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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Naxi Culture, Yunnan, China

This is one of the minority tribes of China.  They mostly live in the Naxi Autonomous County in Lijiang, Yunnan Province, while the rest live in Sichuan and Tibet. Their population is 308,893 according to the 2000 census. In the name Naxi (also spelled Nakhi), Na means senior and honored and Xi means people.

Their language belongs to the Tibetan-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan phylum. In the past, they used a pictographic language called 'Dongba' and another called 'Geba'. In 1957, they designed characters based on the Latin alphabet and now most can write in Chinese. The Dongba Scripture (or Dongba Jing) that their ancestors left has recorded all facets of the Naxi life and is highly valued for posterity as a means of studying their character and history.
The culture is very male-centric--the women do all the work and the men do nothing but be waited upon and complain.  They live on farming, stock breeding and handicrafts. Reaches of the Jinshajiang River is abundant in botanical resources such as trees and medicinal herbs. The Lijiang horse (the horse part of the Tea Horse trade route that runs through the region) has also enjoyed the reputation for years of one of the 'Three treasures of Lijiang' which were presented to the official courts because of its ability to transport goods in mountainous area.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What If? (2014)

Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) meets Chandry (Zoe Kazan) at a party.  They banter back and forth with each other, it all seems to be going pretty well, and he walks her home.  She gives him her number at her doorstep, and then lets him know that she as a boyfriend.  Not just any boyfriend either--a boyfriend with a capital 'B' who she has been living with for five years.  So he loses her phone number.

Only it isn't that easy to give her the slip. The first reason is because she is the cousin of one of his best mates and the second is that he keeps running into her independent of that.  Don't these people know that when that happens it is true love?  No they do not.  So instead they deny their feelings for each other because she doesn't want life to be confusing and he doesn't want to be the guy who breaks up a long term relationship.  The dialogue is just as clunky and messy as real life, and this movie careens along, alternating between funny and painful to watch until the two of them figure it all out.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Keralan Fish Curry

  • 2 1/2 lb. firm white fish
  • salt
  • 2 teaspoons turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 medium onions sliced
  • 2 long red chillies
  • 1 inch piece of fresh root ginger
  • 1 pinch of ground cumin
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind (or 2 tablespoons concentrated)
  • 1 tablespoon fish stock concentrate

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Secret Place by Tana French

I don't usually review murder mysteries, even though I read 3-4 times as many of them as I read anything else (maybe more.  I might be low balling that part of my life), but this book was #1 on Time magazine's best books of 2014 list, so it is elevated above its genre.

Tana French is one of my favorite new writers of detective fiction.  Her Dublin series, of which this is the fifth installment, is the essence of fiction written around a crime.  Chris Harper was a play-the-field high school student who was found dead on the grounds of his exclusive school a year ago.  The police get a new lead via a post card on a semi-private message board the girls at the school use to post messages that they want to have remain anonymous but they want to get off their chests that implicates someone at the school in the crime.  The card is turned over to the police by a student at the school who is also the daughter of a police detective.

All of that sounds like a straight ahead murder mystery.  What makes this book stand apart is the detailed descriptions of the various girls who were involved with the victim, as well as their relationships with each other.  French had the mean girls vibe down pat, and her prose is both engaging and real.  The story moves back and forth between the present and more than a year before when Chris Harper was alive and clueless that his life would soon be ended by one of his romantic entanglements.  It is an excellent tale from start to finish.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

That Awkward Moment (2014)

This is a formulaic movie about romance from the man's point of view.  Three friends are brought more closely together when Mikey's wife informs him that she wants a divorce.  Jason and Danny have never had a serious relationship in all their years, and so their solution to Mikey's problem is to take him out to a bar and for the three of them to pick up random women.

The bad part of this movie is that the characters are predictable.  Men behaving badly is the rule here, but I think that it is not off the mark.  The good part is that while Jason and Danny are not the least bit interested in getting into a long term relationship, they both find themselves moving in that direction.  Poor Mikey, who really wants to be in a long term relationship, is the one that is left out.  This is a diversionary movie, one that can be watched in mixed company, and one where one can point out repeatedly why particular behaviors, speech content, and attitudes are not equivalent with grown up behavior.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Along the Tea Horse Road in China

The Ancient Tea Horse Road refers to a network of trade routes in Yunnan.  The route starts in Menghai and ends in Lhasa.  Many rivers are crossed en route,including the Mekong and the Yangtze, and the road has some very high altitude along the way (exceeding 12,000 feet at times), and the transit time was on average 6 months each way.  The network first emerged in significant terms during the Tang dynasty (618–907), reaching its zenith during the late-Qing period (1790s to 1911) and the first half of the twentieth century.

