About Me

My photo
Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

What Jumps My TBR Line (Queue outside North America)

Looking at my TBR pile, more accurately piles, this evening left me reflecting on my reading plans. I usually have planned out ahead 3-4 books to be read. Yet the plan is not rigid. There are books that jump the line.

As my blog features mysteries from Saskatchewan a new mystery by a Saskatchewan author is put atop the TBR piles.

However, if I am involved in one of the community memes sponsored by Kerrie Smith at her excellent blog, Mysteries in Paradise, reading for the meme will take priority over all else. I am currently taking part in the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme. I wish I could say I stayed several letters ahead in the alphabet in my reading but I am not so disciplined.

In the spring I desperately wanted to read Anthony Bidulka’s new mystery, When the Saints Go Marching In, with his new character, Adam Saint, but I waited a few weeks to keep up with the alphabet.

Right now as “Z” is looming on Sunday I am just keeping up with the letter of the week. It has meant Gail Bowen’s new book, The Gifted, has been waiting since the beginning of the month. I will be reading it next week.

I also jump the line for the Canadian Book Challenge, my only reading challenge. As Canada Day approaches on July 1 usually need 1 or 2 or 3 books to finish the annual commitment of 13.

For individual authors Michael Connelly never waits to be read.

A new John Grisham book will not languish in the pile.

Louise Penny never sinks into the pile though I had reservations about the The Beautiful Mystery.

When I realize I have not read non-fiction for awhile I will forgo the waiting crime fiction for non-fiction. My sons often give me some non-fiction at Christmas. After being asked why I have not read their gifts promptly they now move up the pile. Last Christmas they gave me a copy of Defender of the Realm by William Manchester and Paul Reid. It is the third volume in Manchester’s superb biography of Winston Churchill. I completed the book but have not completed my review. The review will come shortly after the end of the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme.

What does not jump the pile are books on the shortlists for all the crime fiction prizes. After a year in which I have hardly read any of the short lists of major awards for crime fiction I have decided not to press to read those books shortlisted.

As always in my life there is an exception. I have made a personal commitment to read at least 2 of the 3 books on the shortlist for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

After further reflection, with all the line or queue (I do not know why we use line instead of queue in North America) jumpers I realize I really do not really have a line of TBR books. The exceptions outnumber the planned books!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Flying on the Edge of the World in Crime Fiction

A year ago after reading Murder in a Cold Climate by Scott Young, the first book featuring Canadian Arctic sleuth, Matteesie Kitologitak, I put up a post titled Traditional Outdoor Journeys in Crime Fiction. It discussed journeys by dogsled and on foot in vast barely inhabited regions of the world.

My last post was a review of the second book, The Shaman’s Knife, in which Matteesie solved an Arctic crime. In reading that book I was reminded how air travel is the current means of travel on the perimeter of the world.

In the far North it is possible to travel by snowmobile or, for a few, by dogsled but those methods of travel are limited in their range. To travel the great distances across the North an airplane is needed.

To illustrate those distances Matteesie opens the book by flying from Labrador to Ottawa (2,000 km) to Edmonton (3,400 km) to Yellowknife (1,500 km) to Cambridge Bay (850 km) to Sanirarsipaaq (about 250 km to the fictional village) on Victoria Island in the Arctic Ocean. He has covered 8,000 km (5,000 miles). Had he not stopped to visit his injured mother in hospital in Yellowknife he could have made the journey in 3-4 days.

On the flight to Cambridge Bay Matteesie travels with the Court. On the flight are the judge, court staff, Crown prosecutor and defence counsel. I once made a flight into northern Saskatchewan on such a flight. It was a unique experience to have everyone in the justice system travelling together.

Later in the book there is a burial service in Holman. The mourners, including the body, fly in for the burial. Between Cambridge Bay and Holman, both on Victoria Island is a trip of 550 km.

There are no road options. Once past Yellowknife there are effectively no roads beyond winter ice roads. Arctic residents are far more accustomed to flying than their southern Canadian counterparts.

It is the same for the residents of Chukchi (the fictional version of the real life community of Kotzebue) on Alaska’s Northwest coast in the mystery series by Stan Jones with Alaskan State trooper, Nathan Active as the sleuth.

It is a 1,600 km flight between Kotzebue and Anchorage, Alaska. Once again there are no roads on which to make the journey.

In Frozen Sun, when Active flies from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor during the investigation he flies a further 1,600 km. Within the state of Alaska he can travel 3,200 km.

Many of the flights are on smaller planes which are far more impacted by weather than big commercial jets. Matteesie describes a landing in Sanirarsipaaq:

Suddenly the flight got bumpier. O’Kennedy’s voice came on the intercom: “Seat belts! This might get worse. We’re in descent, coming in to land.” For minutes we pitched and yawed around, losing altitude. The mourners gripped their seat arms and hung on. I could see nothing. It was like flying through gray soup. Then suddenly the clouds got wispy and I saw the landing strip feet away, much too close. The engines roared us back up out of there. On the second try we came through the cloud the same way, saw the landing strip about twenty feet away, bumped down, braked like hell, and I realized that I hadn’t been breathing a lot, if at all, in the last few seconds.

