Search This Blog

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Last Detective (2003-present)

Detective Constable (DC) Davies, a low-ranking CID officer in the London borough of Willesden, is the cguy who gets no respect. His younger, more jaded colleagues harass him with practical jokes and even the local criminals call him by his unwanted nickname, "Dangerous" Davies--which he is not. His superior, Detective Inspector (DI) Aspinall (Rob Spendlove) gives him nothing but scutwork, such as finding a minor criminal suspected of having sneaked back into the country for his mother's birthday. In reviewing the criminal's file, Dangerous discovers a related case, the missing daughter of one of the criminal's cohorts. The case remains unsolved after nineteen years, and Davies allows himself to get sidetracked by it, spending just a few perfunctory hours here and there on his assigned case, and spending the rest of the time investigating the missing girl.
Funny thing about Dangerous, though: everyone underestimates him. He's a determined, thorough cop, and his warm, genial nature gets criminals and victims alike to open up to him. More often than not, he manages to pull the disparate clues together and reveal the truth. As is par for the course with Dangerous, even that doesn't earn him any respect; more often than not, it only manages to piss off DI Aspinall. But Dangerous continues on, buoyed by the basic simplicity of doing a job and doing it well, even if no one else appreciates it. Now, if he can only patch things up with his ex-wife…
The Last Detective is technically a police procedural. While the procedural aspects are certainly there, they are overshadowed by the characters. In fact, the procedures are the characters. That's what Dangerous does; he takes the time to listen to the people involved, getting to know them, their lives, their desires. That understanding lets him make sense of the too-often misleading physical evidence. The other detectives in the squad, the younger Pimlott and Bramlett, are so wrapped up in themselves that they just want to look at the physical evidence and have done; they consider talking to suspects and victims somehow beneath them.
When he's not working a case, Dangerous hangs out with his best friend, Mod. Mod's a tad eccentric, sort of a pseudo-intellectual Kramer. They spend time in the pub or at the park, discussing the case or just sniping at each other. These scenes not only offer some light comic relief, but they underscore the simple fact that Dangerous is just a regular guy. There are the occasional interactions with his estranged wide, Julie, as well--these serve to reinforce the nice guy aura, along with the bewilderment of what is going on with his love life. I usually avoid speaking publically about my love of the BBC crime productions, and the murder mystery genre in general, but today i am making an exception.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Alexander The Great by Phillip Freeman

There are no shortage of biographies about the greatest military mind of the ancient world. As early as the time of the Roman Empire, there were grumblings that too much was made of Alexander the Great as a marvel rather than focus on what was strictly true and validatable. Historians have repeatedly returned to his life and accomplishments--and nothing changes in the end assessment. Alexander the Great remains what he has ever been: the epitome of youthful, world-conquering, terrifying glamour. A reputation and legacy that is richly deserved.
Freeman opens his book with an apology--yes, there really are quuite a few biographies of the man out there already, and no, there isn't a lot of new data to dispense here. However, he has always loved the story of Alexander the Great, and he wasnted to tell his story as a story. Not dry history, filled with notations and qualifications, but rather a tale of an impressive military mind who also well understood how to keep his troops happy as well. And he accomplishes that. He does allow that it is altogether possible that while Alexander's greatest legacy to mordern civilization is his promulgation of Greek literature and knowledge throughout the ancient world, he might have chosen something else had it presented itself to him. He was interested in holding his Empire together, and that was the glue he knew. But the real story in this book is his ability to quickly size up people and situations, to take bold moves that had the advantage of being unexpected and unpredictable, and he translated that into miraculous victories. He was as ruthless as Genghis Khan--probably a quality necessary for empire building on the scale that they accomplished it--and truely magnificent. You would undoutedly fear him in real life, but in this story you cannot help but admire him.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pizza to End Passover

I am not entirely sure why it is that pizza is the food of choice for us to end Passover, but it has always been and probably will always be--the fact that Jewish holidays are linked to specific foods makes that seem almost inevitable. The three foods that are absolute 'musts' at our house during the holiday are matzah ball soup, Queen of Sheba cake, and passover popovers at the end of the week so you can get a semblance of a sandwich. Other favorites include Dina's chocolate and caramel covered matza and merangues, and Kineret's gefilte fish (I swear, this year was the best, but I said the same thing last year, so maybe it is just that I miss it between years). We fly through the seder now that the kids are older, but the food is something to look forward to and savor.
So too is the ending of the ban on chametz. Before I observed Passover I would have said that it would be a snap to get through a week without bread--how hard could it be? It is not like fasting. But in fact, it is quite hard, and the first slice of pizza after 8 days without bread is absolutely heavenly.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

