Top Twenty Romances

If Oprah can come up with a list of must-read romances, so can I. And I even give you a bonus rec for authors I particularly dig. The genre is pretty massive so there is always something for someone. If you like historical settings, we’ve got you covered. If you prefer contemporary stories, no sweat. Want a combo? There are time travel romances aplenty. Mystery, thriller, comedy, spy, sci-fi, paranormal, hospital (it’s true!), shape-shifters, space operas, military, multicultural, multipartneral, or a mix-and-match of all and then some. These are just a few of my favorites. The common thread is that they all have happy endings which, in the dumpster fire of today’s reality, is a nice escape.

  1. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon [and then just keep going] – “sweeping” doesn’t do this time traveling war nurse and Highland laird series justice.
  2. Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai [also, The Right Swipe] – shades of Montagues and Capulets in this secret, steamy romance
  3. The Hating Game by Sally Thorne – the “enemies” to lovers trope is a favorite and this one had me in stitches
  4. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase [also, Mr. Impossible] – so much delicious angst from a hero who can’t resist our intrepid heroine
  5. Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert – flirty emails, sarcasm, and a very vulnerable hero
  6. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang – gender-swapped and very explicit version of Pretty Woman with an interesting pair of multicultural partners
  7. This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone – epistolary works are my jam and this seductive, lyrical, twisty tale is a keeper
  8. His at Night by Sherry Thomas – spies and thighs [also Not Quite a Husband]
  9. Love in the Afternoon by Lisa Kleypas – I do enjoy a good mistaken identity trope
  10. Love Song for a Raven by Elizabeth Lowell – just keep in mind that this was written in and read by me in the late 1900s
  11. Chasing Fire by Nora Roberts [and, you know, most of her backlog] – a competent, kickass heroine tangles with a fellow smoke jumper
  12. Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal – a lively, spritely Pakistani reboot of Pride & Prejudice
  13. The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary – I already told you epistolary novels are my jam whether they are via formal post-war letters (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society), email exchanges (Red, White, and Royal Blue), or text messages combined with scrawled upon Post-it Notes (this gem).
  14. Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall – one lead is a hot mess of self-doubt, body-negativity, and quirkiness while the other lead is a straight-laced, buttoned-up, freshly-laundered barrister with hidden depths of emotions
  15. A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole – With references to Doctor Who, immigration reform, and a #metoo savvy hero, this interracial romance certainly puts the “contemporary” in “contemporary romance”
  16. Sweet Ruin by Kresley Cole – the most angst-ridden demon you’ll ever meet
  17. Cover of Night by Linda Howard [for nostalgia’s sake] – a hero with hidden talents stars in this small town thriller that I enjoyed last century and remember fondly even if it might not hold up today.
  18. The Raider by Jude Deveraux [again, nostalgia] – a hero with hidden talents stars in this small town thriller that I enjoyed last century and remember fondly even if it might not hold up today.
  19. The Proposition by Judith Ivory [last one, promise] – a fresh twist on the classical Pygmalion trope.
  20. Romancing the Stone by Catherine Lanigan [I lied] – the actual first romance that hooked me into the genre for decades to follow.

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Top 20 of 2020

Not necessarily in order. Not necessarily published this year. Not to be missed. Many thanks to @mcpl_libraries for feeding me this year. I needed it.

1. Shit, Actually: The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema by Lindy West
2. Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh
3. Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
4. The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
5. Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
6. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
7. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
8. Heavy by Kiese Laymon
9. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
10. Dear NHS compiled by Adam Kay
11. Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
12. Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
13. Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves compiled by Glory Edim
14. The Book of Rosy by Rosayra Pablo Cruz
15. Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom
16. That Can Be Arranged by Huda Fahmy
17. Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai
18. Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham
19. Over the Top by Jonathan Van Ness
20. The Janes by Louisa Luna

Top Ten Books for the Missing Years

Top Ten Books 2011

For newbies, please note: these are not necessarily in order and not necessarily published this year, just read this year. By me. And probably you.

Game of Throne series by Martin, George R.R. [but really only the first three books deserve ‘top’ status]

The Hunger Games series by Collins, Suzanne [one and three but might as well add two]

Bossypants by Fey, Tina

Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories by Birbiglia, Mike

Not Quite a Husband by Thomas, Sherry

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Oswalt, Patton

Cosmicomics by Calvino, Italo

You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons by Willems, Mo

The Help by Stockett, Kathryn

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Lawson, Jenny

Top Ten Books 2012

For newbies, please note: these are not necessarily in order and not necessarily published this year, just read this year. By me. And probably you.

    Gone Girl by Flynn, Gillian

    Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin  [hat tip: emily]

    The Lacuna by Kingsolver, Barbara [hat tip: libbe]

    Black Box by Egan, Jennifer

    What it Was by Pelecanos, George

    Outlander by Gabaldon, Diana

    The Fry Chronicles by Fry, Stephen

    97 Orchard by Ziegelman, Jane

    The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami [hat tip: eric]

    Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Kaling, Mindy [hat tip: gojira]

Top Ten Books 2013

Until I have the time and energy to devote to reshaping my Top 100 list, I’ll take baby steps with the books I’ve read this year. Note: these are not necessarily in order and not necessarily published this year, just read this year. By me. And possibly you.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese [hat tip: kg’s mom]

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver [hat tip: kawsar]

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple [hat tip: keltie]

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin [hat tip: osman]

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Assassin’s Apprentice (actually, the whole Farseer Trilogy) by Robin Hobb [hat tip: julie]

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

The Passage (and The Twelve) by Justin Cronin [hat tip: kg]

Intermission: starting in 2015, I began increasing my lists to match the year. You can find the top 15 of 2015, top 16 of 2016, etc. somewhere in the bowels of this blog.

