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Monday, January 31, 2011

Angelology by Danielle Trussoni

“Angelology” is a terrifically clever thriller — owing as much to Umberto Eco as to Dan Brown. Trussoni weaves together angels of the Bible and Apocrypha with the myth of Orpheus and comes up with an elegantly written first novel.
Beautiful, powerful, cruel, and avaricious, the half-human, half-angel Nephilim have thrived for centuries by instilling fear among humans, instigating war, and infiltrating the most powerful and influential families of history. Only a secret group of scholars, the Society of Angelologists, has endeavored to combat the spread of evil generated by Nephilim. Now, a strange affliction is destroying the Nephilim, and the cure is rumored to be an ancient artifact of great power. Sister Evangeline of the St. Rose Convent discovers an archived letter regarding the artifact’s location and is thrust into the race to locate the artifact before the Nephilim do. She uncovers her family’s past as high- ranking angelologists, and their secrets assist in her dangerous hunt.
The contest between good and evil is waged not in the heavens but here on Earth, between warring factions of biblical scholars and heavenly hosts. In the course of Evangaline's work, she stumbles across a mislaid correspondence between philanthropist Abigail Rockefeller and the convent’s founding abbess concerning an astonishing 1943 discovery in the mountains of Greece. Simultaneously, the book introduces Percival Grigori, a critically ill, once-winged member of one of the most powerful families of the Nephilim, and an enemy of humans. “It has been one continuous struggle from the very beginning,” says one of Evangeline’s comrades- in-arms. “St. Thomas Aquinas believed that the dark angels fell within twenty seconds of creation-their evil nature cracked the perfection of the universe almost instantly, leaving a terrible fissure between good and evil.” As Evangeline and Grigori are drawn into conflict over control of a powerful artifact, the lyre of the mythical Orpheus, Trussoni constructs a marathon narrative arc, ending the volume with a satisfying, if startling, transformation.
There are imperfections in the story, but they are trivial, and this is an excellent thrilling novel.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

My Favorite Rub

1 1/2 c. paprika
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. salt
1/2 c. ground pepper
1/4 c. chili powder
1/4 c. onion powder
1/4 c. garlic powder
Mix and store in a jar. We have used this for almost anything that needs a rub, and it is reliably delicious.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Art Student's War by Brad Leithauser

'The Art Student's War' is a story richly woven with the details of Italian teen Bianca "Bea" Paradiso's coming of age in World War II Detroit. From the moment we meet Bea on a streetcar where a handsome, wounded soldier gives her his seat, we are settled into a period when a gallant, fervently patriotic America believed that we would survive the war and emerge better than ever (those days, by the way, appear to be gone).
Bea is an art student who is approached about sketching wounded soldiers for the USO by her professor. The men are thrilled to be the subject of a pretty girl's attentions, and the task develops her portrait skills. But she is horrified by their wounds and the abruptness with which they come in and out of her life. No sooner does she meet them than they are dispatched home, back to battle or, in some cases, to psychiatric treatment.
When she is not sketching soldiers she is grappling with a powerful attraction to fellow art student Ronny Olsson, the striking, rebellious heir to a drugstore fortune.
Is it love? Or is love what she feels for soldier Henry Vanden Akker, a well-read mathematician and Dutch Reformed Church member who challenges Bea to think on a different plane? She comes up with the wrong answer, but the pressures of war give her very little time to contemplate her decision.
It will take years for both Bea and Detroit to mature and discover the reserves each has to move beyond the war. This is a tender novel in many ways, a gentle way to return to the past.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Window (2008)

“The Window” begins with a voice-over narration in which Antonio describes a recent dream that has suddenly come back to him after nearly 80 years. Where had he stored this memory? he wonders. Now that it has returned, he wants to keep her image in his mind lest he lose it forever. It is a foreshadowing of what is to come--he is in the winter of his life, and grasping at his life's beginning. it could also be delirium, but it is a nice way to say that a man's life might be ending.
The film goes on to follow a day — perhaps the last day — in Antonio’s life. His household bustles around him--he does not seem like a forgiving master, and his doctor still makes house calls, so you know he is a man of substance.
On this particular day he is awaiting the arrival of his estranged son, Pablo (Jorge Diez), a renowned concert pianist now living in Europe. To prepare for the visit he has hired a piano tuner to recondition an old upright that hasn’t been touched in years. As the tuner extracts discarded toy soldiers stuck between the strings, it is clear that the instrument, like its owner, is perhaps beyond repair. All of the imagery is infused with Old World charm, and a sense of doom.
Even to the end, Antonio is a stern, imperious, hard-nosed skinflint. He takes a walk outside, onto the pampas, despite his doctor's instructions. It is then that we realize that not only the man is doomed. Life in this place, luxury in the midst of isolation, cannot last, and the son is not likely to come home and carry on for the father. Life as Antonio has built it is over.
When Pablo eventually appears, he is accompanied by his wife (Carla Peterson), an impatient woman chained to her cellphone. The Champagne is poured, and a toast is drunk, but it is just a polite formality, as one generation awaits the passing of the old, and with it, a way of life. The film is bittersweet and beautiful to watch.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada

This is the best book I have read in a long time, and certainly the best book I have read about the experience of everyday Germans during WWII (and I think 'The Book Thier' is an exceptionally good book--this one is better though). Do not be put off by the title--while the book takes place during a totalitarian regime, where loyalty to the state is inordinately rewarded, and the baser elements of human behavior are rewarded and kindness is punished, it is not a depressing book to read. There is an undercurrent of hope and humor that runs just underneath the dark story that buoys it up in a way that makes is easy to read. Don't get me wrong, hardly anyone gets out of this book alive. It is not light reading. The quote from Primo Levi, that this is the best account of resistance to Hitler's regime written, is misleading i think. I think this is a book about how to maintain your humanity, your sanity even, in an inhumane situation. These situations exist today--Afghanistan being one that immediately comes to mind--so there is much we can learn from the past.
The author is as enigmatic as the book--how did he write something so devastating and yet so readable? Born Rudolph Dietzen, he changed his name because of the infamy he gained after killing a friend in a duel as a teenager. He became a well known German writer, despite his life-long struggle with drugs and alcohol. He died of a morphine overdose before this book was published. He wrote this book in less than a month, based on the Gestapo files of a real couple who conducted a similar campaign of subtle resistance. It is a remarkably interwoven and complex book and to think he poured it out of himself in such a short period of time is even more remarkable. It was published in East Germany in 1947, but this is the first translation in English. I don't know what took so long, but this is a masterpiece.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chicken Adobo

1 cup coconut milk
¼ cup soy sauce
1½ cup rice vinegar
12 garlic cloves, peeled
3 whole bird’s-eye chilies or other fiery chili
3 bay leaves
1½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 pounds chicken thighs.

