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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Trout Almandine On the Go!

I have the weekend planned.  Fixed.  Data driven.  A French Festival in Trippstadt.  Sure of the date and place.  Yep, have the brochure.  Checked and rechecked.

Four friends pile in the car for the 45 minute drive in the beautiful German springtime.  Luscious French food.  Delectable cheeses.  Splendid wines.  What could go wrong?  After more than an hour and a half of driving in Trippstadt and the surrounding area, I stop in a strange town, on a two lane road that is  suddenly blocked to through traffic.  I’m desperate to ask about the French Festival.

The German man whose restaurant I enter looks perplexed.  “This weekend?” he asks.  His eyebrows arch. “I don’t think it is this weekend.”  He consults his catalogue of area festivals.  “No,” he says, “the French Festival is in June.”  I show him the brochure.  He shrugs.  Very Gallic for a German.

Anticipation slinks away.  Desperation turns to frustration, much like Lady Macbeth tripping over her skirt, while searching for a washbasin.

Fortunately, in prowling through the countryside, we stopped to ask directions at the perfect spot.  It’s a gorgeous restaurant next to a trout stream.  Ah ha, Serendipity, my personal muse, rescued me and returned smiles to the faces of  passengers who had begun to paw the earth and plot behind my back.

Ok, you caught me.  Serendipity is not one of the Greek muses, the daughters of Zeus.  Serendipity is far more personal than those singing, dancing, diaphanous gown-wearing sisters.  She’s a wildcat of a woman who’ll lead you to scrap your plans, take the road less traveled, and with a knowing wink and sexy smile lead you to jump out of the box, start coloring outside the lines, and fulfill all those yearnings you never knew you had.  My wife hates her.

Lemonade from lemons?  Phooey! This day, Serendipity’s easy whim promised fresh trout and chilled glasses of the vintner’s best.

We’re conducted to a table and the wonderful German wine arrives in time to stave off death by kidney failure.  I like to ease into it, so I order a Riesling Schorle, a combo drink of Riesling wine and a few splashes of mineral water.  Refreshing.

The owner/waiter tells us, “You will never eat trout fresher than this.”  He’s a mind reader and a prophet.  The trout almandine is superb.  Barely crusty on the outside, tender on the inside, and flecked with thin almond slices pan browned in drawn butter.

French Fest?  Skipped my mind.  Supposed to be one around here in June… I guess.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

An Excerpt from: Lowdown. Dirty. Shame.

Here's an excerpt from my latest novel, Lowdown. Dirty. Shame.  This is barely a taste. Call it a literary hors d'oeuvre. Available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions.  Pour yourself a drink.  Settle back.  Get comfortable.  It's a sexy, dirty, romantic, side-splitting, romp of a novel.  Do this author a couple of favors:  Repost this blog to widen my circle of readers.  When you finish the book, write a review on Amazon.  Now, on to the excerpt...

