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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Grilled Pickled Peppers

1 large red bell pepper
1 large yellow bell pepper
1 large orange bell pepper
1 large green bell pepper 2 cups white vinegar
2 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
5 dill sprigs 3 garlic cloves
2 dried red chiles, crushed
Light a grill. Set the peppers over a hot fire and grill, turning as necessary, until charred all over. Transfer the peppers to a large plate and let cool. Peel the peppers and discard the cores and seeds. Cut the peppers into thin strips.
In a medium bowl, combine the vinegar, water, sugar and salt; stir to dissolve the salt. Add the dill, garlic, chiles and grilled pepper strips and refrigerate overnight. Bring the peppers to room temperature before serving, lifting them from the pickling liquid with a slotted spoon.
The pickled peppers can be refrigerated in the pickling liquid for up to 3 days.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Yellow Handkerchief (2010)

Kristen Stewart (now a teen star thanks to the Twilight series, but known to me through 'Cake Eaters', which I loved)--she plays Martine, a 15-year-old Louisiana girl, who is itching to grow up and get away from her family. One day, Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), an odd boy (Aspberger's?  Very shy and slightly awkward?  Hard to tell) a few years older, spots her in a diner and tries to pick her up by inviting her for a ride; she resists until Brett (William Hurt), a similarly odd and dysphoric man in his 50's, agrees to come along. She’s clearly more romantically interested in the geezer, but he wisely resists, and cautions her on her lack in prudence in the choices she has made on the trip.
Hurt's wisdom has been earned--although he doesn;t seem to know quite what to do with it at time.  He is fresh out of prison after serving a six-year sentence for manslaughter (anothe rof my recent favorite's, 'Snow Cake', starts out with this premise as well--good man goes to prison for poor choices and gets out not totally screwed up). Already taciturn by nature, Brett discreetly doesn’t tell the kids his background at first. Plus, he’s too distracted by his own issues, mostly whether to try to pick up the pieces of his old life or start fresh, and if he does that, why would he do it.  He didn't value it appropriately to begin with, and so, what has changed.  That is a tough one.
Thanks to one road misfortune after another, this afternoon outing stretches into several days, during which bits of history are exchanged, bonding inevitably occurs, and our perspective on all three characters shifts.
This familiar dramatic contrivance – “Alienated strangers who seem to have nothing in common are forced together on a journey and become a sort of ersatz family” – has been the basis of scores of films, from “The Wizard of Oz” to 'Lucia, Lucia" and most recently "Due Date".  It’s no wonder it crops up so often: The journey provides structure, and the forced intimacy provides concentrated character development. On top of that, anyone who’s spent time on the road has experienced some iteration of it. This one is bittersweet, and leaves a lot of loose ends unanswered, but is a good portrayal of a man's difficulty with intimacy.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Encounter by Milan Kundera

This is a short but potent collection of essays that were written in French--Kundera wrote for a period of time in Czech, even after emigrating to France in 1968, but then switched to French--these essays are from that period. The book reminds me a bit of the memoir that Zadie Smith wrote this past year--a lot of reflections on artists.It is a tribute to Kundera's ability to weave his essayistic spell that my interest was undiminished by the fact that I am either wholly ignorant of many of the composers and writers discussed (Iannis Xenakis, Marek Bienczyk, Gudbergur Bergsson). In any case, Kundera's subjects are mirrors, offering variously distorted reflections on his own work and situation. As he says with reference to a remark by Francis Bacon about Beckett: "When one artist is talking about another, he is always talking (indirectly, in a roundabout way) of himself, and that is what's valuable in his judgment."
There is nothing archaeological or archival about Kundera's absorption in the literature of the past: it is more that his sense of what is contemporary has the deepest possible roots. Which is not the same thing at all as saying that literature is timeless. On the contrary. Kundera has always been alert to the ways in which different historical periods bury or exhume authors of the past according to their changing ideological and cultural needs. Something similar occurs in the lives of individual readers. Hence the most frequent encounter in Encounter is between Kundera as he felt about something (the music of Janacek, say, or the writings of Anatole France) back in the mid-1960s, in Prague, when he believed he was living in "a crumbling dictatorship", or when he moved to Paris after 1968 (when the dictatorship did the opposite of crumble), and how he feels now (in the wake of the collapse of that dictatorship). As always, this author's thoughts are worth reading.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Wronged Man (2009)

This is a movie about a wrongly incarcerated man and the process of getting him out.  It is not an action-packed edge of your seat thriller like 'Hurricane'.  There are no flashbacks to his former glory.  Calvin Willis was convicted of a brutal rape of a 10 year old girl.  She identified him, which is how he went to prison for the rest of his life without the possibility of parole, and his car was seen in the area the day of the rape.  but the girl herself was a special needs child, and the testimony of other witnesses pointed to another man. There was plenty of DNA left behind, but the crime occurred before that was an option for establishing innoncence.
In steps Janet Gregory, who is a paralegal, sent by her firm to let the family know that they cannot do anything more for them.  Calvin has a lovely wife, two small children, and a grandmother, all of whom believe in his innocence--that, and the flimsy case catch Janet's eye and she does more petions for appeal on her own, working at night. She is convinced that justice hasn't been served, and even though she is a white woman working on the case of a black child and a black man, she does get a sort of grudging acceptance from the community.
Then comes the Innocence Project--which should garner some donations from people who see this movie.  They have an established pathway out of prison for wrongly convicted people--the other seriously problematic aspect of this story is just how long it took to come to an end.  The story is gritty, not too gruesome, but not too exciting--more like what the work on these cases is really like, and even when it appears that someone was wrongly convicted based on current views of evidence, there isn't a simple way out.  Sad and eye opening.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

