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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Information: The History, The Theory, The Flood by Jaes Gleick

THe book opens with the history of communicating information. The first chapter is about 'drum talk', which is a drum language used in a part of the Democratic Republic of Congo where the spoken language is Kele. European explorers had been aware for a long time that the irregular rhythms of African drums were carrying mysterious messages through the jungle. Explorers would arrive at villages where no European had been before and find that the village elders were already prepared to meet them. What they were slow to understand was why. In 1938, John Carrington became the first European to get why. Kele is a tonal language with two sharply distinct tones. Each syllable is either low or high. The drum language is spoken by a pair of drums with the same two tones. Each Kele word is spoken by the drums as a sequence of low and high beats. In passing from human Kele to drum language, all the information contained in vowels and consonants is lost. In a European language, the consonants and vowels contain all the information, and if this information were dropped there would be nothing left. But in a tonal language like Kele, some information is carried in the tones and survives the transition from human speaker to drums. They needed to add additional 'nonsense' words to make the meaning of the drumming clear, but it was essentially mimicking spoken language.
The second historical example is from France, when Claude Chappe developed a coded communication that could be viewed through telescopes--which came into being right around the time of the French Revolution. Chappe was a patriot who developed coded communications that were viewed through telescopes.
The book then segues into modern history, which begins with Samuel Morse, who made it possible to communicate almosttantaniously over long distances-=-at a time when it had taken days if not weeks to do so. Unlike Chappel, Morse was not interested in secrecy--his was the communication of business and he was wildly successful.
The theory refers to the work of Claude Shannon, the father of the science of information theory. In 1945 Shannon wrote a paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Cryptography,” which was stamped SECRET and never saw the light of day. He published in 1948 an expurgated version of the 1945 paper with the title “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” The 1948 version appeared in the Bell System Technical Journal, the house journal of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and became an instant classic, at a time when the greatest leaps forward in communication were happening in the Bell Labs. It is the founding document for the modern science of information. After Shannon, the technology of information raced ahead, with electronic computers, digital cameras, the Internet, and the World Wide Web. Which is the 'flood' part of the book. All three sections are equally good, but the first two sections were less known to me. Excellent read.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Value of Thanks

The easiest way to happiness is one where you spend some amount of time every day reflecting on what you have to be thankful for, focusing on those positives, and appreciating them. The converse of that to let go of the things that are unchangable and not have that cloud over what is good and great in life. Easier said than done.
Thanksgiving is a time for doing just that--giving thanks. Families and friends get together to celebrate what we have. And the thanks giving does not have religious baggage involved. I heard a piece on 'This American Life' this weekend about siblings who are not able to have a meaningful sibling relationship because she is a non-religious Jew, and her brother has become a born-again evangelical Christian. They can't find a common ground upon which to meet because he believes she is damned. So religious holidays are out for them--too much tension. And in this example maybe they won't have overlapping things they are thankful for--maybe what they are grateful for are things other than each other. But I think it is brilliant to have a secular day of thanks.
I spent the weekend doing a mixture of what my everyday life contains: time with my nuclear family (some collegial conversations, some bickering), cooking, working, reading, cleaning up, and so on. In other words, nothing special, other than the fact that my child at college away from home was with us for the holiday. But that is what is great for me--that it is not a time to go overboard with specialness. It is a time to savor the ordinary and be grateful for it.
I am watching a BBC series set during WWII, which was a time that was not ordinary. Bombs were raining on the civilian population, young men were dying in droves, and food was scarce. Yet in the midst of it all, people were trying to do ordinary things--get married, get to work, get dinner on the table,. they would have loved to have nothing but ordinary things happen. It was hard to maintain moral standards in a time when bombs are dropping on children and you didn't know where your next meal would come from or what it would consist of. The Chinese curse of 'May you live in interesting times' comes to mind. I am thankful that despite all the challenges we face, that a global war is not a current problem.
So, moving forward into the end of the year festivities, I am trying to ride the tide created by an intense focus on thanks. May we all be able to live the serentity prayer: Please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cherry Mustard

I had a wonderful condiment when I ate at Luke in New Orleans--cherry mustard. It was served with a chocon de lait sandwich, and was a wonderful balance of sweet and tart. John Besh included the recipe in his cookbook, and since I am going back to New Orleans next month, I started thinking of some of the great food I had last summer there.
* 1/4 cup cherry juice (no sugar added)
* 1/4 cup ground mustard, such as Colman’s
* 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
* 1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar
* 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
* 1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
* 1 large egg
* 1 large egg yolk
* 2 tablespoons finely chopped dried cherries
1. Combine the cherry juice, ground mustard, vinegar, brown sugar, salt, and Worcestershire sauce in a medium heatproof, nonreactive bowl and whisk until smooth. Add the egg and egg yolk and whisk until evenly combined. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours.
2. Fill a medium saucepan with 1 inch of water and bring to a bare simmer over low heat. Remove the plastic wrap from the bowl of mustard and place the bowl over the simmering water. Cook, whisking constantly, until the mustard has thickened to the consistency of olive oil, about 10 minutes. (Check to make sure the water isn’t boiling by periodically removing the bowl from the saucepan using a potholder or dry towel. If the water is boiling, reduce the heat so the eggs don’t curdle.)
3. Remove the bowl from the saucepan, add the dried cherries, and stir to combine. Transfer the mustard to a nonreactive container with a tightfitting lid and cool completely.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Adults by Amy Espach

