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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Wedding Cake

This is it--the cake that my blog is named after. When my eldest son and his then fiance, now wife, decided to marry, they had three things that they wanted at their wedding in terms of food. My macaroni and cheese, my husband's brisket, and the lemon cake of my best baking friend ever, Ivy. Here is how the third request turned out. Ivy and I have been baking together for decades. Ironically, when we lived together we were more parallel cooks--she made the desserts and my spouse and I made the appetizers. That was the stuff of our big parties, because at the time we lived in very small spaces that were not conducive to large sit down dinners. So we served food that you could stand and eat instead. In some ways, Ivy's willingness to bake for any and every occasion became a dependency for me. She was invariably invited to meals at our house, and she always brought dessert. I stopped planning dessert after a very short while, and assumed she would bring it. Then came the clincher. When Ivy couldn't come to dinner, she would drop off a dessert for me to serve. She was always experimenting with new things and always looking for taste testers to give her feedback, and we were there for her. In a big way. I was an above average baker before I knew her. I didn't fear the dessert end of a meal. I learned to cook in college when I lived in a large cooperative house. It is true that once I developed a team that I regularly cooked with, I was not responsible for the dessert much of the time, but I had some very reliable dessert options in my repertoire. With Ivy in town, that became completely unnecessary, and worse still, I really could not compete with her. She made things that were more beautiful, more varied, and better tasting than anything I could prepare. That is still true--the good news is that in the years since we have lived apart, we have continued to bake together. One of the highlights of the preparation leading up to Jake and Alice's wedding was the week we spent doing the desserts. Over the next several weeks I will post recipes from that baking extravaganza, but the prettiest thing we produced was this cake.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Justice Robert's Compromise

The votes that could be relied upon for and against the Affordable Health Care Act were known before the opening arguments in the case. But what would the middle of the road justices do? That was the big question, and things were not looking good for the Affordable Healthcare Act up until yesterday's decision was announced. One ray of hope ahead of the decision came from Justice Roberts, when he said on the third and final day of argument that states have been compromising their sovereignty for decades through increased reliance upon the federal government for money and accompanying directions on the governance of state affairs. The other is that Justice Roberts himself has a pre-existing medical condition that would impact his ability to purchase health insurance as an individual. Maybe he considered that. Those were the rays that shone bright yesterday. Chief Justice Roberts cobbled together an opinion about the Affordable Healthcare Act that is worthy of Chief Justice Marshall, my very favorite Chief Justice of all time. In doing so, he created some unusual alliances along some tricky lines of ideology, but it will work in the short run, at least. What he did was to put together a narrow majority of the justices who value societal justice to save the law by arguing that the individual mandate is a tax. Meanwhile he assembled a majority with the ultra-conservative justices to hold that the law otherwise would have violated the Commerce Clause. The decision allows Roberts to protect the Court against criticism it was usurping the legislative process, while simultaneously warning Congress that if it wants to enact sweeping legislation like this in the future it had better stay on the right side of the Commerce Clause. Otherwise “the Government’s logic would justify a mandatory purchase to solve almost any problem.”

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller

This is almost a companion novel to a memoir the author wrote about her personal experience of a child growing up in Africa. This book is written from the perspective of her parents, who are Europeans choosing to stay in Africa throughout their lifetime. While the story line is not nearly as gruesome as the one in JM Coetzee's fictional novel ;Disgrace', it is not an easy read. Her mother is a Kenyan by birth, then moved to what was then Rhodesia, and when that became an untenable prospect, moved to where they live today, Zambia. They are farmers. They do not live an extravagant life. They have experienced things that would not have befallen them if they lived in a first world country. Most shockingly, they have had three children die of things that were either preventable or treatable at the time they happened. So the lack of accessible medical care harms blacks and whites alike in this story. It is a largely unflinching look at Africa through the lens of her parent's generation. It reflects the quickly shifting political landscape of Africa, as well as the difficulty of being an immigrant on a continent that is less and less hospitable to it's colonial past, without truly dealing with what it's future needs to include. Sad and sobering.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Groomsmen Were Brothers

I love this picture of my three youngest boys. They share the same hair, the same shoulders, the same tuxedos and the same kippah. They are all standing on the groom's side of the chuppah, supporting their brother who was getting married, despite all. They did not want to wear tuxedos. They were not excited about the ceremony. They were hot and they were tired. They had been helping to get ready for the wedding for months. But no one watching them that day would have guessed how they felt. They were there for their brother and that was that. I am not one of those parents who is inordinately proud of my progeny. I do not generally sing their praises from the roof tops. Seriously, most days I am unhappy with at least one of them for at least something. But on Jake's wedding day I was very proud of all of them. True, there were shenanigans. There were silly photos. There were episodes of wrestling. But that is part of who they are together, as brothers. They managed to be the best they could be together for Jake and Alice's wedding day. They individually and as a sibship tried to make the day a success and it was. I am still carrying the glow of it around, days later.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Romantics Anonymous (2010)

