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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Alexander (2004)

I watched this movie with my youngest son after reading a lengthy and somewhat sobering account of Alexander the Great's life. While the Greeks of his day were monogamous, the Macedonians were not, and Alexander's mother was the third wife of Phillip II.  The movie portrays Olympia as a scheming woman who may or may not have had Phillip killed after wife number four had a son.  Phillip II developed and perfected a new form of war fare and Alexander learned it at his side in battle.  He was a master horseman who miraculously had one horse through his many years of war.  Bucephalus was a horse that by all accounts he tamed and who survived with him in bloody wars where they were out manned and out horsed.  Truly a remarkable story, and Alexander's legacy as the greatest field commander who ever lived seems to be richly deserved.
Oliver Stone's retelling of his life does not gloss over the low points in Alexander's life.  Olympia (well played by Angelina Jolie, a woman who was not afraid to play the role of mother to a grown man) is paranoid, smothering, and a little creepy.  Alexander (played by Colin Farrell) aptly says of her that she sought a high price for the nine months he spent in her body.  Alexander has a close and loyal childhood friend, Hephaestion (played by the very beautiful Jared Leto) who is his right hand man on the battle field and probably has shared his bed on more than one occasion.  All of this is probably a true depiction, as is the single mindedness that Alexander took to conquering much of the known world without any sense of how to rule it all.  He wore his troops out, and left a kingdom that no one man could ever rule again.  The story is told through the eyes of Ptolemy (played by Anthony Hopkins), who went directly to Egypt upon Alexander's death, eliminated all the local contenders for the governorship, and built a dynasty that lasted until Cleopatra rattled the cage of Rome and the Ptolemy's were wiped out.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, St. Louis

  had never been to a national cemetery even though I have worked at a VA hospital in some capacity since 1983.  Before I visited the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery last month, I thought that Arlington was a national cemetery, but it is not part of the system.  I also would have thought that Gettysburg had some connection, but again have been wrong.  So my visit to St. Louis was eye opening.  Jefferson Barracks is named for Thomas Jefferson, who died on July 4, 1826.  The facility was commissioned in 1827, soon after his death, and it was made part of the fourteen national cemeteries that Abraham Lincoln created in 1862. 
ISo a part of the cemetery pre-dates the Civil and it is an obviously different part of the cemetery.    Days family could erect their own monuments, so it is a mish mash.  The Confederate soldiers wanted pointed gravestones so that Union soldiers could not sit on them.  Some grave markers are smalls, some are large, and some are not white.  In the beginning, the cemetery was largely populated by children who had died.

The more modern part of the cemetery, meaning World War I onward, has the grave markers all the same size and shape and color.  They are set at exactly the same height and they are roughly the same color of marble.  The cemetery orders from only three quarries.  There is a standard that 90% of them need to be in line, and it is impressive to look over hill after hill and see that uniformity.  The other thing that I did not know is that spouses can be buried with the veteran.  They stack them.  First in goes 7 feet deep, next one 5 feet down.  The veteran’s name is on the front of the marker and the spouse on the back.

Finally, the group graves are interesting.  A common grave is used when the remains are comingled and cannot be identified or separated.  The common situation is a plane crash or a fire, but the other situation is cremated prisoners of war who were found in Japanese POW camps.  That is why there are group graves with the remains of international soldiers.  A very cool experience, and since there are 130+ national cemeteries nationwide and some overseas are well worth seeking out.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya

This is the dark comedy of immigrant stories.  The Nasmertovs, the family at the center of the book, have been in Brooklyn for 715 days--they were still counting the days, literally, as the novel opens.  When the parents, Esther and Robert, immigrate in 1991 with their grown daughter Marina, her husband Levik, and their 7-year-old granddaughter Frida, they leave behind their son Pasha, a socially phobic,up-and-coming poet who avoids all discussions of what he will do with his life and who is part black sheep, part source of irritation and fascination.  He takes to his bed often, and is the kind of guy who can suck the life out of a room.

This is a book you read for its vivid characters and language more than plot. Panic abounds in biting cultural and visual observations, as when Pasha, debating whether to cede to his family's pressures to relocate to Brooklyn, reflects, "His fellow countrymen hadn't ventured bravely into a new land, they'd borrowed a tiny nook at the very rear of someone else's crumbling estate to make a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original they'd gone through so many hurdles to escape, imprisoning themselves in their own lack of imagination." He notes that even the food is uncannily similar, "the only divergence being in abundance." It is both wonderful and manageable.  Not too Slavic in it's length but just as sharp in it's wit.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

I admit that the third Hunger Game book devolved to a very dark level, but this movie has sucked the life out of a very talented actress in Jennifer Lawrence.  I can see that she has to see the series through, and anyone who read the books would know what they were in for when they signed up for the series, but it is not a pretty sight.

Katniss wakes up after the shocking end to the tournament of winners to find herself in a bunker deep below the earth in District 13.  Her home has been decimated by the government, thousands of people burned to death in the streets, with Gabe and her family amongst the survivors.  Peeta has been captured and is being brain washed.  The tow of them share a connection that is born of killing and surviving, and there is no saving either of them really.  A part of them has died. 

The story progresses to the rebels having someone who they can rally around, and the symbol of the revolution being torn apart by it all.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman is still a player in this, and Julianne Moore plays the president--but again there is very little room for good acting to be found.  I regret that they divided the movie in two, because I won't be able to not watch it, but don't hold out high hopes.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Steamed Kohlrabi and Celery

Kohlrabi season is just around the corner and I found several recipes for it in my new vegetable cookbook, The Broad Fork (which I will review once I have the chance to make a few more things out of it.  This recipe is very simple, and not very photogenic, but good in the way that vegetables that taste like themselves are.  Nothing fancy.