You Know When All the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallan

This is a series of loosely linked short stories about the people who are left behind when troops go off to war. The relationships that they leave are not always the strongest, the longest, or the stablest, and this book looks at that, combined with the stressors that are inherent in the situation, and what comes out of that mix. It usually involves sex, usually infidelity, and then each party has to choose how to deal with that.
In “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” what matters most about any military family crisis is its order of magnitude. So yes, Kailani has to deal with a husband whose best response to being accused of infidelity is to claim feebly that there must be some mistake. (“Crazy, huh?”) But she lives in a world where life feels tentative every single day, where women must brace for the fact that men come home lovingly, abashedly, unhinged or not at all. She must come to terms with that reality. The Army’s boilerplate efforts to provide helpful guidelines for returning soldiers (“Take time to be charming!”) are no help at all.
The book does not focus on the negative. It’s just that life is tough at Fort Hood. Fears tend to be justified. In "Leave", Nick stalks his wife, and after several days comes to find out that his worst fears are true, his wife is sleeping with the single coach who has been helping her out with the chores in his absence. What to do with that knowledge?
Other stories in this brief, tight collection — and there’s not a loser in the bunch — include “The Last Stand,” in which Specialist Kit Murphy comes home to every soldier’s nightmare. He is married; he is wounded; and his initially chirpy wife is going to abandon him. So Kit goes out to a bar and destroys what is left of his injured leg by getting onto a mechanical bull. Because Ms. Fallon can be blunt without being heavy-handed, she ends the story as Kit tries to stand up one final time as Helena — with a blithe “We’ll talk soon. I promise” — walks out of his life.
Kit reappears in “Gold Star,” the final tale. He goes to visit a Gold Star wife, i.e. the widow of a soldier killed in combat, whose loss has earned her the right to certain perks. “Family members received a few special privileges like this lousy parking space,” Ms. Fallon writes, “but that meant the pity rising from the asphalt singed hotter than any Texas sun.”
Now equipped with a permanent limp and a prosthesis, Kit wants to thank Josie Schaeffer, the widow of a sergeant who has been mentioned several times earlier in the book. Sergeant Schaeffer is said to have saved Kit’s life. Kit, for his part, unintentionally lets the widow realize that the official version of how her husband died was untrue.
He awkwardly lets her sit on his lap. What does she want? Ms. Fallon keeps the answers to such questions simple, tough and true. Josie just wants to rest her face against the chest of a living, breathing man in uniform one more time.
A book to help put yourself in the shoes of military women--what would you do?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My Love Affair with Southern Yellow Pine

Southern Longleaf yellow pine, pitch pine or old growth pine are other names for the very popular Heart Pine. From flooring to furniture and cabinetry, many people across the country are rediscovering the natural beauty of Heart Pine. Given the name because of the high content of heart wood, Heart Pine is different from other pines because of the tight growth ring pattern and its unique red - amber color.
The history of heart pine begins in the south where virgin forests of Longleaf Pine covered nearly 70 million acres of the southeastern coastal plain of the United States.
Averaging 150 miles in width, these majestic forests ran from Virginia to central Florida, and westward along the gulf coast as far west as Texas. Many of these trees reached to heights of 175 feet and took from 150 - 400 years to mature. Logs were floated up the Mississippi River to Iowa, and it was the wood of choice in houses built before 1900.

My first personal relationship with yellow pine started almost two years ago when we bought a 1905 four-square house that had wonderful yellow pine woodwork--almost none of it painted--and while it is a simple house, the woodwork made it look magnificent.
More recently we bought an 1860 farmhouse, which used to have 20 foot lengths of 5 1/4" yellow pine boards laid right on the joists--no subflooring, just planks of wood holding up the floor--thank goodness the house is completely over built! But alas, underneath the carpet and the period-inappropriate tile, most of the floors were quite damaged, or worse, they had been replace with plywood. Just our luck, there was a drought on yellow pine flooring at every salvage place in Eastern Iowa--I did manage to buy about 400 square feet from an 1880 farmhouse that had been torn down, but that wasn't nearly enough. My husband managed to find quite a lot of yellow pine flooring that had been salvaged from an old school being torn down, and we were in business. The floors are absolutely gorgeous--a beautiful grain, and the wood looks warm and inviting when finished.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Slouching Towards Bethleham by Joan Didion

This book, first published in 1968, and widely hailed as a modern classic from the very beginning, is something I missed along the road to obtaining my liberal education. Fortunately, I have three sons in college, so I have the opportunity to read what they are reading, to delve back into the reaches of what undergraduates are reading for credit, and learn a thing or two myself.
The book opens with a poem by Yeats, "The Second Coming". The poem is not only where the title of the collection of essays comes from, it summarizes the take home message that they contain:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The essays portray this sense that American society was splintering in the 1960s and 70s, that traditional moral and cultural restraints could no longer hold it together. Whether she's writing about a sensational murder or profiling California celebrities, discussing student demonstrations, the Black Panthers or the Women's Movement, or portraying her own physical and emotional problems, the consistent theme is one of the breakdown of the social order. But there's also a strong subtext which shows that the center, though embattled, really is holding; it is the margins, both at the upper and the lower ends of the social spectrum which are falling apart. The real danger lies in the middle's loss of confidence in it's own beliefs, a crisis of faith.
We can learn lessons from this that apply to American society and politics of today--there is a tide of exaggeration, tilting towards the end times that pervades the politics of today. Didion points out that in such a situation, where the proclivities of the opinion-making class have diverged so far from the preferences of the middle class, it would have taken an inordinate amount of courage for middle America to hold it's ground. That is a good lesson to be reminded of. The time of the essays was a time of change, and we may be again at the same such time.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Greg Mortenson's Fall From Grace

Greg Mortenson's first book 'Three Cups of Tea' was so poorly written that I had trouble finishing it, but I thought the story was a good one. Well, it turns out that it was probably too good to be true.
Mortenson wrote about Afghanistan and the appalling poverty, the severe conditions under which tribes in the mountains lived, and how far a small investment in schools could go towards making things better and thereby gaining friendships. The allegations made by Jon Krakauer ( and an expose on '60 Minutes' are that the book has large swaths of untruth in it, that the schools that have been built are unused and therefore unsuccessful, and that Mortenson may have improperly used funds from his charitable organization.
Such a shame. Mortenson gave people a ray of hope that small efforts could bring real results--something that those of us who do not control large fortunes but would like to make a difference in the world love to hear. But false hope is the worst kind, and if the basics of these allegations are true, then he is in fact guilty of something quite serious. Taking the wind out of the sails of those who want to believe what he had to say may seem trivial, but I suspect that he will end up doing far more harm than good. Which is probably not the place he started, but it may be the place he ends up.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

For Colored Girls (2010)