This is it.  This movie is what I love about French romantic comedies. Painfully shy man meets overanxious woman.  They share a passion for chocolate and each other.  They promptly and appropriately fall in love.  Problems ensue (this is the French part) when they can't remain calm enough to build a linear relationship.  Instead they have one in fits and starts. Angélique (Isabelle Carré) is a gifted chocolatier who is so self-effacing that the merest compliment makes her faint--literally. To cope with her fear, she sings “I Have Confidence” (from “The Sound of Music”) to herself and attends 12-step meetings for people with social-anxiety disorder.  She is so timid she doesn't admit that she is the chocolatier everyone wants to find. Her male counterpart, Jean-René (the Belgian comic actor Benoît Poelvoorde), is the middle-aged owner of the Chocolate Mill, a failing enterprise whose products are deemed old-fashioned by those in the know. Jean-René is afraid to answer his own telephone, sweats so much when he is with Angélique he has to change shirts frequently, listens to self-help tapes at night, and sees a therapist who pressures him to take action--which is the plausible piece of how these two get together. It is typically French in that the two main characters are incredibly likable, and everyone wants them to get together.  We know they will, but the movie is a romp of a tale about how that happens.  I just loved it.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Dance, Dance, Dance to Celebrate

The past month has been particularly celebratory in our family. We have had two bar mizvahs and a wedding, and all three had music that one could really dance to. Such a treat. I am not a particularly graceful or accomplished dancer, but I do enjoy it. Why? I like the movement, the interpretation of something that you hear into something that you do. But I think it is a very communal activity. I have danced with my husband, my nieces and nephews, my children, my extended family, my husband's siblings and my own. It is a way to demonstrate how happy you are to be at the event, that you are celebrating, and you are celebrating with friends and family. My son's wedding was the most recent event, and it reminded me of how lucky I am to have family and friends who come from near and far to enjoy life's milestones. So much to be thankful for. My parents and my mother-in-law have been able to be at a grandchild's wedding. We have an extended family that has faithfully come to each event, which makes the celebrating fuller and more rewarding. There is so much about the event that you attempt to plan for so that it will be enjoyable, but the company is something you have no control over. When they are there, you can dance, dance, dance.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Lviv, Ukraine

Lviv is a very pleasant surprise after the border crossing into Ukraine. It is a beautiful city, with a sprawling old town, and it is well deserving of it's status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was the fourth city with that designation that we visited on our recent swing through Eastern Europe and it was very charming, second only to Krakow in my eyes. Lviv has been continually occupied since the 5th century, and we know that as far back as the Monguls, in the 13th century, it has been invaded on a regular basis. The location apparently is too tempting for those around it to resist. Like many countries in Eastern Europe, it is a place which has had many masters. The upside of that is that there is a cosmopolitan flavor to Lviv that developed literally over the centuries. It was a trade center, and home to Poles, Germans, Jews, and Armenians. All of that ended with WWII. In 1939, while Poland was being invaded from the west by Germany, Russia invaded from the east. Poland was diminished in size and it's multicultural past was reduced to rubble. After Ukraine's independence, Lviv has emerged as the most livable city in Ukraine, and certainly a must visit one. The traditional embroidered goods and the vodka are just two of the highlights beyond the stunning architecture.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Ukraine Border Crossing

Ok, first and foremost, check out the impossibly oversized hat on the Ukranian border official. Seriously? That is the uniform? It makes anyone wearing it appear at best to be a buffoon, and at worst to be a cartoon character. You have no trouble figuring out from the get go that crossing this border is going to be a challenge. On our way into Ukraine we got all the way up to the window, the final step, and were told that no, we were not a car, we were a bus, and would need to enter the truck and bus line (which stretched as far as the eye could see. Okay, that is not good, and we had already spent an hour on the process. We get into the other line when suddenly the booths go black. Closed. No explanation, no estimated time of reopening. It was two hours before they reopened, and another hour or so before we got through. In retrospect, I wish I had eaten before we got to the border, and used a bathroom, because both were nowhere to be found. Welcome to a beaurocratic regime!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, Poland

This yeshiva was established by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, with the first cornerstone being laid in 1924, and it opening it's doors in 1930. But Lublin had a history as a center of Jewish education long before the 20th century. Around about the second half of the 16th century one of Poland's most important Jewish communities was established in Lublin. It continued to be a vital part of the city's life until the community ceased to exist during the Nazi Holocaust. Students came to Lublin from all over Europe to study at the yeshiva in Lublin. The yeshiva became a center of learning of both Talmud and Kabbalah. The great scholarship of those who studied there led to the city being named the "Jewish Oxford"; the Rosh yeshiva received the title of rector and equal rights to those in Polish universities with the permission of the King in 1567. It has been recently restored and returned to the Jewish community--in Warsaw--there are no longer enough Jews in Lublin to worship here, or for it to function as an educational venue. Instead, it is slated to ultimately become a museum. Yet another beautiful building with no one to appreciate it.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Who Lived in Lublin?