This book is Emily, aged 14 up to her late 20's and the relationship she has with a man over that period of time. There is a lot more to her story than just one guy, of course. Her parents divorce, she makes and loses friends, her father moves out of the country and in with another woman, having fathered a half-sister with yet another woman. It is not the fairy book childhood. But the realtionship that defines her life is one with her high school teacher, Johannes--who she calls Mr. Basketball. She begins sleeping with him when she is 15 years old, and she does so ardently, enthusiastically, and the teacher loves he back, no question about it. He is not just bedding an underaged girl, he is falling hard for her. Why? Well, he is one of those men who is not much more than a teen himself, in maturity if not age. He is 24 when the affair begins, and he still doesn't have sheets on his bed--it is like he was orphaned too early to learn the ecoutrements of a civilized life--like how to make your bed and cook your dinner.
The two meet up several times over Emily's subsequent life--she move on from Mr. Basketball, but when he shows back up, she is her 15 year old self again. Just a horny as before and unable to stop herself from literally jumping his bones. it is a story about how those first loves are intense loves--maybe not all that good for you, but very intense. And they don't fade away--those memory tracks about how you felt when you were with that person are hard to stamp out and intensely written. Be careful. That is how the story goes.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Brussel Sprouts with Marjoram and Pine Nuts

I got this recipe from my wonderful friend Chris, and I changed it a little bit, but it is a keeper. A great side for the Thanksgiving table.
* 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
* 1/4 cup pine nuts
* 1 1/2 pounds brussels sprouts, halved
* 1 cup broth
* 2 shallots, minced
* 1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram
* 1/4 cup half and half

print a shopping list for this recipe view wine pairings

Melt 1/2 tablespoon butter in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add nuts and stir until golden, about 3 minutes. Transfer nuts to small bowl. Melt 1/2 tablespoon butter in same skillet over medium heat. Add sprouts; stir 1 minute. Add broth; cover and simmer until sprouts are almost tender, about 7 minutes. Uncover and simmer until broth evaporates, about 5 minutes. Using wooden spoon, push sprouts to sides of skillet. Melt 1/2 tablespoon butter in center of same skillet. Add shallots; sauté until tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in marjoram, then cream. Simmer until sprouts are coated with cream, stirring frequently, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 4 hours ahead. Cover and chill. Stir over medium heat to rewarm.)

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

Wow, I really loved this book. I am already a huge Ondaatje fan. It happened long ago, when I read 'In the Skin of a Lion'. His way with words is spectacular, and from the very beginning of every story he tells I am immediately wrapped up in, and then once I am done, I am enfolded in the cocoon of the story for days afterwards. He is thought provoking, but not directive about how you should react. It has been a long time between books--'Anil's Ghost' came out about a decade ago, so savor this one. It has to last a while.
The story takes place in the 1950's and the narrator is an 11-year old boy, Michael, who is for much of the story on a boat en route from Sri Lanka to England, where he reunites with his mother. he is traveling with his uncle and family, but he is equally influenced by two boys his own age on the boat, Cassius and Ramadhin. The title of the book, The Cat's Table, refers to the worst table on ship--it is diametrically opposed to the prestige of the Captain's Table, and it is physically as far from the coveted table as is physically possible. On the one hand, prestigious passengers are dining with the highest ranking member of the crew--on the other hand, the least prestigious passengers are dining with his cat. But Michael and his friends discover that there are some interesting characters indeed at the Cat's Table. The other key element of the book is the time the journey takes. This story could not take place in present time, because the boy would have been put on a plane and within 12 hours time he would have seen 6 movies and be at his destination, having interacted with no one along the way. In this tale, the 21 day journey is life changing for the boys, and how that unfolds is the story. Wonderful to read, even better to reflect on.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Turkey Day!

We love the Thanksgiving meal. We try to have it at least twice during the Thanskgiving weekend, and a few more times throughout the year. It is an easy meal to prepare, but full of comfort foods and not all that pricey to put on for a crowd--especially if you get a few turkeys at the bargain basement prices that abound this week.
All the Kline boys are home--not all of them are eating turkey these days, but to have everyone around the same table is very nice. My best tip for the day is to brine your turkey. Always. Never fail to do this step--it makes the turkey taste sublime. In the interest of full disclosure, I never make the turkey (in fact, I rarely cook meat--I leave that for my spouse, who does such a reliably excellent job of it that I have never felt the need to learn). But this is the easiest and most practical method, taken from Alton Brown.
He fills a large Igloo Cooler with 6 quarts hot water, 1 pound salt, 1 pound brown sugar, and stirs until well mixed. Let it cool it for 15-30 minutes. Add 5 pounds of ice to the brine mixture, and submerge the turkey. Make sure the turkey is covered with the ice water, and let sit for 8-16 hours. Because of all the ice, it's not necessary to refrigerate as long as the water remains cold and there's still ice in the cooler. If the ice thaws, place the bird in the refrigerator for the remainder of the time. That's it. Now you can smoke it or roast it or deep fry it or grill it--whatever you want, but brining helps make the turkey juicier and more flavorful throughout.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuko

Julie Otsuko, who wrote 'When the Emperor Was Devine', a book about a family interned during WWII, follows that book with this one. The Japanese American themes continue, although this one is more of a collage than a story. She tells the stories of picture brides, women who came from Japan to America, having seen only a picture of their intended husbands. The marriage was brokered by a middle man who had no hesitation about lying--the men were farm hands, rather than the professional men they were presented to the girls and their families as, and they wer older and coarser than what their supposed pictures revealed. Otsuko proceeds to tell us all the fates that befell these women. They fell in love on the boat, they were raped by their 'husbands', they were sold or stolen as prostitutes, they were shunned by their new communiteis, they labored in the fields--but rarely did they live the life they were trained for or promised. These are not happy stories, so maybe it is better to tell them as a whole rather than to dwell on the individual misery--and the book is moer of a novella, something you can sit down and read in an hour or two, so as to minimize the pain that each individiual woman endured. Nicely done and recommended.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Crazy, Stupid Love (2011)