Top Books of 2019

This is the year I started Instagramming (#latetothegame) and cobbled a top 12 because that’s what the grid allows and we must all bow to the demands of the grid.

Bad Blood by John Carryrou [hat tip: footer]

Becoming by Michelle Obama

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

Educated by Tara Westover

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Good Immigrant compilation

Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone

Good Talk by Mira Jacob

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

A Beginner’s Guide to the End by B.J. Miller, Shoshana Berger

Top Dystopylicious Books

March 2020. Is our proclivity for dystopian novels a benefit (we know what to expect – we know what should be in our go-bags) or hinderance (we know what to expect – we scoff at the single digit numbers in the news)? Top fifteen books to praise/blame:

Station Eleven

Hollow Kingdom

Year One

Parable of the Sower

The Girl With All the Gifts

The Gone-Away World

The Fifth Season

The Wolf Road

The Stand

Fahrenheit 451

Wool

The Passage

The Hunger Games

1984

The Book of Koli

Truer Words

I recently came across a letter written by my grandfather to my mother. My grandfather was a writer by trade and by DNA – a trait I have inherited. I’ve heard the stories about how he would slip layers of carbon paper between airmail sheets, chronicle the day’s events, and send the original and carbon copies (you didn’t know that’s what cc stood for, did you, youngsters?) to the family. I, myself, received numerous letters full of amusing anecdotes, inquiries as to my education and health, and words of wisdom. I was overcome with a wave of déjà vu when I read this passage because it is exactly what my mother told/taught us whenever we would thank our parents for all that they did from giving us love, respect, and a good education to taking us around the world to giving us money for everlasting gobstoppers. Here’s something to consider as you give thanks on Thanksgiving:

Islamabad, 1st August, 1968

You write that you are always grateful to us for whatever we did for you. You need not say so. As long as you conduct yourself like a Muslim and in a manner such as will bring credit to the household to which you now belong and to the family of which you were a part, we shall consider that as your expression of gratitude.

Armchair Tourist

Back in the day, I used to travel. I traveled throughout the United States. I traveled around the world. I traveled in space (a trip to Huntsville, Alabama’s Space and Rocket Center and the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum counts as space, doesn’t it?). It should come as no surprise then that I tend to perk up when I read passages which treat a city, a town, a state as a character in the book. Still, I had no idea how much I gravitated towards those passages until I re-read several of my “Superb Blurb” collections and saw the theme running throughout. Invariably, the quotes I selected from the novels I read involved geography, the denizens of the locale, the highlights and lowlights of the setting. That, or food. Check it:

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

She had never liked the Bay Area, with its irresolute and timid weather, the tendency of its skies in any season to bleed gray, the way it had arranged its hills and vistas like a diva setting up chairs around her to ensure the admiration of visitors. The people around here were fetishists and cultists, prone to schism and mania, liable to invest all their hope of heaven in the taste of an egg laid in the backyard by a heritage-breed chicken.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Special Agent Brad Wolgast hated Texas. He hated everything about it. He hated the weather, which was hot as an oven one minute and freezing the next, the air so damp it felt like a wet towel over your head. He hated the look of the place, beginning with the trees, which were scrawny and pathetic, their limbs all gnarled up like something out of Dr. Seuss, and the flat, windblown nothingness of it. He hated the billboards and the freeways and the faceless subdivisions and the Texas flag, which flew over everything, always as big as a circus tent; he hated the giant pickup trucks everybody drove, no matter that gas was thirteen bucks a gallon and the world was slowly seaming itself to death like a package of peas in a microwave. He hated the boots and the belts and the way people talked, ya’ll this and ya’ll that, as if they spent the day ropin’ and ridin’, not cleaning teeth and selling insurance and doing the books, like people did everywhere.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel by Maria Semple

From: Bernadette Fox

To: Manjula Kapoor

One of the reasons I don’t like leaving the house is because I might find myself face-to-face with a Canadian. Seattle is crawling with them. You probably think, U.S./Canada, they’re interchangeable because they’re both filled with English-speaking, morbidly obese white people. Well, Manjula, you couldn’t be more mistaken.

Americans are pushy, obnoxious, neurotic, crass – anything and everything – the full catastrophe as our friend Zorba might say. Canadians are none of that. The way you might fear a cow sitting down in the middle of the street during rush hour, that’s how I fear Canadians. To Canadians, everyone is equal. Joni Mitchell is interchangeable with a secretary at open-mic night. Frank Gehry is no greater than a hack pumping out McMansions on AutoCAD. John Candy is no funnier than Uncle Lou when he gets a couple of beers in him. No wonder the only Canadians anyone’s ever heard of are the ones who have gotten the hell out. Anyone with talent who stayed would be flattened under an avalanche of equality. The thing Canadians don’t understand is that some people are extraordinary and should be treated as such.

Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn

It was Hannibal, Missouri, boyhood home of Mark Twain, where I’d worked summers growing up, where I’d wandered the town dressed as Huck Finn, in an old straw hat and faux-ragged pants, smiling scampishly while urging people to visit the Ice Cream Shoppe. It was one of those stories you dine out on, at least in New York, because no one else could match it. No one could ever say: Oh yeah, me too.

