheese” (or testina if you want to use an Italian euphemism), served in a big, loose pile with a consistency like that of a jumbo lump crab cake, where the whole thing falls apart at the touch of a fork. The meat, which is mostly jowl meat and is as flavorful as bacon but as tender as shoulder, is lightly fried to get a crispy breading on top, but that’s just Animal’s nod to the Japanese dish pork tonkatsu, something they continue with the use of Bulldog sauce, a Japanese sweet-tangy sauce with MSG, prune puree, sugar, vinegar, apple, and spices. It’s all served on a bed of short-grain rice, with another egg on top. It’s incredibly rich, and Kiley’s assessment, that it pushed the limits of how many competing flavors you want in one dish, was spot on.

The star of the night was the least unusual of the three pork offerings, the barbequed pork belly sandwiches: A small brick of pork with a big dollop of fresh slaw on top (cabbage with mayo and I believe a little mustard), served on a brioche roll. They’re slider-sized, maybe two bites if you’re greedy, and I would gladly swing by there for a dozen of those to go, White Castle-style. The slaw/pork ratio was perfect, given how rich (read: fatty) the pork was, so the acidity from the slaw was critical. This is on the short list of the best things I’ve ever eaten, which is mostly a list of things made from pig.

For starters, we tried the salad of lettuce, beets, avocado, feta, and creamy sumac dressing, which was both gorgeous (thanks to two colors of beets) and clean despite all of the different textures and flavors. I love fresh beets – not the crap from a can – and avocadoes and often pair them together with a citrus dressing at home, but the lightly creamy sumac dressing surprised me by not overwhelming the dish. That salad was better than the charred shishito peppers with shaved dried white anchovies (which weren’t listed as dried on the menu, so I thought we were getting fresh ones), a dish that had a lot of bitter and salty notes but no contrast or complexity.

The one item I just did not like was the fried sweetbreads, which had two very peculiar textures, both unpleasant – one like gummy melted cheese, the other like overcooked pork loin. It’s possible that I don’t like sweetbreads, as I think this was just the second time I’d had it, but it was also the only item we didn’t finish.

For dessert, even though we were too full, we still had to get the bacon chocolate crunch bar with salt and pepper ice cream. I liked it more than Kiley did, I think, admiring both the playfulness of black pepper in the ice cream (which looked like specks of vanilla) and the fact that the chocolate to bacon ratio was very high (so the bacon was a secondary flavor). It was still sweet enough to be dessert, but not cloying, with enough other elements that it transcended the normal dessert menu that tries to browbeat you with fat and sugar.

We were both somewhat surprised by how small the bill was for the quality and quantity of food we got, as well as the name value of the place, which seats just 45 people – about $120 total including a couple of beers, tax, and tip. I understand that’s not a cheap dinner by general standards, but a restaurant with this level of fame, located in one of the two most expensive cities in the country, could charge more, and I’m impressed that they don’t. It’s absolutely worth the trip, and now I need to try its sister restaurant, Son of a Gun, to see if it measures up.

Savages – Silence Yourself.

Savages’ debut album Silence Yourself is the album of 2013 for me so far, a dense record that is three parts post-punk to one part feminist rage to one part everything else, with a broader range of influences than you’d think a 39-minute album of tight songs could possibly include. They are in many ways the anti-Elastica.

Silence Yourself opens with one of the two tracks getting some airplay on XM, “Shut Up,” which not coincidentally is one of the most accessible songs on the album. Starting with a heavy, driving bass line, “Shut Up” picks up a staccato guitar riff that brings in the first of many notes that harken back to Gang of Four, but also bringing to mind Romeo Void’s New Wave hit “Never Say Never.” Lead singer Jehnny Beth (previously half of John and Jehn) has a tighter, angrier delivery, bringing desperation to every track, not in the sense of despair but in the sense of someone who must be heard at any cost, which comes through even more strongly on the next track, “I Am Here.”