Ok, to start off, it is a dumb title for a movie, but it is also a movie that is aptly named--you know what you are getting into right off the bat. No secrets. But it worked for me.
At it's heart, it is a study in the varieties of masculine sexual confusion--from start to finish (ok, there are no geriatric love affairs, so the waterfront is not completely covered, but it has all the rest). Steve Carell plays Cal Weaver, an average guy with a family, a suburban house, and a white collar job. He is reported to have a bad haircut and terrible fashion sense. Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who is an adept pickup artist in a local bar tells him this and then volunteers his services as coach in the game of seduction. Cal accepts the offer because his wife of more than two decades, Emily (Julianne Moore), has told him that she wants a divorce, and that she has cheated on him with a co-worker (Kevin Bacon) only slightly less nebbishy than Cal himself (she is not going way out of her comfort zone for her mid-life crisis). Nursing his self-pity at a sleek local bar, Cal meets Jacob, who finds him so pathetic he is motivated to help him, if only to shut him up. Jacob definitely does not see this guy as a threat--something that comes back to bite him later in the movie. In a determined, half-pathetic attempt to even the score with Emily, Cal sets out to score with as many women as he can. Complications, as the saying goes, ensue, but they are not necessarily the ones you might expect. This is unrealistic in many ways but very enjoyable, with all sorts of good actors.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum (1900)

I know, this book is old--written in 1900, it chronicles a trip that began five years before, and what travelogue withstands a century's test of time? This one. It is a remarkable volume that reads as modern as anything being written today, and is a good deal more entertaining than most travel tales.
It has been said that Joshua Slocum’s autobiographical account of his solo trip around the world is one of the most remarkable — and entertaining — travel narratives of all time. Agreed.
When he set off alone from Boston aboard the thirty-six foot wooden sloop Spray in April 1895, Captain Slocum went on to join the ranks of the world’s great circumnavigators — Magellan, Drake, and Cook. But by circling the globe without crew or consorts, Slocum would outdo them all: his three-year solo voyage of more than 46,000 miles remains unmatched in maritime history for courage, skill, and determination. And the scariest part of all is his journey from Boston back home at the end of the trip, so it is a thriller to the end.
Sailing Alone Around the World recounts Slocum’s wonderful adventures encountered along the way: hair-raising encounters with pirates off Gibraltar and savage Indians in Tierra del Fuego; raging tempests and treacherous coral reefs; flying fish for breakfast in the Pacific; and a hilarious visit with Henry (”Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”) Stanley in South Africa. A century later, Slocum’s incomparable book endures as of the greatest narratives of adventure I have ever read. Truely wonderful and highly recommended.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Everything Must Go (2011)

'Everything Must Go' is a dramatization of a Raymond Carver short story 'Why Don't You Dance?', with Will Ferrell playing the central character. Two things about that. I like a movie that only tries to cover the material in a short work of fiction. Short stories have to make their mark in a limited number of pages and so the action is swift and the message is straightforward. Second, Raymond Carver, while not a man I would wanted to even share a meal with, judging from his biography, is a singularly gifted short story writer. Robert Altman's 'Short Cuts', also based on Carver's short stories, is a masterpiece. And finally, Will Ferrell is a gifted dramatic actor--while I rarely find him even palatable as a comic actor, his serious roles have yet to fail to intrigue and entertain me.
Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, a man who drinks his way out of a job and a marriage, all on the same day. He isn't one of those flamboyant drunks, nor is he a happy drunk, or a charming drunk. He is a guy whose drinking has become the priority in his life. A sad and very common story. Nick wouldn't say that drinking is more important than his wife, but because he pays more attention to that than anything else in his life, it becomes the king of his existence.
It isn't true that you need to find your bottom before you're likely to stop drinking but that is the case here. Every bottom is different. Nick finds his on the front lawn of his house. His wife has moved all his belongings out of their house, changed the locks, alarmed the house, emptied their bank account and cancelled his credit cards. He deals with this by buying some beer and settling into his La-Z-Boy recliner.
Into this situation comes the muse. In this case it is an African-American teenager named Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a nice kid who rides up on his bike, asks the obvious questions and enters into a tacit understanding to become Nick's business partner in the selling off of all his worldly goods. This character is very well handled. He quietly but precisely shines a light onto Nick's circumstnances in a way no other person in Nick's life can. His timing is right. He also allows for Nick to shine through as more than a drunk who can be a bit of an ass. Through their friendship, Nick is able to find a possible path to redemption. Thisis not a feel good movie, but it is packed with meaning, and the occasional laugh. My favorite is when Kenny says to Nick that black people don't play soccer and Nick's response is "What do you mean, black people don't play soccer? Whole continents of black people play soccer." Indeed they do. Nick helps Kenny and Kenny helps Nick. The story is not overplayed and it works.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Orient Express

The Orient Express conjures up images of stylish relaxation, a luxurious ambiance and wealthy rail travel among exotic European destinations. It is on a lot of people's bucket list, but I never thought much about the cities that the train went through. I was more focused on the luxury of the mode of transportation. Now that I have spent time in both Belgrade and Istanbul, I have been thinking about the other countries that the train went through. I focused more on the opulence in the setting of fairly mundane travel--the train. But I think I was missing the point.

Travel in the Balkans was incredibly scenic, and you really miss that if you fly over the places that you visit. I largely do that--I have less time to travel than I would like, and so often, the journey is more about getting there than how that travel is accomplished. This year I managed to be on a train for relaxing travel. I took a train from London to Glasgow, and it was delightful. For us, the English penchant for driving on the left makes driving high stress and if avoidable, that would be the preference. We had first class seats, which provided not just relaxing views, but also food, drink, electricity at your seat and wireless internet. And an assigned set, so you didn't have to scramble to sit down in a choice seat.