Nathan Active, in Shaman Pass, jumps out of a plane onto the snow covered ground from a plane barely moving as it flies into a fierce wind.

Are you ready to go flying in the Great White North?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

“Y” is for The Shaman’s Knife by Scott Young

“Y” is for The Shaman’s Knife by Scott Young (1993) – The second Matteesie Kitologitak mystery is a brilliant trip into the far North of Canada.

Matteesie has just arrived home in Ottawa from a trip to Labrador when he receives a call that a double murder has taken place in Sanirarsipaaq and his 90 year old mother, Bessie Apakaq, has been injured. She has been medivacked to Yellowknife.

On the difference in surnames Matteesie explains:

The Inuit system of more or less picking our own surnames baffles some people, especially the whites, but it’s one of our traditional ways that we’ve been able to hang onto. It’s not based on patronymics, like in Russia, or matronymics, if that’s a word, but simply allows the individual to take the name he or she wishes.

It is one of but many lovely little examples of Inuit life.

As Matteesie finishes the call advising he is on his way to Yellowknife his wife, Lois, overhears the conversation and makes a rude remark about “the bloody North” not realizing the trip is to go to his stricken mother and then fly to Sanirarsipaaq to investigate the murders. It is a painfully awkward moment when Lois learns about her mother-in-law being injured, a woman she met early in their 20 years of marriage and has not seen again. Matteesie says Lois “apparently didn’t really warm to a toothless old Inuit woman with a tattooed face and only one eye”.

In the North, Aunt Bessie is a much loved woman who loves to travel from one family group to another, the nomadic spirit still strong in her.

On arrival in Yellowknife Matteesie finds his mother gravely injured but stable. She had been knocked aside by the killer fleeing the house in which the murders were committed.

Matteesie receives long distance comfort from Maxine, the Inuit woman with whom he has had an affair almost as long as he has been married.

Matteesie finds himself content to continue both relationships.

After Bessie stabilizes he travels to Sanirarsipaaq on the Arctic coast. The case gains widespread publicity when there is a suggestion that there are shamanistic aspects to the murders.

Even though it is officially spring in southern Canada it is still winter in the Arctic. For a snowmobile trip out of town he readies himself in case the weather changes:

Most of my heavy-duty cold wear had flown with me from Labrador last Monday. The rest I’d borrowed from Bouvier. I had on a thermal shirt next to my skin, down vest, pants of caribou hide with rubber bottoms, winter parka, fur hat and googles …..

Northerners learn to respect the weather.

Once in the small Arctic community he returns to the life of his youth where the residents make their living from the land hunting and trapping.

Comfortably settled into the local hotel Matteesie commences his investigation with the aid of Corporal Bouvier.

The deceased, a young man and his mother, have been brutally knifed to death. There is blood everywhere.

Forensic examination shows several types of footprints – some in the blood and some prior to the killings. I could not help but think they needed Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte to help them study the footprints.

Matteesie is a dogged investigator. He neither has brilliant deductions or swift insights into the evidence. He carefully proceeds with assembling the evidence.

He considers the local shaman, Jonassie Oquataq, a famed Inuit carver and sculptor. Matteesie thinks of the role shamans have traditionally taken in the North.

As the investigation proceeds the reader is fully taken into the life of an Inuit village far above the Arctic Circle.

There is little doubt about the killer but can Matteesie build a case?

The Shaman’s Knife is an excellent book. I was left regretful at the end that Scott Young wrote no further mysteries featuring Matteesie and the people of northern Canada. It would have been a memorable series. (Sept. 24/13)
Last year my entry for “Y” in the Crime Fiction Alphabet hosted by Kerrie Smith at her blog Mysteries in Paradise also featured Scott Young in the following posts:
(2012) - Murder in a Cold Climate;  (2012) - "Y" is for Scott Young; (2012) - Traditional Outdoor Journeys in Cime Fiction

My connection to the book comes from its setting in Canada and the author being a Canadian. My next post will contain some further observations on life focusing on modern travel in the North.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Reviewing the Movie Adaptation of Louise Penny’s Still Life

Armand Gamache, Yvette Nichol and Jean-Guy Beauvoir in the
movie Still Life from the CBC
Earlier this year I wrote about Canadian author, Louise Penny, becoming a movie producer for the film being made of her first book, Still Life, in the Inspector Armand Gamache series primarily set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.

The movie was telecast on the CBC last Sunday. While I was unable to watch the initial telecast Sharon and I were able to watch it online a few evenings later.

I enjoyed the movie but could not call it brilliant.

As in the books the fictional village of Three Pines entrances the viewer. The trees, dressed in autumn colours, set the scene. In the village the bistro / B &B of Gabi and Olivier is perfect. You want to get in the nearest car, train or plane to travel to the village and settle in at the inn with the local residents.

