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Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I hesitate to write about this book. On the one hand, I am amongst the last to read it, so how could I possibly have anything fresh and new to say about it. Secondly, the controversy stirred up by a white woman writing about the treatment of African-American maids in the 1960's American South appears to be ferverent. But I am going to cautiously put my toe in the water, none-the-less.
First off, this is a good story. It may have no bearing on reality, but it is a good tale well told. At it's simplest,that is what fiction is--it may go on to be something bigger than that, but it doesn't have that obligation to be truly accurate. Some of the reviews I have read have focused on Ms. Stockett being white, that her white protagonist comes off best in the novel, that the maids have uneducated dialects. All true.
I was surprised by the notion that you couldn't write about what you aren't. I guess I feel that all is fair when writing fiction. It is not as if J.K. Rowling is a witch, entitling her to write about the wizarding world. The danger is that it won't ring true, but I don't think that happened here. I have heard dialogue very much like what Ms. Stockett portrays in the rural South of the 21st century. No reviewer I have read has mentioned that while there are clear disadvantages to writing from a viewpoint that you don't live in, there might be an advantage as well--that what it lacks in the experience of being black in America might paradoxically be an aid in telling a story that the majority can listen to. That you know what parts people will find hard to hear and work to make them understandable.

Did the author get it wrong? I don't think so, at least not in the big picture. She writes about privileged women whose social structure is very much like a high school girl cat fight. No surprises there. Their treatment of the help doesn't sound much different than the portrayal upper class New Yorkers in "The Nanny Diaries".
Are the risks of speaking up overstated? Again, I don't think so. The violence of the civil rights movement and the animosity seen in the American South is well-documented in both the National Civil Rights Museum and the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum (housed in the places that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was born and died). Anyone who doesn't think it was brave to even walk in a march for civil rights should walk in the monument 'Racist Dogs' in Kelly Ingram Park, north of the Baptist church where a KKK bomb killed four young African-American girls in Birmingham in 1963. Artist James Drake's work depicts snarling police dogs made of scrap iron leaping inward from two walls on either side of the park's narrow walkway. You can stand between and imagine the terror when civil rights marchers were assaulted with the canines and water cannons -- which, by the way, are also in the park, and can be pivoted to point toward a sculpture of two marchers. I found it terrifying.
'The Help' takes a group of women that many of us do not know and humanizes them. We are sympathetic to even the angriest maid.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tim Burton's 9

This movie is what 'Wall-E' wasn't and what 'The Road' is. A bleak post-apocalyptic vision with a glimmer of hope. There are nine small humanoid homonculi created by the scientist who touched off the world destruction problem to begin with. He creates these little guys as a last ditch effort to save the planet from destruction. The best of what he has to offer, but split up into nine parts, and the hope is that enough of them will work together to put a stop to the destruction, and move forward. So while the scene is bleak, the nine remaining inhabitants have quite different viewpoints, as well as different skills for survival. Some work together, some work independently, but in the end they manage to find agreement, and a way to start over. There is a talisman involved, a mystery, and a fair amount of adventure. It is brilliant in it's simplicity. Even if it fails to examine the steps that lead up to world destruction. Don't miss it.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

'Cutting for Stone' is a novel too big in scope in some ways and too narrow in others to be a great novel. That said, it is a very good novel, and worth reading because it has elements that are not easily found.
It is the story of two brothers, born to a father who is unable to love them and a mother who dies having them. They are twins, born literally tied together. They have to be surgically seperated at birth. It is the last act their father does for them as children. The book is set in Ethiopia and the cultural and political landscape are par tof the story, as is the state of medical care in the country.
The boys, Marion and Shiva, are raised by two physicians who knew both their parents, and they raise thema s their own. Ghosh teaches Marion and Hema teaches Shiva--and this is the path in life they take, one that divides the brothers. The story is well told, and it is strongest when it is medical. The emotional side is not as well attended to, though I do agree with the New York Times reviewer, that the author cares too much, not too little. He can't stand far enough back to allow us to see what he sees. Genital mutilation and post-partum incontinence are attended to within the story, but we don't get enough of the back story in either case to form opinions on what the author wants us to know as a result of this story. In some ways, I want to hear Shiva's side of the story to make better sense of what happened. The same goes for the Eritrean part of the story--where do the characters stand? It is hard to say, which is a weakness of the book. None-the-less, this is a new and different voice worth watching.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Potato Gnocchi

In preparation for a week in Rome, we have been eating wonderful handmade Italian food for over a week. One of the things that is much easier to have an excellent experience with at home is gnocchi--in a restaurant they can be ethereal and they can be like lead. You never know. At home, you can make them heavenly every time.
Potato Gnocchi
2 lbs Russet potatoes
Salt to taste
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Steam the potatoes until tender all the way through but not falling apart (a kitchen knife passes all the way through with some resistance). It's important that the potatoes not be overcooked. (Overdone, they will absorb too much water and take up so much flour that the gnocchi will sink like heavy little stones to the bottom of the stomach.)
As soon as the potatoes are tender enough, pass them through the ricer into a large bowl.