The other song you’re likely to hear a little on alternative radio is “She Will,” maybe the most traditional rock song of the album, with a reverb-laden guitar riff over a quick, intense drum beat, letting up on the throttle for the verses. The lyrics that seem to describe a woman taking charge of her sexuality, but shifting to something darker which I interpreted as the reaction of a woman who’d been raped or assaulted and is now stuck in a downward spiral as she tries to recover, with that desperation reentering Beth’s voice as she shouts “she will” repeatedly during the chorus. That contrast, a melodic yet heavy lick set underneath dark, angry lyrics, is the most consistent theme on the album and lies beneath most of the disc’s highlights.

The brief “Hit Me,” clocking in at 1:41, opens with a riff that sounds an awful lot like the opening lick in Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher,” but with lyrics that point very much in the opposite direction, apparently an homage to the adult film actress Belladonna. Other tracks bring back some of the earliest grunge artists, before the term was co-opted, bands like Mudhoney and Green River that claimed lo-fi as an ethic (but probably also did it because they didn’t have the cash to be hi-fi), with heavy distortion and loud walking bass lines. Savages slow it down on three tracks, succeeding most with the sludgy “Strife,” and least with the album closer “Marshal Dear.”

I admit to being a skeptic of the whole “riot grrrls” marketing angle from the 1990s and early 2000s, which tended to trivialize any of those artists’ attempts to make serious feminist arguments, but Savages aren’t yet facing that kind of pigeonholing, perhaps because the music itself is good enough to stand on its own. It’s potent, hard-hitting stuff, righteous and clean like Gang of Four, but bearing some of the musical twists and production qualities associated with later post-punk acts like Joy Division or Killing Joke – to say nothing of the too-obvious comparisons to the Slits. It’s intense start to finish and deserves far more attention than just a little airplay for the two singles.

Trio (Philadelphia).

When I mentioned that I was moving to Delaware, reader Andrew reached out to me to invite me to the restaurant he manages in Philadelphia, Trio, among the city’s best-reviewed Thai restaurants, with a menu that includes a few influences from outside of Thailand along with traditional Thai items. The meal was superb, and my wife (who loves Thai food but rarely has it due to a shellfish allergy) and daughter (who’s a pretty good eater, but didn’t like Thai food the first time she tried it) both enjoyed their meals tremendously.

For starters, my wife ordered the vegetarian spring rolls, which included shiitake mushrooms along the julienned cabbage and onions in the filling, and were fried perfectly and served extremely hot. These also formed a significant part of my daughter’s dinner once she stopped complaining about the temperature (and we pointed out that she could actually wait a second before trying to eat them … she inherited her patience from her father). I ordered one of the special items, a strawberry gazpacho with jicama, avocado, and chili peppers, a little on the sweet side for me but with a good balance of acid and heat underneath the natural sweetness of the berries.

My entree choice was the crispy roast duck, a standard menu item with a sauce accompaniment that changes frequently; on Saturday the sauce was a lychee-cherry concoction, sweet and tangy, but barely necessary given how amazing the duck was. The breast meat was cooked just past medium, not dry but not still quacking, which is how I prefer it, while the skin was crispy without any grease and allowed the natural sweetness of the skin to shine through. My daughter loves duck as well and helped me pick the bones clean, while she also dipped everything she could into the sauce on my plate, including the duck and the lemongrass pork meatballs she stole from my wife’s pad thai. Those meatballs were outstanding, incredibly aromatic with lemongrass, onion, and (I believe) ginger, while the sauce on the noodles themselves was less sweet than the pad thai I typically get on the rare occasions I order the dish at Thai restaurants. (I avoid it because it seems to be the most “Americanized” dish at such places, made sweeter for U.S. palates, but losing me in the process.) My daughter didn’t love her own entree, a basil fried rice dish that had a strong cumin flavor and some surprising late heat that I thought was excellent but was a little too spicy for her.