Among the police, Anthony Lemke as Jean-Guy Beauvoir, is a fine choice. While sometimes exasperated by Gamache he is a clever and dedicated officer.

Susanna Fournier as Detective Yvette Nichol, is suitably nasty and a good foil to all the other very correct officers.

Kate Hewlett as Clara Morrow, the aspiring artist and close friend to the murdered Jane Neal, is convincingly vulnerable. Penny, who has described the Clara of the books as herself should be pleased with the portrayal of Hewlett.

I regret that I still have a problem with the casting of Nathaniel Parker as Gamache. The urbane English accents of Parker do not work well with the character of a French Canadian police inspector. The producers provide an explanation for the English accent but it felt contrived.

I am still uneasy that I am being unfair about Parker because he does not fit my image of Gamache from reading all the books in the series.

For another view, John Doyle in his Globe & Mail review said:

While the Gamache character has some richness in the novels, on screen he’s bland. An honourable man, given to questioning authority, but lacking the sinew and muscle of a truly commanding character. There was some fuss made about an English actor being cast as Gamache, but it really doesn’t matter here – it’s all very much in the English tradition, really.

I do consider Parker a credible leader of the investigation and he is as comfortable in the village as the Gamache of the books.

In Longmire there was little connection with the book story lines, Still Life follows the plot of the book.

The movie has a Canadian pace and flavour. There is nary a car chase, shootout or sexual adventure. It has a quieter feel for plot than current American crime drama.

At the same time I found the movie choppy at times with limited character development. I think Still Life would have worked better in a mini-series format where there would be more time to explore the characters and the village.

I am glad I watched the movie and grateful it was respectful of the book from which it was drawn.

Readers can go to http://www.cbc.ca/player/Shows/ID/2406432208/ to watch the movie online.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Reflections on red Mandarin dresses

In my last post I reviewed the book Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong. As I started reading the book I was caught up in the visual image of a red Mandarin dress and looked up some images online. As I continued reading I realized the red Mandarin dress in which each young woman victim was placed after being murdered had great social and political significance in Communist China of the 1990’s.

A red Mandarin dress is instantly a Chinese image. They evoke to me slender Chinese women drawing the attention of all around them in the brilliant brocaded dress. Form fitting they have traditionally been individually made for the woman wearing the dress.

In the book Xiaolong outlines how Mandarin dresses of the early 1960’s usually had long sleeves and modest slits up the legs. They have a sensual attraction.

Current Mandarin dresses are more overtly sexual. They tend to have short sleeves or be sleeveless with no backs and side slits as high as the thigh. Online, almost all of the images I could find were of the current style.

Mandarin dresses were worn after the Communist takeover in 1949. It was not until the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was launched in 1966 that they disappeared for over a generation.

Comrade Yu’s wife, Peiqin, says of that time:

“In our middle school days, such a garment was out of the question, decadent and bourgeois and whatnot.”

It is harder to think of a greater fashion contrast from beautiful richly coloured Mandarin dresses than the thick drab unisex Mao suits that were worn by the Chinese people of the Cultural Revolution.

When China started liberalizing its economy and money began flowing through the nation the Mandarin dress made its return.

The placement of the women in red mandarin dresses provokes speculation among reporters in the book:

“One deemed it a political case, a protest against the reversal of values in socialist China for the mandarin dress, once condemned as a sign of capitalistic decadence, had become popular again.”

What puzzles the investigators is that the red mandarin dresses in which the young women were found were 1960’s conservative dresses. Why was the killer using traditional dresses? What could be so important to the killer that he places his victims, without underclothes, in ripped red Mandarin dresses with bosom buttons undone? The red Mandarin dresses have a symbolism to the killer that, if Chief Inspector Chen, can but decipher will allow him to find the serial killer.

The red Mandarin dresses draw an intense public interest to the murders that would never have been the same had the victims been dumped by the killer wearing Mao suits.

The book uses the red Mandarin dress as a powerful effective image – politically, culturally, sexually – that is at the heart of the mystery. When I see a red mandarin dress in the future I will think of Xiaolong’s book.
For readers interested in the role of clothes in books I recommend the Clothes in Books Blog (http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.ca/) where Moira has fascinating posts.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"X" is for Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong

43. – 732.) Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong – For a third year my entry for the letter “X” in the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme hosted by Kerrie Smith at her blog, Mysteries in Paradise, will be a review of a book by Chinese American author, Qiu Xiaolong. I hope it is more tradition that I have developed than being unable to find another author I like whose surname starts with “X”.

As with Death of a Red Heroine the book opens with the discovery of a young woman who has been murdered. What makes the case here unusual is that she was found wearing a red mandarin dress that has had side slits ripped and several double-fish-shaped bosom buttons left undone.

The police are left reeling for it is the second murder of a young woman in a short time who has been dumped in a public location wearing a red mandarin dress and no other clothes.