Add a healthy pinch of salt and all the flour to the potatoes, working in the flour with a wooden spoon; then knead the dough gently for about 5 minutes on a lightly floured board or wooden work surface.
Divide the dough into 5 to 8 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a rope about 3/4 inch in diameter and 8 to 10 inches long. Cut each snake into regular pieces about 3/4 inch long. Continue until all the dough has been rolled and cut.
Roll each gnocco (yes, that's the singular of gnocchi) along the tines of a fork to impress the soft dough with a pattern--this creates more surface to capture sauce.
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a rolling boil and drop in the gnocchi. (Do this in two or three batches if it's easier.)
Boil the gnocchi until they rise to the top, then remove them with a slotted skimmer and transfer them to a heated platter or bowl.
Serve immediately, with a Butter and Sage sauce.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


This is not your typical romantic comedy. First, it fits better in the space between drama and comedy. Then second, because it doesn't have either the typical story or the typical ending. It is a story about two people, each of whom has something that the other needs at a particular moment in time. They fully devote themselves to the giving of what they have to the other person, to the best of their ability, and then at one point it becomes clear that they must part. But they are both better for their time together. The perfect romance that doesn't pan out. Both sides win, no one is bitter. You almost never see it--not in real life, not in fiction, not in film.

Adam is awkward, deadpan, and says things that are true, but you really shouldn't say them. A lot of the social landscape is occurring well above his head, and while he knows that, he has trouble responding differently. For example, his father dies very early in the movie, and he appears to have little or no response to it, other than crossing "Dad's Chores" off his to-do list. Beth moves into an apartment in his building, and they begin a friendship with each other. He would like it to be more. So he tells her he feels sexually attracted to her. Which makes her bolt. So he tells her--he has Asperger's syndrome. Then they progress into a relationship that makes sense for him, and it also does for her, given the circumstances of her life and that she needs someone who is safe and won't cheat on her or lie to her. He also isn't quite capable of the intensity of emotion that she needs, but that is okay for a time. The ending could be bittersweet, but it isn't. It is sweet and nice.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pabellón criollo

Pabellón criollo is a Venezuelan version of the traditional rice and beans combination found throughout the Caribbean. It is a plate of rice, shredded beef and stewed black beans, often with a side of fried sweet plantains, and it is considered by many Venezuelans to be their national dish. This is one of the favorite meals of my children. But it also has a special place in my heart. Here is why.
When my youngest son was five years old, he had a medulloblastoma, a malignant brain tumor. He had surgery emergently to remove the tumor, but it left him with a significant disability called posterior fossa syndrome, or cerebellar mutism. Right after surgery, he was unable to move the right side of his body, he was mute, and he was very irritable and uncooperative. So not only did he have cancer, he also was changed overnight into a child that we did not recognize and did not feel like we could communicate with.
We were assured that this would gradually improve, that he would regain much or all of the things that he had lost. It was very hard to feel confident of that, especially as days turned into weeks, and we were nearing when he would begin radiation treatment, which would last 6 weeks and then be followed by a year of chemotherapy.
Ethan was initially hospitalized for two weeks after his surgery. Shortly after our return home we were invited to our closest friend's house, and she served pabellón criollo. The day did not start well. Ethan didn't want to see people, he became increasingly agitated, and I had a concommitant drop in mood, reduced to tears. We were ready to go home almost minutes after our arrival. Instead, we went outside, sat on a blanket in the sun, and took a moment to try and regain equilibrium. Ethan gradually calmed down, and Kineret brought a plate of pabellón criollo out to him. He couldn't feed himself, but he smiled when the first bite went into his mouth. Smiles were rare events indeed in those days, and a mirror back to the Ethan that we knew. It was a success. Pabellón criollo had saved the day. We left with ALL of the leftover pabellón criollo in containers, enough to feed perhaps 20 people, feeling sad and yet a bit more hopeful that we would indeed survive this catastrophe.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Monday Meatballs

We have been having an orgy of Italian food in preparation for an upcoming trip. I hope the food in Rome meets our ever increasing expectations, that is all I can say. The A16 Food + Wine meatballs have been a real highlight--they are flavorful and have a wonderful light texture. Each bite is to be savored and enjoyed. I recommend serving them on their own, not diluting the pleasure with pasta or bread. Here is a modified recipe:

Monday Meatballs
10 ounces ground boneless pork shoulder
10 ounces ground beef chuck
6 ounces bread (stale preferred), pulsed in a food processor
2 ounces pancetta finely chopped
1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon dried chili flakes
2/3 cup fresh ricotta, drained if necessary (if sitting in whey, drain overnight in cheesecloth)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup whole milk
1 (28-ounce) can San Marzano tomatoes with juice
Handful of fresh basil leaves and grated cheese for finishing