It's far too easy to stereotype an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle's storied and much-beloved detective. After all, the pipe-smoking deductive genius, since his birth in the pages of Strand magazine in 1887, has inspired many admirers to emulate his speech patterns and style of dress. Attend the annual meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars and the demographic will likely skew toward those with more gray than any other color in their hair.
Doing so, however, neglects some facts that surprise at first and seem obvious in hindsight: Sherlockians start on their journey toward admiration of the detective and his sidekick, Watson, at an early age, and much of the best literature that reimagines Holmes in new adventures has been written by authors still in their 20s. They have the energy and enthusiasm to go where countless writers have gone before and, in that state of freshness, stretch Conan Doyle's original world well beyond initial constraints without sacrificing the essence of what makes Holmes and Watson tick.
Graham Moore fits the youthful bill, but his venture into the world that Conan Doyle created is from a series of side angles, not head-on. The novel "The Sherlockian," rather than delving into another Holmes story, turns him into the objet d'art of the Baker Street Irregulars and their ilk. That most certainly includes its youngest member, Harold White, a freelance literary researcher based in Los Angeles prone to wearing a plaid deerstalker hat he had owned "since he was fourteen years old, since he had first become obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and dressed as the famed detective for Halloween."
White doesn't have long to revel in his anointed newbie status, what with the unexpected and gruesome death of Alex Cale, a leading Sherlock scholar who claimed that he'd found a long-missing Conan Doyle diary, a veritable holy grail for the Irregular community. With the proverbial game afoot to find out who killed Cale and find the diary — and what it contained — Moore mixes his entertaining contemporary tale with a parallel one of Conan Doyle's in 1893, just after he'd sent Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Grilled Baby Back Ribs with a Sweet Soy Glaze

This recipe is from 'Planet BBQ', and is adapted from Naughty Nuri’s Warung, a restaurant in Bali. Jak emade this for my birthday dinner and they were spectacular.
The ribs are boiled then grilled, and fall off the bone tender. They are seasoned minimally with salt, pepper, and garlic powder and grilled, preferably over a charcoal grill for optimal smokiness. The sauce is brushed on during the final stages of cooking and immediately flavors the ribs with all of its sweet salty goodness.
1 cup Indonesian sweet soy sauce (kejap manis), or 1/2 cup each regular soy sauce and molasses (this is what we used)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon minced, peeled fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large shallot, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, or more to taste
2 racks baby back pork ribs (each 2 to 2 1/2 pounds)
Coarse salt (kosher or sea)
Garlic powder
Place the sweet soy sauce, sugar, ginger, garlic, shallot, 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper, the white pepper, and 3 tablespoons of water in a heavy saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Let the glaze boil until thick and syrupy and reduced to about 1 1/3 cups, 4 to 6 minutes, stirring often. If the glaze becomes too thick, add 1 to 3 additional tablespoons of water. The sweet soy glaze can be made several hours ahead of time and refrigerated, covered. Let it come to room temperature before using.
Remove the thin, papery membrane from the back of each rack of ribs. Season the ribs generously on both sides with salt, black pepper, and garlic powder.
Boil ribs i/2 hour--skim off foam. This can be done a day ahead of time, and allows for tender ribs.
Set up the grill for indirect grilling, place a drip pan in the center, and preheat the grill to medium. Cover the grill and cook the ribs until tender, about an hour. When the ribs are done, they'll be handsomely browned and the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by about 1/4 inch.
During the last 10 minutes of grilling, brush the ribs on both sides with the sweet soy glaze. When the ribs have grilled for about 5 minutes after being glazed, move them directly over the fire. Brush the ribs on both sides with glaze again and grill them until the glaze is sizzling, 1 to 3 minutes per side.
Transfer the ribs to a large platter or cutting board and cut the racks into individual ribs. Pour any remaining glaze over the ribs and serve at once.
Make twice as much as you think you will need, because these went fast!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The New Yorker Stories by Anne Beatty

