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Friday, December 31, 2010

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd

I would never have thought I would like this book, which is a retelling of Mary Shelley's classic tale. I picked it up because I enjoyed Kenneth Branaugh's film, which was another non-traditional look at the original tale. Peter Ackroyd, a new author to me, is apparently renowned for his historic novels, so he is an old hand at this sort of undertaking. The writing is fabulous, and he is a gifted storyteller, interweaving aspects of the original story into the historical context within which it was written in. This Victor Frankenstein cavorts with Lord Byron and the Shelley's, he comes to reside in the life that in fact created him. Which is a funny twist, because he does indeed bring a body back to life, and is remorseful for having done so. He does not seem to have the creator-createe relationship with him that is true in the original tale, but he does in the end decide it must be stopped, that it was a mistake.
In a review I read of this book, I was reminded that Mary Shelley was just 21 years old when she wrote her famous book. This book brings a maturity of years--both since the book was written, and the author has some gravitas himself--that makes the story all the more enjoyable. It is less of a tale of horror and more of an exploration of relationships and motivations. I recommend this, especially if you are a fan of the story, but even if you are not.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Home for the Holidays

Now I get it. When I was a college student myself, I really did not understand the whole "having the family under one roof" attraction. We were , after all, more prone to bickering than to Norman Rockwell moments. I wasn't feelin' the love when I was 20.
Now that I have three college aged children and am on the brink of an empty nest, I understand the appeal. Don't get me wrong, I love the emptying house. I love double teaming the last kid at home. I love it more than I would have imagined. But at the same time, I love the togetherness we still share as a now-expanding nuclear family. It is part of what I am so grateful for that two of my adult children live nearby. We get to see each other regularly, but we don't have to live together any more. It is the best of both worlds.
But we do have one child who has escaped Iowa City. He is now home for the holidays, and it really feels like something to celebrate. It is the perfect mix of we enjoy our own independent lives now, but at the same time, we like seeing each other. We wouldn't want to go back to where we were, but on the other hand, the occasional big family dinner is greatly enjoyed. Too often and we would descend into bickering ourselves. But in moderation, it is a thing of joy.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompei Lost and Found by Mary Beard

This book is a casual, at times hilarious account of the city of Pompeii, famously frozen in time in the year 79 AD, and it continues to offer the most complete material presentation of classical antiquity. This unique completeness, showing rather than telling of life in ancient Rome at a peak period of empire, makes a visit to Pompeii enticing for even the most casual visitor.
But at the same time the complexity of studying what was an entire city, surrounded by outlying farms and villages and resorts, is difficult. As Mary Beard points out in the Introduction to her book: “The bigger picture and many of the more basic questions about the town remain very murky indeed.” It is Beard’s achievement to have maintained a level of scholarly inquiry, while synthesizing what is known today about Pompeii into a single, accessible and delightfully readable volume.

The murkiness begins with the number of inhabitants: 15,000, perhaps, but then tens of thousands more lived in the neighborhood, but no one knows for sure. Nor is the distance separating the town from the seafront known with certainty, and archaeologists are still trying to fix the shoreline with its bays; two lagoons seem to have stood between sea and Pompeii, but no one knows for sure.
Examples of past misreadings by scholars long dead also abound. A wall painting in the macellum, the market hall off the main Roman forum in Pompeii, depicts a woman traditionally described as an artist holding a palette against a background of fantasy architecture. Today she is interpreted as holding a dish of offerings to the gods. But for all that we don't know, Pompeii still holds much allure--for me, the plethora of mosaics is enough to want to make the trip. In any case, all the murkiness is presented with good humor.
Pompeii thus offers a wonderful picture of life in ancient Rome--already planning my trip.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Leaves of Grass (2009)

This movie is a wonderful portrayal of where you come from and where you can go, what you can escape and what you cannot. It is also a good twin/bad twin story that has all the appeal that those tales have--but this is much more about who your family is, and just how much of that can you escape.
Edward Norton masterfully plays both brothers: Brady, a scruffy grower of prime pot in Oklahoma, and Bill, who has repudiated those Oklahoma roots, shed his accent, and become an internationally renowned professor of the classics at Brown University. Harvard is wooing him kind of famous. They both have excelled, but they have chosen vastly different playing fields.
Bill has avoided his hometown and his family like the plague. He has openly talked about not coming back, escaping and not looking back. Which is always a psychological clue of unresolved issues lurking beneath the surface. However, when he thinks his brother has been murdered, he re- turns to Oklahoma, and for a while the plot unfolds into where he came from and each brother goshing the other about their choices in life. THe brothers do love each other, even though they have chosen vastly different paths. Brady has himself in quite a dilemma and the only way out he can see is one that he and Bill have played since childhood. Which says a lot about sibling relationships, who you rely on when the going gets tough, and how problems solving doesn't always become more complex as you grow up. So it is charming and funny. For awhile. Then suddenly we go from 'gee shucks' banter into territory that looks remarably like “Deliverance”.
The screen writer, Tim Blake Nelson (who also plays Brady’s sidekick in the pot-growing business) has a several other twists in the tale, and the result is a film that keeps you deviously and pleasurably off-balance: it’s funny and unnerving at the same time.
Mr. Norton is (as always) a pleasure to watch, and so is the rest of the cast. You know you’re in for a treat when your minor roles are played by Susan Sarandon (the twins’ off-kilter mother) and Richard Dreyfuss (a Jewish drug lord who calls in the debt Brady owes him). Keri Russell is engaging as the poet who can noodle a hundred pound catfish and who captures Bill's attention.
When all is said and done, this is not a 'happily ever after' tale, but for the most part the bad things happen to people who have largely brought them on themselves. It is not for youngsters, but it is an entertaining Saturday night movie.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Invisible by Paul Auster

