Friday, November 25, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF JUDYTH VARY BAKER'S ME AND LEE


I simply cannot believe some of the reviews I see for this book on Amazon.com praising it as genuine, authentic, and heartwarming stuff about Lee Oswald, but I know that it has become a widespread abusive practice for friends, colleagues, and business associates, early on, to lard up the review section for any book with five-star praise, making it difficult for readers to find genuine reviews.

If there were an award for the most incomprehensible, confusing book ever written about the Kennedy assassination, Ms. Baker's book would surely be a serious contender.

Here you will find a unique blend of how I spent my teen years, the cheesy 1950s television series "I Led Three Lives," Laurel and Hardy playing spies, and a bodice-ripper from Harlequin Romance books. It is an indigestible mass out of which emerges absolutely zero insight into the personality of Oswald or into the background of the assassination.

The first hundred pages or so of this book have nothing whatever to do with Lee Oswald or the assassination, covering as they do the early life of Ms. Baker, especially her teenage years. Ms. Baker or whoever it is who wrote this material tries impressing the reader with her early brilliance, and it does seem she was a gifted young woman.

Her early school science projects and the recognition she gained for her work with mice and cancer cells are matters of which she is deservingly proud, but about a hundred pages of it in a book on an entirely different subject? A single slim chapter or introduction would have established her bone fides as a competent researcher.

One assumes that here the publisher was attempting to establish her as a truly worthy witness, intelligent and scientific-minded. The only trouble with that is that once we are into the matter for which people are reading the book, all pretense of science and logic evaporates.

I note also a rather cheap publisher's trick used here. Ms. Baker's story of her remarkable youth is documented with dozens of cuttings and documents, making it unmistakable that she is telling us a true story. But when we get to New Orleans and Oswald, these insertions become mostly completely generic and lacking in any connection with her, things like backgrounders on certain people or newspaper photos of places in New Orleans.

When Ms. Baker comes finally to New Orleans and Lee Oswald, I gasped at the idea that now she might offer some insights, but the truth is that there is nothing about her words that convinces the reader that she and Oswald were even acquainted, let alone intimate friends. I don't say they were not, but the author's words lack substance and indeed descent into a kind of logic-lacking fog differing considerably from the unnecessarily long but at least fairly lucid first hundred pages.

The confusions are too many to go into, and when reviewing a ghastly book one hesitates spending too much effort after the unpleasant realization you have wasted time and energy reading it.

Ms. Baker in the course of endless back-and-forths on streetcars, day and night, going to bizarre boarding houses, bizarre offices, and bizarre entertainments with Oswald manages, in a book supposedly telling us what Oswald really was like and written to support his supposed views, to plant every unproved accusation about Oswald you can find in the various hack books attacking him.

He was, according to her, a crack shot, demonstrating his prowess to her with an air rifle at an amusement park. He loved guns and weapons, taking her to a small arsenal in the Bannister agency's building and selecting a pistol, and wanting to take her for fun shooting birds. He was violent towards his wife, confirming never-proved assertions of an unbalanced Marina Oswald. He ran errands for Marcello mob interests, including a rather well known scene where a witness in the assassination literature says he saw Oswald taking a wad of money under the table from the man running the Town and Country Motel (some researchers suggesting another individual, a criminal, who slightly resembled Oswald as the person in the incident if it even happened). In Ms. Baker's version, she is there right next to Oswald, keeping her face demurely down and seeing the money being passed under the table.

All of Ms. Baker's story about Oswald and New Orleans, except for the silly romantic assertions, could have been derived from the popular literature. There is no unmistakable authenticity in any of it, so when it is combined, as it is, with laughable lines and events, the result is an unpleasant and indigestible mush.

Oswald, as portrayed by Ms. Baker comes off as a bizarre little man full of delusional ideas, a reading which entirely works against the picture I have of him through many books.

I should tell readers that I received an appreciative e-mail from Ms. Baker not long ago: she was thanking me for defending her in a deluge of comments on the Toronto Globe and Mail's website pertaining to an interview in the promotion of her book. I had not read her book, nor was I familiar with her background, but I simply opposed attacks based on "Oh, not another conspiracy theory!" believing as I do that we have never received the truth concerning the assassination and remaining open to the idea that there are still people from whom we have not heard who know important things.

Well, now that I have read Ms. Baker, I remain convinced we have never received the truth, and you can delete Ms. Baker's name from the list of those who could come forward with new information.

Monday, November 21, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF BARRY ERNEST'S THE GIRL ON THE STAIRS


This is a modest book both in its aims and in its physical size, but it is a book which makes a genuine contribution to understanding the Kennedy assassination, and  it is the best thing I have read on the subject in some years.

The central finding of the Warren Commission was that Oswald was Kennedy’s assassin. So while Mr. Ernest’s aims seem modest, calling into question Oswald’s movements in the wake of the shooting, they work powerfully against that central finding.

Here is a self-published book written by a man who originally had not even planned to write a book, and it contains genuinely new and significant evidence.

You will find here no unproved theories against the officially accepted explanation, nor will you find phony efforts to protect the official story. Books of both those types have been published in abundance for decades, indeed to the point where I long ago sickened of reading them.

Mr. Ernest documents his long-term, off-and-on again efforts to satisfy his own curiosity concerning the assassination and, particularly, to locate a significant witness the Warren Commission went out of its way to minimize, slight, and ignore, Ms. Victoria Adams. Ms. Adams worked in an office on the fourth-floor of the Texas Book Depository in November, 1963. From a remarkable vantage point, she and some fellow workers watched Kennedy’s motorcade enter the Plaza and approach the fatal area. Then they heard noises like fireworks and saw the president’s car begin to rush away.

As a side note here, just the fact that a group of people, only about 40 or 50 feet above the motorcade, could gather and open a window to look down on it tells us a great deal about the terribly poor security arrangements made that day by all police and protective agencies.

Ms. Adams and a co-worker suspected something was wrong and quickly sought the stairs to the ground floor – the same stairs Oswald is supposed to have taken immediately after the shots, indeed the only full-height set of stairs in a building whose elevator at the time did not operate. Her seemingly insignificant act proved to have many serious implications.

Ms. Adams saw no one on the stairs. She heard no one, even though the creaky and echoing nature of the stairs and stair well meant that you always heard other steps on them, no matter how many floors away. She was accompanied by one of her co-workers, Sandra Styles, who could thus certainly corroborate or contradict any of Victoria Adams’ testimony, yet Ms. Styles was never interviewed by any of the agencies investigating. The FBI made no attempt to re-stage and time the path of these women, as they did for a number of other people.

The author, after finally finding Ms. Adams, gaining her trust (often a requirement with significant Kennedy-assassination witnesses who have been badgered and even intimidated in the past) and having her tell her brief story in fine detail, succeeded also in finding her former co-worker, Ms. Styles, who, indeed, corroborates Ms. Adams perfectly. She also provides a detail of just what was happening in the Plaza when they decided to go down, providing an amazingly accurate time marker for their descent’s start.

Ms. Adam’s own words – recorded e-mail exchanges - tell any perceptive reader that she was (she died a few years ago) an intelligent and perceptive observer, the very kind of witness any attorney or prosecutor likes to put on the stand.

The author also discovers a transmittal letter at the National Archives that has Dorothy Garner, office manager of the same text-book publishing company for which the two women worked, seeing Roy Truly and Officer Marion Baker arrive on the fourth floor after Victoria Adams and Sandra Styles left, an important fact because these two had previously stopped on the second floor where Officer Baker had a brief confrontation with a relaxed Lee Oswald in the cafeteria as they raced up from the ground floor to inspect the building.

Ms. Adams not only saw no one on the stairs, but when she and her friend briefly went outside, she did see Jack Ruby, a man she did not know until she saw the television pictures later of him shooting Oswald.

Many of the more unhelpful and even crazed books on this subject I sometimes think likely come under the auspices of the very agencies who have worked so hard to promote the official story: lunatic books help discredit all critics of the official story. When I say lunatic books I mean books along the lines of The Man Who Knew Too Much or JFK and the Unspeakable.

Worthless books which seem to serve the opposite side include Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, which offers the pretence of tough-minded analysis, or Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi, which is just a giant prosecutor’s brief supporting another prosecutor’s brief, or Edward Jay Epstein’s Legend and Counterplot, both efforts to confirm the main conclusions of the Warren Commission after the author’s having gained some credibility with his Inquest, a book which supports limited and late criticism of the Commission.

For people coming to the assassination for the first time, Mr. Ernest provides a few nice little summaries of fact, the most important being J. Edgar Hoover’s virtually immediate acceptance of Oswald’s guilt, his then  having prepared within weeks a report setting out the flimsy case. Lyndon Johnson’s appointment of the Warren Commission made the publication of his report inappropriate, but that report provided the structure on which the commission report was built, the commission itself never doing any genuine investigation of its own. Indeed, since the entire Warren Report was created in a few months, there is a prima facie argument for its complete inadequacy to so demanding a task.