This book is a collection of 55 stories that were published in the New Yorker, stating in 1974. I am not a huge fan of the short story, and these are the kind that I find the most frustrating. I am just getting into the story, I am interested in the characters, and bam, the story ends. That said, these are all incredibly well written, populated by people and archetypes that we all know and recognize, and they fall into the pitfalls that people we know fall into. It is all very familiar, even if the stories are too short to allow us to really explore them.
One of Beattie’s great strengths is the party scene, whose supply of hilariously random remarks and anthropologically interesting actions she exploits to paint Bruegel-like group portraits of an apparently grotesque age. The stories in which she sustains a party scene for the duration are, I think, my favorites. In “The Lawn Party” (July 5, 1976), a man has lost his right arm in a car accident that occurred because his wife’s sister, with whom he was having an affair, drove their car off the road. She was killed — she may have meant to kill them both — and his wife has left him. Unrepentant, bitter, boorish, funny, he has installed himself in his childhood bedroom in Connecticut and refuses to come downstairs for a flag-waving Fourth of July party. Instead, he hosts a counterparty in which refugees from the celebration on the lawn come up and entertain him. One of these is his brother’s wife, a Frenchwoman. In what is unaccountably one of the sexiest back-room scenes I’ve ever read, she unstraps her sandals upon request and lets him kiss her “beautiful round feet.”
She would be a wonderful person to have coffee with, I think. Her writing is a keen eye to the world, fille dwith nuance and wisdom.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Grilled Bananas with Coconut Caramel Sauce

My eldest son cooked a wonderful birthday dinner for me and 13 of our closest friends, all out of Steve Raichlen's Planet 'BBQ'. I have reviewed this cookbook in the past, but it continue to amaze me with the quality of the recipes, and the fun we have every time Jake makes food from it.
1/2 c. light brown sugar
1 c. unsweetened coconut milk
4-10 bananas
bamboo skewers
Combine the sugar and coconut milk in heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking to dissolve the sugar. Simmer briskly until thick, golden and very flavorful, about 5 minutes, whisking often. Remove the pan from the heat and let the sauce cool to room temperature. Store in a jar--can be made well ahead of time, but serve room temperature.
Heat grill to high. Brush and oil the grill grate. Peel bananas and skewer them through one end. Grill the bananas until they are lightly browned and partially cooked, 1 to 2 minutes per side.
Roll the bananas in the coconut-caramel sauce and return them to the grill. Continue to grill the bananas until they are darkly browned and sizzling, 1 to 3 minutes per side. A bamboo skewer should easily pierce the banana. Transfer to a platter or bowl. Spoon the remaining sauce on top and serve at once.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie by Leslie Redniss

This book is an imaginative mix of drawings, photo collages and text; the result is a tender and haunting tribute to the scientists who fell in love while conducting research that led to their discovery of radium and polonium. The exposure to radiation eventually killed Marie, in 1934; Pierre preceded her when he was struck by a horse-drawn carriage, in 1906. They had two daughters together, and the eldest of the two, Irene, worked with Marie Curie after the death of her father, and then worked with her husband and the two of them won a Nobel prize, which given the two Marie Curie herself won, must be some kind of record for a nuclear family (pun intended).

There are several things that make this book unusual in it's story-telling technique. The book defies classification: it’s not quite a novel, because Redniss draws on letters, interviews, and existing biographies for the plot; but it’s not quite a biography, because the book also talks about the “fallout” from Curie’s work – fallout that includes, of course, the atom bomb. The book is also “graphic,” in that the prose narrative is wound through and around haunting line drawings and pages saturated in color -- the images Redniss creates echo images from the x-rays the Curies discovered. Even the word “radioactive” is a Curie invention.
Secondly is the mixing of international events that occurred as a result of the work that the Curies did, and both the good and the problematic things that resulted.
Finally, it’s a compelling story about a love affair — a love affair between two people whose feelings for each other deepened as they worked together.
Pierre and Marie were one another’s “collaborator, muse, and guide” through all their research, until Pierre’s death in 1906. Ironically, Pierre wasn’t killed by radium poisoning (which made him terribly ill and eventually killed Marie) but by a horse-drawn carriage in the middle of a Paris street. After his death, the Sorbonne offered Marie his professorship — the first woman to be named a professor in the history of the institution. Curie went on with her research after Pierre died; her second Nobel came from the individual work she did after his death.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Saturday my 2010-2011 confirmation class graduated. It was a wonderful ceremony, with thought provoking speeches and lots of festivity.
I have been co-teaching the Confirmation class at my synagogue for the past four years. Truthfully, the curriculum is directed by another and I just help get the conversation ball rolling if that needs to happen. I have learned so much from the material that we discuss and I really like to do it with 16 year olds who are going to face these choices in the not-so-distant future.
Where did post-B'nai Mitzvah education come from? In the early 1800s in Germany, Judaism’s Reform Movement instituted the ceremony of confirmation based on the belief that a 16-year-old is more equipped than a 13-year-old to affirm his Jewish identity. So while a 13 year old is an adult, they are not an educated adult, and confirmation is a way to learn about the jewish approach to adult decisions.
The first confirmation ceremony in the United States took place in 1846. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise officiated over this confirmation service in a Reform temple in Albany, New York. By the end of the 19th century, the ceremony had become widespread in Reform communities.
Confirmation classes teach young adult Jews that they are entering a community in which they can question, challenge, and debate Jewish questions without being judged. The confirmation model also encourages youth to work together as a community to contribute to the world around them.
Whereas bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies tend to be something orchestrated by the parent, confirmation ceremonies are about the emerging young adult, and focuses on confirming their commitment to Judaism and Jewish living.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Social Animal by David Brooks

