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The Book Stack #1

jumbled books
A selection out of what I’ve been reading recently. They don’t really need an introduction.

I like Charles Pierce’s writing, and he often hits the nail on the head. This book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, is no exception. For the most part, he just lays it out there and shows just how idiotic many things in our country have become. Do I always agree with him? No. But it’s always thought provoking. Does he always make his case? No. He does against the “easy” targets, where he can just point out flaws that probably any thinking person would immediately see. But when it comes to making fun of, which is really what the book is, targets where there are philosophical, moral, ethical, even intellectual debate (particularly with arenas that broach into the world of religious faith), he points, but doesn’t provide the backup evidence, making the assumption that anyone reading his book is of like mind with him, and will simply agree that whatever he’s pointed to is worthy of mockery. For those of us who struggle at times with reconciling science, logic, and faith into a composite whole, those chapters come across a bit smarmy. Still, a recommended read, just to get the mental cogs turning.

Secretly, I grew up kind of wanting to be Alexander Mundy. He was the cat burglar turned spy-thief for the Secret Intelligence Agency of the US government in the late 60s television series It Takes a Thief. The show was inspired by the Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief (1955) starring Cary Grant, and on the flipside, while not acknowledged, is probably in the background of things like the late 2000s show White Collar, and certainly has some influences from the life of Frank Abagnale, whose life then went on to inspire the Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can. All that aside, I had visions of being a cat burglar, when I wasn’t entertaining visions of being a forest ranger or FBI agent. How things change as we grow up. I’ve always maintained a fascination with the news of jewel and art thieves, and while now there’s simply no likelihood of taking either up as a profession, I enjoy reading about the heists. Still one of, if not the largest, diamond theft in history, the story in Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History is a reasonably in-depth analysis of the most likely scenario for how the theft went down. Some of it is clearly speculative, especially attributions of motivations and thought processes lent to the main actor, Leonardo Notarbartolo (after whom I’ve named a Pandaren rogue in World of Warcraft, for those into that sort of thing). And some of it is pieced together from what evidence and testimony was available to the authors, Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell. It’s clearly well researched and very well written. If I have any quibble with the book is that the ending is an awfully quick wrap-up – akin to the sort of thing one sees at the end of a competition show, where the eliminated contestant’s picture is shown for a moment along with a caption of “John Smith is happy back with his family and thinking about what to do next.” One wants to know, “Where are they now? What are they up to?” Well worth a read.

A few months back, Buzzfeed published a list of what they considered the 51 Best Fantasy Series ever written. Now, there’s nothing that says that anyone at Buzzfeed is an expert on the topic, nor that the choice of 51 (why 51?) series was a good one, but I was casting about for somethings interesting to read and thought I’d start in on the list. I quickly read through the first couple of series, I’m not going to go back and review them now as my memory is already getting hazy on them, but I highly recommend all of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles, Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, and Brent Weeks’ The Lightbringer series, particularly the first, which was one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, though the next two series are almost as good. All captured my attention and engaged me, and I was glad to have discovered them via the list. I skipped over A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (the books behind Game of Thrones) and Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, simply because I’ve read them in the past. And I’m going to skip the 41 novels of the Discworld saga from Pratchett, because I’ve given them a try, and after 1½ of them, read a year or two ago, I just gave up on them as simply not my cup of weak tea.

Now, to this series, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, including three novels, The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. It feels a bit more like a teen read than an adult fantasy read. Some of that is simply the characters, the primary ones being children in their early teens. But more of it is that it’s written in a borderline puerile style. I found that although I enjoyed them, I wasn’t particularly engaged by them. There’s a lot of railing against what is an awfully thinly veiled Catholic church, and of a government influenced by religious leaders, clearly the author isn’t a fan of either. There’s a lot of moralizing, but it’s very superficial. And in the end, the ostensible resolution is pretty insipid. The first volume has been turned into a movie of the same name, and albeit also pretty kid-oriented and “Hollywood”, is actually better than the book, a rarity in my experience. While not bad reads, there are certainly other books in the genre more worth putting your time into, as noted above.