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

Isaac Penn and the police exchange frantic telegrams in their search for Beverly:

BEVERLY MISSING STOP JAYGA SAYS ELOPED WITH SEER STOP ADVISE STOP

WHAT QUESTION MARK EXCLAMATION POINT FIND HER STOP CHECK THE ROOF STOP LOOK EVERYWHERE STOP

EVERYONE LOOKING EVERYWHERE STOP CANNOT FIND HER STOP ADVISE STOP

LOOK HARDER STOP

STILL CANNOT FIND BEVERLY STOP

LOOK EVERYWHERE STOP

WHERE IS EVERYWHERE QUESTION MARK STOP

DO YOU WANT SPECIFICS QUESTION MARK STOP

YES STOP

HOSPITALS HOTELS WAREHOUSES RESTAURANTS BAKERIES ROPEWALKS STABLES CARGO VESSELS DAIRY BARNS PRODUCE TERMINALS BREWERIES GREENHOUSES ABATTOIRS BATHS POULTRY MARKETS GOVERNMENT OFFICES RETAIL ESTABLISHMENTS WELDING LOFTS INDUSTRIAL GARAGES GYMNASIUMS FORGES SCHOOLS ART STUDIOS HIRING HALLS DANCE PALACES LIBRARIES THEATERS OYSTER BARS POTTERY BARNS SQUASH COURTS PRINTING HOUSES AUCTION PLACES LABORATORIES TELEPHONE EXCHANGES RAILROAD STATIONS BEAUTY PARLORS MORGUES PIERS ARMORIES COFFEE SHOPS CLUBS KILNS MUSEUMS POLICE STATIONS BICYCLE TRACKS TANNERIES JAILS BARBERSHOPS REHEARSAL ROOMS BANKS BARS CONVENTS MONASTERIES SALAD KITCHENS STEAMSHIP TERMINALS CHURCHES GALLERIES CONFERENCE CENTERS WHOREHOUSES MUSIC SCHOOLS AEROPLANE HANGARS AND OBSERVATION TOWERS STOP DID YOU LOOK IN THE BASEMENT STOP

YES STOP

The Lacuna: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver

In the afternoon when the sun lights the stucco buildings across the street, it’s possible to count a dozen different colors of paint, all fading together on the highest parts of the wall: yellow, ochre, brick, blood, cobalt, turquoise. The national color of Mexico. And the scent of Mexico is a similar blend: jasmine, dog piss, cilantro, lime. Mexico admits you through an arched stone orifice into the tree-filled courtyard of its heart, where a dog pisses against a wall and a waiter hustles through a curtain of jasmine to bring a bowl of tortilla soup, steaming with cilantro and lime. Cats stalk lizards among the clay pots around the fountain, doves settle into the flowering vines and coo their prayers, thankful for the existence of lizards. The potted plants silently exhale, outgrowing their clay pots. Like Mexico’s children they stand pinched and patient in last year’s too-small shoes. The pebble thrown into the canyon bumps and tumbles downhill.

Here life is strong-scented, overpowering. Even the words. Just ordering breakfast requires some word like toronja, a triplet of muscular syllables full of lust and tears, a squirt in the eye. Nothing like the effete “grapefruit,” which does not even mean what it says.

What It Was by George Pelecanos

The story takes place in June, 1972 but not much has changed in forty years…

MAYBELLINE WALKER lived in one of the apartment houses that lined 15th Street along the green of Meridian Hill, which many in the city now called Malcolm X Park. Drugged-out-looking whites, brothers and sisters with big naturals, and Spanish of indeterminate origin, some of the dudes wearing Carlos Santana–inspired headbands, streamed in and out of the park’s entrances. A person could kick a soccer ball around, pay for a hand job or get one free, or score something for his head at Malcolm X, depending on the time of day. Its makeup had changed these past few years, but it remained one of the most beautiful open-to-the-public spots in the city.

Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District by Peter Moskos.

An examination of the disconnect between patrol officers on the street and the Office of the State’s Attorney in its ivory towers yielded this bit:

One police officer described her observations of drug corner: “I saw a [white] suspect slow his car down [in an African American neighborhood]. Somebody approached the car. After a brief moment I saw a hand-to-hand [drug] transaction.” When the car pulled away, the officer stopped the car and told the driver what she saw. The driver consented to a search and the drugs were found. The man was arrested.

The liaison for the state’s attorney invalidated the arrest stating that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to stop the car. The officer explained that she saw a drug transaction on a drug corner. The liaison asked the officer, “How do you know it was drugs? How do you know it wasn’t an Oreo cookie?” The officer, disgusted at the events, told me, “They sit here in the C.B.I.F. [the state’s attorney’s court liaison office at Central Booking] and tell me I don’t know a drug transaction? I’m sitting out there watching this damn thing for hours and make a good lockup. An Oreo cookie!? If only it were. Then at least I’d get something out of this. I could eat the damn cookie! As it is now, I’ve still got these damn drugs to submit.”

44 Scotland Street: A 44 Scotland Street Novel (1) by Alexander McCall Smith and Iain McIntosh

“Mind you,” she went on, “there are lots of people who say that Florence is ruined. They say that there are now so many visitors that you have to queue more or less all morning to get into the Uffizi in the afternoon. Can you believe that? Standing there with all those Germans and what-not with their backpacks? All morning. No thank you! Ramsey and I just wouldn’t do that.

“But I suppose if you are an Edinburgh schoolgirl and you’re young and fit, then it’s fine to stand about and wait for the Uffizi to open.”

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman

The Chapter on the Gumpertz Family (what a name!) includes a bit from a dinner guest observing that a wealthy Jew’s spread included ham and attempting to get the host to reconcile that fact with the traditional kosher rules and regs.

“Well,” said the host, “I belong to that portion of the people of Israel who are changing the customs of our fathers to conform to the times and country in which we live. We make a distinction between what is moral in the law, and, of course, binding, and what is sanitary. The pork of Palestine was diseased and unwholesome. It was not fit to be eaten, and therefore was prohibited. But Moses never tasted a slice of Cincinnati ham. Had he done so, he would have commanded it to be eaten.”

Happy Fifth Birthday, AP!