This is a stunning novel. I was hesitant to read it because the last book I read of his was "The New York Trilogy', which was filled with twists and turns of plot that I found irritating rather than clever. A mystery that wasn't. This is not that book. Both books are very well written, and psychologically astute. The author knows the deep dark secrets that don't exactly make people tick, but are demons that they struggle with and occasionally lose the battle.
'Invisible' is a book about a man's love relationships. How they happen. Why they happen. This is not a 'boy meets girl' story. It is the story of a man who has trouble with intimacy. Big trouble. So much trouble that he in fact gets into trouble with intimacy and once that happens, he doesn't know how to get out of it--his relationship with his sister defines his life.
The siblings share a trauma--they have lost a brother--the ways that childhood trauma break you, make adulthood a bigger struggle right from the beginning, is something that we are vaguely aware of, but rarely do anything to prevent. Rather than seek help for themselves, these siblings turn to each other and while the sister seems to emerge being able to deny it ever happened, the brother is permanently damaged. The book is fantastic--it is a breeze to read, you roll right through it and at then end, you are left with a "wow" feeling. Can you believe what you just read? And then you can keep on thinking about it afterward. Spectacular and special in a way that in unusual for fiction to be.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Passenger Side (2009)

And now for something completely different. Matt Bissonnette is a filmmaker from Canada who moved to Los Angeles and made a movie that has a little bit of each in it, It's the story of two brothers (one of them played by Bissonnette's brother, Joel) from Canada, who have moved to Los Angeles and who are spending a day driving around in a car looking for something. It starts as a caustic kind of comedy (this is the Los Angeles part) and it ends up being a rather tender and emotional drama (the Canadian It is essentially a movie with two guys in a car on a road trip that never strays too far from L.A. county. It starts with Michael (Adam Scott) answering a ringing phone with the greeting, "F--- off." His next words are, "No, I'm not afraid it could have been mom."
It's a call is from his younger brother Tobey (Jeff Bissonnette) Tobey's car is broken, and he needs Michael to drive him around for the day on a mysterious errand. "A couple of job interviews," he says at first. They drive from place to place through a Los Angeles that's remarkably devoid of palm trees or movie studios: Michael is sure that Tobey, a former drug addict, is looking to re-activate his habit. Tobey insists he's looking for Theresa, the love of his life, with whom he wants to reunite. As the day progresses, and the unusual encounters they have continue, Michael and Tobey gradually lose their appetite for baiting one another — there's only so much aggressive sarcasm a young man can carry in a mid-sized car before something real begins to seep in — and we learn, in oblique references, about the foundation of their grievance. Michael is a half-failed novelist. Tobey is a half-failed drug addict.
It is a day of oddity and healing, oddly juxtaposed. At times you forget why they are even doing this--but at the end, when the search for Theresa seems hopeless, the movie has slyly turned a corner and we learn that this foul-mouthed and raggedy road trip was actually a drama that was meandering its way to a clever romantic mystery. Passenger Side is a lot smarter than it first appears, and a lot more moving.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Bells by Henry David Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The Carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;
‘For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!’

Longfellow maintained his hope in mankind through the Civil War, and I hope that we can all see that there is more good than not in the world.
This painting of Longfellow is from the National Portrait Gallery, which is a great way to walk through the history of our nation, a story told in the paintings of people, and the things they did. When I was in Washington for The Rally To Restore Sanity, I had an hour to spare between the end of the rally and my dinner reservations. The restaurant was right across the street from the National Portrait Gallery, and because of pervasive problems with crowds, it was nice to finally be off the streets and in a building with indoor plumbing. It was such a pleasurable place to pass the time--lots of portraits of favorite artists and politicians to marvel at, and a beautiful building to harbor them all. Wishing everyone warm holidays.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Ruby Blue (2007)

This is a wonderful movie on so many levels. Bob Hoskins is phenomenal as Jack, a man who has lost his job and lost his wife, squandered his relationship with his son. He is drinking all day, neglecting his cherished messenger pigeons, and being sneered at by the neighborhood delinquents. In steps Florrie--an 8 year old girl who has moved in next door. She is naturally curious and fearless, and she not only befriends Jack, she tells him that he smells and that his house is a disaster, and she actually wakes him up and he gets himself together. So much so that Florrie's mom has him babysit for her. His across the street neighbor notices the bear is out of hibernation and she starts cooking for him. He starts to talk to one of the boys who sits on the street drinking all day, and offers him something to do--he gets him involved with the pigeons, and he gets him a decent job. Suddenly Jack is a player. even his son is talking to him again.
Well, that all starts to crumble. The neighbors in his lower middle class neighborhood think he has ulterior motives befriending children. Turns out his friend Stephanie used to be Stephen. The cops come around when Florrie goes missing and he is the center of a neighborhood witch hunt--which soon gets turned around, and he manages to end up all right. His young friend tells him never mind her past, Stephanie is a good person, and he'd be a fool to walk away from her--which he decides is very good advice. Everyone in his sphere ends up better off, and it is a good tale of what people who are retired can do for their communities, and what some of the barriers might be to getting it done.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Prairie Flour Bakery

I was in a wonderful CSA through Taproot this summer, and one of the many great things that came out of the experience is that I got formally introduced to the Prairie Flour Bakery. Anne Burnside has a self described miniscule artisanal baker (I guess she thought 'micro' sounded a tad on the large side to describe what she is doing), and she makes the most sublime bread I have had the pleasure of eating in Iowa City. The bread is baked in her brick oven, right outside her back door, and one of the real joys (besides eating the bread) is that Anne emails her bread buyers the afternoon that she is baking to let us know how things are progressing--it is not like setting your Wolf oven to 450 degrees and setting the timer.