This film is Tyler Perry's adaptation of Ntozake Shange's award-winning Broadway play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. The powerful work is a collection of, what Shange calls "choreopoems," about the complexities of black female identity and our struggles. The play debuted in 1974 but her message about black girl blues still resonates today: abuse, infidelity, poverty, sexism, defining our sexuality, fighting for respect. The list goes on.
Let me state up front, 'Madea' most surely aside, I am a big Tyler Perry fan. He has consistently populated his films with people of color who are often unknown and who a great job. I think he has some issues, and things that don't go perfectly all the time, but I am a fan. I see all his non-Madea movies when they come out and I am rarely disappointed. Which leaves me, once again, at odds with the critics, who hardly ever have a good word for him. Here Perry has chosen a stellar and largely well-known cast -- Whoopi Goldberg, Janet Jackson, Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad, Kimberly Elise, Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton, Kerry Washington and Tessa Thompson. His rendition takes place in a modern-day urban America--with some very dated language that hearkens back to the original play. The acting is solid. Unfortunately, some of the script is not.
The first half of the film connects all of the women through nine story lines, which is choppy and hard to get emotionally involved with at first, but it does draw together in the second half. There is also too much poetry from Shange's original work into the script. Kerry Washington plays Kelly, a social worker married to Hill Harper's character Donald. In one scene Kelly explains to Donald she's infertile because of an STD she contracted years ago. She goes into a poem about a lover who cheated on her with one of her college friends-- the poem doesn't fit and may confuse some in the audience, especially those unfamiliar with the play (as am I). But the extreme issues that occur with all women, not just black women, are told convincingly here. We watch the consequences play out in different ways. There is incest, there is mental illness, there is domestic violence, there is substance abuse, there is seeking forgiveness and there is pushing it away. It is very powerful--as one critic put it--fascinating and flawed. But worth a viewing.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Ode to the Matza Ball

1/2 cup matza meal
2 eggs
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. water or chicken broth
2 tbsp. fresh chopped parsley
a little black pepper, garlic powder, salt to taste
2 quarts stock
A handful of baby carrots or regular carrots cut into large chunks (optional)
a few stalks of celery cut into large chunks (optional)
Beat the eggs, oil and water together thoroughly. Add the matza meal, parsley and spices and mix until you achieve an even consistency. Let this sit for half an hour, so the matza meal absorbs the other ingredients, and stir again.
Bring the broth to a vigorous boil, then reduce the heat until the broth is just barely boiling. Add the vegetables to the broth. Wet your hands and make balls of about 1-2 tbsp. of the batter (I use a cookie scoop so the balls are round and similar sized). Drop the balls gently into the boiling water. They will be cooked enough to eat in about 30 minutes; however, you may want to leave it simmering longer to absorb more of the chicken broth flavor. They are done when they float on top of the broth and look bloated.
I love matza balls--their lightness, their comforting texture and flavor, and it is my absolute favorite part of Passover--and the only food that we have outside the holiday week!They are both delicious and evocative of a past that included slavery for most people on earth at some point in their past. A bitter human history that should be contemplated, as well as the freedom that we now share. So it is a soup with a history and a lesson, that is easy to swallow.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tim Hetherington, May His Memory Be a Blessing

Journalist, photographer, and filmmaker Tim Hetherington was tragically killed yesterday in Libya.
Together with Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington created Restrepo, the Oscar-nominated documentary they co-directed while embedded with an American platoon in Afghanistan. I found it to be one of the best films about war ever made, fiction or non. Hetherington and Junger embedded themselves for a year with the Second Platoon of Battle Company of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan to shoot the bulk of Restrepo and created a non-fiction film that approximates the experience of a lengthy military deployment in the country as much as would be possible without actually going there oneself.
Hetherington, in his own words, about what he did:
"Well, we're journalists, so our default position is we're not writing editorial. We're trying to bring information to readers, viewers, so that they can make up their own conclusions.
And you know, part of this is that we're bearing witness to what's happening. And in bearing witness, by not having opinions, then we're just recording everything that we come across. It's not like we're sort of saying, "Oh, we've got to present soldiers, and this film is glorifying soldiering." It's not, it's just that this is bearing witness to what happens, this is what their reality is like, the good and the bad. That they [the soldiers] responded to that, when they saw the film... it was really gratifying, because it was true to their experience, both the good and the bad."

Mourning the loss of a courageous journalist who took great risks so that the rest of us could see what is happening beyond our shores.
Yit-gadal v'yit-kadash sh'may raba b'alma dee-v'ra che-ru-tay, ve'yam-lich mal-chutay b'chai-yay-chon uv'yo-may-chon uv-cha-yay d'chol beit Yisrael, ba-agala u'vitze-man ka-riv, ve'imru amen.
Y'hay sh'may raba me'varach le-alam uleh-almay alma-ya.
Yit-barach v'yish-tabach, v'yit-pa-ar v'yit-romam v'yit-nasay, v'yit-hadar v'yit-aleh v'yit-halal sh'may d'koo-d'shah, b'rich hoo. layla (ool-ayla)* meen kol beer-chata v'she-rata, toosh-b'chata v'nay-ch'mata, da-a meran b'alma, ve'imru amen.
Y'hay sh'lama raba meen sh'maya v'cha-yim aleynu v'al kol Yisrael, ve'imru amen.
O'seh shalom beem-romav, hoo ya'ah-seh shalom aleynu v'al kol Yisrael, ve'imru amen.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Merchant Kings by Steve Bown

