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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe

My kids and their classmates would recite this poem every Hallowe'en, between bobbing for apples and scaring the wits out of each other in the carefully crafted Haunted House.  Now that they are all grown and mostly gone, I miss it.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more."

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you"- here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!" -
Merely this, and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice:
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more."

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered- not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered, "other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said, "Nevermore."

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of 'Never - nevermore'."

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore:
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted- tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend," I shrieked, upstarting -
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!- quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Separation (2011)

Wow, I loved this movie.  It was Iran's submission for Best Foreign Language film and it took home the prize...which can sometimes mean that there is something crushingly downbeat pressed into the celluloid (so to speak)--but not so this time.  The cultural background of the movie is subtle, as it the story and the conflict.
The story revolves around a couple and their daughter.  Simin wants to leave Iran, and she wants to take her daughter Temreh with her.  Nader does not want to leave--he is caring for his father, who is in the later stages of Alzheimer's disease.  He doesn't follow commands, he doesn't speak much and he seems terribly confused, but Nader patiently cares for him, and stubbornly refuses to work with his wife towards a solution that they can both live with.  That may be a cultural thing, but it feels like there is real tension between them.

When Nader won't let Simin take Temreh, she can't leave Iran, but she can certainly leave her house.  She is frustrated by Nader, and he says nothing to her--not that he wants her to stay, not that he loves her, or needs her.  Temreh tries to get him to talk to her--because she, after all, is really in the middle.  She loves them both and they are quietly, persistently pulling her apart.  But Nader cannot do it.

So there is a situation that develops that tips the balance.  Nader needs Simin's help, and help him she does.  She clearly is attached to him, and a very capable woman--what is Nader's problem?  Again, the answer may be cultural.  It goes from bad to worse, and in the end Nader makes some choices that he is not proud of, and Temreh knows.  He involves her in the deception.  The back story all through this is the Iranian legal system, and the situation that exists.  It is a leisurely walk through what is an increasingly difficult story until what happens?  We do not know.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Holy War: How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations by Nigel Cliff

This book looks at the other 15th century ocean navigational achievement.  Columbus went off to the west in search of a pathway to India, and the very dear spices that were being imported from there and discovered unimaginable riches and a whole new continent.  Vasco Da Gama took off in a southerly direction and circumnavigated the Horn of Africa.  Neither of these feats had been accomplished previously.  The Chinese has immense sailing vessels the century before and thoroughly explored the East African coast--but seeing nothing they liked, they went home and stayed there.  They were so much more advanced than the rest of the world that it just didn't make any sense to them to leave the Asian continent.  The Europeans, however, were about to enter their heyday, and Da Gama's voyage was an early part of that ascension.  This book tells that story well.

The book's title implies that Da Gama had some sort of long term effect on the religious wars between Muslims and Christians, and I don't see that case being made.  Islam was being purged from the Iberian Peninsula at a rapid pace before his voyage (the superior seafaring vessels of the Portuguese and the Spanish helped with the recapture of North Africa, and set the stage for the Inquisition--but all of that occurred before Da Gama set sail for India).  The Crusades had been a long ongoing battle to wrest the Holy Land from Muslim control--not much progress was made there.  What Da Gama did accomplish was the expansion of Christian cities on the coast of India--they became favored trading partners and thus benefited financially from their religious preferences.  But tipping the balance in the centuries old battle between Islam and Christianity?  No go.  That one is still going on--and no signs of tolerance in sight--on either side.  And while the Portuguese had a brief time at the top of the trade routes going east, they were out-competed and out-gunned by the Dutch and the English in the next century.  This is a book about how that story started.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The GOP End Game: Misogyny, Racism, or Both?

Andy Borowitz, who has been able to make me laugh in an increasingly acrimonious campaign season that I am experiencing solely through non-TV media, posed this question in his New Yorker blog on Friday. The answer appears to be both.  Friday Sununu voiced the Romney campaigns assessment that Colin Powell did not endorse Obama because of the reasons stated--which included that he thought Romney was weak on foreign policy, and the the GOP's failure to address global climate change was one of the biggest threat to U.S. security that we face--but rather because he's black.  He and Obama share a race.  That's got to be it.  There were even calls for Powell to 'leave the party'--well, it is not clear to me in what capacity he is 'in the party', but once again, it is the GOP stance that having your own opinion is definitely not allowed.  I suspect Senator Murkowski has taken heat for her statement--doesn't stay on message.

On the other hand, Indiana Senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock's assertion that a women who is raped should not only be required to carry a pregnancy from that conception to term under penalty of criminal prosecution if she were to choose to do otherwise, but also that she should look at the situation as a gift from God.  Thank you Lord, for having me conceive a child by a violent man who hates women enough to force sexual violence upon them, and and allowing him to propagate his genes into the world.  I realize that it is consistent with the ideology that life begins at conception.  That part I get.  It is the part where you take your belief, which is devoid of scientific meaning, and make it the law of the land that I object to.  Oh, and that you want the woman that you have given no choice but to become a mother to bow down and thank God for this gift.  That part I object to also. 

I am so angry about the assault on women--a sex that I am one of.  The only upside is that I now understand that my anger about racism is not nearly what it could be if I were of another race.  That while I support civil rights for all, I do not truly understand the experience of that attack on my life, on a daily basis.  In a recent argument with my spouse, it became clear that he thinks he gets it, but he does not.  That personalization of the attack is something that you really have to walk in those shoes to understand.  I am also quite shaken by this--I have never heard so many politicians speak so openly about their right to control the lives of women.  I understand that they have these beliefs, that they have had them all along--but the current climate makes it seem acceptable to say them out loud, to publicly defend them.  That is the part that I find frightening.  I do not share values with the GOP, or anyone who votes for them, it turns out.  Republicans, do not darken my door.  There is just too much that matters to me that you are publicly trampling.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Dangerous Method (2012)

This movie is proof of what I always say about psychiatry--that truth is stranger than fiction.  A story that you would not believe if you read it can come tumbling out of the mouths of patients.

The main man here is Carl Jung (aptly played by Michael Fassbender, who bears a reasonable resemblance to the man himself) and the setting is Switzerland. Jung is working in a psychiatric hospital, treating hysterical women with talking therapy.  In comes Sabina Speilrein (Keira Knightly plays hysteria beautifully--she must have spent some time looking over Charcot's collection of photographs).  She is a Russian Jew who once she shares the darkest secret of her shame, she manages to go forward into the world successfully.