Readers who wish to know more after reading Mr. Ernest’s book cannot do better than the books of Joachim Joesten, the finest and certainly the sharpest of all early critics, and Anthony Summers’ Conspiracy, which although dated remains the best single book ever written on the subject. Interestingly, both these authors came from Europe. The Warren Commission Report itself offers a valuable comparison for these and any other books on the subject.
My only serious criticism of Barry Ernest’s book is that he failed to provide an index, an important omission. However, except for that fault, I recommend this book virtually without qualification to all people curious about the greatest unsolved crime of its time.

I take this opportunity to remind readers of Bertrand Russell’s penetrating question, still never answered: “If, as we are told, Oswald was the lone assassin, where is the issue of national security?”

Further, I remind them that if a matter so important as the assassination of an American president in the mid- 20th century could be handled in so careless and dishonest a way by government agencies, why would anyone expect something more with other sensitive issues and what are the limits of government’s lying? That is why the assassination of 48 years ago remains a timely matter.



Thursday, October 27, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF SHLOMO SANDS' THE INVENTION OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE


This is one of the most important non-fiction books (outside of science) published in years, dealing as it does with a topic which has caused immense pain and difficulty to so many, particularly in the last century. 

A great many non-fiction books today are little more than essays or magazine articles padded into the size of books. Many are true disappointments to read, let alone failing to be genuine contributions to thought.

Here, though, is a book in which every chapter says something challenging and interesting.

And do not skip the introduction – something of which I am often guilty, being anxious to get to the heart of the matter – for in this case the introduction is fascinating, and Mr. Sand could not have provided a subtler or better way to introduce the nature and complexity of his topic.

The book was written in Hebrew – I know it caused quite a sensation in Israel a couple of years ago – and only now has been translated into English. Just one of the things which surprised me was the clarity and flow of the language, something for which social scientists are not noted, Mr. Sand being a historian. I don’t know whether Mr. Sand is that unusual thing, a social scientist who is a truly excellent writer or whether he has found a gifted translator. Perhaps it is both.

Mr. Sand has not done original research into the topic, but he has done a massive and perceptive review of the literature, the kind of effort which in medicine often proves extremely valuable in bringing together the results of scores of scattered original studies, and, as the reader will discover, the author is an impressive scholar.

I knew just one of the topics which caused such upset in Israel was the idea that today’s Palestinians are at least in part the actual descendents of the children of Israel, it being a well-known fact that Rome in her conquests never disturbed the original people of a place unless they refused to acknowledge Rome’s authority. While Roman Palestine did have a couple of revolts, they were by zealots and not the population as a whole, and there is absolutely no historical record of the resident Hebrews having been expelled.

But the author covers much more of interest than that one topic and weaves a cohesive story of the history of the Jewish people which is both challenging and fascinating. He covers the Khazars, the people of a ninth and tenth Jewish kingdom in what is today the Crimea and part of Ukraine. There is no evidence of their having any ancient Hebrew ancestry, and, on the contrary, there is good evidence that the kingdom was the product of Jewish evangelism.

Jewish evangelism sounds mighty odd to a modern ear, but the evidence is there. After all, Christianity started as merely a sect of Judaism and has evangelized much of its history. Christianity’s first great evangelist was Paul, a converted Jew. And we know there were even different early sects of Christians, such as the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, documents which show considerable differences with the content of the accepted Gospels.

There is also the fascinating possibility that Khazar migrants settling in Poland and Germany and other places in Europe are the actual source for the European Jews we call the Ashkenazi. The author cites many clues which suggest this, including clues in the Yiddish language, and in the dress and customs of Eastern European Jews. And it is an idea of which some determined Zionists were aware but chose to ignore or excuse away.

The book is dotted with interesting anecdotes such as quotes from early documents which show Jewish warriors fighting for the Moors in Spain, being perhaps part of the substantial Jewish population from North Africa – again a people with no ancestry to ancient Israel - as well as providing the foundation of what would come to be the Sephardic Jews, later deported from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.

This is a book which will stimulate discussion and additional research for a long time, and what is a more important criterion for a truly important book?

Mr Sand has a few pretty hair-raising quotes from some Zionists which in almost no material way differ in attitude and outlook to the early gutter literature of the Nazis – stuff about blood and destiny. It is one of the author’s major themes that a combination of Zionists and modern Israeli history professors, conspiring to justify the foundations and practices of modern Israel, have worked assiduously to promote the old idea – he calls it a myth - that the Jews were thrown out of their ancient land and have wandered for centuries without a home.

Small wonder the book stirred a controversy in Israel. I can only say that were Mr. Sand any less a scholar and writer, he would have been crushed, but here his research and ideas spring to life for readers everywhere to consider.

The book is highly recommended to all those with an interest in the affairs of the Middle East, the history of Europe, the history of religion, the history of ideas, the nature of political movements, the eccentricities of human nature, human psychology, or those who just enjoy a stimulating read.       



Thursday, October 20, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF MARK NORTH'S BETRAYAL IN DALLAS



There are so many bad books on the Kennedy assassination - and that statement spans the whole breadth of views - when a new one comes along, I need a special reason for reading it.

Years ago, I read Mark North's Act of Treason, and, while it does not stand out as a major contribution to understanding the assassination, it did cover some new ground and it documented its central theme that J.Edgar Hoover almost certainly knew in advance of a planned attempt on Kennedy and did nothing to prevent it.

Of course, that does not mean Hoover directly had anything to do with the assassination. We already knew that Hoover hated the Kennedy brothers, and that the Kennedy brothers hated him. Animosities do get in the way of duty for many people with great power, and how easy it might be for Hoover when his agency isn't the one charged with presidential protection.

The new book is a very thin one physically, and, as far as this reviewer goes, it is even thinner in terms of genuine information, making no contribution to the case.

Basically, the author sets out one somewhat plausible set of events and participants and pats himself on the back for solving the case. There is no proof here of the author's overall thesis that the local Dallas Mafia, aided by the New Orleans' Mafia and some French drug contacts, carried out the assassination. The author further believes, again without proof, that they did this in some unspecified manner in secret collusion with Lyndon Johnson. 

Many have come to the conclusion that the assassination was a mob hit, although I still regard the idea as only one of three candidates and not the strongest, but few have thrown Lyndon Johnson into the mix, although there was a now-forgotten play written a few years after Kennedy's death called MacBird!. The title says everything you need to know.

Johnson was a hateful and crooked politician, and the Kennedy brothers had the same kind of relationship with him that they had with Hooover, and Johnson was facing possibly career-ending revelations from aggressive investigations into the Texas way of doing business and politics. That said, it is a very long way to go to asserting that Johnson entered into a plan to kill the president. Five days left blank and unaccounted for in Johnson's diary which the author discovered prove nothing in a court of law.

I have no hesitation in saying Johnson's ethics would allow him to do such a thing - he was an unholy piece of work - but I have always regarded Johnson as quite a coward for many reasons, and cowards do not act so boldly.

The author has several annoying habits apart from reaching the most extreme conclusions with little or no direct evidence. He keeps writing about all the powerful individuals who "betrayed America" in Dallas. I find that kind of whining quite unpleasant, and I have no idea what it even means to "betray America" in this context.

One of the reasons I have against the "mafia theory" is simply that there are many indications that Jack Kennedy was on good terms with the mob. We know he received a briefcase with a million dollars in cash from them during his campaign for president, a gift reportedly in recognition of his father's past long association. We know that Jack Kennedy enjoyed friendships with the likes of Peter Lawford, a member of the "rat pack" often associated with mob-run casinos. Lawford is also said to have acted as a major procurer of women for Kennedy.

We also know that Kennedy had an intimate relationship with a woman named Judith Exner who just happened also to be the girlfriend of Chicago's mob boss, Sam Giancana. There was also the relationship with Marilyn Monroe, a messy one involving both Kennedy brothers, and Marilyn was a woman who also knew Sam Giancana.

So the total relationship between the Kennedy brothers and the mob remains murky and complex. Yes, Carlos Marcello, New Orleans boss, definitely had it out for brother Robert who embarrassed and hounded him. But mobsters do not take on gigantic earth-shattering tasks like assassinating a president without overwhelming general approval from their major associates. The act would put all their assets at risk.

The book lacks even an index, an important part of any book purporting to deal with history.

Recommended only to be avoided.

JOHN CHUCKMAN'S BAKED ACORN SQUASH STUFFED WITH FRUIT


CHUCKMAN’S SPECIAL BAKED ACORN SQUASH

A truly beautiful and tasty dish.

INGREDIENTS

1 large Acorn Squash – cut in half and remove seeds
Butter or Margarine – enough to generously coat insides of Squash with a bit to spare
Salt - to taste
Cinnamon – at least 2 Tablespoons
Apples – Granny Smith - 1 or 2 depending on size of Squash and Apples
   cut into eighths and cored – you are going to stuff the Squash with 
   them and you want a generous pile to start since they cook down
Cranberries – frozen or fresh whole – about a small handful
Raisins – Golden – about a small handful
Jam – any red fruit jam or use Swedish Loganberry Preserve – at least 4 Tablespoons

METHOD

Butter all inside surface of Squash. Reserve some Butter for last step. Lightly Salt and sprinkle with Cinnamon, reserving a little Cinnamon for use when Squash is all stuffed.