The Random Algorithms of Life

crystal ballThese days everyone has an algorithm. It’s all about predicting our behavior, our impulses, our purchases, our viewing habits, surfing (web) habits, and anything else that some potential advertiser, obscure government agency, or fad non-profit organization might pay for in order to target us with some pitch, product or panacea that 99% of the time we’re going to say no to. They’re gaming for the 1%-ers. The problem is, none of these algorithms seem to work.

Not that they don’t do something predictive. They do. A recent conversation over the dinner table involved one-upping stories of the sudden onslaught of targeted advertising after clearly precipitating events, that simply weren’t substantive. One person related having responded to an email with a hearty congratulations to a friend who had just bought a condo on a beach in Spain. Within 24 hours he was receiving both email and sidebar ads as he surfed, offering up connections to real estate agents on the Spanish coast. Another had clicked “Like” on a picture of a friend’s dog doing some sort of trick and found Facebook suggesting pages of pet training services on a daily basis. And more.

Like everyone else, I’m subjected to algorithms from the moment I wake up in the morning….

I make my coffee and then sit down to peruse my email. According to Google, the gmail application learns over time to predict what sorts of mail should be shown as priority, what shouldn’t, what should go to spam, and what not. I can count on that at best, maybe half of my mail will be sorted correctly. I have a filter for mail coming from the Casa SaltShaker website reservation system to automatically put those into priority mail. Maybe 2/3 of them will be, despite a very clearly worded filter. I’m on several mailing lists for which I get a daily email. Roughly half the time, those emails are marked as spam – despite the fact that they arrived from the same address and with the same subject line, daily, and every time, for years now, they go to spam, I mark them as “Not Spam”.

On the flipside, I get junk mail that I regularly mark as spam which continue to arrive from the same addresses and with the same subject lines, daily. Well over half the time they end up in either my regular or even priority email boxes. I have whitelists and blacklists, neither of which seem to have any effect on where mail ends up. One algorithm down.

My favorite has to be the Netflix “Top Picks for Dan” queue. Yours probably says “Top Picks for Joe” or “Top Picks for Shannon”, or maybe even “Top Picks for Elspeth”, a charming personalization touch meant to make sure we feel loved and cared for. By Netflix. Mine currently has 40 “top picks”, I guess that hearkens back to the days of “Top 40 Hits” or something. Now, if you use Netflix, you know it has a rating system, of 1 to 5 stars. After you watch something, you’re invited to rate it, and that goes into an algorithm, along with the genre and style of film or show, to help create a predictive algorithm. Now, I’ve rated a lot of films over my time on Netflix, so it ought to be narrowed down pretty well, right?

When they show you their recommendations for top picks, they also show you what the algorithm predicts you’ll rate the film or show. So one might, reasonably, predict that almost all of the top picks would have either five or four stars, no? No. Of those forty, currently, seven of them have five star predictions, fifteen are guestimated to receive a four star review from me, three for three, a whopping nine for two, and even five for one star. Oh, and one television series which I’ve already watched and rated. Four stars. So, why recommend anything that they predict I’ll only give one or two stars? Given the vast catalog, why even three stars?

They are good at picking out some four and five star recommendations that I might not otherwise have picked. It recently led me to binge watching through two different TV series. Nowhere Boys, which I only clicked on because it looked like mindless entertainment with cute boys, I figured I’d watch an episode or two of one evening when I just didn’t want to think. It turned out to be an Australian series, in the all-popular genre of teen witches, but with some dark twists, and it’s well written and well acted, and, well, the boys are cute.

It also led me, inexplicably, to a one-season Korean medical telenovela (soap opera), titled Good Doctor, that likewise looked like there were some cuties in it (maybe that was the predictive element?), which turned out to be the travails of a young surgical resident who has more or less overcome being autistic, enough to just barely function in day to day life, but he’s a savant in the world of medicine. It was, at times, sweet, at others painful, and not only was it well written (the English subtitles probably missed a lot of nuances, but even so), but it didn’t stint on the medical stuff – getting right in, close-up to the blood and guts in the operating theater (I was, at one time in my life, a paramedic, considered going to medical school to become an ER doctor, and am still fascinated by that whole world). But, those were also predicted to, respectively, receive four and five stars from me. Not one or two.

