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Monday, February 28, 2011

Bolognese Sauce

1 lb. ground meat--the best is a combination of pork, beef, and veal
1 onion diced
3 carrots shredded
2 tsp. olive oil
1 c. white wine
1 c. milk
28 oz. crushed tomatoes
salt to taste
This is a very meaty sauce! To start, saute onions in olive oil in a large cast iron pot. When they start to soften, add the shredded carrots, and 5 minutes later, add the meat. Stir every so often, and when it is on it's way to browning, add the white wine and boil sauce without covering. When the wine has mostly boiled off, add the milk--after it is reduced to almost nothing, add the tomatoes, cook another 15 minutes or so (I like the tomatoes to retain a fresher flavor, so i don't cook the sauce long after that, but to each their own). Salt to taste, and a quart of sauce to a pound of pasta works well. This can also be used in the middle layers of lasagna if you want a meat lasagna.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Just Kids by Patti Smith

This a warm remembrance of a dead friend and inspiration, a look back at New York City in the Patti Smith describes launching herself into an artistic career in the late 1960's in New York City in great detail. She already recognised a divine succession of poets – Blake, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet and the Beats – and she wanted to join them. She was creative and liked to write, read and draw. Eventually, she became the renaissance woman of the punks, a great rock singer and composer – but before that she had to fashion her look, her personality and her verse.
And to survive. She got a job working in a bookshop, she met Robert Mapplethorpe, who was the same age and just as poor, and they took a Brooklyn apartment together and set great store by the way they dressed; both had an ­innate and highly original sense of ­personal style. And he was fiercely ­ambitious and coveted artistic success.
In her careful, sometimes painful self-sculpting, Smith had found an inspired and equally determined collaborator in Mapplethorpe.

She obviously has a great gift for ­appreciation-- from the very beginning she was alert to influences that would help her to explore and to firm up her peculiar sensibility, which was at once edgy and lyrical, both demotic and hieratic. She was more relaxed about their ability to survive; Robert was much more ­anxious about money and fame.

Her love affair with Mapplethorpe, to be sure, had its painful moments, ­especially as they were both discovering that he was gay.
Her transition to musician seems, in this account, to have been disconcertingly easy. She bought a guitar and soon knew how to play it. She turned some of her poems into songs. She put together a band – and before long she was a megastar touring the world. Mapplethorpe produced a portrait of her that undoubtedly helped to ­cement her image; with her gift for phrase-making, Patti writes: "Robert was ­concerned with how to make the ­photograph, and I with how to be the photograph." Suddenly, Robert was showing photos in galleries attended by "a ­perfect New York City mix of leather boys, drag queens, socialites, rock and roll kids and art collectors".
Like that art opening, this book brings together all the elements that made New York so exciting in the 1970s – the danger and poverty, the artistic seriousness and optimism, the sense that one was still connected to a whole history of great artists in the past. This was a small community that was carefully observed by the media; it also flourished at the moment when New York was becoming the cultural capital of the western world.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

It's Kind of a Funny Story (2010)

Actually, it is not funny, this story. It is a movie about perspective, and how hard it is to come by when you are an adolescent.
Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a bright but depressed teenager who's voluntarily checked himself into a hospital psych ward after having persistent thoughts of harming himself. He is immediately overwhelmed by just how ill all his fellow ward-mates are and wants to be discharged minutes after he arrives. He is befriended by Zach Galifianakis (as Bobby), a man with multiple suicide attempts and little go9ing for him beyond his very wonderful 8 year old daughter. One highlights is when they do a karyoke routine in which the introverted 15-year-old both opens up and glams it up, lip-synching to Freddie Mercury while Zach Galifianakis — sporting a cape during this sequence, the second time he's done so in his past two films — backs him up by pantomiming his way through the Bowie lines. Given the setting and the uptight protagonist, it's a little too on-the-nose. But it also feels kind of right for this movie. A sweet-natured modernized One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest for the teen set, It's Kind of a Funny Story is based on a young-adult novel, so clichés can be expected.
How did Craig get into the hospital to begin with? The pressure of performance anxiety has taken its toll on Craig: he projectile-vomits at the thought of disappointing his dad (Jim Gaffigan) and quietly pines after his best friend's girl, Nia (Zoe Kravitz, daughter of Lenny and Lisa Bonet). Then he meets Noelle (Emma Roberts, Julia's niece), a cute, lanky girl prone to cutting herself.
Craig packs quite a lot into the five days of hospitalization that follow, from recognizing his true talent as a visual artist (I'll even grant him his imagined rock-star status) to curing his dyspepsia, solving other patients' problems, and, yes, even finding a girlfriend. Imagine what he could accomplish if he weren't so depressed! Sure, it's wish fulfillment of a fantastic order, and easy to enjoy the simple and even kind of funny pleasures to be found here.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer

I did not read the first book in this series, 'The Tourist', but this book brings back the main character in that book, Milo Weaver, a covert operative for the CIA. Miles is one of the elite spies known as Tourists because, like visitors to a foreign land, “they appeared and disappeared.” Tourists are a secret sect of American agents that have no steady identity, no home, and not much of a moral center. Milo claims that he would rather spend quality time at home with his wife and daughter than traipse around the world robbing, maiming, and killing people. As espionage enthusiasts know, however, it is not that easy to quit.
The narrative opens in Budapest in 2007. A young and not terribly successful journalist named Henry Gray is enjoying the company of his Hungarian girlfriend, when he receives a surprising letter from Thomas Grainger, Weaver’s former boss. The letter states, “The story I’m about to tell you is dangerous to know.” Since Henry is a conspiracy theorist, this communication feeds into his paranoia. And so the roller-coaster ride begins, as Steinhauer dives into a tale of double agents, lies, intrigue, torture, and murder. Milo’s new boss orders to him to vet the statement of a potential defector, who claims that a mole working for the United States government is passing on vital secrets to China. Weaver endangers his already tenuous relationship with his wife, Tina, to ferret out the truth. He would like to close this chapter in his tortured life, but developments ensue that make an early exit strategy unlikely. By the time the last page is turned, it is clear that someone’s need for revenge has brought about chaos and carnage.
Steinhauer’s characters are indelible. Milo has a soft spot for children, but he seems to kill adults with little if any remorse and he commits countless illegal acts in order to survive and carry out his mission. Cynicism is at the novel’s core. Most of the men and women who work for various intelligence bureaus have no clear ethical code; like Milo, they do whatever is expedient. In addition, a powerful American politician pulls strings behind the scenes to further his own agenda. In Germany, a massively overweight, alcoholic, and brilliant woman named Erika becomes entangled in an operation that could have long-range consequences for both Germany and the United States.
The Nearest Exit presents a pesimistic world view without yelling at us that the world is full of bad actors; the author implies that for those who wish to face reality need accept the fact that in the real world, anything goes. Riots are fomented, governments are destabilized, women and children are slaughtered, and wars are waged, often for reasons that have nothing to do with national security. As Henry Gray says about his favorite subject, conspiracies, “If it can be imagined, then someone’s already tried it.” This book is filled with duplicity, violence, and innumerable twists and turns. It is a riveting tale about a man who would probably come in from the cold if only circumstances did not keep dragging him back to the addictive occupation that he claims he is weaning himself off of. It is a great read--I had trouble putting it down, which made for a couple of late nights.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Undertaking Betty (2002)

This is what I would call a lightly dark romantic comedy in the British style Considering the subject matter deals with death, infidelity and revenge, the film achieves a nice balance of the silly and the morbid but it all unfolds rather gently.
It is a comedy about romance and death, via undertakers, in the small Welsh town of Wrottin-Powys, population 7,500, the film starts us off in 1964 as we see a young couple clearly smitten with each other and the atmosphere only ball-room dancing can provide (stay with me here…). The shy young gentleman is close to making his move when a pudgy kid intercepts him. A hesitation that may have cost him almost forty years.
That gentleman is Boris Plots (the fascinating casting choice of Alfred Molina), and he is now 48 and owns his own funeral parlor in town. Still harboring a secret crush on Betty (Brenda Blethyn) and ball-room dancing, he’s still waiting for the perfect chance to make his move…Poor, sweet Betty, meanwhile, has married the pudgy kid, Hugh Rhys-Jones, upon her father’s insistence. While poor Betty has been stuck at home taking care of Hugh’s obnoxious bed-ridden mother, Hugh (Robert Pugh) has become the pompous town mayor and has been carrying on an affair with his secretary sexpot (Naomi Watts).
When Betty’s mother-in-law croaks, during an episode of Jerry Springer no less (a town favorite it seems), Boris finally gets his chance to alleviate a heavy heart. Naïve Betty returns his feelings but wants no harm to come to Hugh and his reputation so an elaborate plan is concocted. They will fake her death and run off together. Simple, right? Hmm...of course not, but that is when you realize you are in a dark comedy, but not too dark a one.
In a subplot that holds the most laughs, Chris Walken and Lee Evans are Frank Featherbed and assistant, competing morticians who think of funerals as “fun-erals”. “The root word of funeral is fun” notes Frank. He is a slightly off-kilter guy who thinks every funeral needs a theme and also likes to offer discounts of the “buy one funeral get the next one half off” variety. A particularly funny episode involves a widow who makes the mistake of mentioning Star Trek as the favorite show of his recently deceased spouse…this pre-dates 'Hairspray', but it is always great to see Christopher Walken dance rather than being super-creepy.
The movie is a 'feel good' movie, with everyone getting their come uppance in the end.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

I loved this book. I am not alone. It was perhaps the best-reviewed book of the year in any genre. The great revelation of this volume is not so much what it tells us about the last great queen of Egypt -- she is, after all, one of a handful of women in human history that is still fascinating, despite the near-absence of primary sources of information about her life -- but about Schiff’s ability as a storyteller.She is an authoritative and supremely elegant writer. Really, if you have never liked a biography, try this one.
Schiff’s command of her material impressive, but it is her quietly dramatic writing style, the sentences often building on each other, that is so engaging. “Alexandria is flatter today than it was in Cleopatra's lifetime,” begins one of these mounting sequences. “It is oblivious to its ancient street plan; it no longer gleams white. The Nile is nearly two miles farther east. The dust, the sultry sea air, Alexandria’s melting purple sunsets, are unchanged. Human nature remains remarkably consistent, the physics of history immutable. Firsthand accounts continue to diverge wildly. For well over two thousand years, a myth has been able to outrun and outlive a fact.”
And so it goes--the woman who bore children by two of the most powerful men of her age, Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony, while she led her country in a time of peril is still a wonderful story.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Spicy Indonesian Squash Soup

2 tsp. olive oil
8 c. stock
4 c. squash, carrots, or yams
2 potatoes diced
1 c. cilantro
2 Tbs. grated ginger
1 c. diced onion
6 cloves garlic minced
1 tsp. curry
1 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1/3 c. peanut butter
salt to taste