*wavy flashback lines*

It was a dark and stormy night.  As we raced through the cobbled streets of D.C. (well, they weren’t cobbled, but they were so busticated and full of potholes that they felt cobbled), I clutched the armrest and my stomach when we hit a bump or when my bump hit me.  My contractions had started that afternoon but they did not cluster together until about 8 p.m. that night.  You politely waited until we finished our meeting with ZP’s “Tia” to discuss future employment plans.  Then, after they left and we started getting ZP down for the night, your patience ended and the blindly painful contractions went into full force.  I called up LB and KG to scream at them to hurry over and babysit ZP (who, thankfully, had gone to sleep without much fuss) so that we could get to the hospital.  It was a Friday night and therefore easy enough for them to stay over while we ran out into the rain (well, TP ran;  I had to waddle along and pause to double over and catch my breath now and then) and drove to Sibley.

Thanks to early planning, the hospital already had all of my information and I was able to get a room right away.  My brain was filled with angry bees and I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than getting through each contraction and waiting for the epidural.  When the anesthesiologist arrived, I nearly wept with relief.  He waved some forms in front of me, making me promise not to sue in case I ended up paralyzed or turned into a swamp monster.I scribbled my names on the forms, nearly breaking the pen in half.  Then, he tried to give me a verbal notice detailing what the forms said.  “Do you want the long version or the short version,” he asked me as I bent over to have my spine swabbed.  Was he kidding me?  I almost laughed and wanted to answer, “oh, the long version please.  And don’t give me the shot until you’ve finished and I have considered the options for a long while.”  “SHORT VERSION,” I gritted.  I got the shot and about half an hour later, I was calm enough to ignore the waves of shrieking pain that I knew were crashing over my body because I could see them on the monitor, but I couldn’t feel them any more.  I also couldn’t feel my legs; they just felt like two balloons.  Or, perhaps two heavy slabs of meat would be more accurate.  Either way, I was happy.  I felt better – enough to think again, enough to tease TP, enough to realize that, yep, this is it.

The drugs wore off after a while and until the next hit, I was instructed to take deep breaths through the contractions.  My mind swirled around to find something to latch onto so that I could remove it from my body and get through the pain.  Scuba diving.  Scuba diving in Belize with LB where we learned how to breathe slowly in order not to run through the tank of oxygen.  The doctor flitted in and out to check on me (and in me) and finally announced that it was time for the big show.  Memories of the grueling three hours of pushing and tearing and bleeding gripped me but this time around, it was infinitely easier.  “Push!  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.  Okay, breathe.  Push! 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.  Okay, now just half a push.  1, 2, 3, 4 HERE SHE IS!”  And there you were.  Tiny, balled up, perfect.  Full head of hair, gentle cries, and finally someone in the family who resembles me.

 You were a dream at the hospital and got rave reviews for your raven locks from the staff.   After the clean-up crew left and it was just the three of us, I realized it was the first night I had ever spent away from ZP.  It saddened me, but I was excited to see ZP’s reaction when he first met you.  LB and KG had been taking good care of him and brought him over the next day to make your acquaintance.  It was a pretty successful meeting and ZP was interested but only vaguely so; I was just glad he didn’t have a melt-down (that was to come later).  I think part of his pleasant demeanor was due in large part by balloons, cookies, and buttons to push to make the bed go up and down.  Your Nani and Babu were stuck in several inches of snow trying to get to D.C. so it wasn’t until we took you home that they got to snatch you away and shower you with adoration and awe. 

[cut to four years later]

I started writing up a sentimagical post for you, Norbu J. Kittycat, regaling the auspicious day of your birth when it suddenly occurred to me that the phrases I was using sounded familiar.  Had I written this up already before? Yes. Yes, I had.

Anyway, four years ago, you entered our lives and brought joy and sunshine and a good dose of drama with you.  You are well on your way to becoming an independent, strong-willed, compassionate, and intelligent young lady. You love dressing up, looking beautiful, and acting like a princess but you are not above being completely rambunctious on the playground or mucking around in the dirt with your big brother looking for worms. The wonderful sense of humor, you inherited from me; the incandescent sense of indignation, you inherited from your father. You have a sweet and tender heart and you are very passionate in both directions: your displays of fury are matched by your displays of love. You run like the wind, climb like a monkey, and dance like nobody’s watching. Sometimes you will ask, “does everybody love me?” The answer is, of course, “yes”.

[cut to 2013]

“Mommy?”

“Yes, baby doll?”

“You’re my best friend.”

 [I can die now].

A Pakistani Gourmand in China

By N.A. Bhatti

April 4, 1999

Chinese food appears to be the most popular of all foreign foods available in Pakistan. Come any occasion for celebration in any of the country’s capitals, federal or provincial, the demand rings out: “Phir Cheeni khana ho jae!” (So let’s have Chinese food!”) After a month’s torture of daal-chaawal or aaloo-bengan with roti, you can appreciate the feelings of the Israelites who had to tolerate 40 years of mun-salwa in the Sinai desert and cried out in agony to Jehovah for onions and lentils, herbs and vegetables … but you know the story.

So off you go with the family to a Chinese restaurant identifiable by its name that invariably smacks of Old Cathay: The Golden Dragon, Eastern Peace, Moonlight Happiness and so on.

They might make a show of catering for genuine Chinese food [but] by and large the so-called Chinese restaurants in the country do not and cannot come up to pukka Chinese standards. Merely adding Monosodium-Glutamate – popularly known as Chinese salt – or soya sauce to a dish of Pakistani ingredients hashed together by a “Chinese cook” from Swat, Gilgit or Hunza in an apron and drooping Mongol mustache does not make the real thing.

The restaurant may be decorated with traditional red and golden dragons, they may lay out “ivory” chopsticks – actually plastic, as ivory is internationally banned – the menus may be printed in Chinese and English, you may be greeted with a pleasant “Nee How” (“How are you?”), but the fact remains that, with rare exception, you dn’t get 100% genuine Chinese food. It was, therefore, but natural, that as soon as Mr. G. landed in Beijing several years ago, he greeted the Pakistani Protocol Officer who had come to the airport to receive the three-man technical delegation to China with,”Wa alaikum salaam! What kind of food will they give us here, Chinese or English?”