The book’s subtitle—The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement—conveys its ambition. It is a mixture of physics, economics, behavioral psychology, spirituality, world experience, and common sense. Brooks has a wise tone, and a readable writing style, which he applies to this book. He seeks to make sense of people and behavior on a number of different levels--what makes people successful, what makes people rich, and what makes people happy. As you might have guessed, there is not a lot of overlap between the groups.
His thesis is this : who we are is largely determined by the hidden workings of our unconscious minds. Everything we do in life—the careers we choose, the way we experience and perceive the sensation of being alive—emerges from an infinitely complex neuronal network sending out signals that, largely unknown to us, assess and determine our behavior. Insights, information, responses to stimuli are governed by our emotions, a rich repository of thoughts and feelings that courses just beneath the surface of our conscious minds. He has been working on this book, by his own accoutn, for over three years and it shows. He has absorbed and synthesized a tremendous amount of scholarship. He has mastered the literature on childhood development, sociology, and neuro-science; the classics of modern sociology; the major philosophers from the Greeks to the French philosophes; the economists from Adam Smith to Robert Schiller. He quotes artfully from Coleridge and Stendhal. And there’s nothing showy about it.
Many reviews I read quibbled with the way he presented the concrete examples of the points he makes--the imaginary people leading imaginary lives--but I found it to be an interesting way to operationalize the theories he espouses, to be able to visualize how this might play out. His fictional people were believable to me and helped me to picute what he was getting at. Really interesting piece of work.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Shabbat Dinner

We have made an effort to have a Shabbat dinner, complete with challah, each Friday night that we are in town and able to do so. We do not go overboard in our adherence to this tradition, but we consciously make an effort. I used to make challah on Thursday night and have it overnight rise in the refrigerator to bake on Friday night, and my children, now largely adults, make an effort to attend. They might go out afterwards, but they are there for a 'family and friends' meal.
Last Friday we had set as the day to move into our partially renovated home and to sleep there. We had a few items left to move that day--most importantly the washer and dryer, and my husband and sons spent the day doing a fair amount of heavy lifting, while I made some preparations to actually live there--groceries, the final move of kitchen appliances, and trying to manage the boxes so they did not become too overwhelming. It was a long tiring day, and at the end of it we all piled into five different cars and went to Shabbat dinner at the house we have celebrated Shabbat at the most after the house that we had just moved out of. While I always love being invited out for Shabbat, that night was particularly special--all my sons were in town, and our extended family was eight that night. We had just made a big step towards the next phase of our lives--3 of our 4 children no longer live with us, and we are moving into a house that acknowledges that change. It is a big step, and it was wonderful to have a celebratory dinner that I did not have to cook (which would have been impossible! I did not even change before coming to dinner, much less prepare it!). Once again i am appreciative to a tradition that brings us all together, however briefly, on a weekly basis to renew our ties to friendhip and kinship.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

This is fiction with the backdrop of real people--even their real names are used. Paula McLain writes about Ernest Hemingway and his relationship with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and tells the story through Hadley's voice: therefore, Hemingway is not the drunk swaggering author but rather a suitable romantic hero, in fact, for what turns out to be a pleasantly affecting love story.
Hadley is 28 when she first meets the glamorous young war hero at a party. Wholesome and a little old-fashioned, she's resigned to a spinsterish existence, living unmarried and unemployed in the upper floor of her sister's house. Ernest marries her and whisks her from St Louis to the whirlwind of 1920s Paris, where the likes of Ezra Pound, F Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein can be found thronging every boulevard.
Since we already know the end, the story possesses a classically tragic arc.
Soon after the birth of their son, Ernest becomes entangled with another woman, who is to become wife number two...and so on, because it doesn't end anywhere near there. Hadley goes on to marry a journalist she met in Paris and have an entirely satisfying married life the second go round.
Hadley is a touching character, dignified even as she loses almost everything she's loved, and making her goodness both convincing and interesting is an impressive feat.
The untold mystery for me is the repleteness of suicide in the Hemingway family tree. Hemingway's father, uncle, brother, sister, and grand-daughter all committed suicide, perhaps related to hemochromatosis, perhaps not, but it is an impressive history. This book could be titles 'The Good Wife" rather than 'The Paris Wife', but it makes an interesting read, and a different window through which to view the author.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Farmhouse Living

I spent the first night in this wonderful 150 year old house that we are well on our way to bringing back to it's former practical but elegant hey day last Friday. Despite spending several hours each day in the house in preparation for the moment that we would occupy it, the first week of actually living in the house was a new experience. Overall, it has been fabulous, despite the fact that we are far far far from being done with renovations and both the front porch and the side porch are filled with trim, flooring, off cast construction materials, and the occasional piece of furniture that could not be fit into the house while the painting and floor installation were underway.
It is a transition to be in a new house after living so long in another. it has been 16 plus years since we have done this. Age has not made any of this easier. The sheer amount of lifting has made me feel my age in an unpleasant way. But the real issue is making the house feel like our home, and not tripping over things or getting lost in the meantime. For instance, I really need to get out and buy some night lights so that we can manage in the middle of the night.
One great thing about actually living in a house, rather than walking through it on a regular basis is that you find out where the sun comes up and where it sets, and what the various views are out of each window. The challenging part is where the heck everything is in the house. So far, so good.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Yom Ha'atzmaut