While the English countryside is quite lovely, the Balkans were spectacular, and the trip there made me quite eager to see more of Eastern Europe--the Orient Express whisks you through Romania and Bulgaria--which should perhaps be next on my list of places to visit sooner rather than later. The world is changing quickly. It was astounding how many people in the Balkans spoke English--almost everyone in the under 30 year old crowd, and overall, it was quite impressive. Not that sharing a common language is essential--we have managed with a dictionary, a smile, and a good map in the past. It requires flexibility on the part of the traveler, and being comfortable with not getting everything that you want. But communication is not over rated--it really helps, and maybe it is time to retrace the steps of this famous train in a modern way.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Creamy Chicken and Greens with Roasted Poblano

From Rick Bayless' Fiesta cookbook--this is for tacos, but we served it over rice

2 fresh poblano chiles
3 tablespoons olive oil
3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1 medium white onion, sliced 1/4-inch thick
3 garlic cloves, minced
5 cups (lightly packed) coarsely chopped, stemmed greens
1 cup chicken broth
A little fresh thyme, if you have it
1 cup Mexican crema, or heavy (whipping) cream

1. Roast the chiles. Roast the poblanos directly over an open flame or 4 inches below a broiler, turning regularly until blistered and blackened all over, about 5 minutes for a flame, about 10 minutes for the broiler. Cover with a kitchen towel and cool until handleable. Rub off the blackened skin, then pull out the stem and seed pod. Briefly rinse to remove any stray seeds or bits of skin. Slice 1/4- inch thick.

2. Brown the chicken. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high. Generously sprinkle the chicken breasts with salt on both sides and lay them into the pan in a single layer. When browned underneath, about 4 minutes, flip them over and reduce the heat to medium. Cook on the other side until browned and medium-rare (a little slit in the thickest part will reveal a rosy interior), 5 or 6 minutes more. Transfer to a plate.

3. Finishing. To the skillet (still over medium heat), add the onion. If there isn’t enough oil to lightly coat the onion, add a little more. Cook, stirring regularly, until richly browned and sweet, 8 or 9 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut the chicken into 1/2-inch cubes. Add the garlic to the skillet and cook 1 minute, then add the greens, broth and thyme (if you have it). Raise the temperature to medium high. Cook until the liquid is nearly gone and the greens are almost tender, about 5 minutes. Add the cream and cook until it is noticeably thicker (it’ll be a rich glaze) and the greens are fully tender, about 5 minutes more.

Taste and season the mixture in the skillet with salt, usually 1/4 teaspoon. Stir in the chicken, let heat through for a minute to two, scoop into a serving bowl, and enjoy.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Let's be clear--while this book focuses on a baseball layer, and there is a lot about the game in the book, you do not need to have wither an interest nor an understanding of the game to enjoy this book. the author chooses not to center the book on strategy or on gamemanship. Instead he puts the spot light on making an error. The book takes place in an imaginary northern Wisconsin private school and its baseball star-in-the-making Henry Skrimshander. Henry is shy and awkward--not quite Asperbergers, but he is in the neighborhood, if not on the block. To make up for, or maybe it is at least partly because of his social stupidity, he is a gifted and disciplined shortstop and also a disciple of a handbook for middle infielders that gives the book its name. His single-minded pursuit of perfection leaves him as something of a cipher in the early going. He's a repetitive motion machine full of workouts and rituals custom-built by his teammate and flawed mentor Mike Schwartz, determined to become bigger, stronger and more obsessed with the game than anyone else. And he largely succeeds, doing so without causing much of a fuss because he is so dedicated. People respect his success because it comes as a result of hard work. He ends up almost error free as a result. But not quite. he makes a big one.
The issue of the book--and for Henry and the characters around him, is how recovery from our errors on and off the field gives shape to people's lives. There is a lot of texture to the story that I am leaving out, but that is the jist of it.
The characters in this book remind me of John Irving, and the story has shades of Richard Russo--it is spectacular.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Potato Gnocchi

1 pound russet potatoes
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon gray salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting board and dough
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Bake potatoes until a bit overcooked, about 45 minutes. Let sit until cool enough to handle, cut in half, and scoop out the flesh. Reserve the potato skins, if desired, for another use. Let cool further to reduce moisture.
Pass the potatoes through a potato ricer or grate them on the large holes of a box grater. You should have about 2 cups. Make a mound of potatoes on the counter with a well in the middle, add egg, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Mix in the potatoes and mix well with hands. Sprinkle 1/2 cup of the flour over the potatoes and, using your knuckles, press it into the potatoes. Fold the mass over on itself and press down again. Sprinkle on more flour, little by little, folding and pressing the dough until it just holds together, (try not to knead it.) Work any dough clinging to your fingers back into the dough. If the mixture is too dry, add another egg yolk or a little water. The dough should give under slight pressure. It will feel firm but yielding. To test if the dough is the correct consistency, take a piece and roll it with your hands on a well-floured board into a rope 1/2-inch in diameter. If the dough holds together, it is ready. If not, add more flour, fold and press the dough several more times, and test again.
Keeping your work surface and the dough lightly floured, cut the dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into a rope about 1/2-inch in diameter. Cut into 1/2-inch-long pieces. Lightly flour the gnocchi as you cut them. You can cook these as is or form them into the classic gnocchi shape with a gnocchi board, ridged butter paddle, or the tines of a large fork turned upside down. Rest the bottom edge of the gnocchi board on the work surface, then tilt it at about a 45 degree angle. Take each piece and squish it lightly with your thumb against the board while simultaneously pushing it away from you. It will roll away and around your thumb, taking on a cupped shape -- with ridges on the outer curve from the board and a smooth surface on the inner curve where your thumb was. (Shaping them takes some time and dexterity. You might make a batch just for practice.) The indentation holds the sauce and helps gnocchi cook faster.
As you shape the gnocchi, dust them lightly with flour and scatter them on baking sheets lined with parchment paper or waxed paper. Set gnocchi filled cookie sheet in front of a fan on low for 1/2 hour (turning gnocchi after 15 minutes). If you will not cook the gnocchi until the next day or later, freeze them. Alternatively, you can poach them now, drain and toss with a little olive oil, let cool, then refrigerate several hours or overnight. To reheat, dip in hot water for 10 to 15 seconds, then toss with browned butter until hot.
When ready to cook, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt. Drop in the gnocchi and cook for about 90 seconds from the time they rise to the surface. Remove the cooked gnocchi with a skimmer, shake off the excess water, and serve as desired.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Monogamy (2011)

