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Friday, November 30, 2012

Alice in Wonderland by Lewius Carroll (1865)

I am almost done with my semester of reading Victorian British fiction with my son, and I am kind of sorry to see it end--and really sorry to see it end with this book.  Other than the Rudyard Kipling book, this was my least favorite of the bunch.  I think that if I had approached it as a work of science fiction I would have found it more enjoyable.  As it was, I would recommend sticking with the film versions of the story--even the very poor Tim Burton version would be preferable, to my taste, and the very fun 2009 mini-series 'Alice' would be far superior.

Alice is a somewhat irritating girl, who is altogether too gullible, as she drinks potions marked 'Drink Me' without pause to think.  On the up side, when she shrinks and grows and falls hopelessly lost into the ground below, she really doesn't panic, so there is a lot to be said about that.  She is just not nearly charming enough to carry off the book, for my taste.  The writing is light to the point of flippancy, and if it weren't for all the mixed messages it might be a good book for young adults--as it is, the loosely veiled drug references would seem all to tempting for a teenager to avoid seeing.  The ending is a bit of a surprise, given that it is omitted from all the screen versions that I had forgotten it completely. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Cat in Paris (2011)

This petite movie was an Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature Film last year--such a charming and different departure from the slick and highly polished products that come out of Hollywood.

The film is directed directed by the French animation team of Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagno, and it is wonderfully whimsical.  The images in “A Cat in Paris” are pointedly and delightfully off-kilter and out of proportion. Feet are much too small for bodies. Perspectives shift and slide. Apparently solid objects have a tendency to wobble. The laws of physics are brazenly flouted.

The cat and the little girl are our heroines--the cat is house cat by day, cat burglar by night.  She slinks off in the evening to join Nico, a human cat burglar.  The girl's mother is a police detective, and a major league bad guy has killed her father, and is after the rest of the family.  Never fear, the forces of good will prevail, but there is a nice amount of French farce in between to make the cartoon a romp of good fun.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The GOP Nixes Plan to Court Women and Minorities

Here we have them, the House of Representative Committee Chairs.  Committees are where the work of government takes place in Congress, and who chairs them dictacts what gets done.  Look at them.  Old white men, thin white men, middle-aged white men, balding white men….Yes, the GOP is very diverse.  While it is undoubtedly true that much of senior leadership in the Democratic party is dominated by people who do not represent the diversity of the country, the Republicans party has been doing some public soul searching since the 2012 election three weeks ago.  While some are content with ‘business as usual’, other have advocated for policies that are more inclusive.  While they have a majority of white men on board with a social agenda that ignores the last 50 years in America, women, African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, and other under-represented minorities are not.   If taking away their right to vote is not an option, then finding common ground is the only viable alternative.  Maybe that is the plan, but the message is that power remains in the traditional hands within the GOP.
No real change there.  And part of the plan is to limit the right to vote.  The admission by departed member’s of the Florida GOP committee that the effort to restrict early voting and to require voter ID was solely aimed at limited voter turnout.  There is no evidence, despite lots of searching, that there is widespread voter fraud in the US.  Fortunately, despite these efforts in battleground states and some egregiously long lines to vote on Election Day, people voted.  Not enough of them, but enough to prevent the outcome that those who oppose affording every eligible voter the opportunity to vote hoped for.  So strange, that we would send troops to other countries to establish democracies, but advocate for limiting the vote in our own country.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson is  a star chef.  He is the youngest chef to ever have his restaurant awarded a three-star review in the New York Times (at Aquavit), and his current restaurant is the re-opened Red Rooster in Harlem.

So here's the short version of his life.  He was born in Ethiopia--at age 2 his mother took he and his older sister over land on foot many miles to a hospital because they were very sick with TB.  His mother dies and after many months in the hospital, he and his sister are adopted by a middle class family in Sweden, who already have a mixed race adopted child.  They adore him, and his grandmother moves closer to his parents in order to be more a part of their lives--it is a full on happy racially mixed family.  Which is not to say that there wasn't quite a lot of racism in his life, because there was.  Probably more than he discloses--he played soccer avidly as a child, but he is a small man, and in the end, he just wasn't big enough.  That is the great failure of his life--but it drove him to chose vocational school and he threw himself into cooking.  His grandmother was an excellent cook, and throughout his childhood he spent times cooking locally acquired traditional Swedish food.

He soon realizes that he will need to leave Sweden to become the chef that he wants to become.  He cooks in several European restaurants, and travels extensively, trying to absorb the flavors of different cultures. He cooks on a cruise ship for a while, and he does what I think would be so much fun to do--eat street food around the world.  He ends up in New York City at a fancy upscale Nordic cuisine restaurant, where he becomes the head chef through lots of hard work and a little bit of luck.

The story is remarkable in and of itself.  The part that he talks very little about is the role that being black played in his life, other than to say it was very hard to get people to take him seriously as an up and coming chef because they didn't see someone who looked like him cooking in their restaurant.  Well, I suspect it was harder than that, and maybe it is too personal or too indecipherable to share publicly.  He does end up leaving the restaurant that made him famous, having to 'buy' back his name in the process, in order to open his own restaurant in Harlem.  He marries an Ethiopian woman and immerses himself in black culture in an iconic neighborhood in New York.   He names the restaurant after a famous Harlem speakeasy, from back in Harlem's glory days, and serves food that is a mixture of Swedish and Southern, and all of it comfort food.  There is gravlax and there is fried chicken with greens.  He wants the neighborhood to taste his food and he wants people to travel to Harlem to eat.
Interesting read by a complicated guy.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Young Goethe in Love (2011)

The movie, known simply as Goethe! in Germany, focuses on the semi-autobiographical first novel of Johann Goethe's, 'The Sorrow of Young Werther'.   Goethe's father, unhappy with his son's ambition to be a writer, sends him off to apprentice in a law office.  He has a talent for the work, but it does not nourish his soul.