Saute onions and garlic in olive oil in a soup pot. When the onions are softening, add cumin, cayenne, and your favorite curry blend and cook a few minutes more. Then add stock, cilantro, potato, and the orange root vegetables of your choice. Simmer until the vegetables are soft. Add peanut butter, and mix thoroughly. Add salt to taste. Puree, and serve. This is a slightly spicy, slightly nutty, slightly sweet soup. You can add lemon at the end to brighten the flavor up a bit if you like.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

I am not a classics scholar. So my tolerance for potential heresy is very high. An academic might feel differently about a first time author exploring Odysseus alternative narratives.
Mason embraces all of Greek mythology, and the nuance and ingenuity of his riffs and remixes confirm his command of the material. He speaks as Achilles, the Cyclops Polyphemus and the loyal swineherd Eumaios; recasts the story of Persephone and Hades with Helen and Paris in the lead roles; makes Theseus a time-traveler; sends Achilles on a mission to conquer a decidedly un-Greek heaven.
Mason’s renditions of Odysseus is extensive — they are comic, dead, doubled, ghosts, amnesiacs — but when the need arises, he provides an exquisite Homeric version, dripping with all the poetry that that entails. “I will make your friend there as alive as you are,” the hero, referring to a dead Patroclus, assures a “clay simulacrum” of Achilles in “The Myrmidon Golem,” a mash-up of Greek mythology and Jewish folklore. Then, true to his word, he kills the golem. An equally wily, voice-throwing Odysseus fools the Fates into giving him better than he deserves in “One Kindness.” Such moments center the reader, fortify his reserves for the journeys to come and are fabulous to read.
Mason’s imagination soars and his language is wonderful. He is a writer much like his protagonist: prone to crash landings, but resourceful and eloquent enough to find his way home.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Red (2010)

This movie is chock full of overqualified actors who are featured in the graphic-novel-derived, comic action movie, including Bruce Willis, over-underacting as former black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses, John Malcovich, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren, all ex-CIA who have worked together in the past. The short version of this film is that it is very light weight, but true action comedies are rare, and this one does not make you wince.
So, here is the story. Retired Frank has been living a gratifyingly boring and solitary life in the burbs when his home is inexplicably invaded by a high-tech hit squad, which he methodically dispatches. Up until this point he's been periodically amusing himself flirting on the phone with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), the administrator of his pension checks.
On the pretext of a business trip, he arranges a blind date with her. In the wake of the attack, fearing she may also be implicated, Frank converts the date into a kidnapping. Sarah complains, but not too convincingly. Frank, is, after all, more exciting than the losers she's been hooking up with.

Besides Frank, several other top CIA agents, all retired, are also being targeted by, as is soon revealed, their former employer. (The film's title is an acronym for "retired, extremely dangerous.") Joe (Morgan Freeman), terminally ill but still game, is living in a nursing home; Malkovich's Marvin, the unwitting recipient of long-ago LSD experiments conducted by the CIA, stows himself in a camouflaged bunker; Mirren's Victoria, looking like a cross between Martha Stewart and Margaret Thatcher, has a queenly decorum.
In order for it to work, one should not take 'Red' seriously on any level. Whenever it touches on the real world – whenever it brings up torture and terrorism and assassination of US leaders – it loses its bearings.

By not taking themselves too seriously, they provide an alternate-­universe romper room that harks back to the comfy days of cold warriorism. "RED," in fact, features a Russian operative and former cold-war spy, Brian Cox's Ivan, who's as warm and fuzzy as a teddy bear.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Price of Altruism by Oren Harman

This book presents a wealth of scientific research bearing on forms of cooperation, helpfulness, even self-sacrifice among many species. Altruism was “an anomalous thorn in Darwin’s side,” Harman argues, a conundrum that Darwinians would need to solve, given their view of the ruthless struggle among living beings for survival:
Harman offers vivid accounts of the lives and writings of a number of evolutionary biologists who have sought answers to such questions, showing how they have intersected with the remarkable career of one man who took questions about altruism to heart as few others have: “the forgotten American genius George Price, atheist-chemist and drifter turned religious evolutionary–mathematician and derelict.”
The man had an incredible work history at a very interesting time in science. Born in 1922, he earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Chicago, even as he worked on uranium enrichment in the Manhattan Project. He went on to do research at Bell Labs, then at the Radioisotope Lab at the Minnesota Veterans Administration Hospital, and later at IBM, while engaging in often vehement controversies about topics such as extrasensory perception and U.S.-Soviet relations. It was only in 1967, after he moved to London and was appointed to a position at the Galton Laboratory, that he focused ever more intensely on problems of altruism.
Harman describes (with three appendices that set forth and elucidate the stages of the equation itself in the context of related ones) how Price arrived at his equation, aiming to explain how natural selection works at different levels at the same time, whether among genes, cells, individuals, families, groups, or even species.
The book’s title also bespeaks the personal cost for Price himself of his struggles during the London years--which I hate to sound like a psychiatrist, but I think had a mental health origin. He ended up living in squalor amongst the marginalized people of society. But his work on altruism is fascinating.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Restrepo (2010)

