Monday, June 14, 2010

The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell

I very much enjoyed the second novel in the "Inspector Kurt Wallander" series by this gifted Swedish writer. Wallander is a complex, thoughtful character and in this story he gets swept up into the dangerous intrigue of a Baltic nation in turmoil as it struggles to develop a new identity after gaining independence from Soviet powers. A life raft holding two murdered men washes ashore near the Swedish town of Ystad, where Wallander works as a police Inspector; eventually the victims are found to be Latvian and after an initial, somewhat fruitless attempt to find answers in Ystad, the case is transferred to Riga and Wallander assumes that he will hear nothing more about it. A terrible series of events draws him to Latvia soon afterward and from that point on, I had a really hard time putting down the book.

I don't want to spoil the story in case you're thinking of giving this series a try, but I was really impressed with the way that Mankell conveyed the strange, grim atmosphere of the city of Riga and the corruption within the political system, which Wallander is trying to get to the bottom of, even though he is a complete stranger in Latvia and is putting his own life at risk.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China by Jen Lin-Liu

I recently discovered that my local library has an RSS feed where librarians recommend books of all genres. What a genius idea! This book was one of the highlighted titles.

Jen Lin-Liu grew up in the USA as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, but after finishing college she feels compelled to return to China and eventually settles in Beijing, earning her living as a food and travel writer. At some point she decides that she would like to learn to cook, and that's where this memoir begins, as Lin-Liu enrolls in a Beijing cooking college (much to the astonishment of the locals). She sits through endless lectures in the freezing-cold classroom before finally convincing the principal of the school, Chairman Wang, to give her private cooking lessons at Wang's home. Eventually, she learns enough to pass the exam and goes on a journey through China, learning how to make traditional chinese dishes such as dumplings and noodles through internships in various restaurants.

I think I enjoyed the first part of this book, where Lin-Liu is enrolled in the cooking school, the best; the rest was a bit choppier. I would have liked a bit more explanation of how her various travel opportunities came about to help transition the reader between each section. Nevertheless, the people in this book really come to life and I loved getting some insight into the role of food and chefs in Chinese society. On the whole, this was a well-written and very interesting memoir with some extremely tempting recipes scattered through the book. If I didn't have to return Serve the People to the library I would certainly be going on a Chinese cooking spree right about now!

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Two books I've rejected lately

"The Other Family" by Joanna Trollope and "Careless in Red" by Elizabeth George.

These are two authors whose other work I've enjoyed -- in fact I've read almost everything else they've each written - but somehow after getting about halfway through each of these recent novels I just didn't feel compelled to finish the books. I can never figure out in those cases whether it's me being in the wrong mood for the book, or the book just not being up to par.