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A Wanted Man

September 13, 2012 Leave a comment

In my last post, two nights ago, I wrote about the challenge of deciding whether to continue reading the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography, The Passage of Power, which I was three-fourths of the way through, or to put it aside temporarily in favor of Lee Child’s 17th Jack Reacher thriller, A Wanted Man, which had just come out that day.

My fear with every Reacher thriller is that once I start it, I won’t stop, so that not just whatever else I’m reading, but my life as a whole, will get put on hold. It seems I am powerless to resist. So it was that I read the first 100 pages of A Wanted Man two nights ago. Gail came home at one point with news she thought was worthy of my attention, but failed to capture it.

I awoke before 6:00 AM yesterday and read another 180 pages. Just 125 pages to go. The power of Child’s books is mystifying. He grabs you in the first paragraph and doesn’t let go. But this was putting me in dangerous territory.

Was I prepared to stay home until I finished the book? I do have a job. I had to get to my office. I found the will to tear myself away and headed off.

Once free of the book’s spell, I was able to function normally. We had a museum opening at the Seattle Asian Art Museum to attend last night. When I got home from my office, rather than picking up the book, I picked Gail up and we headed back out. By the time I did open the book again, later in the evening, I couldn’t get through a dozen pages before falling asleep.

And then a funny thing happened. The spell was broken. When I picked the book up again this morning, I was less deeply engaged. Was it because of the break, or did I just happen to take my break at the very point in the book where it stops making sense? I don’t know. I do know that I found the first two-thirds unbearably gripping, only to bring to the rest of the book a mild curiosity and the sense that Child had taken a weak path in his plot development.

All the Reacher books, ultimately, are implausible in that they start with him stumbling on some local bad guy or crime, only to discover that he has become enmeshed in an international conspiracy with the fate of the world resting on his shoulders. How he thinks through the situations and sizes up the people is the best part of the books. That and the inevitable climax in which he uses his unique combination of brains and brawn to take down a couple of dozen bad guys before fading into the sunset. Over the last third of A Wanted Man, however, he wasn’t called on to apply his acuity so much. I think that’s what I missed.

Nonetheless, Reacher is an original, and I was happy to catch up with his latest doings. I will no doubt devour the next installment the moment it appears.

Categories: Books

LBJ vs. Reacher

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment

What to do? What to do?

I knew this collision was coming, and here it is. No sooner do I start reading the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography, The Passage of Power (as described here) than Lee Child’s 17th Jack Reacher thriller, A Wanted Man, comes out. Two great authors, perhaps the greatest writers of biography and thriller of our time. And two characters of awesome will.

I have been making good progress through The Passage of Power. When we got off the plane in Seattle last night, I was three-fourths of the way through, having finished Caro’s riveting account of the week that began on November 21, 1963, in San Antonio. So many extraordinary moments. Caro’s depiction of LBJ’s instant transformation from powerless and humiliated vice-president to a president with utter calm and clarity about the steps that must be taken on domestic and foreign fronts is a mini-thriller in its own right.

Yet, Child is the master of the thriller. His books are irresistible. I know that if I allow myself to read even one page of A Wanted Man, I won’t stop. And I do know how the LBJ story turns out. For the most part. But I have no idea what’s next for Reacher.

I’m being pulled. Perhaps I should give in.

Categories: Books

Company of the Cauldron

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Two days ago, as we were about to depart from Nantucket, I wrote about our dinner last Friday at Ventuno. The next night we ate at Company of the Cauldron, which is just around the corner. It is equally deserving of a post.

I explained last year that despite walking past regularly on previous visits, I was never curious to try it. Something about the darkened room, the odd name, the people crowded together in the small space enjoying themselves too much. And the nightly fixed menu, everyone arriving at the same time and eating the same meal, one I feared might not suit my taste.

Truth is, the fixed menu issue isn’t a big deal. They post the menu for the coming week each Friday, online and onsite. No surprises. Gail insisted last year that we try it, and when we did I wrote, “Why oh why did we wait so long to eat there?” We didn’t wait so long again. I grabbed a printed copy of the menu as we were walking by last week and we decided to spend our last evening of this year’s stay there.