I snagged the logo off her blog , but this photo is in my dining room--the bread I bought myself (well, what is left of it after the first night). The pictures on her website are not cherry picked. Each and every loaf I have gotten has been a thing of beauty to behold. The first time I bought bread, my husband and I were hosting a dinner for 30 people, so I bought quite a few loaves, intending to serve it. When we got it home, we were slicing it up to serve and my husband had a big change of heart, "Oh, no this is much too good to share--look how little we have!" I looked at the mountain of bread, and told him in no uncertain terms that we were serving this bread. The second time we got it, I ordered a bit extra to take to a friends' house--and we actually had an argument about whether that was going to happen. My husband is a generous man, under ordinary circumstances. We like to share our cooking with others, and we are not prone to hoarding. But this bread is something else. Bread worth sparring over. Check this out:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Zorba the Greek (1964)

How did I miss this? I loved the book when I read it 25 years ago, yet I never sought out the movie.
If ever the abundance of life force in man has been poured forth on the screen, it is done in the brilliant performance given by Anthony Quinn in the title role of the film that Michael Cacoyannis has made from Nikos Kazantzakis's classic novel, "Zorba, the Greek." Anthony Quinn delivers one bold portrayal of a rugged and weather-worn old Greek of uncertain age and origin, indefinite station and career, but of unmistakable self-possession and human authority. He presents us with a picture of man as he might be in the world were not so much with us and civilization had not forced us into molds.
His Zorba possesses all the energies and urges of the great ones of history and myth. He is Adam in the Garden of Eden, Odysseus on the windy plains of Troy, and you want to know him. Immediately. Love for all kindly fellow mortals surges in his breast. Hate and contempt for the mean ones flame in him like a roaring fire. Lust seizes him without resistance. Pathos moves him to tears. When the pressures pile up too much within him—either of joy or of sorrow—he must dance.
The viewer is likely to be staggered and appalled all the way through the film at the wildly ingenious, conceptions and attitudes of the old Greek. His greedy and gallant courtship of an ancient French courtesan who to a cheap little island hotel maintains her memories of conquests; his mad and irreverent maneuver to terrify a monastery full of monks into letting him cut a stand of tall trees off their isolated hillside to provide timbers for shoring up the mine; his spendthrift foray into a brothel and dalliance with a young prostitute—these are grand scale adventures of Zorba that the viewer will not forget.
So large and fantastic is the character that he all but overwhelms the total scene and tends to flatten, whatever personal conflicts and dramatic crises occur.
There are incidents when the meanness and ignorance of the people of Crete surge up like a flow of molten lava to confront Zorba's cheerfulness and strength. One is when the fierce and angry people rise up in vengeance to destroy a lonely widow who has dared bestow her favor on Zorba's timid friend. The other is when the old women—the old ghouls—strip bare the room. and then the house in which Zorba's aged mistress has just died in his comforting arms.
If there is a the weakness of the picture—as a dramatic exercise, that is. It lacks a significant conflict to prove its dominant character. Zorba is powerful and provocative, but nobody gets in his way. Nothing provides competition, except mob rule for a moment—and the hand of death. This classic is a must see.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Scandinavian Mysteries

I feel like I did when Harry Potter ended. What next? How will I replace this in my reading life? That is how I felt after reading the last of Steig Larsson's books (I know, I know, there may be a fourth, but really, that is it). The combination of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist was unique and engaging. They were neither of them people I would necessarily want to have dinner with--she is too socially awkward and he is either unreactive or avunclar--not sure which--to be able to meet casually. However, both of them have very appealing traits as book-bound detectives. They are loyal. They don't seek out danger, but they don't shy away when it seems necessary. They have a moral compass--one which is not the norm in both their cases, though Blomkvist is closest--and it drives them. So I will miss them greatly.

The Milleneum trilogy is a masterpiece of the murder mystery genre--the plots of the books interweave magnificently, to the point where I wish more mysteries were written in this manner. Stieg Larsson is not the only notable Scandinavian author in this genre, and it is worthwhile reading everything Henning Mankell has written around his Wallender character. There are two film versions of the Wallender series, one done in Sweden, and a more recent version done by Kenneth Branaugh with the BBC (here is my post on them: There are now six out on DVD, hopefully more to come). The books and the films depict a difficult, moody man who will not let go of a case. I would have dinner with him, but it might be difficult.

