Thursday, June 25, 2015

Book Review: The Mismatched Braid

Namou’s follow-up to The Feminine Art is an absolute gem. Set in a present day Athens, Greece, the story is about two twenty-something first cousins who are falling in love, but are at the same time trying to find themselves. Namou offers a fresh take on the coming of age/love story, sharing her abundant insight into the cultural complexities of the Chaldean Iraqi community. Her gorgeous prose is heightened by the tense situations she places her characters into.

Our protagonist, Amel, is boxed into an awful predicament. He longs to be reunited with his family in Iraq, but at the same time wants to begin a new life in America. The story opens with his Visa being denied, and Amel must continue to whittle away his days hammering at planks of wood in a foreign land.

Things change when his beautiful cousin, Dunia, arrives in Athens to study for the summer. She is the quintessence of prima donna, but Amel has had such an enormous crush on her since childhood he will do anything to make her happy. Even though they are both cousins, and members of the same Chaldean community, they couldn’t be more different. Dunia is well-read, witty, cunning, ambitious, and a bon vivant while Amel is hardworking and loyal to a fault. He is gullible too and really knows nothing about women. His devotion to his cousin is the real agitprop, both frustrating and exciting Amel, but when Dunia herself begins to fall for Amel the plot really thickens. Namou does a wonderful job blurring the boundaries of emotion so that just as we might question our own feelings we get sweaty-palmed as Namou’s characters put their hearts on the line.

The Mismatched Braid is as much about love as it is a search for identity and purpose. Dunia and Amel both evolve as characters and neither seem to be comfy with the changes that ensue. To Namou’s credit, her characters grapples with their respective identities, and these in turn are further complicated by other mercurial family members.

This is a character-driven story for readers who crave travel, culture, romance, and food. Foodies will love the myriad references to savory dishes both Greek and Iraqi. The sounds and smells of daily life and landscape are seamlessly integrated into the plotline, enriching this modern classic.


To learn more about Weam Namou and her works please visit her website.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Two Fingers of Romanée-Saint-Vivant

On January 22nd, 2013 I had a belated birthday lunch with the folks. We dined at Benoit, Alain Ducasse’s midtown bistro. We started off with braised pork then moved onto caviar. For our mains, Mom and Dad shared chicken while I gorged myself with bacon-wrapped Scottish Salmon. Love my nitrates. Washed it down with a Spanish red.

We were having a spirited conversation about Joyce Carol Oates’ new book when Mom took another peek at the wine list. She was sniffing out port possibilities. Then she stumbled upon it. A mischievous grin widened on her face, and she implored me to have a special treat. No, not the scrumptious, syrup-doused Bosc pear gooped in warm chocolate (although I eventually succumbed to that too). She was referring to a libidinous libation, a two-ounce pour of trophy wine.
Who hadn’t read Florence Fabricant’s “Legendary Wines, Sold in Sips” piece in the NYT Dining Section? It sent every pocket-friendly winenut into a hyperactive state of euphoria. For a mere $45 bucks, you could taste a bit of Bordeaux’s Promised Land. How democratic?

Yes, I’ll admit my superficial side came gushing out. For shame. I thought I’d grown out of the trophy-hunter phase, but apparently not.

“Go for the Pétrus,” Mom dared.

That hedonist sentiment had been whispering in my ear sotto voce from the moment I took my seat. What better way to celebrate than to taste one of this mudball’s most lauded reds. Naturally, I wouldn’t have thought of letting my folks crack open a whole bottle, and of course, they weren’t daffy enough to indulge my Pomerolian prurience, but a two-finger pour? Why not? Except that the 1992 vintage was a big wash, and although Merlot fared better than the Cabs I had my reservations. I'm not a point man at all, but what I'd read about the '92 vintage had dripped into my subconscious. Was I going to go for the gusto and be disappointed or be forced to extrapolate what might be the stuff that made Pétrus the rock star of reds?

I was an enophile, a professional. The heavenly Pomerol was on every wineaux’s bucket list. I considered it my duty as a wine professional to drink it. But wait a second. Hold the cork. I mean, hold the coravin (thank goodness for the miracle gadget). My palate was craving a gem, but when I reflected on the fact that I’d tried all five 1st Growths and myriad 2nd , 3rd, 4th, and 5th Growths my top-heavy record of Bordeaux tasting left a gaping hole in that critical wine wonk zone, Burgundy.

