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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Shuhe Village, Yunnan Province, China

The Shuhe Village, near Lijiang, is another UNESCO World Heritage site, and well worth seeing once you have made the commitment to venture all the way south to the Yunnan Province.  One of my friends who is formerly from Beijing calls these cities that are preserved for tourists, and that may be the case, but if so the tourists are predominantly Asian.  There is something very worthwhile about preserving a culture and a way of life, especially since it is disappearing rapidly with the urbanization of the population.  Many Chinese will not have the experience of living at or near ground level, much less see the construction craftsmanship that these buildings demonstrate.

The city streets are remarkably free of traffic, and there is even an open town square--no matter what the cultural background is, a central meeting place for markets and social functions is a common element; we were there on National Children's Day, and there was a tug of war going on in the square for all to see.  When one team won, a member would change sides and they would begin againl, trying to have an evenly gifted team on each side.  It was like stepping back in time in a way that was particularly remarkable for modern China.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Vacationers by Emily Straub

This is a surprisingly light and enjoyable book, especially considering the content.  A family is going on a European vacation to a rental house.  It is the parents, their daughter who is off to college, their adult son and his wife, and the wife's best friend and his husband.  The parents are ostensibly celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary, but Jim, the husband, has just told his wife that he had an affair with an intern and lost his job as a result.  So he is unexpectedly retired and on the verge of divorce.  Franny, the wife, is the center of the action.  There are numerous things that happen with so many people who are not functioning at their maximal capacity are placed under one roof, no matter how idyllic the setting, and that is exactly what happens here  The ending is a good lesson to all who have been in long term relationships.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

This is a strange mix between a feel good movie and a sob story.  Hazel is a 17 year old who is permantently attached to an oxygen tank.  She has metastatic thyroid cancer in her lungs, and while the experimental chemotherapy that she is taking is controling her lung tumors, she still can't breath and occasionally goes into pulmonary edema and needs to be hospitalized.  Hazel does not have friends.  She left high school long ago and got her GED, so there is no socializing there for her.  Probably a non-issue since most teens have zero interest in being reminded of their mortality, and her peer group of teenagers with a terminal illness is very small.  She meets Gus, a 19 year old who had a leg amputation for osteosarcoma, in a cancer support group and they become friends and then more than friends and then one of them dies.  You wouldn't think this would be a popular story but it is.  I don't understand why that is.

I cried through much of this movie.  I know why.  It is because I have a 20 year old son who is a childhood cancer survivor.  Yes, he is one of the lucky ones, but I suspect that I am not alone as a parent in having thought about what he would have missed if his cancer had not responded to treatment.  So I get why parents of a young woman would be so excited for her to have a love affair.  They are not sure how much time she has left, and that is heart breaking.  The more she can live life the better, that is how I would feel if I were her mother.  I am not sure if you would cry, or even like this movie if you don't have that connection, but for me it was pitch perfect in capturing many of the little things that make childhood cancer so emotionally painful.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Stone Forest, Kunming, China

 This is a spectacular place to go--like Guilin, it is an area that was once under the water.  Geologists say the Stone Forest is a typical example of karsts topography (also like Guilin).   The difference is that the formations look nothing like the mountains of Guilin.

Approximately 270 million years ago - during the carboniferous period of the Paleozoic era - the region was a vast expanse of sea. Over time, the movements of the lithosphere gradually caused a retreat of the waters and the rise of the limestone landscape. Due to constant erosion by the elements, the area finally developed into the present-day appearance.
The area that the Stone Forest occupies is not on every tourist's beaten path, so it is possible to sit alone and enjoy the magnificent view here.  Plan to spend a half day walking around and enjoying the beautiful things that erosion has sculpted here.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

It is really hard to characterize this book, which was short listed for the Booker Prize this year.  Let me start by saying that I really liked it, and the story is unusual, almost hilarious, but equal parts sobering.  That is a confusing description, but really, I am doing my best here.

Paul O'Rourke is a dentist, and there is quite a bit of detail about the day to day life of a dentist included.He is likable in his inner life, meaning the reader is prone to like him, but he has derious problems in his actual life making and keeping friends.  He is rootless and he is not afraid to share that with any and all who ask, which tends to push people away.

The game changing event that occurs is that someone poses as him in an on-line life.  Someone who has strong opinions that he is not afraid to share, and Paul is set completely off balance by this.  What happens from then on is esoteric, perhaps a little unnecessarily complicated, but very thought provoking.  It is not nearly as light a read as it seems to be when you open the book, but well worth the effort.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Lady Windermere's Fan (1925)

Yes, I am still watching Ernst Lubitsch films.  This one is a silent film based on the Oscar Wilde play of the same name (the play was also the basis for the 2004 movie, "A Good Woman" with Helen Hunt and Scarlet Johanssen).  The play is just what you would expect from Wilde, a witty reparte that appears to be one thing but is slyly critical of all sorts of things underneath the text.

So how to make a movie without words and few intertitles that is true to the play for which it is named?  This movie demonstrates the genius of Lubitsch at it's best. The play is a mere 50 odd pages and it is well worth reading it before pulling the movie up on YouTube and comparing them.  The movie is visually witty and entirely true to the story, which is about a woman who thinks her husband is cheating on her but he is not.  The best character is Mrs. Erlynne, who is the object of much gossip with very little fact underlying it.  The play depicts this verbally, but the movie is pitch perfect in displaying it visually.  I loved them both, and as a pair they are the best advertisement for the artisitc ability of a silent film.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Baisha Village, Yunnan, China

When you make a two week trip to a country the size of China, it is very hard to figure out what exactly you are going to love and when you are going to wish that you had skipped.  I made many very traditional choices for my first trip, but choosing to travel to Yunnan was off the typical script and I am very happy that I made that choice.