My favorite newcomers to the genre are both from Iceland. Arnaldur Indridason's 'Jar City' is a masterpiece--it was made into an excellent movie, and was Iceland's submission for 'Best Foreign Language Film' to the Oscar's in 2006. Erendur is a detective for the ages, and while his subsequent books haven't been quite up to the first, they are very good. The newcomer that I like best is Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Her protagonist, attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, is a complicated and interesting person that I am looking forward to knowing more about. She has only two books thus far (in English), but she is well worth reading.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Amreeka (2009)

This movie follows the indomitably good-natured protagonist of “Amreeka,” Muna Farah (Nisreen Faour), a divorced non-Muslim Palestinian woman with a green card emigrating to America with her son.
The film starts by show Muna stoically enduring the daily humiliation of having to pass through two Israeli checkpoints on her grueling commute from Bethlehem to work in a bank. For all the hardships of life in the West Bank, in coming to America, she is forsaking a relatively comfortable and known existence to venture into the unknown with her 16-year-old son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem).
They quickly find out that the Israeli's have not cornered the market on humiliation. At the Chicago airport, where they are detained for hours, mother and son endure the same sort of hostile interrogation they received at West Bank checkpoints. After finally passing through immigration, they are met by Muna’s severe sister, Raghda Halaby (Hiam Abbass, from 'The Lemon Tree'), and her family, who live in a semi-rural suburb. Raghda left the West Bank 15 years earlier but is still profoundly homesick and is married to a Palestinian doctor, Nabeel (Yussef Abu Warda).
“Amreeka” maintains an upbeat mood . Muna and Fadi confront hostility and prejudice, and their misadventures, some of which augur disaster, are resolved without too much grief. The film’s tone reflects the resilience and sunny temperament of Muna. Desperate for work and unable to find it, Muna takes a job at a White Castle next door. At school, Fadi encounters ethnic slurs and bullying, and in the most serious incident is arrested after retaliating. So things are not easy, but they both cope and they do not complain or let it change their outlook.
The film shows a lot of harsh aspects to the immigrant story, but it is a hopeful tone--they are making friends with Americans, sharing their culture, and letting their new home into their lives.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

I know almost nothing about China. I have been reading Robert W. Strayer's 'Ways of the World: A Brief Global History' with my youngest son for his AP World History class and I admit freely that I have learned an enormous amount about the history of Asia that I had no previous knowledge of. Peter Hessler's book gives a nice, almost chatty overview of modern China and it's inhabitants, interwoven with a view of China's past.
One of the most fascinating things about China is how stable it has been over time. Especially culturally stable. The Chinese have been a world power house before and they have really not been interested in the rest of us. The European mastery of the seas since the Renaissance owes a lot to China showing no interest in pursuing that line of conquest. They have what they need, and if the rest of the world wants some of it, they can come get it.
Hessler sets up his book with a series of stories, some of them connected, some of them not. They include interactions he has had with people in China, as well as his perceptions about how the Chinese view foreigners in general and Americans specifically. It is not often a flattering portrait. We should potentially not take it personally, because the Chinese love of what is the same--they don't even much care for Chinese who do not look Chinese--Hessler befriends a Uighur, and it is a friendship of outsiders. Neither of them are accepted, and that is the beginning of the friendship.
In amongst the stories about modern China are links with China's past, which is rich and deep, but most importantly, China today is linked intrinsically with these ancient ideas and traditions. I wish the book went on, and I do recommend reading both this and Hessler's 2010 book, "Country Driving" to get a fuller sense of the China of the 21st century.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Counterfeiters (2007)

I avoided this movie for a long time--I think any movie that resides within a World War II concentration camp for the bulk of the story is going to be tough. In this one, I cannot imagine where they got so many ematiated actors for the end of the war scenes--special effects? I don't know. I do know from WWII veterans who participated in liberating the camps that it was traumatic to witness the effects of that sort of barbarism. So I took this movie on because I have been recently hospitalized, and rather than feel sorry for myself, I have instead chosen to focus on the greater tragedies of others.
The New York Times review of this movie starts out with a quote from Primo Levi, based on his time in Auschwitz, who thought that only the bad survive such conditions. Meaning that you had to be willing to do anything, ignore everyone, and still you might not make it. It was the guy who would take the bread out of a dying man's hand and eat it who would come out to tell the tale. “The Counterfeiters" is in some ways an illustration of this point of view. It is a survivor’s tale, and its protagonist, at least at first, seems long on hustsaph and short on what we might call scruples. He is Salomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch, a master forger and a fixture of the Berlin underworld. An enterprising Nazi officer, who had arrested Sally before the war for falsifying currency, enlists him in a scheme to counterfeit British and American money. The plan — based on the real-life Operation Bernhard — is to destabilize the economies of those countries with large-scale infusions of fake pounds and dollars.
In exchange for their labor Sally and his colleagues are given privileges: food, civilian clothing, weekly showers, sheets and pillows on their beds. And this fragile good fortune provides “The Counterfeiters” with its ethical center of gravity. The questions Mr. Ruzowitzky poses are both stark and complicated. How much cooperation with evil is justified in the name of survival? How can the imperative to stay alive compete with the obligations to help others, and to oppose injustice?
Sally approaches these conundrums with the self-protective instincts of an outlaw. He does, however, adhere to the rudiments of a thief’s code of honor, surveying every new situation for possible risks and advantages and refusing, under any circumstances, to squeal on a comrade. Burger, a left-wing activist imprisoned for printing anti-Nazi leaflets, is the film’s designated man of principle. He decides to slow down Operation Bernhard by sabotaging the counterfeiting process, a delay that threatens the lives of his co-workers and brings him into conflict with everyone. He is the conflict that everyone grapples with, allowing the viewer to examine their own principles and think about what they find morally acceptable and what is not. The viewer has the advantage of knowing how the story turns out, a luxury not afforded the characters, which is an added twist to the audience experience.
“The Counterfeiters” is a swift and engaging movie, shifting between the grim realities of concentration camp life and what the world immediately before and after the war held for those who were free to enjoy it. It is not too difficult to watch and it is not too easy--an excellent take on the survival instinct in all of us.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Pasta al Ragù