This time, I was facing into the room rather than the wall, allowing me to get a much better sense of just how beautifully furnished that dark room is. Fortunately, I don’t have to work too hard to capture it in words. I can turn to Malcolm Wilson, restaurant reviewer for Cape Cod Times, who is quoted at the restaurant website.

This little Nantucket restaurant has charm written all over it — from its dark red, ivy-framed, single-story front, pierced by small-paned windows, to its darkly handsome, romantic-as-a-novel interior.

The inside’s post-and-beam and rough plaster construction seems more like a stage set than interior design. And careful decoration gives Company of the Cauldron one of the prettiest dining rooms around.

Copper pans hang on the walls, along with a full-rigged half model ship. Pie-plate sconces are set with flickering candles, and, overhead, there are pierced antique tin lanterns and large, gracefully curved chandeliers for soft lighting.

Antique ship paintings on the walls and boat models hanging from the ceilings seem secure in their antiquity. Tables are covered with flowered cloths, and there are real candles in brass holders and tea roses in vases.

In addition to the candle sconces and the hanging fixtures, each table has its own candle, providing enchanting, more than sufficient lighting of food and companions. As for the name, the website provides the explanation:

Lorenzo The Magnificent, born April 8, 1449, died April 9, 1492 was one of the leaders of the Republic of Florence, and went on to become the most important Medici of the Italian Renaissance. While better known for his political achievements, his interests included gastronomy. Waverley Root tells us that the first cooking academy since Roman times was established in Florence. It was called the Company of the Cauldron; each member had to create a new dish for every meeting. Lorenzo supposedly composed songs honoring the chefs and olive oil makers.

Here is the menu for the dinner we had:

Jumbo lump crab cake with a chard corn salad, basil and tomatoes.

Twin tournedos of tenderloin with two sauces: green peppercorn au poivre and red onion demi over citrus thyme, fingerling potatoes.

Vanilla bean panna cotta with cassis and passion fruit curd and shortbread crumble.

Especially noteworthy is the high quality of all ingredients. The corn salad was stunning. I could have made a meal of it alone. Every little morsel was special. Likewise, the beef was as fine as any I can remember having in a long time. As for the panna cotta, there must have been a last-minute change. We had lemon curd, with some other fruit flavor, some berry. I can’t remember. No matter. I couldn’t have been happier. I just wish we didn’t have to wait so long for our next visit.

Categories: Restaurants, Travel

Polite Pinkerton Agents of Education Reform

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Pinkerton agents escorting strikebreakers, Buchtel, Ohio, 1884

It has become popular to blame teachers and their unions for the failures of our urban public schools, and to propose solutions that amount to privatizing the schools. The horrors of socialism; the wonders of capitalism. There’s no problem too big for the market to solve. Health care. Social security. Education. Just let the invisible hand of the free market do its magic.

As a counterpoint, we can turn to the series of articles Diane Ravitch has been writing for The New York Review of Books recently. I quoted from one in a post last May. Here’s a passage from another.

The current reform movement in education has embraced Teach for America and privately managed charter schools as remedies for the nation’s schools. But this combination is unlikely to succeed because one alienates career educators and the other destabilizes our public education system. It is hard to imagine improving the schools without the support and trust of the people who work in them every day.

[snip]

The problems of American education are not unsolvable, but the remedies must be rooted in reality. Schools are crucial institutions in our society and teachers can make a huge difference in changing children’s lives, but schools and teachers alone cannot cure the ills of an unequal and stratified society. Every testing program—whether the SAT, the ACT, or state and national tests—demonstrates that low scores are strongly correlated to poverty. On the SAT, for example, students from the most affluent families have the highest scores, and children from the poorest families have the lowest scores. Children need better schools, and they also need health clinics, high-quality early childhood education, arts programs, after-school activities, safe neighborhoods, and basic economic security. To the extent that we reduce poverty, we will improve student achievement.

A few weeks ago, I spent most of a day at a small conference of science teachers and science educators from around the state. When I speak of science teachers, I don’t mean just secondary science teachers. Elementary teachers, after all, teach science, and may be the most important teachers of science, since they have the responsibility of introducing our youngest students to the subject as an exciting way to think, do, discover.