There is a media frenzy about the red mandarin dress murders. Even in the highly controlled culture of Communist China the authorities are forced to acknowledge there is a serial killer in the City. Until the economic changes serial murders had been kept out of the press but once Chinese media were forced to sustain themselves economically they look as avidly to murder as any Western media.

A serial murderer is not acceptable to the Party and there is enormous pressure on the police to find the killer.

Chief Inspector Chen Cao is not interested in the case. He is on a short leave. He has enrolled in an MA program for Classical Chinese Literature at Shanghai University. His first paper is due shortly and he is going to use his time away from the office to work on the paper.

After looking at several Chinese short stories he has decided upon a paper which will delve into similarities in how women are portrayed in love stories over several hundred years.

His love of poetry is a daily part of his life, whether on work or at home. Chen continues to quote favoured lines. On a textile worker growing old swiftly:

            Soon, the splendor fades
            from the flower. There’s no stopping
            the chill rain, or the shrill wind.

While Chen is trying to focus on his paper his dutiful aide, Comrade Yu, is racing around trying to find information. Yu’s wife, Peiqin, searches for information on the distinctive red mandarin dresses placed upon the victims.

When Chen leaves Shanghai for a rest Yu is distraught. He has always leaned heavily on Chen to guide him investigations.

When Chen does return the investigation takes him back into the cruel days of the Cultural Revolution. Terrible actions were taken in the name of the Party.

During the book I was diverted by the amazing descriptions of food.  Chen describes soup buns:

“….the soup in the bun comes from the pork skin jelly mixing with the stuffing. In a steamer over the stove, the jelly turns into hot liquid. You have to bite carefully, or the soup will splash out, scalding your tongue.”

At the same time I was stunned by some of the dishes. I can do no more for description than list one item as live monkey brains.

Xiaolong writes subtle mysteries taking the reader into Chinese society past and present. His sleuth is skilled at dealing with highly political superiors. Every action must consider what the Party would want done.

The ending was one of the most poignant I have read in some time. I look forward to reading more Chief Inspector Chen books.

My next post will provide some thoughts on a red mandarin dress. It is a striking sensual dress. (Sept. 13/13.)
My personal connection is an affection for the beauty and power of the poetry in the series. I do not read books of poetry but I love poetry with great imagery and flow of words.
Earlier posts involing Qiu Xiaolong are:

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Diefenbaker for the Defence by Garrett Wilson and Kevin Wilson

Diefenbaker for the Defence by Garrett Wilson and Kevin Wilson – John George Diefenbaker was a defence counsel in rural Saskatchewan for over 35 years before he became Prime Minister of Canada in 1957. 

The biography, while covering his life until he became P.M., is focused on his trials in the courts of Saskatchewan.

Last year I read the Moonlight Murder Mystery: An Adventure of the Young John Diefenbaker by Roderick Benns. I followed up with a post on my personal contacts with Dief the Chief. (My last post was a review of Garrett Wilson’s legal fictional mystery, Guilty Addictions, and information on his life.)

After a somewhat mysterious medical discharge from the Canadian Army in WW I Diefenbaker was able to use a soldier’s exemption to accelerate his articles so that he became a lawyer at 24.

His first office was in Wakaw which is 85 km down the road from my home in Melfort. (Readers of the blog will recognize Wakaw as the real life town featured in the small town Saskatchewan mysteries of Nelson Brunanski.)

Diefenbaker, while frail in appearance as a young man, had piercing eyes, a powerful voice and a commanding formal presence that served him well in the courtroom.

When his legal career began most of the residents of Saskatchewan, other than First Nations peoples, were immigrants from all the nations of Europe. Around Wakaw a majority of the newcomers were either Slavic or French.

Soon in demand Diefenbaker defended cases throughout our region. It was interesting to read of cases that took place in courthouses in which I have argued cases, including Melfort where I live.

An early prominent case arose on Christmas Day of 1929 when Antena Kropa died after being shot in her home in Humboldt. Beside her was the wounded Alex Wysochan. Her husband, Alex, claimed that a drunk Wysochan had threatened them. As Alex fled the house through a window to get help he heard 3 shots fired. Wysochan retained Diefenbaker to defend him. The most obvious defence was to plead drunkenness. If successful, the defence could not produce an acquittal but would reduce the conviction from murder to manslaughter. Diefenbaker, for reasons not clear in the book eschewed the drunkenness defence and went for an acquittal claiming Kropa had shot his wife and Wysochan. It is hard to know whether Antena and Wysochan being lovers helped or hurt the defence. I think Diefenbaker, an aggressive counsel, was overconfident of his ability to convince a jury, even if the facts for his defence were weak. It proved a fatal decision for Wysochan. The defence was unsuccessful. Wysochan was convicted and hung.

The case illustrates when I am grateful, as a lawyer, Canada does not have the death penalty. The decisions made by a defence counsel in a capital case can have life and death consequences. I am not sure I could defend someone with that responsibility upon me. Diefenbaker does not seem to have been excessively traumatized. He carried on with his legal career.