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the pork, beef, bread, pancetta, parsley, 2 teaspoons salt, oregano, fennel seeds and chili flakes and mix with your hands just until the ingredients are evenly distributed. Set aside.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the ricotta, eggs and milk just enough to break up any large curds of ricotta. Add the ricotta mixture to the ground meat mixture and mix lightly with your hands just until incorporated. Pinch off a small piece, flatten it into a disk, and cook it in a small sauté pan. Taste and adjust the mixture’s seasoning with salt, if needed.
3. Form the mixture into 1 1/2 -inch balls, each weighing about 2 ounces, and place on the prepared baking sheets. You should have about 30 meatballs.
4. Bake, rotating the sheets once from front to back, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the meatballs are lightly browned. Remove from the oven and reduce the temperature to 300 degrees.
5. Sprinkle the tomatoes with the remaining salt, and then pass the tomatoes and their juices through a food mill fitted with the medium plate. Alternatively, put the entire can of tomatoes and salt in a large bowl, don an apron and squeeze the tomatoes into small pieces with your hands.
6. Pack the meatballs into 1 large roasting pan or 2 smaller roasting pans. Pour the tomato sauce over the meatballs, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and braise for 1 1/2-2 hours, or until the meatballs are tender and have absorbed some of the tomato sauce.
7. Remove the pans from the oven and uncover. Distribute the basil leaves throughout the sauce.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

The book is smart and witty, fast paced, yet thoughtful, and thought provoking. The scenario is sitting shiva. Judd, the second of four children, is not lucky. Or at least he is not on a good run. He has discovered his wife of nine years in bed with his boss. So he is losing his spouse and his job in one fell swoop. Then his father dies. And while his family has not been the least bit religiously observant, nor are they particularly close, they find themselves sitting shiva at the dying request of Dad.
Shiva is the mourning period, traditionally observed by the parents, spouse, siblings, and children of the deceased. During Shiva (which means 'seven'), traditionally a seven day period beginning after the funeral, the family stays home to focus on their grief, remember their loved one, and receive visitors.
Sitting Shiva is the tradition of mourning in the Jewish religion. Gathering together as a community is at the core of sitting Shiva, just as it is at the core of many Jewish traditions. The strength and support of friends, family and neighbors, during sitting Shiva, plays a key role in helping the bereaved get through the process of grieving.
Which is not so much what happens in this book. Much like what is portrayed in the German film "Go for Zucker!", sitting shiva is less about grief and consolation and more about making the remaining relatives live under one roof for a week and deal with each other. The idea appears to be that you get an opportunity to air grievances, make amends, and move forward. The family is repaired, or at the very least, a few bandaids have been pulled off and the wounds examined. At the end of the week the family disperses and the business of grieving the lost loved one can begin in earnest.
Judd is a true middle child. His older brother was the golden boy, his youngest brother the charismatic screw up. His sister is the family glue, but she is not a kinder, gentler glue. She is in-your-face honest, more passive aggressive than humorous, but funny none-the-less. The father is a stoic hard worker and the mother is an unconventional nightmare (hitting a little close to home for me)--she is a psychiatrist who wrote a book while her children were still in school, delineating all the embarrassing life stages they have gone through and offering advice on handling everything from toilet training to puberty.So, in his family, Judd is not the smartest, the most athletic, the funniest, the most charismatic, none-of-the-above. He is the second child in every sense of the word. Not a stand out at anything and not enough like either parent to have a true alliance or war with. As the week progresses, Judd's childhood losses and adolescent demons rear their heads and are discarded or mulled over.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Hurt Locker

OMG. OMG. OMG. What's most striking about Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" isn't its action sequences -- which are low-key to begin with -- but its tense quietness. Which was really difficult for me. I have trouble sitting still, and this movie had me on my feet incessantly. This is a war movie that rarely goes "boom," an ironic choice, considering that its central character is an explosives expert. Then again, perhaps the true subject of Bigelow's movie isn't so much the war itself but human stress.
The movie follows bomb defusers in Baghdad relatively early in the war, when there was a lot of insecurity there. The things that ramp up the stress of this war--the urban setting, the proximity of civilians whose affiliations are uncertain, and the pervasive use of IED's to promote unrest are all well depicted, as is the accumulation of stress as time goes on. It was hard to watch this for 2 hours. Imagine a year in that kind of pressure cooker.

The movie opens with a statement "War is a drug." True, but that is not the only problem. True, the hypervigilence required to stay one step ahead of the enemy, to react to every movement as if it is a threat, and to gather every piece of information available so as to reduce your risk of harm takes it's toll. There is alot of adrenaline associated with that. The adrenaline is addictive, and those who thrive on it are far more likely to be high adrenaline responders (and they are probably more likely to make it out alive). But it is also true that the return home brings with it a two-fold problem. The first is the adrenaline withdrawal--but this is a stress reduction response. That passes within weeks to months, and then there is overall physiologic improvement. Mood brightens. Energy returns. But what doesn't change is that the people around you who didn't go to Iraq don't get it. They think you should put it behind you, not talk about it, and above all not change because of it. But trauma, and the stress associated with it, invariably changes you. It is impossible to turn back to clock. Those things happened and soldiers respond to them. But their friends and families cannot keep up with their pace of change. And so the soldier is drawn to returning, to a place they find acknowledges their experience, and to people who will listen to their stories.
This is an Iraq movie with a modest agenda and no obvious political views. The narrow focus, to bring the audience into the world of our men and women in uniform in Iraq, is the source of its strength. Memorable and highly recommended.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Roasted Brussel Sprouts