By the end of the day, I was in awe of these teachers’ commitment, creativity, and energy in the face of the daily difficulties imposed by an underfunded system. Several were elementary teachers here in Seattle. One was told she couldn’t use water this summer on the school garden she had set up. Another — who had no experience teaching science when he was hired a couple of decades ago as the ESL instructor at a high school in a small community in the eastern part of the state — learned on arrival that he was to teach his non-English-speaking students science as well as English and other subjects. (And, of course, it was suggested to him that these would be low-performing students.) With help from professional science educators here at the university, he was soon teaching such a successful course that the native-English-speaking students wanted to get in.

I know. Anecdotes aren’t worth much. We need test scores and all that. I simply want to point out that I’ve encountered many wonderful teachers who deserve all the support we can give them, plus our respect.

Which brings me to Rebecca Mead’s commentary at The New Yorker blog today on the Chicago school teachers’ strike, from which I’ve stolen the title of this post. Perhaps I should explain that the Pinkerton agency got its start in the 1850s. By the end of the century, its agents had become synonymous with union-busting. I close with an excerpt:

Not long ago, I ran into someone I’d not seen for a while, who moves in moneyed circles in New York. We started chatting about the usual things—kids, schools—and she told me she’d been consumed lately with political work, raising money for candidates nationwide who were committed to breaking teachers’ unions. She said this with the same kind of social enthusiasm with which she might have recommended a new Zumba class, or passed on the name of a place to get really great birthday cakes.

[snip]

One problem with Chicago’s schools—like schools in urban centers all over this country—is that their constituents, the students, suffer from the usual hindrances of poverty: having no place at home to study; having no support at home for studying; sometimes having no home at all. Another problem is that talk of breaking teachers’ unions has become common parlance among the kind of people whose kids do not live below the poverty line, polite Pinkerton agents of education reform, circling at cocktail parties. No doubt there are some lousy teachers in Chicago, as there are everywhere. But blaming teachers for the failure of schools is like blaming doctors for the diseases they are seeking to treat.

Categories: Education, Labor, Language

Ventuno

September 9, 2012 Leave a comment

In past years, when we’ve come to Nantucket, I have written long posts about our daytime activities and our dinners. As we sit now awaiting a light lunch and the ride to the airport, it’s evident that I won’t be doing that this time. Probably just as well. Nonetheless, there are a few items I want to touch on. I’ll do so in individual posts. This one is devoted to Ventuno, the restaurant where we had dinner two nights ago.

I have written before (here, for instance, two years ago) about our favorite Nantucket restaurant, 21 Federal, and about my disappointment on learning last summer that it had closed. The restaurant’s name is simply its address, Federal Street being one of the central streets of Nantucket’s town. The restaurant that took its place is Italian in orientation, and gave recognition to the old name by taking as its own the Italian word for twenty-one: Ventuno. It was set up by Gabriel Frasca and Amanda Lydon, the couple who already ran another Nantucket institution, the nearby restaurant Straight Wharf.

When we tried Ventuno last September, we were delighted. And we found ourselves in good company, as John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kelly took a table across the way. On planning our time on Nantucket this year, we put Ventuno at the top of our list of restaurants to eat at. Once again we were delighted, and more. It was our favorite among many wonderful meals this past week.

The restaurant is an old house with several small rooms. We sat in the far corner of the back room, a lovely space. In addition to the menu items — you can see the online menu here; Friday’s version was similar in conception, though different in detail — the waiter told us about two specials built around a pig the restaurant had raised on an island farm and now slaughtered. I forget the pig-based appetizer. The main dish was pork loin with farro verde, island tomatoes, and island lettuce.

We decided to share three appetizers: the polpette (five small meatballs in a tomato sauce), the chilled tomato soup with (according to Gail’s memory) almond creme and pecrorino, and a half-portion of cavatelli pasta with chicken sausage, broccoli, rabe, pepper flakes, and a wine sauce. Each was spectacular.