While immediately a successful lawyer Diefenbaker was an unsuccessful Conservative Party politician for almost two decades. His political career was adversely affected by the presence of the Klu Klux Klan. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s the Klan had a loud, though fortunately non-violent presence, in Saskatchewan. While not a member of the Klan, Diefenbaker did not effectively distance himself from the Klan when it was actively supporting the Conservative party

Justly famed for his criminal defence work, Diefenbaker also took on civil cases. When the famed naturalist, Grey Owl, died in northern Saskatchewan the public learned he was an imposter. Archie Belaney was not Indian but an English immigreant. Diefenbaker became involved in a court case over his estate. Belaney had lived a complicated family life. Publicly he had lived with Anahaero and she had borne them a child, Shirley Dawn. He had also gone through a marriage to Yvonne Perrier. After death it was determined he had never divorced his first wife, Angle Belaney. Diefenbaker unsuccessfully sought to eliminate Angle’s claim on the basis she had been unfaithful after Archie deserted her. The Court dismissed the argument justly pointing out Archie had left her, neglected her and their children and lived with other women.

The book is at its best analyzing Diefenbaker’s conduct of trials. His skill in final arguments drew full courtrooms to hear him. By the time I graduated from law school in the mid-1970's Diefenbaker had spent a generation away from the courts of Saskatchewan but he was still highly regarded as a defence lawyer. (July 29/13)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"W" is for Guilty Addictions by Garrett Wilson

For this week's post in the Crime Fiction Alphabet hosted by Kerrie Smith at her blog, Mysteries in Paradise, I have chosen for "W" the book, Guilty Addictions, by Garrett Wilson.

My review written in 2002 long before I began blogging and when I was writing much short reviews:

41. - 131.) Guilty Addictions by Garrett Wilson - The long time Regina lawyer has written a fictional version of the Conservative Party's legislative funds scandal of the late 1980's. Oxford Lacoste is a young rural Saskatchewan lawyer seeking to unravel the fraudulent scheme which turns murderous as he pursues the truth. The plot is sound and characters well drawn. (It is exciting to have a rural Saskatchewan lawyer as the hero.) Unfortunately, too much of the writing is predictable and cliched. Paperback only (Dec. 27/02)
Readers from outside Saskatchewan will not understand the real life background to the book referred to in my review. No one needs to know that information to appreciate the book.
I wish I could have liked the book more. Who could be better as a hero than a rural lawyer? Who could be better as an author than a Saskatchewan lawyer. Unfortunately it was not good as I hoped. Others may like it better.
Wilson has led a rich and varied life since he was born in 1932 in Limerick, Saskatchewan. He practised law in Regina for over 50 years. He has been a long time prominent member of the Liberal Party. He served in Government in different capacities including a period as Chairman of the Public Service Commission. He was involved in the sport tourism industry and has his pilot's licence. He had a 2,000 acre farm for over 20 years.
His volunteer activities as outlined on his website are extensive:
    As well, Garrett is a former director and president of the
    Saskatchewan Book Awards and a former director and presently
    a member of the Advisory Council of The Writers’ Trust of
   Canada. He currently serves as a public representative on the
   Saskatchewan Hearing Committee of the Investment Industry
   Regulatory Organization of Canada, and on the Prairie Regional
   Council of the Mutual Fund Dealers Association of Canada.
   Other memberships include The Writers Union of Canada, The
   Saskatchewan Writers Guild, the Canadian Aviation Historical
   Society, The Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society,
   Heritage Saskatchewan, and the Royal United Services Institute.

I do not where he has found the time but he is also the author of 6 books and editor of a pair of memoirs. His life makes me think I must have wasted a lot of time in mine.

While Political Addictions was not a great book for me I am happy to say my next post is a review of one of his non-fiction books, Diefenbaker for the Defence, and it is an outstanding book.
My connections to this week's post could not be stronger with the author and lead character both being Saskatchewan lawyers.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why I read Jacques Pepin's book The Apprentice

In my last post I put up a review of The Apprentice - My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin.

I was drawn to read the book after taking a pair of cruises with the Oceania Cruise Line. Pepin is the Executive Culinary Director for the company

In one of the ship boutiques were copies of this book and I brought a copy back from the cruise.

Oceania's website sets out his role in the company:

    Jacques works closely with our team of Executive Chefs to
    develop menus that blend new and exotic dishes with revered

Several of his signature dishes are always featured in the Grand Dining Room:

    1.) Steak Frites: New York Strip Steak, French Fries and Garlic
    Butter Rosette;

    2.) Poulet Rôti: Herb-Crusted Free Range Rotisserie Chicken
    with Red Bliss Mashed Potatoes and Jus de Rôti; and,

    3.) Suprême de Saumon: Poached Norwegian Salmon Supreme
    with Rice Pilaf and Choron Sauce.

The roast chicken was my favourite. You could not have a better chicken dish.