Cut Apples and core – peel if you prefer. Arrange them inside the Squash generously. Then add Cranberries, Raisons, and top with Jam. Sprinkle remaining Cinnamon over top. Place little dabs of butter over fruit.

Bake in a 350 degree oven in a baking dish uncovered. Bake until top is getting golden with touches of brown – usually about an hour.

VARIATIONS  

Nuts – walnuts or pecans – are delicious additions. Add them – chopped – over top in last ten minutes or so of cooking.

Currents are a nice alternative to raisins.

You may also use Brown Sugar either instead of or in addition to Jam if you like more sweet.

JOHN CHUCKMAN'S FAVORITE MEAT LOAF


CHUCKMAN’S FAVORITE MEAT LOAF

Again an adaptation, after many experiments, of one of my mother’s old recipes, a Sunday dinner we always enjoyed as kids.

INGREDIENTS

Ground Beef – about a pound
Ground Pork – about a pound
3 medium Onions
4 Tablespoons Tomato Ketchup
Panko Breadcrumbs – about three handfuls – you may use ordinary 
     breadcrumbs, but texture will suffer.
2 Eggs
Salt and Pepper to taste
Oil for sautéing onions
Cup of Beef Stock

ALTERNATIVE INGREDIENT
2 pounds of Ground Beef/Pork/Veal often sold today in supermarkets
In any case, you must have Pork for a great meat loaf.

METHOD

Salt and saute Onions until beginning to brown slightly. Add Beef Stock, bring to boil, then reduce heat to medium. Allow Beef Stock to reduce away, leaving Onions to absorb the intense flavour. Set aside to cool.

(The above, by the way, is an excellent method for other uses of cooked onions, especially as a hamburger topping.)

Mix Beef, Pork, Breadcrumbs, Eggs, Ketchup, Salt and Pepper in a bowl. When Onions are cool, add them.

Form mixture into a nice loaf about three inches high in a baking dish. 

Bake at 350 degrees about one hour.

Delicious with Baked Potatoes made in the same oven and a green salad.

Also delicious with my special Acorn Squash recipe found on this site.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN'S FAVORITE ROAST PEAR SALAD


CHUCKMAN'S FAVORITE ROAST PEAR SALAD

I’ve developed many salads and salad dressing over the years, but I think this is my favorite, and everyone who has ever tried it enjoys it.

INGREDIENTS – FOR TWO INDIVIDUAL SALADS

2 large Bosc Pears – sliced into thick slices – at least a ¼ inch
1 small head Leaf Lettuce – green or red – enough to cover two salad plates
1 handful of Walnut pieces
Fontina Cheese – grated – at least enough to lightly cover each salad, or more

METHOD

Place Pear slices on a cookie sheet – best to use parchment paper underneath – rub tops with a bit of oil. Roast in oven at 350 degrees until getting a bit golden, just browned edges – likely in the range of 40 – 50 minutes, depending on thickness of pears and accuracy of oven temperature.

Note: if you prefer, remove seeds from pear slices, but you do not need to do so as they will virtually disappear during cooking.

In the last 10 minutes or so of pears cooking put walnuts in oven on a little tray.

Rip Lettuce and spread on plates. Place roasted Pears on top, then sprinkle on Walnuts. Sprinkle Cheese. Drizzle with desired amount of Dressing.

Salad is nicest with Pears and Nuts warm, but it is still delicious when they are cool.

DRESSING

¾ Cup Canola Oil
¼ Cup Balsamic Vinegar
1 Teaspoon Dijon Mustard
Light Soya Sauce – about 1 Teaspoon

I like to use an old glass bottle with a screw cap for mixing dressings, and I save nice ones for the purpose. Just put all ingredients into  the bottle, close cap, and shake vigorously. Or, if you prefer, wisk in a bowl.

VARIATIONS

A Blue Cheese, instead of Fontina, is also good.

Real sautéed bacon bits, instead of Walnuts, are delicious, but I think over-the-top.

JOHN CHUCKMAN'S SAUERKRAUT SOUP - A VARIATION OF MY MOTHER'S RECIPE


CHUCKMAN'S SAUERKRAUT SOUP

This is a slight variation of a childhood favourite which my mother made regularly. I’ve tried various experiments over the years, and this is the version I like best.

INGREDIENTS

1 Large Can of Sauerkraut
1 Medium Can of Lima Beans.
1/3 Pound of Bacon or more – cut into bits
1 Medium Onion – diced
3- 4 Cups of Chicken Broth
1 Tablespoon or more Caraway Seed
3 Tablespoons Flour
2 Tablespoons Oil for frying – Canola is my everyday

METHOD

Saute Onion and set aside.

Fry Bacon gently with oil until golden. Remove Bacon pieces from pan and retain Oil-Bacon grease mixture. Add Flour to mixture and make a roux that is nutty brown. Do not stop before you have a good browning or you will lose half the flavour.

Start adding Chicken Stock to roux and stirring until all incorporated. Add fried Onions, Bacon pieces, Sauerkraut, Lima Beans, and Caraway.

Simmer for at least half an hour with lid on pan. I tend to simmer all soups longer for full blending of flavor.

TASTIEST VARIATION FOR A COMPLETE DINNER
The way my wife and I usually have it.

You may eat the soup as is above with anything you like, such as pork chops, or, before starting to simmer, add about 2 pounds of Pork Spareribs, cut into reasonable-sized sections.

In this case you simmer the soup for at least an hour, or until meat is almost falling off the bones.

Ideally served with rye bread and butter.

ANOTHER VARIATION FOR COMPLETE DINNER

Instead of Pork Ribs, add about 11/2 pounds of Polish Sausage before simmering. Simmer for about an hour.

A few chunks of potato boiled in the soup/stew are also good.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF ANTHONY SUMMERS' THE ELEVENTH DAY


I have long been an admirer of the work of Anthony Summers, one of the world’s great investigative journalists.

His biographical notes on J. Edgar Hoover, Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover are required reading for an understanding of how the center of American power operated for a major portion of the 20th century.

His first book on the Kennedy assassination, Conspiracy, is the greatest book ever written on that event, and it has never been surpassed for the depth of its analysis and gripping nature of its writing. Indeed, because so little new evidence of any importance has emerged since that time, it remains the definitive study.

When I read that he was publishing a book on 9/11 - an event around which swirl clouds of doubt and mystery as great as the ferocious storm of dust which swept through lower Manhattan when the World Trade Center collapsed - I was ready to devour it.

And while there is a good deal to admire in the new book, my lasting impression is one of disappointment. It simply does not measure up to what I think of as the standard of excellence set previously by Mr. Summers.

There are assumptions here I cannot accept without better evidence, much of the main thread of detailed facts contained come ultimately from American torture of countless people in the CIA’s “rendition program,” a bureaucratic euphemism for an international torture gulag, and there are important facts not even touched on.

I have never accepted notions like insider plots and false flag operations pertaining to this event, but anyone who has followed matters over the last decade knows that a great deal remains obscured and unexplained, almost certainly deliberately so by the American government.

Mr. Summers believes it is essentially for several reasons: one is to cover up the close to utter incompetence of the CIA and other agencies leading up to the event. Another is to cover up the almost criminal incompetence of the Bush administration both before and after the event. And another is to guard the long and deep and fairly secret intimate relationship America has with Saudi Arabia.

I accept all of these, but none of them comes as news to critical observers over the years and I do not believe they add up to an explanation of what happened on 9/11.

The CIA has flopped countless times – failing to correctly read the Soviet Union’s economic and military power, failing even to predict its collapse, failing completely in either preventing or investigating Kennedy’s assassination, and being the author of countless lunatic plots like the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The agency has squandered vast amounts of money in often counterproductive schemes since its creation following World War II, so its failure with regard to 9/11 was for me the expected norm.

The same Bush administration, which gave us a world record limp and pathetic performance for a government during Hurricane Katrina, could not be expected to operate in an entirely different mode around 9/11, and it most certainly did not.

The relationship with Saudi Arabia is one of those not-much-discussed matters in America, but it is a necessity so long as America keeps building three-car garages out into the desert of the Southwest.

New facts Summers presents us with are interesting and not contemptible, but they are inadequate to our curiosity. Some of those involved in 9/11 from Saudi Arabia may well have been double or triple agents for Saudi intelligence. Osama bin Laden was paid handsomely by Saudi princes to keep his various operations off Saudi soil, thus indirectly funding 9/11. After dumbly dawdling at a school-reading photo-op, Bush was finally whisked away in Air Force One where the commander-in-chief was virtually out of the loop with remarkably faulty communications. His Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the number two man in a wartime chain of command, was for some time wondering around the Pentagon unavailable to military commanders needing his authority.

Summers pretty well accepts the official version of 9/11, with the important proviso that the official version, the commission report, includes such matters as the fact that there was little cooperation from Bush officials during the investigation, and the CIA certainly did not explain itself adequately.

