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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Being There in Altoona

As the support person for my RAGBRAI riding team, Iowa Borealis, my usual morning routine icnluded riding to the next overnight town, scoping out a campsite that provided not just 2-vehicle parking but also a modicum of shade, and then assessing the church supper that would best meet our team;s needs that evening. After all this was accomplished, I would settle in for a long day in the 90+ humid heat--which was not condusive to power reading...or much else. Altoona was a nice break in that action, because we had scored a hotel room for the night, so I could skip all my usual routine and instead scope out a coffee shop to pass some of the early morning hours in a way that might occur outside the context of RAGBRAI.

The map I got from the hotel with restaurants on it was not promising, and the staff recommended the Village Inn--no thank you. Yelp was no more help--I would have had to go to Des Moines to find something and I was not interested in braving the city to get a nice independent coffee shop atmosphere. But as meandered from the hotel towards the bike route, I stopped by a great looking place--'Being There'. They were hosting a RAGBRAI group on the green grass behind their shop and they were busy setting up concession stands to accommodate the expected crowds. I got a chai and a table by the window and settled in for a good read while I sipped. The only thing going in Being There besides a genuine excitement for the incoming bicyclists was a Bible study group made up of young women, who punctuated their thoughts on the day's readings with 'like this is what Jesus would want' and such. No sense that we had left small town Iowa behind, despite the proximity to Des Moines. And we were not disappointed at the evening's church supper--we had 10 pieces of pie between the eight of us and stopped only because of the feeling we might burst.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cairo Time (2009)

This is an atmospheric movie about two people who quietly fall for each other. It takes place in Cairo, which creates it's own sort of atmosphere, and it takes on stereotypes about the Middle East--some of them are validated and others are not. The director, Ruba Nadda, is a Canadian of Syrian ancestry, and she spins a tale of two people who unexpected, almost accidentally, fall in love.
There is nothing dramatic about the affair--in fact the leisurely pace of the movie may seem sluggish to some. The fact that in the end we are left with something a little disappointing is another catch that might leave some dissatisfied. The acting will not be one of the things the viewer will fault. Patricia Clarkson is one of my favorite actresses and she does not fail to deliver here, and Alexander Siddig is sufficiently attractive in a quiet way to be a believable unintentional seducer. The air of sadness that is draped over the movie may be oppressive for some, but I found it to be soothing, and in the end, memorable.

Friday, July 29, 2011

My New American Life by Francine Prose

This book is The American Dream--it could go either way. Are immigrants inching towards financial and political independence? Or are they tumbling down a tunnel towards defeat and ruin? Will they be respected, loathed, shunned, or deported? All of this is explored with a charming tone in this quietly satirical book. The story is not a gruesome one--au contraire, it couldn't have gone better if you had planned it. Only 'best case scenario' isn't really all that great when you scratch the surface even a little bit.
Lulu is from Albania, and while she has arrived illegally, her second employer commissions his lawyer best friend to help her get a green card--which could be a dream come true, only it slowly becomes clear to Lulu that these people want her to be a particular kind of immigrant--one with a brutal and yet picturesque past--and when she gives it to them, they make her the center of attention. When they find out that she has been spinning tales that are more fiction than fact, they shun her. It is not an easy path to toe. the book is set in George W. Bush's America, post 9/11 when there were peak levels of suspicion for anything that wasn't entirely native. Her employer, his friends, her gangster Albanian friends, all of the characters play a role in showing the reader just how tough things are for Lulu, who has her own faults as well (who doesn't?). Recommended.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Big Green Egg

We have officially entered the clay ceramic grill cult. The kamado style of cooking is century's old, but it wasn't until a recent New York Times article on the Big Green Egg came out that I knew anything about it, but within a week, we had one. The thrilling thing about this grill is the high temperatures it reaches, and the retention of that temperature over long periods of time. What do I think so far?
I am not much of a griller, I don't even cook much meat at all, but I admit that this grill has been impressive to date. My husband (who is a big griller) inaugurated the grill with a stuffed pork tenderloin. The meat took on a wonderful smoky flavor and was cooked evenly throughout. The second grilling was chicken--thighs, drumsticks, and a whole chicken, all with seasoning applied the night before. The chicken was flavorful throughout, and very moist, so another success--but best of all was a pork shoulder that he put on the grill after the chicken had been cooked to smoke/cook it overnight. The temperature of the grill in the morning was 250 degrees and the pork shoulder looked fantastic--we had pulled pork sandwitched that night for dinner, which were phenomenal. I would rate this highly. I did buy the Big Green Egg cookbok, and will be reviewing that soon as well.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

I have not read the first book in which Emily Maxwell is featured, 'Wish You Were Here', but this is a stand alone novel. The thing I love about this book is how quietly it creesp towards making it's point. Emily lives alone. No husband. No roommates. She has two children, who she has little contact with, either physically or emotionally it seems--they are not a source of social companionship for her, at least. She has a fiend with a car, and when that friend sudedenly becomes unavailable, something in Emily changes. It is like her eyes are now fully open. She has almost no freedom. So what does she do? She buys a car. Why not? The book goes on to show us in very unassuming ways why Emily needs this car (and what it represents for her) and her children play the role of the nay-sayers--why does she need to get out? Why is the car so important? It is like they think she should be buried long before her expiration date.
With any luck, we will all struggle with how to make the most of the end of our lives--'Emily, Alone' causes one to pause and reassess the vision with the realities, and gives a nudge to start making plans not to be in this position.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Grilled Corn

Controversy surrounds the best way to grill corn. At the heart of the debate is this: Does corn taste better grilled with the husk or without? Advocates of the former argue that the husk protects the delicate kernels from the harsh heat. Proponents of the huskless school (of which Steve Raichlen, the BBQ king and author of the fantastic cookbook 'Planet BBQ', is a member) point out that corn steams rather than grills in the husk and that the husk blocks out that wonderful live-fire flavor. If you follow his huskless technique, I am ready to bet it will make you a convert--if you are not already.
6 ears Sweet Corn in their husks
6 tablespoons Butter (3/4 stick), at room temperature
2 tablespoons cilantro, minced
1 clove Garlic, minced
Coarse Salt and Black Pepper
Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat to high.

