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Monday, September 22, 2014

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

I was not a huge fan of the author's first book, 'Seating Arrangements'--it was well written but every character in the book was so annoying that I had trouble focusing on the plot line. I just wanted them all to go away.  The people in this book are equally flawed as people (aren't we all) but much more enjoyable to read about.

This is an old story that rolls out against the backdrop of premier quality ballet.  Joan is a ballerina who is very good, good enough to dance in the corps in a company that tours both nationally and internationally, but she is not soloist material.  When she is Paris as a student she is backstage when a Russian dancer of the highest quality and artistry comes back stage.  She has a tryst with him, not because she likes him but because she wants to be enveloped by his talent.

He defects, she helps him, and they become lovers for a while but then he moves on, and she is heartbroken.  They have one last night when he tells her that he is marrying another woman, and she is left pregnant.  She dances for another month, but then goes back to her high school boyfriend, who loves her dearly, and they get married and raise their boy, Harry.

Well, Harry is quite a good dancer, and from there stems trouble, the unraveling of the truth that leaves everything changed and nothing for the better.  Mistakes were made, and some people paid for them and others did not.  A good read.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Elephant Trunk Hill, Guilin, China

In order to get this view of Elephant Trunk Hill you have to enter a park that is very beautiful, and unlike many of the more gorgeous views in China, it is not ridiculously crowded.

Elephant Trunk Hill is known as the symbol of the city of Guilin. It got its name because it looks like an elephant drinking water. The round opening that would be under the elephant’s trunk is known as Water-Moon Cave because at night the reflection of the moon can be seen through the arch and it looks as if it is under the water and floating on the surface of the water at the same time.

A legend tells that an elephant belonged to the Emperor of Heaven.  The Emperor of Heaven decided to conquer earth, and he did so from the back of a giant elephant. But the dedicated elephant came down to earth to help the people in their work and later worked himself sick. This angered the Emperor of Heaven, so the Emperor of Heaven deserted him, and the local farmers nursed the sickly elephant back to health. The elephant being extremely grateful and decided to desert the emperor and stay on earth to help the farmers plow their fields during a time of drought. The Emperor of Heaven was so angry that his elephant had deserted him he thrust his sword into the elephants back while it was drinking at the river's edge and turned it to stone. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Papadopolous and Sons (2012)

This is a light and enjoyable British comedy (found streaming on Netflix).  Harry Papadopoulos is a high flying real estate mogul, but it turns out that he got his start in a fish and chips shop with his brother Spiros.  The film opens with his family, all modestly spoiled, living in a much too big house with the saving grace that they all seem to like each other and to miss the wife and mother, who has died much too young.

But as fast as you can say 2008 down turn, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. The multimillion dollar property that he has just purchased has dropped precipitously in price, and now the bank wants it's money back.  The family is out on the street with the clothes on their back and a modest nest egg in the bank--plus the shop that Harry started out in.  Spiros convinces him that they should reopen it, go back to the days of their youth, and much to everyone's surprise--except Spiros--it is a marvelous success.  There is a nice romance tucked into the narrative, as well as a life lesson or two, and while it is not deep, it has some nice reminders about what is important in life.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty

This is a big book, a very important book, and the book that startled everyone by becoming a phenomenon.  The subject is a dry one, economics, and the author is an academic, which happily does not adversely impact his ability to write with ease and lucidity, because for me, at least, this is not a subject that I am altogether good at. He uses examples from Jane Austen and Balzec repeatedly throughout the book to illustrate various points about return on investment.  So he is well read and a good teacher.  It is a book that has been demonized as promoting communism and lionized for highlighting the recent trends in economic distribution.

The authors have made further use of statistical techniques that make it possible to track the concentration of income and wealth deep into the past—back to the early twentieth century for America and Britain, and all the way to the late eighteenth century for France.  The beginning of the book looks at the economic wealth of nations over time and the economic return on investment that was relatively stable until the 20th century.  He makes the point that in order to make money, it helps a lot if you have money.  Everyone has seen some version of that in their life.