Until recently I was using a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone. When I would start to type a message, it would automatically detect whether I was starting off in English or Spanish, and switch dictionaries for predictive entry accordingly. I recently “upgraded” to a Galaxy S6. It doesn’t do that. Apparently (despite the fact that the S4 did it really well, it rarely made a mistake in which language I was working in after the first couple of words), too many people complained that it either a) didn’t pick up the correct language within one or two keystrokes (seriously?) or b) switched to the incorrect language.

So Samsung scrapped it because it wasn’t a good enough predictor, and now has a button to select your language (but every time you start typing a new message, it switches to your main language, which means if you’re having a back and forth conversation, you have to re-select, in my case, Spanish, if you want to use predictive entry, over and over again. It also, annoyingly, sometimes tries to switch me to Chinese (apparently the “international version” phone I bought was pre-programmed with Chinese language bloatware that while I can disable, I can’t remove, and now and again, some of it resurfaces). Thankfully, there are apps you can download to overwrite the Samsung keyboard and give it back automatic switching (thank you SwiftKey).

Foursquare is another one. There’s a bit of rating involved – Liked, Neutral, Didn’t Like – that goes into it. But more, they have a service of recommending restaurant alternatives – “If you like that place, you’ll like this place.” It’s a mystifying selection process. If I look at the listing for my restaurant, a reasonably upscale, albeit casual, experience, with a five course tasting menu, paired wines, at a communal table, FS recommends on the basis of having liked us (we have an 8.6 rating out of 10), one will like: a Mediterranean cafĂ© and bistro on the opposite side of the city (rated 7.4 out of 10); a Mediterranean restaurant in Palermo (7.0 out of 10); and a bar in Palermo (5.3 out of 10). They’re not in the same neighborhood, they’re not, well, in the same class, nor even the same style of food, or even cuisine. Go figure.

LinkedIn – I’m not sure if this is the same as a predictive analysis, but I get a weekly email from them with “job openings you might be interested in”. The only predictive part of that seems to be that they’re located somewhere in South America, not even always in Argentina. Not once, over more than a decade, has any of the jobs related to either gastronomy or journalism. Generally they’re things like “Chief Operating Officer of a Petroleum company”, or “Executive Director of an Animal Rights Foundation”, or “Receptionist and Whipping Boy in the Fashion industry”.

Coursera seems to think the courses that I would like best are things involving teaching English as a foreign language. I’ve never taken a course from them remotely tied to that theme, they’ve all been either food or history related. Pocket keeps recommending articles for me, on a wide variety of topics. I don’t use Pocket.

I could probably keep going, finding other examples from daily life, but enough. We all know it’s happening around us, we can’t really do anything about it except make annoying blog posts. So be it.


The E Files #2

Time for another round of this month’s favorite emails.


This one seems innocuous at first….

I don’t eat seafood, can you make a substitution for me?

“Not a problem, there’s one seafood course, it’s a ceviche, I can do a vegetarian version for you, I’m doing that for another guest as well.”

Great! See you soon.

…at the dinner…

“How come you’re not serving me the same ceviche as everyone else?

“You said you didn’t eat seafood, we agreed on a vegetarian option.” (the ceviche is fish and shrimp)

I didn’t mean things like fish and shrimp, I meant seafood. Everyone knows what seafood is.

Everyone is studiously observing their plates, including her husband. I’m still wondering what seafood means to her. Luckily, an easy fix, just a new plate of, apparently, non-seafood fish and shrimp ceviche.


In the same vein, but sort of the reverse….

We eat everything, no allergies, no worries.

…at the dinner… thankfully off to the side before the dinner started…

The menu doesn’t look vegetarian. We’re vegetarians.

“It’s not vegetarian, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were vegetarians, you told me you eat everything.”

Obviously we’re vegetarians, otherwise why would we have reserved at your table instead of a regular restaurant. We eat all kinds of vegetables.

“Umm, but we’re not a vegetarian restaurant, and we did post the menu in advance. But let me see what I can come up with in the kitchen.”

You advertise as a vegetarian restaurant, and you always were one. Isn’t that what puertas cerradas restaurants are all about?

“No, not really, and no, we’re not, and never have been. But give me a few minutes and I’ll put something together.”