Gail chose the duck for her entree, accompanied by farro, candied pistachios, and some sort of sauce. You can see it below.

I had the pig. Shortly after it was served, the chef came out to tell us about it. He explained that it was the best fed pig — or mammal of any sort — on the island, feasting on Ventuno scraps for months. Plus, the restaurant makes its own goat cheese, and would send the whey to the farm for the pig to try as well. The first time, it was an experiment, but the farmer reported back that they should keep it coming, and so they did. We were reassured that this was one happy pig.

And soon Ventuno had one happy diner. Two, actually.

On to dessert. Gail had the bomboloncini: bittersweet chocolate doughnuts, coffee gelato, and chocolate sauce. I tasted one of her two doughnuts and it was fabulous. I went light, with the morsel of caramel panna cotta and a little almond cookie.

As we finished, the chef returned to make sure the pig hadn’t died in vain. We fell into a long conversation, during which we realized that he was the founding chef and restaurant owner, Gabriel. He described the troubles last summer with customers who weren’t happy about the changes, somehow wanting Ventuno to be 21 Federal in all but name. Some didn’t get what the restaurant was about, or weren’t sympathetic to it. This year, things are better. Unhappy old-timers stay away. Those who come get what they’re about. We talked as well about how he and his wife handle their split life in Nantucket and Boston, this being the first complicated year, as the older of their two children began kindergarten this week. Until now, where they were, the kids were.

On our way out, we bought a Ventuno t-shirt for Gail to wear, the same style t-shirt the bus staff were wearing. The thought that we would have to wait a year for our next meal there saddened us. Maybe next year we’ll go twice.

——-

For more on Gabriel Frasca, see this short article and the video below.

Categories: Restaurants, Travel

The Passage of Power

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

A few months ago, I was trying to arrange my reading so that when the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, came out on May 1, I would be ready. However, when the time came, I kept finding other books to read, in part because the length of the Caro book (700+ pages, though less when you omit the notes) made me fear that I would get bogged down. There was always another book to read instead. And anyway, it’s not like I didn’t know what happened in US politics between 1958 and 1964, the years covered by Caro’s latest installment. As spring turned to summer, I began to wonder if I would ever get around to reading it.

A couple of weeks ago, as our Nantucket vacation approached, I had begun two books that I anticipated finishing during the trip. What could be more perfect than James Sullivan’s account of the Nantucket-Martha’s Vineyard high school football rivalry, Island Cup: Two Teams, Twelve Miles of Ocean, and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry, which I wrote about in mid-July? And then there’s Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, which I wrote about just before our departure. Although it had no Nantucket connection, my reading of it was timed perfectly in other ways. For one, as I noted in my post, the first of the trips Lewis-Kraus writes about is the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, which matches up surprisingly well with the route for this year’s version of the Vuelta a España, the annual three-week cycling race around Spain that started three weeks ago and concludes tomorrow.

Not only that, a week ago today, when we were in New York, we went up to The Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the northern end of Manhattan that houses much of their Medieval collection. And what did we see there? Among other things, columns (below) from a church in Santiago de Compostela, the terminus of the Santiago pilgrimage.

I had surely chosen the right books for this trip.

Once in New York, I put aside the pilgrimage book so I could learn about island football before arriving in Nantucket. As I explained two weeks ago, “my interest in high school football is close to zero. But my interest in Nantucket is high, and what especially appealed to me was the opportunity to learn about year-round life on the islands. … Island Cup would be useful remedial reading.” At first, this worked out well. Once we were up here on Nantucket, it was fun to learn about local lore, to look around at places and people and feel I had a better sense of them. But ultimately I wanted to read something meatier during this prime reading opportunity.

You know what would be perfect? Lee Child’s latest thriller. I’ve read Lee Child during past Nantucket trips. Why not during this one? The problem is, the latest — A Wanted Man, doesn’t come out until this coming Tuesday. Darn.

Or, what about a Michael Chabon novel. I read his The Yiddish Policeman’s Union a few years ago on Nantucket. There’s that new one, Telegraph Avenue. Sigh. It, too, won’t be available until this Tuesday. (Jennifer Egan reviews it in tomorrow’s NYT.)

