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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Red Cabbage Salad

1 red cabbage, cored and finely shredded
6 carrots, peeled and finely grated
1 Tsp. minced fresh chives
1 Tsp. minced fresh dill
1 Tbs. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 Tbs. sherry vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
6 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 Tbs. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Mix cabbage and carrots in a bowl--to make dressing add spices to the vinegar, mix in the mustard, and then wisk in the oil. Toss dressing with cabbage and carrots, add salt and pepper to taste. Voila, a crunchy bright colorful side dish! I made this for my dinner this Friday night. You can cut vegetables and mix the dressing ahead of time, and then put them together before serving. This recipe is adapted from the New York Times (click on link).

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Passover Food

It is early in the Passover week, and I am enjoying the food (soon, I will be missing legumes and grains and dreading matzah). Some foods we never have except for at Passover--like gefilte fish, and some things we eat occasionally through out the year--like matzah ball soup and deviled eggs, but they always remind me of Passover. I have leftover gefilte fish for lunch, look forward to heating up leftover matza ball soup when I get home, and am dissapointed when we finish off the last leftover deviled egg. Then it is time to start cooking--but the longer we put it off the longer it is before I realize that matzah really isn't very good. There is a reason we call it the bread of affliction.

While Pesach is officially the holiday without bread, unofficially it is the holiday of the egg. Not only do we serve eggs at the seder, but all foods that I make during Passover require oodles of eggs. Popovers require an egg for every three popovers. I probably make 6-8 dozen popoevers during the week, so that is 2-3 dozen eggs. Passover is the holiday that allows me to have the knowledge that my two soup pots hold 5 dozen eggs for hard boiling. At no other time during the year do I need to have this knowledge. All Passover desserts seem to take an inordinate number of eggs. I save my egg whites from through out the year (carbonara sauce is a favorite at my house, as is alfredo, and both generate their fair share of leftover egg whites) and ask my friend Dina to create dozens of fanciful merengue cookies. It is almost the only time I open my refridgerator, see 10 dozen eggs lined up on the shelf and wonder "Do I need more eggs?".

Monday, March 29, 2010

Passover Haggadah

As I was setting out the haggadahs for our second night seder tonight, I was contemplative. Pesach is a holiday of comtemplation, so I was doing what is required. We have had these haggadahs since they were published over a decade ago, and we bought dozens of them. Our reasons were many fold. Our children were young, we wanted a haggadah that had pictures and was aimed at them. But not too much so--we didn't want a new age haggadah or a feminist haggadah, we wanted one that had all the original hebrew test, and didn't soft sell all the violence associated with the story of slavery in Egypt. We wanted to be able to do a long drawn out seder or a "hit the high points" ceremony, all using the exact same book. The pictures make it easy to get to the right page, and we like being able to assign a child to read a particular passage in Hebrew without much fuss. Finally, they were very affordable in hard cover--so having 40 of them is possible without making it part of the children's inheritence.

The question arose this year: when will we get adult haggadahs? Our collective children are ages 10-21 with a mean age of 16 1/2, so it is a fair question. Never, I think is the answer. This is the haggadah of our children's youth. It is a brutal tale told in vivid detail. One of my friends had nightmares after reading it the first time. So not the sugar-coated Passover story by any means. But that is the story, after all, and the duty to remember is a repeated theme throughout our tradition. So I see us, at 80 years old, leafing through this picture book haggadah, planning the seder.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The White House Passover Tradition

I know, tensions are running high between the White House and Israel these days. But I support Obama's stance. I believe you can be pro-Israel and not think that everything they do is right. Compromise is hard, and not natural in the land of Moses. But it is easy to demonize a position. There is nothing harder to communicate in a sound bite than nuance.
In the midst of all the rhetoric, we have this wonderful article in the New York Times (click on title to link to it) that reflects cross cultural celebration. It does not take a genius (or a psychiatrist) to figure out why the Passover story resonates with African-Americans. The seder, a ceremony full of reminders of the fact that once we were slaves, and today we are free, is a bittersweet story. In this one, G-d intervenes on behalf of the Jews to set them free--but not until they have been in bondage for generations, more than 200 years. The message of the holiday is not so much about hey, look at the chosen people, but rather that we all share a past of enslavement, and we need to remember that, and to celebrate the fact that it is our past and not our present, and remind our children to prevent it from being our future.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