This book is subtitled: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900. The height of Europe's glory days. After China decided they did not need the world, they abandoned their elegant and advanced ships and the oceans became overrun with small European boats. Let the colonization of the world and the realignment of resources to strengthen Europe begin.
The world has been globalized for a long time. The merchants have always wielded significant influence, but this is a book about a particular period of time. The weakness of the book is that it is a series of biographies of 6 significant players on the world stage throughout the time period, rather than an analysis of the way companies interacted with empires and kings during this period to build colonies and wealth. It is more about the common character traits that it takes to be that sort of personl someone who highjacks the labor of thousands for the good of a few. Since there isn't an ideal book out there, this one will have to do for the time being.
The men themselves led interesting careers. Several, like Robert Clive of the British East India Company and Jan Pieterszoon Coen of the Dutch East India Company, started as Melvillian clerks who, once overseas, broke free of straitjacketing company traditions to build and rule their own international empires. Coen was the first of this new breed of Euro-pasha, conquering Indonesia for the Dutch in the early 1600s and generating huge profits by dominating production and trade of the archipelago’s most valuable spices, chiefly cloves, nutmeg and pepper.
This was done not with spreadsheets and calculators but with warships, armed clashes with European competitors and the displacement of native peoples.
Then there was Peter Stuyvesant, another humorless Dutchman, who was responsible for building the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam from a collection of festering shanties into something approximating an actual city. He did such a nice job that the British swooped in and took it for themselves, creating the city and colony of New York.
In building the foundations of the East India Company, Clive defeated the French and assorted forgotten nawabs; these sections of the book read more like Kipling than Kiplinger.
Across the Indian Ocean, Rhodes would use native armies to pry diamonds out of South Africa, while in the northern Pacific, Aleksandr Baranov, who ruled as "Lord of Alaska" for the Russian American Co. — a dour, overbearing sort, as these men tended to be — oversaw the slaughter of sea otters between the Bering Strait and San Francisco. His counterpart in Canada, George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company, pursued a similar policy, in his case a crusade against the beaver.
These were imperialist swashbucklers of the highest order--yet they reigned for a remarkable run, and again, while this book is imperfect in many ways, it does whet the appetite to learn more about this era of world history.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fair Game (2010)

“Fair Game” is a movie with two focuses. The one we know is the story of government power gone awry--and inadequately punished. The second is the counterpoint that makes this film personal--it is the portrait of a modern marriage under stress.
The central couple, professionally ambitious and proud of their accomplishments, live in material comfort and close to power, juggling the demands of work and domesticity in the usual ways. The husband, retired from one career, is trying to start a new business, while his wife, younger and on a faster track, flies around the world, taking meetings in global hot spots like Cairo, Kuala Lumpur, Amman and and so on. He has to deal with child care while she grapples with the pressures of office life. They don’t always communicate well, which means that when real trouble comes along, their relationship is compromised. The added wrinkle that they are Valerie Plame Wilson and Joseph Wilson, whose story is a terrifying sidebar in the history of the George W. Bush years and an emblem of what American politics looked like back then. We need to keep fighting about the recent past because its legacy is still with us, and to distract us from the equally quarrelsome present. I am again reminded of the quote from The Tempest, "Hell is empty. All the Devils are here."
The film’s canniest, quietest insight is that for people in jobs like Ms. Plame's, careerism and dedication to a cause can be mutually reinforcing. The problem arises when her sense of what the job requires — a dispassionate, empirical analysis of the available intelligence — runs up against the political agenda. When she and her colleagues find extensive evidence that Iraq is not actively developing weapons of mass destruction, their conclusions are overridden by men from the office of the vice president. The bureaucrats charged with interpreting reality are trumped by the politicians whose avowed mission is to create reality--that sums up the Cheney Vice Presidency.
Valerie (played competently by Naomi Watts)is a disciplined functionary, tries to swallow her frustration and do as she is told. Joe, played with splendid, swaggering and affectionate pomposity by Sean Penn, is more of a wild card. Dispatched to Niger to check out allegations that Hussein had purchased large quantities of uranium, he finds nothing. When Mr. Bush, in his State of the Union address, contends that Iraq had indeed gone shopping for nuclear material in Africa, Joe tries to set the record straight and then publishes an Op-Ed article in The New York Times to make his case.
How does the Bush White House get even--because that is the mentality--Valerie’s cover is blown, and Joe wages a noisy campaign to expose the culprits and to defend both of their reputations against an onslaught of spin, innuendo and attempted character assassination.
What makes the film work is the precise counterpoint of public and domestic dramas. Mr. Penn and Ms. Watts are a convincingly imperfect couple. He is her temperamental foil, argumentative while she is circumspect. Joe loves to be right and to tell other people that they are wrong, and his zeal comes into conflict with both Valerie’s ingrained habit of secrecy and her natural reserve.
This part of the story — the portrait of the modern marriage — is graceful and subtle. Things worked out between Joe and Valerie, and for their real-life models, who are now the subjects of a terrifically entertaining movie. But that does not mean that justice was done, or that truth prevailed. The happy ending of the film fails to delve sufficiently into the wrong doings of a White House that didn't tolerate any dissension, but then, this is a movie, not a documentary.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to Action by Harlow Giles Unger

I loved learning more about the man behind the words "Give me liberty or give me death!" and my favorite, "If this be treason, make the most of it." That is a philosophy that I can run with.
Patrick Henry discovered a gift for oration as inspiration after a time. He had two failed careers before he chose law, and in his first several cases, which he tried before his father, the judge (not to be too much of a psychiatrist, but I think there is something to that), he was tongue-tied rather than brilliant. But once he got his stride, he became a phenomenon, a joy to watch and listen to. His passion for independence from Britain was catching, which made him an invaluable ally to the ride up to independence.
He was a complicated man personally. He had 6 children by his first wife, who died after what sounds like a major depressive disorder with psychotic features that did not remit, and she basically wasted away. He married not long afterwards--to the woman one of his son's loved--oops--and had 11 more children. He is presented as an attentive father who spent as much time as he could with his children--he had a lot of them on purpose, he enjoyed them. He was a successful land owner and farmer as well as having political office, and neither money nor resources were an issue for him.
He was governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War and he followed the supplies that he sent to Washington's troops, rooting out graft along the way and ending several men's careers (appropriately)--he was a man of detail and 'do the right thing'. He parted ways with the majority of revolutionary leaders when the Constitutional Convention failed to produce a document that protected state's rights and individual's rights to the degree he thought absolutely essential. But instead of taking up the banner of opposition, he admitted his defeat and went quietly--and apparently happily--back to his private life. The author of this book does a good job of keeping a balanced view of the life and successes of this interesting revolutionary figure.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