…read the f*ing website people…


From someone who has referred numerous people to Casa S over the years…

“I just referred a couple of people I know from work to you and I understand they’ve already booked their spots. I just wanted to give you a heads up – they’re probably the two most boring human beings on the planet that I’ve ever had to sit with. Nice people, but add absolutely nothing to a social conversation.”

“Umm, you’re kidding me, right? They’re going to turn out to be the life of the dinner party…?”

“No really, they’re excruciating to be around, but they wanted something different to do, so I thought of you.”

“Did I do something to offend you?”

“No, why?”

…sigh… “I was just wondering why you’d send me people that you can’t stand to be around, to my home, for dinner?”

“Oh, but you just say hello to them and then you’ll hardly talk to them, you’ll be cooking, and they don’t speak Spanish, so it won’t bother Henry.”

“But what about the other guests at the table?”

“They won’t even notice that the other people are bored to tears, and they’ll have a good time, so it’ll be good for my business, since they’re clients.”

…there are no words…

[Followup: The people came, they were charming, great conversationalists, they had a great time, so did everyone else. And it turns out one of them has never even met the person who sent me the original email and had no idea who he was. Not that I told them what he said, of course.]


Group of 8 requesting a reservation for a private dinner. They’re students from an MBA exchange program, one of the most expensive ones in the U.S., and one which we’ve had numerous students attend from over the years while they’re here in town, so these aren’t kids with no money. All is well with the request, and response… then:

As you know, you have a very good reputation with students at XXXX, and I’m sure you’d like to keep it. We’re just students and your prices are very expensive for us, and I’m sure we could eat for less somewhere else. We could maintain that good reputation you have at our school in exchange for a 50% discount on the price.

“Thanks for your interest in joining us. We feel our price is fair, and reflects the quality of what we do, and past students from your program haven’t had any problem meeting it. We have a list of recommended restaurants on our website, I’m sure you can find somewhere else to dine for that evening, but at this point we’ll be cancelling your reservation.” [That’s the politest version of “Go fuck yourself” that I’m able to muster.]


The E Files #1

donotsendOh the vagaries of email, the trials and tribulations of dealing with folk in other parts of the world who just aren’t quite on the same page as we are. The names have been removed to protect the guilty. None of this is a complaint, it’s just… amusing. I’ve been sharing lots of these over time with a couple of friends online, and it’s been proposed that some of these are worthy of writing a book around. I’ll stick with blog posts. For the moment.


I can only eat things that are prepared in a home or restaurant kitchen. If it’s prepared in an industrial kitchen of any sort, I’m allergic to it – and I can tell.

Umm no, no you aren’t, and no you can’t. Seriously. You wouldn’t have a clue. “Not to worry, it’s all home cooking here.” (And, it actually is in terms of things like sauces, and condiments and such, but if you think I’m going to brine my own olives….)


I see that tonight’s dessert has lemon. I don’t eat any kind of fruit, don’t want to see it, don’t want to smell it, don’t want it near me. Change the dessert.

“No. I asked you a month ago about dietary restrictions, you said you had none, and honestly, I don’t cater to likes and dislikes, just allergies, especially at last minute. I can offer you a cheese plate if you like.”

You’re my fucking private chef for the evening, you’ll do as I say.

“No I’m not, and no I won’t. I’m sending you a refund, please don’t bother to show up, at this point I’d prefer not to have you in my home.” [She actually did show up, paid in cash at the door, and rather than making a scene, I let her stay. She turned out to be charming, a great conversationalist. She ate the lemon tart. She sent me a very nice thank you note. Also, what is it about fruit, she’s maybe the fourth or fifth person in the last month who’s told me they don’t eat any kind of fruit. Is there a new fad diet?]


We have to cancel for dinner. Return our deposit immediately.

“I’m sorry to hear you won’t be joining us, however, we were quite clear upfront, your deposit is non-refundable this close to the dinner.”

Yes, I understand that, but what does that have to do with you not giving me back my money?

As the meme goes, “Sometimes I use big words I don’t fully understand in order to sound more photosynthesis.”