The humble brussel sprout. When you live in the Midwest, you are trying to eat more local and more seasonally and it is January, there are not alot of vegetable options. Brussel sprouts, harvested around the first frost back in October, are about all you have left. My spouse has been on an excellent run of great Italian meals of late, and we had these as accompaniment to a roasted chicken, parmesan rissoto, and a green salad.
Roasted Brussel Sprouts, Potatoes, and Onions
1 pound brussel sprouts, halved
2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, cubed
2 onions, halved and sliced
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a 9" x 13" pan toss vegetables with olive oil (about 2 Tbs.), salt and pepper. Roast until vegetables are browned (about 45 minutes)--but stir them every 10-15 minutes while roasting for even cooking.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

French Feasts by Stephane Reynaud

Subtitled '299 Traditional Recipes for Family Meals and Gatherings' gives you an idea that the cookbook is going for the homey feel. Stéphane Reynaud is the author, and he is also the owner of a restaurant, Villa 9 Trois in Montreuil, located near Paris, specializing in pork. He is the grandson of a village butcher on the Ardèche plateau in France and the author of Pork & Sons and Terrine.

The book is more of a travelogue of France, with collages of pictures and biographies of various boulangerie and charcuterie owners. There is a photo of every dish there is a recipe for, and throughout the book, the photographs are spectacular. The book also has drawings, almost like cartoons, that highlight or emphasize a point.

I already have almost 20 French cookbooks, and I would not buy this one for myself--but I would buy it for someone getting married, or going on their first trip to France, or for someone who wants to cook a few traditional dishes, know what they should look like when made propertly, and what context to serve them in.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A16: Food+Wine by Nate Appleman and Shelley Lindgren

Since our spur-of-the-moment plan to go to Rome materialized, my husband has had all Italian cookbooks in our kitchen on the counter (and there are about a dozen excellent options). As a result, food has been pretty amazing at our house. Marcella Hazan, Mario Batali, and Susan Hermann Loomis continue to be impressive. The cookbook that is quickly rising to the top of the new entries into our cookbook collection is the IACP and James Beard award winning cookbook A16: Food+Wine. We had some halibut from an Alaskan trip that was sublime.

Braised Halibut with Pistachios, Preserved Meyer Lemon, and Capers
2 1/2 pounds halibut fillets each about 1 1/2" thick
Kosher salt
1 cup pistachios, lightly toasted
1 tablespoon capers
2 wedges preserved Meyer lemon minced
1/4 teaspoon dried chili flakes
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
2c. flat-leaf parsley
1 fresh lemon, cut into wedges
Season the fish evenly with salt.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 4 hours. About 30 minutes before serving, remove the fish from the refrigerator and bring to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 400.
Combine the pistachios, capers, preserved lemon, and chili flakes in a food processor or a mortar. Pulse a few times or crush with a pestle until coarsely blended. With the processor running, drizzle in the olive oil, or drizzle in the olive oil as you crush the ingredients with the pestle. Add the parsley and pulse a few more times. Place the fish in a baking pan and spread mixture evenly. Add enough water to the pan - about 1/2 cup - to come halfway up the sides of the fish, and transfer to the oven. Braise the fish for about 20 minutes or until firm and just cooked through.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Gale Gand's Brunch!

Breakfast food has never been big with me, and apparently the feeling is shared by many, because when Gourmet magazine tried to recommend a breakfast cookbook for the Cookbook Club, they ended up falling back on Marion Cunningham's "Breakfast Book", which was published in 1987. That is a long dry spell. Gale Gand's Brunch! is a welcome addition to a small oeuvre of books on the first meal of the day, and has a large number of savory foods to consider serving. Here is an adapted recipe from the book:

Strata Recipe
5 cups of cubed French bread (with crust)
2 c. grated cheese (gruyere and fontina are my favorites, but cheddar, parmesan and even a blooming soft rind cheese like brie cut into chunks works well)
10 large eggs
4 c. milk
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
2 c. cooked vegetables (asparagus, onions, and mushrooms are my favorites)
1 c. diced or crumbled meat (optional--can add ham, bacon, sausage, grilled chicken)

Butter a 9 x 13-inch baking dish. Put the bread cubes in the dish and sprinkle them with the cheese. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, mustard, and salt. Pour the egg mixture over the bread cubes. Sprinkle the filling ingredients over the egg mixture and fold them in gently. Cover and chill for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and bake for 60 minutes, until the mixture has puffed up slightly and is golden brown on top. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

I highly recommend this cookbook. The only breakfast food it is lean on recipes for is muffins, and there are plenty of good recipes available for those. The above recipe is one of only two strata recipes I have found in cookbooks (the other is in Deborah Madison's 'Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone", which is a cookbook I would choose if I could only have 3 cookbooks). The photographs in the book are inspirational--I have included a few, but they are throughout the book. I am a big fan of having a picture of what the food is supposed to look like when you have sucessfully made it and an idea of how you might attractively serve it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lemon Tree

When I was just a lad of ten, my father said to me,
"Come here and take a lesson from the lovely lemon tree."
"Don't put your faith in love, my boy", my father said to me,
"I fear you'll find that love is like the lovely lemon tree."
Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet
But the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.
The opening of this movie, with a Peter, Paul, and Mary song sung in a plaintiff voice, is a haunting beginning to a haunting film. The movie tells a small story in a beautiful and balanced way that shines a light on the bigger Israeli-Palestinian problem. There is a plea for women to rule nations for a more peaceful world embedded within this film.