I'm Sephardic This Passover

I have always struggled with the Ashkenazi dietary restrictions for Passover. I am completely down with the five prohibited grains: wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. It is the kitniyot that I quibble with (rice, corn, peas, legumes, and such). Especially since quinoa is now acceptable--corn is a new world grain!
I was a vegetarian for over a decade, and still eat legumes on a regular basis, so when Passover comes around, I go from having a largely healthy diet to eating meat and potatoes. Which it seems to me is counter to the whole concept of a holiday. But more than that, it seems to be taking things to a degree that is beyond what the original intent was--we read the Haggadah, we have a very traditional seder, and we spend the week changing our diet in order to remember.
When I converted to Judiasm, I wanted to convert to be specifically Sephardic. Apparently that is not an option, and I have gone along with the Ashkenazi Jewish traditions. Not so this year. My children are largely gone (three down, one to go), and I am ready to have a different kind of Passover.
The addition of rice, corn and legumes opens up the cuisines of Asia and Latin America--it could be International Week, rather than Cholesterol Week. I know, I could go on a raw diet for the week and that might be even healthier than what I usually do, but it is hard to get enough to eat that way. An Ashkenazi vegan would have to go that route, and maybe one year I should try it, but this is my approach for this year.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward by Justin Spring

This is a biography of an in interesting person, but first and foremost it is a detailed recounting of the sexual life of a gay man in the middle of the 20th century. The author had access to a remarkable amount of primary source material, and his subject was obsessive in his documentation of the nature of his sexual encounters and the volume as well.
Samuel Steward was a witty and ribald man, who obtained a PhD and taught (oddly) as a Catholic University for a number of years, where he had numerous sexual encounters. He was not what would be considered openly gay, but neither did he try to fake heterosexuality (think Colin Firth in 'A Single Man', but without the urge to have a long term relationship). The thing that was odd about him was that he left a thousand pages of details about the most intimate details of his sexual life. He and Kinsey hooked up (not literally--which was unusual for Mr. Steward--he definitely got around) in the mid-1950's and Steward turned over his chronicles to Kinsey at that time, and continued them for Kinsey's benefit. But he was a guy who liked to write things down.
The wonderful thing about this biography is that the author conveys Stewart's complete lack of shame about his sexuality. He is a man who probably had obsessive compulsive disorder and a sexual addiction. He certainly was an alcoholic and a barbiturate abuser, and he was a gifted writer. When he left his job as a University professor, he opened a tattoo parlor--lots of access to young men in uniform, a particular favorite of his, but he had an obsession with tattooing as well as sadomasochism. A complicated man. You might think it would be a challenge, but the author successfully makes him accessible and likable for the reader.

Friday, April 15, 2011

My Favorite Black Pants Become My Favorite Painting Pants

Ugh. While the whole process of moving has taken a physical and emotional toll, up until now I had suffered very little in the way of loss. Quite the contrary. I have been actively shedding possessions that I once thought were completely necessary, and now realize that I in fact do not require them. But in one evening all that changed.
I backed into a recently painted wall and it was an irrevocable error. My absolutely favorite black pants for the last several years had more paint on them than most of my painting clothes. No amount of emergency interventions could revive them to a level where they could be worn for anything but painting. They are not funky painted--they are backed into a wall painted. Woe is me. I could not believe how upset I became! I am now going through the five stages of grief, looking for some reasonable facsimile of a substitute for my beloved pants (which is a hopeless task, because I have tried on several occasions and failed miserably--it just goes to show that I still have an optimistic bone in my body), and vowing to not enter a room that I do not know the date and time it was last painted. Which will be challenging, since two of the three houses I currently own are undergoing extensive renovation, including painting. Ah well. These things happen, I suppose. I should try to access the more zen side of my personality related to my possessions. And move on.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foder

We have just passed the 150th anniversary of the presidential election of 1860, which brought Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. It was an election to be remembered. It drew the largest turnout of eligible voters—more than 80 percent—in our history. It pitted four serious candidates against each other, one of whom (Abraham Lincoln) was not even on the ballot in most of the Southern states, and two of whom (John C. Breckinridge and John Bell) won only a handful of votes in the Northern states. Which shows just how divided the country was on the eve of the Civil War. It gave the victory to a candidate who won less than a majority of the popular vote (about 40 percent) though unquestionably a majority of the electoral vote.
So begins this excellent account of Lincoln and his evolving views on slavery, emancipation, and the integration of former slaves into American society. Feelings ran high on both sides of the slavery issue. Initially, Lincoln steered a middle course. He believed slavery violated America’s basic principles — a view he expressed forcefully and frequently. Still, he was reluctant to take dramatic action against it. He remained so devoted to the American Constitution, with its protections of slavery, that he supported (albeit with reluctance) the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which imposed stiff penalties on Northerners who assisted runaway slaves. At the same time, he never faltered in his effort to prevent slavery’s western expansion, and he refused to follow party conservatives who were overly conciliatory to the South. When the Republican Party formed in the 1850s, Foner explains, it was Lincoln’s middling position that made him the North’s most attractive presidential candidate in 1860 and helped him keep his wits about him during the tumultuous war years. So dexterously did he navigate the political waters that he could rightly claim credit for bringing about slavery’s abolition.
He initially had a great deal of trouble imagining what pot-slavery America would look like--so thoroughly was slavery embedded in the country, both north and south, what would former slaves do? What would their rights be? What would be their opportunities? Over the course of his presidency, he saw increasingly that former slaves needed to be identified as any other citizen of the United States. he incorporated them as soldiers into the northern army, against some significant resistance, and was impressed with their performance.
Lincoln was gradually developing a vision for integrating former slaves, and soon after the end of the war all that was put to a stop by his assassination--he was not firmly aligned with his fellow Republicans views on freed slaves, and it is unfortunate that we did not get an opportunity to see how he would have done it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lorna's Silence (2008)