Who lived in Lublin before WWII? The short answer is that we will never know. Like much of eastern Poland, the Jewish population was probably about 50% of the town. Post WWII, it was well under 1%. Who were those people who disappeared? It is too late now to answer that question. Even people who were children during the war are in their 80's now. We went to a museum that is dedicated to chronicling who lived where in Lublin before the war. The walls are lined with notebooks, one for each individual dwelling on each street. They have a picture of that house, and then whatever information is known about the inhabitants. I picked up notebook after notebook, and not one of them contained any data. Those people are gone forever, anonymous to the inhabitants of Lublin today. Instead of being a source of comfort, the museum is a stark reminder of how completely Hitler and Germany wiped a group of people off the earth.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Lublin, Poland

Lublin is not a large city (350,000) but it is the largest city in Poland east of the Vistula River--which largely means that there aren't that many cities east of the Vistula, but it points to Lublin's importance from a defense standpoint. The city has been in existence since th 6th century, and it is yet another Polish city with an impressive array of medieval architecture, and a very pretty central square within a fortified enclosure. In 1392, the city received an important trade privilege from king Władyslaw Jagiello, and with the coming of the peace between Poland and Lithuania it evolved into a great trade center, carrying a large portion of commerce between the two countries. Those days are gone. As with other cities in Poland, WWII wasn't kind to it, and it's population was decimated. The Soviets arrived in 1944 and made Lublin the temporary capital of Poland, up until 1945, when it was moved to Warsaw (which was propably a very good thing in terms of rebuilding that demolished city. One thing I did not know about modern Lublin is that in July of 1980 the workers of Lublin and nearby Świdnik began the first in the wave of mass strikes aimed against the Communist regime, which eventually led to the emergence of the Solidarity movement. Ultimately, 150 factories employing 50,000 workers joined the strike. The strikers used a novel tactic of staying inside their factories and occupying them, instead of marching in the streets where the authorities would have found it easy to use force against them. The workers made demands for their economic situation to be improved. They also made political demands, such as: new elections for the leadership of the trade unions, liquidation of privileges for the Communist party governing class, and the reduction of the bureaucracy in the factories. The July strikes lasted two weeks. The Communist authorities eventually managed to bring them to an end peacefully, mainly by granting economic concessions to the workers. However, the momentum generated by the Lublin strikes quickly gave rise to a new wave of strikes in the Gdańsk region in August 1980. The workers there used similar tactics as the Lublin workers used a month before, and this time the Communist authorities had to agree to the strikers' demand to set up an independent trade union, which soon became the Solidarity. This spirit is not, however, in evidence in Lublin today.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Wedding Ingredients

This past Sunday our eldest son married his long time love, Alice. As is so often the case, the time leading up to the wedding was far more focused on what was to be done than why we were doing it. Thankfully, the actual event had the attention appropriately focused on the joining of two people, and as a result, two families. The day was perfect. The weather was glorious, the garden was perfect, the chuppah was decked out in flowers, the ketubah was beautiful, the cantor was awe inspiring, the string quartet played peaceful music that set the tone, the rabbi looked as happy to be officiating as the family's were to be there. We love Alice, and we joyfully welcome her into our family--in many ways that was accomplished long before the wedding took place. Just two weeks before the wedding we were at a masterfully planned and executed bar mitzvah of one of our nephews. Despite the fact that it was two weeks before their wedding and there were many tasks left to complete, Jake and Alice attended, and had their full attention on the celebration at hand. At the party to celebrate, when the disc jockey played the Sister Sledge song 'We Are Family", Jake's cousins danced around Alice with the enthusiasm they shower upon each other. On the one hand, we are a close family. But on the other, we know how to open our arms to new members. We all benefit from new blood, it turns out, and we know it. But there are risks attendant to weddings. Celebrating these momentous life events comes with a high bar of expectation, and the real possibility for disappointment. One ingredient to that mix for us is the food. My spouse and I, along with some of our closest friends, were responsible for the lion's share of the food. I really struggled over the month leading up to the wedding with how to balance all the various components of food and festivity to meet the expectations of all the major players. No small task. Preparing the menu for such a big event when you are not a chef by either training or profession is at times difficult to wrap your mind around. Worse yet, all the advice you get isn't particularly helpful when it comes to the variety and quantity of food you need to meet all your hopes and dreams for a successful event. In the end, I was satisfied with the results, and I can say with confidence, no one went hungry.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