As I wondered what I might read, the Democratic convention was going on in the background, and suddenly I remembered Caro’s book. Wouldn’t it be interesting, as the convention took place, to learn about the 1960 Democratic convention? I’ve read the story before, but this would be a good time for a refresher. So it was that I downloaded Caro’s book at last and began reading it.

Why did I wait? Boy, can he write. What a storyteller! I’m just past the halfway point and loving it.

The book has five parts. The first covers 1958-1960, focusing on the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kennedy’s selection of Johnson as his running mate, and the election. Part II, which I finished earlier this evening, covers Johnson’s years as vice-president. You may wonder how that can be interesting, when he didn’t do anything. It is because Caro focuses equally on Johnson, John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. For example, the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis is retold with emphasis on the roles of Robert Kennedy and LBJ. The chapter I just finished discusses autumn of 1963, with the developing Bobby Baker scandal and LBJ’s tenuous hold on the vice-presidency. Will Kennedy keep LBJ on the ticket, or look for someone who can help more in the 1964 election?

Caro argues convincingly earlier, in his account of the 1960 election, that LBJ made all the difference, allowing Kennedy to regain Texas and other southern states that Eisenhower had pulled over to the Republican side. Three years later, JFK’s actions in the civil rights battles of the day may have lost him the south for 1964 regardless of running mate. Should he drop LBJ in favor of someone who can help pull in other states, such as California? What will the electoral calculations dictate?

Part II ends on November 21, 1963, with Kennedy concluding the first day of his two-day sojourn to Texas to raise money and strengthen his position there. We follow Kennedy, Johnson, and the Texas political leaders through San Antonio and Houston in what has been a most difficult day for Johnson, as his diminished role in his home state is laid bare for all to see. The next day will bring breakfast in Fort Worth, a motorcade and luncheon in Dallas, a fundraising dinner in Austin, and then a trip out to the Johnson ranch, where the Kennedys will be guests. A lot is at stake for Johnson. Part III begins with that morning.

I should finish this post so I can find out how the day goes, and how the awkward weekend at the Johnson ranch turns out. Will Kennedy decide over the next nine months to keep Johnson as his running mate? A fascinating political story is about to unfold. Or would have. Now we can only wonder.

Categories: Books

A Match I’ll Miss

September 7, 2012 Leave a comment

I don’t watch a lot of tennis. I follow the four majors closely: study the draws, check the results, read stories, even keep track of the score of a match live on my browser (in the later rounds) while doing other things. But I don’t watch too many matches. Maybe the late stages of a semi-final or the finals.

Today is women’s semi-final day at the US Open. Big day. Especially considering that three different women have won the three majors played so far, and all three are in the semis. Victoria Azarenka (winner of the Australian) and Maria Sharapova (winner of the French Open) face off at 1:30k; Serena Williams (winner of Wimbledon) plays Sara Errani (runner-up at the French) at 3:45.

The post-tournament rankings are all but set, based on how far the players have gotten in this tournament. Azarenka will remain ranked #1, Sharapova will move up from #3 to #2. I haven’t read Williams fate, which may yet depend on the remaining play, but I imagine she can slide up from #4 to #3. No matter. Regardless of the rankings, whoever wins the Open will have had the best year (ruling Errani out as a possible winner). Which means we have some exciting tennis in store today and tomorrow.

But really, there’s no way I’m going to watch Azarenka play Sharapova. And probably no way I’ll watch the winner play Serena. The shrieker against the screamer. How can anyone watch them?

My loss, perhaps, because there’s much to admire about the pair, as people and as players. (Check out today’s NYT piece on Azarenka.) I just can’t listen to them. I’ll be content to check the score of their match online, if I’m free.

Categories: Tennis

Still Here

September 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Looking north along the Wauwinet beach on eastern edge of Nantucket, today, taken on my iPhone

Not much happening at Ron’s View for a week. Sorry about that. Usually when we travel I write too much. This time I can’t seem to get started, which means the backlog of items keeps growing, and the prospect of getting through it becomes intimidating. It doesn’t help that we’re staying in a room without a desk or table or any other sort of counter on which to put the computer. I can type in an easy chair or in bed, neither of which promotes or invites blogging.