The book then goes into the income distribution inequality issue.  It is not something that we created in the 21st century.  It surely predates modern times.  Rousseau, in 'Discourse on the Origins of Inequality' posits that inequality began when man started living in groups, which goes back about 10,000 years.  Certainly the Sumerians described it in early cuneiform texts. The controversial part of the book (which is superb, a must read) is that Piketty and his colleagues showed that incomes of the now famous “one percent,” and of even narrower groups, the 0.01%, are actually the big story in rising inequality in our time. And this discovery came with a second revelation: talk of a second Belle Époque. In America in particular the share of national income going to the top one percent has followed a great U-shaped arc. Before World War I the one percent received around a fifth of total income in both Britain and the United States. By 1950 that share had been cut by more than half. But since 1980 the one percent has seen its income share surge again—and in the United States it’s back to what it was a century ago.  This is the key statistic in the book, and from there, Piketty talks about the consequences of such a wealth concentration.

So take some time and read this magnificent book (which my spouse assures me is the #1 book on Amazon that people bought and did not read).  I am an efficient reader and it took me several months to read, mostly because I am horribly undereducated in this arena andI read it in pieces so as to be able to digest it.  If you can't manage the whole book, then read Paul Krugman's outstanding book review: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/may/08/thomas-piketty-new-gilded-age/.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Glazed Chinese Long Beans

My favorite farmer's market stand (aside from the man who sells the best melons) is the Asian vegetable stand, because they sell things that no one else sells.  Better still they give advise about how to prepare what you buy; they don't want you to have a bad experience just because you have never made something before.  Chinese long beans are very similar in taste to green beans, maybe a bit starchier, but they look entirely different.  Here is a delicious way to have them.

1/2 pound Chinese long beans
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup onion
1 tablespoon freshly minced ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Pinch red pepper flakes
1/4 cup stock
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, optional

In a pot of boiling water, blanch long beans for 2 minutes until slightly tender. Allow to cool.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add olive oil. Add onions, ginger and garlic. Mix together. Add red pepper flakes and long beans. Allow to cook for a few minutes. Stir in  stock, honey and sesame oil. Season with salt and pepper, to taste, and add sesame seeds, if desired. Mix together

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

I had never heard of the director of this movie, Ernst Lubitsch, until my youngest son started a class that examines the director's body of work.  He was a German Jew who was first a successful comic actor and then a director during the Wiemar Republic.  It was a time when Jews were allowed the full rights as citizens in a legal sense but still very much outsiders to German society in many ways.  In that context, Lubitsch thrived.  Starting during WWI he made silent films that were sophisticated, sexy, and polished.  The narrative did not depend on slapstick and it was this quality that American filmmakers wanted him to bring to Hollywood.

This is his first talking movie, and it is sensational.  One hypothesis about why it fell into obscurity is that it is very suggestive and that starts with the opening credits.  The film opens with 'Trouble in" and there is a double bed in the background that is in view for several seconds before the words 'Paradise' appear.  So the viewer is immediately clued in that this is going to have something to do with a troubled romance that includes, but is not limited to, sex.  Very risque for 1932, or maybe it wasn't and it became so later.  In any case, the acting is perfect, a mix of sultry and comic in just the right proportions.  If you missed Ernst Lubitsch's work, get this DVD, and don't skip the 47 minute German silent film from 1917, Das fidele Gefangnis (The Merry Jail).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sweet Cravings by Kyra Bussanich

This is a Happy Birthday post for son #3.
Our household has been gently exploring the gluten free world.  We have not succumbed to the latest diet craze--oh that we could work towards reducing carbs!  Our impetus is that the girlfriend of our third son, born 22 years ago today, has celiac disease.  Since I have a history of vegetarianism, yet another dietary restriction that drives people who don't ascribe to it crazy, I have always tried to be very inclusive of others (even though my days of eschewing meat are long behind me).  Usually that would mean something proactive--like cooking a vegan meal when a vegan is in the mix--but instead we have just tried to avoid wheat rather than work around it.