I was on a long plane trip, one where it is entirely possible to watch six movies, and saw both this and 'Hall Pass'. In the later, two married men bombard their wives (who are quite attractive) that they are still actively gawking at women and thinking about what could be--to the point that their wives become fed up and give them a week where they can do whatever they want, sleep with whoever will have them. In that movie, they come to see that sex isn't as simple as all that.
In “Monogamy,” it is matter of watching what is essentially a sexworker having sex in public, and wondering why your sexual partner isn't up for that--all the time. The unrealistic expectations that can be born of too much porn. Why isn't your lover trying to jump your bones 24/7? Well, because she isn't being paid to pretend you are that hot.
Here's the story--Theo (Chris Messina), a wedding photographer, lives in Brooklyn with his girlfriend, Nat (Rashida Jones), and has carved out a somewhat unlikely side gig of sneaking shots of strangers for pay. Calling himself a Gumshoot, he takes photographs of paying strangers while hidden from their sight. The idea seems to be that clients will fork over dough to see what they look like in their everyday life.
This professional voyeur angle takes a turn for the kinky when a woman calling herself Subgirl (Meital Dohan) hires Theo to take photographs of her in a park. On the appointed morning he lies in wait with his camera while she shows up in tennis whites, oversize sunglasses and a bad blonde wig. Then the little lady sits on a bench, takes a few quick looks around and begins to openly masturbate--and then she is having sex in public places on a regular basis. Theo gets more and more wrapped up in it, preferring to watch pictures of Subgirl to spending any time with Nat, to not picking fights with Nat when she won't have sex with him in her hospital bed, to losing the relationship. We watch Theo unravel, we know what is happening and we are begging him to come to his senses. But he doesn't.
It reminds me of a 'Friends' episode where Joey and Chandler find out they have the porn channel and are watching it every spare moment, but when they are surprised when the pizza girl comes to the door and doesn't offer to sleep with them--not even offering up a blow job, that they come to their senses and realize they are watching too much porn. Theo never wakes up.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I have been a loyal fan of the Man Booker prize, and I have read at least a handful of the long-listed books for several years. The prize has traditionally valued exceptional writing over plot line. It is not at all uncommon for a short-listed book to meander aimlessly but beautifully to a less-than-satisfying ending, all the while dazzling the reader with the quality of the prose employed. This year the judges were criticized for valuing plot--but I would defend that choice, because the nominees that I have read to date have been excellently written.
So I have a quarrel with the winner, 'The Sense of an Ending'. Maybe it is just about finally awarding Julian Barnes with the prize--this is his fourth nomination, and maybe they just felt it was time. In my humble opinion, this fell into the bottom 50% of the short-listed books.
Why? Maybe it is because I found the protagonist, Tony Webster, entirely unlikable. Maybe it is because I am dangerously close to the point that he is in life and I don't want to think that I might be so pitiful in 10 years. But I was happy the book was so short, because I didn't want to spend any more time with him. the book is at once an idealized depiction of sexual performance and ones command of ones life, and a pathetic lack of insight, even in hindsight, of what one did that led one on a particular life path.
Maybe I missed the point--maybe when you make poor choices as a young adult, you look back on that time as the point at which you took the wrong fork. But in reality, life has many forks, and there are quite a few points where you can turn around. It requires being able to say you were wrong, but often you can get a second chance. But Tony is not a guy to reassess his choices and try to reconcile what would bring happiness and turn his bitterness around. Which is why felt so little sympathy for him at the end, when he finds out the true ending of his first love story.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Red Bean Stew

2 cups red beans, soaked for 6 hours or overnight in 2 quarts water
1 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 bell peppers, cut in small dice
2 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley, or a combination of parsley and dill
1/2 cup drained yogurt for topping
1. Place the beans in a large soup pot or Dutch oven. Measure the soaking water in the bowl, and add enough water to it to measure 2 1/2 quarts. Add this to the pot with the beans, turn the heat to medium-high and bring to a gentle boil, then turn down and cook for an hour.
2. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet and add the onions, carrots and peppers. Cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are tender and fragrant, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add 2 of the garlic cloves and continue to cook for another minute or so, until the garlic is fragrant. Season to taste with salt, add another tablespoon of oil and add the paprika. Cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes, until the vegetables are well coated with paprika and the mixture is aromatic. Add 1/4 c. of simmering water from the beans to the pan, stir with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan to deglaze, then stir this mixture into the beans. Add the tomato paste and bay leaf, reduce the heat, cover and simmer 1 hour.
3. Add the oregano, the remaining garlic cloves, salt to taste, cayenne, vinegar and sugar, and continue to simmer for another hour, or until beans take on a creamy texture and the liquid is thickened.
4. Just before serving, stir in the parsley. Serve over noodles or rice or thick slices of country bread, topping each portion with a large dollop of drained yogurt.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

