Follow by Email

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach, translated by Anthea Bell

A man walks into a bar…well, not quite.  A man walks into an apartment.  He’s Fabrizio Maria Collini and he’s middle aged and has never murdered anyone.  That’s about to change.  He kills with a rawness that turns your stomach and rakes your flesh.

This is a rare novel.  Grabs you and won’t let go.  Fiction based on truth.  The laws exist.  The characters do not.

Schirach tells Colini’s story brilliantly, through the eyes of the public defender.

Köhler is an advocate with a quick mind and a sparkling academic record.  What he doesn’t have is experience.  This is his first case.  On the other side, the prosecutor carries a streak of unbroken successes and a reputation for digging through overturned lives and using facts as skillfully as a sushi chef slicing tuna.

Köhler’s job won’t be easy. Collini tells him, “I killed a man.”  He doesn’t want to be defended and he doesn’t want to talk about his reasons.

Köhler’s own background also offers layers of both sweetness and sadness, dusted with unfulfillment.  Love. Relationships.  They wind and unwind throughout the book, in twisted strands.

Like all good courtroom dramas, The Collini Case wriggles and turns like a snake impaled on a sharp stick.  The writing is brisk, lean and sharp, like strokes of a razor.  In something over 180 pages, the prose magically flutters past like clots of blood in a heavy wind.

I read a lot of book jackets, mining for those rare gems that will chain me to the plot and characters, leaving me sleepless and ravenous for just one more page.

The Collini Case is among the crown jewels.  The story is skillfully terse, with a pace that will suck the air from your lungs.  Why does one man simply walk into an apartment and kill another? How can you defend such indefensible and senseless brutality?  How do you defend a client who refuses to talk to you, or to the police?

The problem stands as impenetrable as a stone wall, but even a wall, if you look closely enough, is marred by cracks and fissures. They spread in all directions and time grows short.

Fissures never reveal more than slender promises.  When you find what you think is a diamond of truth, it suddenly proves to be only sparkling ice on a summer sidewalk.

And yet, there are always more cracks and you soon realize eventually you will reach bedrock.

The Collini Case surpasses simple, well-written entertainment.  It’s also education, of the kind that leaves you questioning the very fabric of society.  But, let me warn you, the answers do not rest on the well-worn saws of “it’s society’s fault” and “he wasn’t given enough love as a child.”  Those are cheesecloth, allowing any kind-hearted argument to drip through.

No.  The Collini Case rest on cold, solid facts and its telling will enthrall you and strain your confidence in right and wrong.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Speaking of Boulangeries - Le Pain Quotidien

I avoid ‘chains.’  Not talking about the medieval versions that make your soul quiver when you play Lord and Serf.  I’m talking about restaurant chains.  Yes, I include Gimmeyerbucks and McBurgers.

Ok.  I do sin occasionally.  And, I swear I’m sorry. Sometimes a man’s gotta have a smack of caffeine anyway he can get it.  But, in the main, when it comes to the big names in fast food, as they say in French, “I defecate upon thy hands with the full force of my churning bowels.

Recently, a close friend introduced me to Le Pain Quotidien, a bakery and coffee shop in the heart of Mons, Belgium.  But, wait a sec…it’s not just in Mons, but in damn near every country that has running water.  Gotta be a mistake.  Can’t be a …dare I mention the word again…CHAIN!  Yes, it is.

Alain Coumont opened his first one in 1990 on 16 Rue Darsaert in Brussels.

What’s so special about Le Pain Quotidien?  How come this chain doesn’t deserve the same retching disgust we reserve for microwave burgers and vending machine coffee?

By the way, in English, Le Pain Quotidien means The Daily Bread.  Daily bread means what it says.  Fresh is the key word.  More than that, everything in this bakery is organic.  Preservatives, flavor enhancers, artificiality, all be damned!