Fashion the husk of each ear of corn into a handle, tying back the husks with the husk itself or withbutchers string, and remove the corn silk.
Place the butter, pcilantro, and garlic in a mixing bowl and whisk or beat until smooth and creamy.
When ready to cook, lightly brush each ear of corn with a little of the garlic-parsley butter and arrange on the hot grate, positioning the ears in such a way that the husks are away from the fire. Grill the corn until the kernels are handsomely browned all over, 8 to 12 minutes in all, turning as needed, brushing with the remaining butter, and seasoning generously with salt and pepper. Remove the corn from the grill and serve at once.
Variations: Dill, basil, parsley, or tarragon all make tasty alternatives to the cilantro in the butter. Grilled corn kernels make a delectable addition to salsas and salads. Lay the ears on their side and cut the kernels off the cob with broad lengthwise strokes of a knife.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Charlie Chan by Yunte Huang

This is subtitled 'The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective' but it is really something quite different from that. Huang explores Charlie Chan from a number of different angles, all the while circling th topic of Asians in America and how Chan might be seen to represent that experience at one point in time.
The book opens with a brief of biography of the man who Biggers loosely based his fictional detective on, Chang Apana. Apana is a great example of the early Asian experience in America--he was the son of a coolie in Hawaii, working for a family that took an interest in their employees (not enough to educate them, or even to teach them to read, but a cut above the average plantation owner of the time) and he was able to get a job with the Hawaian police. He had none of the physical attributes of Chan, but his ability to be present but not seen was one that Apana was well known for--this section of hte book was the best as far as I am concerned.
Huang goes on to explore the fictional character, Charlie Chan as he was created by Earl Biggers, and then later re-created in movies. He tries to move beyond the racial profiling and into the deeper meaning of Chan--what he did and did not do for the image of Asian Americans (even juxatposing his own experience in America as a counterpoint to what might be the easiest critique of Charlie Chan). I found this aspect of the book less entertaining, but very thought provoking, and a unique approach to the issues of race, culture, assimilation, social standing, and the complex melting pot that America is and has been.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


This is it. We are off on a trip across Iowa. My brother and his wife founded the team 'Iowa Borealis' (they are Alaskan and we are Iowan, so a nod to both of us) and organized the whole effort. Which is a good one and it is about time that we participate in this annual event.
I have lived in Iowa for over 20 years, but I have not spent much time in small Iowa towns. While the number of riders often exceeds the size of the town--so we won't be so much getting the nature of the town as drowning it--the ability to watch the state roll by in small snippets is something that I am looking forward to.
The only time that I have spent in smaller towns in Iowa was when my youngest son was getting chemptherapy in 2001. As the year progressed, we tried to go away a few weekends during the year in order to keep some of our sanity. Because he had almost no white blood cells and could be hospitalized at the drop of a hat, we didn't want to be too far away, so we would pick places that were within an hour or two of Iowa City, so we could get back quickly if we needed to--it was a lot of fun to explore the Main St. in little towns, see what artisans had started to occupy the 19th century buildings that make up most of Iowa downtown neighborhoods, and to eat in small town restaurants. This time we will not be staying in comfortable bed and breakfasts--au contariare, we will be sleeping in the 9stiffling) Iowa air, likely eating from various food vendors, and trying to ignore the fact that despite all, we are not showering with any kind of regularity. Ok, it may not sound like much, but I think it will be a fun family vacation.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Heat Index

The heat index--a reflection of what the weather feels like--is a temperature that is a mixture of actual temperature, mixed with what the humidity is to arrive at a more accurate number. The formula is as follows:
Here is a formula for approximating the heat index in degrees Fahrenheit, to within ±1.3 °F. It is useful only when the temperature is at least 80 °F and the relative humidity is at least 40%.
HI = c_1 + c_2 T + c_3 R + c_4 T R + c_5 T^2 + c_6 R^2 + c_7 T^2R + c_8 T R^2 + c_9 T^2 R^2
HI = heat index (in degrees Fahrenheit)
T = ambient dry-bulb temperature (in degrees Fahrenheit)
R = relative humidity (in percent)
c_1 = -42.379
c_2 = 2.04901523
c_3 = 10.14333127
c_4 = -0.22475541
c_5 = -6.83783 x 10^{-3}
c_6 = -5.481717 x 10^{-2}
c_7 = 1.22874 x 10^{-3}
c_8 = 8.5282 x 10^{-4}
c_9 = -1.99 x 10^{-6}
You can see why the table fell in popular use...
After one day where the outside temperature was 105 and the humidity was 50%, I began to really get what this heat index is all about. It was impossible to walk outside in any sort of sunlight by mid-morning without sweating profusely, even for a few minutes.
I did not remember the heat index as a factor in my childhood--which is a true memory, because it was described in 1978 (which falls clearly outside of what might be realistically classified as 'childhood' for me)--but I also grew up in Pasadena, where it might reach 105 on occasion but it was a very dry heat, feeling pretty much like 105 when it occurred. Now that I have logged 20+ years in the Midwest, I have an entirely different view of what is tolerable, temperature-wise, and the recent weather has been well outside what I find acceptable.