The dessert menu is more eclectic, reflecting the owner’s current interest in Mexican cuisine (he’s also a pastry chef, and owns the small Mexican restaurant Isobel on the same street as Trio). My daughter inhaled her tres leches cake with homemade marshmallow sauce, while my wife and I split a chocolate-hazelnut mousse with an Oreo crust … and I might point out that the mousse and the marshmallow sauce also went together very well.

Trio is BYOB, and the place is fairly small so I’d recommend a reservation for a weekend. It’s a wonderful spot, and it was a nice treat for me to have Thai food with the family, made possible because the staff was so good about dealing with our unfortunate (especially for a Thai restaurant) allergies. Full disclosure – the meal was comped, although I left a tip for about 50% of what the bill would have been.

The meal at Trio finished off a day in Philly for three of us that began at Shake Shack – the first experience there for my wife and daughter; my daughter loved their grilled cheese while my wife and I split a fair trade coffee shake that tasted like real coffee – and included several hours at the amazing Please Touch Museum, the main children’s museum in Philly, with a few fun exhibits of vintage toys that made my wife and me feel very, very old. I did get a kick out of the displays of Easy-Bake Ovens throughout their history (as well as some knockoffs; my daughter couldn’t name a single room as her favorite, but she enjoyed the art room, the small rock-climbing wall, and the astronomy/rockets room, where kids launch foam rockets off air guns to try to put them through hoops hanging from the ceiling.

Try This At Home.

Richard Blais’ Try This at Home: Recipes from My Head to Your Plate is the first cookbook from the Top Chef: All-Stars winner and general man-about-TV, bringing his odd and slightly twisted take on cooking to the masses with appealing and mostly easy-to-execute recipes. It’s well-written for a cookbook, with clear steps and plenty of side explanations of ingredients or techniques, as well as some appealing photography that also helped me envision some of the dishes as I cooked.

Blais succeeds most with dishes where he takes something familiar and adds an unexpected element or step, something best seen in his recipe for roast chicken, a standby dish for any home cook (especially if you value meals that produce leftovers or ingredients for the next meal) but one Blais takes in a new direction by adding spiced lemon curd. After brining the chicken, Blais rubs the curd on the chicken skin and between the skin and the meat, which adds flavor and fat to keep the breast meat moist and infuse the chicken with a slightly sweet lemon twist. Lemon curd is actually pretty easy to make, a simple custard boosted with butter rather than cream, and it’s an important technique to learn if you haven’t done it before. There’s nothing in this recipe a home cook can’t do, but the results are stellar – and the dish just keeps on giving, providing meat and juices for Blais’ Chicken Terrine (pressed into a mason jar, served cold or lukewarm with grainy mustard, pickles, crusty bread, and a little aioli), while also giving you the bones to make a simple stock that I used for a quick tortellini in brodo.

Another huge hit in our house is Blais’ Arroz con Pollo, which he says was inspired by his wife’s Honduran family’s cooking. It’s one of the few recipes in the book that’s “normal” – there’s no huge twist or unusual technique, just chicken thighs, vegetables, rice, and seasonings. Blais uses packaged seasonings that include MSG, because glutamates are the compounds responsible for the savory flavor called umami, although he explains how to make the seasoning mixture at home if you want to avoid MSG or just don’t like buying prefab seasoning mixes.

My daughter and I both loved Blais’ Sweet Potato Gnocchi, which he serves with kale, sage, and balsamic brown butter, although I steamed the sweet potatoes rather than baking them because it’s faster (about 20-25 minutes, versus 60 to 75 in the oven). The dough was easy to work with, and the basic formula and concept apply to just about any vegetable you can puree – I made a version with fava beans – and that offers a little sugar to caramelize when you finish them in the skillet. The gnocchi also freeze well.