 Her shame?  Spanking turns her on.  Her father stripped her naked and spanked her.  Repeatedly.  It probably turned him on--there is a sexual aspect of violence.  He probably told himself that he was doing it for her own good, but really he was doing it because it felt good.  For him.  So, she is sexually inexperienced and ashamed of what gets her hot.  Not a good combination in repressed Victorian Europe.  But Jung lets her know that he finds this completely unremarkable.  She gets better--and then she beds him.

Freud (Viggo Mortensen) enters Jung's life between time that Sabina is the patient and when she is the mistress.  They talk frequently about the transference that occurs between patient and doctor, and Freud is disapproving of anything coming of that--the love of a patient for the doctor is a false love, dangerous to the patient.  It is Otto Gross, a man credited with being the grandfather of the Counterculture movement almost a century later, a drug addict and a sex addict, who convinces Jung to act upon his desires with Sabina.  Otto senses that still waters run deep in Jung, that his wife is not a good erotic match for him, and he points out that Freud is probably so down on the idea because he is not getting enough sex.  And who wouldn't want to romp in the bedroom with the lovely Keira Knightly, experimenting with who knows what along the way?  The film plays this out to the end, which doesn't go all that well, but it is well acted and the film largely doesn't play fast and loose with the historical facts.

Friday, October 26, 2012

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper

I really love this author--the tone of his novels is exactly the stride that I would yearn to hit, with a more feminine voice, if I were to write novels myself.  This installation into a largely irreverent oeuvre is not quite as wonderful as his last (This Is Where I Leave You)--but I very much enjoyed it.

Here's the story.  Silver is a one-hit wonder.  He wrote one hit song, played with a band that had a moment of fame, and he never really got over it.  A victim of his limited success.  He didn't develop another persona--he went from rock star to faded rock star without raising a finger to reinvent himself.  He let his wife leave him and he paid no attention to his daughter--now his ex is getting remarried and his daughter is a grown up, and he realizes that he has nothing worth living for.  He has two friends who are as lame as he is, and not much else.

I know, so far it doesn't sound that funny.  While he is accompanying his daughter to get an abortion after she got pregnant the first time she had sex (which he really doesn't cut her much slack about, and she doesn't think any less of him for it because when you are at the bottom of respect, you can't go down), he has a transient ischemic attack, a mini-stroke.  Once again, his timing sucks.   He steals the thunder and leaves her unattended to once again.

But it gets worse.  It turns out he has a dissecting aortic aneurism--which is fatal if left untreated, but can be fixed with surgery.  Which his ex-wife's future husband offers to fix for him.  Silver decides, much to everyone's dismay, that he doesn't want to fix it.  He doesn't want to kill himself but he doesn't have anything to live for.  So the rest of the book is his journey to find that something.  In the meantime, his father, who is a rabbi, insists that he see every Jewish life cycle event while on his search for meaning in the world.  I know, it still doesn't sound that funny, but it is, and it does speak to me.  Please God, let me avoid this man.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Red Velvet Cake with White Chocolate Icing

This is a cake made in the square--so it affords different serving options.  I have 10 x 15 cake pans that I use to make large sheet cakes and this would be a good option for that as well.

For the cake:

1 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cups cake flour
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. table salt
1 tsp. instant espresso powder
2¼ cups sugar
3 eggs
2¼ cups vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
1 oz. liquid red food color
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 Tbsp. distilled white vinegar

For the frosting:
2 cups whole milk
1½ cups all-purpose flour
4 oz. quality white chocolate bar, chopped
2 cups granulated sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

Frosting Garnish:
additional white chocolate bar (optional)


Preheat the oven to 375F. Line bottoms of two 8×8×2-inch square pans (or three 9×2-inch round cake pans) with parchment paper and coat with non-stick spray. NOTE: I use Baker’s Joy spray and my cakes never stick!

For the cake:

Sift together the flours unsweetened cocoa powder, baking soda, table salt and instant espresso powder; whisk to combine. Set aside.

For less mess, in a large glass measuring cup with a pour spout, combine the buttermilk, food color and vanilla before mixing into the cake batter.

BEAT sugar and eggs in a large bowl with a mixer on high speed until white, thick and creamy for 5-7 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, slowly drizzle in the oil until it is full incorporated.

ALTERNATELY ADD the flour mixture and the buttermilk mixture to the batter (starting and ending with flour mixture) until combined.
MIX vinegar into batter and immediately divide evenly between prepared pans.

Bake cakes until a toothpick comes out clean, about 35-40 minutes. Transfer cakes to a wire rack to cool, for about 10 minutes. Turn cakes out of pans and cool on racks. Once cook, peel away parchment.
SLICE each cake in half horizontally to form 4 layers. NOTE: My cakes were baked square, so I trimmed off the edges to reveal the red cake color. Save the crumbs for later, to crumble and sprinkle on top as decoration.

WHISK milk and flour together in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until thick and paste-like and no longer lumpy, about 15 minutes. NOTE: Don’t panic if it becomes lump, as you can always push it thrown a fine sieve. However, keep stirring and scraping the pan at all times.

Transfer mixture to a bowl, press plastic wrap over the surface to prevent a skin from forming and chill until cold.

MELT chocolate in a double-boiler (I had thin chocolate, so I melted it in 30 second intervals in my microwave). Cool slightly.
CREAM sugar and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer on high (I use my Kitchen Aid Whisk Attachment)) for about 7 minutes, until it is light and fluffy.
Add chilled milk mixture and melted chocolate and beat on high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes more.
ASSEMBLY: Helpful equipment/tools are a serrated knife, off-set spatula and toothpicks (to be guides in slicing each layer in half). Wilton sells an extra-large spatula that is perfect for safely transferring cake layers. I love mine. Piping bag and large round tip.

With a serrated knife, level each layer if the center is a high dome (like one of mine was). Split each layer in half. Turn the first layer upside down onto your serving platter (I place narrow strips of wax paper along each edge to catch frosting drippings). Fill the piping bag and pipe the frosting onto the edge of each layer. Plop some frosting in the center, and evenly spread with an off-set spatula. (We aren’t frosting the sides of the cake, because this is makes a beautiful presentation.