1. Combine all of the marinade ingredients in a bowl or resealable plastic freezer bag. Add the chicken and turn to coat. Refrigerate overnight or for at least 2 hours.
2. Place chicken and marinade in a large lidded pot or Dutch oven over high heat and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through and tender, around 30 minutes.
3. Heat broiler. Transfer chicken pieces to a large bowl, raise heat under the pot to medium-high, and reduce the sauce until it achieves almost the consistency of cream, about 10 minutes. Remove bay leaves and chilies.
4. Place chicken pieces on a roasting pan and place under broiler for 5 to 7 minutes, until they begin to caramelize. Remove, turn chicken, baste with sauce and repeat, 3 to 5 minutes more. Return chicken to sauce and cook for a few minutes more, then place on a platter and drizzle heavily with sauce.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices by Noah Feldman

This is the story of the court that FDR inherited, and then follows the nine justices that he appointed to the court (a recrod unlikely to be broken) to the end of their working days. The most important of those appointments—Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, William Douglas, and Robert Jackson—are the 'scorpions' of Noah Feldman’s highly readable and often absorbing book: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices.
The author has a great story and he tells it well. All these men came from obscure backgrounds and rose to great prominence under Roosevelt. With their judicial appointments, they became the core of the liberal bloc that pulled the Court out of the way of the New Deal. Feldman provides vivid biographical portraits of all these men, but what makes this book more than biography is the emphasis he places on the development of the judicial philosophy of each of his subjects.
Hugo Black brought what Feldman intriguingly calls “the distinctively Protestant” method to his reading of the Constitution and became the “inventor of originalism.” To be sure, it was in many ways a crude originalism, particularly with respect to Black’s obtuse no-law-means-no-law reading of the first amendment. Still, Black steered clear of many of the excesses of the Warren Court because of his adherence to constitutional text.
William Douglas pursued the extreme libertarianism that became his hallmark. The problem for him was his abrasive personality, which alienated his colleagues and essentially eliminated any influence he might have had on the direction of the Court. His autonomy-obsessed individualism, however, was later adopted by William Brennan, whose smooth and accommodating personality turned it into majorities during the Warren Court.
Robert Jackson was a pragmatic jurist. His influence was predicated on his ability as a writer and his problem-solving approach to cases. Jackson’s skill is most conspicuously on display in Barnette, the 1943 case that struck down a compulsory flag salute. Moreover, Jackson’s pragmatism made him especially adept at sorting out the nebulous issues of executive power, so compelling in his day--and more recently with the Bush Administration--where is his heir? His concurring opinion in the 1952 steel-seizure case, which thwarted President Truman’s seizure of the steel industry, remains a central precedent on the breadth of presidential authority.
Feldman is best in his analysis of Felix Frankfurter. He correctly sees Frankfurter’s principled judicial restraint as the stumbling block for many in accurately assessing his jurisprudence. Frankfurter—-to his astonishment—-found himself transformed into a conservative. Frankfurter’s critics, then and later, have tried to explain how it could be that the country’s best-known liberal became its leading judicial conservative. But the source of the change was not Frankfurter, whose constitutional philosophy remained remarkably consistent throughout his career. It was the rest of liberalism that abandoned him and moved on once judicial restraint was no longer a useful tool to advance liberal objectives.
Feldman’s book closes with the four scorpions all putting their intense differences aside in order to effect the unanimity of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
With the exception of Douglas, all these men made genuine,lasting contributions to constitutional law. Great read!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency (2009)

This is a wonderful adaptation of the books of the same name. In the first episode, Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott) inherits many cattle from her father, making her a rich woman. She sells them and uses the money to start a business called The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. She hires a secretary, Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose), and slowly they begin to find clients and solve mysteries for them. They’re always working on several cases at once, which makes it more interesting (to me) than your traditional mystery show.
These are two very different women. Mma Ramotswe is gentle, sympathetic and financially privileged. Mma Makutsi is uptight, sometimes harsh, and struggling to make ends meet. It becomes apparent early on that Mma Ramotswe would undercharge clients and overspend income, so Mma Makutsi takes charge of the practical side of running a business while Mma Ramotswe excels at solving crimes. They become true friends over the course of the series, coming to one another’s aid no matter what it takes and sharing their personal troubles (but never dwelling on them – it’s not in their nature).
Mma Ramotswe is a big woman, dressed in wonderful batik dresses, all of the same pattern. Alexander McCall Smith coined the term “traditionally built” to convey to western readers that in Africa, Mma Ramotswe’s build used to be considered the model for female beauty. Mma Ramotswe is not just a detective, she also has a love story that is simple and straightforward. She also experienced an abusive first marriage and lost a baby because of it, but this backstory is simply a part of who Mma Ramotswe is. It’s the type of tragedy that many viewers can relate to, in whole or in part.
As I mentioned, Mma Makutsi is uptight, but with reason. She’s been passed over for many jobs that went to cuter but less qualified women. She’s the sole supporter of herself and her brother, who has AIDS. While she may expect too much of others, she also expects too much of herself. But she’s incredibly loyal, dependable and self-sacrificing – and willing to learn from her mistakes when she judges people too harshly. As her job duties expand into helping with investigations, she receives a new title: “Assistant Detective.”
It has been suggested that McCall Smith idealizes Botswana in his novels, but he believes it really is a special place full of good-hearted people with values. The series is filmed entirely in Botswana, so we get a chance to see the country for ourselves. Mma Ramotswe lives and works in Gabarone, a little town with a fairly modern infrastructure, but none of the cold hustle bustle of North American urban centers. There is an orphanage – based on a real life “children’s village” – for those children who have lost so many relatives to AIDS that there is no extended family left to care for them. There is an ethical diamond trade Botswana is using to develop itself in ways that will benefit its people rather than just its economy. We are dumped into Botswana’s culture and traditions without a special road map for westerners, and in finding our way around, we become enriched.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Something Red by Jennifer Gilmore