The collapse of building 7, which was not hit by an airplane and which occurred after the collapse of the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center, is attributed to debris falling from the other towers. I just don’t know, but it did bother me that Mr. Summers seemed to go out of his way to poke fun at some of the scientists or engineers who doubt that.

The large effort of Israeli spies around 9/11 is not even mentioned in the book, and I found that a disturbing omission.

There was a group of five Israeli spies who were seen on the roof of their truck taking pictures of the explosions and then behaving in a raucous congratulatory manner, yelling and high-fiving. The police were called and they were arrested, but we know nothing of their purpose or achievements. There was another large group of Mossad agents posing as art students who travelled around the country apparently following some or all of the 9/11 plotters. They, too, were arrested and later deported, but we know nothing of them.

Summers accepts the “let’s roll” scenario for the fourth high-jacked plane which crashed in Pennsylvania, but I have always doubted it. First, the photos of the debris field certainly suggest to a non-technical person that it may have been shot down. Second, after three deliberate crashes into buildings, it seems almost unbelievable that the huge air defenses of the United States had not finally taken action. Third, on at least one occasion, Donald Rumsfeld spoke to the press inadvertently using the expression “shooting down” the plane over Pennsylvania in discussing the high-jackings. Fourth, only naturally, the United States’ government would not publicize the shooting-down of a civilian airliner because the resulting lawsuits would be colossal. I am willing to be convinced otherwise, but Mr. Summers does not succeed in doing it for me.       

Another, important fact is not mentioned in the book. An American consular official at the time was complaining in public about all the visas they were issuing in the Middle East owing to pressure from the CIA. It was not a headline story, but it was an important clue to something unusual going on.

I have always regarded it as a strong hypothesis that the high-jackers were part of a secret CIA operation which badly backfired, an operation which saw many questionable people receiving visas and being allowed to do some pilot training. Risky CIA operations have a number of times backfired, and they even have nickname for that happening, blowback.

Of course, we could see the entire matter also as blowback from the CIA’s secret war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Fundamentalist Muslims in Afghanistan, Mujahideen, were recruited, provided training and money and sophisticated weapons to fight the Soviets. Several billion dollars were poured in. Osama bin Laden was himself part of the business, but, as Mr. Summers agrees, he later did not see the United States as any different to the Soviets when they sent troops onto the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Summers is trying to place a good deal of blame on the Saudis for their funding and secret operations, and while I regard it as an interesting observation that certain members of the royal family paid him, I do not regard that as a stunning fact. After all, Saudi Arabia’s countless billions come in good part either directly or indirectly from the United States and Osama bin Laden’s family was a very successful wealthy contractor there, so you could say in the same sense that the United States subsidized Osama’s operations. And it goes deeper than that, for Saudi business connections in the United States, including connections directly with the Bush family, go back many years.

This reader for one would like to see some hard proof of some things that Mr. Summers takes as fact. First, that bin Laden even was responsible for 9/11: the public has never been provided a shred of good evidence. Second, that bin Laden was not in fact killed in the unbelievable bombardment at Tora Bora, his death being kept hidden to prevent martyrdom. Third, that the recent assassination in Pakistan was genuine, not the effort of a president down in the polls and feeling that after ten years he could afford to make the claim.

Fourth, that there ever was an organization called al Qaeda. I know that sounds odd to people who assume everything they hear on television is true, but there are good reasons for doubting it. While Mr. Summers gives one translation for the Arabic word, people who speak Arabic have said it commonly means toilet, and surely no one running a terror organization would use such a name. Indeed, we have several very prominent people quoted in the past, including former British Foreign Minister Robin Cook, saying that al Qaeda was just a derogatory catch-all term used for various “bad guys” out there. That is a tremendously meaningful difference between the two things, but Mr. Summers does not touch the issue.

Again, I cannot stress how important it is for all decent-minded people holding to democratic values to accept neither the CIA’s international torture gulag nor the results of its dark work. Yet the bulk of Mr. Summers’ idea of events is based on evidence deriving ultimately from torture, the people being tortured never receiving the benefits of counsel, fair trial, or even opportunity to rebut.

In summary, a book worth reading, if only to get mad at, but it hardly represents a definitive effort on its subject.

Friday, September 09, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF AMIRA HASS'S DRINKING THE SEA AT GAZA


The subtitle of this book, "Days and Nights in a Land under Siege," accurately describes the subject. The period covered is roughly from the first intifada, 1987, through the first election of Benjamin Netanyahu, 1996, and effectively the death of the Oslo Accords. It is not about the current situation in Gaza, but it provides valuable background material.

Of course, the misery of the people of Gaza documented here has grown only worse now that we are into the fourth year of Israel's blockade.

Ms. Hass is an Israeli journalist, living in the West Bank, who spent a great deal of time in the Gaza Strip, a situation giving her a unique perspective.

Ms. Hass has a clear journalistic style and an eye for detail, and her story is full of facts and observations you do not typically find in our press concerning Gaza and Israel. She definitely gives you a powerful sense of the frustration and pain of being a Palestinian in Gaza.

Here are just a few of her interesting facts. According to the organization, Physicians for Human Rights, during the five years of the intifada, a Palestinian child under the age of six was shot in the head every two weeks. According to United Nations Relief records, nearly 1,100 people treated at its clinics during the first four years had been shot in the head, with about 15% of that number being women. During the four years, over sixty thousand Gazans were shot, severely beaten , or tear-gassed.

With Israel's tightening of work permits - one of the important themes of the book - Palestinian per capita income fell by 7.14 % in 1992 and by 26.53 % in 1993 - this in a poor and overcrowded place.

The truly frightening thing that emerges in the book is Israel's gradual creation of a stultifying system of electrified fences, elaborate application requirements for work permits, refusal to grant all but a small portion of the applications, and frustrating line-ups for those with permits to use them,. Even the few with work permits had to show up at the exit check-point only at specified hours, then they often waited for hours to have their permits checked. The slightest thing out of order saw them ordered to return home. The logistics of getting back and forth to their work places often are horrific - once there were large numbers of taxis but even taxis are reduced to a small number - and Palestinians are not allowed to stay over at their place of work even if their employer desires it.

It is important to appreciate that with Israel's original driving of Palestinians off their land and out of their villages - and Ms. Hass describes some of the Israeli army's tactics to drive Palestinians out - Gaza became effectively a crowded refugee camp, inadequate to sustain a modern economy, and for many in Gaza, work in Israel is their only hope for a meager livelihood. With Israel's control of borders and even the sea, it is by default the only accessible market for the products and services of Palestinian businessmen.

Even before the current blockade, Israel literally had created a stranglehold on the (now) one and half million people of Gaza. They could not visit family in the West Bank or East Jerusalem without difficult-to-obtain and restrictive permits. They could not go to hospitals without the permits, and even when the permits were received in a timely fashion, parents often were not allowed to accompany children or spouses their mates, and for people on a course of treatment, as say chemotherapy, they must obtain new permits each time. Young people also cannot attend university or technical schools without permits.

When workers do obtain permits, they are not allowed to stay overnight in Israel, even though their employers may be eager to have them do so, as when working on a rush job. After waiting since dawn at the check-point to exit Gaza, and that often for hours, they travel with difficulty to their jobs, work for wages lower than an Israeli would receive, and must return home each night - an exhausting and costly routine, yet one these impoverished people are only too glad to do if allowed.

Israel also issued permits only to certain classes of people, men under thirty not being eligible. Imagine a society in which all the young men to the age of thirty cannot work, and we must remember that with high birth rates, Palestinian society is a young society with a relatively high proportion of young people.

During the period of the Oslo Accord, Israel had wanted to see businesses created in Gaza to employ people, yet they set the conditions that ultimately made this difficult or impossible. Israel began strangling the opportunities for businessmen in Gaza - farmers and small manufacturers - to export to Israel through its great increases in restrictive security measures. Although it was advertised in Israel as a part of the period of adjustment to Oslo, the entrepreneurs in Gaza found themselves starved of markets.

Israel gradually imposed immensely complicated rules for produce and goods being transferred from Gazan trucks to Israeli trucks. Given also the requirements for inspections and the often hit-or-miss nature of other arrangements, truckloads of produce not infrequently ended up wasted. The many small businesses doing things like running sewing machine workshops for Israeli clothing firms found themselves shutting their doors, putting people out of work.

While Ms. Hass does not use the term apartheid, that is precisely what we see established here. Gaza is a Bantustan in which large numbers of people are kept penned up, separate, and with almost no hope ever of building a viable economy.

As you read these pages, you ask yourself, what possible future is there for people bottled-up in this way? And I cannot see an answer. Israel simply has created a situation which is not tenable over the long term, although for today or tomorrow the Palestinians manage to cope.

They have been artificially removed from their original homes' and all their traditional ties of work and farming have just about been severed. Ms. Hass tells us how the older Palestinians, as when traveling through Israeli territory for work, know precisely the places now demolished and/or renamed as Israeli places and just where their homes and farms were located. Severed, too, were the family connections with the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Palestinians are people for whom extended family is quite important.