There is a restaurant on the line's two larger ships that bears his name. The following description is alittle over the top but it is a lovely restaurant:

    Enter Jacques, the eminent Jacques Pépin's first restaurant to
    bear his name on land or sea, and you will be instantly struck by
    the sensory pleasures. Luscious aromas waft from the gleaming
    glass and brass show rotisserie in the room's heart, where duck,
    pork, chicken and veal roasts slowly turn, sealing in their
    succulent flavors. Handsomely decorated with rich fabrics,
    heirloom antiques, pickled wood furnishings and art from
    Jacques' personal collection, it resembles a classic Parisian
    bistro. Exceedingly comfortable and clubby, the ambiance is
    pure French, as is the cosmopolitan yet wonderfully
    approachable cuisine.

His cooking shows are daily features on one of the ship's onboard television channels. On the shows he had easy charm while skillfully cooking. Watching his shows made me interested in reading about him.

One of his principles emphasized throughout the book is that he abhors waste. Every bit of vegetables, fruits and meat is used in his kitchen. He will not throw away food.

The magazine Conde Naste Traveller rates the Oceania Cruise Line as having the best food among cruise lines.

In the book The Lives of the Chefs there is an interview with Pepin. It starts with a question of status:

    Ellen Shapiro: You have said that before chefs became
    celebrities they were relegated to the basement. To what do you
    attribute the emergence of the celebrity chef?

    Jacques Pepin: Twenty years ago you wouldn't have wanted your
    son or daughter to be a chef. It was demeaning, low class,
    considered part of the hospitality industry. When I first came to
    the United States, we belonged to Local 89, the dishwashers'
    union. At the time Americans had only Fannie Farmer, The Joy
    of Cooking, and James Beard to teach them how to cook. Now
    over a thousand cookbooks are published every year. Now all the
    daily papers have food pages. Former gastronomic wastelands
    have excellent restaurants. Even in academia, food is more
    respected. In the late '60s I proposed a Ph.D. thesis on
    gastronomy at Columbia and they looked at me as if I were
    crazy. It was unthinkable. Food, a doctoral dissertation? Now I
    teach at Boston University where we offer a Master of Liberal
    Arts degree with a concentration in gastronomy. But the
    celebrity chef is not a new idea. Respect for the chef goes up and
    down. In France it reached a pinnacle at the end of the 17th
    century with LaVarenne; then chefs were relatively obscure
    again until Escoffier in the late 19th century. In this country the
    radicalism of the 1960's led to all kinds of social changes ranging
    from women's liberation to alternative gardening to the
    proliferation of health food stores. Then the narcissism of the
    '80s set in motion a whole new awareness, a cooking explosion.
    Today, lawyers and producers who want to become chefs are
    studying here. It has become very trendy, very fashionable. To a
    certain extent too fashionable, but I'm not complaining because
    this situation has been terrific for me. Yet after more than 43
    years in the kitchen I can't take myself too seriously. We're no
    great geniuses. We're still soup merchants. The problem is that
    there are chefs 23 or 25 years old who really think they are
    geniuses, and that's dangerous.

As I set out in the spring in my post, Cruising with a Library, the Oceania ship, Marina, has a wonderful library. Combined with great food a cruise on Marina is a wonderful vacation.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Apprentice - My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin

The Apprentice - My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin - The famed French / American chef's autobiography, is different from most autobiographies because it focuses as much or more on his early life as it does on the years he became famous.

He is as wonderful a writer as a cook. In prose that reads exactly like he sounds Pepin tells of a life devoted to cooking and of his passionate love of good food.

Growing up in rural France on the edge of the mountains he was working in a restaurant kitchen from the time he was 10 as he helped his mother in a series of restaurants she owned.

He left school at 13 1/2 in 1948 to enter into an apprenticeship in the restaurant of a prominent local hotel. While startling today that he left school so young it was common in France at that time to be out of school at 14.

His apprenticeship was grueling. Long hours were spent in the kitchen on menial tasks. Each day it was his responsibility to get the huge black stove started and properly heated with wood and coal. It was a year before he was allowed to actually cook anything on the stove.

While the demands of the apprenticeship were excessive he enjoyed his life in the kitchen and learned the skills that were to make him a great chef.

I had not known that the French chefs of that era did not have written recipes. They learned by watching and following senior chefs. He learned to cook by using his senses. He says:

    By touching a piece of meat, I learned to determine its degree of
    doneness. Raw meat was spongy, well-done meat hard. I learned
    precisely how to determine all the stages in between by pushing
    a finger against the meat. Hearing was significant, too. The snap
    of an asparagus spear, the crunch of an apple, the pop of a grape
    are all indicators of freshness and quality. I learned to listen to
    the sizzling sound of a chicken roasting in the oven. When le
    poulet chante (the chicken sings) I knew that the layers of fat
    had clarified, signifying that the chicken was nearly done. Smell
    was of importance in recognizing quality. A fresh fish smells of
    the sea, sea weed and salt. Fresh meat has a sweet smell, fresh
    poultry practically no smell at all. Melon, pears, tomatoes,
    raspberries, oranges and the like each have their own distinctive
    fragrance when perfectly ripe.

