Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Casanova: Actor Lover Priest Spy

Like most people, when I hear the name Casanova, I think of sex. Ian Kelly offers a more rounded view of a fascinating man who has come to be defined by a single facet of his complex life.

Casanova's autobiography, "The History of My Life", offers more than the story of one man's life. It allows us a unique glimpse into the life of people from all walks of life during the eighteenth century. He mingled with prostitutes and kings, actors and bishops, a Tsarina and famous courtesans, nobility and tradesmen. He wrote about all of them, detailing their lives and loves, their triumphs and travails.

He seemed to be in perpetual motion, travelling throughout Europe and into Russia, never living anywhere for more than two years. Even his mode of travel was unique. He used public transportation rather than the private coaches used by most travelers of the day. He hitchhiked and even sailed on slave-galleys. He wrote about it all, a veritable treasure trove of information for historians. He details the inns, apartments, castles and prisons where he stayed or was forced to stay.

He loved food, leaving a record of hundreds of meals, many of which featured dishes that are mentioned nowhere else and would have been lost to history if not for Casanova's writings.

As for his supposedly insatiable sexual appetite, Mr. Kelly rightly points out that his sex life was normal for men who had no fixed address, constantly moving around. More than a few of his contemporaries recorded more numerous encounters than Casanova. Just like modern times, he contracted sexually transmitted diseases over and over. In fact, syphilis may have caused his death. He was apparently bisexual, enjoying encounters with the occasional man, both singly and as part of group sex. Perhaps the most shocking act he committed was the possible incest with one of his daughters leading to the birth of a son that may or may not have been his.

This is an extremely well written book that brings to life both a man and his times. I found it to be totally engrossing for the details it provided of Europe and Russia during the eighteenth century.

Review copy courtesy of Jeremy P. Tarcher

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Spy Within: Larry Chin and China's Penetration of the CIA

I was still a student when China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. I distinctly remember my Social Studies teacher talking about the Bamboo Curtain. He very dramatically announced that no one knew what was really going on in China. He showed grainy photos taken illicitly during the Great Leap Forward in the 50’s and smuggled out of the countryside that showed backyard ore smelters. For many years afterward, that’s what I pictured in my mind any time the subject of China came up either in print or in conversation.

I was on the edge of my seat when Nixon visited China. Finally, we would be able to peer behind the Bamboo Curtain and see what was going on. The backdrop to the visit was the Cold War and Nixon’s policy of triangulation. The Soviets and their spies were an ever-present danger. The likelihood that China might also be spying on us didn’t appear to me to be a viable possibility. The Chinese were too different. Their culture and values were alien to the West. Their people didn’t even look like us. They would seemingly not be able to blend in like Russian agents.

Little did I suspect that it was that dissimilarity in culture and language that made us vulnerable. Who better than a native speaker to translate documents and broadcasts coming out of the PRC? The story of Larry Wu-Tai Chin, born and educated in China who became a translator for the State Department in 1948 and later for the CIA, all the while spying for China until he retired in 1981, is told in this volume.

This is a compelling story that is not done justice by the author, Tod Hoffman. The book’s biggest flaw is its choppy narrative flow. What could have been written like a thriller is instead told from too many points of view with the author occasionally injecting himself into the narrative “imagining” scenes and dialogue where a source is missing. The story jumps around in time, going back and forth between the “now” of whichever source is being used as a viewpoint and the past. In between scenes from the FBI’s investigation and subsequent interrogation of Larry Chin, we are treated to, among other things, a brief history of 20th century China, the author’s vision of how an informant might be recruited and the tale of a French spy who was seduced by a Chinese man posing as a woman. All of which serves as a huge distraction from the unique story of a spy who managed to remain undiscovered for his entire active career.

Mr. Hoffman’s writing is as inconsistent as his storyline. It veers from novelistic to scholarly to what appears to be his research notes merely cut and pasted into the text. He is also prone to slang (“being as…”) which can be jarring in the midst of more scholarly prose.

Larry Chin’s career spanned many decades. As the Freedom of Information Act brings more material to light, additional details of his activities will likely be discovered. It is my hope that in the future another, more able author will pen a new telling of this incredible tale and do it the justice that it deserves.

Review copy courtesy of Steerforth Press

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower's Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers, Revised and Expanded

I've always wanted a cutting garden. Although I love having bouquets of flowers in my house, I don't like picking flowers from my carefully planned borders. A separate plot, preferably in an inconspicuous spot from which I could plunder as many blossoms as I wanted without worrying about leaving holes in my planting scheme, is definitely the answer. But how to begin? How to decide what to plant, when to plant, the best methods of harvesting to ensure the longest vase life? Surprisingly, I found the answers to all of my questions as well as questions I didn't know I should be asking in "The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower's Guide to Raising and Selling Cut flowers".