Friday, July 22, 2011

State of Wonder by Anne Patchett

In the interest of full disclosure, I think Ann Patchett is phenomenal. 'The Magician's Assistant' is one of my all time favorite books. 'Run' is one of the best narratives on the paradox of urban landscapes, where extreme poverty and deprivation can exist within blocks of unfathomable wealth. The thing I love about Patchett beyond her skill as a story teller is that there is a second and a third layer to her stories, which keep emerging in your thoughts, bubbling up long after you have closed the book, and 'State of Wonder' is no exception. I am a huge fan. So read on with this in mind.
The book focuses on the person who is a change agent, but not the biggest character. Dr. Marina Singh is a woman with a skeleton or two in her closet, but who is happily working in a lab in Minnesota when her supervisor enlists her aid in finding the elusive Dr. Swenson, who is working with indigenous people in the heart of the Amazon on a potential new drug. He has sent a colleague of hers, Anders, ahead of her, and reports are that he has died. Anders widow encourages Marina to go there and figure out what the whole story is.
And so she goes. She is not a jungle person, and even the journey is arduous and wonderous. It is almost like being dropped into a science fiction story, the atmosphere is so foreign, and Dr. Swenson is so brutally matter-of-fact that Marina is thrown even further off her game. But Dr. Singh has hidden sources of strength, and she is able to stand up for herself, as well as admit to things that need improvment, and in the end she is also very brave. And she realizes that underneath Dr. Swenson's appearance of telling the no-holds-barred truth, she is hiding quite a lot--that it is not the truth she tells but rather the way she would like things to be viewed.
The subtext of the story is one about values--how do we balance the discovery of new medical agents against respect for indigenous people and habitats? We do not have a moral paradigm for this internationally, of course, but the book plumbs some of the readers thoughts, presenting a morally ambiguous situation to make the weighing of the evidence more interesting and challenging. Outstanding piece of fiction.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Barney's Version (2011)

Barney isn't very kind to himself, even in his own version of the story. Paul Giamatti plays Barney Panofsky, a successful television producer whose company, Totally Unnecessary Productions, makes terrible soap operas. A business that is aptly named, for once. It is this darker version of tongue in cheek humor that pervades the film. Barney cannot ever seem to do it right. First he marries a woman who is having another man's baby--but he remains with the abusive woman until she commits suicide before he moves on to wife number 2. Minnie Driver plays an overbearing woman who seems off-kilter for Barney, but he doesn't realize it until his wedding day, when he meets the love of his life. She is appropriately hesitant to become involved with a man she met at his own wedding, but eventually Barney sheds Minnie Driver and marries his lady love.
So that should be happily ever after, right? Not so with Barney, a man who seems determined to shoot himself in the foot--he becomes jealous that his wife has an admirer, and in that jealous (and drunk) state of mind, he has an affair that leads not only to the end of his marriage but also to what he feared the most--his life is a series of self-fulfilling prophesies--many of which are sad.
The movie is not uplifting, but it is a good look at making sure that you marry for love, and keep your eye on that ball throughout--do not take it for granted, work on keeping the love alive, because the alternatives are far worse.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf

The subtitle of this book is 'The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation'. Well, that sounds like a tall task, but it is a very interesting look at the Founding Fathers. From their gardens, and what they meant to them, and how that shaped who they were as politicians.
She starts with Benjamin Franklin, who was an anglophile trying to make peace between the motherland and America. He finally gave up when they fired him from his job, but he took home with him a knowledge that while the English had the most impressive gardens in the world, they were populated with plants from the New World.
The gardeners she really focuses on are George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. The things all five of these men shared was a close relationship with their land, and developing it to the best of their ability was a focus for them in their lifetimes--what they did was not at all similar to each other, but it was innovative and distinctive (with the exception of Adams, who loved his farm, to be sure, but he didn't do anything remarkable with it).
Jefferson comes out on the top of the founding gardener heap--he cultivated native plants, tried to figure out the best way to grow them, how to expand the food growing potential of the Americas, and then also was a great supporter of Western exploration, which brought hundreds of new plants from the west to the attention of the world. They all saw agriculture as the secret weapon to America's success as an independent nation--if they could sell to others, not just England, they would be a wealthy nation because everybody has to eat. They were respectful of the land and what it could produce. But my favorite is that Jefferson thought that the constitution should allow only farmers to be in Congress--that they had the necessary perspective to govern the nation. I wish they had retained that requirement in later drafts, because it would be really helpful to have more farmers and fewer lawyers in Congress today.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Another Year (2011)