1 beef rump roast (about 3 pounds)
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
2 Tbs. olive oil
3 medium onions, sliced
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 lb. mushrooms, if desired
3 carrots, diced, if desired
1 Tbs. oregano
1 can (28 oz.) whole peeled plum tomatoes with juice
2-3 cups dry red wine
1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
In a pot big enough to accomodate all ingredients, brown the meat with 1 Tbs. oil. Deglaze the pan with some red wine, then sautee the vegetables in remaining olive oil until soft, add the oregano and red pepper flakes. Put the meat back in the pot, add the wine, cover and cook over the lowest heat until meat is falling off the bone, about 2 hours. Pull the meat out, shred it, discarding fat and bone--add it back into the sauce.
This can be served with pasta--something that the shredded meat and slow cooked vegetables can cling to is best--penne or campanelle. The sauce makes enough for about 2 lb. of pasta. This is a great cold winter night dinner--it is warm and hearty. I have been eating leftovers of it at my desk at work, and the flavors conjur up warm fire places and cozy chairs--which is quite a stretch from where I am. It is that good.
As an aside, if you have any of the chipotle pot roast left over, you can substitue that for the meat--delicious.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Please Give (2010)

People are compli-cated. And different. This movie is a New York movie on one level--it is set there, and the issues related to apartment living and space scream city living. But there is so much more to this movie.
There are five main characters. Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt are Kate and Alex. They have an affable relationship, and in addition to their marriage and their teenage daughter, they have a business together. Their neighbor, Andra, is 90 years old and has two granddaughters, Mary (Amanda Peet) and Rebecca (Rebecca Hall). The story that connects them is that Kate and Alex have bought Andra's apartment, but she can live there until she dies--so they are connected, but in a weird way.
The granddaughters have two different world views--Rebecca is quiet and sweet and unsure of herself, and Mary is brassy and beautiful and trouble.
The underlying themes are trying to balance between what you want, how far to go to get it, and how much of an effort it is to be a nice person. The story resonates long after the movie is over, and the subtext is subtly woven in amongst the text, so that it is easy to see how the characters fall into the pitfalls that are presented to them.
A lot goes unsaid, but as the viewer, we get it. Wonderful movie.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chipotle Pot Roast

This is adapted from Rick Bayless' Mexican Kitchen and is divine.
The best pot roast ever--earthy and delicious.

For about 1 cup Essential Roasted Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa (see below):
3 (1/4 ounce to 1/2 ounce) stemmed, dried -- (3 to 6) chipotle chilies (or canned chipotle chilies en adobo)
3 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
8 oz. (about 5 medium) tomatillos, husked and rinsed
1/2 tsp. Kosher Salt
1/2 tsp. Sugar

3 pound boneless beef chuck roast (or a bigger one with a bone)
1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch rounds
2 onions, sliced
4 medium boiling potatoes (like the red-skin ones), cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 can diced tomatoes (14 oz. or so)
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro

1. The salsa: Dried chilies work best: toast them on an ungreased griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat, turning regularly and pressing flat with a spatula, about 30 seconds. In a small bowl, cover the chilies with hot water and let rehydrate 30 minutes, stirring frequently to ensure even soaking. Drain and discard the water. While chilies are soaking, roast the unpeeled garlic on the griddle or skillet over medium heat, turning occasionally until soft (they will blacken in spots), about 15 minutes; cool and peel. Roast the tomatillos on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler until blackened on one side, about 5 minutes, then flip and roast the other side. Scrape the tomatillos (and their juices), rehydrated chilies and garlic into food processor or blender, and process to a rather fine-textured puree. Transfer to a bowl and stir in enough water (3 to 4 tablespoons) to give the sauce a medium consistency. Taste and season with salt and sugar. This salsa can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator, or it can be made in bulk and frozen of canned. Since this is the most time consuming part of the dish, having this on hand makes for a great quick meal down the road.

2. The roast: In a shallow dish, smear the meat with the salsa, cover and refrigerate for several hours (the longer the better - up to 24 hours - to infuse the meat with the smokiness). When you're ready to cook the meat, turn on the oven to 325 degrees. Scrape as much salsa as possible off the meat and reserve. Dry the meat on paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Heat the oil in a heavy, medium-size (4 quart) pot, (preferably a Dutch oven) over medium-high; when hot, add the roast and brown on one side about 5 minutes, then flip and brown the other side. Remove the roast to a plate; pour 1 cup of water into the pot and boil over medium, scraping up the browned bits. Stir in the reserved salsa, then return the roast to the pan with vegetables. Cover tightly and bake for 2 1/2 hours, until the meat is just tender (this can also be slow cooked in a crock pot at this point--on low, all day).

3. Serving: Transfer the roast to a large, warm serving platter. Scoop out the vegetables with a slotted spoon and distribute them around the meat. Skim off the fat from pan juices, and if necessary, boil them to reduce until lightly thickened; there should be about a cup. Taste and season with salt if necessary, then splash the sauce over the meat and vegetables. Sprinkle with cilantro and coarse salt.

Variations and Improvisations:
An equal-size pork shoulder roast can be used instead of a chuck roast.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Séraphine (2009)

This movie is about a woman who existed. She is known as Séraphine de Senlis, who was born Séraphine Louis and took the name of her hometown as an artist. She is working as a char woman in local middle gentry homes, when her exquisite and unusual still lifes are discovered. She has the good luck to work for Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a German collector and art critic who is rusticating in Senlis and struggling with being accused of being a homosexual (he alludes to that being correct but unacceptable for his role in society). Uhde, an early patron of Picasso and Braque, was also famous for having discovered and popularized the work of Rousseau, a Belgian customs officer whose vibrant and exotic paintings seemed to come from nowhere and find their way to the very center of modern consciousness. Séraphine strikes Uhde as a similar kind of artist: self-taught, working in isolation and producing work that seems uncannily out of this world and ahead of its time. He is her savior, at least temporarily--she ends up being institutionalized at the end of her life, and in some ways, taking her away from her daily cleaning routines seems to set her off her game.