“It’s up to you, Sir,” I replied. “How was the trip from Karachi, Sir?”

“Array, leave these niceties and tell me is it really hot and spicy?”

“Which food have you in mind, Sir?”

“Chinese, of course! I am surprised at your intelligence!”

“But, Sir, I think . . . “

“No buts and no thinking, Mr. B! I have been eating so-called Chinese food in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta and Allah knows where else, for 20 years. But I never had the chance of eating genuine Chinese food. Now that I am in China, which damn idiot is going to miss this God-sent opportunity?”

“You are probably right, Sir, but I think . . . “

“There you go again with your buts and thinking! So now tell me who are the greatest spice eaters in China?”

“The Hunanese and Szechuanese, Sir.”

“Ah, Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s province, Hunan, is that the one?”

“Yes, Sir!”

The Chinese Foreign Office man returned after completing all formalities and we departed for the hotel. After settling down I made a suggestion to Mr. G., the chaskaora delegation leader who had made my life miserable for me.

“Throughout the tour, you’ll be attending one formal meal daily with some Party or government official. Chinese hospitality is lavish – 20 items or so on the menus – so I suggest that as soon as you are informed of the day’s programme, you may make necessary adjustments accordingly.”

“Adjustments! What adjustments?”

“I mean, Sir, if there is a banquet at night, you might have a light lunch, or if an official lunch is laid on, you might go easy on the breakfast, say a glass of orange juice.”

Mr. G. almost exploded. Service discipline prevented me from manhandling Mr. G. but his behaviour sent my blood pressure soaring.

“Sorry, Sir, I’ll not raise this matter again.”

“That’s better!”

The next morning after a debriefing in the Pakistan Embassy, we departed on an official tour of north-east, central and south China: the Pakistani delegation, an Official of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and myself. Throughout our three week jaunt in China, Mr. G. did more than full justice to spicy Chinese food three times a day, come hell or high water. He floated in a gourmet’s paradise, munching and crunching, slurping and burping his way through the Celestial Kingdom. He devoured Chinese breakfast, Chinese lunches and Chinese dinners as if each meal was going to be his last this side of eternity. Or rather, as if there wasn’t going to be a hereafter.

In spite of my hint to him the first day, he would launch a blitzkrieg on every dish that appeared on the table. Occasionally he would put up a show of modesty by a sham protest to our hosts that he was absolutely full but inwardly he drooled with delight when his hosts ladled a third helping on to his plate.

With a loud burp, he would leap into the arena once more and launch a ferocious attack on the goodies with such gusto as had never been witnessed in gastronomic history. Chinese food was after all Chinese food.

Dead tired after three weeks of travelling by air, train, ferry and coach, we parted company at the then Sino-British border, the delegation to carry on to Karachi via Hong Kong and I to return to Beijing. Mr. G. promised to dispatch his tour report as soon as he reached Karachi.

A week passed, two, three, four, but we received no news of Mr. G. We contacted our man in Hong Kong. Back came his response within a couple of days. It transpired that spicy Hunanese and Szechuanese dishes had done the trick and Mr. G. had landed in Hong Kong’s Queen Mary Hospital where he had received several blood transfusions for a badly leaking exhaust pipe. Khao Cheenie khana! Aur khao!

I suggest that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should, while briefing delegations to China, include a warning that while genuine Cheeni khana is extremely popular in Pakistan, they shouldn’t go overboard with Hunanese and Szechuanese cuisine and end up with a gastronomical disaster as demonstrated by Mr. G. years ago.

Optometry

I just got back from getting my eyes checked and everything is A-okay. There is always some trepidation associated with these visits (more so than the gum-gouging dentists or privacy-scoffing obgyns) because my mother has retinitis pigmentosa which is a genetic eye condition that, thankfully, neither my sister nor I have inherited. Although I like my opthalmologist well enough, he has this irritating manner of using the Socratic Method in our conversations:

Doc: “Well, it looks like your vision has not changed in the last three years. Do you know what that means?”

Me: “Ummm … that’s good?”

Doc: “Yes! It also means that you would make a good candidate for … “

Me: ” … “

Doc: “Laser surgery!”

Me: “Ah, okay. Great.”

Doc: “Have you ever considered it?”

Me: “Sure, but it’s not high on my list of things to do. If I win the lottery, maybe. But otherwise, I don’t think I’ll do it now.”

Doc: “If you ever did decide to do it, the first thing you would do would be …?”

Me: “Do some research on it?”

Doc: “Yeah, but how would you know which doctor to go to?”

Me: “Ummm … the internets?”

Doc: “Well, yeah, but what would you look for?”

Me: “I’d just research various services and providers.”

Doc: “But how would you know which is best?”

Me: “I’d look at the user reviews.”

Doc: “But what exactly would you look for?”

Me: “I’d look to see if someone said “this doctor totally butchered me and now I’m blind” and I’d take note.”

Doc: (a little taken aback) “Uh, yes. But where else might you get a recommendation?”

Me: (finally getting it) “You, of course.”

Doc: “Yes!” He then went on to explain that he’d be happy to work with whomever I chose but if I chose someone he knew was not trustworthy, he’d bow out. It irked me so much because (a) he was wasting my time because I already said I wasn’t interested in it right now and (b) the Q and A game was so annoying! I had enough of the Socratic Method in law school; I certainly didn’t have the patience for it at an eye exam. I wanted to say, “just spit it out already so I can go!” but, instead, I politely listened and played along until I was finally allowed to leave. I treated myself to an iced mocha at Illy’s as a reward and as a defense against the humid mid 90s that accosted me after I flew out of the office. Worth it.