I really like quiet British movies--this one was so quiet that for a long time I had trouble figuring out what the point was. It stars Jim Broadbent, who is one of my absolute favorite British actors--in this one, he and his wife (Ruth Sheen) are a very functional and happy couple with jobs that they like. Not much of a story there--they garden contentedly together, and are comapnionable in every way.
The thing is, no one in their lives has anything approaching what they have--they seem to attract people who cannot get it together. Their friends have no friends, no relationships, they drink too much, and they feel sorry for themselves for the plight they find themselves in. Tom and Gerri (seriously, those are their names) seem to collect these hapless people, who drop in on them regularly and make no progress, despite the cheerful and functional example they set.
They seem to have a limitless capacity for tolerance up until the time that one of Gerry's friends develops an ill-advised crush on Gerry's son--who has a girlfriend that Tom and Gerry like--at that point they start to set some limits on their friends who really don't get it--what?? They have to spell it out for her. It is a typical Michael Leigh movie in that it ends quietly and gently, not with a bang, but it sticks with you.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

I thought Sarah Vowell a bit too wordy in her last book, 'Wordy Shipmates'.
In 'Unfamiliar Fishes', where she turns her witty attention to the annexation of Hawaii, she is less didactic and a little bit less funny than in previous works.
I picked this book up because Sarah Vowell wrote it. Her writing is factual, detailed, and not infrequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. She meanders through history, at times wandering far from the subject at hand, but always managing to keep these diversions to task and shockingly relevant.
Vowell leaves no doubt that we have nothing to be proud about our annexation of Hawaii--not that the native chiefs were such great stewards of th eland, mind you, but this is yet another strong armed takeover of a kingdom who's history is rich and deep, which we chose to not just ignore, but toss away without thinking. The recent legislation leading to a path for native Hawaiians to once again become stewards of someof their land is too little too late. Vowell teaches without making it hard work to follow--she doles out an excellent dose of history, wit, and a host of information you never knew you didn't know.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Made in Dagenhem (2011)

This is a movie about equal pay for equal work, British style (which apparently went a lot better than a simialr movement in this country. The recent death of Betty Ford, who campaigned for the failed Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970's reminds me that all is not well in that area for American women) It stars Sally Hawkins (in a role almost unrecognizable from the one she played in 'Happy-Go-Lucky') as Rita, confident and forthright as the ordinary working mum who finds herself elevated to the position of striker-spokeswoman. She is battling not only the bosses but the old boys club in general: both employers and trade unionists who want to preserve their upscale lifestyle at the expense of their constituents are agreeing to a duplicitous compromise behind her back.
The original title for the film was We Want Sex, based on a real, chaotic mishap at the strikers' Westminster demo, when the right-hand half of their banner reading "We Want Sexual Equality" collapsed, leading to much cheerfully supportive drive-by hooting and wolf-whistling, in which this movie participates. The film itself is also a bit sexed up. Much of the grimness and bitterness that you might associate with industrial action is largely gone, and some of the women themselves are surely more glamorous than was the case in real life.
But there's something else going on here. In its jaunty and insouciant way, this is actually pretty subversive: this is a film about strikers who are not evil, or deluded, just going after what is rightfully theirs. Made in Dagenham goes against the 'we are miserable' grain. The striking women achieve inspirational self-respect and they win their strike as well. These women are shown teaming up, and fighting effectively for a principle. The film's cheerful demeanour might grate, but it might be not far from the mood that the striking women thought it expedient to adopt at the time. Maybe feeling good isn't that inappropriate.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

This book is subtitled 'Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Germany' and is about the US Ambassador to Germany immediately before WWII started, beginning in 1933 until 1938.
William Dodd (no relation to Thomas Dodd, a judge at Nuremberg after WWII) was a college professor, and not a very happy one. He was looking for something else to do. President Roosevelt had a big problem--no one with any kind of political savvy wanted to be the US Ambassador to Germany, seeing the handwriting on the wall--that that was literally a dead end political job, a no-win situation. So Roosevelt tapped Dodd for the job--as a non-politician he really had no idea what he was getting into, and he spoke fluent German, so off he went to a job no one wanted.
His family socialized with Nazis and advocated for them back in the US, despite a growing body of evidence that all was not going well with Germany if you were at all tolerant. People were being abducted and murdered, and the lack of tolerance of any differences was becoming, well, intolerable. It took Dodd a long time to say that enough was enough and come home, and this book is the story of what happened leading up to his departure.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

The Adjustment Bureau" is about the conflict between free will and predestination. Which is short hand for what is the meaning of life. Either it makes a difference what you choose to do, or the book had already been written, and all you can do is turn the pages. The movie is based on a Phillip Dick story about an army of "adjusters" who move a strange thing there and a known thing here, just to be sure everything proceeds according to plan. Whose plan? Not revealed. The adjusters aren't big on explanations. They're like undercover agents for a higher power, not of a religious sort but more of a Big Brother.
But the best-laid planssometimes stray. Random chance barges in, and its interference must be corrected. In "The Adjustment Bureau," Matt Damon plays a congressional candidate named David Morris, who walks into a men's room he has every reason to believe is empty, and who should emerge from one of the stalls but Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). What was she doing there? The important thing is, these two people, who were never intended to meet, have that particular chemistry that equals love of your life romance. They know it, we know it, and when their eyes and lips meet, their stories become entangled.
They part, Morris goes on to some recovered success, and then at one point he becomes aware of certain men wearing suits and fedoras, who strangely start to appear in his life. He meets two of them: Mitchell and Richardson (Anthony Mackie and John Slattery). They explain that they work for a bureau that makes corrections when things go slightly wrong. For her sake and his, David must not see her again.
So this is where it gets intriguing. They do meet again. But this time, they recognize each other, you see, because they had met earlier. Which is very bad if you are an adjuster.
The plot develops into a cat-and-mouse game of the mind, in which David and Elise, in love and feeling as if they're destined for each other, try to outsmart or elude the men in the suits and hats. This is fun, and because Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have an easy rapport, it doesn't seem as preposterous as it is. Beneath its apparent sci-fi levels, a romantic comedy lurks here, and the combination is a winner.
"The Adjustment Bureau" is a smart and good movie. What David and Elise signify by their adventures, I think, is that we're all in this together, and we're all on our own. If you follow that through, the implications are treacherous, but in the short term, however, the movie is a sorta heartwarming entertainment.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronsom

Ronsom, whi has already established an aversion to psychiatry (see "Men Who Stare at Goats") takes on psychopathy in this somewhat scattered but very interesting book.
First he wants to know who these people are. So he goes to prisons in England, Canada and the U.S. Then he takes a three-day seminar from Robert Hare, the leading expert in psychopathy, whose Hare PCL-R Checklist is used by law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere to evaluate offenders. Hence the 'test' referred to in the title. Cutting to the chase, it helps but it does not define who is mortally dangerous and who is not. Just who doesn't much care about those who fall out of their personal scope.
Armed with this test, Ronson decides to go out and use it. He tries it out on a man convicted of leading a Haitian death squad (seemingly a good canditdate for a positive score on the test). Then he goes wider. Ronson tests out Hare's checklist on a captain of industry, one of the most notoriously ruthless of American businessmen. At the Florida home of Al Dunlap — the downsizing executive nicknamed "Chainsaw Al" — he notes an abundance of sculptures of predatory animals, teeth bared, claws extended. Dunlap's score on the checklist rises, but the results ultimately fail to fit key points.
Ronson then turns to psychiatry, and the definition of psychopath in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as DSM. Ronson seeks out psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, the editor who oversaw the expansion of DSM-III, which was 134 pages, to the 494-page DSM-IV. The line between pathology and normalcy can be moved, Ronson shows, by something as messy as a room crowded with arguing experts.
A discussion of the value of excessively labeling behavior as pathology is the focus of the end of the book, and overall, this is a very good read.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Client 9 (2010)

Mr. Spitzer told an aide, “Welcome to a Greek tragedy.”  More like a depressing lesson in power politics. While its full title suggests that “Client 9” is about the highs and lows in one powerful man’s life, the movie is more rightly an anatomy of political gamesmanship at a high level. 
The New York Times, which, on March 10, 2008, broke the story that Mr. Spitzer had been linked to a prostitution ring. Two days later the governor — who as the state’s attorney general had overseen the 2004 bust of a prostitution ring — resigned from office, apologizing for not living “up to what was expected of me.”
The movie spends some time checking into the prostitution angle but that is almost ancillary to the movie's overall message.  Mr. Spitzer couldn't have been taken down without Mr. Spitzer's help.  True, that.  But the movie doesn't go about inquiring how a man might get caught up in expensive call girls and late night parties.
The juiciest parts of this story weren’t the explicit, sometimes banal details, like Mr. Spitzer’s famous black socks. No, the good stuff involves the power brokers who — enraged by Mr. Spitzer’s activism as attorney general, specifically in his hard-charging capacity as the Sheriff of Wall Street — might have had something to do with his downfall. 
Two such enemies were Mr. Bruno, a former boxer and notorious political pugilist, makes a colorful, entertaining interview subject, and the strategist Roger Stone. Both men are important stops on the trail of bread crumbs that the filmmaker persuasively sprinkles that leads to Maurice R. Greenberg, the former chairman of A.I.G., and that snakes over to Kenneth G. Langone, a co-founder of Home Depot and a former director of the New York Stock Exchange. As attorney general, Mr. Spitzer sued Mr. Greenberg and A.I.G., and named Mr. Langone in a suit for his part in the compensation package paid to Richard A. Grasso, the former chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, whose $139.5 million haul became emblematic of Wall Street greed.
Eliot Spitzer was right about Wall St. and that fact is not lost on the maker's of this movie.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Unfriendly Skies

I had absolutely the worst customer service I have had in the 21st century from United Airlines. I am a frequent United flier. I chose them as what I have seen as the lesser of the airline evils. A position to be re-evaluated. I like their seating with extra leg room, and I usually do not find their service any worse than any other airlines (certainly better than my experience flying Iberia two years ago, for example). But my most recent interaction with them makes me think we have a looming problem with customer service in general, and that United needs to do what Starbucks did a few years ago--send their employees back to service boot camp so they can recall where they salaries come from. Paying customers.
I was flying to New Orleans with two of my children. When I made the reservations, I paid extra to have all of us in the front of the plane, and was looking forward to the trip, despite a 6:00 am flight and a lengthy layover. When I went to check in, I found that we were seated in the next to last row of the plane. What happened?
Perhaps I should not have asked that question, because I spent the next two hours on the phone with "customer service", ending up exactly where I started off in terms of seating, but I had gone from puzzled to infuriated. United contended that I had made the change myself. Their computer stated that the change was made on Sunday, and that was that. I said, no I did not make that change, and really, who would do that? It makes no sense.
Their response across the four employees that I talked to was remarkably similar--not a one of them apologized for what might have been an error in their system. I have encountered an error on their web site on a regular basis recently, and the whole system went famously down just over a week ago, but that was not an option considered by the United employees I spoke with. They stated that people often do not know how to work web sites, that people often make stupid choices, that perhaps my 20 and 22 year old children were unfamiliar with the internet and had made the change if I had not, and that perhaps my veracity was less than stellar and I was blaming them for something that I had done and now regretted. And no, they did not think I would be refunded the money that I had spent to get better seats, since I subsequently made a choice to sit in less spacious seating (I did not ask when in the conversation I appeared to be masochistic to them--clearly the computer was right, and therefore there were very few possible explanations for my irrational behavior).
In the course of not helping me, as well as bringing me to shouts, murmurs, and tears, they also canceled my seats--which undoubtedly was also my fault.
I will of course write a suitably worded letter to United and will receive a polite response, which will undoubtedly include an apology, but is that really the point? No, it is not--the point is that no one I talked to acted as if it was their job to get me onto the plane in the best possible manner given the constraints that existed--no, I could not have my original seats, but what could they do instead? Not a consideration--they did not look at the story as a whole. Maybe I am a person who can't turn on a computer, makes ill-conceived choices, and am prone to blaming others. But that shouldn't be their first thought.