Repeat with each layer. If desired, sprinkle some fine red crumbs and/or shave some additional white chocolate with a vegetable peeler and sprinkled on top.

Slice with either an electric serrated knife, or a regular serrated knife. This prevents the layers from becoming “squashed”.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

My Wife is an Actress (2001)

This is a very French, very romantic, and wryly funny film starring Yvan Attal as himself and his very lovely wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg as herself.  When I read that on the envelope that came with the movie, I wondered why the heck I had put it in my queue--it sounded terrible.  The nature of my queue is that if I am not paying very much attention to it, something that I put into it a year or more ago pops up, and I have no recollection of how it might have ended up there to begin with.  That being said, this is a great example of how that can be a very good thing indeed.

Yvan (Attal) is a youngish sports writer who, through some improbable luck, finds himself happily married to the beautiful Charlotte, a fantastically popular movie actress. All is going swimmingly for Yvan--he loves his wife, she loves him, and aside from the more than occasional fan interrupting a meal they are sharing, all is well in Yvan's life.  That is  until a stranger plants the seeds of jealousy and doubt in his mind over his wife and her on-film lovers.  The stranger (who is an ex-boyfriend of his sister's) goes on at some length about the kissing, the on-screen nudity and sex, and how it must be very hard to watch all that. Up until then Yvan hadn't really thought about it, and that was working pretty well for him.  So first he goes her latest movie--he thinks her sex scene with another man is, well, sexy.  He takes an acting class, and the girls in the class are so impressed with his acting that they want to sleep with him.  When they kiss him on stage, they are really kissing him.  Then he panics. Meanwhile, Charlotte is in London, starring in a movie with a very seductive and sophisticated Terence Stamp. And Yvan can tell that if Charlotte would let something happen with her co-star, he wouldn't kick her out of his bed.  Soon misunderstandings pile upon misunderstanding until Yvan's marriage is on the verge of collapse.  Voila!  Just like that!  The beauty and the fragility of a good relationship once again exposed by the French.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

India Cookbook by Pushpesh Pant

Phaidon has been publishing lush large cookbooks that try to more or less encompass a country's entire cuisine.  They started with 'The Silver Spoon', which is purported to be the 'Joy of Cooking' of Italy, which was translated for m=both and English speaking audience, and one that would not necessarily have an Italian sensibility, so that we can follow what they have to offer.

This book covers the Indian subcontinent.  No small task.  A billion people are packed in there.  There is not one cuisine, nor is there one religion, or one culture.  Over the course of the first several centuries, there have been many conquerors who left behind a little bit of themselves as they retreated.  So a Herculean task to put together a cookbook that covers it all.

I have no idea just how successful this ultimately is.  The author has a diverse background, ranging from being a political commentator to hosting a cooking show--but he is known for his Northern Indian cooking, and since the India that most tourists are familiar with is North India, this is perhaps good enough.  My spouse made a butter chicken from this that was absolutely delicious--nothing like the butter chicken at our local Indian restaurant, but wonderful, aromatic, and complicated tasting.  When I was looking for a cauliflower recipe there were almost a dozen to choose from--which is a big plus for me.  Time to give away my previous Indian tome on cooking, '1000 Indian Recipes', which people have raved about, but it has really not worked for me, and put this in it's place on my cookbook shelf.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lemon Poppyseed Madelines

I had a wonderful spontaneous vacation last summer with my husband.  We were at a memorial service in Vermont with all of my husband's family, celebrating the life of his father on the first anniversary of his death.  We chose Vermont because that is what he wanted.  He wanted to be remembered there, and for all of my husband's sibling's offspring, Vermont is a place that all 12 of them share.  So we had a very nive, if at times somber long weekend there, and my nephew Eli spent some very picturesque time playing bagpipes on the hill.  he jst looked like he might actually be in Scotland, despite the fact that he was wearing gym shorts and a T-shirt rather than being decked out in a kilt and associated gear.  In talking to him, he noted that he would be playing with his band in the World Piping Championships in Glasgow the following month, and my spouse and I decided to join his family to see him play.
We flew into London and took the train the Scotland--on the way, we were served various and sundry things on the First Class train, including a madeline.
Delicious!  Recently my best baking buddy and I recreated these delicasies.
For two dozen:
10 Tbs. butter
2/3 c. sugar
3 eggs
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. vanilla
1 c. flour
1 Tbs. lemon juice
2 Tbs. poppy seeds
1 tsp. lemon extract
Brown the butter on teh stove--which means cooking it until the whey cooks down and the bits on the bottom of the pan are at least tan, if not brown. 
In a mixing bowl, beat sugar, eggs, salt, then add vanilla, lemon juice, poppy seeds, and lemon extract.  Add teh flour, then the brown butter.  Refridgerate batter at least 2 hours, and preferrably overnight--it thickens with time and is easier to scoop into the madeline molds.
Turn oven on to 375.
Use a #40 scoop and fills madeline pans (3/4 full)--bake for 12-16 minutes, until browing on edges.
Pop out of pans immediately, and when cool, glaze with:
2 Tbs. honey
2 Tbs. melted butter
1 tsp. lemon juice.
Sublime.  No wonder Proust went on and on about them in 'Remembrance of Things Past'.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Anonymous (2012)

It is hard to keep track of who is bedding whom, and who's back is being stabbed in yet another "Who done it?" about the true identity of William Shakespeare.

Here's the contention.  The writer of the 37 existing plays attributed to Shakespeare was a prodigious and gifted playwright.  The man we know as Shakespeare didn't really have a background commensurate to the task.  So if not he, who?

This story has it that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and a known poet and playwright, was the true author.  Some facts that are known--which are included in the movie as well--are that he was made the ward of Queen Elizabeth when his parents died. She entrusted his upbringing and education to William Cecil, who was her trusted adviser, and probably not a nice guy.  Edward inherited immense wealth and died a poor man--and probably Cecil had a hand in that, but maybe not.  Edward married Cecil's daughter.  What is less clear is Cecil's abhorrence of the theater--which is critical to the plot here--it is the driving reason for Edward handing his work over to be staged under the name of another.  Cecil was a Protestant, but did he differ so from his queen on this point in particular?  The film also has Elizabeth as being far from the Virgin Queen--she has at least two sons, one is the Earl of Essex, and the other, fathered by the far younger Edward (yet another ward being bedded by the person entrusted to raise them), is the Earl of Southhampton--both having the unmistakable red hair of their purported mother.   Since Elizabeth has no legitimate offspring and a much hated successor in King James of Scotland, one of the boys feels he has a shot at the throne--if not for the devious and conniving Cecils.  So much intrigue, so few data.