This book will make most people feel either better about their family of origin, or not alone. The book begins in late summer, 1979, when the Goldstein family, headed by Sharon and Dennis, have dinner in the back yard of their Chevy Chase house to see Ben, their druggy, athletic son, off to an unexpected choice in colleges--Brandeis. Brainy was not one of his high school characteristics nor was studious, but he is hoping the atmosphere will be good for him. The book is wonderfully funny, a compelling story of a splintering suburban family, an intimate social history of three generations of American Jews.
The story moves seamlessly from one relative to the next, from memory to memory, flashback to flashback, and always in the background is the political climate of the present: the Cold War, the Iran hostage crisis and the grain embargo, which affects the dad's work at the Department of Agriculture. Subtly, this is also a story about espionage, from which the title comes: I spy with my little eye . . . something red.
The nuclear family comes together--without actually being together--in the spring, for Parents' Day at Brandeis. Ben, who never wanted his parents to visit, is busy with demonstrations against the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The parents find themselves alone for the evening, dinner plans aborted while their children go to (unbeknownst to the parents)an LSD party. As you might imagine, this does not end well, although Sharon and Dennis do find a road to start their lives as parents who have no children at home.
A series of surprising developments carries the story to a disturbing conclusion. Late in the book, Sharon thinks: "They had always believed that what they would pass down to their children was not the good fortune their parents had fought for and handed them readily, but the intangible splendor of hope and dreaming."
Hang onto that thought. Is that what we hope for, and is it possible? Very thought-provoking book.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Spaghetti with Meatballs

My simple Marinara Sauce, which is adapted from Mario Batali, who is my favorite cookbook writer (it's just that sometimes he asks for ingredients that are hard to come by in my small Midwestern town)
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 Spanish onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 Tbs. thyme
2 medium carrots, grated
2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand and juices reserved
Salt and Pepper to taste
In a 3-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook until soft and light golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot, and cook 5 minutes more, until the carrot is quite soft. Add the tomatoes and juice and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes until as thick as hot cereal. Season with salt and serve. This sauce holds 1 week in the refrigerator or months in a freezer that does not have self-defrosting.
When ready to use, the cooked pasta should be added to a saucepan with the appropriate amount of sauce. Top with grated parmesan and meatballs.
The meatball recipe I love is:
This is comfort food at it's best, and both the sauce and the meatballs can be frozen, so all you need to do is make the pasta, and a green salad, and it is an easy mid-week dinner. I make several recipes of the sauce at once and freeze it in quarts--which is about what you need for one pound of pasta.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

I loved 'Plague of Doves', and I believe it is my favorite book by this author. This book is both wonderful and completely different. Where that book was complex and multi-generational in scope, this one is pared down and focused. This family, this dysfunction, and the ripples that generates.
As noted in the Christian Science Monitor review of this book, the premise of the story allows you to see the magnitude and nature of the problem immediately. Irene discovers that her husband is reading her diary. Instead of confronting him with it, yelling at him, considering couples therapy, or some other direct dealing with the invasion of privacy, she doesn't tell him she knows he is reading it, and instead start keeping a secret diary in a bank deposit box while writing adulterous scenes in the old one to torture him. That's not good.
Erdrich strips away anything tangential in this book. It is a tightly written close-up of the final months of a destructive marriage, written with great reserves of power and wisdom. Erdrich has always been a master of metaphor; here she uses the native American belief of shadows as souls to powerful effect.
The novel is told by excerpts from the two diaries – the real and fake – with details filled in by an omniscient narrator, whose identity isn’t revealed until the last chapter.
For his part, Gil, the husband, craves Irene’s love and cannot live without trying to repossess it. As the book progresses, Irene struggles against inertia and alcoholism to free herself from her marriage, while controlling Gil fights to breathe life back into it– no matter whom he hurts in the process. Huddled at ground zero between the two trenches are their three children. Despite the shouting and bruises, they both somehow believe they’ve protected the children from any permanent damage. Erdrich’s characterizations in “Shadow Tag” are marvels of both economy and compassion. She doesn’t turn possessive Gil or passive aggressive Irene into bad guys, instead laying out what makes them fully human without flinching from the damage they do.
“Shadow Tag” resonates with power. The book is tragic without being bleak, and is a wonderful read.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Buttermilk Pancakes

2 large eggs
3 Tbs. butter, melted
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. buttermilk
1 1/2 c. flour
1 Tbs. sugar
In a bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, melted butter, baking powder, baking soda, salt, milk, flour and sugar until the mixture is smooth.
If you separate the eggs and whip the egg whites, then fold them in, the pancakes are fluffier rather than cakey.
Use real maple syrup, no matter the cost.
I love to make breakfast for dinner. The French have their heavy meal in the middle of the day, and then make an omelet for dinner. I can go with that, but occasionally I like to have the full on, heavy duty breakfast. The whole kit and caboodle, with bacon, sausage, hash browns and pancakes, all served at dinner time. I am not a morning person, nor do I eat much in the morning--fruit and yogurt would be a hefty morning meal for me. But I do like the traditional American breakfast, just not at the traditional breakfast time. I am fortunate to have a family that indulges this luxury on occasion.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Common as Air by Lewis Hyde

Hyde feels that the boundaries of intellectual property have been stretched beyond the boundaires of reasonableness. In his new book, "Common as Air," he delineates the history of intellectual property ownership, the changes in technology and social conditions that have influenced the law over the centuries, and the state of the law today. His conclusion, and it's inescapable, is that copyright and patent protections have gotten out of control. Worse, they threaten today to stifle creativity across the artistic spectrum and hamper the advance of scientific discovery. They give heirs of artists and public figures excessive power to control public discourse, and that this is contrary to the intent of the founding fathers. he does a wonderful and engaging job of tracing patents of Revolutionary era heavy hitters, like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and discussing why they elected to patent some of their ideas and chose not to patent others.