I have been slowly but surely falling in love with Israeli films--the intensity of life there, where man has lived in conflict for several thousand years, is sympathetically portrayed time and time again. Yet even in that atmosphere, this is a memorable movie. The movie is directed by Eran Riklis, whose 2004 movie, “The Syrian Bride,” explored Israeli-Arab border tensions in a deeply moving way--non-judgmental and yet the conclusion was clear. This is also a wrenching, richly layered feminist allegory as well as a geopolitical one. Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass) is a Palestinian woman whose history has put her in the wrong place at the wrong time--Navon, the Israeli Defense minister movies in next door and her life is changed forever. The movie is summarized nicely in the New York Times review (to go to link, click on title), and the details of the story are well told. But the mournfulness of women, who live with what powerful men have wrought (and perpetuate) is part of the story that is not so much told as etched out in the faces of Salma and Navon's wife, Mira. I would rather that they be in charge of solving the dilemma than the men who feel it is their job to do so. The futility, the short range answers that complicate long term solutions, and the inevitability of people perpetually doing the wrong thing for the right reasons sadly plays out to the predictable ending. And you will not easily forget it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sag Harbor by Colin Whitehead

One of the things I like about fiction is it's ability to transport anyone, regardless of color, creed, or national origin to another place, to experience another person's world view, and learn a little something about their experience. Reviewing this book over Martin Luther King holiday weekend strikes me as ironically appropriate. The book is self-described as Black Boys with Beach Houses. This is not a John Edgar Wideman book, not an urban backdrop to the story. But like the Homewood Trilogy, this book taught me something about America that I did not know.

The book takes place in Sag Harbor, an African American neighborhood of summer houses on Long Island. On the one hand, it is a coming-of-age book. Benji is a fifteen year old, saddled with a younger brother and two parents with professional jobs who summers in a beach house. The book gives a good sense of what upper middle class African American adolesence of privledge is like, for those of us not much exposed to the experience. 'Sag Harbor' is set in the mid-1980's and Benji often juxtaposes his life with the fictional life of the Huxtables of Bill Cosby fame. They share some similar life circumstances, but ramp up the anger and you are closer to what Benji lives with. His parents are not going to be featured in "Marriages to Emulate" any time soon. The book is also about the realities of being black in America, even if you are smart, you have a good job, good social support, and luxuries. Not a lot about that, at least not on the surface, but a little bit of it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Born Round by Frank Bruni

The subtitle of this book is The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater. Something many of us can relate to, although he does it on a grander scale than most, and began at an impressively early age (well documented by a judicious use of family photos throughout the book). I am not a big fan of non-fiction in general or of the memoir in particular, but I would recommend this book as one in which a person begins to come to terms with who he is, what is important to him, and why he is where he is. Those are not easy tasks. Many people spend years in therapy to figure out even one component of that triad. I like the author's use of self-reflection after relating an event or a period of his life, and what his take on it is or was at the time. It gives a sense of personal growth, how the process of self-change occurred for him.

Sticking strictly with what the surface of the book depicts, it is a good tale of an immigrant Italian-Irish family, very smart and hard-working, with four offspring that go in very different but productive directions. Frank, our hero, has two things that stand out--he loves to eat and he is gay. The book doesn't deal at all with any difficulties related to sexual orientation--maybe he didn't have any, maybe that is the material for book two--the only thing in this book about his love life is directly related to his self-esteem, and it is very gender-neutral. Nothing objectionable for the reader who is struggling with the ever-widening swath of states that permit gay marriage. It may disappoint those who would hope for a more affirmative voice from such an articulate writer. But it is what it is. The book is repleat with stories of his various jobs, including his stints as the restaurant reviewer for the New York Times and on the campaign trail with W. They are interesting, don't come off as bragging, and make for good transitions in his life.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Secret of the Grain

This is a loud, bustling, vibrant movie. The message is not so much of hope or of fear, but rather that it is what it is. At the center of the film is a stubborn, taciturn immigrant from Tunisia, Slimane (Habib Boufares) has spent 35 years working in the shipyards of Sète, a rough little French port city on the Mediterranean coast. The other members of his large, cantankerous family — his former wife, Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk), and their assorted children and grandchildren — live mostly in a battered high-rise housing project. Slimane, meanwhile, keeps a modest room in the blue-collar hotel run by his lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), and her 20-year-old daughter, Rym (the amazing Hafsia Herzi), on whom he dotes as if she were his own.