This is a book that is not what I have some to expect from Joan Didion, which is sharp, incisive and meticulously honest assessment. New York Magazine said that reading Joan Didion on any subject is like tiptoeing across a just frozen pond filled with beautiful sharks. Exactly. Open this book at your own risk because many of your most sacred assumptions will be challenged. Not so with this book, which was written after the death of her adopted daughter, Quintana, secondary to the effects of alcoholism. Some critics have called it a grief memoir, others a regret memoir, but I don't see it as either. Through much of the book Didion still seems in awe of her perfect child. She still sees her adolescent precociousness as making her exceptional rather than being a red flag. Didion, who has written so unflinchingly about her own struggles with mental illness, can't shine that unforgiving light onto her daughter, at least not yet. So the book comes across as deeply conflicted.Well written but ultimately disappointing.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Making of a Chuppah

I have been a quilter since I was in high school, when I made my very first quilt that accompanied to college--it was a very cheerful pinwheel design. Since then I have made dozens of quilts of all sizes, but it has been a while since I have pieced and quilted. I recently moved my entire fabric collection to my empty nest house (which now occupies about a third of what would be considered by most to be a capacious basement, and I realized that I really needed to get back to quilting. I had all the raw materials. This is how I embarked on the chuppah journey for my eldest son's wedding. In Judiasm, the marriage ceremony is conducted under a marriage canopy, known in Hebrew as a chuppah (literally, a "covering"). It consists of a square cloth, historically a tallit or prayer shawl, that is supported by four staves, and ordinarily held by four people. The chuppah symbolizes the new home the bride and groom will make together. In this context, the appearance of the bride and groom together under a chuppah before an assembly who have come to witness the event is in itself a public proclamation by them that they are now bonded together as man and wife. It is a prelude to intimacy, and thus a significant element in the marriage ceremony. I chose a traditional quilt pattern, 'Lover's Lane' for the chuppah, and a two-fabric rendition of it--simple and yet clearly a pattern. For the back, I used a wax batik fabric that I bought in Tanzania. Fortunately, quilting is like riding a bike. You don't forget the basics, and after the wedding, this can be used a a small quilt.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Janie Jones (2012)

A movie (and a main character) named for a Clash song have to have some redeeming qualities--this is a rock 'n' roll movie about Ethan (Allesandro Nivola), a man on an accelerated downward spiral, angry that his career is not generating enough cash to sustain his band's dive bar tour, much less paying the rent. His long-time manager lets us know that he has bailed Ethan out financially one too many times, and he is unlikely to continue to do so. It is more indie than 'Crazy Heart', with a less talented musician and more stilted dialogue, but it is well worth seeing. Enter Mary Ann Jones (Elisabeth Shue). She was a band groupie long ago, and Ethan fathered a daughter (Abigail Breslin) with her 13+ years ago. Mary Ann is strung out on meth, and she precipitously leaves Janie for Ethan to care for. Not the best plan, but on the up side, Janie has been living with an addict, so dealing with her alcoholic, impulsive, angry father isn't a huge stretch for her. there are a lot of awkward moments, some of which seem realistic, others that do not. Contrivances aside, though, Janie Jones is one of the more realistic depictions of what the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle is really like. No arenas or lavish suites here; it’s all motels and truck-stops and dark clubs in mid-sized cities. The music is on-point, too: Eef Barzelay wrote the songs for Nivola, and Gemma Hayes wrote songs for Breslin, so the concert scenes both look and sound like actual alt-rock shows. And while Nivola has the quality of a man who’s been praised and catered to for years, the actor doesn’t play the character as the conventional egomaniacal celebrity drunk. He’s a talented guy who sometimes makes bad choices--in the end he does make a good choice, to hang on to his daughter.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Art of Marriage

It is my parent's 55th wedding anniversary today, and my eldest son will be married in two days--so it gave me pause to think about marriage. I am a proponent of long term relationships and I firmly believe that raising a child should involve at least two people, more if possible. So once you involve a child in a relationship, you owe it to that child to attend to their needs above all else. But marriage is not something I spend a lot of time thinking about, despite my many years of participation in the sport. Staying married is a dance between tolerance and compromise. There are many things that I naively thought would change about my spouse at the front end of our relationship--that never happened. Instead, one develops a tolerance for those things that one would change, and perhaps hones in on the item or two that really need attention or the relationship is going down. Compromise is the next key ingredient. I do not mean giving in--I mean compromise, that art of actually being happy with something than is less than what you first desired. The best is if you and your spouse mostly agree-that makes compromise less frequent, and the achievement of happiness more likely. But differences will arise, and often at times that are stressful. My spouse and I did not initially agree on what to do related to treatment for our youngest son's cancer many years ago. Not a low stakes disagreement, and one where we had to reach a compromise or it would be potentially disastrous for our partnership--not to mention a burden on our children to have parents at odds over something that was so frightening for them. It takes a lot to compromise. You have to bring love, trust, respect, and the notion that you may not be right to the table, and be willing to leave with a solution that is not of your making. So going forward in my son's life, I wish he and his wife all the successful ingredients to long term happiness with each other and the commitment to make it happen for them. Bon Voyage!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