I loved this movie. The story is well told. The music is upbeat, hilarious, and perfect for the mood and tone of the movie. The script is well paced and delivers it's punch with levity. Humans do not live in harmony with all God's creatures. And occasionally we are crazy. I loved George Clooney as Mr. Fox. He has the right mix of resigned comic and hopeless optimist for the role. He wins my respect more with each role he does. Bravo.
The story is one of sympathy with wild animals in general and foxes in particular. The British have a history of maladaptive relationships with fox, and in this one at least, man comes off looking bad, and the fox outfoxes the humans.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Los Angeles Smog

I looked out my window in Los Angeles, facing the Santa Anita mountains, and was unpleasantly surprised to see that the LA of today is the LA of my youth. It would be entirely appropriate to say, "Look, you cannot see the mountains today". I knew they were there, I had seen them the day before, but they were entirely obscured by smog. And when I mentioned this problem to every Angelino I met, they all had verious excuses for why this might occur today. No one thought it was awful.
Is that okay? I am just breathing the air for a day, they are there day in and day out. It is a reminder that you can get used to anything. The fact that there are days where the air quality precludes outdoor activity due to man's use of fossil fuel seems wrong.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This is a book about Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman who was a patient at Johns Hopkins in 1951, where she was diagnosed with and agressive form of cervical cancer. Hopkins was involved in an effort to grow cells in vitro, and when her cells were biopsied, they were used not only for diagnosis but also for this research project. And the rest is HeLa history. The cells doubled overnight, and so on and so on. They were first given away and today are sold. There are billions of them in existence currently and no one knows how many have lived over time.
The book focuses largely on Henrietta Lacks family, who struggle to understand what has become of their mother. The author spends a fair amount of time, both i the book and in real life trying to help them work through the role their mother has played in science, and helping them to see it isn't terrible and awful.
But it is also not entirely fair. Their mother didn't give permission, but it wasn't done at the time. Their mother's name is known, which is unheard of today. The story for me is so much about what do you do, ethically, when faced with this dilemma--but the book doesn't go there. Still, I would recommend it as a piece of scientific history as it affects real people.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

This movie feels a little over the top in terms of what can go wrong actually going wrong--when Pippa's boyfriend's wife commits suicide at the luncheon table, my thought was "Is this really necessary?" then I found out this is based on a memoir, and therefore, apparently, it was necessary, because it did happen.
Pippa is the product of yet another dysfunctional family, worsened perhaps by prescription substance abuse, the 1960's and the Vietnam War. She leaves home as a teenager, and gets rapidly involved in her own drug addled lifestyle, and wanders form here to there until she meets her future husband, a man 30+ years her senior.
The movie is told from two time points, the first is her life as a teenager forward, and then from the present, which is when she and her husband move into an old age community, where she is markedly younger than everyone else. It is a wild ride, but an intersting one, with plenty of life lessons, and plenty to think about.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Princess and the Frog

This movie is a straight ahead Disney princess movie. A girl of humble origins but a hard worker and of good character, with an added helping of wonderful talent (but not appreciated) meets the right guy and she becomes a princess and all her dreams come true. The end.
The reason to rejoice here is that Disney has finally, finally, FINALLY made a princess story starring an African American woman. Long overdue. But if we put that aside, how did they do? Very well, I would say. I immediately loved Tiana--she is prettier and more likable than her friend, she is talented, she is hard working and she has a dream that she is working to achieve. It was initially a dream she shared with her father, but after he dies, she doesn't lose her momentum. She also doesn't dwell on what might have been, but rather keeps her eye on what she wants. She is remarkable. My only real complaint is her hair.
The story takes place in New Orleans, which is inpsired (although none of the trauma of the city post-Katrina is incorporated into the story line, which is regretable). The music is largely Dixieland, and in keeping with the location--it is a good quality sound track, and enjoyable. The source of evil is voodoo, and that also is a good storyline.
The part of the story I liked best was in the mangroves, a part of Louisianna I find other worldly and spooky and you could imagine all sorts of nefarious things happening there. Putting the Princess and the Frog fairy tale in this setting was brilliant.
I have mixed feelings about us having a black president before we have a black Disney princess--what is up with that? The princess we can just make up, whereas having a black president requires actual people to vote for him--the former just seems a lot easier to attain, but apparently not.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Did You Hear About the Morgan's?