NY, NY 2009

July 13, 2009

New York, Day One

After a lot of instructions and prep-work and battening and making of contingency plans for Nani and Babu and ZP and AP, TP and I caught Amtrak’s Northeast Regional non-stop (except for the eight stops along the way) to New York. We managed to find two seats together in the Quiet Car where, despite the draconian rules, we used the cell phone and carried on extended conversations. It was so nice not to have to go through ultra unnecessary security, limit the amount of snacks (liquid or otherwise) on board, or have to cram your body and legs into a narrow seat in order to avoid getting brained by a metal cart. Train travel is the way to go.

We arrived at Penn Station and because it was an amazingly pleasant, incredibly sunny but not humid, “are you sure this is July?” day, decided to hoof it to our hotel. I admit, we did the typical gawking tourist thing when we caught sight of the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the famous-named streets. How can you not? We kicked off our culinary trek through the city by grabbing lunch at Nirvana which was pricey (at least to our country bumpkin eyes) but worth it as TP tucked into TWO helpings at the buffet and I devoured the Murg Khaliyan — Chicken chunks in cilantro and mint flavored yogurt marinade. Despite arriving ten minutes before closing time, we were seated, given fresh and hot food, and did not get any stink eyes from the staff when I ordered from the menu instead of digging through the buffet. Grade: A.

We checked into our hotel, consulted the map, conferred with some friends, and went right back out into the sunshiney day. We stopped at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (“hmph, we have a cathedral too!”), Central Park (“hmph, we have a zoological park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted too!”), and the Museum of Modern Art which, as we gleefully discovered, waives its $20 fee on Fridays after 5 p.m. (“hmph, we have free museums too!”). We left the REAL touristy tourists behind and took the metro … er … subway to the Meatpacking District in the West Village (capital “V”) to meet up with TP’s high school friend Dullard. I had my one celebrity sighting (“TP! It’s Debbie Downer!”) and was pleased. We walked down to Los Dados and after seeing the crowd, decided to order something from the takeout-only taquería, foolishly thinking we’d get faster service. Tacos, sweet corn tamale, and tamarind juice were lazily prepared, fussed over, and finally delivered. Infuriatingly slow service (I can’t imagine what the wait time for sit-down service would be) but decent food. Grade: B.

As the sun started setting, we found three empty seats overlooking the Hudson River and ate our dinner on the High Line, a former elevated freight railroad that has been rescued from demolition and redeveloped into a promenade plantée (fancy word for the elevated park). It was lovely to be able to put our feet up for a while and just absorb the view, the breeze, and the quiet. After a leisurely stroll up and down the railroad tracks and amiable conversation, we made plans for the next day, took the subway back, and returned to the hotel. Around 11ish, we were feeling peckish and decided to take advantage of the much touted convenience of being able to dash outside and grabbing something to eat from a local street cart. I washed up, put on my PJs, and got comfortable with the puffy pillows, cozy blankets, and remote control while TP ran out to get some juicy and tasty gyros and piping hot and crisp french fries. Grade: A. For both the food and the delivery man.

So, there’s Day One, folks. Pix and the rest of the trip coming soon.

New York, Day Two

“Keep your eyes closed.”

“Don’t raise your head to look at the clock.”

“Stay in bed.”

“Imagine you are floating and drifting and being super puffy like a cloud.”

“Stop twisting and turning and being restless and just relax.”

DAMNATION! 6:00 a.m. on the dot. Despite my every attempt to take advantage of the opportunity to sleep late, my brain refuses to let me sink back into sleep and propels me out of bed and into the shower so I can plot out the day: Meet the gang for brunch; split up and spend time with our respective peeps; reconvene somewhere for dinner. Since this is partially TP’s birthday present/getaway, I let him sleep in since he seems to have no trouble doing so. I quietly get dressed, whisper a request for his coffee order, and let myself out. I scope the area for some non-chain cafe but end up at Starbucks nonetheless. After correcting the barrista’s mistake in the order (unadulterated coffee is horrid unless one is in Italy/France/Spain where they know how to do it right), I snag a New York Times for TP and head back up to our room.

As I exit the elevator on the 19th floor, I hear the sound of running water. “Hmm,” I think to myself, “I don’t remember there being a sink or water fountain near the elevators . . . ” I turn around to locate the source of the sound and before I can blind myself by throwing the hot coffee in my face . . .

*parental advisory: the following contains explicit language, partial nudity, and vomitriousness*

I see a disheveled, swarthy man with one hand steadying himself against the wall and the other hand directing a full-on stream of piss right onto the carpet. No lie. He was drunk or completely brain-addled but either way, he didn’t even register my presence and blithely emptied his bladder directly in front of the emergency exit door. I beat a hasty retreat back to the room, picked up the phone, and called . . . who? Security? No listing. Maintenance? Um. Concierge? Why not; they are supposed to attend to all situations, right? I reported the atrocity and got a mild, “*sigh* oh boy, we’ll send someone up right away” in response. I’m not sure if this kind of thing happens all the time, but I’m loathe to find out. Whether it was my outrage or the smell of coffee, TP finally got out of bed and shared his usual “what do you expect? the whole world is full of horrible people” reaction.

Even though we have plans for brunch, TP wants to fill his stomach with some food before he boards the subway. We all remember what happens when TP mixes caffeine with nothing and then takes public transportation. We shudder, shriek, and shiver at the prices listed at several nearby eateries before ending up at a deli across the street. They, too, get the order wrong but the food is edible if not forgettable and we shuffle our way over the metro according to schedule. Or so we thought. While we watch one train after another whiz by, it becomes very apparent to me that OUR train, the V train, is glaringly absent. Upon closer inspection of a tiny, weathered notice posted on a column halfway down the platform, I see that the V line likes to take weekends off. Thanks, NYC Transit. Thanks a lot.