Here are some items that I may have more to write about in the coming days.

1. Seattle-JFK flight last Friday. Not too interesting I suppose, though there were great views early on of Mounts Rainier, St. Helens, and Adams. Then clouds. Then I looked down on what seemed to be a great lake with a river running north-south from near its western end. And an airport. Aha. We must be approaching Detroit. I was looking at Lake Erie, the Detroit River, and the Detroit Wayne County Airport, or so I surmised. Sure enough, I saw a small river flowing into the purported Detroit River, which meant I was looking at Dearborn and the Rouge River, and then I could see the tops of the Renaissance Center towers in downtown Detroit, with Windsor, Ontario, to the south. The view of the Detroit River was sliding down my window until it was at the bottom edge and I could no longer see the US side. The Grosse Pointes were surely right under me, but not to be seen.

And then we were over Newark, the Hudson and Verrazano Narrows coming up as we moved east. We cut across Manhattan at about 70th street, with the bottom edge of Central Park just visible at the bottom of the window, midtown and downtown to the south. We continued east right down the middle of Long Island, with a perfect view of JFK to the south. And Coney Island, Rockaway, Long Beach. Finally we turned south over Jones Beach. I could plainly see the big parking lot near its western edge, and rows and rows of people on the beach itself. Little people. Colors. Right where my parents took me decades ago. South over the Atlantic, then west, doubling back past Long Beach, then passing from Nassau County back into Queens and down for our landing. Great trip.

Even better. Joel flew up from NC to join us, and even though he flew into LaGuardia, he got himself down to the JFK Hertz lot two minutes after we did. Perfect timing. We had just loaded the trunk when he showed up, and off we went.

2. The Cloisters on Saturday. We were in New York mostly for family visits, but we did have time to get up to the Cloisters Saturday afternoon. I voted to go down to the High Line, but Gail and Joel outvoted me, and it was just as well. Temperatures in the 90s, the sun, and the humidity made a walk on the High Line less than promising, while The Cloisters provided a cool haven. Photos and more details in due course. For now, there’s this view from The Cloisters across the Hudson to New Jersey:

Oh, and there was our stop earlier at Lady M on 78th just off Madison. What an amazing bakery! The items below give just a hint of its wonders.

3. Nantucket. Monday, Gail and I flew up to Nantucket. I have a history of reporting, when here, on all our dinners. Maybe I will this time. Or not. For now, I’ll just say that we’ve eaten at Topper’s, DeMarco, and Boardinghouse. All excellent. At the top of the post is a photo I took during my beach walk this morning.

4. La Vuelta. I had written last week about the four-man race developing in the last of the year’s three great cycling tours, the Vuelta a España. Joaquin Rodriguez, near-winner of this year’s Giro d’Italia, had a narrow lead over Alberto Contador — just back from a two-year doping suspension — and Christopher Froome — narrow Vuelta runner-up last year, Tour de France runner-up this summer, with Alejandro Valverde in hailing distance and everyone else far back. Well, forget all that. Froome, tired after a difficult summer campaign, has been slipping day by day. But today Contador turned the standings upside down, winning the stage by a wide margin over the other leaders to take control of the race, while Froome fell well off the pace. In second is Valverde, 1’52” back; third is Rodriguez at 2’28” back, and fourth is Froome, a far distant 9’40” back. I think we can consider the Vuelta settled. If only I had been able to follow this more closely. Like, on TV.

5. Romney, Ryan, and the rest of that bunch. Liars. Outrage. Where to begin? Probably the posts I imagined in my head won’t get written.

6. Obama. A decent human being for the most part, but he sure likes killing innocent people with drones. And looking forward not back, allowing his Department of Justice to conclude its CIA torture investigation with no wrongdoing found. Even as we laud him for his all-around wonderfulness this week, can we keep in mind that he is committing and condoning crimes?

7. Books. I have some updating to do. Not tonight though. In fact, I should read a little before I fall asleep. More on reading, and other topics, later.

Categories: Travel