Monday, July 11, 2011

That's What I am (2011)

The movie is a bit of a rose-colored glasses look at bullying and intolerance, as seen by an 8th grader (though the narrator is a man, looking back on his experience with the eyes of an adult who has learned more about what the experience meant now that he is some distance from it, as well as being older and wiser).
There are two threads that deal with tolerance in a way that is not about gender or race, so resonate a little differently as a result. The time is 1965 and the place is a middle school in Southern California (hey, that could have been me--I went to middle school in SoCal--but was bussed and the issues of tolerance might seem more like the civil rights era that this occurs in). Andy is the kid whose head we are in, and he has two significant events occur--the first is that his absolute favorite teacher assigns him to do a project with the most bullied, ostracized boy on campus, Stanley. Stanley has a quiet dignity that makes us immediately sympathetic to his cause, and eventually Andy is won over as well.
The second thing of significance is that his favorite teacher, a mild mannered English teacher, Mr. Simon (played with warmth and depth by Ed Harris) is accused of being gay. Which he refuses to respond to. He is accused by a bully. The bully has suffered expulsion from school because Mr. Simon has caught him beating up a girl. So he has an axe to grind with Mr. Simon. But none of that matters. Mr. Simon won't dignify the charge with a response, and his principal doesn't feel that she can protect him. So Mr. Simon takes a course that he feels he can live with, but it is a bittersweet end. A little too much sugar to be a great movie, but it is a good one.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It was 11 Years Ago Today

I love this photo design project that Lisette Gruelke did with a photo she took of Ethan and a poem he wrote.  It was when he was 11, and today it has been 11 years since his medulloblastoma diagnosis.
You may be able to lower your odds of bad events occurring to you, but you cannot eliminate them, and so it is what it is often.  No going backwards, no 'what if's".  So as we continue into the second decade post-cancer, ot would be nice to look forward more than we look backward.  Easier said than done, I am afraid.

One piece of making lemonade out of lemons for me has been a small non-profit that my friend Nancy and I have to publish four books on how to cope with childhood cancer and survivorship ( Major pediatric treatment centers have long purchased our books for newly diagnosed families, but not everyone is treated in such a setting, and as the information related to challenges faced by childhood cancer survivors related to their treatment increase, we hope that the books can be more generally available.  Our first attempt at disseminating this information toa wider audience began with getting a table at the American Library Association's annual meeting, and between ourselves and three of our children, we spread to word to anyone who would listen.  And it felt good.  We heard from all sorts of people, some of whom had very sad stories to tell, but it was really heartwarming to hear that we had helped them.  In a perfect world, no one would have to walk in the shoes that we have walked in, but second best is helping those who follow with information and hope that it is survivable.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos

This is the book that 'All Iowa Reads' is doing this year--while I never seem to get to any of the events associated with what is supposed to be a community building affair, I at least managed to read the book the year I was supposed to (something I only manage about once every three years).
'Sing Them Home is the second book by the author, and I very much liked her first, 'Broken For You'--this book is about a family. It is set in small town Nebraska, which is not critical to the plot but it does have a role. Hope, wife of the local obstetrician and mother of three, suddenly disappears in the aftermath of a tornado, never to be seen again. The bulk of the book takes place 25 years after her dissappears--her three children are brought back to their home town by the sudden death of their father--he was struck by lightening (lots of natural disasters to be found on the prairie in Nebraskba, it seems) and the book alternates between each of their narratives, as well as diary entries that their mother made. The three offspring are all broken, but as the story unfolds, it is hard to discern if it is related to their mother's presumed death or is it because of how she lived . There is a secret that unfolds as the book moves forward that makes everything that has happened since seem more understandable. A great rendtion of how a disabling illness affects not just the person who has it, but everyone in their intimate sphere of orbit. The causes of the problems are not explored--the pathologies are revealed, but it is up to the reader to resolve why none of Hope's children are capable of experiencing intimacy. Interesting read.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Song of Innocence (2005)

This is not a movie about songs or innocence. The movie displays a number of disturbing human qualities which persist into our modern life. It is set in 1877 but lots of the issues seem familiar.
The movie opens with rising tensions in the household of a bourgeois architect, Julien, and his young wife, Charlotte. She has had a baby, having become pregnant on her honeymoon, and she is decidely conglicts on the issue of mother hood. She wants nothing to do with it, and he wants a boy, so they agree on this one child not satisfying their immediate desires. As is fashionable for the time, they hire a young peasant girl, Angele-Marie, as a wet nurse for their newborn daughter. That whole process is portrayed as highly sexualized in the movie--Julien goes to a house for unwed mothers, half of them appearing to him bare breasted, and he choses the woman who will feed his child--after tasting her breast milk, and watching it being coaxed out of her breast. Really? That is how it was done?