Doing some mental gymnastics to figure out the next best alternative, TP and I race back to the main entrance, get a sketchy signal on our cell phones to let our three buddies (who don’t really know each other but hopefully will enjoy each other’s company until we arrive) know that we are running late, and reroute ourselves to take the first 4, 5, or 6 line that comes our way. We finally emerge in the Lower East Side, and sweaty and mighty late, we find our gang seated together at Supper. After some perfunctory greetings and small-talk, TP and Dullard take off to check out Dullard’s new house in Brooklyn (sell out!) while HA and Gojira and I settle in for a nice, leisurely brunch. HA’s Organic Pancakes with fresh fruit looked healthy and tasty, the bite of parmigiano and fennel I swiped from Gojira’s Grilled Polenta and Poached Eggs was delightful, and my Spinach and Goat Cheese Omelet was perfect. Grade: A.

HA had to “dip” into work, so Gojira and I spend the rest of the afternoon hoofing it around the area. We, too, dip into here and there: the tight housewares shop, the overwhelming candy shop, a tiny apartment moving sale. I refuel with a Lemon Yummy cupcake from the Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery. Despite the numerous flies buzzing around, Grade: A.

I stop in for a visit with Gojira’s roommate Dr. Clothilde who is absolutely charming and gives me a warm reception. To soak in some more of the unusually gorgeous weather, we stroll outside. We walk through hustling, bustling, stinky, dizzying Chinatown which makes D.C.’s version look like a crummy and immature diorama, parts of Little Italy, and Soho. TP rejoins us for a quick-that-turned-long visit to Pearl River (or Pearl Harbor) Mart where we pick up a few “thank you for watching our kids, for helping out, for everything that you do for us” prezzies for the family. Indulging my desire to check out the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, we find the tiny and slightly pathetic museum, get turned off by the clerk’s sycophantic glomming onto TP (ignoring us girls … which, actually, was a good thing) and forcefully relating the suggested donation of five bucks each, and high-tail it out of there. To reward ourselves for our quick getaway, we stop at the kiosky Il Laboratorio del Gelato for a scoop of dark chocolate and toasted sesame gelato for me (Grade: GOOD GOD) and a scoop of dark chocolate with amaretto for TP (Grade: why must you put that topping on when you KNOW that anything almond-flavored except actual almonds makes me want to vomit through my nose?).

Gojira, back in her no-nonsense, “it’s called a New York minute for a reason” milieu, instantly hails a cab for TP so he can meet up with some more buddies. Unprepared, TP ends up tossing the rest of the gelato away which, in other circumstances, would be an indefensible crime, but in this instance, with the amaretto poisoning, was acceptable. I give a brief eugoogooly for the dark chocolate melting in the trash and drown my sorrows in a cappuccino at the shabby chic Cake Shop. Gojira and I spend our valuable, limited time together discussing family, food, and inane subjects [Gojira, what on earth did we talk about?! The only thing that I really remember was the story about your grandmother lamenting the fact that NYC still hasn’t rebuilt what was left of the two houses].

We finally decide to give our tired feet some rest back at Gojira’s apartment. Our dogs were barkin’! Mine from having the insoles of my shoes fall apart and torn out earlier and hers from having fallen down and busticating herself while in France. We chill out and spend the rest of the evening listening to the mix CD I made for her, taking turns keeping Dr. Clo company while she dines, and making plans for dinner. Other than speaking in foreign accents, reciting quotes or recommending books/movies/shows to each other, jeering and sneering at others and agreeing that we are the best and everyone else is the worst, most of our time spent together has always been and will always be about making plans for our next meal. TP joins us at last and we order some sushi from Ogawa Cafe. Quick delivery, buttery soft sushi, and proper bite-sized rolls. Grade: Eyes rolling into the back of our heads delicious.

Exhausted, TP and I take our leave from the jet-lagged but seemingly tireless Gojira and sit around waiting for our F line to show up and take us to Rockefeller Center. Several trains later, I point out that, yet again, our sleep-deprived noggins were empty and that the F line was actually one level lower than the platform upon which we had been semi-passed out. We catch the next car which has an unusual amount of piratey commuters on it and come out at network studio heaven. Even though we spent the majority of the day walking around, the stroll back to the hotel is a lovely one and we make it back just as the first drops of rain began to fall. A quick recon by TP to ensure nothing inappropriate was happening outside of the elevators and we are finally back in our room to wash up, eat the rest of the leftover gyro in the fridge, and call it a night.

New York, Day Three

For those throngs of you who wanted to know how the cliff-hangery ending of our trip actually concluded, let me recap with:

(a) after hoofing it with our luggage from our hotel at Lexington Avenue at 49th Street to the High-line Cafe, we found the staff to be top notch, the decor cute, but the food crap (although Gojira was quite content with our crap scraps);

(b) the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater is extraordinarily tiny compared to my conception of it (the exterior is, at least);

(c) the Empire Diner satiated my need for a decent cup of coffee (fancy cappuccino, actually); and

(d) despite their strong encouragement to order a plain cheese pizza, I was pleased with the mushroom and onion slice I got from NY Pizza Suprema (right across the street from Penn Station) … even if my fellow Amtrak commuters were not.

The mini-vacation was great and we returned to great fanfare and enthusiasm when we got home (diaper needed changing! fish bowl needed cleaning! someone needs a nap!).