Hyde argues that it's time to strike a new balance between the incentives and compensation that will encourage creative minds to keep writing, drawing, composing and inventing, and the need to place their work in the public domain after a decent interval. More precisely, he suggests that we reexamine the principles of earlier times to find formulas that work today. He accepts that technology may have rendered some copyright principles obsolete. Consider the "first sale doctrine," which governed the rights of buyers of books, records, videotapes and other such physical embodiments of intellectual content. It was long acknowledged that once you bought a book you could lend it, give it away, read it to your child, paste pages of it in your diary or resell it — you couldn't print more copies, but that was about the only limitation. Hyde argues that we start to value the common good more and to back off on the intellectual property protections. He does not tough the subject of genetically modified food and the future of feeding the planet, which would have fit nicely into this discussion. Highly recommended reading that is short, concise and readable.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ever After (1998)

This is not the fairy tale 'Cinderella'. There is no magic, there is no fairy godmother, and while the girl woes the man, it is through her personality as well as her beauty, not by some sparkle in the air. The broad strokes of the story are certainly familiar. After the tragic death of her father (Jeroen Krabbe), Danielle (played by Anna Maguire as a little girl, and Drew Barrymore thereafter) is consigned to a life of servitude for her cruel stepmother, Rodmilla (Anjelica Huston), and vain step-sister, Marguerite (Megan Dodds). Danielle has an ally in the household, her second step-sister, Jacqueline (Melanie Lynsk), but she's too meek to stand up to her mother. While Rodmilla, Marguerite, and Jacqueline enjoy as much luxury as their farm house provides, Danielle (dubbed "Cinderella" by Marguerite for the cinders that always stain her clothing) is forced to scrub the floors, cook the meals, and feed the animals.
One day, when Danielle is picking apples, she spies a man stealing one of her step-mother's horses. It's actually Prince Henry (Dougray Scott), the heir to the throne of France, in the process of running away from his father because he is unwilling to be trapped in a loveless, arranged marriage. Mistaking Henry for a common thief, Danielle knocks him from the horse with a well-aimed apple. After she realizes who he is, she is apologetic, but the meeting leaves an impression on both of them. Through all of their courtship, there is a 'fairy godmother' of sorts -- Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey), who uses science, not magic, to smooth the path of true love.
Tennant takes this familiar material and crafts a charming, captivating motion picture. He gives the villains a few human qualities, but still manages to make them despicable enough that we feel justified in cheering when they receive their comeuppance. The all-important romance is nicely-developed. Danielle and Henry are clearly fated to be together, but they have to overcome a number of obstacles along the way, including her dishonesty, her step-family's duplicity, and his prejudice. Of course, everything turns out "happily ever after" (hence, the title), but, as in all romances, our enjoyment lies in observing the games played by the two smitten protagonists en route to that ending.
Drew Barrymore radiates tremendous appeal. Like Prince Henry, we are immediately taken not only with Danielle's beauty (which shines through the dirt on her face) but with her spirit. Speaking of the Prince, Dougray Scott (who can also be seen in this summer's Deep Impact) manages the difficult feat of making Henry likable rather than bland (blandness is often the unfortunate fate of the male leads in movies like this). Anjelica Huston and Megan Dodds turn on the bitchiness as step-mom and step-sister, and veteran actors Timothy West and Judy Parfitt have comical turns as the King and Queen of France. Patrick Godfrey's wise-but-humorous da Vinci is a delight.
I admit, I love these new takes on old tales, but I found this charming.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

This is definitely not a book that sings the praises of marital bliss. Rather, it makes you wonder if you are married, are you about to be murdered?
Here is the story: David and Alice Pepin have been married 13 years and are far past the blushing romance of their university days. Alice, who teaches troubled children, is clinically depressed. Partly in consequence, David, a successful computer game designer, is often engrossed in fantasies of Alice’s death, sometimes by his own hand. When Alice dies with David’s fingers in her mouth, as well as a handful of peanuts, to which she is deathly allergic, he claims it was suicide, while the police think murder.
At that point, the novel grows more deliberately odd. Pepin’s case is investigated by two detectives who are well acquainted with marital difficulties. One of them, Ward Hastroll, has a wife, Hannah, who has not gotten out of bed for five months, driving him, too, to vivid fantasies of murder. Hastroll’s name is an anagram for “Lars Thorwald,” the wife-killing villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (a movie the Pepins studied in the class where they met), and his actions sometimes mimic those of Hitchcock’s character. Realyy?, you can't help asking yourself. But it gets more convoluted.
The other detective is Sam Sheppard, based on the real-life Ohio osteopath whose legal case became a landmark when he was convicted and later exonerated of the murder of his wife, Marilyn. In another long-ago class, the Pepins also learned about Sheppard’s case, commonly thought to be the basis for the “Fugitive” television series and movie.
The detectives’ investigation leads them to Mobius, a pint-size professional wife-killer whom they suspect Pepin hired. Mobius’s very name, of course, invokes the inescapable repetitiveness of marriage, which can kill off relationships by inhibiting any opportunity for change.
As this brief summary suggests, “Mr. Peanut” requires considerable decoding (and I am not sure I got it all). This can be disorienting, a little like going to a dinner party where all the guests seem bright and amiable but insist on speaking another language. Yet over all, the novel is an enormous success — forceful and involving, often deeply stirring and always impressively original.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Remember Me (2010)