It is a bleak, go-nowhere situation, which since Israel's savage attack and blockade has become only bleaker. The book offers no prescriptions or recommendations. Ms. Hass remains throughout that fairly rare being, a truly objective journalist.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF DIARMAID MACCULLOCH’S CHRISTIANITY THE FIRST THREE THOUSAND YEARS

This is a book I wanted very much to like, but, while it is worth reading, it proved disappointing in a number of respects.

The title alone is interesting - reflecting as it does the many ideas and beliefs of Greeks and Hebrews which became woven into Christianity – because it puts Christianity, quite properly, into a longer term, pre-Christian history rather than the naïve notion that Christianity arose suddenly, “out of whole cloth,” as it were, almost like something not of this world.

I had heard an interview with the author on CBC Radio, and he said several intriguing things. I especially liked his explanation of Jesus’s calling his follower, Peter, a rock, a concept which taken literally is one of the great assumptions of Roman Catholicism and its being headquartered in Rome, the legendary site of Peter’s martyrdom. The author said it was intended as sarcasm, and that idea immediately humanizes Jesus with a sense of humor.

After all, we all know from Sunday school classes of years ago that Peter had denied knowing Jesus, not just once but three times. Hardly the character you’d describe as a rock providing a secure foundation.

Someone who could offer that kind of anecdote had to be worth reading.

And there is much in the book readers will enjoy or from which they will learn.

I do think the vast scope of the task of summarizing efficiently three thousand years of developments somewhat eluded the author. My instincts said he gave too many words to some things and too few to others.

There are a great many names of relatively unimportant figures in this book which seem tossed in almost out of some desire for completeness. At the same time there are figures or events or movements which are treated in a cursory manner.

While some portions of the book provide a good read, others seem to drag, as though the author were only covering some territory he felt he must while not being interested in it or perhaps not having studied it enough to summarize more elegantly.

There are also matters of fact and emphasis which bothered me. For example, the French philosophes are treated in what I regard as a truly unbalanced manner. After all, the eighteenth century philosophers offered the greatest challenge and opposition to Christianity since perhaps Rome at the height of its persecutions.

I also thought there were aspects of the author’s discussion of the ancient Hebrews not agreeing with works I’ve read on the origins of the Hebrew people.

Nevertheless, it is a book worth reading, if one that is not consistently satisfying.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF VERONICA BUCKLEY'S CHRISTINA QUEEN OF SWEDEN

Here is an interesting book about a relatively little-known historical figure, Christina Queen of Sweden in the 17th century.

Christina was the daughter of a great Swedish King, Gustav Adolph the Great. She was intellectually gifted, spoke languages, conversed with great men of her day, and early on gained a reputation across Europe as a kind of enlightened ruler.

Her invitations to visit the Swedish Court were gladly accepted by Europe’s famous figures, but the results often proved not so happy as might have been expected. One of the century’s greatest intellects, Rene Descartes, made the trip, reluctantly at first but giving in finally to her blandishments, and died at her court. She kept the rooms cold and expected the great man to meet with her at dawn to discuss philosophy.

That event certainly was an early indicator of her rather bizarre personality. And so too, her behaviour after Descartes’ death: she was full of superficial grief and vowed to build an impressive monument, but it was all forgotten shortly, a pattern of behaviour she repeated many times.

Christina proved an inept ruler, indeed she abdicated because she had no interest in the genuine work of ruling. She proved a person of less than shining ethics, a generally confused person, likely suffering from mental illness.

Christiana decided to become a Catholic, and her abdication of the throne of stoutly Protestant Sweden is closely associated with that fact. After carefully arranging matters like the succession and the revenues she would receive for the rest of her life, Christina travelled to Rome to meet and be welcomed by the Pope, who, naturally in view of the times - the Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648 - viewed her conversion as a victory for Catholicism.

The Pope and every other great person she met contributed to her extravagant and expensive lifestyle – Christina was never ashamed to take large handouts from the great and powerful, and indeed she actively solicited them.

Almost everyone who had close dealings with her came to regret it. Her appearance at times was outlandish and bizarre, her behaviour was quite offensive at times, and there seemed no consistency to her except the need to be deemed royal, treated as royals should be treated, and to do in most things pretty much as she pleased.

Her exploits included having a servant who displeased her killed on the spot, quite a scandalous episode in its day. After all her talk about Catholicism and taking the Pope’s hospitality, at times Christina talked as though she were no longer interested in being Catholic. After abdicating the throne of Sweden, she played many intrigues in Rome and in France to try landing herself another crown. When she thought she was being cheated by Sweden on her lifetime payments, she travelled all the way back in an effort to get what she felt entitled to.

Christina’s example perhaps best tells us how good it is that we are beyond the times of powerful rule by inheritance. The good of her people played virtually no role in her thinking, and her conviction that royal blood meant a lifetime of privileged treatment even when you weren’t assuming any of the responsibilities associated with the privileges is one that is utterly alien to us.

The writer does a sound and competent job on an interesting subject, but the writing is not elegant, and one definitely gets the feeling that the author avoids saying things directly, things which should be said. For example, Christina’s sexual life is left rather ambiguous. There are clear signs that she was homosexual, including a pronounced mannish appearance, but I think the author needed to examine this more carefully if she was going to deal with it at all.

So too her relationship with Cardinal Decio Azzolino, called the great love of her life, is left to me unsatisfactorily explained. One definitely questions whether Christina was capable of loving anyone.

Friday, May 13, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF MURIEL BARBERY'S THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG

What I find most touching about this book is the way it takes me back to a more naïve and thoughtful time, the late 1950s and early 1960s when people I knew would talk late into the night about matters like politics or philosophy.

For all the clichés about North American society being unimaginative and consumer-oriented at that time, it was actually an interesting time with rapid and important changes occurring. Women by the millions commuted daily to work in downtown offices, gathered with their friends for lunches in busy restaurants, and laid the economic foundations of feminism.

Cities streamed with high-school graduates who were the first in their families to attend university, often at less-than-glamorous postwar expansion facilities for fees that seem insignificant now. Paperback and cheap hardbound editions of classics and great books flooded the post-war market, again at prices which seem tiny today. It was a time, too, when films from abroad, seen in old revue cinemas, exposed young minds to wonderfully exotic perspectives and ideas and stimulated discussion.

Finding many such interesting and thoughtful people today in North America, even on university campuses, I think not likely. North American society has become only more immersed in consumerism, and there is hardly a flicker of idealism to be seen anywhere. Contemporary universities have become career factories. Even foreign films do not offer the same stimulating notions that they did. The cinemas themselves are largely gone, and many of the contemporary films have changed their tone.

The French are noted for café society and people who still like to discus philosophy and politics energetically and at length, although I fear it is a national quality that is declining along with the very numbers of cafes which serve as the necessary locations, a trend driven by the changes and demands of a more modern and, dare I say, North Americanized society.

But in this sweet little book, the two chief characters still retain these qualities. We have Renee – perhaps the French equivalent to the old philosophical New York cab driver – who reads serious authors and thinks serious thoughts although residents of the high-toned building in which she is employed would never guess from her deliberately-assumed protective manner as cranky old concierge. As someone who becomes her friend, we have a very bright girl, Paloma, who lives, in a rather rocky and uncomfortable relationship, with her successful and pretentious family in the building.

And we even have references to the great days of film with the magical Mr. Ozu, a deliberate reference to the great Japanese director who died in the 1960s.

This is not a complex or lengthy story, so I will not offer any of its details, but if the nature of the characters I have described appeals to you, you will enjoy the book.

I usually have a tough time with endings in fiction. They are far too often the weakest part of even some of the best books, and to some degree that holds for Ms Barbery’s book. I’m not sure that, in the end, the author knew what to do with her characters, so she has something unexpected and shocking occur. Of course, life can be like that, but fiction is not life.

It may take you a few hours to forgive Ms Barbery, but when you do, you will be left with a lovely lingering sense of having visited a nostalgic and interesting place.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: THE CANNERY IN YARMOUTH MAINE

Review of an enjoyable restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


The location of The Cannery, in a handsome set of buildings by the side of the Royal River, is a very appealing one. The fact that a large marina for pleasure boats is part of the property adds an interesting connection with the water beyond just location.

Inside, the restaurant has a large expanse of windows, many towards the river. Walls are white plaster relieved by sections of wood, including a wooden upstairs gallery. Hanging bowl fixtures give a pleasant, warm light. There are many framed prints of 19th century coastal life and industry and a fair number of plants which unavoidably remind one of a 1980's fern-bar.

Of thirty-five wine listings, about a third are available by the glass. All but a few bottles are priced at $30 or less. Our Houge Washington Cabernet Sauvignon ($5.50) proved a bit harsh. Round Hill California Merlot ($5.25) I thought rather on the insipid side.

The menu carries on the theme of coastal life in the 19th century with a cover picture of people working in a cannery. Well, with so many references to the sea, how better to start than bowls of clam chowder ($4.95) and crab bisque ($8.95)?