This is such an unusual voice in film. I have seen a number of movies about Eastern Europeans infiltrating countries in the European Union in the hopes of gaining citizenship--"Spare Parts" (2003) being the best one. They are very grim, depicting dehumanizing conditions, rape, and depravity. Not so with this movie. One review I read called the movie 'glacial'--some people encounter the frozen surface and bounce off of it, and others look at their reflection in it and learn something. I really like the imagery of that, because Lorna's silence is a reflection of her moral response--she wasn't able to bounce off.
Lorna and Sokol are Albanians who dream of leaving behind the economic dreariness of their homeland and having their own snack bar in a more prosperous country. They get involved with underground elements aimed at obtaining citizenship by shady means.
Lorna marries Claudy, a Belgian junkie, who agrees to the marriage for money, and maintaining his habit. The original plan is for a divorce once Lorna has Belgian citizenship, but Fabio, her contact, is impatient because he has a Russian for Lorna to marry for a similar deal. He thinks that a drug overdose would be less suspicious, and lets Lorna know that is the plan after she helps Claudy get into drug rehab. What is she doing? She pleads for Claudy, says that she will apply for a quick divorce and that will be soon--Fabio has no patience, and Claudy overdoses.
At that point Lorna is going to be financially able to reach her dream, but she struggles with what she has to do from a moral point of view. Sokol is no help--they have both been changed by their different paths to realizing their dreams--he is doing high risk physical work and she is doing high risk emotional work. The film is very thought-provoking, and well acted.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Have I Mentioned I Am Moving?

I cannot stop talking about it. For weeks. People are nodding their heads absently when I speak, and I can see that they really don't think this is the big deal that I am making out of it.
I know. Everyone moves. I live in a college town where people move annually. But I haven't done it in a very long time, and somehow I am unable to see it as something for which no one will have much sympathy for. I am usually a teeny weeny bit more empathetic than that, but not so this time.
Well, for me it is a big deal. I usually am pretty good at sorting through my things, packing them up, hauling them somewhere else, and figuring where to put them. Unfortunately I have had the luxury of not having to make a decision about getting rid of anything for almost two decades, and I am feeling the pain of being out of practice. I have also gotten two decades older (uh oh, could that be the real problem?) and I am just not as physically resilient as I once was.

One thing that held me back from moving ahead with the move was that the house we are moving into needed some immediate attention, and once that started, it actually looked in a lot worse condition than when we bought it. It needed a completely new heating system, the sewage system needed to be replaced, and there was a lot of poorly laid or dated tile that had to be torn up. So both the house and the yard became construction zones more than a habitable environment. It was months before it looked like any progress was made at all. But in the past month the new bathrooms have all the finishing touches on them, the walls have been painted, there is now a sizable kitchen in the house, and new floors are being laid. It is a Civil War era house getting a bit of a facelift, and the beauty of it's youth is being allowed to reemerge.
Which is fantastic. But it makes the move very real. Every day I take a car load of things there and put them away, and I marvel that someday soon I will actually live in this house. The whole time I have been working on this project I have had very little time to marvel at the property the house is built on. It is an absolutely gorgeous spot, and one of the great things about the house having no functional rooms while the floors are being finished is that it gives me a chance to sit on the front porch and take in the view. We did this when we were rehabing the Market St. house. The two things I am enjoying are seeing the house I envisioned becoming the house I have, and discovering how pretty a place it is set in.

Monday, April 11, 2011

How Do You Know? (2010)

I know. I really do like formulaic romantic comedies more than the average bear. My only defense is that I only really like about half the ones I see, it is just that I like them way more than the critics do, and that makes me at odds with the majority opinion on a number of occasions--including this one.
So here is the scene. Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is a long-time amatuer athlete, currently on the US Olympic Women's Softball team--but not for long. She is getting long in the tooth in her coach's eye, and so for no other reason than her age, she is cut. Just as this is happening, she meets two men--Matty (Luke Wilson), who has a 94 MPH fast ball and a $14 million annual pay check, and George (Paul Rudd) who is under federal investigation for securities fraud.
Luke Wilson plays Matty pitch perfect (pun intended)--this is the role he is best at--the womanizer who has just enough aw shucks charm to pull it off. Lisa knows what she is getting into from the first morning after, when she opens the "toothbrush drawer" and finds dozens of unopened toothbrushes, and Matty offers her clean clothes from his closet full of new women's clothing in various sizes. The man has been around the block a few times. This week. She has her eyes wide open--but so is her mouth. Her character has a tendency to say what she thinks, and not to shy away from difficult conversations. I like that in a leading lady. She is also very likable, and she doesn't look like the last time she ate was a month ago.
George really likes Lisa but feels compelled to share with her his diminished circumstances--that he is being investigated, that his company probably did something wrong, and that he has moved into a smaller place to afford the attorney's fees--Lisa's comment about him being a "real chick magnet" is gracefully and humbly recieved. He holds out hopes for a romance, but Lisa is giving the thing with Matty a chance.
The fourth super star in this is Jack Nicholson, who plays George's father, and who is the real perpetrator of fraud here--he doesn't get to do much with this role--none of the devilish evil that Nicholson can do so well comes out here, and he really doesn't get to shine here, which is a shame.
In any case, the story plays out, and Lisa figures out who she wants to spend time with. Fun from start to finish.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Nodo, Iowa City

Nodo, presumably so named because of it's location on North Dodge St., is a wonderful new dining option in Iowa City. The menu is predominated by sandwiches and wraps, but includes salads, a soup of the day, and some of the best french fries in the area.
The location is an unusual one--they share an entrance with Ace Hardware, and I am not sure what their cross-over business is, but my guess would be minimal. My son (who is a frequent hardware store customer, as it turns out) had been trying to get me to try this place for months, but for one reason or another it wasn't until just now that I managed to make my first visit.