The mood in their household is strained. In Julien's absence, Charlotte and Angele-Marie discover that they have more in common than either woman expected. Charlotte is bored and lonely and she allows a relationship to develop between herself and the wet nurse. What she doesn't perceive is how destructive the relationship is for Angele-Marie. She actually thinks they are friends. She starts to fantasize about a life that she and Charlotte and their two babies could share, when in fact Charlotte has little interest in leaving her lifestyle and wants only to have her husband's full attention again. Julien makes no attempt to hide his distain for the relationship between the two women, and it isn't long before the situation threatens to turn violent. The ending is dramatic, sad, and preventable.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Grilled Squid with Melon, Mint, and Pumpkin Seed Salad

I returned to Donald Link's restaurant 'Herbsaint' in the Warehouse district in New Orleans for a meal. When I was in New Orleans last year, I had my favorite meal there, and I wanted to retread some of those steps. This salad was remarkable--the grilled flavor of the squid, balanced by the sweet melon and the earthiness of the pumpkin seeds, with mint and lemon flavors singing throughout the salad made it memorable and I I want to recreate it.
The grilled squid could be substituted with small grilled shrimp, or even chicken in a pinch.
Honeydew melon and watermelon in small diced size bites.
A handful of pumpkin seeds tossed it, and then the rest is lemon, mint, a sprinkle of pumpkin seed oil with salt and pepper. Simple and marvelous.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Thinking Girls Treasury of Real Princesses

I was at the American Library Association (ALA) annual meeting in New Orleans and met some of the wonderful women of Goose Bottom Books (including the author, Shirin Yim Bridges, who penned this wonderful collection and is pictured here in front of her books). I was there in the first place because I am on the board of a small non-profit that publishes four books aimed at children who have cancer and their families. We are trying to get libraries to consider buying these books, so we got a table in the exhibition hall, where we found ourselves surrounded by other small publishing groups. I was there with my two eldest sons, and we are definitely book people at heart--but the sorts of things the people around us were doing, in terms of creativity and uniqueness, was impressive. Just our kind of people, it turns out.

My favorite of the group was the Goose Bottom Books people. I really loved their idea. They have a wonderful line of books aimed at younger girls and one that is about to 'hatch'. The initial premise is that girls are smart--they want to think about things, and they want to learn. Learn about what? How about learning more about real women? People who actually existed, who took charge of their lives and made a difference. Some we have heard of, some we have not. The series take a world-wide look at women of history--the series on princesses includes: Hatshepsut of Egypt, Artemisia of Caria, Sorghaghtani of Mongolia, Qutlugh Terkan Khatun of Kirman, Isabella of Castile, and Nur Jahan of India. All the major empires of the ancient world are represented, but most will be unfamiliar names--only Isabella, who along with her husband Ferdinand sponsored Columbus' voyage, is liekly to be recognized. So through these books, young girls (and boys) can learn about the early and second wave empires of the world. Brilliant!
The series about to come out is The Thinking Girl's Treasury of Dastardly Dames--women who are more infamous than famous--this crew includes a fair share of familiar faces--Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary", Elizabeth's half sister), Marie Antoinette, and Cleopatra, to name a few.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Dilemma (2010)

I am not fond of movies where the trailer promises slapstick comedy between two oversized men (Vinve Vaughn and Kevin James) but delivers a serious package about how to approach secrets, infidelity, and delivering bad news.  Fortunately for me, the later is much more appealing to me than the former.  But what is up with that?  Do they think we won't notice this movie has no more humor than would be expected to be found in everyday life?
In any case, the dilemma of this movie is a true difficulty.  Nick (James) and Ronny (Vaughn) have been friends since college--theirs is an 'opposites attract' friendship that they have spun into a business partnership as well.  Ronny is the salesman and Nich is the brains.  In the midst of a high pressure deal, where they have sold a product they have not yet been able to create and are on a deadline, Ronny sees Nick's wife cheating on him--in broad daylight and with such ease as to make it clear this is not the first time.
What should Ronny do?  He doesn't want to throw Nick off his work game, but he is also very uncomfortable with what he knows.  So he tells no one, and starts his slow progression towards implosion.  He starts slowly, but quickly gathers momentum to the point, where he is on the verge of losing his best friend, his soon-to-be-fiance, and his livlihood.  Ok, that's a lot.  The thing I liked abou this movie is that it portrayed male friends who are very close, but don't much express emotions in a very emotional situation, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong.  A cautionary tale that does have the occasional laugh-out-loud moment but is largely a drama.  Nicely done, Ron Howard.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Pork Rillettes a la John Besh

This was another wonderful dish from Luke Restaurant. It might be time to buy John Besh's cookbook....

1 pound lard
3 onions, chopped
1 (4- to 5-pound) boneless Boston butt pork roast
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 rib celery, halved
1 quart chicken stock
1 cup dry white wine
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Melt the lard in a large enameled cast-iron pot with a lid over moderate heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. While the onions are cooking, cut the pork into large pieces and season with salt and pepper.

Add the pork to the pot along with the garlic, celery, chicken stock, wine, thyme, bay leaves and pepper flakes. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and slowly simmer for 3 hours.

Remove the pork from the pot and place in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and mix on low speed.