One day he sees a woman who enchants him at a dance--and she finds him equally enchanting.  They are intellectual equals, and both have a passion for literature--as well as each other.  The major problem in their romance is that she is from a very large family and it falls on her shoulders to marry wealthy and save them.  Goethe is not the answer to that problem, and eventually she sees that as well.  Much as she loves Goethe, her personal situation would be a millstone around his neck, and she wants to set him free.

The movie is simple in it's message, but that does not make it any less enjoyable.  Alexander Fehling, recognizable to me from his tole in 'Inglorious Basterds', but probably well known in his own country, is terribly engaging as the young Goethe, and Miriam Stein is equally engaging as his love interest, Lotte.  They have great screen chemistry, and Lotte is convincingly in like with the man she marries as well.  We see her plight, and where her heart tells her she must go, and we feel that she will be happy.  She will make the best of it.  The period costumes and countryside are very pleasant, and this movie is quite fun from start to predictable finish.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Red Wine Cranberry Sauce With Honey and Ginger

  • 2 (12-ounce) packages fresh cranberries (6 cups)
  • 1 3/4 cups dark brown sugar
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 4 (1/4-inch-thick) slices fresh ginger root, grated
  • Pinch kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • In a medium pot over medium heat, combine the cranberries, sugar, red wine, 1/2 cup water, honey, ginger and salt. Simmer gently until most of the cranberries have popped and the sauce is thick and syrupy, 20 to 30 minutes. Stir in the black pepper. Chill thoroughly before serving.
This was the new cranberry sauce that we tried this Thanksgiving--it was very good, although not better than the Raspberry Cranberry sauce we usually make.  It was an excellent accompaniment to the goose as well as the turkey.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Attacks on U. S. Diplomatic Targets

Paul Ryan stated that Obama's approach to diplomacy left Americans vulnerable.  To quote him from the campaign trail:  “The administration sent mixed signals to those who attacked our embassy in Egypt and mixed signals to the world.”  Ryan said Obama’s “policies project weakness abroad.”  “A weak America breeds insecurity and chaos around the world,” Ryan said. “The best guarantee of peace is American strength."

Well, as usual, the data does not match the rhetoric.  There has been a decease in foreign attacks over the years, but no one would accuse Reagan as a push over.  Romney compared himself to Reagan and  Obama to Carter, but in fact, attacks on American diplomats abroad was more prevalent in the Reagan years than the Carter administration.  During George W. Bush's presidency there were far more attacks on diplomatic targets--and far more deaths--than during Obama's administration.

The Republicans have shown themselves to be very forgiving of themselves and very willing to lie.  What annoys me is that the media is doing so little fact checking that it perpetuates the myth.  How about when ever any politician lies, they get called out on it--regardless of party.  It is no more excusable for a liberal than a conservative--they just employ the tactic less often.  We have gone from bending the truth to outright falsehoods and it is time to cease and desist.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Esther Waters by George Moore (1894)

I am in the midst of what I like to call "Going Back to College" Lite.  I don't go to class, but I do all the reading--which is probably better than half the students, in the case of the British Victorian fiction class that I am reading my way through--those Victorians were
not about to use a paragraph when a chapter would do nicely.

Many of the books I was familiar with prior to the course, and quite a few had been made into BBC Dramas, so given my addiction to those I had seen a screen version prior to cracking open the book.  Not so with 'Esther Waters'.  Never heard of the book nor the author.

The story is set in England from the early 1870s onward and is about the life of a young, very religiously pious woman from a poor working-class family who, while working as a kitchen maid, is seduced by her supervisor's son, becomes pregnant, is deserted by her lover, and against all odds decides to raise her child as a single mother.  This is a seemingly insurmountable task at the time, and she really struggles with earning enough cash to manage it.  She has ups and downs, continues to make some of the same mistakes of her youth as she gets older, but at no point is the story unbearably miserable.

Two things are different about this story.  The first is that Esther is really quite a piece of work.  She knows what she thinks, and she is often not shy about sharing those thoughts with those around her.
She is almost socially inappropriate in her candor--which must have seemed quite forward at the time it was written.

The second thing is that the world of horses is the back drop for the novel--the world of  raising, training, racing and betting as it pertains to horses is woven throughout the novel, and is a nice bit of
fun to read about.  The men in the story are not all that admirable, and as I said before, Esther is not a shy and retiring woman, but not a peep about this being a feminist novel.

One thing that does come through loud and clear is that when there is no social safety net, people are forced to make very unpleasant choices, and that that situation is inhumane.  The passage of some
small step toward health care reform in the United States seems to have been late coming and bitterly opposed.  We are not a progressive people, for all the cultural influence we wield.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving--America's Most Beloved Myth

The Thanksgiving meal is my favorite meal.  My husband makes a fantastic turkey (or three—depending on the crowd) every year.  We always argue over the stuffing, and we end up with the traditional bread stuffing of my youth and the occasional rice stuffing on the side to humor those who need it.  I make the same cranberry sauce I have made every year of the kid’s lives—it is a very good cranberry sauce recipe, but that is not why I make it.  I make it because it is what we all expect.  I always make potatoes and a corn pudding.  Beyond that, anything goes.  That is the core meal, the absolute essentials.  We might have roasted winter vegetables, slow cooked onions, green bean casserole, stuffed mushrooms, Brussels sprouts with bacon, you name it.  I always serve the meal on Christmas because I Iove it so much.
Since I have moved to Iowa City, I have had many kinds of Thanksgiving dinners.  Some have been just family, others just friends, and all of them have reminded me to be thankful.  Even the Thanksgiving that my youngest son was getting chemotherapy I was thankful.  One year when the children were quite young we had a Thanksgiving dinner populated solely by adults not born in the United States—my kids told the Thanksgiving story and it was fresh for many of the people around the table.  At that meal, we all agreed.  It is the most wonderful of holidays—a full four days of secular thankfulness.   Such a brilliant holiday!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Common Courtesy

 The art of keeping your mouth shut. Or as Proverbs so nicely puts it: "
 Whosoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps his soul from troubles."