The crab bisque comes in a large shallow bowl and is thick and flecked with a good deal of crabmeat. The white sauce thickener in the soup base, however, dominated the flavor with its rather pasty taste, and this detracted from the delicate flavor of crab. It is a decent bowl of soup, but the word bisque connotes something a little more sophisticated and creamier than this.

The clam chowder also was thick and chunky with pieces of potato and bits of clam. But the same basic soup base was used and to the same effect - a decent bowl of diner chowder.

Spinach salad with a warm pancetta dressing and roasted duck breast ($10.95) sounded mouth-watering, but it seemed from our waitress's description, to be a very large salad. However, any salad at The Cannery is available in a half portion at half price, a nice practice. The spinach, glossy with dressing, came surrounded by slices of hard-boiled egg, mushroom, tomato, and pickled artichoke and had several small slices of golden duck breast on top. The duck was very nicely roasted, still succulent, a real treat. However, the duck also gave me the first taste of a salad dressing which was much too sweet. Most elements of the salad were good, but it was difficult to understand the use of a sweet dressing and the inclusion of artichokes.

Our tart of grilled scallops, fontina cheese, roast tomato, spinach, and shallots ($8.95) was more of a success, but still a mixed one. The scallops were sliced with grill marks, off to one side of a tart which resembled a slice of thin quiche. The tart was excellent, truly a savory mix of flavors, but the treatment of the scallops was unexciting - lightly sautéed and drizzled with a touch of vinaigrette or lemon butter would have done them more justice.

I didn't know quite what to expect from sesame-and-panko encrusted shrimp with "nori towers" ($17.95), but, loving both shrimp and Japanese food, I ordered and hoped for the best. The five truly jumbo Gulf shrimp with their rough-textured golden crust were remarkably attractive (the result of the panko coating which is a Japanese breadcrumb with a wonderfully light, almost snowflake-like texture).

If you've ever made sushi (the nori-maki type) at home, using a maki-su bamboo mat to roll the nori (laver), vinegared sticky rice, and fillings, you will appreciate the elegantly made "nori towers." These actually are vegetarian nori-maki that have not been cut into slices.

The shrimp and the nori rolls were delicious, but again, with the first bite of shrimp, came some of the plate's sauce, which was an awful, cloyingly sweet, clove-flavored stuff. The plate also had, quite incongruously, some more pickled artichoke hearts. Here truly was an example of fusion cuisine that simply did not work. I couldn't help thinking what an excellent dish this would become using only the shrimp and nori rolls plus a couple of traditional Japanese dipping sauces.

Our marinated pork tenderloin ($16.95) with its mahogany stained and grilled exterior was very appealing. Essentially, this was an old-fashioned plate of meat, mashed potatoes, and steamed, buttered vegetables (broccoli and red pepper) - dressed up a bit with ultra thin crispy fried leeks on top and a few other minor touches. The tenderloin was delicious. The mashed potatoes were genuine ones and fairly creamy. The vegetables were all tasty, but the crispy fried leeks stood out as being sensational.

The dessert menu consists of mostly heavy-duty items such as a toll house sundae, a Bourbon-candied nut pie, and chocolate-brownie chunk cheesecake plus some ice cream and yogurt.

Strawberry almond strudel sounded delightful (all desserts $4.75) and a bit on the lighter side than most listings. But before the plate was set down, I could see that the fruit layer was painfully thin in a very thick crust. Despite an attractive drizzle of thin frosting with almonds slices, the first push of the fork revealed a crust with the texture of pine bark - thick, hard stuff, nothing like the delicacy of proper strudel. The thin layer of filling was tasty, made from fresh strawberries and contained almond slivers. I peeled back the layers of bark and enjoyed about two teaspoons of filling.

Our other dessert was baklava. This was far more promising in appearance, and it tastes pretty good, but lovers of traditional baklava will be disappointed. There is honey sauce here, but the unique taste of honey-saturated phyllo is not here, and there is simply too much walnut filling. This sounds perverse - too much of one filling but too little of another - yet such are the standards for these classic desserts. A gifted pastry chef could always come up with innovative versions that are as good as the classics, but you won't find them at The Cannery.

A word on service: Our waitress just could not have been any more pleasant, but her actions clearly indicated staff are not trained well in their duties. We never did receive bread plates for the quite tasty whole wheat bread that was served. And our knives were whisked off at one point without new ones being brought to replace them. On the folding service stand not far from our table, a spray bottle of cleaning liquid and a rag hung from one side - not the kind of sight that brightens up a dining room.

Our bill came to $98.97.

The Cannery Restaurant
Lower Falls Landing
Yarmouth
846-1226

Food: 3
Atmosphere: 3 1/2
Service: 2 1/2
Dinner hours: 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday to Sunday
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Sunday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $10.95 to $17.95
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: yes
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: yes
The bottom line: very mixed quality cooking, pleasant location, service needs
improving

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: CHINA BY THE SEA IN BOOTHBAY HARBOR MAINE

Review of an enjoyable restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


It would be hard to imagine a more evocative, romantic name than China By The Sea, rich as it is with suggestions of the silk trade and great canvas-topped ships plying the oceans. With the restaurant located in one of Maine's prettiest seaside towns, Boothbay Harbor, and considering my great love of Chinese food, a review was inevitable.

The dining room is pleasant, although rather smaller than the impression one gets from outside. There are hints of things oriental, such as rattan light fixtures, but this could be a nice little restaurant of any kind. The pale green walls have cozy booths, the balance of the room has handsome black chairs and tables, all with white tablecloths. Two bay windows display a magnificent wooden ship model and a handsome plant. Unfortunately, there are also some plastic flowers, tablecloths are covered with glass, and there are paper place mats. Despite these kitschy touches, the room remains comfortable and inviting.

China By The Sea features those exotic rum drinks and punches whose only connection with China is in the manufacture of the little paper umbrellas, but I remain quite fond of them, and my Mai Tai ($4.95) had to be the most generous I've ever been served, and it was quite delicious.

Looking over the appetizers while sipping the great mother of all Mai Tais, it was soon apparent that China By The Sea is an extremely Americanized Chinese restaurant, for the list included chicken fingers, Buffalo wings, and French fries. However, scallion pancake ($2.95) is an authentic Northern dish, and the generous pancake served, full of fresh bits of scallion and cut into wedges, was delicious. The dipping sauce was an Americanized version of a hot and sweet sauce (somewhat reminiscent of bottled gummy sauces), serviceable enough, but then the pancake was good enough to eat without it.

With the arrival of our soups, another characteristic of China By The Sea became apparent - that is, very substantial servings at reasonable prices. Our bowl of hot and sour soup ($2.75) was large and thick with vegetables, including bamboo shoots and water chestnuts. This was a tasty bowl of soup, although the flavoring added to the chicken stock was reminiscent of the pancake dipping sauce - not truly the flavoring of traditional hot and sour soup. Frozen peas and carrots featured in the vegetable mix.

Our bowl of egg drop soup ($2.45) also was large and thick with swirls of cooked egg. The broth had a good chicken flavor without too much salt, but frozen peas and carrots again featured.

Hamburgers, hot dogs, and steaks are available although most of the menu consists of Chinese-style dishes. I asked our friendly waitress about the lemon chicken, but when she advised that it is made with chicken fingers, I looked for something a little less innovative.

Chicken with Almonds ($9.25) is an old standard in North American Chinese restaurants, and this was a very good version. The chicken, which was plentiful, was properly velvetized (a Chinese cooking method in which pieces of meat are soaked in a mixture of egg white and corn starch - when quickly cooked, this gives flesh a pleasant velvety outer texture). The vegetables included pea pods, bok choy, carrot, bamboo shoot, water chestnuts, and (a bit too much) celery. There were lots of whole almonds. The properly light coating of sauce was essentially thickened chicken stock.

Szechuan beef ($9.95) had a generous quantity of beef plus mushrooms, celery, scallions, peas, carrots, and peanuts. Everything was cooked as it should be in a stir-fry dish, but the sauce here was really too much on the sweet, gummy side to call Szechuan, tasting again very much like the flavoring of the hot and sour soup. Still, all in all, here was a large and hearty plate of food with nothing overcooked and plenty of variety.

With no descriptions attached to many dishes, we also ordered what the menu calls "moo shi" vegetables ($7.75) to be sure of having enough greens. This consisted of a large plate of attractive-looking, cooked shredded cabbage, onions, and carrots with half a dozen mandarin pancakes and hoisin sauce. Cabbage is traditionally the main ingredient in mu chu vegetables, but after being marinated and briefly simmered, its texture softens and reaches a point somewhere between sauerkraut and cole slaw, generally closer to slaw. Indeed, mu chu vegetables could be described as a hot, savory slaw eaten rolled in thin pancakes. The cabbage in China By The Sea's version is quite fresh and crunchy, and those used to a more traditional preparation may find it somewhat unsatisfactory.