The book includes a number of whimsical recipes, as you’d expect given Blais two turns on Top Chef, such as a potato chip omelet (which looks a lot like a Spanish tortilla), English muffin pizzas with a variety of toppings, and the French toast lollipops he made on “The Sunnyside Up Show” on PBS Sprout. I particularly appreciate the way he builds recipes with a core formula, such as the basic pickling brine; followed by a number of direct applications, like pickling peaches, radishes, and strawberries; and then several recipes that include the basic items you just made. He does the same with mustards, aiolis, vinaigrettes, and so on. He includes a recipe for the goulash he made for Wolfgang Puck on Top Chef: All-Stars, as well as a lengthy section of seafood dishes I haven’t tried because of my wife’s shellfish allergy (and just general distaste for items from the sea).

One reader asked if the book was appropriate for inexperienced home chefs, because it seemed like many recipes required advanced techniques or specialized equipment. There are a handful of recipes that call for a sous vide machine, but not enough to bother me (I don’t own one, and have no plans to get one), and a number that require something like this iSi whipped cream dispenser, which I do own and love. I think the bigger leap for the novice cook is Blais’ adventurous taste level – this book will challenge your palate, as he combines ingredients you wouldn’t always put together, or presents familiar flavors with new textures. I need books like that, because I enjoy novelty in cooking and in eating, but your mileage may vary.

Full disclosure: I’ve eaten at Blais’ restaurants, once at his invitation, and received a free, signed copy of this book after I’d already bought one (I gave the unsigned copy to one of my editors). I’d recommend the book even if I didn’t know Richard at all.

The Orphan Master’s Son.

When the Dear Leader wanted you to lose more, he gave you more to lose.

I’ve read about half of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, including the last thirteen, and overall, my impression is that they pick some pretty dreary books. Many titles won for what I thought were fairly obvious reasons of political correctness, and others have won for reasons that escape me entirely. A few seem like lifetime achievement awards, like Faulkner winning for two of his lesser novels or Cheever getting an omnibus award for his short stories. Last year, they punted entirely, failing to name a winner for the first time since 1977, sparking some outrage from independent booksellers who see a spike in sales of the winner in years when the board deigns to name one.

The most recent winner, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, breaks that recent trend in many ways, all of them good. Unlike most winners, the novel isn’t set in the United States, and has nothing to do with the American experience. It’s set almost entirely in North Korea, yet explores themes, especially the natures of freedom and identity, that go well beyond the confines of the world’s most repressive regime. It’s rendered with deep empathy for nearly all of its characters, encapsulating a surprising amount of humor (some of it dark, of course) in a wide-ranging tragedy that harkens back to Shakespeare. Johnson even crafts government agents who are better than caricatures, and makes the horrendous conditions of life in North Korea real on the page without pandering. It’s a compulsive read in spite of, or perhaps in part due to, the difficulty of the subject matter.

The main character, introduced to us as Pak Jun Do, the son of the book’s title, begins life in a North Korean orphanage run by his father, after which he progresses through a series of jobs that bring him into increasing conflict with the regime that controls every aspect of North Korean life. His final role involves the assumption of the identity of a national hero, bringing him into the orbit of the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il, leading to the ultimate conflict that drives the final half of the novel, where Pak Jun Do, now called Commander Ga, tries to save his new wife, whom the Dear Leader wants for himself.

Johnson spins an elaborate plot that remains quite easy to follow, even with his technique of telling the Commander Ga story through three different perspectives – a third-person view, the first-person narrative of one of Ga’s state interrogators, and brief dispatches from the state’s own mouthpiece. The first third, covering Pak Jun Do’s life from the orphanage to his time as a spy on a fishing vessel to a trip to Texas with a low-level diplomat, is all prologue to the story of the actress, Sun Moon. Yet even she is only a part of the larger story of Pak Jun Do’s own disillusionment and attempt to find what freedom he can in a totalitarian state, and to fashion an identity for himself after the state wiped out the first one and gave him another.