Le tme start off by saying that the ending of this movie, which I will not divulge, is a complete cop-out, and threatens to submerge all of the good that the movie has going for it.
Here is the basic scenario. There are few light or casual moments. The film could have benefited from more of them. Not much cuts through the portentous air that settles onto the story in the first scene: in 1991, a 10-year old Ally Craig (Caitlyn Paige Rund) watches the murder of her mother on a subway platform during a mugging. So she grows up with three traumas--the death of her mother, the witnessing of her mother's death, and her policeman father's ongoing guilt and sorrow about her mother's murder.
By the end of the movie, Ally has blossomed into a college student ripe for the heartstring plucking. The pickup artist who does the honors is, of course, Tyler, who asks her out at the urging of his obnoxious roommate, Aidan (Tate Ellington, persuasively irritating). Tyler has survived his own traumas--his older brother hanged himself, he discovered him, and his parent's have gone their separate ways, neither of which includes helping their remaining children deal with the trauma.
Somehow they manage to disclose the parts of themselves that are broken and work towards a solution to that. Which is where the good part of the story ends, unfortuantely.
The two fathers in this film put in the best performances of the cast. Chris Cooper is Ally’s working-stiff father who struggles visibly with allowing his daughter some freedom and wanting to keep her close and safe in a way he could not do with her mother. Pierce Brosnan as Tyler’s power-lawyer big daddy is cold and removed and convincing in his denial of all that surrounds him having anything to do with him. The best performance of all is Ruby Jerins, an appealing child actress who plays Tyler's sister, Caroline.
The depiction of the devestating effects of childhood trauma--on the individual, their families, and the people who surround them later in life is well done. The wrap up of all that was not completed--so it is 7/8 of a good movie.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb

The author has chosen to tell the history of Paris through the eyes of those who lived there over time, rather than from a stricly historian perspective. The result is a distinctly nonlinear history of the city since 1750. The hallmark event of history are all there -- the French Revolution, the Commune, the Nazi Occupation, the student revolt of 1968, even the suburban riots of 2005 -- as are many of the the city's better known personalities: Napoleon, Mme and M. Victor Hugo, Marie Antoinette, Proust, Hitler, De Gaulle and Mitterand, Sartre and De Beauvoir and even Miles Davis. But Robb comes at each of these subjects (and many, many more) obliquely, through a dazzling variety of narrators and forms. The tale of the student revolt is presented as a course outline, with discussion questions and sample answers. Sartre and Miles Davis encounter each other in a screenplay set in the Café de Flore. The sections on Mme Zola and Proust are narrated in styles that wittily echo their subjects (and what a great touch it is to use Proust as witness to the great outburst of modernity signaled by the Metro, the telephone and even telephone broadcasts from the Opera).
The book is a great introduction to a city that in it's modern form continues to have allure and charm--not to mention a great food and wine sulture. I think anyone planning a trip there should put this on their 'must read' list.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Despicable Me (2010)

I loved this movie--not so much for it's brilliance (this is no 'Toy Story 3'), but it's well executed simplicity. It is an animated feature that's low-maintenance, good-looking and modestly original.
It's the story of a world-class supervillain named Gru (Steve Carell), whose conception of evil is little-boy mischievousness. Yes, he likes to torture kids — say, by popping their animal balloon with a pin — but only after amusing them: creating the animal balloon he intends to pop. And now, as Gru tells his army of minions — tiny, goggled yellow marshmallow creatures who are loyal but not too bright — he plans to steal the moon by shrinking it. Why? Hard to say. But he is obsessed with the idea. Problems arise early with this not-so-fiendish plan. Of late, he's been dwarfed in nastiness by the geeky young Vector (Jason Segel), who managed to swipe the Great Pyramid at Giza (again, why? It seems to be 'because I can', which perhaps plays into the hacker mentality--wrecking havoc for havoc's sake). Until Gru can impress the evil world that he's he's got what it takes to pull this off, the Bank of Evil won't give him a loan (the while Bank of Evil concept is fabulous, especially as we confront the all-too-real banking situation these days). So, how will he top Vector? His plan is to infiltrate his lair and take the technology. But Vector has a geeks obsession with security and this is going to be no easy task. The one chink in an otherwise finely developed armor is that Vector has a sweet tooth. So Gru adopts three orphan girls (two of whom could be 80--they are named Edith, Agnes, and Margot) to infiltrate Vector's laboratory on the pretense of selling him Girl Scout cookies. The girls, of course, are the adversaries he really has to worry about. He is completely unprepared for the transformation that fatherhood will wreck upon his life. While he's shooting and shrinking the moon, they find a villain's heart and warm it. By the end, he is a goner. Recommended for all ages.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

I know nothing of the specific history of Native American tribes in the United Staes, and this was an accessible way to start that learning process.
The later half of the book focuses on Quanah Parker, the son of a captured white woman and a Comanche chief. He lived an extraordinary, almost surreal life, consider this: He was a brilliant and vengeful warrior, a war chief at 21 who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of white Americans, and who, in his second act, became a cattle rancher and school board chairman, acted in a movie, and palled around with President Teddy Roosevelt, who invited Parker to his 1905 Inauguration.
'Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History' gives a blow-by-blow account of the hardscrabble and bloody life on the Texas frontier in the middle decades of the 19th century. Atrocities were as common as blue northers, and lives on both sides of the great divide ended or were disrupted in the most horrific ways. Parker and his white mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, were prime examples.
Parker’s maternal relatives were homesteading way out on the Texas frontier in 1836, south of modern Dallas, lured there by generous land grants offered by the Mexican government. Even though they had built a fort and were armed, it required courage and optimism to pursue such a lifestyle. Indian raids were common in central Texas, and the Parkers had no backup: no neighbors, no town, no cavalry. To flee the attack that transformed Cynthia Ann into a Comanche, brutally killed five Parkers, and took five more captive, survivors walked 65 miles to Houston and safety.
Cynthia Ann was 9 years old when she was taken, having witnessed the gruesome slaughter of her kin and subsequent abuse of fellow captives by the raiding party. She would resurface 10 years later when a Texas peace delegation spotted her, blue-eyed and light-haired, in a Comanche village, covered in gore from skinning buffalo. She could no longer speak English and wanted to stay right where she was. She was bilingual, however, speaking Spanish and Comanche.
The first white man to enter Comanche territory was Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado in 1540, and 330 years later the tribe was still fighting to keep its own empire, which once encompassed parts of five current states, including much of Texas. Indeed, the Comanche had stopped the Spaniards dead in their tracks, preventing them from controlling wide swaths of what is today the United States. The conquistadors had handily defeated tribes below the Rio Grande, but the Comanche, though far less numerous and civilized than the Aztecs, were an obstacle of a different brand. The year of the Parker raid marked the beginning of 40 years of war among Texans, Americans, and Comanches. No other tribe would resist westward expansion so relentlessly. During the 1860s, Comanches and their fellow travelers actually rolled the frontier back as much as 200 miles.
The Comanche's were all about war, and once they mastered the horse, which the Spanish introduced into North America, they became the most nimble and deadly light cavalry on earth. Their style of fighting was perfectly suited to the plains, whose trackless and unforgiving expanses were almost as frightening to soldiers as the Indians they fought. Defeating invaders often didn’t require firing a shot: At night Comanches would stampede their horses and let the country have its way with them. they were the Mongols of North America. The book chronicles their capitulation to authorities and the disgraces that followed, but the book is a fitting tribute to a warrior tribe.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