If I was to truly become a wine wizard, Burgundy would have to receive greater consideration. So with this in mind, I decided to shoot the works with my first DRC, Romanée-Saint-Vivant. Benoit offered two fingers of the 1996, a very good, but not outstanding vintage. In recent years, I’d been leaning more toward Burgundy anyway. My palate had been changing, more inclined to that Burgundian style by way of Barolo and Barbaresco if you’ll pardon my cliché comparison, which is somehow useful as a cross-country analogue. Both Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo are thin-skinned varietals. They’re both infamously fickle grapes, and, even in the best circumstances, may not show their full potential. There, I said it.

The real question was whether or not I was deserving of two fingers of DRC? Was I in it for the right reason? What I’m driving at is this. Since I cut my teeth with Bordeaux, logging in so much time with their superstars, unsung heroes, etc., my experience had been shaped by Bordeaux. Was I justified in making such a leap to DRC when I hadn’t logged in enough time, brooding over the differences between Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Morey-St. Denis, and Echézeaux? Forget about grand cru Burgundy, I hadn’t really had enough Fixin, Volnay, or Bourgogne Rouge.

I considered this, drumming my fingers for added effect. I could’ve ordered a full glass of Echézeaux, Pommard, or even Chambertin. If I was genuinely interested in making a commitment to Burgundy, this probably would have been the noblest route, but I had another agenda. I wasn’t wetting my toes, I was taking a head-first plunge into two-fingers of DRC. A little drumroll please. My first whiff of the 1996 Romanée-Saint-Vivant teased me into believing there’d be sweetness. Then it gave way to an earthier late Fall, forest floor. It had quiet brilliance like Stan Musial, the St. Louis Slugger who had actually passed away the day before. Initially, tangy chokecherry with a touch of vanilla soon blossomed into a strawberry field with notes of licorice, a hint of pipe tobacco. It tangoed me across a ballroom floor of tight-grained oak, and impeccable structure. How vibrant and bright in its Sour 17th Year. It had surprisingly good acidity for its age and supple tannin, silkier than a Hermès shawl.

Birthdays can heighten your sensibility, and sometimes add undue pressure. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity, and I wished that I could say it was life-altering, but alas it wasn’t. Maybe because there was too much expectation riding on it. Maybe it was because the grinning lady, sitting next to me had her own set of expectations weighing on me too. She was smart enough not to get under the microscope and have her a swig analyzed, and yet she wanted me to be gobsmacked with unbridled glee.

I will definitely say this though. My two fingers of Romanée-Saint-Vivant was a much more welcoming experience than my first swig of Sassicaia. That was a long time ago in a galaxy far far away (You like hyperbole, no?). Truthfully, I couldn’t tell you with any certainty what my impression of that Sassicaia was because there was so much hoopla associated with it. I was also a hopeless newbie at one of those behemoth tastings that no pro wants to be a part of unless he or she is on the clock. I had to elbow my way over to the table that was kind enough to share its Tuscan royalty for all the heathens lining up. I remember it being a stunning, ruby-colored wine and nearly chipping a tooth as the buffoon beside me raised his arm. If that wasn’t enough there was the unmistakable, unpardonable wallop of Fahrenheit cologne. So overpowering was that Christian Dior bouquet that I swear I still smell a whiff of it every time I’m at a dinner party or some other occasion where Sassicaia is poured.

Given this reflection, my two fingers of Romanée-Saint-Vivant was pretty damn unforgettable (pipe in Nat King Cole), but I wish my sommelier had had a heavier hand.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Chatting with the Champ, Chip Dunston

So maybe you missed the one-on-one with Wayne Gretzky or the tête-à-tête with Tiger Woods or the gab-a-gab with Roger Federer. No biggie. Now’s your chance to meet the real treat. This is one for the ages, one to grow on. Here it is, at last. Sports Fans everywhere, I give you my exclusive interview with the Greatest, the most Heralded, the most Hated, the most Feared and Famous Fantasy Baseball Player ever to lope across this planet, the switch-clicking, Chip Dunston.