Our bill, with enough leftovers carried home for a big lunch, came to $46.06. China By The Sea is not a place to go for Chinese food that is at all close to authentic, but for good, solid, fresh food cooked in Chinese styles, at reasonable prices, this restaurant would be hard to beat. And don't forget about the Mai Tais.

China By The Sea
73 Commercial Street
Boothbay Harbor
633-4449

Food: 3
Atmosphere: 3 1/2
Service: 3 1/2
Dinner hours: 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday to Sunday
Dinner menu available all day
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $7.95 to $16.95
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: yes
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: yes
The bottom line: Very Americanized but solid, fresh food at reasonable prices in a
family-restaurant environment

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: SIAM CITY CAFE IN PORTLAND MAINE

Review of an enjoyable restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


The snow swirled up the length of Fore Street and into our faces, and Siam City's cheery little bubble of light was welcome indeed as Portland's large snowstorm began.

We were enthusiastically greeted. Of course, the staff was glad to see anyone in such a storm, but friendly, helpful service was maintained through the evening as a number of others braved the weather.

Siam City is a charming place with a small entrance counter displaying fresh flowers, raw brick walls, black wood tables and chairs, pink linen napkins, and little cobalt blue glass light shades suspended over each table.

A huge bay window offers one of the most spectacular views in the city, a remarkable row of buildings on the other side of Fore Street, running from early to late 19th century. The swirling snow turned them into a scene from "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."

Only a few items such as framed pictures hint at the restaurant's theme of "Thai country cuisine." I couldn't help wondering whether little Thailand had more than one cuisine, but checking later, I learned that "little" Thailand has a population about the size of France or Italy with more than sixty million people. So the equivalent of a Provence or Tuscan regional cuisine is a good possibility, though one I'd never hit upon.

Siam City has a small wine list, and while I generally regard wine as not a good match for the alternating fieriness and sweetness of Thai food, on a cold, blowy night, wine was most suitable to start. Bulletin Place Australian Shiraz ($5) went down nicely while watching the gusts outside and studying the menu.

There is a fairly small list of five appetizers. Our special of mussels steamed in a sauce of garlic, butter, and sake ($8) was tasty and generous, although I'm not aware that Japan has had any influence on Thai food, country or otherwise, but fusion dishes are found everywhere these days and need not reflect any historical influence.

Hot and sour shrimp soup ($6) is listed on the menu as "classic," but this version was a little different than any I have had. The familiar elements were mostly there, including four very large shrimp, although it did not have the vegetables often found in this soup, but the small Thai bird chilies had been roasted until they resembled very well cooked bits of bacon. This produced a sensation of savory sweetness along with the fieriness for which they are well known. This combination plus the fresh mint leaves sprinkled on top, rather than the more commonly used cilantro, made an extraordinary taste. The first spoonful perked up every bud on my tongue. This is a wonderful bowl of soup and is highly recommended.

We also sampled Thailand's spring rolls ($6.50), the tiny fried ones rather than the large, uncooked ones. The dish consists of four crab-meat-and-vegetable rolls plus a somewhat sweet dipping sauce with cucumber slices in it. They were good, but I have to say that they were disappointing after the wonderful soup. They just didn't have the texture or magical flavor I associate with them, the outside being an ordinary, smooth, well-fried wonton skin and the inside lacking a truly distinctive flavor of marinated crab. I also missed my favorite Southeast Asian method of eating fried spring rolls - that is, with fresh lettuce and mint or cilantro to wrap around each crisp roll before dipping.

Our som tum salad ($7) had the interesting combination of shredded papaya, carrot, garlic, chilies, cherry tomatoes, lime juice, and dried shrimp. This a good salad, a Thai "slaw" combining both astringent and hot flavors. The chewiness of the tiny dried shrimp resembles somewhat that of soft nuts.

Entrée selections on Siam City's menu are divided into several categories of four or so choices, each choice defined by a differing mix of vegetables or fruit, sauce, and noodles or rice - many of them available with either pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, or tofu.

Our gai teriyaki ($12) was listed as one of the chef's specials, but this dish was a disappointment. It consisted of some grilled boneless chicken coated with a thick teriyaki-flavored sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds, some very nice steamed broccoli, a few blanched carrot sticks, and a bowl-mold of rice. This was pedestrian both in presentation and taste. Teriyaki traditionally refers to the soy-stained, sugar-glaze produced on grilled meats after having been soaked in marinade, not to a thick brown sauce. This dish made a sort of Eastern blue-plate special - decent but unexciting food.

Our other entrée was called pad cashew nuts (with beef, $9.50). This dish was a colorful stir-fry of red peppers, scallions, snow peas, onion, cashew nuts, and beef, and it was served with a bowl-mold of rice. Again, while obviously more colorful than our other entrée, this plate didn't shine for appearance. Part of the reason was its being excessively soaked in sauce, giving it a bit of a vegetables-swimming look.

Its appearance was an accurate harbinger of its taste - good but unexciting food. Truly great stir frying accounts for the optimum heat exposure of each ingredient and adds them in descending order of required cooking time. Sauce should always be just enough to coat each piece, almost like a salad dressing. This clever, and deceptively simple, cooking method not only can produce everything just right in one pot, but served originally to conserve precious fuel resources. The cashew nuts, for example, in this dish were too soft - they should be tossed in only at the very end.

There are no desserts on the menu, and our waiter advised that the dish of fried bananas in a coconut sauce generally offered was not available that night.

Our bill came to $68.21. I am always disappointed to have to say that a new little restaurant, and particularly one with the charming looks and location of Siam City, is less than excellent, but that is the case here. The soup was astoundingly good, and perhaps other items on the menu may match it, still the overall impression of what we sampled was decent but unexciting.

Siam City Café
339 Fore Street
Portland
773-8389

Food: 3
Atmosphere: 4
Service: 4
Dinner hours: 5:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday
4:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $8.75 to $16.
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: accepted
Bar: wine and beer
Wheelchair access: 2 steps at front with assistance
The bottom line: good but unexciting cooking in a cozy place with a beautiful view

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: THE BRADLEY INN IN NEW HARBOR MAINE

Review of an enjoyable restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


Almost like the characters of a 19th century gothic novel, we arrived at The Bradley Inn in windy darkness after an exhausting coastal tour undertaken for the benefit of our visitors.

We were early, and a note at the desk advised that the hostess would return shortly. The place was very inviting, so we ventured to explore. The lobby gives on to a short hall where an open door reveals a marvelous closet stairway to rooms upstairs - the very thing you might find in a Brontë novel, or at least a Nancy Drew mystery. The hall ends in a spacious living room, an eclectic collection of Victorian and rustic Maine with plush couches, a blazing fireplace, deep red walls, and an oriental-style carpet.

We sat with our guests, thinking a drink here would be pleasant indeed. A man from the bar down the next hall, apparently aware of our wanderings, suddenly appeared and asked the right question. But his manner of asking was that of the novel's mysterious servant who makes the hero a bit uneasy. Our guests remarked on a somewhat terse manner.

We did quickly receive drinks and enjoyed pleasant conversation until we noted it was past 6 o'clock. I was surprised no one came to ask about dinner, but finding the hostess back on duty, I advised her of our reservation. Our gothic tale ended with her smile and the lovely table to which we were shown.

The cheerful coziness of the dining room includes thick, floral-pattern carpet and windows and French doors trimmed in heavy toile de Jouy drapery, and each table's white linen and heavy silver glow under tall candles in hurricane glass.

The wine list is six pages with about 150 listings. There are a good many bottles for under $25 and about fifteen selections by the glass. We had glasses of Cooper Mountain Select Pinot Noir, Williamette Valley, Oregon, 1997 ($9), and I can't imagine anything in its price range providing a more pleasing start to a meal.

Fried green tomatoes as an appetizer at a fine country inn? Wayne Brown's Fried Green Tomatoes ($5), with a light golden batter and a tartar sauce with fresh chives on top, do look finer than their rustic cousins. But while I adore ripe tomatoes - whether fried, roasted, stewed, or fresh - I never have yearned for green ones, and even this treatment failed to convince me of their merit. My remarkable research assistant, who does enjoy green tomatoes, did not care for the batter, the very thing I found appealing.

Bradley Inn's "Fritto Misto" ($9) is a mixed fry of calimari and Maine peekytoe crab cakes (Traditional Fritto Misto is roughly the Italian equivalent of Japanese tempura - fried, battered fish or meat and vegetables). Crab is one of my favorite shellfish and peekytoe crab is considered something of a delicacy, but the two small drum-shaped crab cakes on this plate were not particularly interesting, with the exquisite flavor of the flesh having been lost in coating, filling, and spicing. The calimari were good. The flavor of the "mustard dressing" somewhat resembled a relishy thousand-island dressing.

When our cream of asparagus soup ($6) arrived, I first used my spoon to locate some asparagus, but there was only the pretty parmesan and herb crouton in a light, creamy soup base. The soup however had been thoroughly infused with the flavor of asparagus. It was very good, though I much prefer a treatment that includes generous bits of the tender blanched stalks.

The menu had six entrees, thoughtfully including fish, beef, venison, pork, and duck.