The definition remains largely unchanged--suggestions, accumulated
wisdom, and community norms for how to treat people considerately.
What is commonly known, and theoretically agreed upon is difficult to

The recent election season was an acrimonious one--perhaps that is always the case, but it seems that while we had a moderate Democrat and a purportedly moderate Republican to choose from, the process was all about demonizing them both.  Instead of emphasizing their more modest differences, Romeny chose a Tea Party-friendly running mate and the GOP tried to paint President Obama as a socialist.  All of which raised a lot of anger on both sides.  Throw in voter suppression, rampant talk of racism, and the attack on women, and it became very hard to see how any one could be undecided in the election.  Nor how someone voting for one side could ever see eye to eye with someone
voting for the other.

So one should know better when in social situations with people whose political beliefs are either unknown or different from your own to keep ones opinions to oneself.  Easier said than done.  In the past week I have been on either side of this problem--the recipient of very unwelcome discourse on what were perceived as the tremendous failings of the current POTUS, and the perpetrator of discourse that I am more or less certain was viewed distastefully by the pointedly silent people on the receiving end of the conversation.  In both instances, I tried to get the conversation on a more neutral track, but it turns out that I am miserably bad at that.  Time to go back to charm school, it turns out.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tell The Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

This is really a Young Adult book, even though it was not shelved that
way at my local library.  The theme is sibling rivalry and the quest
for love and support within your family.  The Elbus' are very keen on
each other, and it leads to the kind of trouble you might imagine.

The year is 1986, and June Elbus is a shy 14-year-old living in the
New York suburbs with her accountant parents and increasingly
disruptive older sister, Greta. June's best friend is her beloved
Uncle Finn, a Manhattan painter in the final stages of AIDS. When Finn
dies, June's family seems more angry and embarrassed than bereaved,
making her feel alone and abandoned in her grief.

June has a nice balance of disarming candor and the melancholy
wisdom--she is truly on the cusp between childhood and adulthood.  I
think that having a significant person in your life die when you are in childhood brings about a certain kind of maturation, one that can either be a blessing or a curse.  You can handle it well and move
forward in life with a knowledge that is hard won and valuable, or you can handle it very badly and sink into all sorts of traps, like depression and substance abuse.  June seems to be on the right path,
but she needs help and her family is not providing it.

June's recourse is to surreptitiously befriend Finn's boyfriend, Toby, whom her family has shunned—they believe he infected Finn with HIV, and he is himself dying. With Toby's help, June uncovers the wounds that beset her family, including the old jealousies between her mother
and Finn and the antagonism between June's sister and herself. The intricacies of family relationships and jealousies are well handled in this novel, and it is a very fun read (which I know sounds surprising, given the material, but really, it is).

Monday, November 19, 2012

John McCain: A Question of Character

One of my Facebook friends said this week, and I quote: "Mitt Romney needs to quit being a jerk and get off the stage so we can all concentrate on what an even bigger jerk John McCain is."

This week a group of largely black women Congressmen said McCain calling Susan Rice 'not very bright', and 'unqualified' smacks of sexism and racism.  
They suggested that if Rice were a man they would never have made such accusations, and that the Republicans are bitter about Obama’s re-election and are taking it out on U.N. ambassador.

A look at the academic backgrounds of the two make the comments appear ludicrous.  McCain graduated at the very bottom of his class, and appeared destined to have an unillustrious military career.  In contrast, Rice graduated near the top of her class at Stanford and was a Rhodes scholar.  So she is smart--maybe he meant something other than IQ when he made the comment, but the Washington Post did a critical line-by-line analysis of what exactly Rice said, and felt that the comments by McCain were unfair.

What is McCain's record with women?  Not very good, both politically of late, and historically.  Politically he has sided with the GOP consistently, including on issues related to women's health care and equal pay.  So not much of a champion for women, and not much of an independent maverick either.  He cheated on his first wife, lied to her about it, and then claimed that it was not to have his cake and eat it too--it was to protect her.  Well, if that is protecting her, how would he harm her?  Should we put that aside because people lie about sex all the time?  Perhaps, but it does speak to selfishness and a lack of moral character.  It is one thing to leave your marriage, it is another to make that move solely to your advantage.  If you are unhappy, or you have fallen in love with someone else, say so, make a clean break, and then start your next life.  What he did is common, but it is not an indication of someone who likes women or has good character.

Then there is his current marriage--while his wife was a drug addict, illegally obtaining narcotics over a number of years, he stated he knew nothing about it.  If truthful, it reflects poorly on the quality of their relationship that he couldn't tell she was wasted most of the time.  Publicly, they appear stiff with each other, so the lack of knowledge as well as intimacy is convincing.  It says nothing good about his love of women.   His choice of Palin is a clear lack of regard for women--she is a nightmare as a politician and as a parent.

I don't know about the racism charge--he may just still be very angry that Obama beat him, race aside.  But that charge may distract from the main problem--that his character is determined not solely by who he was as a POW.  It is the sum total of his life, and that is not looking squeaky clean.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Ms. Smith Goes to Washington

The broad reference here is to Frank Capra's 1939 masterpiece, an American political drama film starring Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart about one man's effect on American politics.  The story of the movie is this.  The governor of an unnamed western state has to pick a replacement for recently deceased U.S. Senator. His corrupt political boss pressures him to choose his handpicked stooge, while popular committees want a reformer. The governor's children want him to select Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), the head of the Boy Rangers. Unable to make up his mind, he decides to flip a coin. When it lands on edge, he chooses Smith, calculating that his wholesome image will please the
people while his naïveté will make him easy to manipulate

'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' was attacked by the Washington press, and politicians in the U.S. Congress, as anti-American and pro-Communist for its portrayal of corruption in the American
government.  Well, welcome to Congress in the 21st century, and an election where an estimated 3 billion dollars was spent.  There are two rays of hope that shone through the post election fog.  The first is that there will be 20 women Senators in Washington--the most ever--one in five senators will be female.  That is especially gratifying after the full scale assault on women that occurred this
past year, where the party that purports to want to keep government out of your life wanted to dictate women;s choices for birth control, abortion, vaginal ultrasounds, and so much more.  There is some
welcome diversity amongst these women as well--the first openly gay woman in the Senate, and the first Asian American woman Senator.