On Sunday Israel turned 63, and I celebrated with a Middle Eastern food lunch feast--falafel, pita, hummous, and a mediteranean salad.
It is a rare story when a people regain their land 3,000 years after they possessed it, and while there was an active Zionist movement afoot in the early 20th century, when it became increasingly uncool for European countries to continue to have a colonial presence around the world and that put Palestine up for grabs. That didn't fly until after WWII, when in the wake of Hitler's attempts to eliminate Jews from Europe (and he quite successfully eliminated them from a number of countries where they had once flourished) the momentum was gained to establish a Jewish homeland. So while Jews make up less than 2% of the world population, there is a place that you can go and be surrounded by Jews. Holidays like Yom Ha'atzmaut are national holidays, not just days that you take off but no one you work with understands why.
The Middle East is astir this spring with democratic fever, while Israel remains the longest standing and most stable democracy in the region. Will participation in government help gain tolerance? Will Egypt opening up it's border with Gaza help or hurt the Israelis? Will it help or hurt the Palestinians? Time will tell, but in the meantime, chag sameach and pass the falafel.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Golden Experience

I just drove 12 hours each way to Golden, Colorado and back to get my son who is a student at Colorado School of Mines, and had a really wonderful relaxing time, even though I did it in two days, and we did not get a crack-of-dawn start either day.
I think there were several elements that made the trip more of a vacation than an ordeal. The first was that we had few parameters to work with. We are madly working on gettting our home of almost two decades into fighting shape to put it on the market to sell, and we wanted to get some progress on that before we left, and the second absolute was that my spouse had a flight out of Denver that he had to be one--but that left us several options in terms of travel, so we chose our departure time by when we felt ready to go.
We had a leisurely drive the first day--we stopped for both lunch and dinner, and did not make the decision to go all the way to Golden in one day until after dinner. We were lucky, in that when we pulled into our 'usual' hotel at 10:30pm local time, there were still a few rooms left. No down side to having made limited plans.
The next day we picked Abe and his remarkably voluminous possessions in the morning, met his wonderful friends, had a remarkably good Vietnameses lunch, dropped the spouse off at the airport with plenty of time before his flight, and started off on the journey home. Once again, no plans. See how the drive went, we would decide where to stop as we went. Which ended up being home. If we had planned to make the trip in two days it would have seemed onerous, but this way it was fun.
The advent of phones that have internet makes this sort of travel luxurious--we ussed Yelp to identify potential restaurants en route, and we knew we could find and book hotels should we need them. We had the ability to assess quality of food and accomodations in the palm of our hands. An additional plus was that we had an audio book for each leg, which definitely helps the miles melt away. Can't wait to go back!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cafe Fuzion, Des Moines

This is a great Asian fusion restaurant that we stopped at in Des Moines on our way to Golden, Colorado--ok, so we didn't get very far before we stopped, but it was a leisurely 12 hour drive.
The coconut fried rice wrapped in rice paper with lettuce and herbs was the absolute highlight of the meal--I had read about this place on Yelp, and they were mentioned in a review, so I ordered them (based on my faith in Yelp). Sublime. The flavor was phenomenal, with a balance of sweet and sour, mixed with floral herbs, but even better than that was the texture. The rice is crunchy and chewy, and the vegetables added a crisp texture. Then there is that slightly gummy phenomena of the rice paper wrap that topped the whole dish off. I really need to get a recipe for this.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The King's Speech (2010)

This is a wonderful film, centering on three main characters and based on a true story. Alebert (Colin Firth) is the second son of the Kind of England. He is naturally shy and cautious, and his father is domineering and difficult. He is not nearly as gorgeous as his dishy brother, who will be king, and he is openly abused by one of his nanny's early in life. She would pinch him to make him cry when he had his minimal visits with his parents each day, and starved him. It doesn't take much to break a child, and he emerged from early childhood with a crippling stammer.
He is unhappy about it, but no treatment has worked, and he feels comfortable in his role as number 2 heir to ther throne. Two events conspire to destabilize his world--his father becomes suddenly quite ill and dies, and his brother is openly invovled with a married woman, which was seen as wholly unsuitable for a king. Adding to the mix is that Europe is on the brink of WWII, and England was crippled by WWI.
He starts to work, at the behest of his wife, with Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue is more a psychotherapist than just a speech therapist, and he works with the king to overcome his anxieties and impediments. Logue tells the king unpleasant truths and gradually the king begins to listen to him. Most importantly, he is able to speak. Lucky for him, it is radio days, and no one can see how pained he is as he speaks, but speak he does.
Great story well told.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Carberry Day

Happy Carberry Day! It is Friday the 13th!
When I was in college, I lived in a house named after fictional Professor Josiah S. Carberry. He was "scheduled" to lecture every Friday the 13th, and he would, being fictional and all, invariably fail to appear. At our cooperative house that bore his name, where 20 people lived under one gorgeous Victorian mansion roof, we would always have a party in his honor. Despite the 25+ years that have passed since I lived there, I always harken back to those days on a Friday the 13th.