When in doubt, have a drink.  If still in doubt, have another.  I sit on my usual bar stool at The Pagan Cajun, better known as simply Jambalaya. The name of the restaurant hides in small letters on an unlit sign over the door, while Jambalaya garishly flashes and features chili peppers sizzle-dancing on either side.  I gingerly sip the ‘Taste of the Devil,’ a Cajun martini, fired by pepper infused rum.  My lips are aflame.  Fred, the white-aproned barkeep, his back to me, polishes glasses or does something else that needs doing.  He stands next to the huge, heavy bar, stocked with the best libations from the four corners.  With a mirrored back reflecting every bottle and every customer in the place, the bar seems twice as large.  At that moment Fred and I are the only two human reflections. 
I go to bars infrequently, but I make an exception for Jambalaya. It wallows in the comfortable memories of days gone by.  A pressed-tin ceiling, old, cracked black and white tiled floor, cluttered, high marble topped tables and equally worn stools are just the spot for Fitzgerald and Hemingway to swap inspiring platitudes.   Faded posters celebrate ancient Mardi Gras and dirty, smoky jazz.  The place is also as intimate as the sights and smells from your grandmother’s kitchen.  Friday nights they have a trio blowing all the standards until everybody’s fed and all the drunks go home. Weeknights I like it better. Solitude. Thoughts that don’t involve women or money.  All that is about to change.
         She steps through the double, beveled glass doors as gently as an angel looking for a rosebud.  I’d seen her a thousand times before and never seen her at all.  She’s blond and I never go for blonds, but I went for this one.  The powder blue suit and tasteful pearls screams of money and lots of it, but I would have gone for her if she’d been dipped in tar and rolled in feathers.  A line from The Great Gatsby floats through my head, “I hope she'll be a fool -- that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”  Sounds good, until you look at it from the other side of the bed.
         To a man, cars and women have a lot in common, at least in the love at first sight department.  Love that Corvette!  Gonna buy it?  Probably not.
         I can tell in the first five minutes if this is going to be just a passing fancy.  I don’t know how I know it, only that I know it.
         The bar stool barely squeaks when she sits down.  A delicate floral scent floats past.  Then, the two bluest eyes this side of a Rocky Mountain sky look my direction.  “Mr. Hudson?”
         “Present, clean and sober.”  I forget about my burning lips.
         “May I call you by your first name?”
         “I always go by Hungus”  No I didn’t say that.  “I always go by Hudson, but the first name is Jack, if you’d prefer.”
         “Mr. Hudson...Jack”  she makes it sound like a gently whispered prayer,  “I’m Candy Brunner.”  Candy can’t have reached her thirties yet and I’m not sure anyone’s going to notice when she does.  She holds out her hand.  I take it and don’t want to give it back, but like a true gentleman, I let it slide across my palm and watch it join its partner in her lap.  “I’m a friend of Margot Bliss.”  She produces a lacy handkerchief and dabs at the corner of one eye and then the other.  “I’m just so sad.  It’s tragic, just tragic.” 
         I wonder if she meant tragic in the classical sense, a rise and fall based on a fatal personal flaw, or if she simply meant terrible.  “It certainly is,” I agree, whichever way she means it.
         “And now Arthur has disappeared.”
         “He has?”  I try to keep from looking stunned.  I fail.  Hundred dollar bills with wings appear.
         “You didn’t know?  The authorities have been looking all over for him.” 
I don’t tell her I spoke with him at his office.  Knew he had sounded in a hurry, but not like he was going to depart for places unknown.
         “Wait a minute.”  It’s time for me to put gorgeousness aside and untangle this Gordian knot, “How do you know I had anything to do with Margot?”
         “Hazel told me.”
         “Hazel Armond?”
         “Yes.  She said you were to meet her husband here.”
         “I’m meeting Mr. Armond, but not today.”
         “She said you mentioned you might have a drink here tonight.”
         I’m trying to remember if I had really said that.  If I hadn’t then I’d better watch myself around Hazel Armond because she’s a mind reader.  And how the hell does she know I’d been hired to keep an eye on Margot?  Jesus, that woman is a spy in her own house.  “Oh, right,” I agree, still not remembering.  I’d mentioned something about getting a drink, but was sure it was tomorrow and Armond not being here proves it. “Speaking of a drink, what are you having?”
         “Just a little bit of Perrier,” she says softly, looking at Fred.  Fred turns, smiles and brings a glass, with a slice of lemon on the lip, and small green bottle.  He pours slowly and we all listen to the fizz.  Then he smiles again at Candy and goes back to polishing glasses.  His eyes can’t help but dart up to the mirror now and then.  There are three reflections now and two of us don’t matter.
         “You’re working for Mr. Bliss?  That’s what Hazel said.”  The deep blue eyes wash over me.  She has a little half smile, almost a quirk, except on that face I wouldn’t call it a quirk.  I’d call it Mona Lisa in the flesh.
         “Yeah, I’m working for him, but I don’t know where he is, if that’s what you’re asking.”  At least I hope I’m still working for him.  I need the money even more now that my house has been trashed. He never told me to quit.
         Candy reaches over and pats my knee, a friendly gesture at best, but nevertheless. Women use little touches like brush strokes on a canvas.

         “So, you just came down here to sip some seltzer water and tell me how sad it is about your friend going missing?”  Why does my brain have to work like that?  Why can’t I just enjoy the moment and chalk it up to good fortune?  Because, I started off suspicious and the last couple of twisted days fanned a raging paranoia.  As much as I like myself, I never was leading man material and beautiful women don’t just drop by to enjoy my company.  Small consolation that beautiful women don’t just drop in out of the blue to enjoy anyone’s company.