JG: I’m here today with the World’s Greatest Fantasy Baseball Champ, Chip Dunston. He’s won 733 League Championships and something like 1239 Fan Duel single-day comps (the 50-yard-dash of sabermetrics). His opponents call him he WHIP Wizard, The Call-up King, Fantasy Fanner, Supergeek, and sometimes, pardon my French, El Diablo. Thanks for taking the time to swoop by today.

CD: Where’s my Chicken and Waffles?

JG: It should be here soon.

CD: Better be.

JG: Now Chip, I’m no mathathlete, but how exactly did a young buck like yourself win 733 League Championships. You’re not Yoda with Botox are you?

CD: No dipshit. I play in like 12 leagues a season, not including my daily Fan Duels.

JG: Oh, I get it, kind of like piggybacking.

CD: Your mother piggybacks.

JG: We don’t do mothers here on the show.

CD: Yeah, I already did yours in an elevator.

JG: Let’s get back to interview.

CD: Whatever.

JG: Tell us when exactly you knew that you wanted to be a Fantasy Baseball Player? Was it something you always wanted to be? Did the inspiration hit you one day when you were eating your Coco Puffs?

CD: Did Peter Parker ask to be Spider-man? Did Picasso ask to be a painter freak? Did Russell Brand ask to be a Pimp Daddy? Nah-ah. Each of them in their own ways had to sow their wild oats and be their unique, crazy-ass, crackerjack selves. Take your average hump, for instance. Your ordinary hump gets his cup of joe at 7-Eleven or Mickey D’s. He mopes to work, forklifts till his first smokes break and then he smokes a blunt a little bit after that, and then he’s thinking when can I crack open my first Corona. What are you shaking your head for?

JG: I don’t get my joe from 7-Eleven. I prefer Think Coffee, Queens Kickshaw, Birch (if I can find one), and yes, I’ll admit it, I like my Starbucks reserve blends.

CD: Well, you a freak.

JG: I can live with that. Let’s get back to you. What are your routines? How do you stay so sharp?

CD: Fantasy Baseball is nothing like the MLB. First off, you don’t’ get to loaf half the game away on the bench, farting and spitting out sunflower seeds. You have to be 100% fully-engaged, your bloodshot eyeballs keep scanning stats like you a CPA for the IRS, but instead of AGIs, MAGIs, CAP Gains you looking for subtle ways to outperform the other punks in your league. You get it? It’s not a half-time, half-ass thing, you have to be 100% all-in, all-the-time, 24/7, maybe even 35/8. Days bleed into each other: Muesday, Tednesday, Faturday. There’s no letup.

JG: Now hold on here Chip. Are you saying that your laptop-punching and mouse-clicking is more rigorous than what real ball players go through?

CD: That’s exactly what I’m saying. What are you laughing at dipshit?

JG: I hate to be the harbinger of bad news, but I don’t think most folks out there will buy that.

CD: I don’t give a rat’s ass who buys it. Who’s the champ here anyway? I know what I know. Whip this, OPS that. Do you know how many hours I log in BABIP? Too many that’s how many. And, I have to keep my eyeballs peeled for every rising star that’s about to shoot into the Ursa Majors. A few times this year alone, I’ve nearly gone through coronary thrombosis or something like that when one of my ace hurlers landed on the DL. My life is a constant flux. I wouldn’t wish my curse on anybody, not my worst enemy.

JG: So in the annals of baseball history, and by that I mean the one with the dirt diamond and the grassy outfield, if you wouldn’t mind indulging, who would you say you’re most like? That is to say, who would you find an analogue for you from the all-time Louisville-slugging greats? Would it be The Bambino, Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe, Mickey Mantle, Greg Maddux, Kirby Puckett, Miggie Cabrera, Nolan Ryan? Who?

CD: You’re trippin, right?

JG: Fraid not.

CD: You’re not going to pigeonhole me into any analogue, dialogue, monologue, bump-on-log. No way, no how. I’m not like any of those fatheads you mentioned. I’m my own unique entity.

JG: No argument there. Now would you mind sharing any hobbies you have, ways you like to pass the time?

