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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Wife Between Us, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

The Wife Between Us, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

This book engages you from page one, which is really not the beginning of the book, it’s only the prologue.

“The street is loud and busy, with yellow cabs racing by, commuters returning from work, and shoppers entering the deli on the corner.  But my eyes never stray from her.

She pauses in her entryway and briefly glances back over her shoulder.  An electrical charge seems to pulse through me.”

And farther on:

“She’s oblivious to what I have done to her.”
“She is unaware of the damage I have wrought; the ruin I have set in motion.”

And right away you wonder, who is who in this drama, this mystery, this psychological thriller?  The characters are sharply drawn, yet distantly indistinct.

Who is following whom and why are the players first one name and then another, with the time sequences a puzzle of inconsistencies? 

The people are New Yorkers, politically correct, shallow enough to be oh-so-sensitive and they attach importance to the most remarkably unremarkable bits of clothing and jewelry and shifts of weather and scents.   The details are held up and examined.

But even as unsympathetic as the characters are, I kept reading.  Why?  It’s like a baseball smashing through your window.  All you really need to do is clean up the glass and have the windowpane replaced, right?  For humans, that’s not nearly enough.  We want to know the whole flipping story! Whose ball is it?  And most of all, who’s the bastard who didn’t fess up?

I readily admit that normally after a first few pages of a book like this, I would have slammed it closed and tossed it across the room, irate that the author(s) had wasted my time.

But, instead I read on.  I had to face it, that I was in some inner way thrilled by the exacting perversity of people I wouldn’t have spent five minutes alone with.  They seem normal, yet creepy.  The kind of people who may speak kindly and be impeccably dressed, yet you wouldn’t be surprised to find them drinking directly from a fifty dollar bottle of wine, while they used pliers to pinch the heads off rats.

Want to find a character to like?  Look somewhere else. These folks seem to all have secrets you may not want to know about.  But, I’m curious. Always.  Did curiosity really kill the cat!  Nine freaking times?  How about dogs?  Does curiosity kill them too?

Along the way, the plot comes together.  But, maybe not.  Maybe it’s unraveling.  You find yourself saying , “Ah, now I’ve got it.”  NO, you don’t.  Shreds of evidence are starting to feel like splinters embedded in your fingertips.

I turned pages faster than a mother of triplets changes diapers.  And, the last two or three dozen pages were a breathless sprint!

I found myself thinking, I really do not like these characters!  Maybe I kept reading because I like revenge, or maybe I’m just a curious cat.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Friday Night at Issimo

Friday Night at Issimo

Ya got a favorite go-to spot for Friday nights?  Sure you do.  Me too. Friday night spots are special, without a lot of planning.  Your fav spot dances into your mind; you invite a couple of friends and order some wine and noshes….hey, what else do you need?  One of my favorite spots is a small Italian deli in Homburg, Issimo.  You know that Italians are famous for their appreciation for family.  And when you walk through the door at Issimo, you’re immediately part of the family.

What’s special about it?  Glad you asked because I can tell you what makes any Friday night place special, yours and mine.  Friendly staff is number one.  It’s a place where the manager and wait staff call you by name and always throw smiles at you as you walk through the door.  Of course, you also greet them by name!

At Issimo, we know Franco and Vecenzo, Afërdita, Sylvia, and Leonardo.  How come?  They’re friendly enough to invite conversation. Always smiling.  The men shake my hand, the women give me hugs.  It’s only about two minutes before I have a glass of wine in my hand.  I don’t get that kind of welcoming service at home.

Second things that are mandatory for a fav are super food and wine.  At Issimo you can count on every wine, every cheese, every olive and slice of bread being wonderfully delicious.  Yes, it’s all from Italy and the staff knows what part of Italy it came from because they picked everything out and didn’t just order it from a supplier.  For the wine, you tell any of them your taste and it’s as if they know your taste buds better than you do.  It’s that way with the food as well.  Parma ham is not just a style, it came from Parma and not just any ham from Parma.  Issimo’s Parma ham is a tenderly cured and thinly shaved piece of ham that crosses the palate as a gift from the heavens.