In this revised and expanded edition, Lynn Byczynski covers every aspect of raising flowers for sale in easy to understand terms. The book is incredibly detailed but I was never bored. Rather than a manual or a textbook, it was like a friendly talk over the backfence. It's obvious that she loves flowers and the business of growing flowers. The author starts with the basics of site, soil, seeds and plants then moves through pests, diseases, season extenders and harvest. She devotes several chapters on what to grow, not only the usual annuals and perennials, but also plants one doesn't usually think of, trees and shrubs, whose foliage, flowers and berries are used in both fresh and dried arrangements. Then she moves on to flower arranging, transport and marketing.

Along the way, successful flower farmers are featured. Their farms, their market niches, how they got started and how they have expanded or shrunk their businesses to suit their financial and lifestyle goals are explained.

All of the information is presented in an easy to understand format. Each concept is clearly explained. Technical terms are defined. No prior knowledge is assumed on the part of the reader. Nor is the book limited to one climate or region of the country. For information not covered in the book, sources are given where the information can be found. The author points out how the each section applies to both large and small farms and even cutting gardens such as I envision.

Whether you are thinking of growing flowers for market or just want a cutting garden, I can't recommend this book highly enough. But don't take my word for it. Cathy Jones of Perry-winkle Farm in central North Carolina was one of the experienced flower farmers asked for their Top Ten varieties for each area of the country. Cathy says, "It doesn't seem that long ago that I was reading The Flower Farmer to learn just these sorts of things!"(page 25)

As for me, I'm finally going to plant that cutting garden. Thanks to "The Flower Farmer", I know what to plant, when to plant it, and how to plant it. I've learned about succession planting and other techniques to extend the season. And when it comes time to harvest my flowers, I know the proper way to harvest each variety to prolong its vase life.

Review copy courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Beautiful at All Seasons: Southern Gardening and Beyond with Elizabeth Lawrence

I have to confess that I never finished this book. I found it to be unreadable. At first I thought it was because she writes of many plants that I cannot grow in my NJ garden. Or perhaps it was because I couldn't relate to what was blooming in her garden during the winter months when my own gardens are completely bare.

About halfway through the book, I realized that it was the quality of the writing. I was terribly disappointed in the Ms. Lawrence's writing. Many columns started out well, but it was sadly apparent that she could not figure out how to end them. Other columns were merely laundry lists of plants.

I understood when I began the book that it was a collection of columns written for a newspaper. And I can readily imagine the pressure of having to crank out columns on a regular basis. Unlike a book where one can take one's time and edit and rewrite until one is satisfied, it is understandable that not every piece written under the duress of a deadline will be a literary gem.

Sadly, I have put the book aside. Perhaps I would enjoy Ms. Lawrence's other books. This collection of columns was not my cup of tea.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Second Nature

My first exposure to Michael Pollan's writing was an article in the New York Times Magazine. I loved his writing style and his point of view. He made me think about the environment in ways that were totally new to me. I love those "aha" moments. Those "why didn't I think of that?" moments. And then my outlook on life and the world around me is subtly altered.

So it was with great anticipation that I oopened my copy of "Second Nature: A Gardener's Education". Michael Pollan on gardening. It doesn't get much better than that, right? Well, um, actually it does. I was expecting a completely new perspective on gardening. What I got was just another memoir of a beginning gardener. Admittedly, he does tell much more entertaining stories than most garden memoirists. No one who reads this book will ever forget his monumental battles with a woodchuck culminating in an attempt at incineration that very nearly incinerated the garden. Hilarious, but still quite ordinary. Can you think of a single garden memoir that doesn't contain a battle with a woodchuck? Just as Hollywood screenwriters use a predictable formula for their storylines, garden memoirists all stick to the same, tired outline: How I started gardening. How I made all the newbie mistakes my first year. How I tried to correct them. How I learned the "right" way to garden.

Disappointed, I soldiered on until Chapter 10 when I finally had the hoped for "why didn't I think of that?" moment. The story of the restoration of a woodland area in his town that had been destroyed by a tornado morphs into a discussion of restoration vs replacement vs allowing Nature to take its course and all of the consequences, intended and unintended, that could happen for each option. Now this is a book that I would like to read. The question of what time period a restoration should mimic is particularly intriguing. Colonial, after changes made by European settlers? Pre-Columbian? Taking into account the fact that the indigenous population also had a significant impact on the local ecology, should the area be restored to the state it was before the Native Americans arrived? These are questions that have never occurred to me when thinking about our altered landscape.

Ideally, I would have liked to see the "memoir" part of the book excised and this topic expanded. Where else in the US or even the world has this issue been addressed? What decisions were made and why? Was global warming taken into account? What provisions were made for non-native plant and animal introductions?

And then the book reverts right back to the standard memoir. The last two chapters are the obligatory catalog survey and "What my garden looks like now". Yawn.

I'm looking forward to reading more of Michael Pollan's books and his unique perspective. Even if it is only one or two chapters that grab me, they will be well worth it.