Rhys Ifans is spectacular as the Earl of Oxford.  And unrecognizable from previous roles--really, if you are a fan (and I am), this is a must see.  Vanessa Redgrave plays the elderly Queen Elizabeth, and her daughter plays the younger queen--not too sympathetically, but well done.  This is a fun sort of mystery that plays out well in Renaissance England. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Tenant of Windfell Hall by Anne Bronte (1848)

I am in the midst of reading Victorian British literature. I even watched the BBC drama, 'Victoria and Albert'. I am steeping myself in the nineteenth century (when I am not snagging a Man Booker long list book, that is). That said, when I read that this book was a feminist novel, perhaps the first of that genre, I balked. No it is not.

 The women do not come off particularly well here. So maybe it is a feminist novel with an asterisk after it--considering the time.  Here the story goes.  Helen falls in love with Arthur, a man who turns out to be a womanizing lush.  Bad luck, because he controls her money, her child, and therefore her.  The options are to endure it or leave on her own, abandoning her child.  Helen thinks leaving without her boy is particularly bad idea because her husband is feeding alcohol to the youngster, and she can see no way that he will escape both his genes and his environment.  As a side note, Anne Bronte didn't have to leave home to find a model for Arthur--her brother, Branwell Bronte was said to be all of this and more.

So Helen devises a plan--she will support herself selling her art, and she will disguise herself as a widow--with the help of her brother, she sneaks off and starts a new life for herself--which goes pretty well until she catchers the eye of young Gilbert Markham.  She grows quite fond of Markham, and does nothing inappropriate, though he would like her to--but it turns out someone else had her eye on Markham and does not take kindly to his straying attention.  So it is a cat fight, and Helen has to move on.  That doesn't portray the female of the sex in any sort of good light. 

Not to worry, Helen and Gilbert will end up together--but not because Helen takes the reins.  Feminism has definitely evolved from this point--I prefer Middlemarch, which has some similar issues, but Mrs. Casaubon can take Helen any day of the week.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Lemon Pudding Cakes

If you love the taste of lemon curd and want a super simple dessert that is quick to put on the table, this is a great find.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2/3 cup superfine sugar, plus more for dusting
2 eggs, separated
2/3 cup reduced fat buttermilk
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

Fresh berries--whatever you have

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Butter and lightly sugar 4 ramekins (about 1-cup size).

In a mixer, add egg yolks, buttermilk, lemon juice and lemon zest and beat until well combined. Reduce the speed to low and sift in flour, sugar and salt. Continue to mix until combined. Beat egg whites until you get stiff peaks then combine the 2 mixtures by gently folding them together, a little at a time. Divide evenly amongst ramekins then bake in a water bath - set ramekins in a roasting tray and fill with water halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

Bake for 45 minutes until the top springs back when gently pressed and the cakes have a nice golden brown color. Allow to cool slightly, then carefully invert onto a plate. Serve with fresh berries and dust with powdered sugar.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dante in Florence

It is funny how a community can make a snap decision, like that you are sacreligious, and want absolutely nothing to do with you in your life time, then retrospectively, when history has had the opportunity to judge you as well, change their collective minds.

Florence is the town of Dante's birth and it is also a place that his family had inhabitated fro quite some time--Dante said from the time of the Romans, but that was never verified, by him or anyone else.

the earliest relative he could mention by name was Cacciaguida degli Elisei (Paradiso, XV, 135), of no earlier than about 1100. Dante's father, Alaghiero , was a White Guelph who suffered no reprisals after the Ghibellines won the Battle of Montaperti in the middle of the 13th century. This suggests that Alighiero or his family enjoyed some protective prestige and status, although some suggest that the politically inactive Alighiero was of such low standing that he was not considered worth exiling...Italy was a rough and tumble place at that point in history, no doubt. The one thing that was clear is that you took sides.
Dante's family had loyalties to the Guelphs, a political alliance that supported the Papacy and which was involved in complex opposition to the Ghibellines, who were backed by the Holy Roman Emperor. The poet's mother was Bella, likely a member of the Abati family. After defeating the Ghibellines, the Guelphs divided into two factions: the White Guelphs (Guelfi Bianchi) — Dante's party, led by Vieri dei Cerchi — and the Black Guelphs (Guelfi Neri), led by Corso Donati. Although initially the split was along family lines, ideological differences arose based on opposing views of the papal role in Florentine affairs, with the Blacks supporting the Pope and the Whites wanting more freedom from Rome. Initially the Whites were in power, and they expelled the Blacks. In response, Pope Boniface VIII planned a military occupation of Florence. In 1301, Charles of Valois, brother of King Philip IV of France, was expected to visit Florence because the Pope had appointed him peacemaker for Tuscany. But the city's government had treated the Pope's ambassadors badly a few weeks before, seeking independence from papal influence. It was believed that Charles of Valois had received other unofficial instructions, so the council sent a delegation to Rome to ascertain the Pope's intentions. Dante was one of the delegates. He was essentially forced to stay.
Here comes the better news. At some point during his exile, he conceived of the Comedy, but the date is uncertain. The work is much more assured and on a larger scale than anything he had produced in Florence; it is likely that he would have undertaken such a work only after he realized that his political ambitions, which had been central to him up to his banishment, had been halted for some time, possibly forever. It is also noticeable that Beatrice has returned to his imagination with renewed force and with a wider meaning than in the Vita Nuova; in Convivio (written c.1304–07) he had declared that the memory of this youthful romance belonged to the past.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