One thing that intrigued me about the portrayal of Séraphine in this film is that while she is known to have died in a sanitarium, there are a lot of reasons for going there in the first half of the twentieth century. The movie describes her as more obsessive compulsive than psychotic. She has rituals and habits that must be adhered to. She does have some fixed ideas, but again, they seem more like what is typical of OCD rather than psychotic illness. The film made me want to know more about the person, and that is a fine film indeed.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tuna-Packed Piquillo Peppers

1 can tuna packed in oil
1 Tbs. chopped olive
1 Tbs. minced onion
1 Tbs. capers
lemon zest
chopped parsley
olive oil
salt and pepper
Mix the tuna salad together, add olive oil until it has the desired consistency, then stuff into piquillo peppers that have the tops removed and are seeded. This salad can be used on toasted baguette, or to stuff any pickled peppers.
This is adapted from 'Around My French Table' by Dorie Greenspan. The cookbook is a gorgeous one, with fabulous pictures to go with many recipes and is one of the best that came out last year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Night on Earth (1991)

Jim Jarmusch has a great idea. He takes five cities, one nigh, one planet, and one occupation--cab driver--to make a movie that would really be ideally suited to the stage. Collectively, it is a reflection on the cultural petri dish the world is incubating across the planet (though he focuses his attention on Europe and the US, the same kind of stories could be told in Asia and Africa).
The first image in the movie is important: we the viewer start at universal darkness in the center of which is a rotating sphere of brilliant blue overlaid by wisps of white. As the camera closes in, the wisps turn into cloud formations. Familiar oceans and seas appear, then land masses that are as yet undivided by and unclaimed.
Though the movie is composed of five different stories, rooted in turn in the realities of Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki, "Night on Earth" seems always to keep the alien's distance, as if part of its mind remained forever fixed in outer space.
That is the consistent, comic method of Mr. Jarmusch's films. Though "Night on Earth" is exceptionally funny, it is no less bleak than those earlier movies. The often bright colors in which it has been photographed, and the laughter it prompts, are cloud cover for the darker side of what the film hints at but doesn't depict. There is a subtext in this movie that is up front enough that non-film students such as myself can enjoy it.
In "Night on Earth" Mr. Jarmusch explores a primal urban relationship, that of man and taxi driver, in situations in which woman is sometimes man and sometimes driver. The cab itself is the world temporarily shared. It's also a distinctive cocoon (each taxi in the film has its own special purr or knock) from which one of the parties will emerge if not changed, then at least shaken up, or, in one case, no more sure where he is than when he got into the cab. Superb!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Southwestern Lentil Soup

I am in the midst of what will be a multi-month process of moving out of the house I raised my children in. This is complicated on so many levels, but one theme I have been pursuing is to use up what is in my pantry--to reduce the things that I have on hand over this period of time, and what doesn't get used, we should donate to the food pantry and give someone else a chance to use it up.
So that is how I come to using up the brown lentils that I have. I prefer the French green lentils. So, while the green lentils come and go in my pantry, the brown lentils remain unused. The green lentils have a wonderful, complex earthy flavor that I add a little thyme to the soup, but over all, they are flavorful enough that I do little to them.
However, in my 'new leaf' phase, I want to use those brown lentils up, and I want to enjoy them. So I came up with a soup, and it worked. I combated the flavor issue by using the lentils more for texture than flavor. Here is the soup:
6 cups stock
1 1/2 c. lentils
1 onion chopped
3 gloves garlic minced
6-8 roasted green chilis, diced
3 c. corn
salt to taste
I combined the first four ingredients into a stock pot, and simmered for a couple of hours--then added the green chilis and corn (both of which I froze this summer). The soup is intensely chili flavored, which is delicious, and the lentils add an earthiness to the soup that works.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Going the Distance (2010)

This movie hits the right tone for it's topic--which is how to juggle wanting it all with the realities that love, life, and employment present. The two of them — Garrett (Justin Long) and Erin (Drew Barrymore) — live in a universe of quietly lowered romantic and professional expectations. He works in the music industry, she is an aspiring newspaper reporter, and the movie acknowledges the grim circumstances prevailing in both of their chosen fields without being too apocalyptic about it. The truth is though that both of their ambitions are hedged by a sense of diminished possibility. Which neither of them seems to be willing to attribute to their romantic possibilities, but then, it appears that neither of them has given that much thought, either.
The story goes like this. Erin is in New York City for a summer internship with a newspaper, and she meets Garrett. They meet in a bar, click pretty quickly, and end up in bed together that first night. Well, they were lucky, because while that might ordinarily be a recipe for disaster, in this case the more time they spend together the more they like each other, and the only hitch is that Erin is leaving to go back to school. In six weeks. At which point they are hopelessly attached and not ready to end it.
If they were left to their own devices they might have worked it out just fine--but they both have friends and family who cannot seem to keep their hands off the love games of others. They manage to instill a fair amount of uncertainty into Erin and Garrett's relationship, almost enough to sink it, but somewhere along the way Garrett discovers that he has some choices he has not been exercising, and a ray of hope is injected. Long distance relationships are hard. Making compromise is hard--but you know what? That is the whole name of the game when it comes to sharing your life with others, and the sooner you learn to do it the better. This is a charming look at one couple's attempt at it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Celebrating the Holidays