LPQ has the kind of charm that makes you step inside, even if you’ve just finished breakfast.  Authentically, rustic décor.  An irresistible waft of fresh bread. The almost erotic allure of freshly ground coffee. 

You can read all about the history of Le Pain Quotidien on their web page, and also learn where to find the nearest outlet.

But, as always, I’ll give you a thumbnail sketch.  Alain trained as a chef and earned his toque in the same hotel restaurant where his father trained.  But he came by his passion for fresh bread in the best way possible, at his aunt’s knee, baking loaves and tarts on Sunday mornings.  There’s no substitute for the glowing passions you acquire in childhood.

As a chef, he searched all over Brussels for the taste he remembered.  No luck.  Only one thing to do.  Start your own bakery.  His idea was simple:  “Having a place where I can feel at home away from home.”

To me, chains are too often a glitzy failure of artificial atmosphere: an English pub with plastic, pseudo-wood, or a grand old steakhouse, remembered with glass, steel, and recessed lighting.  Doesn’t fool you anymore than replacing a leather basketball with a balloon. Dishonesty comes to mind, followed quickly by stupidity.

Le Pain Quotidien didn’t cut the corners, or introduce a substitute for real charm. It just feels right and inviting.  Lots of old wood, including the counters.  Faded walls look as though they carry the patina of decades.  Chairs creak a bit.  But, the most important part of this bakery is the bread.  Loaves on shelves where you can see them. Fresh. Fresh. Fresh. Crusty and wholesome.

The coffee is dark and rich, without being bitter, or ragged on the edges.  Comes in a bowl, just the way Alain’s hot chocolate did when he was a boy.  Your choice of a large bowl or small.

It was early morning.  I ordered a coffee and a croissant.  Golden. Light. Flaky. Delicious.  Just as a croissant should be.  If you’re thinking crescent roll, get your mind out of the school lunchroom and into somewhere more Gallic.  At LPQ, the croissants are light as air.  Try a smear of orange marmalade, or one of LPQ’s delectable sweet nut spreads. They’re on every table.

You won’t be sorry.  And you’ll find time to linger.  This isn’t just breakfast, this is the start of a beautiful day.

I know I’ve got time.  Who hasn’t got time for another glimpse of childhood on a sunny morning. “Mademoiselle, un autre café, s'il vous plaît.”

Monday, June 2, 2014

Steak and Ale Pie - Another English Gift

Meat pies are the staples of English pub cuisine.  Well, I guess you have to add fish & chips to make it a full menu.

The most common English meat pie, Shepherd’s Pie I’ve already written about, given you a recipe, and done every bloody thing I can do for you besides strolling into your kitchen and slaving over your stove.

So, have you plucked up some courage and made that one yet?  You have?  Well, I take back all I said and Bravo! for you. Still basking in the glow of success and well wishes?  I thought so.

Now I’ve got another savory treat and one I often lust for, especially when I’m nesting in an English pub, with a pint of Real Ale in hand.

Steak and Ale Pie, or steak and ale pudding, if you prefer, is a rich concoction that’ll make you put down that pint of ale and unsheathe your trusty spoon.  For fighter pilots salivating over this, just remember I said ‘trusty spoon’ not ‘rusty spoon.’

Onward…I have to give a nod to The Hairy Bikers, from Lovefood.  I used their recipe, but not exactly.  Do you ever follow a recipe without making some twists and turns?  I don’t.  Can’t be helped.  You’re out of this, or can’t find that, or just think your way might better satisfy the hungry masses.

In this case, my son and I concocted and cooked together.  And, I don’t mean I just asked him to stir now and then.  Nope.  We truly cooked this dish together.  Just wanted to get that straight in case you think I easily step aside to reward somebody else with the credit. When it comes to cooking, relatives get no special breaks. He cooked.

So, now that I’ve wasted time with nods and kudos here and there, let’s get to the heart of a dish that will thrill and delight even the pickiest eaters, with the most ungrateful attitudes.  You know of whom I speak.  Our so-called loved ones.