I’ve been trying to reach you for some time to make a reservation. I’ve sent emails to various email addresses requesting one. I’m new to email and still figuring it out. Just today, I found what you list as your official email address for the restaurant, which was very difficult to find. So I’m following up here. I’d like to request a reservation for 4 people on _____. I do feel I have to say something about the other emails. I spent a lot of time sending them out to various addresses and I do think it’s a bit rude of you to not respond to any of them, even to tell me what your correct email address is. I hope we can proceed on better terms.

Ummm… “What addresses did you send to? This is our only one, though I do have personal email. However I’ve not gotten any emails from you. I’m sorry you found it hard to find our email address, it’s posted on our website in several places, but I’ll take a look and see if we can make it more obvious.”

[Responds with a list of four emails addresses, none of which have anything to do with me, or Casa SaltShaker.]

“I’m afraid none of those are ours, so we simply never received the emails. I’m sorry that none of the people at those addresses responded to you to tell you you had the wrong address.”

I don’t understand why YOU couldn’t have done that so that I wouldn’t have wasted my time.


Welcome to my life.



Originally I was thinking that this blog would just be an archive of previously published works of mine, from various fields, but I’ve decided that it’s also going to be a place for me to comment on my thoughts on things in the world of politics, religion, science, or whatever fields that don’t make sense for the content of my food, wine and travel blog, SaltShaker. Away we go, with a doozy to start off with.

Tasseography is fortune telling from the reading of tea leaves in cups. I was looking for some sort of cynical connection to the Stanley and Davis Cups from the sports world, some sort of metaphor, that connects to the current brouhahas over “double standards”, or not, in our political and legal system. But nothing occurred to me, so, on to the meat of the matter.


We’ve all read and been following the Kim Davis debacle, the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because of her Christian religious beliefs. And now, we’re starting to hear about Charee Stanley, a Muslim woman who is (or was, at this point) a flight attendant who refuses to serve alcohol as part of her duties. The left is gleeful because it feeds into the predictable narrative of the slippery slope that the Kim Davis mess was going to lead to, no matter the claims from the right that “it would never happen”. And the right is up in arms because the left is gleeful, and because a Muslim woman is being treated different from a Christian woman, and therefore, “discrimination against Christians” and/or “Sharia Law is coming to America (because, Obama).”

But there are blatant differences between the two cases that make them stand apart. And there’s no “double standard” as many are quick to claim – at least not so far.

Kim Davis was an elected official, who swore an oath to uphold the laws of the State of Kentucky and the Constitution of the United States. She refused to do so, even when her direct superiors, not liberals by any stretch, ordered her to. Some are claiming that her duties changed, and therefore she hadn’t agreed to what she was being asked to do. There’s some edge of validity to that, but, the duties of her office were to issue marriage licenses, not to decide, based on her personal beliefs, the rightness of those marriages, and nothing actually changed in her duties – she wasn’t asked to sanction gay marriage any more than she was asked to sanction divorce, adultery, interracial couples, or interfaith couples (all things that violate her faith when it comes down to it), just to issue the licenses. She took the legal route, something that she was totally entitled to do, and exhausted it, right up to the U.S. Supreme Court, not a bastion of liberality these days. And she still refused to comply. She was arrested (not by some jackbooted federales, but by her employer, the State of Kentucky). Not for being Christian, not for being conservative, but quite simply, for violating her oath of office, the laws of her state, and the Constitution of the United States. In our country, she has every right to be a bigot, which let’s face it, she is, albeit cloaked in religious rhetoric, but that comes with consequences. I might be more sympathetic if she used the same standards to apply to other situations that equally, or more so, violate her faith – such as had she refused to issue marriage licenses to divorced people, or if she hadn’t herself committed adultery, and been divorced and remarried three times. Actions speak louder than words.

