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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Stalin's Seven Sisters, Moscow, Russia

It turns out that I find some aspects of Stalin's architectural projects appealing.   The Moscow skyline is largely defined by the seven towering skyscrapers nicknamed “The Seven Sisters.” Also known locally as “Stalinskie Vysotki” (Сталиские высоткиStalin’s High-rises), they are one of the leading architectural legacies of the Stalinist period in the city. The Soviet Baroque architecture that The Sisters embody is seen by some as unattractive (as stated above, not myself); the buildings themselves are somewhat controversial due to the fact that some see them, with their looming size and towering spired spires, as  reminders of the grim Stalinist repression. However, while debate still continues on whether these buildings are beauties or beasts, there is no doubt that they have become a major representation of the Soviet era and modern-day Moscow.  Pictured here is the sister that is the university, and from this spot, you can see the other six sisters.  The only one that I went into was the Hilton that is near the Moscow train station--it has a marble lobby and high ceilings that you would expect from looking at the exterior.  These buildings were solidly built in the post WWII era and serve as a reminder of what communist architecture was all about in Russia.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Marrying of Chani Kauffman by Eve Harris

I loved this book.  Maybe I finished it in a day because it is steeped in Orthodox Judaism, but maybe not.  There are two relationships that the book revolves around.  The first is the marriage of Chani Kauffamn, who at 19 is closing in on spinsterhood.  She started off her marriage search being sought after, but after a number of rejections her suitors start to reject her.  That spells trouble not just for her but also for her numerous younger sisters.  So when Baruch shows interest in her, she is motivated.  While their time together is highly regulated, they do get a glimpse of each others personalities, and to the reader it seems like a good match.

Baruch's mother couldn't disagree more.  She makes a point of inserting herself into the process in a way that is out of keeping with the cultural rules of courtship and she does two things in the process.  She gives Chani some power over her because she wants it to be a secret, and she shows her hand.  Chani doesn't have to pretend to like her future mother-in-law.  She just has to woe Baruch.

The other couple int he book are a rabbi and his wife from Chani and Baruch's community.  They started off their lives together in Jerusalem and they didn't always follow the rules.  Now the rabbi is choking his marriage with his increasing piousness and while he knows that it is killing his marriage, he cannot stop himself.  While one relationship blooms the other is dying on the vine.  Very well written.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Danny Collins (2014)

Al Pacino does an admirable job of portraying an aging rock star who is reduced to playing his big hits for audiences.  It yields lots of cash but no enjoyment.  He is drinking heavily, snorting lots of cocaine, sleeping with a much younger woman who he doesn't seem to much enjoy, and going through the motions.

Then one day, for his birthday, his long time manager (played by Christopher Plummer--this is not a cast full of youngsters) gives him a letter that John Lennon wrote to him in 1971 but which he never got.  It advises him that he should stay true to his roots, not to compromise, and that he and Yoko would be happy to give him advise on how to do that.  The manager does not seem to anticipate the amount of regret this is going to engender in Danny.  He goes about seeking redemption in a big way.  He stops touring, moves to be near a son he fathered in a one night stand but with whom he has no relationship, and tries to stop drinking and start writing music again. As is so often the case, the path to virtue is paved with temptations and disappointments, and Danny, while very charming, is not immune to those dangers.  In the end he wins some and he loses some, but he is very enjoyable to watch along the way.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Indian Spiced Eggplant

I made this as my first eggplant dish of the summer.  I wanted something that was in the realm of ratatouille but a different spice profile, and this really hit the spot.  It would be great with a vegetarian Indian dinner.
  •   3 tbs. vegetable oil
Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat. Add the ginger and spices and cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes until fragrant. In batches, add the eggplant cubes and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes or until the eggplant has softened slightly. Return all the eggplant to the wok, then stir in the canned tomato and water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 12-15 minutes until the eggplant is tender and the sauce has thickened. Season with salt, garnish with coriander and serve.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The History of Rain by Niall Williams

I am finishing up the books that were long listed for the Booker prize last year while I also work on the new long list, and this was one of the few I had left over.  It is written in a peculiar voice that I enjoyed but did not love.

Ruth Swain from County Clare is looking back over her life.  She is young and confined to her bed by an ill-defined illness, making her seem like she is from a by gone time.  She is surrounded by the thousands of books that belong to her father, who is part farmer, part amateur scholar.  Everyone in her family is what she calls a long story.  So she proceeds to tell that story in a way that is at once convoluted and beautiful, with some aphorisms thrown in to make her point.