Monday, May 16, 2016

John le Carré: Call for the Dead

The first thing a book reviewer should tell you is what connects the books he favors.  Your fertile mind already knows why a reviewer’s preferences are relevant.  But wordy bastard that I am, I’m going to tell you anyway. 

Books that are page-turners for one reader are slogs in ankle deep mud for another.  Why is that?

As Louise Rosenblatt famously wrote, there are three points of view involved in reading a book:  what the writer intended to write, what he actually wrote, and what the reader’s experiences bring to the book.

Let’s say an automotive enthusiast thinks he’s writing a thriller, but what really comes out is a plot strung together with fists full of engineering details.  The Tom Clancy of Detroit.

Along comes a reader who’s an engineer.  He’s enthralled!  Along comes yours truly, who knows how to change oil, put gas in the tank, and on rare occasions (thank goodness) knows how to use a jack and a spare tire.  Which one of us is this book going to thrill?

So what kind of reader is this reviewer?  I like character driven plots.  And by that, I don’t mean angst upon angst, but rather main characters who embrace the human element and are strong and true to themselves.  Don’t give me a detective that is suddenly afraid to pull the trigger, or a terrified wife who cannot overcome her fears and rise to the occasion.  Don’t bore me with twenty pages of divorce and finding solace in a bottle.

How about the plot?  I demand twists, turns, and even a few digressions, but not to the detriment of this reader’s attention span.

At the top of my list is prose that flows as smoothly as water over glass, without pretentiousness or contrivances.

Now that you know. let’s breeze off into the world of espionage, 1950’s style, with John le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead, where we’ll meet Carré’s most famous character, George Smiley.

“When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary…Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”

This is our hero, our main character in an espionage novel???  Unlike James Bond, who roams the globe in fast cars, with the fast women, while winning vast sums in casinos, and staying in the world’s grand hotels, George Smiley lives in an unremarkable apartment in London.  In the war he distinguished himself with hard work and undeniable results.  But, he just didn’t fit the model of a leader, so while he was kept on after the war, he remained ordinary and a bit of a necessary pain for the bureaucrats in charge.

But, most of all, George Smiley has a mind that processes bits and pieces that don’t quite fit.  He also has the constitution of a bulldog whose teeth never loose their grip, no matter how many other minds distract his path of inquiry.

Call for the Dead begins with a suicide.  Immediately Smiley is under the gun.  He interviewed the man only yesterday.  Did the interview go badly?  Was it something Smiley said that caused an unintended event?

Smiley seems to have been affected only by the tragedy that produced a death and a widow, not by the snide inquiries into his own behavior.  Something bothers him and it’s not the bureaucratic heat.

For the next 150 pages the book would not release me from it’s thought provoking pages.  When I wasn’t reading, I was thinking.

It’s no wonder the Sunday Telegram glowed with enthusiasm:  “Intelligent, thrilling, surprising…makes most cloak and dagger stuff taste of cardboard.”

George Smiley flows off the page, just as real as if we were sitting with him in some innocuous parlor, sipping tea from cracked cups.  And the plot, even with the unexpected twists and turns, never waivers.

Toss away thoughts of James Bond’s world, singlehandedly stopping madmen from producing nuclear weapons and controlling the planet.  Instead, pick a quiet time, pour yourself a whiskey with soda, settle into an easy chair, and blissfully wander into George Smiley’s world of quiet, deliberate espionage. But, don’t be lulled, it’s a thriller.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Olive Oil Fest (Das Olivenölfest) in Zell am Zellertal