A number of reasons why.  The first is that the region still has a number of towns that are not sky scrapers shadowing what used to be traditional life (although the occasional shopper wearing a mask, which is reminiscent of people living in highly dense communities where  illness can spread like wild fire, and not on the wide streets of this village that lacked even cars).  It was a relief to see this part of China.

Another is that the food culture of the country is so different from mine that I wanted to see more and more of what was different, and these villages afford that kind of window shopping.  The abundance of food is the first thing that struck me.  Not all of it fresh, but the culture of preserving food (rather than wasting it) is very appealing to me.  The amount of food that is grown in western countries that is never eater--either it rots in the field, or doesn't get sold, or gets thrown away by the consumer--is about half of food grown.  The front end of that problem seems less likely in China.  So much dried food everywhere and so much fun to ogle at.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

According to other reviewers, this author has written a book that parallels his own.  He is a Russian immigrant who works as a writer in New York, a place that is not as Russian as some (I had no idea, but there is a city in North Dakota where about 1 in 5 residents are Russian Americans) but more so than most.

Slava has left his South Brooklyn home behind, but not the family that he grew up with there.  The book opens with the death of his grandmother and the hatching of a plan to write up fake accounts of maltreatment at the hands of the Germans during WWII in order to get restitution.  The problem is that while the Germans perpetrated a war that changed everyone of that generation's life in Russia, very few if any of them had been interned in German camps.  Therefore they did not qualify for restitution.  Slava sees the great injustice in these rules.  The Germans can afford to pay.  People have suffered and are poor.  So he spends hours upon hours writing up phony accounts of their treatment.  It is not made up at all, except for where it happened.  When he gets caught he is of two minds.  To tell or not to tell.  Read it and find out which way his wind blows.  This is a very good first effort at a novel.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Don't Want to Be a Man (1918)

More of the Lubitsch silent movies from his German period.  This one stars Ossi Oswalda (the actress and the role have the same name) as a rambunctious young woman who is a bane for her uncle.  The movie opens with her smoking cigarettes and playing poker.  What to do?  The uncle turns her care over to a guardian who promises to take her in hand.

That sets Ossi's teeth on edge and she decides to pose as a man for an evening out.  During her time as a cross dresser she discovers that there are a number of downsides to the cultural expectations of men.  She decides that in the end she is happier with her life as a woman.  In the meantime, she has a little tryst with her guardian--we know and Ossi knows that she is actually a woman, but the guardian does not know that the man he thinks he is kissing is actually a woman.  Very risque indeed.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Chicken Wings

On a recent trip to Portland, these wings were a memorable highlight.  Andy Ricker, the chef at Pok Pok got the recipe from Ich Truong and they are spectacular.

  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 1/2 cup Vietnamese fish sauce (Ricker recommends Phu Quoc or Three Crabs brand)
  • 1/2 cup superfine sugar
  • 2 lbs medium-size chicken wings (about 12), split at the joint
  • Vegetable oil (for frying)
  • 1 cup rice flour
  • 1/4 cup tempura batter mix (Ricker recommends Gogi brand)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • Optional: 1–2 tsp naam phrik khao soi (roasted chile paste, for “spicy wings”)
(1) CHOP garlic finely, sprinkle salt, and chop together for about 15 more seconds.
(2) SCRAPE into a small bowl, add warm water, and let sit for a few minutes. (3) POUR through a fine sieve set over a bowl, and use the back of a spoon to stir and smoosh garlic against the sieve, reserving leftover garlic. (4) ADD fish sauce and sugar to bowl and stir until dissolved. (5) PLACE chicken wings in a separate large bowl, add 1/2 cup of fish sauce mixture (reserve the rest in the refrigerator), and toss well. (6) COVER and refrigerate wings for at least four hours, or overnight, tossing every hour or so. 
(1) HEAT 3/4-inch vegetable oil in a small pan over high heat and add reserved garlic.
(2) REDUCE heat to medium-low, fry until garlic is lightly golden brown, about 5 minutes, and transfer to paper towels to drain (set aside until final cooking stage).
(3) TRANSFER wings from refrigerator to a colander in the sink and let drain for 15 minutes.
(4) STIR together rice flour and tempura mix in a large bowl and toss wings until coated well.
(5) POUR enough oil into a wok or dutch oven to completely submerge the wings, about 2 inches, and bring oil to 325 degrees (measure with a candy thermometer).
(6) FRY wings in two batches, gently knocking them against the bowl before adding to the oil.
(7) COOK each batch until evenly golden brown, about 10–12 minutes, prodding every few minutes.
(8) TRANSFER wings to paper towels to drain. 
(1) ADD 1/4 cup water to the reserved fish sauce mixture.
(2) COMBINE 1/4 cup of the water–fish sauce mixture and half the chile paste (if you are using it), bring to a full boil in a nonstick wok, and reduce for about 45 seconds.
(3) ADD half the wings and toss every 15 seconds, until a caramelized glaze coats the wings, about 1 minute.
(4) ADD 1 tbsp of the fried garlic, toss well, and cook about 30 seconds longer.
(5) RINSE and wipe out wok, and repeat with the next batch of wings.
(6) SERVE wings with pickled vegetables, cucumber spears, and herb sprigs.