This was my room for four years--it was not in this kind of shape in my time (the house still belongs to Brown University, but it has had a significant face lift since I lived there), but the gorgeous light and high ceilings represented the most elegant room that I had lived in up until that time. I am just now moving back into a house that has this kind of charm.
I leaned so much from my experience in this house. I learned to cook. I learned how to serve food for 20 with ease--a skill that has been of immeasurable help and a source of profound enjoyment in my years since graduating. I also learned that I might have been a little hard to live with prior to my cooperative experience. It had really never occurred to me that my way might not be the only way to do things. I do still have that, but it has softened over time. I can occasionally laugh about it. I loved the hustle and bustle of so many people co-habituating (not to mention all of the cats and dogs--and I had one of each), which served me well raising four children. It was the part of college life that was outside the classroom education, and I took magnificent advantage of it.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Macbeth (2010)

This film is the best Macbeth that you will ever see. It is set in the Stalin-era Soviet bloc, and it is grimy and creepy and brutal from the very beginning. Effectively so. I am plu-minus on updating Shakespeare, but this is a wonderful rendition, complete with the original dialogue.
Patrick Stewart's performance is definitive. You can see every thought that passes through his mind. Kate Fleetwood's Lady Macbeth charted her fall into insanity with such clarity that when Macbeth is told that she has died, it's no surprise to him or the audience. You see that there was no other end to her story. The Weird Sisters, here played as Nurses who have gone over to the dark side, are truly frightening. There is no weak link in this cast, the directing is thrillingly original, and the production design is stunning. It easily could have been shown in movie theaters. This Macbeth is set during the Cold War, and doesn't shy away from the shocking violence of a dictatorship. Characters are brutally executed, and the murder of Lady Macduff and her children is greatly disturbing, even though you see almost nothing happen. And to top it all off, Rupert Goold has the film end with the camera panning from location to location throughout the castle (the dining room, the kitchen, the Weird Sisters' morgue) and then closes with a shot of Macbeth and his Lady in the elevator, hand in hand. So we end with the idea that Macbeth's castle isn't just drenched in blood. Now it's haunted. Fantastic rendition--the best of the three film versions of the play.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Emperor of Nijon-Ja by John Flanagan

This is the tenth book in John Flanagan's wonderful Ranger's Apprentice series. A ranger is defined as a warrior who is more stealthy than a knight, one who blends into the forest and attacks by surprise. They move without noise. They are expert archers with a longbow, and they use a short saxe knife instead of a sword. They do not have the status of a knight, but they are well respected. The first four books in the series show Will, who is the ranger apprentice to Halt (perhaps the greatest ranger of all time), learning his trade. He shows bravery, but also inexperience. He gets himself into some very difficult situations where it is not at all clear that he will emerge intact.
Will grows into a fine Ranger, and along the way he forms a romantic relationship with a courier (Alyss), a strong friendship with a knight (Horace), and an almost sibling like relationship with the princess (Evelyn). This band forms a sort of family with Will's mentor, halt at the lead. In subsequent books they form various alliances with local groups, and bring on a magical herbalist (a Merlin like character) to expand their options, but they are the good guys who take on all sorts of bad guys, one book at a time. Now that there are ten in the series it is a perfect set to give to a child who likes to read a group of related books.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Blue Murder (2003-2009)

When it comes to the murder mystery genre, I really like a series that balances some of the out-of-office lives with the actual workings of the investigation team. 'Blue Murder' has a satisfying balance of that. The series focuses on a team of crack detectives, all hard-working, each with a different skill set, and the ability to work together without too much ego getting in the way.
The team is headed up by Detective Chief Inspector Janine Lewis is a great character, excellently portrayed by Caroline Quentin. She’s a great balance between a strong-willed woman who runs her family with the same professionalism as she does her team, but is also warm and emotionally available, endearing her to both her kids at home, and the ones at work. There are some good undercurrents of humor in the stories, and while the plots themselves are not as deeply “mysterious”, nor particularly complicated, they are written well. As the episodes progress the various relationships build on each other, but each episode is self-contained enough to make them stand up on their own. I watched them out of order and it was completely fine. Sadly, this was cancelled, so I have seen the last of them. But I highly recommend them.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Slap by Chris Tsiolkas

Tsiolkas uses an event to illustrate the workings of a neighborhood and the relationships within. There is a picnic at a neighbors house, there is a child, Hugo, who has no boundaries and a profound lack of discipline at home. At the picnic he has a temper tantrum related to another child and kicks an adult, who promptly slaps him. It is an act that divides the neighborhood along a number of lines.
Hugos' parents have no idea what they are doing when it comes to parenting--Hugo is in charge. he is still breast feeding at four, and he does so literally on demand. Hugo's father at one point openly competes with Hugo, sucking on the other breast, and saying they are his. There is a lot of pathology in suburban Melbourne, it turns out.
Through the viewppoints of eight different neighbors who winessed the slap, we learn a lot about love, sex, marriage, and the fury and intensity that lurks just below the surface in every community. Fabulous.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Diabetic Dog