The other great news is that it was not just Obama that minorities and women helped to elect--the House of Representatives will have 200 Democrats and fewer than half of them will be white men--there will be 61 women, 43 African-Americans, 27 Hispanics and 10 Asian-Americans. A
remarkable showing.  In addition, five will be openly gay, and one is bisexual. What is this country coming to?  A government that looks increasingly like the people it governs, that is what.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

This is the fifth Mann Booker 2012 longlist book that I have read--such fun to read them all, but a challenge when they are not all published in the US.  Sometimes I find the books too cerebral, long on writing style and somewhat disappointing in terms of plot development and conclusion.  This one does not dissapoint.

The book takes place largely in Bombay over the course of several decades, opening in the 1970's and closing in the early 21st century.  The story is firmly entrenched in the seamier side of the city--the opium dens of the '70's give way to heroin in the new century.  Word has it that the reason that the author is so spot on in his descriptions of drug intoxication and it's subsequent addiction is that he walked that walk and talked that talk for a very long time, finally kicking his own habit about the time that the book is closing.  It is a wonderful hazy and alluring description of how easily people can slip into such a life.

The other aspect of Bombay in the book is the sex industry--our favorite is Dimple, who is a eunuch with breasts.  We do not get to see inside Dimple's head, but we do hear a lot about how he is particularly attractive to men, and why that might be.  Of all the characters in the book, I found him the most sympathetic, but I enjoyed the romp through Bombay's underbelly.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Butter Chicken

This recipe is from the new cookbook, India, by Pushpest Pant, which I reviewed last month--it is a wonderfully thorough and usable cookbook, with plenty of pictures to help you choose from a myriad of recipes.

Ingredients & Quantities:

2 lbs of Chicken cut into pieces

For The Marinade:

1 Tbsp Garlic Paste
1 Tbsp Ginger Paste
2 Tbsps Hot Chilli Powder
2 Tsps Ground Coriander
1 1/2 Tsps Ground Turmeric
1 1/2 Tsps Garam Masala
2 Tbsps Lime Juice
500ml Natural Plain Yoghurt (if quantity is shown in grams just use 500g.)

For The Sauce:

125g Chilled Butter
6 Medium Tomatoes (skinned and pureed, alternatively chopped fine with a mezzaluna.)
1 Tsp Chilli Powder
2 Tsps Fenugreek Leaves (or ground seeds, if you are doing this yourself be prepared to work!)
1/2 Tsp Garam Masala
3 Tbsps Single Cream.


For the marinade mix all the marinade ingredients in a bowl and season with plenty of salt (I used sea-salt but table salt would be fine.)

Put your chicken chunks into a shallow container and pour over the marinade. Mix this well making sure that the chicken pieces are well coated. Cover this (a tupperware box would be perfect but I used a bowl and cling-film) and place in the fridge for a minimum of three hours. Leaving the marinade overnight would make the taste even better but I didn't have the time.

Heat oil in a large, heavy based pan sticking to a low heat. Pour in the chicken and marinade mix (it smells wonderful) then cover and cook for about half an hour or until you are satisfied the chicken is cooked through.

For the sauce melt a small portion of your butter in a skillet then add your puree of fresh tomato and cook until most of the moisture has evaporated. Add the remainder of the butter and allow it to fully melt. Add the chilli powder and cook for a minute or so. Sprinkle in your Fenugreek leaves (or in my case ground seeds) followed by the Garam Masala. Place the chicken chunks into the sauce and as much of the marinade you think you'll need for a good coating consistency. Finish by seasoning with salt and a swirl of single cream.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Dear Nate Silver

I want to thank you for being a beacon of hope for those of us sitting on the edge of our chairs this past election.  I wish that I could have channeled the calm assurance that you had about how it would all turn out.

I would have been much happier in October if I could have managed that.  I watched my spouse, who had unconditional faith in you, read a book on election night.  I was sitting in front of my computer with three different web sites open, all with different percentages reporting, constantly refreshing.  I also had my calculator out for those early battleground states adding up the exit poll numbers to try to project who might end up ahead.  It was very unpleasant, I might add.  Not recreational.  I finally decided to join my adult children in a bar to watch the end results.  Which I have never done before.  Go to a bar to sweat out the election results, that is.  I wore my Obama shirt as an act of good faith (and because he is the only President that I have ever owned a shirt for--how often does it make any sense to wear that in public?  And I have four of them), but I was anxious.

The accuracy that you brought to the process is awe inspiring.  But it was also a vindication for those of us who believe that math and science bring knowledge and value to the world.  You won one for the team that believes in evolution and climate change and using math to balance the federal budget.

I bought your book as a means of conveying my thanks.  I hope I love it, but that is not the point.  It seems like the nerd equivalent of sending flowers.  Thank you, thank you thank you.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Same Sex Marriage Matters

The people of Maine, Maryland, and Washington did something this month that no state had previously done.  They upheld the principle that civil rights are important.  Marriage is not defined by the gender of the participants.  People who love each other who are not too closely related can marry each other, regardless of gender.  The majority upheld the rights of a minority, and that is reason for real celebration. 

How did it happen?  A lot of supporters of the amendments hit the pavement.  They went door to door, explaining to people why they felt the way that they did.  I have a friend who manned the phones in Washington and she said that people were not always particularly happy to hear what they had to say.  It took a thick skin and a conviction that this is fair and right and good.  That equality matters.

