Tuesday, May 18, 2010

City of Thieves: The Perfect Airplane Read

Operas, Pianists, Nabokov, Bryan Garner--this blog is guilty of snootishness. And with essays on croquet and orchids on tap for next month, I thought it appropriate to eschew an examination of belles lettres in favor of a mention of a nice airplane read: City of Thieves, by David Benioff. Because the work was published in 2008, it seems this is as current as I get. Recent posts have seen me either stuck in the middle of the last century or trying to board the David Foster Wallace bandwagon long after DFW's death. But City of Thieves was so good I may just continue to look around and see what the 21st century has to offer.

An airplane book should be short. My unique way of measuring the length of a book, one I have used since college (a result of reading prolix Dickens novels), and which predates computer programs that count words automatically, is pages x lines per page x characters per line. Here we have 258 pages, 35 lines per page, and about 65 characters per line. So the book is approximately 586,950 characters long. By comparison, The Pickwick Papers was 2,109,120 characters long per my ancient calculations; Hard Times, 661,960; and Jude the Obscure (Yes, I was even capable of reading Hardy), 924,715. So the book starts with an approximate length appropriate for the genre. Then, because of the profusion of dialogue in the book--this is a buddy story, though a dark one--the actual length is overestimated by my rough formula. Of course, the point here is not that it is simply short, or else a "Modest Proposal" would make a good airplane read. Instead, to make a satisfying travel companion it must be reasonably short, long enough, and substantial.

When I travel, it seems my reading is constantly interrupted: the flight ends; we are going back to the terminal; a drink is being served; bathroom breaks are needed; spouses, children, or Houyhnhnms sitting next to me want to interact. A good airplane read must have a short refractory period. Have you ever tried to put down and pick up a Dickens novel? "Let's see, exactly who was Mr. Snodgrass again?" I remember coating the flyleaves of my Dickens or Tolstoy novels with the cast of characters. In The City of Thieves we are mostly concerned with just two main characters: Lev, an introverted young Jew, and Kolya, a scrappy, quick-witted Cossack. So it's easy to follow in addition to being the right length.

On top of this, we have an engaging story, the premise of which is that Lev and Kolya, who were condemned to die, have their lives spared on the condition that they find a dozen eggs for a Soviet colonel. The only problem is that they start their quest during the winter of the Nazi siege of Leningrad. The story's germ is interesting, funny, and a bit ironic. The quest, of course, brings these two closer and closer together as the tale progresses. The situations are wildly imaginative, almost the kind that are so odd that one thinks they must be based on truth. In no particular order we have several of ingredients for a good story: Nazis; a foray through enemy lines; cannibalism; a romance; a sharing of confidences between Lev and Kolya; moments of courage; and moments of pathos.

This is a very pleasant read. I am certain that it will be a Hollywood movie, and probably a pretty good one, within a year or two. Beyond that, City of Thieves is a perfect airplane read.

Friday, May 14, 2010

W.A. Frost Finally Got It Right!

I have been going to W.A. Frost's, a St. Paul restaurant, for over thirty years. Never impressed. The building is interesting--it was a drugstore in the 1930's when my father roamed the neighborhood--but the food has always been insipid. I would estimate that I've been there 30 times or so over the years. At times the service has been some of the worst imaginable. At other times the attitude of the restaurant has been alienating. For instance, I recall an incident about ten years ago when the restaurant rejected my wife's request for the tiniest of deviations from the printed menu--like "could we get this with sauce?"

And then there was tonight. I tried executive chef Wyatt Evans' six-course tasting menu. Fantastic!

The first course was a Cold Smoked Norwegian Salmon "Tartare"--essentially gravlax in an English Cucumber. Stunning.

Then bunny. In particular a "Singerhouse Farm Rabbit Confit Risotto." Unusual and tasty.

The "Grilled All Natural New York Strip" was the best steak I have ever tasted, though there were only three small strips. But they were perfectly cooked. The accompanying fixings were impressive.

This was followed by a cheese course, which featured a delicious local cheese, Upland Farm Pleasant Ridge Reserve, an artisinal non-pasteurized cheese.

Beyond the spectacular food, the service was great.

I am flummoxed.

Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.