“Restrepo,” a documentary that revolves entirely around one company of American soldiers during a grueling 14-month tour of duty in an especially dangerous part of Afghanistan It is an impressive, one might go so far to say heroic feat of journalism. The filmmakers — Sebastian Junger, an adventurous reporter perhaps best known as the author of “The Perfect Storm,” and Tim Hetherington, a photographer with extensive experience in war zones — call no attention to the situation they have placed themselves in to make this film.
Hanging out with the members of Battle Company in their hilltop outposts in the Korangal Valley between May 2007 and July 2008, Mr. Junger and Mr. Hetherington recorded firefights, reconnaissance missions, sessions of rowdy horseplay and hours of grinding boredom. Afterward, when the tour was done, the filmmakers conducted interviews in which the soldiers tried to make sense of what they had done and seen. There is nothing especially fancy or innovative here, just a blunt, sympathetic, thorough accounting of the daily struggle to stay alive and accomplish something constructive.
Any viewer superficially acquainted with the literature and cinema of modern war will have a sense of the peril and tedium that define a soldier’s daily experience, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have spawned a number of serious and well-made films, both fictional and not. What distinguishes “Restrepo” — which belongs with “The Hurt Locker” on the short shelf of essential 21st-century combat movies — is not only its uniquely intensive focus on a small group of men in a particular time and place, but also its relentless attention to the lethal difficulty of their work.
The setting is the Korangal Valley, a mountainous, sparsely populated area in Eastern Afghanistan that, at least at the time, was seen as a region of prime strategic importance. (American forces withdrew from the valley this April--so shade s of Vietnam--men died trying to gain footholds in places that months later were abandoned). In addition to defending their encampments, the company’s men built a new outpost, and in the midst of regular skirmishes with the Taliban and other insurgents they went about the sometimes confusing business of trying to win hearts and minds of the community they were alternately living with and fighting with. At weekly meetings with local elders and in more informal encounters, the soldiers, led by Capt. Dan Kearney, tried to overcome suspicion and resentment, and to persuade Korangal citizens that the American presence would bring jobs, improved infrastructure and other good things. I felt overwhelmingly that this was work that soldiers are ill-equipped to do--that we need some sor tof combined effort between soldiers and social workers to make real progress.
As someone responsible for mental health for returning veterans, this film gave me an immersion experience in what the stresses of daily life in a combat zone are like, and how hard it would be to transition back to a place with a roof over your head, running water, and no one shooting at you.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier

I really loved the author's introduction to the book, where he tells about the early days of his love affair with Russia. he is bursting with joy at what a wonderful place it is, and he meets a journalist who has been living in Moscow--Frazier asks him optimisitcally about what he thinks of Mussia--and th ejournalist tells him he hates it--it is corrupt, people are mean, lies are the norm, it is dysfunctional on a mammoth scale and there is no effor tto fix the problems. Well, yes, Frazier acknowledges that all that is in fact true, but what about the soul, the history, the vastness, the glory. He acknowledges the warts, but he thinks Russia still has a beuatiful face, and he goes on to describe his trips there, to Siberia in particularm, and in the end he has me hankering to take a trip.
There are lots of obstacles to overcome in Siberian travel--not the least of which is food and water. He has a guide, whom he variously adores and loathes, depending on a number of factors, only some of which are directly the fault of the guide--and that seems essential. English is not widely spoken, and it is just hard to get around.
First we learn that there are no actual boundaries to Siberia. It has become part of our vernacular, yet it doesn't have an exact place. Getting sent to Siberia means exile to extreme conditions--cold, limited resources, and lots of land, not many people. Quiet, I guess would be a good spin on it. Solitary confinement would be another way to look at it. In any case, Frazier does an excellent job spinning a tale that is gritty and alluring at the same time, suffused with some Russian history, and sprinkled with some thoughts on the people that populate the country. He is astounded that of the top twelve Russians, by their own account, two of them were responsible for reigns of terror--Stalin is third, and he personally oversaw the killing of many millions of his countrymen--more than were killed by Russia's enemies. That sums it up. This is a complicated place, but it has reall beauty that is worth seeking out and trying to understand.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Heartbreaker (2009)

This is it--the perfect romantic comedy for the modern age. It is on the one hand fresh and unique in it's approach, and on the other, entirely faithful to the genre. You leave this movie feeling very good.
That premise it this--Romain Duris plays Alex, a handsome swaggering man who breaks up couples for a living. Working with his sister Melanie (Julie Ferrier) and her husband, Marc (Francois Damiens), he is hired by disgruntled relatives to seduce women out of relationships the relatives do not approve of without the women being any the wiser that they are being manipulated.
Alex does have his scruples. Not only won't he destroy couples for religious or racial reasons, he also believes in true love. His credo is "We only break up couples, we never break hearts." In addition, there is absolutely no sex involved. Ever. That is a rule--Alex knows that sex changes everything.
"Heartbreaker" opens with a pastiche of Alex and his system being operationalized. We see him work his magic in all kinds of situations. Duris (who I have loved since 'L'Auberge Espagnole', to 'Dans Paris', then 'Paris') adds his own particular intensity to this light comic role to excellent effect.
Then we cut to the chase--the real romance that is about to be. He takes on a case that does not fit his rules. Ordinarily Alex would never attempt to break up Juliette (Paradis) and her fiancé Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln). She is a wine expert, he a philanthropist, and they are so in love that the word on the street is "god couldn't have created a more perfect couple." But Alex is also in desperate need of funds, so he takes the assignment from Juliette's wealthy and controlling father.
So the trio goes to work on what they all agree from the onset is an impossible task, with hilarious consequences that are so clever, you laugh on two levels. This movie is slick and well done, and very satisfying.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles

Let me start off by saying that I am not a big fan of bugs. I definitely do not like them in my house. When I was in Thailand and we would see large stackes of them for sale to eat, I decided then and there that I am saving eating bugs for when I am stranded on a desert island and they are the only available source of calories. I am not even all that tolerant of them in the great outdoors--but I loved this book, which is entirely and completely about insects.
This is not so much an encyclopedia about insects as it is an ode to bugs. The opening chapter tells about the earliest attempts to quantify how many insects are in the stratosphere, up to what heights, and in what density. They found a spider floating 15,000 feet off the ground, propelled by what, we do not know. Fascinating stuff, and it gets better from there.
This is an entirely readable book, with lots of interesting information about insect behavior and culture. There is the inevitable chapter on bees, and Raffles admits that bees are so incredible that it was hard not to devote the entire book to them, but he resisted that temptation--what I did learn was who began the study of bee behavior, and how he went about it, which was interesting--the book is full of "I didn't know that" moments, and they are presented in a "isn't this cool" format. The author poses as many questions as he answers, and he has a deeply abiding respect and awe of the creatures that are the most numerous on the planet.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
~William Shakespeare

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Gasland (2010)

This film could be titled "The Longer we Live the Less We Know" or "We Are a People Destined to Repeat the Same Mistakes Over and Over Again". This is a documentary in the Michael Moore style--a 'look how terrible these guys are' story. So you have to take what he says with a grian of salt.
Indisputable facts are that large swaths of the country have deposits of natural gas under them. The process for extracting that gas, called 'fracking', requires that large volumes of water laced with chemicals--some disclosed, some not disclosed--are pumped under the ground and there are three resultant problems. One is that there are no regulations on disposal of the waste water. Second is that there is no due diligence on how contained the natural gas is when 'fracked'--does it go obediently into the hole drilled, or are there some rogue eruptions that occur? And third is that when harm occurs, the driler is innocent until proven guilty, rather than being held to safety standards whereby they would be required to establish and maintain safety in thier operation. The access to this sort of drilling was established during the Bush-Cheney years, and so they excluded the drillers from requirements of the Clean Water and the Clean Air acts, which makes wrongdoing more appealing, or at least less penalized. And so there is a perfect storm.
Water is our most precious resource--more so than energy. Sadly, we undervalue it, don't protect it adequately, and it is certainly non-profit. This film depicts the consequences of those priorities. Nominated as 'Best Documentary' for this year's Academy Awards, it is well worth watching.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier

On Sept. 17, 1787, the Continental Convention that had been working, more or less productively, in Philadelphia for months to design a new form of government for the United States. They were headed up by George Washington, and they reached final agreement, a true document made by committee--with all it's strengths and shortcomings--and adjourned, offering its handiwork to the nation. It helps in the reading of this book to have some detailed background of that process--I recommend 'Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution' by Richard Beeman as a good place to start.
There was vigorous and heated debate about the quality of the document produced but allmost a year later, on Sept. 13, 1788, Congress declared that the Constitution had been duly ratified, and prescribed the rules for the first presidential election the following year. Pauline Maier’s delightful and engrossing book shows how America got from the first date to the second--in remarkable and interesting detail.
One caveat: To like this book, you have to have some interest in the political process. There is a lot of manipulating and maneuvering, counter insurgency plans and back room dealing. “Ratification” is a beginner introduction to American Politics. It has process, issues, arguments, local context, major players, minor players — and hoopla. “The popular excitement” that attended the struggle, Maier writes, “reminded me at times of Americans’ obsession with the final games of the World Series. Politics was in a real sense the first national game.”
The United States’ first form of government was the Articles of Confederation, which established a Congress, dominated by the state legislatures that picked its members (there was no national executive or judiciary). The framers of the Constitution thought they were replacing a system that was fractious, irresponsible and broken. But many Americans thought the framers had botched the job. The Constitution as it left Philadelphia had no Bill of Rights. So many things to fix later, it turns out, including the slavery issue--we are the only nation that had to go to war to end slavery--but this is where it started. Great read.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

I am not sure how this garnered a 'Best Documentary Film' Academy Award nomination, because while part of it is documentary-like footage, and significant 1/4 of the film is a spoof, pure and simple. it is a con run on the viewer of the film, poking fun at the interest that one might have in "the next great thing". it has a Warholian feel to it in many respects, and if he were alive today, I think we would have been amused.

There is something both odd and engaging about Thierry Guetta, the antic Frenchman who guides our experience — and would like to guide our perceptions — of “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”
Perched on a stool in front of the camera, sporting impressively original facial hair, Mr. Guetta is constantly in motion. Legs pumping and arms waving, he narrates the story (Rhys Ifans covers the voice over when Thierry isn't talking).
Banksy, the notoriously reclusive British street artist, appears only rarely, face hooded and voice distorted--he alleges in the film that he did the editing. It is Banksy we hope to see, influenced by the hype that the artist carefully erected, in interviews and on the festival circuit. What they will find is, like Banksy’s best work, a trompe l’oeil: a film that looks like a documentary but ends up feeling a bit like a manipulation.