The story of immigrants in France is demonstrated rather than explored. The sense of being French, not being French, and not accepted as French is a constant theme, and this exists outside of any overt prejudice or mistreatment. The adherence to the culture of the homeland is also quite evident. The family structure is as it was in Tunisia, and it is quite inviting. The involvement of the family across generations is easy going and balanced. They work together for the greater good throughout the movie, and even the black sheep of the family is neutralized by the reaction of others. It is a winsome yet hopeful voice of immigration for a better life.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Taking Woodstock

Beware. This is not a great movie. It is also not a movie to learn more about the history of the Summer of Love. The facts on that are disputed and probably largely unknowable. It was 40 years ago. The event came to be bigger than the sum of it's parts. Michael Lang and Elliot have good reason not to agree on who did what and why. So lay that aside when viewing the film. There is more to it than that.
The movie reminds me alot of the collection of short stories by Ellen Litman, 'The Last Chicken in America'. Elliot is the child of Russian immigrants who see him as needing to fix their problems. They don't listen to him, they boss him around, and even though he is well into adulthood in terms of age, he has the worst of both worlds with his parents. They don't listen to him, he is not an equal decision-maker with them, and they take it for granted that he will come to their aid when needed. And he fulfills that role to the best of his ability. They have a ramshackle 1930's style motel in the Catskills that is going to rack and ruin, not much used, and in constant danger of being foreclosed on by the bank. It is in the guise of trying to wring as much money out of everything that Elliot gets involved in the whole music festival scene. So whether this version of events related to Woodstock is true or not, the depiction of the economy in upstate New York and the pressures on first generation Americans are worth the time spent watching the movie. The music festival itself is depicted in a way that is pretty unobjectionable, with the obligatory hallucinatory scene being above average in accuracy. It is by no means Ang Lee's best effort, but he is a filmmaker worthy of attention.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Molasses Cookies and My Grandmother

Today is the birth day of my mother's mother. There are two things about her that I carry forward in my life. The first is embroidered pillowcases and the second is molasses cookies. The smell of them transports me back to her Northern Maine kitchen in mid-summer and a time where picking raspberries in the backyard and eating them could solve life's most pressing problems.

Molasses Cookies
1 c. butter
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. molasses
2 eggs
2 1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. ginger
3 1/2 c. flour
Coarse sugar for rolling the cookies in before baking.
Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and molasses, mix throughly. Sift remaining ingredients, and add, mix until incorporated. Form dough into balls (I use a 1 tablespoon scoop) and roll in coarse sugar until covered. Bake at 350 for 10 minutes.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In the Loop

I admit it. I have been watching quite a few movies since the year began. I was on a brief viewing hiatus in December. The trip to Nicaragua led directly into the holiday bussle and I couldn't manage to squeeze in either exercise or movies. But the New Year has reversed that trend quite nicely. Always start off the year where you hope to end up. I have never been good with resolutions, but I am a terribly entrenched creature of habit, and good habits are better than bad ones. Best of all, sometimes good habits get positively reinforced, and the first week of 2010 was one of those times.
This movie is a terrific spoof on the dynamics of international politics, in this case United Kingdom-United States relations. It is hopelessly ribald, language wise, and while I do not think myself a prude in that respect, this was right at the limit of what I can tolerate, language-wise.

War and how we get ourselves into one is the back story. The movie goes about demonstrating how the mountain of this significant event is reduced to a series of festering mole hills by the people charged with making the ultimate decisions that affect the world--literally. They are depicted here as heartless combatents who at the same time absolutely must get along. The paradox is highlighted again and again throughout the movie. Every faction is either figuratively or literally sleeping with another. The take home message is that the mechanics of politics, like the making of sausage, should not be looked at too closely. Just focus on the end products, and vote for the guys who have the least objectionable outcomes. And keep your sense of humor about it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Denali National Park

My parents are stealth outdoorsmen. They have none of the traits usually associated with a love of nature. They don't camp. They do not spend a requisite vacation in the outdoors on a regular basis. They do not belong to the Sierra Club. They aren't even Democrats. But they do love the National Park system, and when my brother and I were young, they took us regularly to parks all over the West. Maybe the phenotype skips a generation, because their offspring fit the more traditional profile. My brother more than I.

He is the poster child for a sibling in many respects, but his choice to live in the state that is first most memorable for it's natural beauty and then second most memorable for the abundance of large mammals (both on land and at sea) is icing on the cake. While I am by far the eldest of the siblings, he is a role model for me related to outdoor enjoyment. He has chosen to live in a more hospitable environment for it, but the love of the outdoors goes with him when he ventures outside Alaska as well. Happy Birthday, Jonathan. Many wonderful returns of the day.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The College Years

This is the first of what I assume will be several musings on the role of undergraduate education. Two things bring it to mind--today is my spouse's birthday, and we met in college. How did we manage to make a life choice at that age? I am still baffled by that, but we did. The other is that my third son just closed out his applications to colleges, and so I am in the midst of watching my progeny go through this important developmental process.
Erickson defined the stages that humans go through in maturing, and while the late adolescence-early adulthood task is to develop intimate relationships, in many cases American youth (both in my time and now) are still struggling with identity. The task is to define oneself independently, aside from one's family and into the community as a whole. I find it somewhere between ironic and humorous that Erikson thought this was over by age 18--in a lot of ways, I have never quite finished this developmental task. I am still not sure what my ultimate goals for life are, and they have definitely changed on a relatively frequent basis. Which at my age means about every decade. I don't think I am alone in this. I think that the first step in the process starts in high school but extends into the college years.
The barriers that present themselves are numerous. Going from almost absolute control, especially when it comes to curfew, and then the lack thereof, is opening floodgates for many kids, and it is hard to regain control as necessary. But there is also an expectation that fairly early on one should know their life path, or at least the neighborhood they want to end up in. That is a real challenge. The quality of university education is excellent, but the high school experience is significantly more varied, and many colleges are not equipped to provide that guidance. I am reminded of the wise words of my child psychiatrist friend, David Kaye: The 20's are the most important decade for parental involvement.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Summer Hours