I have had 1-4 dogs my whole adult life. It all started when I was 20 years old and I inherited a wonderful dog. He came with my room in college. His owner had moved out of a cooperative house that I moved into, and left his dog behind. Somewhere in the middle of the year the past owner came by to thank me for taking him on, but by then I was more grateful to him than angry that he had abandoned such a wonderful guy.
I had never had a dog growing up, and would probably not have gotten one my sophomore year of college if it hadn't literally dropped in my lap. I loved that dog so much, and it was an era where you could bring your dog to class or to your friends' house, so I spent more time with him than I have with any pet since. Once I had him, I was hooked. Since then I have always leaned towards a rescued animal rather than actually picking out a breed and such. My second dog was abandoned at a party at my house. And so on it went.
I am not sure how many dog years of experience I have (years I have had each dog added up altogether--for instance, my current dogs are 17, 10, and 9 years old, so that would be 36 years of dog experience), but I would guess it is over a 100 years. I have not had to make a decision about chronic health care to date. My second dog had a bone infection that would not clear with antibiotics and had to have a toe amputated--which neither he nor anyone else noticed was gone after about three weeks--he had very big feet, and the amputation made that foot look more appropriate, if anything. When my now 17 year old dog developed an abnormally slow heart beat, we refused the cardiac work-up and elected to give him an aspirin when we thought of it, and he is 5 years out from that, living a reasonably comfortable life as a very geriatric dog.
All that changed this month. My 10 year old dog developed weight loss and excessive urination, and my at-home diagnosis of diabetes was upheld by the vet, so he started on insulin a week ago. Voila, his weight is stable, he sleeps through the night, and while he never seemed sick, the twice daily shots are easy for both of us.
Along with my first ongoing dog illness I discovered a whole other world at the pharmacy--I could go to my local drug store and get insulin and syringes. Over-the-counter like. They created a medication profile for him, even calling out his name when his insulin was ready for pick up. They did inform me that it would be a charge--I know, he doesn't have health insurance, of course there will be a charge! I am still firmly in the camp of no heroic measures for a pet, but this seems manageable (thank goodness) and the dog remains 9as always) un-phased.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Life, On the Line by Grant Achatz

This is an interesting story, and while it is not told in a way that would be most satisfying to me, I am glad that I read it. Achatz opens the book letting us know two things--one is that he has emerged from treatment for squamous cell cancer of his tongue with many things in question--his ability to taste, eat, and talk amongst them, and that he was awarded the James beard 'Chef of the Year' whilst recovering from the oredeal.
I liked the details of his progression from working in his parent's diner, to being a student at a culinary institute, to finding a home to grow at "The French Laundry' in the days when it was up and coming. He characterizes the things that were luck along side the talents he had and the places he wanted to grow very nicely. It is a good story, not too much emotion or depth of thought, but enough details to be satisfying. I would have enjoyed more descriptions of the cooking techniques and the food, but that's me.
He then goes on to branch out on his own, eventually opening his restaurant, "Alinea"--this part of the story is told from two points of view, and are essentially a 'how to' on designing and opening a restaurant. Which is not within my zone of interest, but is very detailed, from cruising neighborhoods looking for a the right building, to getting the architecture and design just right, to the dishes and the table configurations.
The book characterizes the rise of the prominence of Alinea, and then the chef's diagnosis and treatment for his cancer--there is little in the way of emotion throughout the book (the chef's passion for food seems complicated with his drive to be different and innovative and recognized for that), which disappointed me, but did not stop me from enjoying the story that he does tell.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Fighter (2010)

A boxing movie has some fairly consistent elements--underdog fighter who works hard, has heart, and usually great coaching, personal discipline, and a bit of luck--then wins the big fight. That is a mold that this movie doesn't break. But it is so much more than that. It is the story of the positives and negatives of family relationships and obligations. It is the story of siblings, one who had glory, but now is a crack addict, and the little brother who looked up to him, but wants a chance at glory himself. It is the story of breaking away from your family of origin and having a family of your own. And it is also the story of blue collar American towns, like Lowell, Massachusetts. It mixes this all up in a seamless way, so as to not come off as too much of a boxing movie. The two Best Supporting Actor awards that this film garnered are well deserved, and of the movies nominated for Best Picture for 2010 that I have seen (admittedly I have missed 'The King's Speech', the actual winner), this is the best.
Mr. Bale’s performance is astonishing, in part because he so completely conquers a daunting set of physical and psychological challenges. Dicky Ecklund is not only an addict but also an athlete in his own right, a former boxer who clings to, and endlessly relives, a single moment of glory. He tells everyone who will listen that he once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, and while the facts of the episode are in dispute, his pugilistic skill and intelligence are never in doubt. he is also charming, funny, exciting to be with, despite the slightly over-amped crack personality.
His brother, Micky Ward, the fighter who has a chance at greatness but is hampered by his brother's irregularity in the gym as his trainer and his mother as his manager. They both get a cut of everything he makes, and it doesn't do Micky as much good as you might hope--everyone is living off him, but not really thinking of him. the banter between he and his brother and family is pitch perfect, and very sad to watch, yet engaging in the way that reality TV can suck you in.
It is this rhythm — the light, syncopated footwork of comedy setting up stinging jabs of pathos — that makes “The Fighter” so lively, so surprising and so moving. Unexpectedly wonderful.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Tina Fey is a wonder. Women in comedy are still a rarity. She says it best when she states that comedy is the only place a white suburban girl could ever be considered as 'diversity'. This book is not so much a memoir as a statement about what the experience of being a woman in comedy is like.
She does touch on motherhood--and menstruation--some on her family of origin, and not so much on her marriage (that would have been in my contract, that is for sure--yes, you can write about your life, but keep your hands off my life. If I want to write about me, I will do so--okay, I am just projecting here, but Jeff does not appear more than a handful of times and it is not at all enlightening about how it would be to have a spouse who works such crazy hours). But is is mostly a reflection on her professional experiences. It is hilarious and in some ways enlightening. It is not a deep read, nor is it long, but it is thoughtful underneath the comic banter, and it makes you think in a pleasant way.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Black Swan (2010)