A view of Zellertal

An olive oil festival in the tiny village of Zellertal, on a high hill in the midst of wine country?  I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when the wine merchants and village elders sat around, downing schnapps shooters and playing ‘who’s got the dumbest idea?”
            “We need to have a fest.”
“Every podunk in the entire country has a fest!  That’s why!”
“Maybe a wine fest?”
Heads shaking around the table.  Someone pipes up.  “Too damn many wine fests already.  We need something….well, I don’t know….something…”
            “How ‘bout a bicycle fest?”
Murmurs of disapproval.  “We live on top of a mountain! What’s the crowd going to look like? Five sweaty guys with legs like fence posts?”
            “Chicken plucking festival?”
            “Dirt scattering fest?”
            “I think you’re on to something.”
            From the far corner:  “Yeah, drugs.”
            “I know, I know…,” a big smile, “Olive oil fest!”  A dead silence descends.  Pondering continues, the silence broken on by the clink of a bottle on the rims of schnapps glasses.
            “Olive oil fest?”
            “Why not?”
            “We don’t grow olives is the main drawback.”
            Enthusiasm brews.  “We could serve fish!”
            “I know there’s a point you’re trying to make, but it escapes me at present.”
            “We could import the oil.”
            Pent up sarcasm. “And afterwards, when we’re stuck with a few dozen leftover barrels?”
“We have a fish fry.”
            “Yeah, we could empty the whole North Sea.”
            “Very funny.”
            “Ok how about a Tibetan music fest?”
            “Holy mother of Bacchus, you guys are getting further off track than a blind tour guide in the Sahara.”
            “Let’s do all three!”  Another round of schnapps magically appears and suddenly it all makes sense.  An olive oil festival at a tiny hilltop village in Germany, where no olive oil is produced, hundreds of miles from the sea, and surrounded by acres and acres of vineyards, serving fish, and musical entertainment with Tibetan chants.

Leave it to the wine merchants and city elders of Zellertal to think outside the barrel!  So far, none have been arrested for hallucinogens.
Tins of Spanish Olive Oil
So what happened?  The fest has grown every year!  Last weekend, crowds filled the streets. Long lines queued for wine, beer and fish.  Cars filled every two-lane highway leading to town, and traffic wardens earned enough money to buy vacation homes where the weather is warm and olive trees grow in the yard.  Turns out the merchants and elders weren’t so dumb after all!

Tents sold everything imaginable, including oil from Spain (world’s largest producer), Italy (world’s largest importer/exporter), Greece and Turkey, numbers three and four and Morocco, number eight.  There may have been more, but my curiosity was kicked aside by an overriding thirst for some juice of the grape.  A chilled Portugieser rosé was just the thing.  Hey, this is wine country! 

Portugieser Grapes
Back to olive oil.  Where does the U.S. rank?  A respectable 16th.  All this acquired from my diligent research, on behalf of my faithful readers.

Here’s a question for you:  besides cooking, salad dressing, and naked wrestling, what else is olive oil used for?  Chapped lips, hand moisturizer, mix with cat food to eliminate hairballs, rub into dry hair to control frizz.

How about hair growth, as in curing hair loss?  I’m kidding right?  Nope. (  According to this article, hair loss is caused by the hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT) and the production of that hormone is hampered by the application of olive oil to the scalp.  What’s the procedure? you ask.  Rub a small amount of olive oil into your scalp and through the hair.  Cover your hair for about 30 minutes, then shampoo and condition normally.

How about exfoliating your hands and making them look young again?  Coat your hands with oil, sprinkle them generously with salt (coarse salt works best), and go through the normal hand washing motions for about a minute.  Wash your hands with soap and water, then apply a bit more olive oil, or your favorite hand lotion. 

I mentioned fish and Tibetan music.  The fish came pickled, fried, or smoked, in sandwiches, or on the plate, with rolls or a couple of choices of potato salad.  My favorite was fried, with a generous helping of vinegar based potato salad.  Recipe for the potato salad?  Of course.

A couple of pounds of potatoes, peeled, boiled, then sliced and allowed to cool.
½ Cup olive oil
3 Tablespoons to ¼ Cup seasoned rice vinegar
Tasty optional additions:  A heaping tablespoon of your favorite mustard, chopped parsley, or cilantro, chopped green onions.

Mix all the ingredients for the vinaigrette, and toss with the cooled and sliced potatoes.

Now, how about the Tibetan music?  One of the dark and chilly wine caves echoed with music so darkly mystical as to make you want pull out your voodoo dolls and drink monkey blood from human skulls.  Photos from Tibet lined the walls and rested proudly on the oak wine barrels.  Yes, I walked through, but managed to find my way out before slicing my wrists.  This was dark! music in a dark! cave.  Breaking out into the sunshine was like escaping from a creaking coffin. 

Ate well, drank well, and got into a wonderful conversation with two German ladies.  Yes, my significant other/ designated driver was by my side.  The day was glorious and delicious, but no I didn’t buy any olive oil.