The road to this has been a long one, but the issue has accelerated in acceptance.  Thank goodness. But the part that I find most hypocritical is that the people who oppose it most vocally seem not to be particularly good about staying in their heterosexual marriages.  The states that have the highest rates of divorce are largely red states.  Nevada has the highest rate, but I think you have to discount that, based on the fact that divorce is a business there.  After that it is states like West Virginia, Idaho, Tennessee, Wyoming, and Alabama that lead the pack.  I just do not understand it--if you are going to stick your nose into other people's business, why not work towards keeping marriages together if you think that marriage is important?  Lay off the question of who gets married, and concentrate on actually making all marriage more successful.  Consistency is not a virtue for those opposed to same sex marriage, and there is hope that they will soon be the minority opinion.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In One Person by John Irving

I admit, I am a long time John Irving fan—starting with ‘Cider House Rules’ which I read when it came out in 1985, and ‘A Prayer For Owen Meany’ in 1989.  From there I went backwards, reading ‘Water Method Man’ (I had since moved to Iowa City, where the book takes place, so reading this one was just a bit of catching up on local folklore), ‘Hotel New Hampshire’, and ‘The World According to Garp’.  At that point I could see that he was a man committed to humanizing the most bizarre and marginalized amongst us.  Nothing about ‘Until I Find You’, “the Fourth Hand’, or ‘Widow for One Year’ changed that impression.  He is the Pedro Almodóvar of American fiction.  He has main characters like none you know in your everyday life (well, I am in mental health, so I get a glimpse at some of them some days)—they are circus performers, tattoo artists, sex workers, dwarfs, mentally ill, autistic, and so on.  I am not exaggerating.  In fact, I may be downplaying the degree to which his characters are at once recognizable and unknown to us.   
So ‘In One Person’, a book inhabited by gay, bisexual, and transgendered characters is just a natural extension of Irving’s fictional world.  He loves those who are misunderstood, feared, humiliated, and marginalized on the outside, and depicts them as people that we can completely identify with on the inside.  That is the place that he writes best from.  The starts off in the 1950’s, so the tolerance for any kind of non-straight sexual preferences is not high—but William Abbott comes from a long line of gay cross dressers, so he is surrounded by people who figure out who he is before he does.  So there isn’t a lot of hazing and taunting,  It is not that sort of book about  sexually differences.  It really focuses on how much William is just about as messed up as any other teenager coming of age, and that once he figures out what turns him on, he goes for it.  No hiding it, living a lie, any of that stuff.  Just trying to get to know him is all. The other things you might expect are here—there is a lot of wrestling, and the action takes place largely in a New England prep school.  No bears, no dwarfs, and plenty of serious stuff when he gets to the HIV era, it is sad, but not overly sentimental.  He wants to marginalized to be understandable.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Rachel Maddow Rocks

If you don't have 16 minutes to watch this whole clip, just go to the last 3 minutes.  The rest is a recap of what the pollsters predicted, what the Republicans ignored, and that while Obama won by less of a majority in 2008 and with less electoral votes, he is still the only Democrat since FDR to win the majority of the vote--50.8% this time, 54% last time.  Oh, and he is African American.  Emphasis on both heritages.  The end of this clip is why it is important to move forward from here.  We have real problems to solve.

Ms. Maddow says that the reason a two party system in a democracy works is because you have two parties working on the solutions to the very real problems that we face as a country, and by working together, real and creative solutions can be reached.  That is how success is achieved.  Success is not possible when one side refuses to enter the arena.  A message to all those Congressmen who were waiting for Obama to leave, guess what?  He isn't just yet, and while you need to get elected next time around, he does not.  So I really hope that Congress comes back ready to work.

There were some really hopeful things that occurred last Tuesday beyond the President getting re-elected.  The GOP agenda was largely rejected as well.  Women, who were under attack throughout 2012, increased their presence in the Senate, to a number larger than ever before.  One woman is Asian American and one is openly gay--those are also firsts.  Both senators who voiced opposition to abortion in the case of rape--one because he doesn't understand biology and one because he is imposing his God on all women--were both defeated.  One of them handsomely.  Take comfort, in their eyes this is all part of God's plan.

The other big step forward was that same sex marriage was put to a popular vote and won--first time for that, and in the case of Maine, it was soon after it had been rejected.  Civil rights are moving slowly forward.  Lots more under-represented minorities besides women voted--the African American vote and the Hispanic vote were both up from 2008, and that is very good news indeed.  We need everyone's voice to be heard.  And lastly, it appears that there is a point at which money doesn't talk--I am not sure where that point is, because lots of money was spent on both sides, but it did not buy elections.  The election also offered one of the few ways that we get very rich people to spend lots of their money--so there was that injection of cash into the economy as well.

Finally, it was a good day for people who do math.  Nate Silver in particular.  He is now a demi-god, but really, he paid attention to not just polls, but how the polls gathered data--folks like Gallup just called land lines, and it turns out that is not a very good way to reach the 1/3 of the population who just have a cell phone.  Silver looked at on-line polling, and polls that used broader resources to come up with his magical mixture that accurately predicted the way it would all turn out.  Congress should take note--the solution to the debt and how we should share that burden really needs to be blessed by the guys who do the math.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Come Up From the Fields, Father by Walt Whitman (1867)

On this, Veteran's Day, I am thinking of the Civil War.  The war that in some ways isn't really entirely over.  The cultural differences and the social values of the North remain different from those of the South.  You have only to look at an electoral vote from the most recent election.  The war was fought, but it didn't really bring us closer together.

What did we lose and what did we win?  We lost one in five Americans, and we eliminated slavery.  Humans could no longer own humans in the United States after the Civil War.  It was complicated then and it is complicated now.