The story, which has a number of layers to it, is about inheritance and the passing on of culture and wealth to the next generation. I would love to see the basic story that is presented here, done in a number of different cultural contexts. This rendition, a French story, is one of wistful mourning of the way things used to be and where they are now. How would we do this in America? Probably more yelling, door slamming, name calling, and less talking.

The film opens at the 75th birthday of Hélène Berthier. Her entire clan is assembled around her--three children and their offspring. But only Frédéric lives in France--Adrienne lives in the U.S. and Jérémie lives with his family in China. They represent the new Europe, where jobs are global and everyone is mobile. Hélène sees this, she knows that her era is ending, that the house and all it's content need to disperse. She has found homes in museums for things that are appropriate to go there, but she is leaving it to Frédéric to manage--so she knows it but doesn't want to face it (nor does he). The second half of the film is after Hélène dies--it all goes as she predicted, and the viewer sympathizes strongly with Frédéric, who intellectually realizes it must go this way (for the inheritance taxes alone would cripple them even if they all lived in France), but emotionally he is struggling mightily. The siblings manage to maintain good communication throughout the painful process, which is remarkable. The film suggests that the France of old is passing and the new France may become less inviting, less memorable, less unique. But no less charming.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Legumes from the Indian Subcontinent

Mark Bittman's column this week is on legumes and just how amazingly inventively delicious they can be, especially when in the hands of a competent cook and an above average Indian cookbook.
Dal means split, as in split red lentils, dried peas or mung beans, but the word is used for the soupy cooked dish that’s made with them and forms a key part of Indian meals. Don’t be put off by its dull appearance. It’s incredibly good, soothing, warming and gently flavoured with spices. Bittman includes several recipes, but this is a Dal recipe adapted from Madhur Jaffrey. It is a simple tumeric and lentil mixture that is finished with a “tarka”, hot oil flavoured with onion and spices.


1 c. red lentils
½ tsp ground turmeric
2 tsp. olive oil
¹/2 tsp asafoetida (optional but good)
½ tsp whole cumin
2 small dried chilies
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 clove of garlic, thinly sliced
salt to taste

Put the lentils into a large covered pot--cover with water to about an inch or two above the surfce of the lentils. Bring to the boil, and use a slotted spoon to remove the grey-white scum that rises to the surface. Stir in the turmeric, reduce the heat to very low and partially cover with a lid slightly ajar.
Cook for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Now make the tarka. Heat the oil and add the asafoetida, cumin and chilies. As soon as the chilies crisp and darken, add the onion and cook until well browned. Add the garlic last, cooking it just until it goes golden. Pour the mixture into the dal, stir, and put a lid on. This will keep warm for half an hour or so until you are ready to serve.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Christmas Tale

This movie covers the emotional territory that I was looking for in My Sister's Keeper. And it is really not a Christmas Tale at all. It is a dysfunctional family tale that takes place at Christmas time. The story starts decades before, with a family of four, with one on the way: a mother, a father, and two children, a boy and a girl. The boy, Joseph, develops leukemia and he needs a bone marrow transplant, but alas, none of the family is compatible. So the hopes and fears of the family focus on the unborn child, a boy, Henri. But alas, Henri is not compatible either. Joseph gets sicker and sicker still, then dies. Baby Henri goes from savior to scapegoat, shunned by his mother almost as soon as he entered the world. One additional child is born after Joseph's death, and he goes on to fill the family 'sick' role.

Fast forward to the present. Henri has been banned at family gatherings after repeated bad behavior, but a new crisis has arisen. His mother, Junon Vuillard (flawlessly acted by Catherine Deneuve) has a blood disease for which she requires a bone marrow transplant. All relatives get tested to see who might be compatable. Lo and behold, while she does not like Henri and makes no pains to hide her dispassion, he and the son of her daughter are the best match. So the daughter seeks redemption for her lack of compatability to Joseph through her son. Henri, who has lived the life of the damned, cannot play the role of savior with any sort of elan, though he takes several stabs at it. It is an homage to the reverberations of trauma across generations.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

500 Days of Summer

I read what I think is the poem of this movie.
Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn't.
There you have it in a nut shell. Fortunately, the telling is richer for it's length.
I loved this movie. I would show it to every one who doesn't understand why the relationship they were sure was 'the one' didn't work out. The relationship was probably really good. But, as they say, it takes two to tango.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are both spot on in the movie. The film is a story told out of sequence--which is tricky to do successfully, and anyone who wants to write something of that nature, where you get to see the future while the present is unfolding, should watch this because it works beautifully.
Zooey Deschanel has previously proved herself to be quite charming, and is no less so here as Summer Finn. It is easy to see why everyone loves Summer (yes, the imagery that her name evokes--youth, sun, fun, beaches, parties--it is intentional). The surprise performance is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He is fun, smart, charming, and lovable. He sings, he dances, he's got a drop dead gorgeous smile that transforms him into someone handsome yet attainable. He's perfect for the role, and so is she. Which is a tribute both to their acting and the quality of the script, that they are able to draw us both in--we love him, she's sensational, and we sympathize with him when it doesn't work out, we don't blame her, but we hope against hope they'll get back together. Brilliant. I would call it this decade's "When Harry Met Sally".