The book’s central enigma is Ruth's father Virgil, a poet and farmer like his classical namesake, who reads William Blake to his cows. Somewhere between epic and family saga, the book is an unabashedly unfashionable, a lyrical paean to the pleasure of reading and to serendipity: leafing through her father’s volumes, Ruth discovers maps, envelopes, notes pressed between rain-mottled pages, finds her orange Penguin copy of Moby-Dick bulging with “the smell of complex humanity”, getting fatter with rereading because “the more you read it the bigger your own experience of the world gets, the fatter your soul”.  The book is not just well written, it has a good ending.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Paradise (2013)

I like Octavia Spencer and Russell Brand and I love Diablo Cody as a writer, but somehow this movie didn't put it all together. Maybe Cody writes best when she is writing about ordinary people.  The movie is largely set in Las Vegas, where it can be argued that the lowest density of normal per capita is to be found in the United States.  It seemed like a quirky story but it fell a little flat.
The story is that Lamb is a young woman who is badly burned in a plane crash.  She has fragile skin grafts over a large percentage of her body and she is really angry and pretty disfigured.  She leaves her sheltered narrow Christian right community for the most debauched city she can think of with the intention of going wild.  Between her naivete and her lack of insight into what is motivating her to begin with, she has what is essentially a terrible time.  Fortunately, the movie is better than that, but not a whole lot better.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

First Impressions of Moscow, Russia

I get why women are at once mysterious and hard to live with.  My poor spouse, who had already been to St. Petersburg as a child and had no real desire to return, agreed to spend one of our precious vacations on just that, a trip to Russia, because it was one of the countries I felt I had to see before I go.  It was not something that was going to get better with time or go away all together.  Without much ado, he agreed to the plan. He did it as a favor to me.

I have always wanted to go to Russia, but I was also somewhat worried that it would kind of a scary place.  I love the onion domed architecture and the culture that produced such a rich literature, but I was wary of a place that had produced Stalin and Putin in recent years and a whole string of despots throughout it's history.  I decided up front that we would need a guide, that I couldn't just hope for the best, which is how we usually travel.  We like to go with a dictionary and a phrasebook and the kindness of strangers as a rule, but I felt like Russia would be an exception.
I turns out that I had it all wrong.  I wanted to see Moscow, but I wasn't excited about it.  The fact that I loved Moscow was my first hint that I had been wrong about it from the beginning.  One of the persistent questions was how they were being perceived in the press, and the answer was not well at all, of course, and it has had the inevitable effect on tourism.  This picture accurately reflects how I think about Moscow, a mix of new and old, ethnically diverse and all around surprising. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

I loved this book.  It is linked to the author's previous book, Life After Life, where the main character, Ursula, has many lives.  Meaning she has a series of unfortunately events and occasional choices that lead to her demise, and yet she comes back to do it all over again.  This book is about her younger brother Teddy and his life.  Which does not go exactly as hers did but he does not get second chances.
Teddy is a steady, if somewhat lonely boy who grows up into the man that you would expect.  Any hint of passion he might have harbored has been squeezed out of him by WWII, where he participated in numerous bombing missions over Europe and ended up in a POW camp.  There is a good portion of the book that reflects on that experience and the emotional consequences for both the soldier and their extended family.  Teddy never has much more than a friendship with his wife, and he can't connect at all with his daughter, Viola.  She grows up to be a selfish and fragile woman who very poorly parents her own children, abandoning them at a young age and feeling sorry for herself that no one is pampering her.  At least part of that is related to her own parenting, and her children barely emerge with a capacity for intimacy, almost all of it coming from Teddy's attempts to make it right for his grandchildren.  A thoughtful, insightful, and well written book.  Do not miss this one.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Why Russia?

I did an exercise in thinking about my personal priorities and then using those things that are important to me to future plan.  The area that I have the most yearning in is in the arena of travel.  That wasn’t exactly news to me, but what was a revelation is that there are a number of places that I have not been that I definitely want to visit that are places that I want to go to before I get much older.  I am not one of those people who think that I will age slowly.  I don’t think that 70 is the new 50.  I am pretty clear that when I am 70 I will feel 70.  So I do not want to wait to pursue my dreams until I retire.

One of the places on my “must see” list was Russia.  It has not been a good year for Russia in its international relationship with the western countries.  Their support of the invasion of Ukraine has landed them in some sanctions, and that combined with the world-wide drop in gas and oil prices has caused a devaluation of the ruble and a concomitant drop in tourism.  The good news is that makes travel to Russia quite affordable, and a good value trip.   So off I went, living in the moment  and I am so glad that I did.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Tapetes of Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca

Teotitlan is an amazing place to see weavers in action and this is the the studio and home of Isabela. 
Weaving in Teotitlán dates back to 500 BC. The earliest weavings were done on back strap looms using cotton and ixtle. Today, the weaving is done on peddle looms and the fabric of choice is wool. This change took place in 1535 with the arrival of Dominican bishop Juan López de Zárate. He introduced wool and the first loom, shipped from Spain across the Atlantic. The use of natural dyes and weaving predate the conquest, but it was the European invasion which jump-started a cottage industry producing serapes and tapetes or rugs. Slowly the town grew, and began specializing in rugs which were initially sold within the state and to a certain extent, in different parts of the country. Now, exports from this town reach foreign shores too.
For centuries the families of the Zapotec weavers of Teotitlán have handed down the weaving tradition to their children with the art of weaving in many families going back six and seven generations.
The town has more than 100 workshops showcasing a large selection of handmade products, including tapetes, serapes, jackets, ponchos and dresses. Almost all the guided tours make a halt at the town’s weaving workshops giving visitors an opportunity to see a brief demonstration of the weaving techniques and at the same time, purchase some of the famous products.

Brightly colored tapetes (rugs) are my favoritesome with traditional Zapotec glyphs, others imitating twentieth-century designs. Most of them feature representations of Zapotec diamonds, rainfall, maize and mountains.