This is a difficult to categorize movie. But enjoyable none-the-less. The reason is an engaging group of young actors who make us want to watch. Joel Courtney plays Joe, a sensitive boy whose mother has just been killed in an accident at her factory job. He and his newly widowed father (Kyle Chandler) are figuring out how to get along with each other without her while dealing with their grief. Joe's group of friends help distract him from his home life, as they make a movie for an amateur film festival. When they're filming a climactic scene near the train tracks, they watch — and film — an intense accident that has some pretty distressing repercussions. The rest of the kids are as follows: there's bossy director Charles, firework-loving Cary, hopeful actor Preston and wide-eyed Martin. Their all-boy dynamic is unsettled when they add a girl to the cast, and Alice (Elle Fanning) shakes up the screen with her sophistication and impressive acting skills. She also represents an element of growing up; the boys are on the verge of discovering girls, but the movie doesn't push it any farther than the first blush of a crush. It's very innocent in that way; ultimately, Alice, Joe's mother's death, and the ensuing crisis become key factors in the boys' coming of age. Not to mention a whole lot of stuff blows up and flies through the air. But with a plot.
Super 8 fails to choose a distinct genre; it wavers between coming-of-age tale, a monster movie, and then a family drama. But, this is still a highly entertaining movie. It's worth it to see for the buoyant sense of humor and the jaw-dropping, spine-chilling moments, even if it doesn't quite live up to expectations.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterans Who Are Homeless

It is not a simple task to figure out who is homeless. First of all, it is not like the census,--you can;t go door to door. That is the whole problem. The homeless lack a fixed address. So you cab start with shelters and temporary housing, but then you miss all the people who are living off the grid--the people who live in tents and under overpasses. And you also miss the group who are essentially homeless but who haven't burned all their bridges yet--people who are sleeping on friend's couches and in parent's basements.
So not an easy number to arrive at, the total homeless population. We do know that as the economy has remained tanked, there are more homeless. Ironic, because owning a home has never been cheaper, but with unemployment at a steady 9% and mortgages harder than ever to get (talk about closing the barn door after the horse has escaped...), more people are without a reliable roof over their heads. And a full 25% of them are veterans, people who have served their country, many of them in the most recent wars that are still going on. A veteran of the current war has often been in combat more than any American soldier since the Revolutionary War. Whether or not the stress of combat directly or indirectly leads to homelessness, the fact is there are a lot of veterans from this conflict either at risk to become homeless or actually without shelter. It is time to do better. To create a culture where everyone pays their share, and everyone has a roof over their heads.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards

A Cupboard Full of Coats allows those of us who have trouble understanding how the cycle of violence is perpetuated. This booklets the reader into the mind of Jinx, a young woman born into a violent household and clinging to violent men, even while she professes to cower from it. It is a tale of anguish and guilt as well.
Jinx' mother is killed by her boyfriend--the mother does what many abused women do--she escalated the violence so as to get the beating over with and get to the part where the man professes his undying love and starts to try to make it up to the woman. Only the last time that didn't happen. Jinx' mother is killed instead.
After her mother’s violent murder, Jinx’s prolonged struggle beneath the weight of the blame herself puts her in danger of driving away the little family she has left. She seems incapable of breaking the chain of hurt that was forged many years before and risks shackling her infant son within the same painful confines which she inhabits.
An unexpected visit from Lemon, a man who played a prominent role in the most miserable period of her past, forces Jinx to explore the causes of her anger and self-loathing. Lemon, in spite of his faults and confessions of wretched jealousy, charms (and at the same time repels) Edwards’ reader and heroine with his honeyed patois, his talents in the kitchen, and his silky swagger.
Edwards presents the sharp and paradoxical nuances of human nature as well as the ironies of intimate relationships that resonate and terrify. Could this happen to me? Please say no. The characters are complete, compelling people and the narrative that that contains them unfolds in a slow and enjoyable manner.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Slavic Dragons

In Slovenia, a dragon is called 'zmaj' (there are slight differences in terminology between Slavic languages), although an archaic word of unclear origins, pozoj, is sometimes used as well. Dragons in Slovenia are generally the bad guy, and usually appear in relation with St. George (ergo slayed). Other folk tales relate stories of dragons defeated by feeding them with sulphur stuffed sheep (really? THis seems somewhere between far fetched and cartoonish). However, the dragon is not always harmful to man. The best example of this is the Ljubljana Dragon, who benevolently protects the city of Ljubljana and is pictured in the city's coat of arms.
All slavic dragons, good or bad, are considered "extremely intelligent, wise and knowledgeable" creatures of "superhuman" strength and proficiency in magic, very rich (usually described as having castles of enormous riches hidden in distant lands) and often lustful for women, with whom it is capable of making offspring (not sure what the offspring look like or do). Dragons often breath fire and are generally highly respected, and while not always benevolent, are not an entirely evil creature. Legends were spread about many historical and mythical heroes that they were conceived by a dragon.
We loved the dragon themes that abounded in Ljubljana, and I would like to go on a dragon tour of the city next time I return.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Midnight in Paris (2011)

This is classic Woody Allen, with a touch more whimsy thanhe usually delivers. This film does not fall outside his usual repertoire of issues--life crises, marital issues, creative anxiety, and the like, but the backdrop of Paris adds a hint of romanticism into the mix.Our hero is not Allen himself, as is so oftent the case, but Owen Wilson, who plays Gil Pender, an erstwhile Hollywood scriptwriter, comes to the city with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. After years of hackdom, he wishes to write his first novel, but his neurotic self-flagellation gets in the way, especially when faced with a friend of Inez' they run into, the aggressively-intellectual braggart Paul (Michael Sheen). It is Paris that inpires him--he can barely step out of the hotel before he is excitedly cataloguing the city’s rich artistic past. "Imagine this town in the 20s!" he marvels, as Inez rolls her eyes and shops for furniture, with her equally disapproving parents. It is clear early on that the relationship is in trouble, and soon, Gil’s alone, wandering the streets and dreaming of the past. At which point, a church bell strikes midnight, and a vintage car stops nearby, ready to whisk him away on a jazz age adventure. His post-midnight adventures include all th ePairs icons, from Hemingway to Gertrude Stein. The transition from present to past is seamless and fun.Indeed, the film is carried by Wilson, who is an easy target for those seeking the ‘Woody Allen character’. Although, while Gil fulfils the familiar checklist of insecurities, it is his dopey, naive outlook that sells the film, Wilson is pitch perfect as the lovable fool. His bewildered reactions provide the foil to the broad performances of the rest of the cast, both in the past and the present.Midnight In Paris is warm and delightful. It’s testament to the solid, evocative ideas that form its backbone--exploring the character’s crisis in such an expressionistic, fantastical way.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Snowdrops by A. D. Miller