How Stuffed Onions Really Can Help

The past several weeks have been largely taken up with wedding preparations. Since my spouse and I are cooking for the weekend, it has been a strange combination of producing a lot of food, but not eating much of it. So when I got a text mid-afternoon asking if I could come to dinner that night, I said yes. True, there is still a lot yet to complete. But the lure of having a real break from it, in terms of both welcome company as well as a home cooked meal that I did not prepare was too much to resist. I really needed the decompression experience. I have done most of what can realistically be done ahead of time, and felt like it was time to sit down and relax a bit and savor the upcoming festivites, allow it to become more of a celebration and less of a chore, and reflect with firends. I am always surprised by just how much food can ease this very important transition and reflection process. The meal consisted of some wonderful Farmer's Market purchases (tomatoes and strawberries being the highlight) there was hummus and kibbeh, and best of all, stuffed onions. This is one of my favorite comfort foods, and I associate it with comfort because my friend Kineret has made it for me at times in my life when I need that. Lucky for me, it always works. A recipe for stuffed onions appears in the Syrian Jewish cookbook, 'Aromas of Aleppo' by Poopa Dweck: for the filling 1 lb ground beef 1/3 cup rice 1 teas ground allspice 1 teas ground cinnamon 1 teas salt 1/4 teas pepper 2 Tbs vegetable oil 1/4 cup water Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. (I knead the mixture with my hands, as my mother does, but a spoon will also work.) 3 very large onions filling 3 Tbs tamarind paste 2 Tbs lemon juice 1 cup boiling water 1 teas salt Peel onions and make a vertical cut to the center and not more. Place them in boiling water and cook for 10-15 minutes, until they soften and begin to open. Drain, and when cool enough to handle, separate the layers. Spoon about a tablespoon of filling in each layer, more for larger pieces, less for smaller, then roll tightly. If you have filling left over, you can form it into balls and cook with the onions. Line the bottom of a medium saucepan with onion remnants or sliced potatoes; this will prevent the onion rolls from burning and sticking. Place the rolls closely in the saucepan; layering is fine. Combine the tamarind paste, lemon juice, salt and water and pour over the onions. Put a small plate on top to hold down the rolled onions. The liquid should cover the onions when pressed down with the plate. Bring to a boil on top of the stove, then simmer, covered, for 40 minutes. Transfer to a preheated 350º oven and cook for another hour and 20 minutes. Remove them from the pot by turning it over onto a serving dish. If you try to lift them with a spoon or other utensil, it's more likely they'll break apart. As you can see from my photo below, I didn't make the prettiest rolls, but they are still delicious.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Art in Lazienki Park

This series of posters was quite whimsical and at the same time thought provoking. I do not know much about the history of Polish art, much less this sort of art.
Poland is burdened with a difficult past: only just reconstituted as a proper country after the First World War, it suffered the horrors of Nazi invasion before being confined for decades behind communism's Iron Curtain, only to emerge as an early pariah of European migration fears.
Against such a backdrop, you could expect Polish contemporary art to be a bleak affair of darkly cubist, Soviet imagery, and accounts of lifelong hard knocks.
But isn't it true that art plays an important part in the survival of the nation? The imaginary helped the people endure the gray and difficult reality that surrounded them. Maybe that is where this is coming from.
And maybe it is just that at their core, Poles have a very funny sense of humor, and no amount of bad luck, bad occupations, and bad people can knowck it out of them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Cooking for a Crowd

Over the past two weeks I have been cooking and baking for a series of dinners with lots of guests. I am not doing this alone--my spouse is doing all the meat for the three gatherings, and I have various firends helping with appetizers and desserts. It has been five years since I have put on dinners that have over a hundred guests, and there are several things that I had forgotten that are now quite clear. The first is that the quantity of food is really startling. We baked 37 cakes and over a 1000 miniatures for the desserts. We did a shopping list ahead of time, had a pdf of the recipes we would be baking, and over the 6 days there were 18 trips to the grocery store. Then there is the ignominy of going through the checkout line with 17 quarts of heavy cream, 50 pounds of sugar, 23 pounds of butter and 20 dozen eggs....and a cardiology consult please... Then there is the relative lack of guidance on quantity of food, given the variety of what is being made. We have vegans, we have gluten allergies, and we have vegetarians--what if everyone eats the vegan food and there is none left for the vegans? Do we get them to the head of the line and tell them to load up on food or forever hold their tongues? Or do we have enough so that everyone could fill up on it? Or should the food just be vegan? Decisions, decisions. I am sure that if I were a caterer, or a student in a culinary institute, I would just look this up in one of my myriad of references texts, but instead I am just making a large amount of food, and if it runs out, or if people actually go hungry, I will do better next time.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Albatross (2011)