I feel compelled to write something positive about this movie, which critics and movie goers alike found to be utterly without merit (see Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB--there is widespread agreement on this). The best review I could find started off by saying that the movie wasn't as bad as everyone said it was. I find that I am more in synch with the movie goer than the critic (I guess that should come as no surprise, since I am a movie goer, and I am not a critic), but on this I stand alone.
Firstly, this is a romantic comedy. The genre, much like the genre of animation, rarely lends itself to 'Best Picture' material. So it needs to be judged on that playing field. I would agree that the movie does not break new ground, although it starts with a couple that is separated. Movies about married couples who are working through an infidelity and that do so in a realistic way are not a dime a dozen.
So, here is what I like. While the movie doesn't take us through the emotional roller coasters that occur with infertility and it's treatment, that is a big part of the back story with this couple, and they have not talked about it. Which has done little to ameliorate bad feelings on both sides. Every married couple has a history, and the effect on the relationship of current events is affected by those past experinces. So it felt believable. The couple clearly like each other, despite obvious shortcomings on both sides, so the relationship (froma a therapist viewpoint) is salvagable.
The other point that I think is very true to life is that the woman is so angry about what happened that she is very unlikable. In the beginning of their time in the witness protection program, I wan't so worried about her as that he would go down with her. That unlikable. It takes some talking through it for her to lose some of the anger, enough that she can let other feelings into her personality and she becomes much softer. At the point in the movie where she takes her high powered New York City realtor skills and transforms the town doctor's mom's house from a frumpy dwelling to having curbside appeal, she is really likable.
So the leap from city slicker to country dweller and community citizen happened pretty quickly for Sarah Jessica Parker. So Hugh Grant was a little too funny and a little to inept outdoors. So Sam Elliott and mary Steenburgen were a bit over the top rural Wyoming. These are not deal breakers.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Louis D. Brandeis: A Life by Melvin Urofsky

This is billed as the first biography of Brandeis (1856-1941) that covers his whole lifetime, and weighs in at 3 pounds and a 1000 pages, it is at least the heaviest biography. Since I have no prior knowledge of Brandeis out side the fact that he was a Supreme Court Justice, it was all news to me.
The biography is a bit on the dry side stylistically. It does not read like a gripping novel, or even like somebody sitting down to tell you what is really interesting about this guy. There are several things that I thought were laudable about it. The first was that it was balanced. Brandeis did have some relationships and some business dealings that when exposed to the light of day were perhaps less than laudable. Don't we all, but the biographer was balanced in his assessment of his subject. The story flows the best in two cases: when he is describing the impact of a particular belief of Brandeis, so in the case of his support of social justice, and then when he is describing Brandeis as a family man.
The thing I found most interesting about Brandeis was his involvement with labor and management disputes. It is a nice assessment of how things should run, from both Brandeis' view point and my own. He delineates the responsibilities of both sides, and adhers to those guidelines throughout the negotiations. When he was dealing with the railroads and price hikes, he did exhaustive research into their finances and demanded they use real numbers to justify their position. In the case of the gamrent workers strike and subsequent negotiations, he had issues with both sides, and managed to emerge appearing neutral to both of them--a true victory. He believed passionately in social justice and personal responsibility, and he live by those tenets himself. He gave time, money, expertise, and perspiration to the causes he beleived in. I found the description of his 37 years of practice prior to his appointment on the Supreme Court to be as interesting as his 23 years on the court.
The years that he was a Supreme Court Justice are at a remarkable time and reveal not just Brandeis' world view but also how the court worked at that time, with some juxtaposition related to the workings of the modern Supreme Court. This part of the book is very strong and very interesting. Highly recommended book. But hard to life. Consider an electronic edition, or consider it part of a weight lifting program.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Remembrance of Things Past, the Turkish version. That is what this is. Only it is not that simple, of course. Because the Turks are a passionate, complicated, and ancient people. They have soared in history and they have plummeted. Evidence of both can be seen today. It is a tale of love killed by one's culture and commitment to family. Only not entirely committed. Just committed enough to screw you up. And those you presume to care about. What reminds me of Proust in this is the longing, the hesitancy, the regret, and the recognition of all that coupled with the inability to do a damned thing about it.
So what to do? In the end, the hapless suitor decides to celebrate his love and ignore his mistakes. Wallowing in the sea of regret (or the river, in this case, because the whole tale centers on the city of Istanbul and the River Bosporous) will not bring this sad tale to an appropriate end. It is time for Kemal to take decisive action, now that his loved is gone. So he takes what he has of her and he makes it into a monument to her. The reader aches as the story goes on, knowing it cannot end well, yet hoping some good will come of this. A classic tragedy. Do not miss this. Pamuk is maginficent.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Lake Tahoe