This is Walt Whitman's poem, written during and about the war:

Come up from the fields, father, here's a letter from our Pete,
And come to the front door, mother, here's
     a letter from thy dear son.
Lo, 'tis autumn,
Lo, where the trees, deeper green, yellower and redder,
Cool and sweeten Ohio's villages with leaves
     fluttering in the moderate wind,
Where apples ripe in the orchards hang and
     grapes on the trellis'd vines,
(Smell you the smell of the grapes on the vines?
Smell you the buckwheat where the bees were lately buzzing?)
Above all, lo, the sky so calm, so transparent
     after the rain, and with wondrous clouds,
Below too, all calm, all vital and beautiful,
     and the farm prospers well.
Down in the fields all prospers well,
But now from the fields come, father, come
     at the daughter's call,
And come to the entry, mother, to the front door come right away.
Fast as she can she hurries, something ominous,
     her steps trembling,
She does not tarry to smooth her hair nor
     adjust her cap.
Open the envelope quickly,
0 this is not our son's writing, yet his name
     is sign'd,
0 a strange hand writes for our dear son,
     0 stricken mother's soul!
All swims before her eyes, flashes with black,
     she catches the main words only,
Sentences broken, gunshot wound in the breast,
     cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital,
At present low, but will soon be better.
Ah, now the single figure to me,
Amid all teeming and wealthy Ohio with all
     its cities and farms,
Sickly white in the face and dull in the head,
     very faint,
By the jamb of a door leans.
Grieve not so, dear mother (the just-grown
     daughter speaks through her sobs,
The little sisters huddle around speechless and
See, dearest mother, the letter says Pete will
     soon be better.
Alas, poor boy, he will never be better (nor maybe
     needs to be better, that brave and simple soul),
While they stand at home at the door he is
     dead already,
The only son is dead.
But the mother needs to be better,
She with thin form presently drest in black,
By day her meals untouch'd, then at night
     fitfully sleeping, often waking,
In the midnight waking, weeping, longing with
     one deep longing,
0 that she might withdraw unnoticed, silent
     from life escape and withdraw,
To follow, to seek, to be with her dear dead

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Take This Waltz (2011)

Sarah Polley is one of my favorite actresses (see 'The Science of Words' and then tell me you don't love her), and this is the first film that I have seen that she has directed.  It is a bit painful to watch, but it is a very good movie to mull over.

Margot (Michelle Williams) is married to Lou (Seth Rogan).  She meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) on a plane and finds him likable and attractive--and then it turns out that he lives directly across the street from her in a charming Toronto neighborhood.

So it is a classic triangle movie, but the marriage of Margot and Lou leaves a lot to be desired.  It is not that they are not likable as a couple--they are.  And they have fantastic friends (really, their parties seem impossibly wonderful.  Lou is working on a cookbook, so he cook constantly and serves chicken 20 different ways to all his friends--but the music is wonderful, and their house fills up with people I would love to sit next to at my next dinner party).  But they are unbelievably immature, despite 5 years of marriage.  This detracts greatly from the issues that are probably supposed to be central to the movie, which I think is the issue of romance.  Daniel is romantic, Lou is not.  Margot is unhappy, and she doesn't seem to realize that changing men is not going to be a solution to that problem.  That is the movie, in a nutshell.  The thing that makes it work is that there is no real resolution.  The acting is great, the cinematography is spectacular, and the story is memorable.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The world ends in a wimper and not with a bang--that is the truism that is channeled in this first effort.  The quasi-scientific basis for the novel is that the geomagnetic field of the earth is ever changing.  As the novel opens, it is changing quickly, dramatically, and the world is slowing down.  Days are longer, getting up to 50 hours long as the book slowly rolls to it's end, so too does the world.

So how do people react?  Slowly.  They aren't quite sure what to do.  They look for explanations.  They try to adapt crops that will be able to be grown under vastly different conditions.  The society as a whole decides that they are going to maintain a 24-hour day, which means that they are completely off the sunlight/darkness schedule.  The whole planet becomes shift workers, going to work in full daylight one day, and in pitch darkness the next.  There are people who form communities away from cities to live the longer days, being up for 20+ hours and having equally long nights.  What is the right approach becomes a tension.  It is like religious differences--people are completely divided, and hold their beliefs passionately.  All the while the trees are dying, and the birds--who really use that geomagnetism to get around--drop out of the sky.

This book rolls along at a kind of leisurely pace to a somewhat disappointing end--but the journey is an enjoyable one while it lasts.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Figs, Glorious Figs

I spent a few days in the Central Valley of California—a place where many many figs are grown. The season peaks in mid-summer and I was there in late fall, but was able to get a few Mission figs to bring home, and enjoyed some while I was there. A fig is a wonderful fruit—but only when it is fresh does it stand out amongst it’s peers. Dried figs are very good, but they are no better than say dried apricots or dried cherries. It is in the fresh form that it is superior. The very best way to eat a fig is as is—bite into it and enjoy it slowly. The second best way to have them is in a salad.

1 small red onion
¼ c.  hazelnuts, with skin
 radicchio, about half a small head, leaves torn roughly
¼ c. picked basil leaves
½ c. watercress
6 ripe fresh figs
2½ tbsp olive oil, plus extra for roasting the onions
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
Salt and black pepper

Set the oven to 400 degrees. Peel the onions, cut each into two lengthways and then cut each half into three wedges. Place in an ovenproof dish, drizzle with a little olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until soft and golden. Remove and leave to cool. Before using, discard any dry layers and break the onions roughly with your hands into bite-size chunks.
Turn down the oven to 300 degrees. Once it reaches this temperature, scatter the hazelnuts in a small roasting tray and toast for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to cool and then break roughly with the side of a big knife.
Assemble the salad on four individual plates. Mix the three leaves together and place a few on each plate. Cut the figs lengthways into four or six pieces. Place a few fig pieces and some roasted onion on the leaves. Top with more leaves and continue with the remaining fig and onion. You want to build up the salad into a small pyramid.
In a small cup, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, cinnamon and some salt and pepper. Drizzle this over the salad and finish with a scattering of toasted hazelnuts