NW by Zadie Smith

I do not think I totally got this book. The reviewers just liked it so much more than I did. I am disappointed, because I really like the other two books that I have read by her. My first exposure to Zadie Smith was several years ago when I read all the books that my son was reading in a contemporary British literature course he took in college. I got behind in the reading immediately--the course started with 'Kepler' by John Banville. I hated it, struggled with each and every page. After a while I realized it was Kepler I disliked, misogynist that he apparently was--but I had trouble separating the character from the book. The next book was 'Possession, by A.S. Byatt, which in the end I absolutely loved, but I could not read it in synch with the class. So it was 'On Beauty' that was the first book that I read cover to cover on time--and in one sitting, en route to a lovely several days in Puerto Rico. I just loved it. So not loving this is a let down. The book is loosely linked to 'White Teeth', featuring four characters who share an upbringing in a less than privledged London neighborhood. They are grown ups, and yet largely not coping all that well. There is not the social context that I have found in the other two novels by Smith, so the characters seem unrooted without any reall reflection on why that might be. They do odd things for unexplained reasons, culminating in an ending more suitable for a murder mystery than serious fiction.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cranberry Tart

For the cranberry filling:

1 cup granulated sugar
2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
12 oz. fresh or thawed frozen cranberries (about 3 cups)
3 Tbs. apricot jam

For the shortbread:
3-1/2 oz. (1 cup) sliced almonds
9 oz. (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
1-3/4 oz. (1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs.) fine yellow cornmeal
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
8 oz. (1 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces and softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 Tbs. packed finely grated lemon zest (from 1 large lemon)
3/4 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. pure almond extract
1 large egg yolk
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------Make the filling

Combine the sugar, lemon juice, and 1/2 cup water in a 3-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar, about 2 minutes. Add the cranberries and lower the heat to medium-low. Simmer until the cranberries have popped and the liquid is syrupy, 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in the apricot jam and simmer until the jam melts, about 1 minute more. Remove from the heat and let cool completely.

Make the shortbread

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 325°F. Spread the almonds on a rimmed baking sheet and toast until warm and fragrant but not yet brown, about 5 minutes; let cool completely.

In a food processor (with at least a 10-cup capacity), combine the nuts with 2 Tbs. of the flour. Pulse until very fine but not powdery, 20 to 25 short pulses. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the remaining flour, the cornmeal, and salt.

In the food processor, combine the butter, sugar, lemon zest, vanilla, and almond extract.

Pulse until creamy, 10 to 20 short pulses. Add the egg yolk and pulse a few times to combine. Add the dry ingredients and pulse, scraping down the sides as necessary, just until a soft dough forms, 30 to 40 short pulses. Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic and divide.

Lightly coat a round 9 x 1-inch fluted metal tart pan with a removable bottom with cooking spray. Press half of the dough evenly onto the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap. Form the remaining dough into a disk and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate the dough and the tart shell until very firm, at least 30 minutes.

Prick the bottom of the tart shell all over with a fork and bake on a heavy-duty baking sheet until firm, dry, and just starting to turn golden brown around the edges, 30 to 35 minutes. The shortbread will have puffed up during baking, so use the back of a spoon to gently press down the bottom of the crust to create enough space for the cranberry filling. Spoon the filling into the tart and spread evenly.

Crumble the remaining shortbread dough over the cranberries in pebble-like pieces, covering the filling. Bake until the topping is firm and golden-brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack.

Carefully remove the tart rim. Slide a long, flat spatula between the pastry and the pan bottom and transfer the tart to a serving platter. Dust with confectioners’ sugar, if using, just before serving.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Girl From Paris (2001)

I loved this movie--and I love the place that the movie is set in.  Some of our closest friends have a sheep farm and make farmstead cheeses with the milk from their ewes.  In preparation for making a new type of cheese, a tomme (which is a washed rind aged cheese), they were planning a trip to the Hautes Alps in France to work with several different cheesemakers and invited us to come along.  It was spectacular, especially Eric Randu's cheese and family and chalet in the mountains.  Such a spectacular place to be.  And that is where this film is set.Its heroine, Sandrine Dumez (Mathilde Seigner), an unhappy urbanite drifting toward 30, who abruptly decides to follow her dreams and embrace the rural life.

In true French fashion, in order to qualify to get a farm she must first clear some bureaucratic hurdles, in particular a rigorous training program (telescoped here into the bloody slaughter of a pig and a daunting encounter with a giant combine). This is no place for dilletantes who want to make goat cheese and play the guitar, the instructor says. But Sandrine is practical and serious. After she buys a dairy farm in the Rhône-Alpes region from a grouchy old peasant, she sells her goat cheese over the Internet, and converts an unused cow barn into a rustic bed and breakfast.  The aforementioned grouchy farmer is at first jealous, then prone to sabotauge, and finally concedes that she is a far better farmer than he had any right to hope for, and vertainly doesn't deserve her goodness.  There are tense moments, but this being a French film, it all comes out alright in the end.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (1975)

At the time that this novel was published--which was 1975--historical fiction was just not done.  Reading this in the 21st century, 37 years afterwards, this does not seem so innovative, but then it was.  Be that as it may, the setting is in New York before WWI--somewhere towards the end of the novel the Archduke Franz Ferdinand is shot, and we know where it goes from there.  Nowhere good.  But at the time that comes before that, there is a different feeling in America.  People are entrenched in the Jazz Age.  Crazy stunts are being pulled.  Houdini is all the rage--and when interest in his antics wanes in the U. S., he sets off for Europe to wow them there.  Socialism is on the rise, and Emma Goldman, the famous Russian immigrant who is best known for advocating birth control for women and being briefly suspected of a conspiracy to assassinate President McKinley, is very sympathetically portrayed here.  So it is very fun to read about the time period, and having real people who we recognize inhabit the story along side of people who are bona fide fictional is an enjoyable interplay of fact and fiction.  The story that overlies the historical one is about the overt as well as the unconscious racism of the times--not that we are at all beyond that, because as the Obama-Romney Presidential Election of 2012 clearly demonstrates, race still matters in the 21st century, just less so and for fewer people.  That part of the book is sadder and  therefore how much you like it depends on what you like to read.  I read it along with one of my sons because he was assigned it for a course on understanding American culture, and it surely does help with that.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Deviled Food Forest Cakes

Let me just say that I would never ever make these on my own, but I recently spent a long weekend baking with my best baking buddy, Ivy.  She is the one who initially made these wonderful little chocolate trees, and if the truth be told, they look fantastic and they are not nearly as diffucult to make as you might imagine.