Third requirement is atmosphere.  In my case, an Italian deli should feel like Italy.  Issimo is in Germany, but there’s nothing phony about it. No plastic rounds of cheese or plastic sausages hanging over the counter.  Step through the door and inhale deeply.  Yep, this is the place.

But, it’s like that with any fav place, right?  A hamburger joint should feel comfortable and welcoming and have the smoky smell of burgers and fries.  In a BBQ joint, your nose should lead you there and your clothes better smell like BBQ when you leave.

At Issimo, with the whole package of staff and food and atmosphere, this is Friday night as it should be. Great wine and cheese and ham and even better conversation.  Politics?  No way.  This is the time to chat about books you’ve enjoyed, and places you’ve been, and places you want to go, and the fine points of where this and that wine came from.

At Issimo it’s more than a Friday night, it’s a special Friday night.  Just like yours, right? Saluti! 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett

A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett

I love books that clamber for your time and attention, with compelling characters, a fast moving plot, and a world that wraps around you and draws you in.  An author who can do that will be forever my friend and companion.

Now a disclaimer.  I am an unapologetic anglophile. When I have a few spare days and a full piggy bank, you’ll find me in England, soaking in the theater and the sights of London, or wandering further afield to spots like Dartmouth, Oxford, Bath, and Cambridge.  The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a panorama of familiar history.  Especially fascinating is how the upper classes of England lived in the bygone era before the First World War bled Europe white and forever changed society.

A Dangerous Fortune spans the lives of the Pilaster banking family from 1866 through 1892.  But that’s only a very placid, two dimensional description.  Time to throw in a twisting, turning plot of ambitious devilry pitted against honorable intentions, dangerous scoundrels against ethical men and women, upper classes, with their private clubs and scandalous wealth, against the lower classes living only a day from starvation.

I couldn’t put the damn thing down!  Ken Follett is a fabulous storyteller who convinces you all is determined, until it suddenly isn’t, who paints his characters into impossible situations, then twists and turns around solutions the reader would never have guessed. “Oh, my god, what next?” is the question I constantly asked myself, just before I decided it wasn’t too late to read ‘just one more’ chapter!  Wife is waiting on supper?  Well, she’ll just have to wait!  Supposed to join friends for wine?  Looks like we’re going to be a tad bit late.

Yes, even in the undeviating society of the Victorian era, the upper and lower classes shared lives amid swirling pools of friction and enchantment.  People’s fortunes did rise and fall.  The rich got richer, or sometimes poorer.  The poor sometimes rose ‘above their station.’

Hugh Pilaster, the black sheep of the powerful Pilaster banking family, is only able to survive though wit and ambitious intelligence and something more.  He holds the keys to unlocking a dark family secret. He’s the member of the family who’s only tolerated because he is family and he knows too much.  He also has unmatched business acumen.

But, Hugh, although central to the plot, is far from the only character of indelible traits.  There’s the constant and skillful schemer, Aunt Augusta, her lackadaisical son, David, Hugh’s friends that bridge the gap between scandalous and forthright, and so many more actors of every stripe who populate this rip-roaring tale.

How can a book, written in 1993, and nearing 600 pages keep you glued and impatient to find out what happens?  Think a plot and characters from the 19th Century must be dusty and uninteresting? Maybe you think ambition and scandal and the conflict between families and businesses and the rich and the poor are only found in history books and won’t ring true to the modern mind.  Oh, are you in store for an eye-opening treat!

Ken Follett’s A Dangerous Fortune.  Pick it up and you’ll hear the sound of horses’ hooves on London’s cobblestone streets, smell the cigars and leather in exclusive men’s clubs, see women as the powers behind the power… and be in for the ride of your life!

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Green Park, London

In London you don’t have to look in special places to find secrets. They’re all around you. All you have to do is look and ask and read a little bit.  Londoners like to chat about their city and will usually break out with, “Bet you didn’t know….”
A very old map of the Green Park area, but it gives you an idea of the layout.