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar (2011)

This is the second nominee for Best Foreign Language film last year that I have seen in the last couple of weeks, and it is also a winner (ok, not of the award, but it is a very good film).  It is from French Canada, which has a rich film tradition, and is set in Montreal.  Monsieur Lazhar is a refugee from Algeria.  The exact circumstances of his departure from Algeria are not clear—why he left first even though his wife was the one who was primarily threatened, why he left without his children, what exactly the time frame was between his departure and the firebombing of their house.  But the end story is that he is in Canada, and they are dead.  He ran a restaurant in Algeria and his wife was a school teacher—so when he hears of a local teacher who has hung herself in her classroom, he goes to the school and presents himself as a teacher ready to take over the traumatized class of 6th graders.  The classroom is the same one that the teacher hung herself, no less.  They have put a coat of paint and stripped all her things off the walls and nothing else.  Monsieur Lazhar struggles at first, using techniques for teaching that we used when he was a boy, but he quickly adjusts, peering in on another classroom when the school psychologist spends her hour with his class, ostensibly helping them work through the trauma.
The really great take home message in this movie is that getting over trauma is not about tip toeing on egg shells around the subject.  The school has put up a lot of barriers so that no one can actually say anything sensitive and they most certainly cannot touch the children.  The parents are just wishing it would all go away, and Monsieur Lazhar is the only one who seems genuinely concerned about the kids themselves, especially the boy who found her.  He feels that the teacher did it to him in particular, knowing that he would be the one who arrived at the classroom early on the day she hung herself, but no one want s to take that on.  He has been a troubled boy in the past, and so they do not extend themselves to help him.  The film deals with some delicate topics—what do schools owe children related to trauma that takes place in their midst?  What do adults owe children regarding dealing with things they would prefer not to?  This is a lovely, quiet film that has deep rooted themes.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hope is the Thing with Feathers by Emily Dickenson

Hope is the thing with feathers 
That perches in the soul, 
And sings the tune without the words, 
And never stops at all, 
And sweetest in the gale is heard;         
And sore must be the storm 
That could abash the little bird 
That kept so many warm. 
I've heard it in the chillest land, 
And on the strangest sea;        
Yet, never, in extremity, 
It asked a crumb of me.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Climate Change: Which Way Does the Wind Blow?

When I was in Antarctica in 2004 one of the most striking things I experienced, beyond the unimaginable beauty of that part of the world, was the sustained cacophony of ice breaking off icebergs.  The ocean is warming up.

When the ocean covers 72% of the planet, any change that is sustained in the ocean affects the globe.  As Mayor Bloomberg voiced this week, whether this warming of the oceans is due to carbon emissions in our atmosphere or not, we need to pay attention to it and what science can tell us about it. I know, we are not a country known to be governed by science, but we need to make amends in that arena.  Our ability to stay competitive on a world stage depends on it.  It is ironic that we are known throughout the world as innovation leaders and yet 46% of Americans still believe in creationism.

One thing that is clear is that warmer ocean water will translate into more favorable conditions for hurricanes.  I laugh when opponents to climate change say that the aftermath of a super hurricane is not the time to talk about it--we are a world that is all about what is in the headlines now.  If not now, when?  Should we continue to keep our heads in the sand?  Or is it more nefarious than that?  There is just too much money in oil and coal to give it up, politically speaking.  If you want to get to Washington and stay there, you need to follow that money and renewable energy is just not going to be the wind beneath your sails as a candidate, so to speak.  So until we have no fossil fuels left we are likely stuck with them. 

So what to do in the meantime?  One is to stop subsidizing our decline.  Reduce then eliminate tax breaks for oil and coal production.  Study and then enforce clean water standards on the oil fracking industry--make sure they don't use all our potable water for dirty energy.  Water is the next crisis on the planet, so plan for the future.  Increase subsidies to green energy--something that the GOP has sneered at, but it needs to be done, none-the-less.  In Iowa we generate almost 20% of our electricity with wind.  You can too.  And then let's fix the energy grid in this country--update it, make it more amenable to sharing resources and less vulnerable to failure or sabotage.  Finally, let's bury the power lines.  If hurricanes aren't going away, let's at least plan for them.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

 Such great Wes Anderson fun!

Oh my goodness, I just love Wes Anderson, and this is an excellent installation into his body of work.  If you do not like him, you should probably skip this one.  It has that halting matter-of-fact style that I fell in love with while watching 'The Royal Tanenbaums', and have been enjoying ever since.

Here is how it goes.  It is basically a Peter Pan story with some sharp differences.  No magic.  Peter is not so much the leader as the smartest, and Wendy doesn't have the motherly impulses you would imagine.

Sam (Jared Gilman) is an orphan, solemn behind oversized eyeglasses, an expert in scouting. His current family is ‘unable to invite him back’, or words to that effect.  He is an odd duck, a boy who marches to a different drummer and is completely unabashed about doing so.  He is even proud to be out of step with his peers.  The love of his young life is Suzy (Kara Hayward).  She is bookish, a dreamer. The two have planned to run away together.  No mind that they are on an island, and there appears to be nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide.  When they have their long-planned secret rendezvous in a meadow on the island, Sam arrives laden down with all the camping and survival gear they will possibly need, while Suzy has provided for herself some books to read, her kitten and a portable 45 rpm record player with extra batteries.
In the background there is the ever dutiful Scout Master (Edward Norton), who is at once a caricature of the prototypical by-the-book scout master and someone who cares about Sam.  He is troubled by Sam’s unknown whereabouts, but he is equally troubled that when he is found he will be turned over to an orphanage by the officious Social Services (Tilda Swinson almost minces as she walks, she is so perfect for the role).  Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) are sadly out of step with their daughter—and with the rest of the world—although none of them are the least bit ordinary (this is a Wes Anderson film, after all).
The movie looks like it was shot through an Instagram lens.  The colors are at once soft and vibrant.  The setting for the film is fictitious, but is a lovely island New England for all intensive purposes—uninhabited, with gorgeous secluded spots and a sense that winter would not go well.  The story unfolds in an entirely predictable way (except for an unexpected goring) but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure of watching it happen.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Shame on the Des Moines Register

The Des Moines Register endorsed Romney for President this week, based on their contention that he would be able to better able to forge a partnership with Congress.  The editorial does Iowans a great injustice.