My mother loves to do puzzles. When she comes to visit, which she does 3-4 times a year, she likes to set up a puzzle and work on it with my children. They have been doing this for well over a decade, and her recent visit was no exception. In the past they have stayed a week or more, but this time she is in recovery from a broken wrist and the visit was a short one--only one puzzle was completed.
But an intersting thing happened. My children were not ready to end the puzzling. We even purchased a new puzzle since the one the kids had given my mother left with her, undone. There have been five additioanl puzzles completed to date, and all the Kline boys have participated actively (amongst others). I think it is nice to have things that you associate with people you care for. That doing puzzles will always remind my children of their grandmother is a very nice thing.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gabrielle Gifford's Shooting: Accountablity and Honor

What everyone feared has happened. The politics of hate now has victims.
The vilification of Democrats and the encouragement to literally take aim at them has come to fruition. One of the congressmen in Sarah Palin's cross-hairs has been shot. There has been focus on the mentally ill and the accessibility of guns, but I am most disturbed that politicians were specifically threatened and now one of them has been shot. I am unmoved by commentary that no connection between encouragement to shoot politician's and their actually being shot has been established. When a party advocates the killing of others, it is wrong. When it happens, man up. When you encourage an atmosphere of violence, you share responsibility morally for what happens. If you ask that it be done and then it happens, is this not what you wanted? The targeting of politician's did not specify that there should be no collateral damage, and this is what can happen.
The shooting of 14 people last weekend is a tragic event. The fact that a congresswoman, a federal judge, a minister, and a child are amongst the victims makes it even more heartbreaking as well as carrying larger social and community consequences. But what more can we learn from this?
I do not know if this is a direct effect of the language of hate and the encouragement to take action--violent action--or not. Does it matter if there is a direct link? Should political leaders be encouraging people to shoot people they disagree with? The answer should be a resounding "no". I am equally unnerved by the fact that it was not a politician but rather a comedian who called for an end to this rhetoric during the fall elections. I went to the Rally to Restore Sanity because it represented the lone voice of moderation in an otherwise increasingly polarized political climate. It is dishonorable to encourage your supporters to physically harm your opponents.
Christine Green, born on September 11, 2001, became the victim of home grown terrorism this weekend. Who will be accountable for her death?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Bright Star

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's robust chest,
To feel for ever its fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear his tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.

This is modified from John Keats' poem to the love of his life, Fanny Brawne. Happy Birthday Joel--you are seven squared, and still the love of my life.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Thai Chicken Soup (Tom Kha Gai)

This is what I did with turkey leftovers.
1 stalk lemongrass
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, diced small
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste (Also available at most groceries.)
6 quarter-inch wide slices fresh ginger
3 kaffir lime leaves (Not available at most groceries. I usually substitute ½ teaspoon grated lime peel.)
4 cups chicken stock
2 c. shredded, cooked chicken (or turkey)
2 cups shitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps quartered
1 14-ounce can coconut milk (Don’t use low-fat. Trust me. I tried it.)
Juice of two limes (about five tablespoons)
2 tablespoons nam pla (AKA fish sauce)
3 green onions, trimmed and sliced into ¼ inch pieces
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

Trim lemongrass, cut into three pieces about four inches long. Whack the pieces with the flat side of your knife blade to crush slightly.
Heat oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat.
Saute onion and garlic for about two minutes.
Add lemongrass, curry paste, ginger discs, and lime leaf (or peel). Cook, stirring, for three minutes.
Add stock. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes.
Add coconut milk, cooked chicken and quartered mushroom caps. Cook five minutes.
Add lime juice and nam pla. Taste for balance between nam pla and lime. If one flavor is dominating too much, add a little of the other.
Garnish with green onion and cilantro.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

You have to like sparse writing and a dispassionate approach to life to really love this book. If you do, it is fabulous.
In Petterson's world, the past is always commingled with the present. Normally this layering feels like a pleasing echo—the harmony of what was with what it is. As a parent is dying, however, time's score can become an unraveling dissonance. It certainly is so for Arvid Jansen, the thirty-seven-year-old hero of Per Petterson's new novel. Dealing with his mother's imminent demise requires him to act like an adult; facing her loss makes him, irrevocably, into a child. 'I Curse the River of Time' traces the tension between these two movements with a Norwegian resonance. Jansen's mother is diagnosed with cancer in 1989; he narrates the story from some distant point in the future; and the book circles back toward Jansen's childhood, as if to discover, in his recollections, a clue to why he never has entirely grown up.
Jansen's mother, no doubt, is part of the problem. She looms large in this tale. Stern, staunchly intelligent, unbowed by hard factory labor, she views her sons—of whom there are three, once four—as spoilt children, to whom everything was handed. After her diagnosis is revealed she lights up a cigarette. Then she books passage on a night-ferry to Denmark and the summer home of Arvid's childhood. It is November and bitterly cold.
Approaching a grief like this doesn't make us better; it only makes us more ourselves. As we fall back into Jansen's memories, he comes across as an awkward, needy boy who cried at movies and flung himself dumbly at Communism in his young adulthood to impress his mother. He even gets a factory job to become a better communist. I Curse the River of Time, the book's title, comes from a poem by Mao, whose portrait Jansen hung above his bed alongside those of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
Similarly, flinging himself into this journey is what he feels he ought to do when a mother is sick. The longer Jansen stays, though, the more he realizes he has once again inserted himself back into her life. He works hard to have meaningful moments, and at last they come by accident.
Petterson has captured the way a parent's death feels personal. An extension of prior betrayals, it can seem like the final one. These are not a son's finest moments. Flailing, drunk, self-absorbed, it's hard to warm up to Jansen. He wants desperately to be acknowledged. It's impossible not to feel for him, though. And to want to say, stay still: the worst is yet to come. The book is filled with many an unpleasant truth, which can either be a cautionary tale, or wisdom. You choose.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Enchanted April (1991)