CD: Nope.

JG: Favorite soft drink?

CD: Mr. Pibb.

JG: What’s your sign?

CD: Capricorn.

JG: Me too.

CD: Are we done here? I need to take a whiz.

JG: Hang on. Only a few more questions.

CD: (Deep sigh plus crotch-grab.)

JG: There you have it Sports Fans. Chip Dunston, the greatest there ever was, so far anyway.

CD: Where’s my chicken and waffles?

Friday, June 5, 2015

Forget the Fizz

(First appeared in Turk's Head Review on May 24th)

Denny and I could spend hours duking it out. Pick a game. We did it with ping-pong, Parcheesi, and especially with Donkey Kong. Then there was the infamous Revolutionary War playset that Denny got in the mail. We broke it out one balmy March afternoon. Denny had been yapping about it for weeks. I told him he was a doofus for wasting a perfectly good X-men comic, splicing the ad from the back page, not to mention the fact that he paid for the shipping and handling in nickels and dimes, but he kept insisting it was coming.

I was gobsmacked when it arrived. Of course the figures were a crummy batch of plastic patriots, a couple steps below the army men you’d get at Woolworth, but we were excited to put the American Revolution into practice since we were studying it in school. To spice things up, we used the weapons from Crossbows and Catapults, an anachronism to be sure, but it showed how resourceful or clever we were. We even used the Knights and the Orcs as reserves. Whenever I landed a potent shot, I’d pump my fist and shout, “Way to go Georgie Boy.” (When I was the Americans). If I had the redcoats, I shouted “Way to go Corny!” (for General Cornwallis). Either way this drove Denny nuts.

We barbed wherever we could, but I preferred playing at Denny’s place since he had a house, and a huge front lawn, his backyard dwarfed my Little League outfield. Inside the house, we had to be careful not to destroy the precious vases, stony figurines or the Louis XV style furniture. Sometimes I think I had the upper hand playing at Denny’s because he seemed cautious about his surroundings. Sometimes he was a savage.

Denny was a wizard at catapulting. He had a built-in protractor in his noggin, coupled with the feel of a first-rate pool shark. I took the battering ram approach. There was actually a battering ram in the arsenal, but I preferred my crossbows. For me, they packed a bigger wallop, and they were easier to use. I was a maven of destruction whereas Denny was a dogged tactician, to his own detriment. Funny how much a stupid kid’s game can teach you, if you’re willing to probe.

We had an ambush set up on his carpeted staircase. Denny was really in the zone, everything he launched was a bull’s eye. A couple of times, by pure accident, my elbow got in the way of his shot. These things happened. Denny didn’t blow a gasket or accuse me of playing dirty. He remained cool, focused on the task at hand, coiled into a catapulting machine. He had me right where he wanted. My crossbows were practically deadweight on the staircase, and the carpeting took away all their inherent zing.

I had no other choice but to make do with the catapults.

I kept mulling over the fact that General Washington beat Cornwallis, not by brute force, but by a delicate series of retreats. It was a lot for a ten-year-old to swallow, but it was worth a shot. I needed a chance to redeem my good name since Denny had been on a hot streak. I kept up the smack talk and let Denny take riskier shots. After a series of my own retreats, Denny sabotaged a good chunk of his men with his big fat knee when he was regrouping on the stairs. Not the prettiest way to win, but hey. We took a snack break.

Denny was always stocked to the gills with candy, chips, cakes, and sodas. By my math, he never had less than a dozen bottles. They’d loaf by the bar across from the Steinway, and the bust of Beethoven. Most were half-empty and flat. Besides fizz-less Pepsi, my compadre was forever pushing his grandmother’s meringue on me. It always looked so pitiful, Smurf hats made of chalk, and tasted like it too. I never grabbed any unless his mom happened to be checking up on us. She filled my plate with so much junk: cookies, candy, and cakes, she was either the greatest host for a ten-year-old twerp or she was getting kickbacks from Dr. Derkasch (Denny and I had the same dentist). Personally, I think she was tired of the meringue and was trying to unload it.