There are several things I loved about this place. First, the service was great. Very friendly and homey. There are only a few table in the place--they do catering and pick-up--but they are very comfortable and the music overhead was great. The menu is wonderful. It is rare that I go to a place and find that there are 7 or 8 things on the menu that I would like to try, and while the menu is modest, it definitely met that criteria. I love a sandwich that is warm--I am someone who 96% of work days I brings my own lunch to work. I rarely eat out, and I eat in the hospital cafeteria 2-3 times a year, less if I can manage. So when I go out, I want to have something that I wouldn't be able to heat up in a microwave or eat at room temperature after preparing it that morning. I want something I couldn't get in my every day life--and this is a wonderful place to obtain that experience. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Priveleges by Jonathan Dee

This is an odd, transfixing book that follows the rise of a "charmed couple," Adam and Cynthia Morey, who forge their way up Manhattan's social ranks with their kids, April and Jonas, in tow. It is a tale of the very rich, people who made their money via insider trading, hid it offshore, and then form a prominent charity to do "good works", in essence laundering the money and cleansing their conscience, all with an eye to making a name for themselves.
The Moreys don't seem so bad at first. They care about their children, and about each other. This is not a tale of the rich get rich, and become bored, with life and each other. That is one thing money can do--but we know all about that--Dee is looking for deeper truths.
Aside from family, everyone can be used in the Morely's world. Dee is admirably relentless. Since Adam, Cynthia, and April are astoundingly selfish and limited people, the book feels appropriately constricted, colored as it is by the unsavory banality it depicts. Money contaminates the very language of the narrative, and all who reside in it. The outcomes for April and Jonas are most interesting--they grow up in privilege, but they are rootless. They have no idea what to do with themselves. They cannot find the ground beneath their feet to move forward into meaningful happy lives of their own. The proverbial golden handcuffs at work.
Dee allows each family member to tell their story, which allows for savage satire. The reader is forced to acknowledge that the family is on a path through the wilderness they thinks its a garden. Dee seems to sympathize with his characters, but at every moment is subtly undermining them. The book is subtle and brilliant, one that kept me thinking about it for days.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Switch (2010)

On the first and foremost level this is a romantic comedy with a formulaic story that ends exactly the way that you think it will from the very first moments of the movie. And that level is probably the one where most viewers will start and stop. But not me.
In this story Cassie (Jennifer Anniston) wants to have a baby. She doesn't have a significant other, she only has a best friend, Wally. So she needs a sperm donor, but she wants it to be someone she knows, not just a sperm bank guy. She picks a guy who seems perfect--Columbia professor, handsome, smart, charming, and funny. She has a party for the event, and Wally gets falling down drunk, switches the samples, and promptly forgets about the whole violation of his best friend's trust. Cassie gets pregnant, has the baby, moves away. Seven years pass, and she comes back with her son--who seems very much like Wally--which triggers a whole series of inquiries leading him to the conclusion that he indeed is the father. But he is ashamed to tell Cassie, who he has always had a thing for. But the plot thickens when Cassie gets involved with the man who thinks he is the donor. It all ends up in a predictable but enjoyable way.
I think the movie highlights a universal truth (across time and cultures)--the power of genetics when it comes to long term relationships. Not that it is always true, or that you cannot love a child that is not yours--of course you can. And it has been shown time and time again that people can be unbearably cruel to their biological children. But there is something in our DNA that makes us protect our own. So biological connections between people should be approached carefully, and with eyes wide open.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

This book is set in Vietnam during the war. It is unlike the other three books that I have read this year set in the same time and place ('Matterhorn' by Karl Marlantes being by far the best) because they have all been written from the point of view of soldiers, and indeed were written by former soldiers. Soli has chosen to tell the story of Vietnam through the eyes of Helen, a young American who drops out of college and comes to Vietnam in the mid-1960's as a novice photographer. She is so sure she will miss the war that she doesn't want to risk that and finish college. That is how green she is at the front end of the story. She has no idea what she is in for, on so many levels. The story opens and closes with the U.S. withdrawal and the mayhem that surrounds that.
In between we watch Helen transform from an optimistic photographer who hungers to change the world, and instead Vietnam changes her. Through her eyes we are able to see both sides of the story in the war, the way that war changes people and values and priorities. We watch her heartbreak, her gradual apathy, and then her complete loss of personal danger as she pursues the next story. It is a spectacular story that unfolds slowly and carefully. Beautifully written and very thought provoking book.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Alexandra (2008)

The setting is Chechnia and the soldiers are Russian, but this could be Afghanistan--it is the story of an occupying force and what that does--to the occupier and the occupied.
This is not a heavy handed anti-war movie. Not at all. And it is not just about the occupation of Chechnia. It is about the character of Russians. It is subtle in many ways. “Alexandra” isn’t a difficult film, but neither is it obvious. It’s a beautiful, eerie work of art about life and death and the love a grandson expresses when he plaits his grandmother’s hair. It has revealed some of its mysteries, and I’m sure it will reveal more over time.

Alexandra is the grandmother of Denis, who is a career soldier stationed in a ramshackle military post in Chechnia. Alexandra is picked up by a train (a cargo train filled with soldiers--there is no first-class section. In fact there are no seats). She waddles into camp with a small shopping bag on wheels, which seems so fitting for this movie. She is a wonderful woman, warm yet piercing eyes, and a tactful way of conveying all that she is thinking and feeling. She is befriended by women in the nearby village, and she finds that she is more like them than different front hem. there she sees the civilian side of the occupation, and we get a chance to feel some empathy for their plight. The filmmaker is lovingly showing two sides of a complex story, as seen through the eyes of a grandmother and widow. Just very poignant and powerful.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Trespass by Rose Tremain

This could be subtitled: Siblings--the Dark Side. There are two parallel stories that are on a collision course with each other here, and they both center on the relationship between siblings. And they both involve a trespass, although not the same sense of the word. The thing that I love about the Booker prize long list is that the writing is exquisite--but often at the expense of the craft of the story itself--not so in this case.
The first of the two sets of siblings are Veronica and Anthony--they are much more straight forward and the less complicated of the siblings. They are close and it is when one of them has an intimate relationship that threatens their closeness that there is trouble (this is one trespass).
The second and much darker pair are Aramon and Audrun--they have a bitter rivalry steeped in rivalry and true ingrained differences in their values that set them at each others throats. Their father was a bit of a sadist and when their mother died, Audrun didn't stand a chance. But no one lives forever, and when the father died, his will set in motion a slow moving catastrophe that ends badly. This book is a bit less hopeful than 'The Road Home'--more of a cautionary tale--beware of how you parent your offspring, and try to facilitate an adult relationship between them that allows them to be allies, not enemies or entwined. Wonderful read.