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

This is my third book of 2010, and my second one from the New York Times Notable Books of 2009 list (click on title above to access a link to see the full list). I have not read a Margaret Atwood book since I read 'The Handmaid's Tale" in 1985. The book won countless awards, and endless acclaim, and I just hated it. The author is an avowed feminist and while the Handmaid's Tale could be viewed as a dystopian cautionary tale, a story of where we can still go back to as women, no matter how far we have come, I viewed it as merely depressing. The Biblical, "women as breed stock" world view is what I walked away from the book with as a twenty five year old and it did not make me want to come back for more.
Since that time Atwood has been short-listed for, long-listed for and won the Booker Prize. It seems that she is a good writer. As it has been about a quarter of a century since I read a book by her, it seemed that it might be time to get back on the horse. Since the Handmaid's Tale came out, I have gotten married, had four children and raised them into near-adulthood. One is engaged to be married himself, in fact.
I was wrong, as it turns out. This is also a dystopian cautionary tale but one where women are now primarily for sexual abuse rather than reproduction. The abuse is not graphic, so in some ways this seems even a little bit better than what occurs in the Handmiad's Tale, something I am sure the reality would not be.
Margaret Atwood is a spectacular writer. The book is gorgeously written. There are hymns and sermons throughout that weave the story artfully into a more succinct tale. It is a thing of beauty, and I am almost certain it will be another 25 years before I read another novel by her. She is not the most depressing talented author with a myopia for the baseness of man out there--not as long as Cormac McCarthy still lives and breaths--but I can only take it in micro-doses.

Monday, January 4, 2010

My Sister's Keeper

I felt that I needed to see this movie. I have a childhood cancer survivor, and when we were in the midst of our 15 months of surgery, followed by radiation and then chemotherapy, I was intensively involved in the community of parents whose child has cancer. I met a woman there whose eldest son had a third relapse of his leukemia. None of her other children were compatible bone marrow donors for him, and she openly considered the option that is the basis for this movie--to choose genetically compatible fertilized eggs and select to have a child who can be a donor for your cancer child. Before I had a child with cancer, I would have found the concept repugnant, and even though life was far from normal at that point, I could still remember the person who would shudder at the thought. But a small part of me saw that it would be a big battle for me to retain perspective if my child needed something we couldn't offer him. We did avoid donating blood to him, having a close family friend be his designated donor, so that if in the future he needed an organ we would all be eligible donors, so we have faced difficult choices and painful realities.
But surprise, surprise. The movie was not really all about the emotional experience of a child who has been conceived to be a donor for her sibling. Abigail Breslin does an amazing job of depicting the "it is what it is" experience that the donor child is relegated to. The movie is instead more about a parent who cannot face her child's death. The mother in this story is so far into denial that she is planning to have her healthy daughter donate a kidney to her dying daughter, when everyone but her knows it is futile. And the only ones trying to stop her are her children. Her cancer kid is ready to die, but doesn't know how to break it to her mother. Sobering. I have seen people go this route, so I have thought about this, but I have seen some parents do an amazing job of bringing their dying children home and making the most of their time left. I hope my life doesn't take that path, but if it does, please let me be merciful.
Did any of this make the movie easier to watch? No, it did not. My second son came home while I was watching it, tears streaming down my face. His immediate response was of concern--but I assured him, it was the movie. "I am never watching that", he said. "I lived it. That is enough."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Banana Bread

My youngest son found some frozen bananas. They are souvenir from the summer, when the bananas take only days to go from green to ripe to over ripe to 'make banana bread as soon as possible' or 'throw them in the freezer for future use'. The best part about the frozen banana is that it is waiting for you to be ready--whereas the bananas on the counter are on their schedule, the ones in the freezer are on yours. Thaw them, either on the counter or in the microwave and you are ready to go. I like to freeze them whole, and peel them when they are half thawed. There are a number of variations of banana bread, many of which I enjoy immensely, but our family favorite is the very simplest, a variation of the 1950 Betty Crocker Cookbook recipe.

Banana Bread
3 bananas, mashed
1 c. sugar
2 1/4 c. flour
1 Tbs. baking powder
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1 tsp. vanilla extract
dash of salt
1 c. buttermilk
1 egg
You can add a handful of diced fruit, chopped nuts, cinnamon, allspice if so desired--it would still be considered 'the basic' recipe. Nothing more is also excellent, and what we end up making most of the time.
Mix all ingredients, pour into a 9" x 5" bread pan that is buttered and floured, bake for 50 min. at 350 degree.