That balmy March afternoon Denny’s mom plunked herself down beside us and played hostess. She was equally adept at delegating and made Denny refill my Waterford glass to the brim. He took exquisite delight in watching me suffer because he knew how much I hated flat Pepsi. I had to practically swandive to the lip of my glass before the cola stained their embroidered family heirloom, a hand-woven tablecloth from some village in eastern Transylvania.

Mrs. P and Denny argued in their family tongue, and I could see my pal was milking the situation because he probably wasn’t nearly as cavalier without company present. A foreign language made a family spat so much edgier. Because I was trying my best to be well-behaved, Denny decided to let loose a stinkbomb. Of course he blamed me, but his mom was familiar with his unique scent.

Denny told his mom I didn’t drink flat soda. She seemed unperturbed, for the moment. Mainly, the term flat didn’t register since English was only her second, no, make that her third language. Denny stayed the course and insisted that I didn’t drink bubbleless Pepsi. This struck a chord with Mrs. P.

“What happened to the bubbles?” she asked.

“They’re gone,” Denny reminded her, “They’re old bottles.”

“Old bottles!”

I emphasize the exclamation point in lieu of a question mark since this is how it sounded plus the look on Mrs. P’s face screamed insult. A hostess, of her caliber, didn’t serve old cola. She held her jaw tight for a good eight seconds then she dropped her signature “puh”.

“That good for nothing father of yours,” Mrs. P said. “He’s a chip off the old bark.”

I knew better than to laugh, but Denny seized the chance to rib his mom, correcting her idiomatic flub. I tried to change the subject and even complimented her poofy hair, my fingers crossed under the table. She eked out what could pass for a smirk then told her son to open a fresh bottle. Denny didn’t miss a beat, informing his mother, bubbling with giddiness, that none of the bottles were new. She got up right then and inspected each one only to learn, much to her abundant chagrin, that Denny was right.

“Look at all this wasted soda,” she said.

She could’ve been chastising me directly. I was the cause of at least five freshly-cracked Pepsis. Mrs. P raised her finger and began yelling. First, in Romanian, then in English. Her consistent, catchy refrain, “Good for nothing,” still echoing as she stormed out of the room.

Denny proceed to tell me that his Pops was the critical nugget of his mom’s agida. As if I didn’t know. It seemed that Mr. P would buy, without fail, twice as much stuff as they could ever consume without going bad. Unlike his wife, who had been born with money, he grew up a dirt-poor peasant, the oldest of five children. He became the family breadwinner at age fourteen. Denny told me his father would freak out if he heard anybody’s grumbling belly, would rush out to stock up on eggs, milk, and Scooter pies. It drove Mrs. P bonkers, but he kept his family fed.

She’d been gone for a while, and I’d been hankering to duck out without anybody seeing me. I wasn’t exactly sure where Mrs. P had gone and I didn’t want to be rude, lest it get back to my folks and have hell to pay. Mrs. P did return, a bit harried with flush cheeks and a sweaty brow, a dusty two-liter bottle of Pepsi in her hand. Some feeble attempt had been made to wipe clean the shoulders. A caramel-like gob of gunk slithered down the neck of the bottle. Maybe it was rubber cement or caramelized cola. The bottom of the bottle looked as if it had swooped down a chimney. There may have been a cobweb, dangling from the side, but
Mrs. P flicked it off, whatever it was, before I had a chance to get a better squint.

More than anything, I wanted to get out of there, but I was stuck like an amber-doused insect. Pepsi spurt all over when Mrs. P whisked open the bottle. She licked some off her knuckles. Rather than retreat, I sat there and had my old Pepsi which was beyond syrupy. It did have bubbles. Caveat emptor. Mrs. P may well have dug up the relic from somewhere in the basement or possibly even from the backyard by the begonias. I grabbed my chalice and slurped a bit off the rim then slugged back the ancient cola. Mrs. P seemed very proud of herself, and poured me another round.

I nursed the second one, sat back and tried to tune out the bickering. With each sip, the flavors and my sentiment kept evolving. The syrupy sensation turned medicinal. I’m not sure if that was the old cola or the family fracas, but while they argued in Romanian, I drank my Pepsi both glad and a bit glum I didn’t exactly know what they were saying, the whole while pretending I was swigging a cold glass of tap water.