This is a coming of age tale that has some very common elements, but is well put together and worth a look--it streams on Netflix, so it is also accessible. The movie was filmed on the Isle of Man, a gorgeous seaside location. Jessica Brown Findlay (best known by me as Lady Sybil in Downton Abby) plays Emelia Conan Doyle, plays a wild child local girl, wanna-be writer, convinced that she’s related to Sir Arthur (a story told to her by her mother and not corrected by her grandparents),who lives with her elderly grandparents after her mother’s suicide. At 17 and already out of school, she comes to work as a maid in Cliff House, a B&B overlooking the Irish Sea, where she meets Beth (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Cliff House’s owners, Jonathan and Joa. Despite the fact that Jonathan’s played by the brilliant German actor Sebastian Koch (the spied upon poet in 'The Lives of Others') and the imitable Julia Ormond ('The Curious Case of Benjamin Button') who plays Joa, it’s the two youngsters who steal the show. Beth is on a straight and narrow path when she meets Emelia. She needs a friend and Emelia steps smartly into those shoes, and while there is a moment near the films end where they have a falling out, the relationship is a good one for her, when all is said and done. Emelia is another story. She is almost saddled with the sense that she is destined to write based on her presumed genetic connection with the widely loved author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She allow Jonathan to seduce her in exchange for writing lessons. Jonathan does not come off well here, by the way. He sleeps with his daughter's best friend, who he is also employing, while in the house with his wife. He is unhappy, no doubt about it, but he makes every mistake in the book, and learns too little too late. The best part of the movie is Emelia's transformation from the traumatized teenager into a young woman who feels better able to make good choices.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Siege of Warsaw

The siege of Warsaw did not go well. The Poles fought valiantly and were severely punished for it. No surprise there. The Germans were not known for their qualities of restraint in WWII. But Warsaw serves as a non-Jewish reminder that they had a scorched earth policy for those they hated, and there is no way to easily move beyond that kind of hatred. They killed everyone in their way and they took all the things they valued from everyone, dead or alive.
So it took a lot of courage to fight that kind of opponent. Krakow just caved in, let the Nazis march in and take what they wanted, and the city started yet another life under an occupying force. Warsaw put up a fight, and paid in blood as well as being reduced to a city of rubble. The monuments to the people who resisted seem very Soviet styled to me--which is a good thing. The Soviets were very good at the propoganda thing. They exaggerated their good qualities as well as the evil qualities of their opponents, and while I am not always in favor of that approach, it is hard to exaggerate the inhumanity of the Germans in this scenario.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Chango's Beads and Two Toned Shoes by William Kennedy

I haven't read a book by William Kennedy since my college years, when I read the 'Ironweed' trilogy (now up to eight books I believe, but that was the early 1980's). Then I was impressed with the sparseness of his writing, and how one place (Albany) could be focused on and yet be generalizable to the experience of being American. This book, three decades later, offers those same qualities. It opens in the 1930's, quickly moves to Havana in the late 1950's (wih both Castro and Hemingway making appearances), but then settles back in Albany (at the time of Robert Kennedy's assasination) for the remainder of the book. It is unusual for a Kennedy book, because it contains some almost mystical qualities--which is appropriate for a book with Latin American roots. The reflections on revolution, race, the Mafia, and familial relationships are all well played out in this latest installment into the Albany series.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Happythankyoumoreplease (2010)

On one level this is a hip independent movie set in New York City, highlighting the issues of friendship, love, commitment, careers, children, and the relative importance of each of these. On that level it is a successful if not particularly unique movie. The critics have leveled the charge of self-absorbed at it, and while that is a fair point, they say it like it's a bad thing. We are all self-absorbed. It is not often that movies take you down to the nitty gritty details of each characters self-absorbtion and allow you to reflect on it. I liked that part of the movie, but then, I like downbeat foreign films, so choose your poison. The thing that is memorable for me about this movie, and one which is not resolved by the closing credits, is the relationship that develops between one of the film's main characters, Sam, and a boy he meets on the subway. Sam cannot understand why he is not able to be a foster parent for this child, and actually gets himself into a lot of trouble by bringing him home. The situation highlights the inflexibility of the rules and regulations of caring for children who are not your own. Should these be guidelines rather than inflexible rules? Should people who have an interest in a child be able to house those children and care for them? Should children who have a relationship with an adult be able to stay with that adult rather than going into foster care with a stranger? It just seems potentially traumatic and damaging to children the way it stands, and that is part of the story in this movie.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Nożyk Synagogue, Warsaw