I’ll give you an example of history hiding in plain sight:  The Green Park, or as it’s usually called, simply Green Park.  When you get off at the Green Park underground station for a stroll to Buckingham Palace or to have a drink at the Hotel Ritz, as soon as you get above ground, you’ll notice a huge expanse of green grass, bordered by ancient, towering trees.  That’s it.  Green Park. 
Buckingham Palace with monument to Queen Victoria in front.

Note:  By the way, Buckingham Palace wasn’t the Royal Residence until Queen Victoria moved the court there in 1837.  Before then, the royal residence was in the nearby St Jame's Palace. There’s a large monument to her in front of Buckingham palace.
St Jame's Palace, built by Henry VIII between 1531 and 1536.

Most people will just walk on through Green Park, without realizing they’re walking in one of London’s Royal Parks and a place that’s ripe with history.  There are eight Royal Parks in London, and Green Park is the smallest at 47 acres.  Most of these parks used to be the hunting grounds reserved for royalty, including Green Park, but Green Park also has a darker history.  Where St James Palace stands, St. James Hospital once stood, where lepers were treated.  Green Park is thought to be the lepers’ burial ground.
You have to realize, when the crown created these parks, the land was well away from the city of London.  Times change.
Unlike so many of the other Royal Parks, The Green Park has no buildings, no lakes and very few monuments. You may also notice that except for daffodils in the springtime, there are no flowers.  Oh, yes faithful readers, there are interesting stories behind all these very noticeable omissions.
No flowers in a Royal Park?  True, apparently by order of Queen Catherine, wife of Charles II.  One day the queen caught her husband picking flowers for one of his mistresses and thereafter banned flowers from being grown in Green Park.  There are doubters, including yours truly.  It’s more likely the lack of flowerbeds is because originally The Green Park was an extension of St James Park, with its open spaces.  And there’s little doubt the Queen was not suddenly stunned by the King’s attractions.
Let’s move on to the lack of buildings and ponds or lakes or streams.  Once upon a time, The Green Park had all of these. There was a pond to supply water to St. James Palace and the pond (The Queen’s Basin) was fed by the Tyburn stream on its way to the Thames (Tims) River. As the city encroached, the pond, as water supplier, was no longer necessary and was eliminated.  How about the stream?  Tyburn stream still flows through Green Park, although you won’t ever get to see it.  Now it’s an underground stream and generally follows the path of the central walking path and also flows under Buckingham Palace. By the way, Green Park is the only Royal Park that doesn’t have a water feature, although a modern drinking fountain was installed in 2012.
The buildings.  Yes there was a library and a couple of temples dedicated to this and that, as well as a Ranger’s House for groundskeepers. The temples were destroyed during fireworks extravaganzas in the early 1800s. Other buildings were torn down.
What about the Queen’s Walk?  Created for Queen Caroline, George II’s queen.
The Queen's Walk

And Constitution Walk?  Britain had a constitution?  NO.  Constitution refers to Charles II’s habit of taking a daily walk along this path, a constitutional.
All sorts of nefarious deeds took place in Green Park, in addition to the assassination attempt on Queen Victoria.  In earlier years, the park was an area of robbers and highwaymen.
A young Queen Victoria

It was in Green Park that the first of eight assassination attempts was made on Queen Victoria.  She and Prince Albert, newly wed, left Buckingham Palace about 4 p.m. on 10 June 1840 and had gotten about a hundred yards up Constitution Hill when Edward Oxford, then 18 years old and armed with two pistols, waited for her open carriage to pass. He fired at close range, but missed.  The Queen was four months pregnant and neither she nor her husband were hurt.  Oxford was found to be insane and spent most of the rest of his life in a lunatic asylum
An older photo of Edward Oxford, the would be assassin.

With the Crown Land Act of 1851, the public has the right to cross the green. Wanna feel like royalty? Try a walk up Constitution Hill, which you can find on the map or the Queen’s Walk on the edge of the park, beginning right next to the Hotel Ritz.  And as I told you, look around!  London’s colorful history flows, even in the serenity of a blissful, royal park.  Not only colorful, but dark.  Lots of skeletons in London’s pretty closets.
The elderly Queen Victoria