Grilled Atlantic swordfish and Tuscan stew ($25) sounded delicious from the menu's description, looked beautiful when served, and proved the outstanding dish of the evening. The stew included chard, wild mushrooms, leeks, and beans in a fish stock with roasted cherry tomatoes scattered on top - a strikingly attractive dish. The fish was nicely grilled, and the stew made a superb match for it.

Less successful was pan-seared Scottish salmon ($22). The salmon was served over what the menu called "sweet potato polenta with Julienne of winter vegetables." The salmon was clearly done beyond what I had described when asked by our waiter - that is, flesh that is still moist and pink inside. The very finely Julienned vegetables beneath the salmon were mostly carrots which made an odd combination with sweet potatoes. I did very much like the texture of the thin, barely steamed vegetables against the mashed sweet potato.

Chocolate pot de crème ($6) is a chocolate-flavored custard with cream on top. This version tasted intensely of cocoa, and it had the somewhat dry-in-the-mouth quality that is characteristic of raw cocoa. A whiff of cocoa can add depth to many chocolate desserts, but this went beyond what is pleasant.

Cranberry gritz ($6) is a kind of fruity pudding, rather like tapioca in texture and consistency. The sweetness of this one rendered it a little too close to jam, however the Grand Marnier-flavored creamy sauce on top would be a happy match for a less sweet version of the pudding.

Our bill came to $135.36.

The Bradley Inn is charming, located near some of Maine's most beautiful coastal places. There are points of excellence in the Inn's cooking, but excellence is not consistent. This lack of consistency does not derive from quality of ingredients, which are all fine. Several of our dishes were what I call culinary-institute cooking, cooking that has the techniques and formal knowledge down well but lacks the seasoned, food-loving judgment that puts magic into food. The overdone salmon was, of course, not in this category, but our desserts and part of one entree very much were.

The meals eaten by our guests were not considered in this review since fairness and consistent treatment require that judgments be based only on dishes ordered for two.

The Bradley Inn
3063 Bristol Road
New Harbor
677-2105
www.bradleyinn.com

Food: 3 1/2
Atmosphere: 4 1/2
Service: 3 1/2
Dinner hours: 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday to Sunday
Monday to Sunday in season
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $22 to $25
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: recommended
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: staff help on front stair
The bottom line: A charming place, wonderful location - stylish but inconsistent
cooking, some excellence

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: INN BY THE SEA IN CAPE ELIZABETH MAINE

Review of an enjoyable restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


The lobby to the Inn by the Sea is not large, but it is very pleasant with its inviting plush couches and fireplace. After inquiring at the desk about our reservation, we were asked to sit while the restaurant was advised that guests had arrived. Very shortly, a waiter appeared and offered drinks. Well, what could be more delightful just in from the cold than a perfectly made Manhattan ($7), especially under the spell of an artfully frosted Christmas tree and quiet gas fireplace?

The waiter returned in a few minutes to show us to our table. What an elegant, intimate room, as softly shadowed and warmly highlighted as a Rembrandt interior with candles flickering under shades on tables of white linen and fresh flowers. There are windows on three sides, many looking towards the sea, although, without moonlight on the water, you would not be aware of this. Recorded music of the Johnny Mathis-Bing Crosby type may not be to all tastes, but it was played as softly as the candles flickered.

The wine list has about sixty selections with about half a dozen available by the glass. A modest number of bottles are priced under $35, but many are well above this. There are, pleasantly, half a dozen excellent half bottles. Only something a little special seemed right for the atmosphere - the complex, smooth, but slightly peppery taste of Mont Redon Chateauneuf Du Pape (1997 - half bottle $25) matched the glow of the room.

In such a room and with a menu printed on fine moiré-patterned paper, one naturally expects understatement in all things, so an announcement that the lobster bisque ($10.95) had been voted "Maine's best" naturally aroused my interest. While the soup was thoroughly enjoyable, I found it short of top marks. It was a little on the thin side, and while delicately flavored with sherry and basil, the broth in the soup base was less flavorful than others in my memory. Still, this was a fine, enjoyable bowl of soup, even if a little over-hyped on the menu.

The Audubon winter salad ($7.95) with mixed greens, chevre cheese, and dried cherries in a mild balsamic vinaigrette was good. But the salad also included what the menu called "caramelized walnuts," and these proved to be small chunks of a walnut brittle, just too candy-like for such a salad. Simple roasted walnuts would have been far more suitable.

Considering an appetizer list that included half-shell oysters, crab cakes, and mixed grill - all fine things but none of them appearing to offer the promise of fresh treatment - wild mushroom turnovers ($7.95) stood out. I began fantasizing about delicate slices of wild mushrooms, a savory mushroom-infused sauce, and a perfect pastry.

But my fantasy was brought up short by two little triangles of folded phyllo pastry, clearly, even in soft light, not cooked to ideal delicate crispness. The fantasy faded altogether with the first bite of a filling something closer to a chopped and rather pasty mushroom stuffing, no more distinguished than streams of canapés served at countless cocktail parties. The marinated tomato slices with fresh basil served along side were excellent.

The broth of our cultivated Maine mussels ($8.95), steamed in "local ale," onions, garlic, and herbs, was tasty with very little salt, and the mussels would have been excellent except that they contained enough sandy grit to make your next appointment for a cleaning at the dentist unnecessary. This marked the only time I have been served mussels in this condition. Clearly, the kitchen had not sampled before putting them on the evening's menu, always the appropriate procedure for foods prone to such uncorrectable faults.

My indispensable research assistant does not put complaints quite so bluntly, so our waiter was artfully advised that the mussels were gritty. He whisked them away and very smoothly offered the chef's apologies and said they would of course not be reflected in the bill - another mark for excellent service, but definitely one down for the kitchen's attention to detail.

The entrée menu was not large and struck me as a little dull, including as it does mostly standards such as steamed lobster, rib-eye steak, sautéed sea food, and rack of lamb. Again, there was little indication on the menu of anything new or exciting being done with them.

I actually was a bit stuck making a choice, being mindful of my journalistic obligation to highlight anything special about a restaurant's offerings. There was one item that in all my travels and decades of cooking I had somehow managed never to try, pheasant. Perhaps this lapse is because the name is so thoroughly associated with the strictly posh, a bit like the fine swans eaten on the best tables in Elizabethan times. Pheasant also has some reputation for being dry. But when our excellent waiter advised that these birds were fresh from a local farm and very flavorful, it did seem the right time to try it.

The pheasant ($26.95) made a handsome plate with a generous serving of golden-skinned, slices of breast, a small fruit compote, some mixed wild rice, and beautifully steamed slices of zucchini, carrot, and thin asparagus spears. One could see the flesh of the slices was moist and not overcooked even before tasting. It had a substantial, meaty texture, and a refined, rather than gamy, flavor (but, of course, its being farm-raised may account for this). The compote with its dried fruit ingredient was a less successful accompaniment than had it been based solely on juicy fruit. The steamed vegetables were perfect with a touch of butter, wine, salt and pepper. The rice was very good.

Our other choice was pan-seared tournedos of beef ($26.95). The tournedos (a French designation for a tenderloin cut of less-than-filet quality) plate was handsome, with three beautifully rare pieces of meat topped with some boursin cheese flavored with artichoke hearts. But it had exactly the same rice and the same vegetables as the pheasant. While these were excellent, I do like to see more variety on the plates of fine restaurants. No matter how well done, this repetition communicates some sense of assembly line, rather than each plate being an individual creation.

There were four choices for dessert, all of them in the cake category - carrot cake, a flavored cheese cake, a torte-style tiramisu, and a chocolate cake. The choice again struck me as rather unimaginative for a fine restaurant, all clearly qualifying, no matter how well made, under the category of "dessert war-horses." The choice also reflected poor menu planning. Some pleasantly light or fruity offerings were clearly called for in view of the substantial and meaty entrees.

The carrot cake ($6.95) was tall, thickly coated with cream cheese-based frosting, and had a batter rich with walnuts. The chocolate cake ($6.95) was layered, served with some fresh (very woody) strawberries and the plate was laced with chocolate and strawberry syrups. Both cakes were very good, but we had to have doggy bags for most of them.

Our bill came to $141.94. The Audubon Room is a beautiful place with some very fine service - indeed, on that night at that table, I have to call the service exceptional. While cooking is sometimes excellent, quality is surprisingly inconsistent, and the menu lacks innovative or exciting choices. Attention to detail seems at times absent from the kitchen, as with the gritty mussels and the poorly suited selection of desserts.

The Audubon Room
Inn by the Sea
40 Bowery Beach Road (Route 77)
Cape Elizabeth
767-0888
www.innbythesea.com

Food: 3 1/2
Atmosphere: 4 1/2
Service: 5
Dinner hours: 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday to Sunday
Lunch hours: 12:00 noon to 2:00 p.m. Monday to Sunday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $21.95 to $27.95 plus three "priced daily"
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: yes
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: full
The bottom line: Beautiful room, fine service - some excellence and
inconsistency with less-than-imaginative menu