"Enchanted April" reinforces the appealing notion that a trip to Italy, specifically to a medieval castle with a glorious view of the surrounding countryside and the sea, will cure all ills. The voyagers are four thoroughly incompatible Englishwomen who all discover, to their surprise, that travel can indeed be a life changing experience. Each changes for the better by the time this soothing, picturesque film arrives at what is quite literally a rosy ending.
"Enchanted April" is based on a 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Armin. But it actually unfolds on what has come to be thought of as Merchant-Ivory territory. The ladies are well bred, the scenery is lovely and the dialogue is polished and polite.
The principals here are the tremulous Lottie (Josie Lawrence) and the meek and dysphoric Rose (Miranda Richardson), who are cowed by overbearing husbands and join forces to answer a newspaper advertisement offering the Italian castle for rent. Wisteria and sunshine are the main selling points mentioned in the ad; the film similarly depends on those attractions, but it also has a welcome element of wit. Joan Plowright, uproariously funny as Mrs. Fisher, a commanding older woman who becomes Rose and Lottie's unlikely roommate, booms through the film dropping the names of literary eminences she once knew through the connections of her distinguished father. "Husbands were taken seriously as the only real obstacles to sin" she says, in a typical comment. And they have a fourth who is far less interesting. The Italian atmosphere does them all a world of good, and they emerge better people at the end of it. Lovely film that makes one want to immediately book a month in a house with a view of the water and rethink one's life.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

This book won the Man Booker Prize this fall, and was heralded as the first book to win that was a comedy. I would beg to differ. I found the book profoundly disturbing in it's depiction of racism, both amongst Jews and in society at large. The book is more clever than comic, to my ear. Maybe I just don't get the British humor.
Julian Treslove is the non-Jew, and it is through his eyes and actions that we glimpse the vagarities of anti-Semitism. One of his two Jewish friends is Libor, a retired celebrity reporter, still deeply shaken by the death of his wife. The other new widower is Sam Finkler, an old schoolmate, the first Jewish person Julian ever met, the prototype in his mind of all Jews -- thus "The Finkler Question." Finkler is confident and bold, a successful TV personality and the author of a series of pop philosophy books.
Desperately afraid of stereotyping Jews, Julian nonetheless voices all the classic caricatures, envying their legendary success, their history-dominating bad luck, even the flawless timing of their dismissive shrugs.
Jacobson is like a man playing with a gun who starts pretending to aim for our feet. When is he joking, when is he not? Even while I tried to disentangle what's so disturbing about Julian's special regard for Jews, the book pursues (and belabors) another line of comedy, this one about self-loathing Jews. Finkler, always desperate for attention and a public platform, takes over a group called "ASHamed Jews," an anti-Zionist group that holds endless Talmudic meetings to hammer out the precise dimensions of its members' shame, the crucial distinctions that define "ashamed of being Jewish," being "ashamed as Jews" and being "Jewishly ashamed." And all this is woven through boisterous, sometimes hilarious, sometimes tedious arguments about Israeli exceptionalism.
I found this book exceptionally well written, easy to get through, and as I said above, profoundly disturbing.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Nicholas Nickelby (2002)

Charles Dickens's bulky novels, with their bright moralism and their convoluted plots make him a favorite for adaptation to stage and screen, but the sheer length and complexity of books make the prospect of adaptation a daunting one. Douglas McGrath has succeeded in shoehorning ''Nicholas Nickleby,'' Dickens's third novel, into two hours of swift, engaging entertainment. The last production of Nicholas Nickelby that I saw was a nine hour affair, staged on Broadway in 4 1/2 hour stints, or an all day affair--literally. It was true to the book, but dreary beyond tolerance. This is a whole other thing entirely.
Needless to say, huge chunks of the book have been ditched; entire families of characters are excluded. But the book's theme and spirit have been dutifully respected. Mr. McGrath has decided to share his enthusiasm for the story, enlisting a truly magnificant collection of actors in the enterprise.
Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) is a typical Dickens hero: fatherless, buffeted by ill fortune and possessed of a purity of heart that almost defies belief. After his father's death throws 19-year-old Nicholas, his sister and their mother into poverty, the young man's uncle, Ralph (Christopher Plummer), a coldhearted investor, gets him a post teaching at a far-off boarding school. If you've forgotten the primary meaning of the word Dickensian, the school, run by the unspeakable Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and his sadistic wife (Juliet Stevenson), will remind you. It is a dark, cold place where the innocence of the young is subjected to fiendish and gratuitous abuse. Pitch perfectly portrayed here. Nathan Lane, Anne Hathaway, and Timothy Spall, and Romala Garai all turn in excellent performances.
In trimming down ''Nicholas Nickleby,'' Mr. McGrath has unavoidably left a whole slew of things out. The love stories and genealogical mysteries that are trademarks of Dickens's narrative architecture are treated rather perfunctorily here, so the plot feels more linear than it should, but the director has produced a colorful, affecting collage of Dickensian moods and motifs, a movie that elicits a desire to plunge into 900 pages of 19th-century prose--which is saying something, indeed.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