Steak and Ale Pie  (start early – taking 2 hours to cook, not counting another hour or two of prep and pre-cooking)

Puff Pastry, I used a package of Pepperidge Farms.   Very good and puff pastry is a bitch to make.

5 Tablespoons sunflower oil

8 oz bacon, chopped or cut into thin strips

2 Onions, diced

5 Cloves garlic, diced

2 lbs of rump roast, fat removed and cut into 1 inch cubes (2 lbs after fat removal. A little more meat won’t hurt.)

A quart of ale. (I used a dark, German variety)

A pint of beef stock. (I used two heaping tablespoons of Bovril English beef extract, dissolved in a pint of warm water.)  For my money, Bovril is the richest of beef extracts and you want this beef stock to be almost black with richness.

1 Heaping Tablespoon tomato paste

4 Sprigs of thyme, leaves stripped from the stalks

3 Heaping Tablespoons cornstarch, blended with enough cold water to make it very creamy

½ Pound mushrooms, quartered

2 Tablespoons butter

1 Egg, scrambled (for painting the crust before baking)

Salt and Pepper to taste….when it tastes almost right, add a little more pepper.

We used three cooking pots:  A 12 inch cast iron skillet, a 12 inch round enamel casserole pan with a lid, an 8 by 13 inch glass-oven-proof casserole dish.

1.     Heat one tablespoon of oil in the skillet, then add the bacon.  Before the bacon starts to crisp, add the onions and garlic and cook until the onions are golden.  Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon-onion-garlic mixture to the 12 inch round casserole pan.
2.     Heat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC)
3.     Cook the steak in the skillet (small batches work best) until well browned. Add oil as necessary and transferred each batch of cooked meat to the round casserole pan.
4.     Deglaze the skillet with half the ale, scraping up the bits from the bottom.  Pour this over the beef/onion/bacon in the round casserole pan.
5.     Add the remaining ale, tomato paste, stock, and herbs to the casserole pan. Return to the stovetop and bring everything to a boil.  Put on the lid and slide it in the pre-heated oven for an hour and a half.
6.     Remove the casserole pan from the oven, put it on the stovetop, add the cornstarch mixture and stir until thickened.  Set it aside to cool a bit.
7.     Turn the oven up to 400ºF (200ºC)
8.     Heat 2 Tablespoons of butter in the skillet and add the mushrooms.  Cook until golden. Add them to the meat mixture.
9.     Pour the meat mixture into the oven-proof-glass casserole dish.
10.  Roll out the puff pastry.
11.  Paint the edges of the glass casserole dish with egg (so that the pastry topping sticks to the edges of the dish).  Stretch the pastry over the meat mixture and use a knife to poke holes in it. (this allows steam to escape)
12.  Paint the pastry topping with the remaining egg and pop the casserole dish in the oven for another 30-35 minutes, or until the pastry is puffed and lightly brown.

If you’ve done things right, this pie will be so thick and rich that conversation will cease and in no time you’ll have some Olivers, bowls in hand, pleading pitifully, ”Please sir, may I have some more?”

I left out the steps about keeping the ale flowing while the Pie cooks.  A big red wine also works well. Your hungry guests may get testy if they’re left with time on their hands and beer on their minds.

You might consider putting out some Stilton and crackers, or perhaps some mild Gorgonzola. But, not too much.  This meal is filling by itself.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Berlin Noir: Nazis, Russians, and a taste of war

Sometimes when I read I just want to be mindlessly entertained.  I get tired of analyzing brilliance and working what Poirot calls “Ze leetle gray zells,” or what high-brow publications call literature.  A little violence.  Sex to the breaking point. A plot that dares me to put the book down.

But, mindless does have its limits. Please don’t make me suffer through TV shows of endless teenage angst, or sports show experts who’ve already used their ration of live brain cells and are working on the dead ones.