This synagogue was used as a stable during WWII, so it sustained some significant damage during the war, but is was restorable. So not too bad, when you consider what happened to the majority of buildings in Warsaw. The interesting thing about Jews in 21st century Warsaw is that there are enough of them to be found, but not enough to warrent a synagogue of this size--and since the Warsaw Jewish community is the 'Jewish Community of Record' for the north of the country, all the Jewish properties throughout the countryside 'belong' to them.
So what is it like? It is empty. Unused looking. Pews are piled up in the back. It is yet another reminder of what was once there and is no longer. In a lot of ways, it seems a shame to keep all these places frozen in time. Too bad people can't use them in ways that would be more useful. It seems very unpractical and yet there is the conundrum of never forgetting and then as a result not really honoring the values of those who we are trying so hard to remember. I am not sure what the solution is, and I am sure it is even more complicated than it first appears, but the overwhelming take home message is that this is the place of tragedy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Warsaw Mermaid

This is a legend that goes a ways to explain the preponderance of mermaids in Warsaw. Once upon a time (which is when these things always take place) lived two mermaids in the Baltic Sea. These half-fish, half-women were beautiful sisters who had spent their whole existence in the sea, before apparently getting bored of the life aquatic. These things lead to no good. One day they both decided to come ashore. The first sister headed up to the Danish straits, and so she sits at the entrance to the port of Copenhagen to this very day. The other sister swam first to the port of Gdansk, from where she decided to swim the river Vistula to its end. Fortunately for our story, the mermaid decided to rest on a sandy bank on the foot of what is today Warsaw's Old Town and, like oh so many ex-pats in the city, she loved it so much that she chose to stay. Soon though, fishermen from the neighboring village began to notice that someone was letting the fish out of their nets. Annoyed, they decided to capture the culprit and punish him. They didn't expect to find the mermaid, however, and as soon as they heard her beautiful voice, they vowed never to harm her (another reminder that men can be so easily swayed by a cute Polish chick). Soon, the mermaid would fill every evening with her gorgeous songs to the merriment of the villagers.
One day, a rich merchant was walking by the Vistula and spotted the mermaid. He had the bright idea, as merchants do, to capture her and show her off at a fair, making himself a fat profit in the process. He tricked her and threw her in a wooden shed, but her cries for help were so loud that soon a young (and undoubtedly handsome) fisherman's son heard her, and with the help of friends set her free. The mermaid, grateful for their aid, promised to defend them and their village, which would later grow into our beloved Warsaw. Since then, the mermaid, armed with a sword and shield, has been protecting the city and its inhabitants.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Get Low (2010)

Robert Duvall plays a man his own age (or thereabouts) in this strangely seductive character study of a man at the end of his life. He goes to a local undertaker (ably played by Bill Murray) who desperately needs business, and so he takes on the unlikely task of staging a funeral before there is a body. Felix Bush is a hermit who decides that he wants to have a party to celebrate his life. Yet he seems to be the one who has stood in the way of celebrating. He disappeared into the Tennessee woods 40 years before and hasn't been heard of since. We do gradually come to see what happened, what changed Felix's life and made him run away, from both himself and others. It is a terribly sad story that proves once again that tragedy has a grip that is hard to break free from. This is a movie that moves at a slow Southern pace, and comes to a well wrapped up conclusion. Duvall's character is a complex, conflicted character struggling with his own regrets and sense of mortality -- and he uses his immense talents to convey that character's monumental inner struggle in a way we can all connect with. Felix is a man who seems to relish the gossip-driven mythology that has turned him into a local legend, but he never loses sight of the reason for his current situation. His story is one of guilt, penance, and forgiveness, and as one of the most respected actors of his generation, Duvall conveys all of this in ways that make it feel completely natural.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Polish Pottery

I have long standing love of dishes. I have a set of my grandmother's dishes, a set of my greta grandmother's and a set of my husband's grandmother's dishes. It would take a lofty numberof guests for me to run out of plates. Part of what I love is the decorations that make dishes a craft rather than purely utilitarian, and the Polish have a knack for doing that well. I have quite a few Polish pottery serving dishes, and all of our favorite bowls come from Poland. This was both a blessing and a curse on my recent trip to Poland. We saw so many wonderful hand painted dishes there that it was hard not to want to bring them all home. On the other hand, there are so many dishes that a household can be said to need. I compromised and brought back small bowls, and a few salt cellars (you can always use another condiment receptical), and did a lot of looking and yearning instead of buying.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Breakfast in Poland