4 oz. Paper cone cups--like for a water cooler

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
1 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, Dutch-process
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
2/3 cups sour cream
3/4 cups hot coffee
4 ounces chocolate, melted over hot water
4 ounces white chocolate, melted over hot water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter and flour the paper cone cups. Loosely ball 1 square foot of foil and place into 1 section of a muffin tin. Repeat until the tin is full. Press down the center of each ball, creating an indentation that will allow the cone cups to stand upright in the oven as they bake. Place cone cups into foil.

In a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment (or using a hand mixer), cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and eggs and mix until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the vanilla, cocoa, baking soda and salt and mix. Add half of the flour, then half of the sour cream, and mix. Repeat with the remaining flour and sour cream. Drizzle in the hot coffee and mix until smooth. The batter will be thin.

Pour into the prepared cones, filling 3/4 of the way up and bake until the tops are firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean (a few crumbs are okay), about 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool for 30 minutes. With a serrated knife, trim off any cake that has overflowed so the top (which will become the bottom) is flat. Carefully peel off the paper cone to unveil the cake and invert them onto a wire rack. Drizzle melted milk chocolate and white chocolate over the "peaks" in thin spattery lines and let set up in the refrigerator.

Friday, October 12, 2012

520th Anniversary of Columbus Stumbling Upon the New World

It would have happened at some point. The Chinese had at least temporarily lost interest in exploration. They had sent out big ships, seen what the rest of the world had to offer, and they were decidedly unimpressed. So they packed up their moster ships and sailed home. Don't worry, the English figured out how to get them to come out and play. Opium helped keep the balance of world trade with China, despite their lack of interest in other things they had to offer (which does not seem to be a possible solution to the current trade imbalance). So Europe had a chance! The shipping nations started off exploring in earnest--the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the Dutch, with the English bringing up the rear. If Columbus hadn't found the Americas, someone else would have soon thereafter. It was bound to happen.
The things that followed had some intended and some unintended consequences.
The Europeans were not going out to explore to meet new people.  They wnated to loot riches, and thought that the native people should be happy to work for them, and the women should also have sex with them--why they thought this would happen, when it wouldn't have at home, is a bit of a mystery.  Vasco da Gama was not finding it all that easy to come by either of these situations in his trip around the Horn of Africa.  unfortunately for the New World, they were woefully behind on weapon development and what they gained by being familiar with the terrain, they conceded in susceptability to diseases they had no previous exposure to.  We all know the end of this story, and while allt hat Columbus did is hardly worth celebrating, the discovery of America changed the world forever, and today is the day that we recognize that ahppening.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)

The scene opens with various and sundry people figuring out that their golden years in Britain are not all that sunny.  The economy is in the tank, the health care system is sending out surgey to India, and what are supposed to be the 'Golden Years' are vastly under-funded and they are not in good humor about it.  So what to do?  The solution is to take their pounds to a country where they will fare better, or at least stretch further.  One of the crowd is a gay man seeklng forgiveness from a lover, and one is getting an operation but the others have primarily financial motivations that many of us can relate to.
So off they go to what in the broshure looks like Paradise, and when their  bags are packed with pride, prejudice, problems and prospects by some of Britain's best actors — including Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith — it makes the trip (and the movie) worth taking. Complementing all that aging grace is Dev Patel, the breakout star of"Slumdog Millionaire," as the irrepressible young owner of the Marigold. Aptly named Sonny, he is trying ever so hard to gloss over any rough patches — at the hotel and in his life or his guests'. It all makes for a movie whose infectious charm outweighs some of the predictability that slips in around the edges.  I just loved how the whole story unfolds--it is good clean fun throughout.  Highly recommneded, especially if you are at or nearing middle age.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Garden Of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

This is the fourth book longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year that I have read, and the second by the author. He is a Malaysian and both his books have been set there, and set within the context of WWII. One thing that comes through loud and clear is that the legacy of colonialization is complex, and it leaves many enemies in it's wake. The 'liberators' of today become the 'oppressors' of tomorrow. It is an oft sung song, but the tone and content are different in this particular setting. The war has just ended, but that means tha no one is officially fighting. It does not mean that the atrocities are over, and it most certainly doesn't mean that the memories of the war have faded in any way. The voice of the novel is Teoh Yun Ling, a Girton-educated retired judge in independent Malaysia, born in 1923 and brought up among the loyal colonial elite (“the King’s Chinese”) of Penang. After the Japanese invasion, she is taken to a brothel with other underaged girls, raped repeatedly as a “Guest of the Emperor”, and then sent to spend the rest of the war in a remote jungle prison camp. She escaped, but her beloved sister Yun Hong did not. At the end of the war the Japanese killed all remaining prisoners, and while Yun Ling fulfilled her promise to her sister to escape, she did not escape her survivor guilt for having done so. Yun Hong's path to healing comes from an unexpected source. She meets another who is seeking redemption. Aritomo is an enigmatic former gardener to the Emperor of Japan working to restore a destroyed Japanese garden for an unbidden master. Yun Hong wants him to build a garden for her sister, but he will not do it. Instead, he takes her on as an apprentice and tells her “Every aspect of gardening is a form of deception”. Well, he is deceiving her--he is ostensibly teaching her the art of outdoor deception while he is helping her to heal. Initially he is the enemy, based solely on his country of origin, but in the end she sees that he has saved her. He leaves her with a work of his art that she seeks to preserve. The writing is ethereal. It transports the reader to a place that feels very different and foreign, but also pleasant and soothing, despite the very traumatic material it describes. Magnificent.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Maple Walnut Tart