Yes, there are books that stoop to the same level of ignorance.  Here’s an example:

“He walked into the house, carrying a large bag.  It was almost too heavy and he didn’t want to carry it, but he carried it into the house.  It was not a large house, but the bag was not as big as the house. “

Ok.  Got that.  Big bag.  Carried it into the freaking house!  Now, move it along, Jo-Jo.

I’m broadminded, but willing to shoot and dismember the man who wrote that and his brain-damaged editor.  I may keep it up, Torquemada style, until the entire editorial staff confesses to long-standing love affairs with Alsatian Wolfhounds.

No.  When I say mindless, I’m talking about well-placed sentences that easily lull me into enjoyment.  Pleasant and effortless.  A book I can read, while sitting on the beach with a large and juicy tumbler, almost toxic with alcohol.

Gotta have prose that flows.  Gotta have characters that don’t make me want to fling the book against the wall.  Gotta have a plot that grabs me in a vulnerable portion of my anatomy and makes me scream for the next page.

Is that so hard?  Not for Phillip Kerr, in his mid-1930s trilogy, Berlin Noir.  The three book package takes the reader through Germany during the rise of the Nazis, into the heart of the war era, and forward to the uneasy peace that followed.

Bernie Gunther is a former Berlin policeman who got fed up with having to choke down the Nazi bile and went out on his own as a private detective.  

Takes some careful treading to solve a crime when the streets already run red with blood, and concentration camps overflow.  You have to be careful whom you question and which questions you ask.  And, you damn sure better watch your back.

The heart of these novels are not the crimes per se, although Kerr’s plots drive things at the speed of heat.  The real guts of these mysteries are the interweaving of three societies and how everyone is affected by the turmoil and change. 

Society One:  March Violets.  The Nazis taking over, enforcing new rules, with raw vengeance.  Gives you a glimpse of how the Nazis were anything but a cohesive group.  Thugs and warlords here and there vied for political favor and the attention of the dictator.  If someone patted you on the back, best to make sure he didn’t have a knife in his hand.  To do one high official a favor was to piss another official off.

Society Two: The Pale Criminal.  Germany is at war. Still, the intrigues continue, along with the crimes.  Shortages of almost everything turn everyone into a suspect, all for their own reasons and needs.

Society Three:  A German Requiem.  The war is over, or is it?  America and the so-called allies jockey for power in a Germany that is now a vacuum. Renegade Nazis scurry into the shadows, but still pull invisible strings. No one trusts anyone and even within the same nationalities, intelligence services guard their territory like rival gangs, exposing little, hiding much.  Russian, American, and Germans tangle in a web of power and deceit.

Through all of it, Bernie Gunther has to make his living, solving crimes, getting the information he’s paid to get, keeping his soul intact and his head above water.  It’s not enough to merely follow the trail, ask the questions, and get the answers.  He finds people want to use him and his services for their employers, for own their countries, and especially for their own purposes.

Bernie has to find the cheese, but he’s not only in a room full of mousetraps, but he’s often the mouse.

I’ve had it with wishy-washy novels where everyone is equally guilty and “who can really judge?”  Give me some solid villains and at least one guy who’s a straight shooter.  If he bends the rules, it’s only because it’s best for everyone.  If he kills, he has a reason.  And don’t give me this ‘gone rogue’ bullshit.  Bernie is a man and a great detective.  If he walks a fine line, so much the better. He trusts few, but believes in himself.

My kind of guy.  My kind of detective.  My kind of books.  The Berlin Noir trilogy connects the dots, from the rise of the Nazis, to the war, and into the raw beginnings of the cold war.  Puts you in the middle of it all. Makes you feel as if you lived in Berlin through some of the most vicious times of the last century.

When you finish reading Berlin Noir, you’ll be searching for Philip Kerr’s other Bernie Gunther novels.  He’s a man with a gun and a mission to bring the light of truth into the darkest of corners.  If he’s lucky, he won’t get himself killed.