Spanning almost a decade and several continents, “Exit” tells of Mr. Guetta’s infiltration of the secretive world of street artists, greased by his cousin, the Parisian artist Space Invader, and a video-camera obsession which pre-dated his love affair with street art. He films everything, in an obsessive-sompulsive way, and street art allowed him to have a focus for his obsession. Claiming to be a filmmaker, he becomes the unlikely accomplice of a movement whose members have a vandal’s fear of recording devices. He accumulated thousands of hours of tape, including some of Banksy working.
While we are in the seriously self-aware company of artists like Invader and Shepard Fairey (the future designer of the ubiquitous Obama “Hope” image), the film is relentlessly entertaining, a fascinating document of work whose life span is commonly determined by city councils and cleanup crews. The astonishing tags of Neckface and Swoon, Cheez and Coma were made to be filmed, and perhaps the biggest disappointment of “Exit” is that we are allowed to glimpse so few of them. This is a movie to be watched by everyone, regardless if you see street art as art or vandalism. It will make you notice things on the streets of your town, and make you wonder about the person who created it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

I am not so much goinig to review this book but talk about what I gained from it. There has been a lot written about the man, much of it I have not read, so I cannot coment on the quality of this book vis-a-vis other biographies. What I can say is that this book is remarkably readable, and does not focus solely on the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress, nor his time as president. A full third of the book is leading up to his time in the public eye. I did not know anything about his childhood, his realtionship with his mother (now there was a difficult woman to please), and in many ways, this was the most interesting part of the book, precisely because of how little I knew about it. The book is quite readable, and despite it's length (800+ pages), it moves quickly.
I never tire of the accounts of Washington during the Revolutionary War. he made mistakes, but he learned from them, and he cared deeply about the men who found for him and with him. The conditions that soldiers were living in were appalling, and long lived. The war went on for 8 years (which used to seem like a long time, but that is how long we have been in Afghanistan at this point), and the ins and outs of how we gradually managed to elicit surrender from Britain are always worth reading another go round.
Nation building is something that we are particularly bad at in modern times, but it happened relatively quickly in Washington's time. It helped that we had been functioning largely as an independent self-governed nation with little interference from England prior to the war, and that there was litle in the way of cultural diversity at the time to contend with. But the process of creating a democracy is one that we could still learn from today, and the book is full of shifting allegiances, and some of the old adage "keep your friends close and your enemies closer' when it came to Washington's finessing the way into nationhood.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Secret in their Eyes (2009)

Some of the very best movies I see each year are the ones that are entered by their country to the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film--and every time I see a movie of this caliber, I vow to see more of them.
The movie takes place in Buenos Aires at two points in time--1974 and 2000. The story begins (although not the film) with a criminal-court investigator, Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darín) arriving at a crime scene bantering and cursing with a colleague, and sees the murdered corpse of a beautiful young woman. Not only does he relentlessly pursue the killer; he draws close to the woman’s husband, a bank employee named Morales (Pablo Rago), who remains obsessed with his dead wife for the rest of his life. the movie is a story first and foremost about love, but the front story is one of a crime and what happens to those who live to tell the tale.
The movie opens in 2000, and Espósito, gray-bearded, is at his desk, writing. It is twenty-five years after the murder, and the investigator, retired yet still fascinated by the case, is assembling his recollections of it.
Back in 1974, Espósito chases the killer with the aid of his antic partner, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), and their cautious superior, Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), a judge’s assistant and the woman Benjamin loves. The movie has a haunted air, filled with missed opportunities and obsessions.
From scene to scene, the movie has an enormously vital swing to it. Espósito is a knight-errant of the law who seeks justice, and Sandoval is his Sancho Panza, while the judges (apart from Irene) are profane and corrupt political hacks; the back-and-forth among the court workers is juicy and explicit, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sinister, while the atmosphere outside the courts is savage. The dictator Juan Perón dies in 1974, and is succeeded by his wife, Isabel; it’s the time of the death squads, the disappearances, and legal anarchy. All the messages--the importance of living life fully, the glory and and the trechery of intense love, and where government fails us--are beautifully told in this wonderful film.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera

As soon as the financial crisis erupted, the finger-pointing began. Should the blame fall on Wall Street, Main Street, or Pennsylvania Avenue? On greedy traders, misguided regulators, sleazy sub-prime companies, cowardly legislators, or clueless home buyers? I really had no idea, other than that greed almost certainly played a role, as well as favors that all Congressmen owe to the rich who elect them. A situation likely to get worse before it gets better given the elimination of campaign contribution limitations.
According to this book, written by two long time business journalist, the real answer is all of the above-and more. Many devils helped bring hell on earth to the economy. And the full story, in all of its complexity and detail, is like the legend of the blind men and the elephant. Almost everyone has missed the big picture. Almost no one has put all the pieces together. This book walks the reader through the morass.
'All the Devils Are Here' goes back several decades to unravel the hidden history of the financial crisis. It explores the motivations of everyone from well known CEOs, cabinet secretaries, and politicians to anonymous lenders, borrowers, analysts, and Wall Street traders. It delves into the powerful American mythology of homeownership. And it postulates that the crisis ultimately wasn't about finance at all; it was about human nature.
Some memorable players include:
• Angelo Mozilo, the CEO of Countrywide, who dreamed of spreading homeownership to the masses, only to succumb to the peer pressure-and the outsized profits-of the sleaziest sub-prime lending.
• Roland Arnall, a respected philanthropist and diplomat, who made his fortune building Ameriquest, a sub-prime lending empire that relied on blatantly deceptive lending practices.
• Hank Greenberg, who built AIG into a Rube Goldberg contraption with an undeserved triple-A rating, and who ran it so tightly that he was the only one who knew where all the bodies were buried.
• Stan O'Neal of Merrill Lynch, aloof and suspicious, who suffered from "Goldman envy" and drove a proud old firm into the ground by promoting cronies and pushing out his smartest lieutenants.
• Lloyd Blankfein, who helped turn Goldman Sachs from a culture that famously put clients first to one that made clients secondary to its own bottom line.
• Franklin Raines of Fannie Mae, who (like his predecessors) bullied regulators into submission and let his firm drift away from its original, noble mission.
• Brian Clarkson of Moody's, who aggressively pushed to increase his rating agency's market share and stock price, at the cost of its integrity.
• Alan Greenspan, the legendary maestro of the Federal Reserve, who ignored the evidence of a growing housing bubble and turned a blind eye to the lending practices that ultimately brought down Wall Street-and inflicted enormous pain on the country.
These guys should be remembered. As should this book, because it finally made some sense of the meltdown and its consequences for the average guy.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Social Network (2010)