I picked this novel out because it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011, and I usually enjoy that cohort of novels. The judges for this years prize have beencriticized for picking books that are enjoyable stories--I am not so sure about that--two of the ones that I have read involve murder and mayhem, and this is one of them.
A quote that adresses Russian novels in general aptly describes this book. 'There are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories." Russia's position on the world stage is such that you can say whatever you like about it, thanks to a widespread willingness to believe the very worst.
This is a crime story, as its title suggests: "snowdrop" is Moscow slang for a corpse concealed by snow, revealed when the thaw comes. Surprise! At the start, though, the narrator, Nicholas, is naive enough to think it might be a love story--he is apparently unfamiliar with the above stated paradigm. The plot charts his slowly dawning realization that this is no romance, along with his downscaling of hopes and ambitions, with chilling efficiency.
Here is the basic scene. It's boomtime in Russia, and Nicholas is an expat lawyer working on behalf of foreign banks that want to lend money to Russian businesses, especially in the oil industry. In his own words, his job is smearing "lipstick on a pig" – sanitising dodgy deals with covenants and sureties no one involved will respect anyway. He has money to spend, so he enjoys Moscow's exotic decadence. He's 38 and rudderless, terrified of suburbia and of ending up in a boring, loveless marriage like his parents'.
One day, travelling home on the metro, he fights off a mugger, "a noble deed in a ruthless place". The intended victim was not him but Masha, an alluring femme fatale who is invariably accompanied by her younger sister, Katya. Masha and Nicholas become an item – he genuinely thinks he's in love – but it's obvious he's been caught in some type of honey-trap. The question is: which type?
We find out which type as the story rolls out. A very good read indeed.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Slovenian Salamander

I loved the cave in Postojna. It was magnificent to be in. But I also saw one of the most unusual things I've ever seen--a salamander that retains it's gills into adulthood. Postojna has the most number of cave-dwelling species of any cave, logging in a 84 species, but most of them are of the insect variety. The salamander is odd man out. And not attractive. At all.
The Olm, or Proteus (Proteus anguinus), is a blind amphibian endemic to the subterranean waters of caves of the Dinaric karst of southern Europe. It lives in the waters that flow underground through this extensive limestone region including waters of the Soča river basin near Trieste in Italy, through to southern Slovenia, southwestern Croatia, and Herzegovina. The olm is the only species in its genus Proteus, the only European species of the family Proteidae, and the only European exclusively cave-dwelling chordate. In Slovenia it is also known by the name močeril, which translates as "the one that burrows into wetness."
What is most notable (aside from it's profound homliness) for its adaptations to a life of complete darkness in its underground habitat. Darwin used it as an example of a reduction in features through disuse in 'The Origin of the Species'. The olm's eyes are undeveloped, leaving it blind, while its other senses, particularly those of smell and hearing, are acutely developed. It also lacks any pigmentation in its skin. In contrast to most amphibians, the olm is entirely aquatic, and it eats, sleeps, and breeds underwater. It has 3 toes on its forelimbs, but 2 toes on its hind feet. It also exhibits neoteny, retaining larval characteristics like external gills into adulthood, like the American amphibians, the axolotl and the mud puppy--so it is an unusual feature, but it is not alone.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Postojna Cave, Slovenia

Slovenia is 40% hills and underneath them are many limestone caves--I wanted to see tunnels which exist under a number of castles, but my spouse vetoed that plan. Slovenia has restored most of their castles, and as a rule, the men in my family do not enjoy a castle that retains its roof. I do enjoy a castle that features furniture and curtains, but it was not to be this time. So we settled on Postojna Cave. It is a big tourist attraction, but deservedly so. The outside of the cave is like coming up to an amusement park, but don't be fooled--the cave is a natural wonder, which has been largely unharmed by all the hoopla taking place outside it.

The Postojna Cave is a 20-km long karst cave system, a web of underground passages, galleries and chambers, which has in almost 200 years of active tourism been visited by over 33 million people accompanied by experienced cave guides. It is both the largest cave of the Classical Karst and the show cave with the largest numbers of visitors in Europe. Throughout its history it has posed a great challenge for daring explorers who have shown enormous effort and persistence and managed to penetrate further and further into the underground world. The most interesting passages were in 1818 discovered by Luka Čeč and no later than a year after the cave was already set up as a show cave.