I love the Sierras, and this lake is beautiful. It is also a cautionary tale of what would have happened across the American west had Grant not jump started the National Park movement in 1872 with Yellowstone. Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft followed with large gains made in preserving both sites of natural beauty and places for birds and mammals to reside3 and reproduce, all in the early part of the 20th century. My favorite vacations in childhood were to places that these three made possible (well, I have to include Lincoln as well, who preserved what is now Yosemite), and I continue to go back.
The California side of the lake is lined with all sorts of ticky tacky things that make it commercially viable, but in the summer, when there are actually people there, it is not a 'natural place'. The Nevada side is a bit less crowded, and March is a peaceful month to visit. The weather is nice enough to be outside, the mountains are snow covered and show off the lake to a good advantage. There is little in the way of traffic, so it is easy to drive around the lake, stopping to admire the view with some frequency.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy Saint Patrick's Day

We don't have much Irish in the family--my dad has some Celtic blood and my mother some Northern Ireland roots, and my husband is purely eastern European. None-the-less, we have been avid celebrators of the Irish, first with our friends from Ireland, and then as a tribute to how much we love the country and the people.
Our favorite meal is the traditional one. Corned beef, made in the traditional way (we always buy it pre-spiced because we are always on Spring Break and cooking in a kitchen that is not our own). Cabbage, sauteed with onions and bacon, and not much else, but cooked long and low. Potatoes, added to the boiling corned beef (or sometimes another favorite way).
I like these secular holidays that allow for traditional foods without the need to travel, or interact with family members who might have an axe to grind or a bone to pick.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Up In the Air

This is a great movie. It covers serious emotional territory in a medium that is easy to manage. His job is to come into a company and tell people they are going to be fired--they usually get some kind of a parachute (not usually golden, but often more than what I might be able to expect in similar circumstances). He has been doing it for awhile, and he is good at it--he can read people and situations, and he does not ever let it get to him. When he is teaching Natalie the tricks of his trade, she encounters someone who says that she is going to jump off a bridge. he convinces her that most people are all talk and no action. She is wanting to belief him. She asks him if he ever goes back and checks. He says no, no good would come of that. He has teflon coated his life and up to a point, it has worked well for him.
He gets his yaya's from his frequent traveler perks--of which he has many. He is a 350,000 mile flier--each year. He revels in his importance in this small world, and it insulates him from what else he might be doing. When his company threatens to do what he does remotely, via the internet, he is forced to face living in Omaha. How will he manage that? He really has no idea, and as he tries to unwind what matters to him, he finds himself having been fooled by a fellow traveler. And what good comes of that?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human by Richard Wrangham

Just over two and a half million years ago, our brains swelled. Less than a million years later, they swelled again, our posture and our gait changed, our jaws shrank, and we grew taller. These two evolutionary changes define our species, distinguishing us from our fellow primates. Why did this happen? What facilitated it?
Richard Wrangham has new ideas about why these changes occurred. He has no argument with the generally accepted wisdom that our first transformation – from nimble tree-climbing australopithecines to sociable, tool-wielding habilines – was the consequence of a meat diet. But the character of the second change – from Homo habilis to the protohuman Homo erectus – has never been adequately explained, and Wrangham believes he has the answer: 1.8 million years ago, we learned to cook. Cooking improves the caloric value of food, and widens the range of what is edible. It literally powered our evolution.
Big ideas about evolution are rare. Often they’re merely 'just so’ stories, stringing specious skeins of cause and effect over a much more complicated intellectual landscape. Nobody can know for sure when cooking got going because the chances are minute that anyone will ever stumble upon an ancient half-eaten spit-roast and recognise it for what it is (That archeologists have found earth ovens more than 250,000 years old is startling enough).
Wrangham’s task, then, is to come up with compelling evidence that the invention of cooking is the only possible explanation for the transformation that stood us on our feet, shrank our guts, gave us silly teeth and receding jawlines, and swelled our brains to their current, horrendously fuel-inefficient size. The big news – I think it is big news – is that he succeeds. Catching Fire is that rare thing, an exhilarating science book. And one that, for all its foodie appeal, needs to stand the test of time.
Homo erectus’s novel dentition, skull shape and gut capacity sit at the heart of Wrangham’s account. This is a hominid that chewed less and thought more. The circumstantial evidence Wrangham gathers is, if anything, even more compelling. His review of the anthropological literature, for instance, shows that no one, ancient or modern, settled or nomadic, has ever survived for more than a couple of seasons on an exclusively raw diet. Humans, Wrangham says, are as adapted to cooked food as cows are to grass.
I do not vouch for the veracity of these conjectures, but I found them interesting to read--and briefly told. I am, however, thinking of a raw diet for awhile--if it can't possibly sustain me, that sounds perfect for a few months.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Sigh. This is one more sign that the apocolypse is upon us. That we have decayed from within. Or maybe that we have failed to pregress away from neolithic man.
The story is a sad one, but it is told unapologetically. Precious doesn't even know how abused she has been and how unfair it is.
We meet her as she is getting thrown out of 8th grade as a 16 year old. She is pregnant, by rape, by her father, for the second time. Her mother blames her for stealing her man. She encourages her to drop out of school and go on welfare. Heard enough to qualify for sad? We have only just begun. Mother and daughter in this tragedy are both pitch perfect and at no point did I want to call it quits and refuse to go on.
Precious manages to get herself into a last ditch effort to get your GED. She is with people who have her best interests at heart, and no illusions about how hard they are to achieve, when the next blow falls--she is HIV positive. But as is often the case with people who are chronically abused, there is only so low you can go. She continues to put one foot in front of the other to make progress forward. Her mother's closing scene is a soliliquey on how it is all about her is priceless and pathetic.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Why is the Magic Kingdom So Irritating?