This cookbook, written by a pastry chef who is gluten intolerant herself, is a step away from avoidance.  The bad news is that she doesn't  use a gluten free flour mix--that would have been ideal from my standpoint.  Instead, she developed her own recipes that require a pantry overhaul.  She uses rice flour, tapioca starch, potato starch, and xanthum gum (none of which do I stock normally) instead of wheat flour.  The author has been heralded as the queen of gluten free baking--starting with winning the Food Network's Cupcake Wars--so this is an excellent resource if you are going gluten free but don't want to leave baked goods behind.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Zaza's Pasta

This store, which sells several things that are related to pasta, is really all about fresh made pasta.  And it is spectacular.  The best.   I can't say enough great things about it.   Last week I went in and bought a pound each of spinach fettuccine, pumpkin fettuccine, and garlic chive fettuccine--they were all delicious, and they cook in 3-4 minutes, so you can go from walking in the door to eating within 15 minutes.  That isn't the most important feature of a meal for me nowadays, but back when I had four boys to feed, that was of paramount importance.

Zaza's also sells frozen ravioli by the dozen as well--these are also scrumptious,.  They also cook up in no time.  I really hope this new venture is successful.  The ability to stop and get great quality fresh pasta raises the quality of life in Iowa City to a new level for me that I hope can be sustained.  The shop is south of downtown at 518 Bowery Street, with two parking spots nestled behind the store.  I love the feel of the store and wish it all the best.  Meanwhile, I am getting pasta once a week and basking in the luxury that such good food engenders.    This week was egg fettuccine,and large lobster tortellini in a beet pasta.  I can't wait to see what next week holds.  Check out their Facebook page!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Guns in School--What Could Go Wrong?

Only a million things.  Here is the thing about guns.  Most people are not very good with them.  That is a fact.  You are 22 times more likely to be shot accidentally if you have a gun than if you do not.  Your risk of death by suicide is 10 times greater if you have access to a gun.  Guns are far more likely to be used unintentionally than intentionally.  And here is the thing that is worst of all, as the 10 state in the U.S. has passed laws allowing for guns to be legally carried on school campuses.  In states where gun ownership is highest there is 9 times the rate of unintentional firearm deaths than in the states where gun ownership is lowest.

True, people practice gun safety and have guns locked up and safe and out of the hands of children.  But these accidents continue to happen, and the body count continues to rise.  And now guns in schools is a stark reality.

So far there are no added precautions or qualifications for carrying a gun to school.  You would think that the people who know most about guns would be enraged by this, but they don't seem to be.  The first time a teacher shoots a child, well, I would like to think that would be the end of that, but I am undoubtedly deluding myself because nothing seems to stop this madness.  This week we had the second accidental shooting of a teacher who was carrying a gun on a school campus--both of them shot themselves, thankfully, but that won't be the end of it, you can be sure.  Praying for sanity in this insane climate, and hoping Kevlar vests are not the new school uniform.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Girl on a Bicycle (2012)

I so rarely pan movies in my blog, but for this movie I am going to make an exception.  Here is why.

I am a great lover of French romantic comedies, so I have a bias to like them even when they are just so-so.  In addition, I like movies that are multi-lingual, and this movie has French, English, Italian, and German sprinkled throughout.  So the playing field was decidedly tilted in this movies' favor, but that was not enough to save it.

First of all, the plot is a bit silly (even for the genre--it is not silly as in farce, it is silly as in dumb) and the dialogue does not save it.  Second of all, the movie is replete with cliches--so much so that I wondered if it was a parody, but from what I can tell by reading reviews it is not a spoof.  The reason I say that is because the degree to which the characters are exact stereotypes of their nationalities is so over-the-top as to be comical.  The Italian follows his heart even then it leads him astray.  The German is under emotional and over controlled.  The French woman is so flighty that she doesn't attend to basic tasks of daily living, and the Australian is an incompetent romancer.  I have never panned a French romance, but there is a first time for everything.