In almost every biographical description of Pepin he is described as a personal chef for Charles de Gaulle. It seemed incredible as he was in his early 20's when de Gaulle was in power in the mid-1950's and was in America when de Gaulle was back as leader in the 1960's.

In the book he explains he was drafted into the French navy. Because of his friendship with a fellow native of Lyons he was assigned to a posting that had him cooking for the Secretary of the Treasury. From there he became chef to the Prime Minister when  the Secretary was made Prime Minister. Pepin stayed as chef when de Gaulle became leader. It was a job, not the prestigious position it is today.

Still Pepin already had formidable cooking skills. By the time he reached 21 he had already spent 11 years in restaurant kitchens.

Looking for a change in life he came to New York City in 1959. He immediately entered the upper echelon of American chefs.

In an era when "foodie" had yet to be invented the number of devotees of fine cuisine were limited. Pepin knew all of them. He cooked with Julia Child, partied with Craig Claiborne and dined with James Beard.

He became famous in America for his fine lucidly written cookbooks and his cooking shows on PBS. His love of food shines through in every telecast.

Unlike many of the chefs on the Food Network today who seek attention by their aggressive loud personalities Pepin always made the food the star of the show.

At the end of each chapter there are favourite recipes from the simple (Eggs Jeanette) to the complex (Braised Striped Bass Pavillion). Reading them makes you want to head to the kitchen.

While America simplified some of his cooking and made him informal the evening meal for some fresh fish (bluefish, black fish and striped bass) he had caught with a friend is amazing.

Pepin said:

    We smoked some of the bluefish fillets, because that brings out
    the best in this oily, thoroughly American fish, and we garnished
    them with a mustard potato salad seasoned with dill. Drawing on
    influences of both the Far East and nouvelle cuisine, we took
    some of the striped bass and made carpaccio flavoured with
    sesame seed oil and soy sauce. We grilled the blackfish, adding
    just a little oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice and also prepared a
    seviche from the same fish, flavoured with hot pepper, cilantro,
    mint, and lime juice. As the piece de resistance, we poached
    some of the striped bass fillets in Champagne and white wine
    and accompanied them with a cream sauce that included
    mushrooms and shallots, a dish that I prepared back at Le
    Pavillon when I first came to this country.

I can only dream of being invited to his home for a meal. It would be a great experience with wonderful food and good wines.

It is one of the few non-fiction books that I have read that drew me along like a great novel demanding I keep turning the pages to find out what new interesting experience was ahead. It is a great book.

In my next post I will discuss why I read the book and more about Pepin. (Sept. 3/13)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"V" is for Vodka Doesn’t Freeze by Leah Giarratano

"V" is for Vodka Doesn’t Freeze by Leah Giarratano – For the letter “V” in the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme hosted by Kerrie Smith on her blog, Mysteries in Paradise, I have read a book from Kerrie's homeland, Australia.

Sgt. Jill Jackson of the Sydney Police is assigned to investigate the murder of a man found in some brush on a cliff overlooking a pool frequented by children. It is instantly apparent to the Police that he was a paedophile.

There is no regret in the police that he has been killed. Some officers would prefer not to aggressively investigate a murder of a man they despise.

On her return home Jackson, thinking of the investigation, suffers a panic attack as she remembers being kidnapped and brutalized as a child by her captors. When she comes home she obsessively checks her house to be sure there are no intruders present.

Clinical psychologist, Mercy Merris, is unraveling. She has spent too much time counseling the victims of paedophiles. The private clinic where she works has unsuccessfully attempted to get her to restrict her practice

Jackson knows and admires Merris who had treated her. She worries about what is happening to the psychologist.

In her police unit Scott Hutchison, a big bluff outgoing man is Jackson’s partner very supportive of her. Her nemesis is Elvis Calabrese a big, overweight offensive man. Each is almost a caricature. I do not make light of the challenges of women in police services but there is no subtlety to these men.

In a review of outstanding cases Jackson notes a pair of murders of men in the Sydney area. It does not take long to determine someone is killing paedophiles.

Much of the book focuses around paedophiles and their connections with each other. Reading about them is difficult, often repellent. In reading the book I wondered whether they could be anything but evil in fiction. Could a writer show any aspect of their lives in a positive way?

I admire Giarrantano for writing about a mystery involving paedophiles. I doubt there is a harder subject.

With the investigation turning into the hunt for a serial killer Jackson is conflicted about diligently pursuing the killer. Should the police go after a vigilante eliminating men who hurt children?

At the heart of the book for me was the question whether a paedophile can be a victim if he is murdered? Does the predator become victim when murdered?