The development of Pak Jun Do, whose name sounds similar to the English “John Doe,” allows Johnson to explore those these of freedom and identity while folding in stories like that of the true-believer state interrogator who questions not just his allegiances, but the entire structure of his life to date – but does so subtly, almost as an objective outside observer of his own life, while he continues his job of chronicling prisoners’ lives before wiping out their memories with electroshock therapy. Johnson humanizes the inhuman, and gives texture to flat images that seem too awful to contemplate, weaving it all into the narrative as background, so that the characters’ stories can occur in front of a realistic setting that might otherwise have overwhelmed them.

Johnson did visit North Korea, but like the few Westerners allowed to enter that backwards nation, he wasn’t permitted to speak to any average citizens, which meant that he had to imagine their quotidian lives and their typical dialogue without the benefit of first-person research. I found his incorporation of the omnipresent state into nearly every conversation realistic, or at least reasonable, for a situation where a single errant sentence could get you sent to a prison camp (which, by the way, the North Koreans still deny they use) or worse. The refraction of normal conversation through the prism of the police state twists not only words, but the mores of everyday life:

“What happened?” Buc asked him.
“I told her the truth about something,” Ga answered.
“You’ve got to stop doing that,” Buc said. “It’s bad for people’s health.”

Even though Pak/Ga does some awful things during the course of the book, including participating in kidnappings of Japanese citizens (something the North Koreans have admitted doing), he earns the reader’s sympathy through the strange development of his character. The use of a “John Doe” soundalike name can’t be a coincidence; he is a blank canvas, growing up with memories but no independent identity, and shapeshifts into different roles, developing his moral compass and his emotions later in life, so that the person he is at the end of the novel bears no resemblance to the person he was at the start. It’s only a minor spoiler to say that the conclusion finds him at his most free, and with the clearest identity he’s had in the entire story. How he gets there, and how Johnson takes us along, is one of the strongest experiences I’ve had as a reader in years.

Next up: I’ve just finished Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami and am about to start Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career.

The Sense of an Ending.

I have a brief analysis of the Scott Feldman trade up for Insiders, as well as a column on farm systems rising and falling so far this year. Arizona prospect Archie Bradley was my guest on today’s Behind the Dish podcast.

Julian Barnes’ slim, incisive novel The Sense of an Ending is sneaky-brilliant, a typically understated British work that, in the tradition of Kazuo Ishiguro and Graham Greene, devastates you from the inside out through subtle reveals and imperceptible shifts in character. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 and is easily among the best post-2000 novels I’ve read. (It also comes in a deckle-edged paperback, which matters greatly to me as a captain of #TeamDeckleEdge.)

Tony Webster, the narrator of The Sense of an Ending, is in his sixties, divorced, in infrequent contact with his married daughter, when he receives an unexpected message from the past, a bequest that returns him into contact with two names from his university years – one still living, the other long deceased but instrumental to the story at hand. The first section, which almost works as a standalone novella, recounts his time at boarding school and university with his small group of friends and a standoffish, haughty girlfriend named Veronica. A weekend visit to her family, Tony and Veronica’s eventual breakup, and her subsequent affair with one of Tony’s friends all lead to wildly unanticipated consequences forty years down the road.

The book comprises a tragedy wrapped in a mystery. Barnes peels back the mystery bit by bit, as Tony discovers buried memories or gains small clues from family or friends that help him discover just what happened forty years ago to make a woman he barely knew include him in her will. This inclusion puts Tony on a collision course with Veronica, one he could avoid; instead, he chooses to steer directly into her path, repeatedly, even to the point where he questions his own emotions for Veronica, whether he seeks closure, or a rekindling of what was, by his own account, a pretty lousy affair in the first place.

The tragedy at the heart of the mystery is one Tony doesn’t fully grasp until the book’s end; as with the butler Stevens in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Tony is introspective but emotionally stunted, unable to assess the effects of his actions on himself and on others until the time has long past. On seeing a letter he wrote forty years prior that has some bearing on the tragedy itself, he says:

Remorse, etymologically, is the act of biting again: that’s what the feeling does to you. Imagine the strength of the bite when I reread my words.

