Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Fasman: The Geographer's Library

I have finally finished the novel I've been slowly reading for the last month! I have to say that Jon Fasman's The Geographer's Library deserved a better, more focused reading than I gave it. This is the best "find the mysterious artifacts from the past to figure out whodunnit and why in the present" sorts of mysteries that I've read in a long time. I liked it much better than Lev Grossman's The Codex; I'd place it up with The Rule of Four. It's Fasman's first novel and I will watch eagerly for his next one.

The Geographer's Library has for a protagonist and first-person narrator Paul Tomm, 23 and fresh out of college, working as a journalist for a benevolent and caring boss at a small-town newspaper. Paul enjoys his job, which he drifted into, although he didn't have any desire to work as a reporter. In fact, he had no plans or desires for his post-college life at all, which he says "is what happens to the overachieving but essentially useless children of parents who raised their children to do well on tests but failed to equip them with the poison-tipped spurs of true ambition." A local man, who was a professor at Paul's college, dies mysteriously, and as Paul begins work on his obituary, the man's past and actions seem stranger and stranger. Who was Jaan Puhapaev (I don't know how to do diacritical marks in blogger, sorry), and why are people so concerned that Paul not investigate his death?

Paul is a likeable, although naive, narrator and his voice is enjoyable to read. The stand-out feature of this book, however, are the chapters that intervene between each chapter of Paul's narration, which detail a series of mysterious objects, their histories, and the machinations of a sinister group to acquire them. The chapters conclude with a catalogue entry on each object. Some of these are marvellous short stories by themselves, and these are what I wish I could have read more attentively, rather than stretching them out across a month and three states. I would have enjoyed the book more had I been able to start noticing some of the repeating names and characters in these chapters. One note--if you know Russian, and you pay attention, there's a big clue early about how these chapters will eventually intersect with the book's main plot.

If you like this sort of thriller, then read this book. It was on the 2-for-3 table at Borders, by the way, as was The Know-It-All, so if you get both then you can pick up a third book, too. Sometime in the next few years I'll have to re-read this one--it was that good, and like I said, I'd like to do a reading that gives it justice.

Since many of this book’s interchapters take place in the USSR or in post-Soviet Russia, I think this is a good time to reveal my family’s recipe for borscht. Yes, borscht. No, seriously, I know it has beets, but it’s really good and I want you to try it (Dan and Nathan, this means you). This borscht is superior to anything you’ve had before, and it’s because it (reportedly) is the aristocratic version, which is heavy in meat and tomato rather than consisting mostly of cabbage. My grandmother got the recipe from an acquaintance who fled from Russia during the revolution.

Madame Devornakov’s Borscht

1 tbspn oil
1.5 lbs stew meat
1 cup chopped onion
1 can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 ¼ cup condensed beef broth
1 tsp salt
Pepper to taste
1 can undrained whole beets, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 cup grated carrots (you can get these from the salad bar if you’re pressed for time)
2 cups shredded cabbage (you can buy pre-shredded coleslaw mix or broccoli slaw)

Heat the oil over medium-high heat and brown the meat. Add tomatoes, onion, salt, pepper, the juice from the beets, and beef broth. Reduce heat and simmer, covered. After the meat has simmered for an hour, add the diced beets and shredded carrots. Simmer for another 30 to 60 minutes, then add the cabbage and simmer for a final 15 to 20 minutes.

Serve with gobs of sour cream. This really adds to the flavor, so don’t leave it out.


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