Pye Dogs

Pye Dogs

Grass Roots

Humour in Pakistani Uniform

By [Nanaji] Bhatti

October 24, 1986

In civil life you only do the job for which you are employed. An Officer will not touch a typewriter, an Assistant will not condescend to dust his own table as that is the Farash’s job, the grade-conscious Farash will never dream of sweeping away fruit peel or peanut shells from the floor even if there is a risk of someone slipping and fracturing his ankle. Let the litter remain where it is until sweeper James Masih comes on duty next morning. No such caste system exists in the Armed Forces. Servicemen are, by and large, all rounders in addition to their main specialization. You are ordered to do something and given a reasonable time to do it in, after which the only response expected from you is a smart salute and a subsequent report to your superior that the job has been done.

After completion of my training as a wireless operator in 1948, can you guess what was the first duty assigned to me? I suppose you’ll say it was obviously manning a Morse key and flashing out “dit dit dit da da da dit dit dit” into the ether. Nothing of the sort. It was chasing pye-dogs off the parade ground.

In 1948, pye-dogs in the Pakistan Air Force Station Drigh Road (since renamed PAF Base, Faisa.) were a problem: they did not believe in family planning. (Not that they do so now!). To the best of my knowledge, the authorities had never carried out any census neither did statistics exist of their birth and death rates, if at all there were any deaths. However, I should estimate that there was an overall increase of 10 percent. No, not per annum, per month.

They gathered mainly behind the airmen’s mess hoping to get the leftovers after every meal. They assembled outside the Station Canteen for their conventions. They roamed all over the camp as if it had been thrown open for their inspection. And they multiplied as if the Air Force had ear-marked the Station as a sanctuary for an endangered species.

I was involved in the Great Pye Dog War of 1948 through circumstances entirely beyond my control. The colour-hoisting parade was about to take place. Station Warrant Officer Shah (famous as ‘Sharant Officer Wah’) had ordered “Markers” who had marched smartly to their positions, the Squadrons had marched up to the markers, the normal procedure had been over, dressing, reporting attendance to the adjutant, colour hoisting, inspection by the Station Commander. Everything went off like clockwork.

The six-foot-plus Group Captain Elworthy strode up to the dais and boomed out his command: “Parade will march past the column of route by the right, Number 1 Squadron leading Parade quick MARCH!”

With the executive word of command “MARCH,” a number of things happened simultaneously. Flying Officer D’Souza gave a smart flick of his baton, his brass band struck up the opining notes of the “Colonel Bogey March” No. 1 Flight of No.1 Squadron shot out their left feet and right arms; and horror of horrors! Two pye dogs landed in the parade ground.

God only knows how these late comers appeared undetected amidst nearly a thousand men on parade. No one appeared to have seen or heard them arrive, not even the hawk-eyed “Sharrant Officer Wah” who was of about the same height as the Group Captain. It was the latter who, noticing something unclockwork-like in his parade, ordered the Warrant Officer to investigate what was happening around No. 5 Squadron.

I happened to be at the end of the rear rank of No. Flight, No. 5 Squadron and through the corner of my eye I caught sight of the huge bulk of the Warrant Officer approaching me. He pointed his finger at me so as not to leave any doubt. “Fall out and chase them out!”

I dropped out of the rear rank and he pointed at “them” – a pye-dog near our Flight Commander, looking up inquisitively into his face as if to ask what was the delay. His companion, apparently having an ear for military marches, gamboled and frisked around D’Souza’s boys, appreciating the rhythm.

After identifying the enemy, the Warrant Officer doubled back to the dais, leaving me to carry out an operation not mentioned in any Air Publication or Servicing Manual. As an afterthought, he was considerate enough to send me reinforcements by fishing out another airman as he dashed back and ordering him to join me. So here we were two airmen ordered to get rid of two pye-dogs in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We ran about like press photographers at an Armed Forces Day parade, dodging the marching columns, trying to keep our quarry in sight. We never got closer than 50 feet to either of them as they were ten times faster than us. It was a fruitless chase which outlasted the parade. The Station Commander returned the last salute from the band and went off. D’Souza gave another smart flick of his baton and the last notes of the march ended abruptly. The burning hot expanse of concrete was not vacant except for two airmen and two pye-dogs playing “catch me if you can”. It appeared that those mongrels were bent on harassing us as much as possible by refusing to get off the parade ground. Drenched with sweat, we admitted defeat and left.

Group Captain Elworthy must have considered that this was the giddy limit and told the Adjutant that enough was enough – positively no dogs on parade! The Adjutant and the Station Warrant Officer held a council of war against the pye-dogs in the camp and organized a massive genocide campaign against the enemy. Fortunately, our posting orders were issued and I escaped being conscripted in the Great Pye Dog War. However, as I had been in the initial skirmish with the pariahs, I followed subsequent events with interest.

Our forces comprised Corporal Akbar with the grandiose designation of Aircraft Hand General Duties (ACHGD), 2 assistants from the same trade and half a dozen civilian sweepers. Armaments consisted of a Double Barrel Breach Loading 12-bore Winchester drawn from the Station Armory, cartridges, pickaxes, shovels, lengths of stout rope and brooms. The orders were to shoot dead any dog not on a leash or not wearing a collar. No shooting before sunrise or after sunset.

The war went on for quite some weeks and the “Blam!” of the shotgun became a familiar sound in the camp and so did Corporal Akbar’s orders and remarks given in his own special brand of English. This live-wire, go-getter and trouble-shooter is still affectionately remembered by old hands of the Pakistan Air Force for one episode in the war. He had fired at two pye-dogs in split second succession. They collapsed in a thick bush nearby. Leaving them for dead, he went for another one within sight, reloaded and let fly again. The next day, on seeing some pye-dogs limping along, he was bewildered and uttered his historic comment to his assistant:

“Airman! I died both the three dogs yesterday but he is still marching on the road!”

Unfortunately, for all the work he put in to wipe out the unwelcome canine community in the camp, the modern Pied Piper of Hamelin lost the Mogul touch to his original nickname of “Shahinshah Akbar” and earned a less dignified one by which he is still referred: “Corporal Kuttay Mar.”