The far-sighted cave management deserves credit for the fact that it did not take long for all the newly discovered parts of the cave to be equipped for large numbers of visitors. Prior to that, the visitors had only been able to access the passages not far from the entrance, where signatures of visitors to the cave have been recorded since the 13th century onwards. In 1872, railway tracks were laid in the cave and in 1884 electricity was installed. Nowadays visitors can satisfy their curiosity by learning about how the caves came to existence, by having a look at the passages and chambers, and above all by looking at stalagmites rising up from the floor of the cave and stalactites hanging down from its roof, how they are joined as pillars, creased as curtains and lined up in all kinds of fantastic forms. The cave is cold--48 degrees year round--so wear a jacket for the visit. Part of the tour of the cave is done on the train (a 2.5 km trip into the depths of the cave, well lit and very beautiful) and part of it on foot (an easy 1 km walk, with some up and down, but at a very slow pace). Spectacular place!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

I read this book because it was short-listed for the Man Booker prize, and I liked it much more than the winner.
The book features a young protagonist, Harri Opoku, an 11-year-old Ghanaian immigrant caught up in gang warfare on a south London estate. It is through his voice that the story is told--and it is not a happy one.
The novel's world is urban grime and casual violence. Pigeon English opens as Harri has just moved to the Dell Farm estate with his mother and older sister, Lydia, leaving his father, grandmother and baby sister, Agnes, behind in Ghana. Along with the shock of emigration and the usual preoccupations of growing up – whether lovely blonde Poppy Morgan will sit next to him in art class, whether his Diadora trainers can outrun his classmates' Nike Air Max – he must negotiate tougher problems.
Harri's surroundings are overflowing with half-understood menace, most obviously from the alcoholics, dealers, petty criminals and teenage members of the Dell Farm Crew gang who shadow the estate. But gradually his sister, aunt and even his mother, forced into moral compromise in her struggle to give her children a better life, are implicated in the violence that pervades estate life.
Pigeon English opens with a fictional rendition of te actual killing of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor on a Peckham estate in 2000, and the book weaves this suffering into a murder-mystery of sorts. After the seemingly random stabbing of an older boy outside a fried chicken shop, Harri and his friend Dean turn amateur detectives, scrutinizing the estate and its dysfunctional inhabitants for clues. It is through this proces sthat we get to know the various players in Harri's life--most of whom are unsavory and inescapable. It is a sobering book, well written and hopeful despite all.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Slovenian Street Art

I like street art, and since walking in numerous cities with one of my sons, I also notice it. I did not know anything about the street art of the Balkans, but discovered that it is alive and well in Slovenia--every town we were in had at least one, and after coming home, I discovered a Facebook page devoted to Slovenian street art:

Ljubljana is a college town--we were there on the first day of the semester, and the streets were teeming with college-aged youth. It is also the home to the most sophisticated street artists in Slovenia. The Fat Cap website has some spectacular examples of what can be found if one looks:
One message that street art communicates to me is that this is not a totalitarian society. It is also a culture of people with something to express that isn't limited to traditional artistic outlets. It tends to make me want to get to know a place better. What kind of people are these?

So, in the end, what is street art all about?
There is a strong current of activism and subversion in urban art. Street art can be a powerful platform for reaching the public. Perhaps street artists simply see urban space as an untapped format for personal artwork, while others may appreciate the challenges and risks that are associated with installing illicit artwork in public places. However the universal theme in most, if not all street art, is that adapting visual artwork into a format which utilizes public space, allows artists who may otherwise feel disenfranchised, to reach a much broader audience than traditional artwork and galleries normally allow. Street art was not mentioned in any of my guidebooks, but I would love to see a 'guide' to it in Slovenia.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ljubljana, Slovenia

First off, this is a great city.
It is cute and pretty and easyt to get around. It is like Prague, with great street life and wonderful food, but at a fraction of the size. And with great wine, especially the white wines. we loved it the minute we rolled into town, and our hotel was right in the heart of the old city. Which is a pedestrian only zone. No matter. We were able to park nearby (potentially not legally, but it didn't take long) and check in, where the hotel guided us to nearby free public parking. So right off the bat you know you aren't in a big city. The hotel we stayed in was an easy walk to a number of great restaurants (we had our best meal of the whole trip at Tatjana's Tavern) with seafood from the Adriatic, and plenty of sidewalk cafe's to people watch from.

Slovenia's population is only about 2 million, and it's largest town is small as well--less than 300,000. Even smaller than Zagreb. What it lacks in size it makes up for in charm. The city has been continuously inhabited since 2000 BC. Rome arrived in 50 BC, and remains of yet another Roman fortification still exist in Ljubljana--but a bulk of the buildings date to the Venetian period of the late 19th century. The town has been leveled by earthquakes at several points in it's history, hence the medieval feel to a more modern appearing town.

Ljubljana has one particular architect who made a stamp on the city--Ljubljana native Jože Plečnik. he studied in Vienna and worked in Prague brefore returning to his home town in 1921 to work at on the fledgling Ljubljana University (which is a wonderful walk, bustling with students and the general feeling of scholarship--we passed two student tours--one of French-speakinig students and one of Spanish-speaking students--both tours were conducted in English, the language they all shared, so we could even understand what was being pointedout). He was awarded design for numerous buildings throughout the 1920s and 1930s, so he transformed Ljubljana through works such as the impressively massive University Library. He added numerous civic improvements including new bridges, waterfront, banks, and sluices along the Ljubljanica River; new market buildings, kiosks monuments, plazas, and parks.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Pasta with Wild Mushrooms

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound mixed mushrooms, oyster mushrooms,
2 onions, diced
3 cloves peeled garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
1/2 c. dry white wine
1 pound pasta
1⁄2 pound fresh sheep's milk cheese (optional)

Bring water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons salt.
In a 12-inch sauté pan heat oil till smoking. Add onions, and sauté until sweated--add garlic, and sauté another few minutes, then add sliced mushrooms--keep heat high as the mushrooms cook down.
Cook the pasta in the boiling water according to package instructions. Drain, reserving the pasta water, and add the pasta to the pan with the mushroom mixture. Toss the pasta over medium heat until well coated and pour immediately into a warmed bowl. Add some olive oil or pasta water if the sauce is not liquid enough.
Dot the top of the pasta with teaspoons of fresh sheepsmilk cheese (or not) and serve immediately.