And why does it remind me of The Giver, by Lois Lowry? On the upside, the whole place runs really smoothly. The phones are answered, you are expertly guided from one site to another by cheerful youth. Even at the airport--the Magic Express is there to pick you up and whisk you off to your chosen Disney destination. Except it isn'e--not magical (it is a bus, nothing more, nothing less--not even a movie to be had on board), and certainly not express (it took almost 2 hours from touch down to getting into my very ordinary room).
The insane forced happiness is one thing. Irritating, but not a deal breaker. The forced group think is down right scary. I should be amused. One of the charges leveled at our president during the heated campaign rhetoric leading up to his election was that he was a socialist. Well, Disney, the arch conservative, made it seem palatable. There are paths to take and those not to take--and people there to remind you which is which. Individuality is not well tolerated. Throughout my time in the Magic Kingdom I am either being reminded why my way is not the approved way or fighting the urge to swear at the person guiding me onto the straight and narrow Disney path. When I got "Hello, I am Pandora, I hope you are having a magical day?" I wanted to ask her "Whatever happened to that box you opened?" but instead made dinner reservations at a signature Disney restaurnat with a view for the 8 PM fireworks. Bah, humbug!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Shrink (2009)

Kevin Spacey is an unlikable guy in this movie. That is not exactly news. He has made a successful and entertaining career of playing unlikable characters. This time he is psychiatrist to the stars whose wife has commited suicide--which he take sa s the ultimate crushing blow. He chain smokes pot and drinks from dawn to dusk. The only friend he even attempts to communicate with on a real level is his pot dealer, who has absolutely no interest in what he has to say about why he needs an ounce of marijuana a day. he is on a collision course with self-destruction (even succesfully manipulating his way out of an intervention) when he is forced to take on a teen whose mother committed suicide.
She is a studious girl, who calls him out on his substance abuse, and is so miserable herself that she spares no times excusing his behavior. Together they manage to claw out a place within their grief to be able to live, and maybe have found a path on which they could move forward. It is a painful but hopeful, and very real feeling movie.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


I loved this movie--Coraline is the modern girl. Her parents are so absorbed in their technology as it relates to their jobs that they fail to pay any attention to her. It is crystal clear to Coraline that she is on her own, and she is very lonely. but not desperate--she shuns the boy next door who stumbles all over himself trying to at least get her to make eye contact, if not actually talk to him. And so goes the set up to the slowly and skillfully unfolding terror ahead.

Coraline's new home, a rambling Victorian mansion, has a cabinet in the front hall that opens onto a bricked up wall by day--but by night is a corridor into a parallel house, just like hers but better...or so it first seems. The parents dote on her, the neighbors are more talented and trying to make friends with her, and Coraline is thrilled. What's not to like? Well, it is right out of the Stepford Wives, for one. And no one has eyes--they have all been replaced by buttons.
Coraline senses that all is not well in paradise, and the cat who follows her becomes her guide to a possible exit strategy. The momentum in the movie builds slowly and carefully to a wonderful ending. It is wonderful to watch.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cold Souls