One of the worries about being a minority religion is 'how to make you kids feel like they are not the only ones'. Which can be a challenge. When my second son was in high school, one of the shul matriarchs asked him if he was dating and was she Jewish--he pointed out that it would impossible to date a woman his age who was Jewish because there were none, so yes he was dating but no, she wasn't Jewish. I am much less concerned about who they date and who they will marry. But the issue of feeling like you are in a crowd at a holiday celebration, that was an issue. I wanted them to feel like it was a party and they were not celebrating alone.
We have had two wonderful Hanukkah parties this year, one at the synagogue, and one in the home of a friend--both of them were packed to the rafters, can't easily find a seat kind of crowds, and it felt really nice to be part of that kind of an extended family celebrating a shared heritage. It does worry me to see dozens of menorahs with candles burning brightly and small children milling about--but, as my friend said this year (and she says every year), we haven't burned the house down yet.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Goodbye Solo (2008)

Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), is a taxi driver. He is also a Senegalese man living in Winston-Salem, N.C., working and charming his way toward a share of the American dream. He is the heart and soul of this movie. His demeanor is effortlessly warm and disarmingly friendly. He wears down resistance or suspicion with an incandescent smile and affectionate teasing: every male customer or colleague is “big dog”. His magnetism is juxtaposed by one of his customers, William, who is an old man on the brink of suicide. A man who feels that he has nothing to live for or look forward too--this picture is perfect as a reflection of the difference between the two, as well as a window into what is charming about this movie. That Solo comes from a culture where you put uyour nose into other people's business, that you try to help, that you intervene, you do not just let people go off and be their self-destructive selves. And he is no angel, our Solo. He has some regular customers who are drug dealers, he parties, he drinks and drives--but on the other hand he is an impeccable father to Alex, the daughter of his significant other. At no point do you feel like he is not her father--although the colors of their skin make it clear that this is not the case, he is patient and warm with her, tender in a fatherly way, and he puts everything aside when she needs him. He is a complicated and appealing man, who makes you want to go to Senegal and see if there are more men like him, where does this wonderful sense of family and responsibility come from and where can we get more of it. A window into the immigrant African psyche, one that will leave you wanting to know more about this culture and its people.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Let There Be Light

The thing that I love about Hanukkah is what makes it very un-green. It is the candles. Every house is obligated to light one menorah each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. Well, they may not be the most environmentally friendly celebratory vehicle, but I really do enjoy them. I'll have to do some kind of carbon footprint offset.
The light they cast is a very warm glow. When one of my sons stopped by our house the very first night, he had forgotten it was the first night of Hanukkah. He is one step out of his parents house, still used to us updating him and not yet in tune with getting the information programed into his calendar at the beginning of the year, so you don't have to keep track. We had set up half a dozen menorahs, and only lit three, so he was able to light his own, which he did immediately. It is not just me. There is something primal and appealing about the glow of candlelight. It takes me back to hearth and home, family and comfort. It is a reminder to value those that make you feel warm and secure.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1950)

This is an old but great movie--I watched it while I was unexpectedly hospitalized for high blood pressure recently and it really made me laugh under difficult circumstances.
It is a black comedy, British style, but one of the finest kinds--one that takes a base urge that all people have, make it the protagonist's flaw, and then watch as his plot unfolds, slowly but surely coming closer to fruition, only to be foiled by an unforeseen glitch at the end. Or in this case, two problems, one that he is innocent of, and one of his own making. We cannot help but root for him, which is the wrong thing to do, undoubtedly, but we cannot help ourselves.

The problem is the D'Ascoyne family. They have excommunicated our hero and his mother, and they are to pay for this effrontery. Louis vows to avenge his mother, and take the Dukedom. The trouble is that twelve people stand in his way. Alec Guiness aptly plays eight of them, each of whom falls, one by one. In the meantime, Louis is getting a little of his own revenge on a woman who tossed him over for someone with more money, and that little scheme is the one that does him in.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Consider a Cooking Class

I love my co-op. I love that it is an independent store--when you walk into the downtown Iowa City store, you will not mistake it for a corporate entity, and to me, that is a good thing. I love the availability of local items, especially once the Farmer's Market is closed--the co-op becomes a place to extend the local luxuries, even thought hte temperature has dipped well below where it would be comfortable to sell them in the open air.
The aspect of the co-op that I have under-appreciated is their classes. I offered to pay the tuition for their pizza making class for my college aged boys, and one of them took me up on it. He then offered to make dinner the night before Thanksgiving for us, to show off his newly gained skills. The results were fantastic. His pizza crusts were wonderful--great flavor, texture, and the consistency of the dough allowed for it to be stretched thin yest still maintain it's spring, resulting in a great chewiness to the pizza. The sauce had a wonderful flavor--and was uncomplicated to make in large quantities and freeze. The cheeses were recommended in the class, as well as different combinations that might work. In other words, the class was comprehensive. The lecture allowed for a conveyance of important factors in pizza making and my student came out with an enthusiasm for the pizza they tried in the class, as well as the additional pizzas that he was given recipes for.
The results? It was the best homemade pizza I have ever had. We did have the oven on for over an hour with the pizza stone in it at the hottest temperature possible--which definitely helped, but we have done that many times before without these results.
The detail oriented approach to a good cooking class cannot be overstated. Especially for the inexperienced cook, but even for someone with years of experience. Pizza is a perennial favorite, and the ability to make it well can lead to confidence in other areas of cooking. Learning what the attention to a few important details can gain you as cook is priceless.
I have linked to the New Pioneer's 2011 Cooking Class Calendar in the title of this blog--check them out!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (1994)

Kenneth Branagh is a complicated guy. I always thought he would be impossible as a personality, but this year I have started to think he might be an interesting guy, despite all. I really love his Wallender renditions--they hit the right note for the Swedish detective and his environs. Branagh's take on some of the classics have fallen a little flat with the critic's, but I have largely enjoyed them (I liked 'Love's Labor Lost', which was probably the closest I got to not liking something he directed, 'Peter's Friends' being second closest).