Monday, April 4, 2011

My Name is Khan (2010)

The message of “My Name Is Khan” is that there are two kinds of people in the world, good people and bad people, and that that distinction is far more important than any other differences, like those between Hindus and Muslims.
All is not well when the film begins, with the Muslim hero with Aspberger's syndrome, Rizvan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan)getting shaken down at the airport, but like most Hindi movies, it ends well.
The film is propelled by a love story and a quest. Rizvan falls for and weds a divorced single mother, Mandira (Kajol Devgan, a frequent co-star of Mr. Khan), a Hindu who accepts his oddities. Rizvan may have trouble expressing emotions, but he has them, and he researches how to get through his wedding night rather than letting nature take it's course. He doesn't get the romance but he does get the physical pleasure and the safety of a relationship. All is well until Mandira's son is killed in an anti-Muslim attack (guilty by association, because only Khan is Muslim). Mandira throws Rizvan out, and he takes her command literally: go tell the president that your name is Khan and you’re not a terrorist.
For the rest of the movie he is trailing the president on his speaking engagements across the country. He is befriended by people, and he finally captures the attention of journalists, which is the key to bringing his message to a larger audience. It is a wonderful way to look at our country through the periscope of Bollywood--which is harsher than we would be but so much gentler than anyone else would be, with a lot of song thrown in and a happy ending guarenteed.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


I am in the midst of my second move in a month's time. My office moved to it's renovated location at the beginning of March and the whole process was simple, fast and refreshing. I asked for and received a large recycling dumpster, proceeded to fill it over the course of a morning, and had all my things boxed up by noon. Moving day was similarly problem-free, and my old furniture was in my office, and my boxes unpacked by 11:00 am. And I was the last to move. Why is it then that moving my house is such a Herculean task?

The answer is that it is multifactorial, of course. None-the-less, I have found it to be overwhelming to think of getting all my things into boxes and moving them. And this was definitely my idea--no one roped me into this. I want to down-size my life to a more manageable level, so that when I retire, and am 10-15 years older than I am now (and unlikely to have any more energy than I currently possess, I might add)it will be easier. I'll just have to sort out what I have accumulated over a decade (instead of three decades) and what I mistakenly kept on the first go round. There are two pressing issues that I am struggling with--what to keep and where to put it. The process of shedding parts of my past is too contemplative to be efficient. I can easily toss papers that I haven't looked at in 5 years, but I am finidng it harder to do that with some things--clothes is the one area that I have managed some sustained success. Kitchen supplies have been a failure--in fact I think I have bought some during the process. What did I not understand about down-sizing? Apparently quite a lot.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

True Grit (2010)

The Coen brothers do a straight ahead Western. Who would have guessed it? The movie is faithful to the book rather than to the original film--you would predict that, based on their other adaptations. It is flawlessly cast, the actors do exactly what they are supposed to and they do it well. The landscape is more of the unforgiving West rather than the awe-inspiring views the original film employed.
The two main characters are sensational. Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn is classic--he is wearing the exact same clothes the entire movie, and he definitely does not have a second set to change into. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is his equal in this story--she is a 14 year old settling the affairs of her murdered father, and she sets about hiring a US Marshall to hunt down the perpetrator and bringing him to justice--either by the law or by the code of the West. She defintiely doesn't want him to get out alive, and she isn't above doing the job herself.
So there you have it--a simple story. Matt Damon plays the unlikely second to Cogburn's first, and Josh Brolin is the bad guy. While you might say that with three such stars, no wonder the movie comes off so well, which is a good point, but I would counter with the fact that Hailee Steinfield is spectacular and that the script brings out the best in the actors.
I am a big fan of the wide open West, but not such a fan of the Western--this is a pitch perfect rendition of the genre, and should not be missed.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Koestler by Michael Scammell

I knew nothing about Arthur Koestler before I read Michael Scammell's biography. I would not have picked it up at all, except that I have read so many of the New York Times Notable Non-Fiction Books from 2010 and loved almost each and every one of them. I am down to the last dozen or so on that list, this having been one of them, so I got it--and was not dissapointed. As of now, I am destined to read them all, I fear.
Koestler was born in the early 20th century to educated Jewish parents in Budapest. He lived between Vienna and Budapest growing up, and he went on to live in a number of different countries and cities throughout his adult life. He was a communist for a period of time, which led him to Russia, and to Spain during the Civil War there--which led to his first incarceration. He was a journalist by trade at that point, and he used his time in prison to write. He lived in Germany and France until it became untenable for a Jew to remain there, and after another brief internment, he went to England and the US to live and write.
Koestler met everyone, and had a relationship of some sort with many of the major players in the first half of the 20th century--politicians, artists, actors, writers--you name it. There is a great photo of him with Langston Hughes in Turkmenistan in the book that gives a great example of the kind of life he led. He was not a man to be in love with, however--he was almost compulsive about sex, and not the least bit concerned about fidelity. He was not an attractive man, so he must have had a personality that carried the day for him--but not the month, or the year in most cases. That said, he led a fascinating life, and this well written biography is well worth the read.