This is a very quirky movie--kind of a 'Being Paul Giamatti', because throughout the film, he is himself. He is an actor who is having a fair amount of trouble with a role he is playing, and decides that he needs less soul to play it. He reads about people extracting their souls in a lengthy New Yorker article and decides to investigate. He is not interested in getting rid of his sol forever. Just for the duration of the play.
He is skeptical at first about the success of soul removal. As are we. But the whole place is very professional, the staff really seem to know what they are doing,and the process is explained so matter-of-factly that it is harad not to start thinking it might just be possible. Meanwhile, there is a subplot brewing, with souls in Russia being purchased at rock bottom prices and then sold into the U.S. market--for those who don't have one and need to crack into a creative talent. Why get an MFA when you can purchase a tortured soul?
Giamatti finds that while he is less anxious without his soul, he is no better at the part--so he decides to try a Russian soul for his role in the Chekhov play 'Uncle Vanya'. And it works alright. He is channeling Vanya now--but he can't stand it--he is tortured. And so he goes about the process of recapturing his own soul. Giamatti is terrific as is Emily Watson as his wife.
Underneath the dark comic exterior of this movie are the eternal questions of who are we and what makes us that way. Food for thought.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

John Adams

This is one instance where I liked the movie better than the book.
Even David McCullough, the author, agrees. Here’s a quote:
"This is an amazing miracle considering Hollywood…My wife tells me I have to hold back in my praise for what they have done, but I can’t. It’s everything I could have dreamed for, hoped for, and then some. It’s nine hours — they didn’t try to compress everything into an hour and a half. I’ve been on the sets. I’ve been working with Kirk Ellis the whole way through. Very often, filmmakers will buy the rights to a book and then they’ll keep the author as far in the distance as possible."

Tom Hanks produced this, adding to his accolades as the premier chronicler of American history. There are inaccuracies, but the settings are lovely (almost as if the BBC had untertaken the project), the acting is incredible, and the story is faithful to the source. I cannot reccommend this highly enough. It is an easy and enjoyable way to take in the beginnings of our nation, and the challenges that were faced and overcome.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

This is a book that straddles the Fiction-Nonfiction border, called a true life novel about Lily Casey Smith. The author's last book was a memoir and this one is written about her grandmother's life, complete with pictures of herself, her mother, and her grandmother. But as is not her story, it is called fiction.
The New York Times felt this was one of the five best books of fiction published last yea, and while I think that is higher praise than I would heap upon it, the book is very good and it is also unusual.
Lily was born and grew up in the Southwestern United States in 1901. It is amazing how diverse the living conditions were amongst Americans just a hundred years ago. She was born in a dirt one-room house, hollowed out of a river bank (which naturally flooded and required new accomodations to be found). She had a toughness that was part inherited--her father had it in him--and partly created from her situation. Her parents did not value education for her, they did not support her either financially or emotionally, and anything she gained in her life she got by working twice as hard to get half as much.
I finished the book profoundly grateful to be living in an era where the lot of women has changed so substantially. It is a testimony to how hard it is to grow out of poverty when I think about where this woman's grand-daughter grew up--that the daughter she raised did a poorer job than she did, but not by much. i would love to see this on high school reading lists.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Best Director

Congratulations Katheryn Bigelow. Every once in a while the right thing happens, and it once again becomes impossible to say 'never' in regards to that event. We elected Barack Obama president, which is the biggest exception to the rule that has happened in my lifetime. Kathryn Bigelow's accomplishement does not rate on that scale, but it is nice to see another ceiling cracked (I would not consider many glass csilings to have been shattered--it is more like there is a hole in them that makes it possible to crawl through, scratched en route).
I am also pleased that it was for this movie. The Hurt Locker is a carefully crafted piece of work that takes an overwhelming subject, war, and makes the experience of being a soldier in that was more understandable for the viewer. More than entertainment, it is an education. The experience approximates a compressed virtual reality, where you can be immersed in that world for a moment in time and come out of it with a different perspective. It is not perfect, but it is very good, and perfection is not possible, so it is brave to try.
It was an elegant film, and the director looked equally elegant accepting her award for it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Best Picture

The ten Oscar nominees for the 2009 best picture are:
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
An Education
District 9
The Serious Man
Up in the Air
The Bright Side
What goes into a film that is overall great? There is more than a great script, a great cast, and great directing and editing. It is how all this works together to produce a movie that is memorable in a way that is greater than the sum of it's parts (usually--sometimes there are really great parts and the movie is a slam dunk best, but that is usually not the case).