I spent Columbus Day weekend baking with Ivy.
For the dough :
8 oz. (1-3/4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour; more for rolling
1 Tbs. granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
6 oz. (3/4 cup) unsalted butter
1 large egg yolk
1/4tsp. fresh lemon juice
3 to 4 Tbs. ice water
 For the filling:
 2 large eggs 3 large egg yolks 1 tsp. pure maple extract 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract 1/4 tsp. kosher salt 1 cup pure maple syrup 3/4 cup granulated sugar 2-1/2 oz. (5 Tbs.) unsalted butter 8 oz. (2 cups) chopped walnuts, toasted --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Make the dough:
 Pulse the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor once or twice to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is pebbly, with some pea-size bits of butter. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk, lemon juice, and 3 Tbs. of the ice water. Pour the mixture through the feed tube of the food processor, pulsing to combine. The dough mixture should be moist but should not come together into a ball. If a small handful of dough pressed together does not adhere, add the remaining 1 Tbs. ice water, pulsing to combine. Turn the dough mixture onto a piece of plastic wrap; gather the plastic around the dough, pressing the dough into a disk. Wrap tightly in additional plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days. Before rolling, let the dough stand at room temperature for about 15 minutes to become pliable. Lightly coat a rolling pin with flour and roll the dough on a lightly floured surface into a 15-inch circle. Lightly coat a round 9 x1-inch fluted metal tart pan with a removable bottom with cooking spray. Roll the dough around the rolling pin and carefully unroll over the tart pan. Gently press it into the bottom and up the sides of the pan without stretching. Trim the excess, leaving a 1-inch overhang. Fold the overhang inside the tart and press against the sides to make a double wall about 1/4 inch higher than the tart pan (this will offset any shrinkage during baking). Wrap the tart shell in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 24 hours. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 425°F. Line the tart shell with parchment and add enough beans or pie weights to fill the shell. Bake on a heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet until the edges are firm and starting to brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Carefully lift the parchment and weights from the tart shell. Continue to bake until the bottom of the shell is pale golden, 5 to 7 minutes more. Let cool on the baking sheet on a rack and reduce the oven temperature to 350°F.

Make the filling:
 In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, yolks, maple and vanilla extracts, and the salt. Set aside. In a 2-quart saucepan, combine the maple syrup and the sugar and cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture just starts to boil, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and add the butter, stirring until melted. Remove from the heat and let cool for 1 minute. Slowly whisk the warm syrup into the egg mixture, drizzling it in about 1/4 cup at a time and whisking continuously to prevent the hot syrup from cooking the eggs. Fill and bake the tart Fill the tart shell with the chopped walnuts. Carefully ladle the filling over the walnuts to within 1/4 inch of the rim (do not overfill; there may be a little filling left over). Bake the tart until it is just set in the center, 30 to 40 minutes (if the crust is golden-brown before the filling is set, cover the edges loosely with foil). Cool completely on the baking sheet on a rack.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Young Adult (2012)

This is a very interesting, more than slightly dark comedy on the theme of 'peaked in high school'. Mavis (Charlize Theron, in yet another role where a very pretty woman does not look her best) is the complicated focus of the movie. She is a character that does not bravely overcome adversity but rather openly causes adversity to those around her. The nuance here is that we feel sorry for her rather than hating her guts. Mavis is the ghost writer of a once popular young adult book series, but now the series is ending, she has writer's block, and really, her life is a complee mess. We can see from the moment the film begins that while she is still a very pretty woman, she really does not have much else going on. She is drinking like crazy, and she appears to have no friends. So what does she do? She decides that she is goin gto get back together with her high school boyfriend. I guess the theory is to go back to the last time that your life felt perfect, and then start over. Never mind that he is now married and has a newborn baby girl. Details. Surely he will go along with this plan. Well, it is not a well laid out strategy for getting your life back on course, and it fails spectacularly, but along the way there is a fair amount of entertainment--and in the end you really truly never want to be this girl, that is for sure. The script is written by Diablo Cody, whose work in 'Juno' was spectacular, and I was very much in love with this effort as well--I know, it sounds a little depressing, and it probably is depressing if your life peaked in high school, but if it didn't then you might just love this as much as I did.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871)

I am in the midst of doing a lot of college reading. Perhaps it is a way to go back to college as a middle aged woman without having to take the time to go to class--I am doing all the reading for two courses that two of my sons are taking. I don't have to sit in class (which I of course have no time to do at this point--seriously, doing the reading is a task that I have some struggles with some weeks!), but I have someone else (a college professor, no less) guiding my reading selections, and I have someone to talk about it with. So far (and we are at midterm) it has been grand. And it is in this context that I read 'Middlemarch'. Coincidentally it appeared on a list of 100 books that you should read before you die, and while I might quibble with some of the selections on it, this is a sweeping Victorian novel that should not be missed. The novel came out serially--which poses some challenges to the author--Dickens combated it with constantly recapping the action, but what Eliot does is create a book about a place, and then the people in it come second. The sections concern various groups of interconnected people, and the overarching theme, beyond the social structure and expectations of Victorian England, is finding satisfaction in life. In Eliot's mind, that seems to be strongly tied to making the right match in life--which is not so much finding the right person, but finding a person who will stick with you through thick and thin. The book she has written gave her ample opportunity to expose us to a number of choices, many of which are quite relevant today (hence the edurance of the novel over time--like Shakespeare, the themes still speak to us). It is a dense read--it is a slow 880 page novel. But there is much to savor here, and the book is neatly wrapped up at the end, so we are not left hanging as to what happened to everyone.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau (1845)

I have been reading some very interesting primary material with my son who is taking a class on understanding American culture. I have not read this essay in over 35 years, and it is funny how differently it resonates with me now than it did when I was in high school.

My younger self saw Thoreau as a bit of a romantic.  He lived in relative isolation on his now famous Walden Pond, keeping meticulous records of all that he did and spent.  He seemed very idealistic to me, in that he refused to pay taxes for things that he did not agree with and went to jail for his principles.

My middle aged self sees him as a libertarian, someone who advocated for the elimination of government altogether.  He was not contributing to the greater good so much as he was acting like his ideas were the only ones worth having, and he certainly was not about to support someone other than himself in all this.  His one point of redemption is his opposition to slavery, but in reading this essay, that is by no means the main point, or even the driving force in his actions.  He just doesn't want to be part of a society, and doesn't acknowledge what the society does for him.  I have crossed him off my future reading list.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Ping Pong (2003)

I first saw table tennis played seriously when I was in high school.  Up until then I played it in an almost desultory manner, whereby my body rarely left contact with the playing surface, I was that close to the table at all times. One of my high school friends was Asian, and some of my favorite memories are times we spent at an Indonesian family friend's. The reasons are two-fold. The food was incredible, voluminous, and almost overwhelming in it's abundance (when I encountered Rijsttafel on a future trip to Holland, I was almost underwhelmed--the real Indonesian table groans with food). The second was that the sons played ping pong like I had never seen it played before. Unbelievably, they worked up a sweat playing, and they were a body length away from the table when the action heated up. It was breathtaking to watch table-side. Since that time, the only exposure that I have had to table tennis like that is at the Olympics. This film is set in Japan, and the main characters have been playing ping pong all their lives. It is a part of how they express their personalities. The friendship is between Peco, a cocky youth, and his introspective childhood friend, called 'Smile' because he never does. Smile has great talent and Peco has confidence--when Smile lets his talent out, he crushes Peco's confidence, and the movie is about how Peco claws to get it back. There is a lot of cultural context to be found in the background of the movie, and the story of how their relationship with each other and the game evolves over time is very good.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Reflections on a Middle Child

Stereotypes about middle children are hardly flattering. They're often described as confused underachievers, overshadowed by older and younger siblings, and overlooked by their parents.