We love breakfast in Europe. The hotels have wonderful spreads of all sorts of things--smoked meats, fish, cheese, breads, fruits and salads. On my recent trip to Eastern Europe I had the very best breakfasts in Poland. The Polonia Palace is a gorgeous old style hotel (since 85% of Warsaw was rebuilt after WWII, it is unlikely that it is original--it is more likely to be restored, but the hotel has an old world charm to it, none-the-less). I recently looked it up on and found that you could book a room for $40/night, so it is upscale grandeur at Motel 6 prices. Best of all was the breakfast spread.
We all noticed that there was vodka and champagne as drinks options--we did not avail ourselves of them, but it lent a festive air to the meal. I particularly enjoyed the array of cheeses, which included both washed rind and blooming rind options, with an equally wide array of bread options. Ethan loved the chicken wings, and we all loved the terribly elegant dining room where it was all laid out. The food in Poland was outstanding at mid-day and in teh evenings, no question about it. I ate pierogi every single day I was there and never got tired of it. But at dinner you can choose what you want--the mornings you are at the mercy of your hotel, and we felt entirely pampered in Poland.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Janusz Korczak Memorial

Spoiler alert--this is a very sad story. Janusz Korczak, the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit (July 22, 1878 or 1879 – August 1942) was a Polish-Jewish educator, children's author, and pediatrician. He was one of the world renowned Jews who had a way out of Poland. But he chose to stay with those who did not have that option. In 1939, when World War II erupted, Korczak volunteered for duty in the Polish Army but was refused due to his age. He witnessed the Wehrmacht taking over Warsaw. When the Germans created the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, his orphanage was forced to move from its building. Korczak moved in with them. August 5 or 6, 1942, German soldiers came to collect the orphans and about one dozen staff members to take them to Treblinka extermination camp. Korczak had been offered sanctuary on the “Aryan side” by Żegota but turned it down repeatedly, saying that he could not abandon his children. On August 5, he again refused offers of sanctuary, insisting that he would go with the children.
The children were dressed in their best clothes, and each carried a blue knapsack and a favorite book or toy. Joshua Perle, an eyewitness, described the procession of Korczak and the children through the ghetto to the Umschlagplatz (deportation point to the death camps): ... A miracle occurred. Two hundred children did not cry out. Two hundred pure souls, condemned to death, did not weep. Not one of them ran away. None tried to hide. Like stricken swallows they clung to their teacher and mentor, to their father and brother, Janusz Korczak, so that he might protect and preserve them. Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child, without a hat, a leather belt around his waist, and wearing high boots. A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar. (...) On all sides the children were surrounded by Germans, Ukrainians, and this time also Jewish policemen. They whipped and fired shots at them. The very stones of the street wept at the sight of the procession. According to a popular legend, when the group of orphans finally reached the Umschlagplatz, an SS officer recognized Korczak as the author of one of his favorite children's books and offered to help him escape. By another version, the officer was acting officially, as the Nazi authorities had in mind some kind of "special treatment" for Korczak (some prominent Jews with international reputations got sent to Theresienstadt). Whatever the offer, Korczak once again refused. He boarded the trains with the children and was never heard from again.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Iron Lady (2011)

First off, this is an uncharitable film. I know, Margaret Thatcher is a divisive figure, but to emphasize her decent into dementia as a way to look back on her life seems unkind. If we are going to come out with an opinion of her, it should be based on her public persona, not on her end of life issues. I know, I am want to point out that Reagon was demented, but that was while he was in office, at which point his mental status does seem like it is fair game. Love her or hate her, she did not seem anything but mentally sharp when she was Britain's Prime Minister. The movie is best when focusing on the time that she was in her world famous role as Britain's head of the Conservative Party. Meryl Streep is spectacualrly successful at channeling the Thatcher of that era, which she carries off based on wardrobe and carriage rather than on the basis of physical similarities. It all begins with her humble beginnings as the proverbial "grocer's daughter from Grantham." She began on the lowest rungs of the Conservative Party and never paused in her climb--as the film depicts it, she woos her husband not so much with feminie charms, but rather he sees the gleam to succeed in her eye, and he wants a pieceof it ((James Broadbent plays this role spectacularly, as you would expect). Her ambition was unlimited, her strategy ruthless, her victims the least fortunate of England's society--as the economy collapsed around her, she remained steadfast, and more than a little oblivious. Was Thatcher a feminist triumph? I don't think so. She was just like any other world leader. Detached, sure of thier point of view, despite evidence to the contrary, and unwielding. The film really doesn't go there, in any case. And to a large extent, it doesn't go very far down any path. It is unkind to Thatcher without reason. It doesn't come down either for or against her. It is worthwhile to see Streep's performance, but that is where the vaule ends, in my opinion.