Charee Stanley is an employee of a private corporation. She’s a relatively recent convert to Islam. Yes, part of the duties of being a flight attendant are to serve alcohol to customers – though that’s not a right guaranteed by either law or the Constitution. And, she made arrangements when she converted to Islam (after having already been an employee for a couple of years) to be exempt from doing so – her employer, ExpressJet, agreed to have other employees handle alcohol service so that she wouldn’t have to. Whether that was a legally binding agreement remains to be seen… in court. There’s also no bigotry against those who drink alcohol in her case – she wasn’t attempting to have alcohol service terminated on flights, simply to not have to handle alcohol herself. However, after nearly a year of that arrangement, a fellow employee complained about the situation and her employers decided it put them in an untenable position, because the logistics, given that they’re a small company, didn’t always work out. They approached her about having to serve alcohol, she again declined, citing both her religious beliefs and that she had an agreement with them exempting her from violating those beliefs. They placed her on suspension. She’s suing for lost wages based on them rescinding an agreement that she feels was legally binding. And, just as I support Kim Davis’ right to have made use of the legal system in her fight, Charee Stanley has the same right. She gets to go through the legal process – and we’ll see where it ends up. She’s not getting special treatment because no one wants to offend Muslims, and she doesn’t lose her right to avail herself of the legal system just because she’s not Christian, she’s going through the same process (albeit in local civil court) that Davis did. She’s not asking for a Sharia court. She may prevail, she may not, either way, she’s no longer in her employment position. Just like Davis, though by a different method, she was removed from it. There are simply no facts on which to call “foul” on some sort of treatment double standard.

It’s also worth noting that, given that the cases are proceeding in different states, they are subject to differently written “religious freedom” laws. Kentucky courts and Michigan courts, as ought to be championed by those who feel that the federal government has overreached and that states’ rights should be in play here, may come to different decisions. And that, too, is part of our legal system.

Now, as to the “but Kim Davis was arrested and nothing happened to Charee Stanley” claims of double standards. It’s disingenuous. Let’s look at both. Why was Kim Davis arrested rather than just suspended or fired? Because she’s an elected public official – she can’t be suspended or fired. The choices are two – call for a special election or impeachment. The former is a useless gesture – in the county in which she works, the likelihood is she’d just get re-elected and nothing would be accomplished. Just because the people in her county support her doesn’t mean she gets to violate a Supreme Court ruling – it simply doesn’t work that way. So impeachment. In order to impeach her, they, her employers, the state of Kentucky, have to show criminal dereliction of her duties, or at least some other felony. In order to do that, she had to be arrested and prosecuted, and, no doubt, she’ll be convicted by a judge, because no county or state judge is going to want to go up against the Supreme Court [edit: actually, I think her case is going to be heard in a US District court, which is federal, so virtually assured that she’ll be found guilty]. Then, bet your last dollar, impeachment proceedings will start within 24 hours. Smart lawyers for the State.

As to Charee Stanley, her employer also did exactly what works best within the legal system. There were no grounds for arresting her – she didn’t violate a law, all she did was refuse to do something her employer demanded of her. Thousands of employees across the country do that on a monthly basis. The choices were basically three – let it go and let her continue to not serve alcohol, or fire, or suspend her. Obviously they didn’t want to go with the first or this never would have reached this point. If they’d have fired her, she would have sued for wrongful termination based on religion – and likely, she’d have won, because the burden of proof would mostly land on her employers, and it would have been heard in a federal rather than state court. So they suspended her, depriving her of the option of suing for wrongful termination on religious grounds, which is protected by federal law. Instead, all she can do is sue for lost wages in state court, claiming that she had a verbal contract which honored her religious beliefs. But she’s going to have to prove that. Smart lawyers for ExpressJet.

The glee from the left is ridiculous – mostly because it’s unproductive, it actually does betray an anti-Christian prejudice (at least towards the more fundamentalist Christians), and does nothing other than rile people up – but mostly because the situation is simply different. And it’s unresolved in our legal system, and it will be interesting to see what ruling the Michigan courts, generally fairly conservative, make.

The hue and cry from the right is just political rhetoric from, mostly, hate-spewing, generally racist folk who’ve become convinced that our country is on some sort of downward spiral (caused by the black muslim fake american in the white house… yada yada) rather than simply being at one point in the pendulum of political thought that has swung back and forth throughout our history.

At this point we’ll have to wait and see what sort of court ruling Stanley’s (and down the road, probably Davis’) case engenders, at which point, who knows? There may be something to squawk about then, from one or the other or both sides of the political spectrum.

[Update, November 10, 2015 – Interestingly, and I suppose not surprisingly, Charee Stanley has completely disappeared from the news, I can’t find an online mention of her since mid-September, while Kim Davis, though a bit more background, continues to show up in news stories. A short-lived kerfuffle.]