2 bulbs of kohrabi, peeled and cubed
1-2 Tbs. butter
1 shallot, thinly sliced in rings (can substitute onion with some garlic minced)
1/2 c. thinly sliced celery with leaves
1 tsp. thyme
1 Tbs. toasted sesame seeds

In sauce pan brown the butter.  Add the shallot, celery, and kohlrabi and saute briefly.  Reduce heat, add 1/4 c. water and thyme, then cover the pan.  Cook for about 5 minutes until kohlrabi is tender and water evaporated.  Season with salt and top with sesame seeds.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Molcajetes, Baby

On a recent trip to Oaxaca my spouse bought a molcajete on the very first day.  We were at the fantastic Sunday market in Tlacalula, and who could blame him for his enthusiasm, especially after our lunch.  We had goat barbacoa and he was in the groove.  We needed a way to make this food at home and a molcajete seemed like an essential took to accomplish that.

It was my idea to go to Oaxaca, and I really wanted my spouse to enjoy it as much as I did, and so while part of me was wondering how in the world we were going to manage to pack this large piece of rock in our suitcase, another part of me was thinking that if we could bring 8 cases of wine home from France we could surely get a modestly sized molcajete safely home.

Our molcajete is so much more beautiful at home than it appeared in this market.  I love it's painted flower sides and projecting pig face.  It reminds me of the place that we bought it (and the man who made it).  A good lesson to relearn is that while there may be a dozen of them everywhere you go, when you get it home it will be the only one.  Not to mention that it is an entirely functional member of our kitchen tool collection.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (2014)

There are problems inherent in making a movie out of what is really a very short story written for small children.  I think that Disney got a little cocky after the success of Where the Wild Things Are, which made a surprisingly good full length movie.  This is not the case with this movie, although it may hold great appeal for the tween crowd.

Alexander Cooper is an almost 12 year old boy who has a deep and intimate knowledge of bad days.  He has them with some regularity and he is sick and tired of the rest of his family being Pollyanna about everything.  Even his unemployed father has an irrepressibly sunny attitude about life.  When Alexander tries to explain why it is just not that way for him, his father tells him not to worry because everything will turn out okay.  So on the eve of his 12th birthday he wishes them all a very bad no good day, and lo and behold that is what happens.  Alexander is surprised to find that he is even more upset to think that the terrible things that are happening to his family are because he wished it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Boston Baked Beans

My best memory of baked beans is from Faneuil Hall in Boston, where you eat at long tables family style.  I had Parker House rolls with them, and somehow my New England family roots came to the forefront and I will always love both of them above their food value.

These are a version of Chris Schlesinger's from "Thrill of the Grill".

  • 1 lb. (2-1/2 cups) dried navy beans, picked through for stones
  • 1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 8 oz. thick-sliced bacon, cut into 1x1/4-inch strips
  • 1/2 cup robust unsulfured molasses
  • 1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 2 Tbs. ground mustard
  • 1/2 oz. kosher salt (1-1/2 Tbs. Diamond Crystal or 1 Tbs. Morton)
  • 2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Put the beans in a large bowl add water and gently boil until the beans are tender to the tooth.  Soaking them overnight is best, but not required.  Cook with some salt.  Save water.
Saute onion and bacon until they are both . In a large measuring cup, combine the molasses, brown sugar, maple syrup, mustard, salt, and pepper with beans and 4-5 cups of the cooking water.

Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then simmer uncovered until the beans are fully tender—it’s OK if they still look watery at this point. Let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours to thicken the liquid before serving. Serve, or cool and refrigerate in an airtight container.  Can be made ahead of time and served later.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mandel

I loved the two books that the author has written that have won the Man Booker Prize (Wolf Hall and Bring up the Babies), and am eagerly awaiting the third installment in that trilogy.  The books are both character driven with complex plot trajectories, mixed in with the history of England on the brink of the Renaissance.  When this collection of short stories showed up on the 2014 New York Times 100 Notable Novels list, I put it on my reading list.

For those who love the aforementioned books, this is largely nothing like them.  As you would expect from a short story, the narrative arc is foreshortened, and that is very close to the exact opposite of those books.  Some of these short stories are just several pages in length.  What this book has in common with the novels that I have read is the introduction of a wide range of interesting and varied characters.  The book opens and closes with what I think are the strongest stories, with one in between on their par.  In these stories, women and men have a complicated relationship that is party of their making and partly a product of the circumstances that they live in.  That is the gift of the author, and it does glimmer through in some of these stories.  I should also note that I am not a fan of the short story, and that I am someone who does not shy away from a complex 600+ page book, so you really do have to take what I say with a grain of salt.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mourning a Brother

Catullus wrote this poem (known as Poem 101--he was not a man who wasted a lot of time on titles for the poems he wrote in his all too short life) after his beloved brother died.  He was a bon vivant in Rome at the end of the Roman Republic.  He belonged to a group of poets known as the Neoterics, who made fun of those who could not say in 200 words what they could say in 20.  He was talented, antagonistic and brilliant.

His poetry was often bitingly sarcastic or erotic, but when he wrote about places and people he loved, he was elegant and concise.  I chose this one to mark what would have been my brother's 54th birthday had he not died when he was eight.

Through many peoples and many seas have I traveled
to thee, brother, and these wretched rites of death
I bring a last gift but can speak only to ashes
Since Fortune has taken you from me
Poor brother! stolen you away from me
leaving me only ancient custom to honor you
as it has been from generation to generation
Take from my hands these sad gifts covered in tears
Now and forever, brother, Hail and farewell.