Today the route still includes remnant paths and roads, bridges of various sorts (arched, cantilever, and cable), caravanserais (madian 马店), market towns (large and small), staging posts, and shrines and temples (including mosques and even a few Christian churches)—all elements of what is now termed 'tangible cultural heritage'. As for the intangible cultural heritage of the route, it consists of a trading network that highlights the centrality of tea in the lives of the many ethnic groups in Yunnan (and beyond). The 'intangible' also refers to the rapid disappearance of the caravan itself, which for as long as recorded history, using a variety of 'beasts of burden' (oxen, horses, donkeys, mules, yaks and, at times, people), was the main conduit for the transportation of goods and ideas to and from Yunnan.[7] The tea road was not only an important route for commercial activity (including the trade in tea, salt, medicinal products and luxury goods) but also for cultural exchange, especially between Tibet and Southwest China (it was another important entry point for Buddhism into China, in addition to the more well-known Silk Road).

Friday, December 12, 2014

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

This is a book of quiet feminism.  It is also an allegory about how notions of beauty and civilization can endure in a world that periodically descends into barbarism and how women can persevere in a society that never ceases to devalue them in both war and peace.

The Beirut of Aaliya, the protagonist in this tale, is a city caught between the notion of a progressive and cosmopolitan European city and the persistent traditional Muslim notions of what women's roles should be. At an early age, Aaliya is married off to an older man. He's stupid and impotent and unworthy of her. After he mercifully divorces her, Aaliya is left with their spacious apartment, much to the chagrin of her own family, who thinks she should hand it over to one of her brothers, all of whom bullied her throughout her childhood. She refuses, never answering the door when they come knocking, and her family hates her for it.  So she is alone in the world, sleeping with an AK-47 and comforted by her books.

Aaliya is smart and literary. The book is interspersed with the tragedies that Lebanon has endured over the last 40 years with Aaliya's reading and translating into Arabic a wide variety of classics.  She spends much of the book dialoguing with the lives and works of great writers as she simultaneously recounting the events of her life, from girlhood to sunset years.  Aaliya's taste in literature is so wonderfully varied that the book never loses momentum, even though Aaliya herself is the most passive of protagonists.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Happy Valley (2014)

This is a crime series set in the north of England is in a valley that is largely impoverished and not all that upbeat.  The prevalence of drugs is ubiquitous--from the petty criminal on the street to the guy who is renting holiday caravans to a local politician, and the police really cannot keep up.  The series opening and closing segments feature people so paranoid and high they put themselves and others in danger with their paranoid delusions, and the police just do their best.

Catherine Cawood is the local sergeant.  She moved back to the area after her daughter committed suicide and left her small baby parentless.  The father of the baby was a rapist who went to jail on another charge, and Catherine elected to take the boy in.  She lost her marriage and her remaining son, both of whom thought it was masochistic to take on such an emotionally complicated situation, but she manages with the help of her sister.

The major crime presented is the same said rapist, who is now years later out of jail, and has graduated to kidnapping.  The mini series is tense from the beginning--you know it is going to end badly but you are not sure just how badly.  There are lots of weak characters and a lot of people get hurt.  It is emotionally complicated and dark, but very well done, and well worth watching.  The BBC does it again.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Traditional Construction, Yunnan Province, China

When one of my friends who is from China asked me about my recent trip to his country, I talked about how much I enjoyed watching the building of traditional Chinese buildings, especially in contrast with the ubiquitous cranes on every major city's sky line in China and his response was that it is for the tourists.  I would agree with that, but suspect that was one of the goals that UNESCO had in naming World Heritage sites in China.  They were trying to incentivize preservation in a country where change is happening at an almost unbelievable rate.
Ancient Chinese architecture has numerous similar elements in part, because of the early Chinese method of standardizing and prescribing uniform features of structures. The standards are recorded in bureaucratic manuals and drawings that were passed down through generations and dynasties. These account for the similar architectural features persisting over thousands of years, starting with the earliest evidence of Chinese imperial urbanism, now available through excavations starting in the early 1980s.

A fundamental achievement of Chinese wooden architecture is the load-bearing timber frame, a network of interlocking wooden supports forming the skeleton of the building. This is considered China's major contribution to worldwide architectural technology. However, it is not known how the builders got the huge wooden support columns into position.

Unlike western architecture, in ancient Chinese wooden architecture, the wall only defined an enclosure, and did not form a load-bearing element. Buildings in China have been supported by wooden frames for as long as seven millennia. The emergence of the characteristic articulated wooden Chinese frame emerged going back to the Neolithic Age. As long ago as seven thousand years mortise and tendon joinery was used to build wood-framed houses, and persists in Lijiang's old city today.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I was on the road when I read this book, which was long listed for the Booker Prize and on the New York Times list of notable books this year.  When I pulled it out of my bag, a colleague in the room said, "Are you reading Siri Hustvedt?  I love her, but I don't always understand her books."  Well, that is not the problem with this book.  It is very clear what her message is, and that is that women are not valued the way men are, at least not in the art world.  The book recapitulates real life in that respect.

The story is about Harriet Burden, an artist who was married to a gallery owner who never did much to promote her career.  The whole "he couldn't" argument may be very true to those who know the art world, but it doesn't have a warm feel about it.  The story is  told  after Harry's death, by a number of different people, including her children, and in a number of different ways.  Harry did three shows under a male pseudonym and her work was much better accepted when it was thought to be a male artist.  The book conveys the enormous weight that Harry operated under, and her sense of injustice that followed her beyond her grave.  Beautifully written and sadly true.