Yet, as with Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Tony finds no opportunity for redemption here, and must move forward in the new reality of consequences that cannot be undone. The bite he delivered himself has come back around to him tenfold, which casts everything he’s done in his life – which adds up to less than he seems to think at first – in a new and unflattering light.

Unlike Atonement‘s Briony, who uses her memory to create a fiction for herself that is more tolerable than the truth (with unsatisfactory results), Tony himself questions the reliability of his own memories, thus opening the floor for readers to question his reliability as a narrator – whether he is whitewashing his own past, or aggrandizing his role in the tragedies of those around him. Has his mind altered his memories to create a history with which he can live? Isn’t that what the human brain does, as a protective mechanism? Or is this a symptom of Tony’s own arrested development, evident in his own descriptions of his boarding school and university years? Barnes offers no answers, which is good because I don’t believe any good answers exist, to these questions of the nature of memory and how we react when false or merely inaccurate memories collide with reality. For Tony, there is no avoiding what was done and what exists forty years later; there is only interpretation, and uncertain culpability.

Next up: I’ve got about 100 pages to go in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.

Last Man in Tower and The Member of the Wedding.

Aravind Adiga’s first novel, The White Tiger, won the Man Booker Prize and was a late cut from my last book ranking, earning a very positive review from me when I read it during spring training in 2010. His second true novel, Last Man in Tower, replaces some of the bitterness and irony with a more open-ended approach to characterization, without losing the scathing social criticism of the new India that made The White Tiger so powerful.

The man of Last Man in Tower‘s title is the retired teacher known affectionately as “Masterji,” who lives in a dilapidated coop apartment building in the Santa Cruz neighborhood of Mumbai, near the city’s massive international airport. Redevelopment is advancing quickly into this district, and when their coop society receives enormous offers to sell out so a developer can tear the buildings down and put up luxury condos, one by one all of the society’s residents accept, until Masterji is the only holdout, insisting that he wants “nothing.” His refusal to sign is not about price or money, but, in his view, about principle, holding back the wave of corruption and gentrification that is destroying the old India and widening the gap between the country’s wealthy and poor.

Adiga strikes a better balance here between satire and storytelling than he did in White Tiger, but in the process lost much of the dark humor that made the first book so memorable. Masterji deserves a more thoughtful treatment than Balram Halwai, and he gets it, with explanations of how the deaths of his wife and daughter and his distant relationship with his son affect his view on the developer’s offer and the threat of massive change spawned by a forced move to another community. Masterji’s apparent obstinacy – his refusal to sign the offer means no one in the building can sell – has its justifications, and while in the end I found myself siding with his neighbors on the matter of the offer, Adiga creates enough ambiguity to prevent the reader from coming down wholly on either side of the matter.

Adiga’s other key decision was to try to personalize the developer as an independent character, rather than leaving him as an unseen, amoral force in the shadows; while he wasn’t entirely successful, it did help to round the book out more fully. Shah is not sympathetic, but he is also real, and is shown as motivated not just by greed, but by ambition, shame, and an unsatiable desire to overcome his humble beginnings. Yet any sympathy his history might engender is rather quickly wiped out by the horrible treatment he dishes out to his assistant and to his mistress, details that I assume indicate that Adiga’s distaste for hypercapitalism on to the page twon out over his desire to craft a fully developed antagonistic force to pull on the reader’s emotions.

Last Man in Tower‘s other characters are all very well-developed, giving Masterji a few friends and many foils just within the coop society, several of whom get their own backstories, often just enough to make you want more; for me, Mary, the building’s maid, who herself lives in a nearby shantytown with her son and whose livelihood is threatened by the potential redevelopment, deserved further screen time. I could see Adiga building up to a longer, even more complex novel from here, one with multiple interwoven storylines involving a multitude of well-developed characters, perhaps rewriting the wrongs done to India by E.M. Forster and Rudyard Kipling. I enjoyed White Tiger more, in part because I enjoy funny, incisive satire like that, but Last Man in Tower is just as strong a novel, less witty yet more ambitious, indicating Adiga’s maturation as a novelist.