Six “Cozies”

There’s a whole genre of “literature” that is referred to as “cozies”. Wikipedia defines it as: “a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. The term was first coined in the late 20th century when various writers produced work in an attempt to re-create the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” Most “gourmet” or “chef” mysteries fall into the category.

I enjoy them in general; they’re light, easy reading, perfect for, say, a vacation. I’d say they usually fall into one of two styles – either where the detective him or herself (almost always him, but that may just be reflective of the odds in the profession) is the gourmet, and food is an integral part of their existence – oft-times it plays into the solving of whatever mystery (almost always a murder) is at hand. The other style is chef oriented, and usually involves a chef in a small cafe of some sort, a caterer, or a food writer, who steps outside their daily tasks and gets heavily involved in the solving the crime (again, almost always a murder) – it’s a bet that at some point a) they (almost always a woman) will be regarded as a suspect by the big, bad detective (still almost always a him), usually because they either discover the body or were the last person to see the victim alive (think Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?); b) will get themselves into deep trouble and have to be rescued by same detective; and c) will end up in some sort of personal relationship with same detective.

Pure serendipity, I ran across a sextet (with a seventh on the way) of these that have made for good vacation reading fare. By Lucy Burdette, they’re set in Key West, and the protagonist is a budding restaurant critic.

appetite for murderFun, enjoyable, swift paced read. Pretty much follows my outline above to a “T”. Wannabe restaurant critic becomes the suspect in the poisoning murder of the girlfriend of her ex-boyfriend. Much brouhaha and back and forth. Supportive friends who bizarrely encourage her to investigate the murder on her own because… mean detective. Someone tries to kill her. No one seems to really believe her, including her friends who now aren’t so sure that she isn’t making it all up and maybe she shouldn’t be investigating on her own (you guys talked her into it!). Lots of food descriptions, even some recipes. Gets herself into hot water with the actual murderer as she closes in on the solution. All the pieces fall into place. Resolution. Happy, happy. I know I’m making it sound trite, and on some level it is, but it’s not supposed to be anything more than a fun, easy read, and it fulfills on that.

I’m not going to review each individual book in the series, although the details change, there’s a certain sameness to each one. I’d like to say that over the course of the six books (seventh being released soon), our protagonist developed from an intrepid to an experienced food critic, and while lip-service is paid to that idea, if you pay attention, there’s really no evolution of her abilities, food knowledge, or much of anything. She repeats the same mistakes, over and over – on a personal level, constantly going for supporting the suspect (who, of course, in the end, turns out not to be the murderer, vindicating her gut feelings), over the counsel of family, friends, and most importantly, whichever gentleman is her current love interest – leading to romantic dissolution, repeatedly.

It’s in the food area that things fall most short – she’s got a palate that’s straight out of Lady’s Home Journal cerca 1968, and presents recipes that likely found their way into the typical church social group annual recipe books of the same era (pimiento cheese dip is apparently the pinnacle of sophistication). She rolls her eyes and makes snide remarks about “those wine people”, apparently not familiar with the term sommelier, or the possibility that knowing something about wine might be part of her job as a restaurant critic. She sneers, well, the word choice is “snickers” (more times than I care to count, really, this woman just walks around snickering all the time) at the use of any unusual ingredient or technique (apparently no one but a few pretentious chefs has any interest whatsoever in the world of modernist cooking, no diner would actually eat that food), opining that no normal person would be interested in eating, tasting, or knowing about anything other than the safe choices of everyday fare.

I’d say that this comes down to one of two situations – either the author wants her principal character to come across as a rube – unthinking and uninterested in learning – basically presenting her as a brand new, wet behind the ears, budding food critic who has absolutely zero interest in becoming better at her job, expanding her knowledge base, or, really, anything but dispensing opinions on topics which she a) freely admits she knows nothing about and b) is completely confident that despite her lack of so much as a shred of expertise, is right about; or, and more likely, it’s a reflection of the attitudes and grasp of the author.

Does that make them less fun to read? No. Though for someone who is intimately involved in the food and beverage world, it’s moderately annoying at various moments.