This is a very tricky book. On two levels. First, it is about a deeply polygamist family, which is bound to raise some hackles. The other is that it is deceptively funny, and you just don't expect to laugh that much in a tale about a man, his multiple wives, and his 28 children. It seems like it would be all about the complications or the joys, and not so much about the foibles. But that is what Udall has given us, in a 600 page tome about the pitfalls, and the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish.
Golden is the patriarch of this sprawling clan. Much like the story in 'Big Love', the wives all come from polygamist families. No one has to be trained in what the drill is. All the women are church-going folks, and have had mothers who have lived the lives that they are embarking on. Even the youngest wife confronts the reality that she is likely not the last. And they are all hoping to have te most children, so as to have social value, both within their home, as well as within the church. So we are already into pretty foreign territory for the average reader.
The lonely polygamist is Golden. He doesn't have an intimate relationship with any of his wives, and that leaves him isolated and vulnerable. One of the story lines is his gradual descent into an affair with someone he actually falls in love with--so on that level it is an old-fashioned love story, just with an unusual back story. But Golden isn't the only story we follow. The other story is that of Rusty, the scape-goated child in the clan. The polygamist family is a complicated social structure and Rusty allows us to see how it works and how it fails. The book allows the reader to think about what 'family' is, what would be the ideal, and then what is really unworkable. And we get to do that outside the usual paradigm in fiction. Bravo, Mr. Udall. This is a unique work of fiction.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

Once again I am recommending a movie that a lot of reviewers disliked. Some of them seemed to think it should be revoked, or limited in distribution to those under 20 years of age. I am not a gamer and I am not male and I am old. I am therefore nothing like the demographic this movie is aimed at, and I liked it immensely.
The movie is almost like a video game. If life were a video game, this would be it. There are seven levels--the seven ex-boyfriends of the beautiful Ramona, and each ex is increasingly difficult to defeat, but that must be done in order to get the girl. So much for woing her. That is so 20th century. Here, winning the girl has an entirely different meaning.
The film is based on the graphic novels of the same name, and follows the life of 22 year old bass player Scott Pilgrim. He's unemployed, in a local Toronto rock band and dating a high school girl named Knives (played by Ellen Wong). His life is just as he likes it until he meets a girl named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Ramona is tragically hip, cool, tough and beautiful and she first appears to Scott in a dream. Scott immediately falls for her, stalks her, and then corners her into going out with him. She reluctantly goes on a date with him but then falls for him as well. Everything seems perfect until Scott discovers he must do battle with and defeat seven of her evil exes. Her most current ex Gideon (Jason Schwartzman) formed a league of the evil exes in order to kill Scott and win back Ramona. Surprisingly Scott has super powers, as do all the exes, and is quite the force to reckon with. As he kills each ex they break into coins and Scott earns power points (just like in a video game) that help him improve in life and make him stronger.
The movie is more ridiculous than it sounds, it's like nothing you've ever seen before and at times I was truly asking myself 'What am I watching?' but the style of the movie grows on you and by the end I was in love with it. The movie is so alternative, witty and hip it's almost too cool for it's own good but in the end it works. It manages to tone down it's relentlessness enough to have some touching and honest moments. It is one of the most original and crazy artistic achievements in film I've seen. It really stands apart, with the exception of 'Kickass', which has some of the comic book comedic violence this film has. This genre is a breath of fresh air.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost

This book was recommended to me as distraction, while I have been convalesing with a difficult-to-manage health problem. The idea is, something that would be fun to read, pass the time, and not be too intellectually challenging, while still being entertaining. And it fit the bill exactly.
Troost and his then girlfriend, now wife agree to spend two years on Tarawa, an atoll in Kiribati (once known as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands). The collection 33 island atolls is located around the equator in the central Pacific Ocean (for those of you who do not have the globe fully memorized) and spread out over an area roughly equivalent to the size of the United States. So it is hot, isolated, and to make matters worse, it is challenging to get from one island to another. Tarawa itself consists of 24 islets, so a boat is required even for travel over a modest distance. To complicate matters further, the place is about 2 feet above sea level. It is the cuntry that is predicted to disappear first as global warming progresses. Islets have already gone under--the population is cramping together into smaller and smaller spaces due to rising sea water, and the fresh water sources are gradually being infiltrated with sea water.
So, in summary, this is not paradise. This is a part of the British Empire that was gladly shed. There is limited water, no centralized government to speak of, limited food, poor housing, no air conditioning, no waste disposal--either trash or septic, and not much hope of changing any of those conditions. The foreigners who are assigned to this outpost to provide solutions can barely function under the living conditions and leave as quickly as a transfer can be arranged--so there is no longitudianl planning to speak of.
Troost's account of his two years there is written in a "laugh so you don't cry" style. It is irreverant and very funny. The balance might be more towards the crude than the refined, and if that style of writing puts you off then you should avoid this, but it is a 'no hold barred' look at a people who have never had it great, and are now on the brink of collapse.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Eve Dinner

Happy New Year to all!
We had a wonderful meal for New year's Eve, completely assembled by my husband. A friend of mine from high school is the stage director for Tosca, being staged in Cedar Rapids later this month, and after a four day ordeal getting to Iowa from New York City, he was able to spend New Year's Eve with us. The meal consisted of:
Chick Pea and Beet Green soup (for good luck)
Crab and Spinach Gratin (using king crab my brother had sent from his home in Alaska)
Mango Sorbet
Marinated Flank Steak
Onion Risotto
Corn and Zucchini Saute (frozen summer bounty)
Apple and Arugula Salad
Cheese Platter (including two from Green Dirt Farm)
Chocolates (present from my parents)

It was all delicious but the Crab and Spinach Gratin was the highlight--adapted from the Susan Herrmann Loomis 'The Great American Seafood Cookbook', the recipe is as follows:
Spinach layer:
10 oz frozen spinach (squeeze ALL water out)
olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste
This goes on the bottom of the gratin dishes--make individual portions if possible.
Bechamel sauce:
1 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. flour
1/2 c. milk
1 bay leaf
3/4 c. grated cheddar
3/4 tsp. hot paprika
salt an pepper to taste
Heat butter and bay leaf in pan, when melted add flour, stir until browning, add milk, stir until thickening. Add spices to taste. Take off heat and add 10 oz. of crab--top spinach with this, then sprinkle with panko crumbs. Can be made well ahead of time to this point. Broil 3-5 minutes until top is browned and serve immediately.