I picked up Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe – I’m going to miss that store quite a bit – because it was on sale and because McCullers’ best-known novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is among my favorite novels ever written (#15 on my last ranking, in fact). McCullers’ signature work includes a cast of flawed, mostly sympathetic characters, inhabiting the same world despite narrow and wide gulfs between them, a sphere filled with grief, alienation, and sadness. Member of the Wedding doesn’t reach the same emotional depths, but does turn the conventions of the coming-of-age novel upside down with its story of a motherless girl who fills her life with fantasies to replace what she’s lost.

Frances “Frankie” Addams is a 12-year-old girl living with her mostly absent father, with help from a live-in African-American woman named Berenice, and the frequent presence of Frankie’s young cousin John Henry. Frankie’s brother Jarvis returns from a stint in the Army in Alaska with a fiancee and an announcement that they’ll be getting married in a few days in the nearby town of Winter Hill. Frankie decides that she’s going to run away with her brother and sister-in-law after the wedding, building up a vague, exotic fantasy about a life other than the one she has now.

The central conflict in the book lies between that fantasy, of escape or just change from a destiny that seems predetermined, and the reality of life in their small, slightly backwards town, where blacks and whites intermingle but exist on separate planes, and the army is one of the only ways to leave the track into which you’re born. (Death comes up on the story’s margins as one of the other ways, and probably the most commonly utilized.) Frankie’s narrative touches on themes of oppression, racism, and gender identity, but the one that kept coming back to me was that she’s a girl who needed her mother, and is trying to fill that void, as well as the one left by a father who’s barely present in her life, with anything she can find, real or imagined. That also leads to a disturbing interlude with a soldier on leave in the town, perpetually drunk or in search of it, who seems to mistake Frankie’s age by a hard-to-imagine distance.

The overriding sadness that permates The Member of the Wedding isn’t well balanced the way that a similar vapor in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is, where McCullers pairs the gloom with a deeper understanding of its origins and dimensions. Here, Frankie is a little more pathetic than sympathetic, especially when her vision of escape with her brother doesn’t quite come off as planned, leaving me with the sense of having read something superficial, not the immersive emotional experience imparted by McCullers’ masterpiece.

Next up: Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes, a Danish detective novel and first in the “Department Q” series.

Agricola iOS app.

Agricola is among the top-rated board games on Boardgamegeek’s rankings, and one of the best-reviewed board games ever released, a complex strategy game with very little luck or randomness involved that requires players to make a ton of difficult decisions. I like the game, but I’ve never rated it as highly on my own rankings because of its extreme complexity: The decisions and tradeoffs are so tight, the game straddles the line between play and work. A successful game brings as much relief (that you didn’t screw it up) as pleasure (which is the point of games, no?), and it can take two hours to play a four-person game, more if you don’t really know what you’re doing. The design of the game is brilliant – it is so balanced, and the idea of forcing players to choose among a host of imperfect options, accepting that they can never check all the boxes, is pretty unusual even with all of the games on the market. But good grief is it frustrating to play, even when you’re doing it right.

Playdek just released its long-promised Agricola iOS app earlier this week, and as adaptations go, it’s just about perfect. The app runs smoothly, without a single crash through a half-dozen games so far. Rules and requirements are easy to access within the game. The graphics are superb, very clear and very bright, easy to stare at for the 10-15 minutes it takes to play a solo game against AI players. And the AI players are solid competition, even the “easy” opponents, at least for a novice player like me.