David Fincher’s 'The Social Network' is not so much about Facebook as it is about inspiration, betrayal, the weight of human relationships, the cost of success, and so much more. It just so happens that Facebook’s creation story is a good way to explore these themes. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin brilliantly tells that story through multiple perspectives, and Fincher’s direction showcases great narrative editing.
The film kicks off with a rapid-fire, dialogue-heavy scene between Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend (Rooney Mara). The interchange lays its protagonist bare while still keeping him intriguing and hints at the motives that would drive him to create one of the most popular, influential, and lucrative inventions of all-time. The Zuckerberg presented in 'The Social Network' is almost a tragic figure. Every mean-spirited barb he throws out is something we wish we had the wit to think if not say, and yet the script and Eisenberg’s performance makes us pity the man who feels like he has to say such hurtful things in the first place.

'The Social Network' is a story that is mostly told through two depositions for two different lawsuits. One lawsuit is from the classic "preppy men of privilege" twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) and their partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) who contend that Zuckerberg stole their idea for Facebook and forestalled the creation of their vision for the site. The other is from Zuckerberg’s former friend and business partner, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who got squeezed out when his skills at managing the financial side were overwhelmed. Through this layered storytelling, the notions of heroes and villains are laid aside and we see that on the road to the creation of this monumental website, there’s enough credit/blame to go around. It is a wonderfully told modern saga that resonates with all the drama of classic tales.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold

This is a fascinating book about the tensions between Christians and Muslims. As I have gone through World History this year with Ethan, I have become better versed in the background of world religion--how it spread, what helped, what made change happen. this book takes that several steps further, while still offering enough of the back story to be able to follow the modern drama.
Seven hundred miles north of the equator, the tenth parallel marks a geographical and ideological front line where Islam and Christianity collide, with more than half the world’s Muslims and 60 percent of the world’s Christians living in the region. Award–winning investigative reporter and poet Eliza Griswold spent seven years traveling on both sides of the faith–based fault line from Nigeria and Somalia to Indonesia and Malaysia.

The author combines academic research and her poetic sensibilities with a reporter’s discriminating eye to uncover the causes of various conflicts between Christians and Muslims, the specifically religious character of which she often reveals to be a somewhat belated addition to the equation. For example, in Nigeria, which is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims, changing global weather patterns such as increased drought and flooding are forcing Muslim herders from the north to drift south and encroach on farmland owned by sedentary Christians, thereby sparking clashes that sometimes spiral into religious mini-wars.
Griswold does not shy away from identifying religious zealotry (often in tandem with ethnic and racial chauvinism) as an important factor in some of the bloodiest conflicts. In Sudan, it isn’t simply the fact that the south is oil-rich that has spurred successive regimes to unleash murder and mayhem on southern Sudanese seeking increased freedoms, but the established practice of Arab Muslims oppressing the non-Arab and non-Muslim peoples of the country.
There is much to be learned her, and much to worry about--beautifully written and terrifying in many ways, but also illuminating.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sliding Doors (1998)

An enchanting, thought-provoking, and romantic "what if?" story that trades on the precarious nature of relationships, betrayal, and fate. It's a dramatic comedy and a subtle psychological musing on encouragement, environment and self-esteem.
The movie begins with a sunny Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) kissing her boyfriend good morning in bed then hurrying off to her job at a London public relations firm -- where she is immediately fired. Distressed and dejected, she returns to the subway, heading home for some sympathy snuggles from the beau. Running toward the platform as her train's doors close, Helen's life forks into two different realities, and "Sliding Doors" follows them both.
In one existence she just barely makes the train, getting home in time to catch her bastard boyfriend Jerry (John Lynch) in bed with another woman. But in the other, the train's doors close in her face, leading to a rotten karma domino effect, the crux of which is Jerry's continued philandering behind her back.
At this point, you might think "Sliding Doors" would get convoluted. But with a remarkably nimble narrative hand, director Peter Howitt navigates these two stories and never loses the audience for a moment.
For the Helen who makes the train, she moves in with her attentive best friend, symbolically cuts and dyes her drab hair and meets a winsome, witty Mr. Right, played with categorical charm by John Hannah.
But the Helen who misses the train finds herself in a rut. Besides sustaining an increasingly indifferent relationship with Jerry, she can't seem to find a new job and ends up a victim of the Other Woman's scorn to boot.
The single and empowered Helen shows just exactly how destructive to a partner cheating is, without being preachy on the subject. The having your cake and eating it to may precipitate crises for the perpetrator, but it is really an ugly thing to do to someone you care about.
"Sliding Doors" balances its two stories with such smooth dexterity that is has no problem even overlapping them occasionally, just for fun. The ending is a little disappointing, but so it goes, it does not really mar this engaging film.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen by Kwame Appiah