Remove and discard the celery, thyme sprigs and bay leaves from the pot. Slowly add the remaining broth from the pot to the meat in the mixer bowl, continuing to mix at low speed until all the broth has been incorporated back into the meat. Season with salt and pepper. Pack the cooled pork in a terrine or in small sterilized jars. Cover well and refrigerate. Jarred rillettes will keep for 6 months.

Makes 10-15 pint jars.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Biutiful (2010)

I did not love this movie, but it is well worth a watch, especially if you are one who likes to dance dangerously close to overdosing on the trajedy of the human condition. The story of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a single father with terminal prostate cancer and the burden of a life without stability, is soulful, tragic and made with loving care. Bardem injects an appropriate amount of pathos into his performance, and is amazing. The movie is gritty and gloomy, and it is hard to know exactly how to recommend it, but it is well worth the 150 or so minutes it takes to watch it.
Uxbal lives on the margins of criminality in Barcelona. He manages a group of African immigrants who sells fake designer purses made by Chinese immigrants in a shoddy little factory. The movie captures the sense of the cyclical trap these characters are in. They depend on each other, even though no one is exactly dependable. A young Chinese mother watches Uxbal's daughter and young son while he's out hustling on the street—-they're all just barely staying on the treadmill....And getting off isn't a choice. Uxbal, given just a couple of months to live in the film's first few minutes, is desperate to provide for his children without coming up with any reasonable solutions. The mother is not an option--she is the personification of narcissistic unreliability. There are no relatives--no grandparents and his brother is snorting cocaine and partying with hookers. Uxbal is so obviously in need of help that I felt the overwhelming urge to leave a meal for him, despite the separation provded by the screen.
There is a magical realism that is typical of Latin movies--this was the least moving part of the movie was my least favorite part--though it may have great appeal for those who believe in the afterlife. The part I found most compelling was that Uxbal has someone who tells him he is dying that he needs to get his life in order, and despite that, because of the state of his life, he hasn't even told his children by film's end. Tragedy is well represented here.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Shrimp and Grits a la John Besh

I ate at Luke Restaurant in New Orleans and had a wonderful version of the traditional Southern dish--shrimp and grits. It had less of an overabundance of sauce, and wonderfully flavorful grits.

1 tsp salt
1 c white grits
2 Tbs butter
½ c mascarpone cheese

Place 4 c water in a medium saucepan. Add salt. Bring to a boil. Slowly pour the grits in, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low. Simmer until all the water has been absorbed, stirring frequently to keep the grits from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Stir in the butter and mascarpone. Remove from heat and place a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the grits to prevent a crust from forming.

2 Tbs olive oil
1 ½ lb medium shrimp
Creole Seasoning (recipe below)
1/2 c diced andouille sausage
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 roasted red pepper
1 Tbs fresh thyme, chopped
2 c shrimp stock (can substitute chicken stock mixed with some clam juice)
2 Tbs butter
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
2 c canned diced tomatoes, drained
1 Tbs chopped fresh chives
½ c fresh chervil sprigs

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Season the shrimp with Creole seasoning and salt. Saute until the shrimp begin to brown but are not cooked all the way through. Remove from pan and set aside. In the same skillet, sauté the andouille, garlic, shallots, peppers, and thyme for about 5 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Stir in the butter and continue to cook until the sauce has reduced and thickened a little.
Return the shrimp to the skillet and cook for 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice, diced tomatoes, and chives.

To serve, spoon a heaping ¼ c of grits into the center of a bowl. Spoon shrimp and andouille mixture over the grits. Garnish with chervil.

Creole Seasoning:

2 Tbs celery salt
1 Tbs paprika
1 Tbs coarse sea salt
1 Tbs ground black pepper
1 Tbs garlic powder
1Tbs onion powder
2 tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp allspice

Friday, July 1, 2011

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

I am a huge Geraldine Brooks fan, with 'The People of the Book' being my absolute favorite. She takes an historical setting and an event that occurred, and builds a story around it.
The time is 1660. Bethia is part of a pilgrim community that has broken away from John Winthrop’s colony in Massachusetts Bay and settled on Martha’s Vineyard. Her father is forward thinking and even handed--he doesn’t believe in stealing from or slaughtering the local Indians, but his family faces ridicule on both sides. Some of the native Wampanoag are distrustful, and some of the island immigrants would like to get rid of the indigenous population altogether.
Bethia is our heroine, and the novel is told from her point of view. She is explicitly told by her father that as a girl, she is not to be too educated--there is no point. So her duller brother, Makepeace, is being grommed to go to harvard, while she is sold into indentured servitude to help defray the cost of his education. Given her upbringing, she is not entirely in touch with her feelings, and she displays no anger at this situation. She laregely does what she is told. But not entirely. She befriends a native boy. She does recognize that she is quite fond of the boy, Cheeshahteaumauck, who is the nephew of the most powerful (and suspicious) local pawaaw, or priest-healer. Bethia thinks it may be this friendship, and the Wampanoag rituals she has allowed herself to witness out of curiosity (or what we may call intelligence and a sense of adventure), that has caused God to punish her by killing her mother. So she is a creature of her environment and her time, which gives the book an understated tone throughout. Her rebellion is to treat her Indian friend, who becomes known as Caleb, as an equal, someone who deserves the opportunities that any man would have in the new America. there were times reading this that I wished the narration was livlier, but then that would have been out of place for both the narrator and the story. It is wonderfully written, with a rich detail for the history of the period.