So here he is, Franken-stein--a very handsome man in this movie. In stark contrast to his shirtless Wallender, his shirtless Frankenstein is another thing altogether. Let's just see you can see why he could be cast as the romantic lead. And this picture of him makes it easy to believe that he went on to date his co=star, Helen Bonham Carter, for 5 years after this movie was made. But it is not his personal life that I refer to when I say he seems complicated. It is that he appears to think out of the box. He depicts things with an attention to detail that is impressive. His Frankenstein does not come off looking all that magnificent as men go. He makes some bad choices and he pays a high price for those bad choices. These things happen, but usually not on this scale. The film is not strictly adherent to the story, so those who find that irritating need to skip this movie, but as horror goes, this one is nicely done. Carter really found a place for herself in this genre--maybe it started here.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Thanksgiving Leftovers Soup

One of my real skills as a cook is making a variety of leftovers into something else. Ideally, not particularly recognizable as leftovers. The perfect transformation would be that the dish appears to be cooked from scratch, rather from various containers that are sitting in the refrigerator. While this might not be everyone's cup of tea, there is almost always an avalanche of leftovers at Thanksgiving.
We did not so much experience a surfeit of sides, but we do have a good bit of heirloom turkey leftover. Then we went on the Sunday after Thanksgiving to my favorite local restaurant, The Lincoln Cafe, in Mount Vernon, where we had a family style Cajun Thanksgiving dinner. As a person who cannot abide by throwing away food, even if it goes into the dog's dish, we took home our leftovers, which were dirty rice stuffing, yams, and a corn side dish.
The Thanksgiving soup we assembled went like this--we sauteed an onion, added some cumin and green chilies, then added a quart of turkey stock, a couple of handfuls of diced turkey meat, the Lincoln cafe leftovers, and I threw in a cup of finely sliced beet greens because I thought they went with the color scheme. The rice dissolves into the soup almost immediately and adds thickness, but not much else. Everything else is already cooked, so it takes no time at all to finish. Voila, a soup that is delicious, quick, and not immediately recognizable as leftovers.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The thing that I like most about this movie is that it starts from the premise that gay marriage is an established social fact. Nic and Jules, a couple with two children, a Volvo and a lovely home, are the picture of normalcy. Which is to say that they are loving, devoted, responsible and a bit of a mess. And they are both women. The parentage of their children is a bit unusual as well--they each have a child, using the same sperm donor--so the donor is biologically related to both kids, whereas each parent is only biologically related to one.
It is difficult to find the right shorthand for these women. On the one hand, Nic is the bread winner, and Jules is the slightly flaky, slightly insecure stay-at-home parent. Those descriptors are true, but they don't encapsulate what is going on, which is a mid-life, long-term marriage melt down.
Nic and Jules don’t always communicate very well (Nic is patronizing and judgemental and Jules is sensitive and quick to take offense), and their children — the 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and her 15-year-old brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) — have reached the stage when parents seem like alien, irrational and outmoded beings. Your parents are supposed to understand you (not that they ever can), while you have no choice but to tolerate them.
Enter Paul--the sperm donor for both women's children. He is single, affable, running a successful business, and has a self confidence that is charming. When Joni calls him, he is a good sport and a bit of an adventurer, gamely accepts her invitation to meet the family, and his relaxed manner smoothes over an awkward initial meeting.
Much more awkwardness will follow, along with some real emotional peril. Nic and Jules are not won over at first, but he manages to connect with both Joni and Laser in ways that their moms can’t. He gets Joni to see she needs a little more independence, and gets Laser to dump his unsavory friend. His position as a sympathetic outsider grants him insights that the family members lack, and in turn Joni, Laser and Jules come to see him as a confidante and counselor, a special kind of friend.
But nothing is more disruptive to domestic order than an unattached heterosexual man. In mid-19th-century America, anxiety about guys more or less like Paul drove movements for social and religious reform, and the film suggests that those advocates of temperance and other remedies may have had a point. Not that Paul, an effortless seducer, is exactly the villain of the movie. He starts out too good to be true and winds up causing a lot of trouble, but at the end he’s more scapegoat than demon, and the film forgives him even if the other characters cannot.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Happy Hanukkah

From the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration", Hanukkah marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem (Second Temple). The temple was taken by Syrian-Greek soldiers in 168 BCE and polytheism reigned. This same year Perseus, the last Macedonian king, dies. The Roman Empire is on the march, but King of Syria Antiochus IV Epiphanes has been fingered by history as the bad guy in this story. According to the Talmud, following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, they decided to cleanse the temple with consecrated olive oil (to get rid of all the cooties from the foreign gods)--but there was only enough oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.
The Macabees had two choices--give up, or try and hope for the best--they opted, so the story goes, to hope for the best. They chose hope. I think there is not enough of that going around these days, so this Hanukkah season, I plan to focus on what I hope for and how to live as if it will happen.