I’d only played the physical game twice, so I came to this app as a near-rookie, only understanding the basic concept of the game and the part of the mechanics that resurfaced in the later game Le Havre. In Agricola, each player is trying to build a farmstead, beginning the game with a husband and wife, each of whom can handle a work assignment every round. Tasks on the farm include collecting resources, plowing fields, sowing plants, rearing animals, and building additions. The point is to maximize your scoring opportunities while ensuring that you can feed your family at the game’s five Harvests, which occur more frequently as the game progresses. The catch is that you can lose points in any area where you don’t accomplish something – leaving any farm area undeveloped, failing to rear any of the three animal types, etc. And getting enough food each harvest is no easy task; it would be ideal to get a steady food supply going, but that’s hard to do early in the game, and by the time the game is nearly over, the harvests are happening faster and you’re also trying to max out your scoring.

One way the game reduces the potential for frustration is by giving players a slew of choices for work assignments, adding another choice in each of the fourteen rounds of the game, so that players can vary strategies and won’t often find themselves blocked from all of the moves they need. (Most work assignments appear on only two spaces on the board, and some appear on only one.) Another is with Minor Improvements, which appear in the full game but not the shorter “family game,” a quicker, simpler version that only includes Major Improvements. Improvements offer players ways to gain extra resources or convert resources to more food. Players can also choose Occupations, which function much like Minor Improvements and can also provide point bonuses or spend less on future construction. (Hardcore players of the physical game may be interested to know that the app only includes the E deck so far, but other decks will be available as future in-app purchases.) Understanding what Improvements and Occupations can do for you allows you to tailor slightly more focused strategies – fun, but also again skating dangerously close to ‘work.’

The town.

Playdek’s biggest challenge beyond crafting the AI players had to be the interface itself, as Agricola takes up a lot of space when played on a table. There’s a central board with the ‘town,’ containing all of the work assignments, which gets larger as you include more players. Each player has his own farmstead, with up to a dozen or so squares, as well as his own resource piles and room for Improvements and Occupations. And there should be central piles of those cards as well. The app does a solid job of including all of those views without sacrificing too much information. The player can switch from town to farm view with one click. A bar at the bottom of the screen shows his/her current resource levels, including a food counter that shows how much he’ll need to feed his family this round. The player can find out what an assignment space or a card does by double-clicking on it, and there’s an option to include the labels on all assignment spaces if you want. When you drag one of your workers to a space, it’s grey if you can’t place your worker on it (because you don’t meet the resource or space requirements), and beige if it’s available. After two games, I was familiar enough with the town to know where everything was without having to keep all of the labels visible.

A player farm.

I’ve only found tiny flaws in the app version so far, nothing that seriously interfered with gameplay but, when the big stuff is all done right, these are the little things that stand out. The AI players seem to hang on basic decisions for five to ten seconds at times, and sometimes it becomes unclear what the app is waiting for (as in, is it my turn?). The tutorial is a little sparse and seems to be written for players who’ve tried the physical game at least once. The default animation and gameplay speeds were too slow for me, but turning them up in the options panel solved that problem. It might be easier if a greyed-out assignment space also explained why you can’t place a worker there. It also took me a few games to figure out that if you acquire more animals than you can house in fenced-in pastures or with stables, you can cook the extra beasts immediately if you have a fireplace or oven. They’re all minor issues – considering how many boardgame apps have crashed on me, the fact that one this complex played six games without such a hitch puts it in the best-of-breed category.

The two most comparable games in app form are Caylus, not as complex but with a similarly long view; and Le Havre, which takes many of the best features of Caylus and Agricola in what might be the most complex game I’ve ever seen. Caylus and Agricola both have bright, sharp graphics, while Le Havre’s are dimmer and less attractive. Le Havre gets everything on to one screen, while the other two force you to jump around or scroll more for the sake of larger images and clearer text. Caylus has the easiest AIs for me to beat, which means Agricola will probably have far more staying power for me – if it doesn’t turn out to be too frustrating when I’m playing the stronger computer opponents. It’s absolutely worth the $6.99 price tag, especially for a game that usually retails in physical form around $50, but with the caveat that the learning curve for this game is steeper than what fans of games like Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne might expect.