This very dark, slightly psychotic rendition of the inside world of professional ballet is part art, part thriller.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballerina with an unnamed New York City ballet company striving to become a soloist. She is fragile beyond belief and entirely believable in the role. Nina is handicapped in her efforts to grow up on so many levels. She lives with her mother (played pitch perfect by Barbara Hershey)--who is not just a stage mother, but also a former ballerina herself. She colludes with Nina in the whole anorexia nervosa, occasional self-induced vomiting, calorie obsession issues common to all of dance, but she also infantalizes and encourages Nina to remain child-like. She winds up her music box ballerina to play 'Swan Lake' each night.
The artistic director of a fictional New York ballet company, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is another piece of work. There are moments where it appears you have to sleep with him to get the starring role, and others where he just seems like a cross between sexual harrassment and scary stalker material. His intensity winds up Nina's already problematic anxiety, and doesn't wind down her perfectionism.
As Nina strives to get in tough with her bad girl side in order to play the darker side of the 'Swan Lake' twin roles, she loses more of a grasp on herself, spiraling into self-mutilation and psychosis. Yes, she nails the black swan role, but no one feels good about it in the end.
I have seen 8 of the 10 films that were nominated for Best Picture in 2010, and this is definitely in the bottom half. Portman is amazing, but that is where it begins and ends.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Galileo by J. L. Heilbron

Galileo was not a shy retiring type. he was not one to sit modestly in the corner and let his work speak for itself. He was someone who was proud of his accomplishments and loud about letting others know about them. His pride was not unwarrented. This biography focuses primarily on his work as a mathematician, complete with exhaustive (for me) recaps of what was known mathematically at his time, and what advances he was successful at accomplishing (this is 1/4 math review, 3/4 biography). The author then goes on the explain why this was controversial for the Catholic church in general, and the Inquisition specifically, and how Galileo's personality ramped everyone up and led to the punishments that he received. Galileo could not believe that they would shut him up--he was quite well known in his own time--and the Inquisition effectively did just that. They separated him from other mathmaticians and did not allow him to publish at the end of his life.
The book does not much cover his personal life--some spots of comments on his relationships with his children, but not much else. It is a great review of just how much the world knew about itself so long ago. I know there are numerous biographies of Galileo to read, and even another one that came out this year, but this is a very good one.

Monday, May 2, 2011

La Niña

La Niña reigns. It has been a devestating spring in the southeastern United States. Some people feel like they haven't been out of their storm cellars longer than they have been in them. Worse yet, some people do not have storm cellars, and tornadoes have buzzed down whole towns--not just neighborhoods, but whole communities. There have been days where there were more than 100 tornadoes sighted and touched down. Hundreds are dead and thousands are homelees.
This is not comparable to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, either in terms of magnitude of the disaster nor in the human and economic loss. But it is a significant reminder that while there are many things about our lives that we can and do control, and there are many advances we have made in the past century, we still do not have a way to combat the climate. As the world's oceans warm up, unpredictable but constant climactic change will be the standard fare. This year it is a protracted La Niña, next year it will be something else.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

There are two stories in this book--the first is the life, career, and values of a young woman, Lacey Yeager. When the book opens she is working at Sotheby's in an entry level position, learning the ropes of the art auction world in new York City. She is a modern woman, more attached to her vanity and her ambition than she is able to form intimate relationships, and therefore is not altogether interesting to me. The author has a penchant for female characters of this sort--it is unclear to me if he finds them attractive or repugnant, or this is just women as he sees them, but these are not people I want to know. Even at a casual party, I would go out of my way to walk away from someone like Lacey. We share no values. What makes her interesting to others is of no interest to me.

The art world is the second story, and that one holds more interest for me. Not that I am the least bit interested in the collection of art, nor in the people who do so at the level depicted in this book, but it is an intersting world, and there are paintings of real beauty amidst all the hub bub of new artists and the chase to be selling and buying the hottest new artist. there are twenty two paintings reproduced within the book--they are gorgeous, and there is a back story to each and every one of them, so for someone with limited knowledge (such as myself) one can learn from this. The other book I read this year that was not a graphic novel per se, but had integral illustrations was 'A Visit from the Goon Squad', which I was not as fond of as the critics, but I do like the trend of adding some graphics to a classically told story.