I have put these in the order I would rate them (with the exception of the last three, which no one at my house has seen, so impossible to have an opinion about). So, the top seven are in order. The Hurt Locker is a no-brainer first choice. It is a remarkable film that doesn't stoop to any of the obvious heart string pulling moments that the Iraq war has held. There is little in the way of mellow-drama. The director and the writer seem to realize the enormity of their subject brings with it all the drama that is needed and they go about putting you in the streets, in the war with a small group of soldiers. It was a big film, one that you think about for weeks to come, that you always have something to say about it when others start talking about it. I get a little closer to the edge of my seat and my shoulders swing forward because I have to talk about this movie with my whole body, it is that intense. My second choice is a bit of a surprise to me. I didn't even watch this movie until after is was nominated. I have never seen anything by Quentin Tarentino that I have liked. I think he is brilliant. His work is unique and gorgeous. I just hate it, is all. Not so with this film--it has a lot of things that are characteristic of Tarentino's prior films. Serious things are made fun of (cleverly). The cinematography is so beautiful you could cry. The acting is sensational. Evil is brilliantly portrayed. And yet here I think it works magnificently. The script is well crafted and carefully pieced together--still too long, but not a hanging offense. It is wonderful to watch. My third choice is Up, although I had a real struggle between the next three. They have such great things about them, each of an entirely different ilk than the other, that is was hard to choose, and on another day I might have another order.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Grateful Palate

I had another wonderful night of food and wine. Please say it will continue this way indefinitely! This time it was wines imported from Australia by The Grateful Palate held at the newly reopened Chef's Table in Iowa City:
Eric McDowell is a talented chef, who holds a warm spot in my heart because he agreed to donate a meal for my oldest son's Eagle project, which was serving a meal a week over a summer to hospitalized children and their families. Eric made a gorgeous meal and he was as gracious as can be about doing so. I love his new place, and have had some memorable food that he has created.

Pair that food with some great wines and you have an evening that cannot miss. We have had two great meals in people's houses this past two weeks, and so with two restaurant meals as well, it has been pretty painless to be home from Rome. I am going to highlight the three very affordable wines that we tasted. Overall, I was very impressed with the wine we had, but some of it was in the $20-50 range, which is definitely out of the range of a "house wine" for us. So more longitudinally interesting were the wines that were quite good and also quite affordable. The whites are both under $10.00 and the red a bit more than $10. The first wine was Marquis-Phillips 2008 Holly's Blend, a white wine made up of 55% Verdelho, 29% Chardonnay, 9% Riesling, and 7% Semillon. It has a very fruity flavor, and a richness that paired well with the three different cold seafood dishes it was served with. I liked it more than my spouse, but the entire table enjoyed it.

The second white is the Darby + Joan 2008 Chardonnay. It is a very lightly oaked chardonnay, a wine finishing style that has reminded me just how much I like this grape varietal. The wine was paired with a large seared scallop (delicious caramelization on the top and bottom and the center was uncooked--perfect) topped with trout roe, pomegranate seeds, a sunchoke veloute, and tomato-fennel chutney. The wine was a brightly flavored contrast to the richness of the scallop, and it popped nicely with the slightly salty sea flavor of the roe and the slightly sour fruitiness of the pomegranate.

The last wine I am going to highlight is the Marquis-Phillips 2008 Sarah's Blend. The wine mixes Shiraz, Merlot, and Cabernets. Very yummy rich fruitiness in the wine that makes it great to drink alone, and an excellent accompaniment to food. This was served with roasted duck breast, sliced and set atop a wild rice, cranberry and pecan pilaf, with surprisingly delicious turnips and some broccolini on the side. We ordered several of each variety to have at home, so I will have a chance to see if they hold up to food made in my kitchen.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Wonder Years by Richard Holmes

The subtitle of this book is the abstract as well: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. The book consists of twelve chapters, and delineates the exploits of 8 different people or group of people--Humphry Davy and William and Carol Herschel each rate two chapters. The book begins with Joseph Banks and his journey with Captain Cook to the South Pacific. It tells stories of how he interacted with natives there, and the telling things about his character develop, as it related to scientific discovery. Banks presided over the scientific society in England for the entire duration of the period between the late 1700's and the early 1800's, so this intorduction sets the stage upon which other scientists and writers performed.

The discovery of the mysteries of the stars and moon, the scientists who were responsible for the invention of things that helped to save lives, and the increasing knowledge of chemistry and human physiology are all people who intermixed with the well known philosophers and writers of the time. Keats was learning about science while he was becoming the Romantic Generation's poet (and then promptly dying at much too young an age). Wordsworth and Cooleridge were similarly involved with the prominent scientists of their time, and the relationships they developed, and how that led to further discovery and change is well described in this wonderful book of a golden time. The worlds that were opened as a result of each discovery are well discussed and the reader gets a sense of what it would have been like to be an educated person of that time.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy

Last week I finally understood why I am not a short story reader. I had finished Alice Munro's collection of short stories "Too Much Happiness", which I thought was okay. Then I read what some other people thought of the book--and realized that I had completely missed the complex character development, that I just do not pay enough attention to every word to be able to truly appreciate something that doesn't go on for 200 pages. I am all about the big picture and I miss the nuances
Then I read this book, a collection of 11 short stories, ten of which I loved. So, now I have to go back to the drawing board to figure this out. Maybe it is a particular kind of short story that I don't get. In any case, this is a spectacular book, filled with stories about flawed people who Meloy manages to make us care about. Do I wish that each of them went on for an entire book--of the ten I loved, I wish there was more for eight of them. For two stories--one about 'the other woman' and one about a man on the verge of leaving his wife for a younger woman, the point of view that I wanted was there, all told, and I didn't want any more. That is so rarely the case (I remember vividly reading Vikram Seth's first book "A Suitable Boy", which carries on for almost 1500 pages, and being terribly dissapointed that it ended. I wanted more!). The stories drew me in, many of the characters were not people I wanted to meet, most were not likable (maybe none of us is likable when someone is in our head, seeing our every thought), but I wanted to know what happened to them, how the story ended. There is alot to think about in this short volume, and it is wonderful.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

For My Father

I showed this film to my confirmation class last night. We are on the topic of god, but this movie probably fits more squarely in the neighborhood of parent-child relationships and obligations. Tarek is Palestinian. He was a largely apolitical Arab who played soccer in Nazareth but lived in the West Bank. So in order to practice and play, he and his father needed to cross the armed border on a regular basis. As suicide bombings increased, this became increasingly difficult to do, and so paradoxically, in the Arab community, terrorists had a bigger and better hold on Palestinians than ever beofre. It was their way or the highway. And Tarek's father became a persona non grata for not bowing to that way of thinking. The movie opens with Tarek en route to Tel Aviv to become a suicide bomber and redeem his father.

But there is a catch--his detonator misfires and he needs to replace it. On Friday afternoon. Katz, the owner of a small repair shop, does not have the exact replacement, and since it is almost Shabbat, it will be Sunday before he can get it. So Tarek is forced to spend time within the community and gets to know them--which makes it increasingly difficult for him to contemplate killing them. But the thing that he really misses that the Katz' teach him is that parents do not recover from the death of their children. This act, which he does in the name of his father, will end his father's life as he knows it. Tarek is caught in the middle of two worlds and doesn't have time to find a good way out.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Rose's Heavenly Cakes

This is the heir apparent to 'The Cake Bible', which was the cookbook that defined the upper echelon of cake baking for two decades. It is a large, gorgeous, detailed book of cakes, cupcakes, bars, baby-size cakes with excellent photography, all printed on heavy, high-end paper to for which you would expect of books of this quality. Immediately at the introduction of each recipe, you have the serving size and baking time, followed by a brief synopsis of what she feels is the essence of that particular recipe. Then the "Batter" ingredients are laid out in a graphic form in which you are given the ingredients, with the Volume listed next to it, then the Weights of each ingredient, in both American and Metric form. Under this graph of information begins the steps to be taken beginning with any special equipment that would be needed, oven preparation, then the actual preparation of the batter. Any variations that could be taken, as well as "Highlights for Success" are listed and very much appreciated in that sometimes, there are little tricks, sidebars of information, and alternatives that you can incorporate into making the recipe a bit easier or more grand.

Being someone who appreciates photography in a cookbook, the photo's contained within are both superb and generous, with close-up shots that show detail. There is also single or sequential photography for certain cakes that require more intimate knowledge of preparation or assembly such as the "Holiday Pinecone Cake" (it acutal looks like a pinecone) or how to make "Spun Sugar" or how to pipe the "Ladyfingers", etc. Sometimes, just one little photo will clarify a question in your mind and Rose seems to know which step would benefit from a photo. Many of the cakes have their finished photo in this grand book but not all, though there are enough to satisfy everyone.
To compare this book to the author's authoritative tome, The Cake Bible, I would say it is more approachable, more user-friendly, and much more beautiful. All the components for each cake are listed under one entry, so there is no need to flip around to different sections for a frosting or filling. Instructions are broken down step-by-step, making it easy to find your place midway through a recipe. And in addition to her elegant creations, casual recipes are also included this time around, from cupcakes to whoopie pies. Most of this book is new and does not overlap with The Cake Bible, although there are a few new incarnations of some of her more famous cakes, like the Orange Chiffon, which has been transformed into a layer cake, and the Baby Chocolate Oblivions, which are a cupcake-sized version of her three-ingredient flourless chocolate cake.