I would not have thought that I would enjoy a book on the subject of honor. But I was wrong. This book is thought provoking and interesting. It is the work of a professor and philosopher. Appiah’s ambition is to find a means to stop the honor killing of women. Honor, according to Appiah, is based in the recognition of others as peers or equals. One can gain this form of honor simply by being recognized as belonging to a group, as police, for example, or gentlemen, and, now, as human beings. Honor, like integrity or trust, is something of an impartial force. It can lend itself to inequality and violence. It can also be channeled, however, to encourage equality and dignity. Appiah hopes that honor, a concept invoked in the murder of as many as 5,000 women and girls annually, can also be used to end such crimes. In these days of phobia about Islam, it would be all too easy to cast blame for these crimes on a religion or on Pakistan or Iraq. Appiah serves us all when he reminds the reader that the tenets of Islam, as widely understood from the Koran, the Sunnah and the hadith, do not condone the killing of women by men in their own family.
Not only are honor killings immoral, they are also often technically illegal. In other words, religion and law have failed to temper them. In The Honor Code, Appiah offers the foundation for a creative and provocative solution to one of the world’s more notorious evils. That would be enough, but he has also given something more by elegantly reminding us of modernity’s bravest idea: that all people now deserve that most basic honor, dignity.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Winter's Bone (2010)

Warning--this movie is not for the faint of heart. It is an intense and uncompromising look at the rural Missouri underclass through the eyes of 17-year-old Ree Dolly. Set in the heart of a poverty-stricken, methamphetamine wracked community in the remote Ozark Woods, the film slowly pieces together the mystery of her father's disappearance, through Ree's journey into the backwoods and beyond to find him. He has a court date, and has used his house as collateral. As Ree looks for him, we see the darkness at the heart of her community and her family, including drug rings, misogyny, violence, and an almost universal apathy about her plight. Played by Jennifer Lawrence, Ree displays a maturity rarely seen in women twice her age. Ree's fight for survival is unsettling, violent and incredibly bleak, but it's also utterly compelling.
On Ree's journey, we discover an America where drug dealing is so ingrained even small children are indoctrinated, where women are subjugated with few rights and even less education, and simply surviving the winter can depend on squirrel meat.
The central mystery, locating Ree's father before the bail men take their home, is tautly played, and although the outcome is something of an open secret from the second act, the final reveal is shocking nonetheless.
A superb thriller, Winter's Bone is full of great stuff. It's intelligent, well written, entirely non-patronizing and skilfully shot, but it's Lawrence's performance that raises it from great to remarkable. Her intensity and ability to convey determination mixed with hopelessness will stay with you long after the film ends--it is not an exaggeration to call it haunting. Brace yourself, but this is well worth it. And it shows a side of Missouri and Iowa that are not pretty, but entirely accurate.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

I loved this book. On every level. It was a wonderful read, so well constructed and it flowed from start to finish so well that you almost cannot believe you have finished it. So soon? But the real worth is in the story if tells, which I really knew nothing about. The post World War I migrations of African Americans out of the South. They were searching for a better life, to escape the lynchings, the lack of opportunity, the poor education, and the subservient role in life.
The book chronicles the migration of some six million African Americans who left the South behind between World War I and the 1970s. Her extensive demographic and social-history research, thousands of interviews and select oral histories create a fresh, rich book. She spent more than a decade on the book and it shows. It is framed by the migration of three very different people in this revolutionary exodus out of Jim Crow segregation. Her principal characters are diverse. Mississippian Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who moved from sharecropping to Chicago in 1937; George Swanson Starling, who left the citrus fields of Florida in the mid-1940s and landed in Harlem; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a doctor escaping small-town Louisiana for the glitter of Los Angeles in 1951.
Wilkerson's interviews were extended and personal. She walked the same streets the three had walked, read the same newspapers, shared their food. Accompanied by her parents (migrants themselves from the South to Washington, D.C.), she recreated a cross-country drive made by Foster, coming to understand what it had meant to travel when accommodations were scarce, and the roads unsafe.
In between the personal narratives, Wilkerson takes on stereotypes of this era of poor blacks who contributed little and strained cities' capacities. The myths she sweeps aside resemble those leveled at European immigrants who came in the late 19th century, at Asians who came later, and at Mexicans caught up in border wars now. Bravo. This is a must read for every American.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Slow Cooked Ribs

This is definitely the easiest way to have no-fault ribs.
1. Season your ribs with your favorite grill seasoning rub (I posted my favorite recipe two days ago). Let sit awhile.
2. Place ribs on a cooling rack over a cookie sheet with four sides.
3. Cover the baking dishes with aluminum foil and place in the oven.
4. After 2 hours, uncover, and bake another 2 hours.
5. Put a layer of BBQ sauce on the ribs and return to the oven uncovered for an additional 20-30 minutes.
Remove from oven and cover with aluminum foil--wait at least 1/2 hour before serving.
We served racks and racks of these for dinner, and they were immensely popular. This method takes time, in that they cook over a long period of time, but the work is minimal. They do not have the smokiness of ribs that have been slow smoked, but they have the fall-off-the-bone quality that homemade ribs can lack.