I thought of Michael Connelly’s character, Harry Bosch. For 20 years he has lived by the motto that everyone matters or no one matters.
Michael Connelly, on his website, has an interview from 2002 between himself and his character, Bosch. In that interview Bosch explains his philosophy:
    HB: Look, I’ve always said that everybody counts or nobody
    counts. I choose the former over the latter. Everybody counts.
    That goes just as much for the boy on the hill as it does for every
    person that was in the World Trade Center or in the Pentagon or
    on those planes. I’ve never had a problem keeping my eyes on
    the prize. Not this case or any of the others before it.
Bosch will not value one person’s life over that of another person. He is widely admired for his commitment to all victims. By this creed the murder of a paedophile is the same as the murder of any other person.

If we decide victims can only be good people we play God on whose lives and deaths have worth.

To her credit Jackson seeks out the killer. She is a true officer enforcing the law rather than making judgments on whose deaths deserve her efforts to solve their murders.

Publishers are squeamish about the issue of murdered paedophiles as victims of crime. On the back cover they would far rather talk about Jackson seeking out living paedophiles participating in a ring than her responsibilities as a homicide detective to find a murderer of paedophiles.

If you like Hollywood you will enjoy the ending to the book.

I was glad I read the book. It did leave me disturbed and thoughtful. I expect it will be some time before I read another book focused on paedophiles. (Aug. 25/13)
My connection to this book comes from spending time in Sydney three years ago while my son was on a university exchange to that fine city.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Three Major Cases in the 20th Century Illustrate the German Legal System

Whether in real life or fiction I am always interested in how legal cases are conducted. Starting with a class in legal history in law school through the 38 years I have been practicing law I am familiar with the Anglo – Canadian – American systems of justice. I know much less about the legal systems of continental Europe. Over the past 5 years I have had a chance to read books on a trio of German cases that span the 20th Century. They have provided with me with the chance to see how Germany’s justice system has dealt with cases drawing great public attention.

TheButcher’s Tale by Helmut Walser Smith dealt with a murder in 1900 when a 19 year old student, Ernst Winter, was killed and dismembered in Konitz, West Prussia. Rumours soon swirled through the town that he was the victim of a Jewish ritual murder.

The blood libel remained strong in the minds of the townspeople despite centuries of efforts by churches and government to convince the populations that it was a myth and had no substance.

The Prussian Government sent in investigators who pursued leads involving Jewish and non-Jewish residents of the community. While not well done the investigators were not swayed by the majority of the population who were sure of Jewish culpability. (The author told me less than 50% of murder cases were solved at that time.)

It is not easy to conduct a neutral investigation amidst public certainty of guilt no matter how little evidence exists.

The Prussian Government went further in protecting the Jewish community. Twice army units were sent to the town to maintain order.

By 1932 the German justice system was being threatened by the rise of the Nazi party. While not yet in power they were ignoring the law and violently attacking Communists throughout Germany.

Crossing Hitler by Benjamin Carter Hett features a fearless German lawyer, Hans Litten, who, as permissible under German law, joins as the legal counsel for the victims in the prosecution of SA Nazi storm troopers charged with assaulting Communists at a party at the Eden Dance Palace.

Litten manages to get Hitler summoned as a witness to try to explain the dichotomy between the Nazi Party publicly stating it would only pursue power by legal means and the actions of the SA in attacking people on the streets of Germany. Hitler is provoked into a profound rage and is fortunate not to have been convicted of perjury. Of all the “what ifs” of 20th Century denying Hitler power I wonder if he would have been denied power had he been found guilty of perjury.

While Litten draws attention to the Nazis and fights them skillfully in court the legal system is perverted when the Nazis come to power. Hitler has recognized that an independent legal system cannot be trusted to allow him to carry out his plans. Litten is arrested and imprisoned in a concentration camp where he loses hope after 5 years and commits suicide.

In 1992 the assassination of four Iranian Kurdish activists in Berlin forces the German legal system to face the challenge of politically directed murders being committed in Germany by the Iranian government.

My last post, a review of the Assassins of the Turqouise Palace by Roya Hakakian, discusses the background to the killings and the 4 year long trial of those killers who were arrested before they could exit Germany.

It is clear German prosecutors and judges will fairly try the accused but will political considerations be allowed to usurp the judicial system. Will the desire for greater trade with Germany lead her politicians to make a deal with Iran that does not implicate the Iranian government and will either let the killers go free or receive nominal punishment? To the credit of Germany there is no deal.

As the trial wound down I was struck by the plea, late in the trial, by some of the accused that they should not be punished as murderers as they were just following orders. While Hakakian did not reflect on the attempted justification I thought it must have stirred all the Germans. They would not have forgotten how, in the Nuremburg War Crimes trials after WW II, the effort by German defendants to deflect responsibility by claiming they were just following orders was specifically rejected.

In the beginning and end of the 20th Century the German legal system reached just results in high profile cases. Political and racial considerations were not allowed to influence the decisions. Unfortunately, for Germany and the world in between those cases the Nazis were able to corrupt its judicial system so there were no checks on their murderous impulses.