I have two middle children (way to maximize an oft maligned group, I know--my spouse is a middle child, and the offspring were decidedly his idea), and one of them has a birthday today.  I am reminded of what one of friends so aptly said--I cannot believe this man was once inside my body.  Seriously?  It seems so improbable now.

In thinking about middle children, I read about some really good things about being in the middle of a sibship.  One is that you get to be better at negotiating.  Why?  Because it is the only strategy open to you.  The eldest child tends to have a certain amount of authority based solely on being older, and they also tend to be physically larger--so they get their way through brute force or just because they are the parent's default option. The youngest tends to  get  upset if they don't get their way.--and the parents are exhausted from holding the line against the other kids, and realize that they no longer need to set a good example, as this is the youngest kid.  Just give in is a common parental strategy for youngest children.  For the middle child, neither of those strategies are available. So they often get very good at negotiating, figuring out what the other person wants and needs, and then managing to get them what they want and what the middle child themselves want at the same time. And, of course, one of the things that middle children often want is peace and calm and quiet and for everybody to get along. And so those traits then serve them well when they leave the family.  That sums up this middle child as an adult.  Joyeux Anniversaire, mon fils.  Go forth into the world and spread an eery calm upon all that you meet.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Judging an Iowa Judge

Here is the deal.  After Iowa legislators hurried to pass a local so-called Defense of Marriage to prohibit marriage between gay and lesbian couples to avoid a similar court challenge, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of six same-sex couples and their children who were denied marriage licenses in Iowa, arguing that this denial violated the liberty and equal protection clauses in the state constitution. In 2007, the Polk County District Court ruled in favor of the couples, prompting the county to appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.  On April 3, 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously upheld the District Court holding that there was no important government interest in denying citizens marriage licenses based on their sexual orientation.
What to do?  Well, for many of us it was cause for celebration.  Iowa is not known for being socially progressive, and suddnely we found ourselves in the very important first 10% of states in the country where you could legally marry regardless of gender.  The decision was made on the basis of equal protection, placing it where it belongs in my opinion.  A civil right.
Not everyone saw it that way.  There developed a movement to oust the 'activist' judges--you mean the ones that uphold the Iowa Constitution?  That can't be good, said outside agitating religious right money--and they successfully made their argument, which went unopposed, and the three judges were voted out.  Oddly, also in accordance with the Iowa Constitution, there was also a referendum on convening a constitutional convention--such a referendum is on the ballot every ten years, and it was voted down.  That would be another path to success for those who oppose same sex marriage, and it is a path that is much harder to get to through the legislature, but since they were not Iowans, they didn't even understand the options open to them.  Lucky for us. 
Now Judge Wiggins, another Supreme Court Judge, is up for reaffirmation, and once again Bob Vander Plaats, joined by Rick Santorum, are spreading their distorted message across Iowa--but this time they are being trailed--literally--by a bus load from the Iowa Bar Association, who are going to each and every town right afterwards and educating people on why laywers in Iowa support Wiggins, and support the decision the Iowa Supreme Court made based on the law.  Way to go!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Mixed Greens Gumbo

My husband came home from the Farmer's Market with a large bag of fall vegetables, and I had no room for them--all the things that I bought at last weeks Farmer's Market but had yet to use were taking up all the available space in the second fridge.  What to do?
I made a variation of the Mixed Greens Gumbo that I found in 'Eat Greens', because that was going to reduce the volume the best.

3 onions, diced
3 Tbs. olive oil
1/4 cup flour
1 pepper, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup celery diced
2 bunches of greens sliced into ribbons--I used kale and swiss chard
5 small okra, sliced
1/4 tsp. cayenne
2 Tbs. file
8 c. stock
Tabasco sauce to taste

Saute the onions in olive oil til browning.  Add flour and stir until the flour is browning a bit.  then add celery, peppers, garlic (and I actually added a bit of cauliflower that was looking a bit sad and I thought would have to be composted if I did not find a home for it soon--it was a delicious addition).  Saute until soft.  Add the file and cayenne, stir until they are starting to brown a bit, then add the stock, the okra, and the greens.  Cook over medium heat uncovered until all the components are cooked and the sauce has thickened.  Serve in a bowl with a small pile of rice in the  middle.  This is a nice alternative to shrimp or chicken gumbo for the vegetarians in the crowd.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Five Year Engagement (2012)

Ok, this is not a movie with a deeper meaning.  You won't wake up six weeks after seeing it still thinking about it.  that said, I found it to be entertaining, as well as containing some relationship truths that don't often get into the romantic comedy genre.
Here's the story: Jason Segel is a San Francisco sous chef, Tom Solomon, and Emily Blunt is Violet Barnes, a doctoral candidate in psychology and Tom's  fiancé.  The premise is that juggling two careers can be trecherous.
Tom is on the verge of being the head chef at a new restaurant, while Violet gets into grad school in Ann Arbor.  Tom say no problem, I can cook anywhere.  Only it turns out he can't.  He ends up making sandwiches at Zingerman's and hating his life.  Which he is loath to tell Violet about, and at first she doesn't notice, but when he starts hunting with a stay at home dad, serving only meat he has personally shot, foraging for greens, and making mead that he serves out of his own homemade vessels, she can't ignore it.  Still he refuses to engage in a discussion about how they might compromise in an attempt to find mutual happiness, and the relationship waivers.  It is on the fence for a while, but then comes back with an amuzing bang at the end.  I agree with reviews that this could have been a 90 minute movie, but I wasn't dying for it to end, and it was a pleasant but not sugar coated look at relationships.