Why?   The first and foremost problem is the lack of critical assessment of Romney's stance on almost any issue.  As the Daily Show has pointed out consistently, he has taken several stands on almost every issue over the course of the last several years, so where he really stands is at best unknown.  But he will certainly be beholden to Republican ideaology and is unlikely to be able to molt out of that skin.  The Register's lack of critical analysis of Romney's record as a liar is inexcusable.  It reflects poorly on Iowa as a state, making us look like uncritical dupes who will believe the next super-PAC ad that comes our way.

The list of Romney’s out-and-out lies is too long to recount here. So let’s just take this week's lie, aimed at Ohio: the utterly false claim that General Motors and Chrysler shipped, or planned to ship, American auto jobs to China.  Pandering to what everyone agrees is a critical vote in Ohio, he lied. Pure and simple.  That is the man the Register thinks should lead the country?  The man who will need to shape up what was the least productive Congress in modern history?

Well, let's look at what he did in Massachusetts in his four years as Governor.  He did pass health care reform--that was a good accomplishment.   But apart from health care, Romney defined success not with big-picture legislative accomplishments but with confrontation. In a 2008 campaign ad, Romney actually bragged about taking on his Legislature: "I like vetoes; I vetoed hundreds of spending appropriations as governor," he said.  Romney issued some 800 vetoes, and the Legislature overrode nearly all of them, sometimes unanimously.  If you figure there are 250 working days a year, that is about a 1000 days on the job. So he vetoed on average 8 things every two weeks, or 80% of days on the job yielded a veto, on average.  Obama has vetoed 2 things in four years.  So what evidence do we have that Romney is a consensus builder?  He is a business man who is used to ruling from on high.  His way or the highway.  Additionally, Romney was out of state more than 400 days, so kind of like W. on the diligent public servant thing.

The GOP was willing to keep 23 million people out of work to put one man out of a job--they have not demonstrated a commitment to fixing the economy that they have focused on defeating the current President.  Should we reward that with a Republican Presidency.  I think not--it is just wrong.  To advocate reward for such petulance is wrong.   The wrong reward for bad behavior.  Obama had a super-majority in the Senate for a matter of weeks--two 6 week periods, to be exact--during which they passed health care reform.  Otherwise, the Republicans have shut down the show.

When the Register printed their endorsed Romney, they  also printed their past endorsements and that should have given them pause.  Their last endorsement of a Republican was for Richard Nixon in 1972.  At that point Nixon was so incapacitated by alcoholism that he was passed out every evening in the White House, unable to make a critical decision should the need arise.  He was paranoid and possibly delusional. He was recorded talking to Kissinger in 1971 admitting that the war in Vietnam was not winnable, but that we had to remain there for his re-election to be successful.  Men died there so he could be re-elected--and look how that turned out.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Teaches--Do We Listen?

Ok, the short answer is no.  We are not a people to anticipate.  We like to let history repeat itself.  What is familiar is comforting for some I guess.  And others are just making so much money  they don’t really care how much they are screwing it up for everyone else for all time.
How long past time is it to talk about global climate change?  Andrew Cuomo thinks that the time to stop is upon us.  Chris Christie can’t stop praising the POTUS even though we are on the eve of a contentious election.  They can both see a role for ‘Big Government’ this week.  And the list will undoubtedly go on as the future unfolds.  After all, climate specialists have been talking about this for years, often losing their jobs because the message they brought was not one that was well received.  But Hurricane Sandy is unlikely to be the last threat to Manhattan as time goes on—they were lucky to dodge Irene, and it is time to start planning for the future of coastal cities.  It is time to talk about updating the infrastructure of our power system to make it less vulnerable to storms.  It is time to prepare—something that democracies have gotten exceedingly poor at doing.
The problem with carbon emissions is that as the tundra warms up over the northern climes, the carbon emissions that are stored in there will be seeping out at a rate that exceeds our production AND we haven’t slowed our own use of carbon emitting energy.  AND we want to mine more of our own—at the expense of fresh water, no less.  That is the precious resource of the next generation, and we freely throw it away  while we complicate the problems that are already close at hand.  The GOP still sees oil as the pathway to energy independence—which will come back to haunt us all in the end, but in the short run it has slowed the progression of growth in wind and solar.   I hope and pray that Congress can get back to the job of planning for our country’s future and not attend to the needs of their biggest donors.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Day of the Dead

Now that I have a group of people that I miss, people who have died and that I want to remember, I have grown fonder of the concept of a day for the dead.  At a younger age, I thought the concept lacked appeal.  Who wants to contemplate loss?  Worse yet, thinking about them all at the same time?  No, I couldn't see the attraction.

This year I am feeling that it is brilliant.  In thinking about the people that I miss, I focus not so much on the loss but rather on what part of them is still in my life even though they are gone.  I embroider pillow cases because they remind me of not just my grandmother, but my grandmother's house.  It is a house that she hasn't lived in for almost 40 years, but that is the place that I think of when I think of her. I can almost smell the molasses cookies if I concentrate hard enough.  I leave my butter on the counter because it reminds me of my great grandmother.  I think of my father in law when I read books that I think he would like, and especially when I have a meal that I think would make him smile. 

Memories and keeping people in your life is a tricky business.  I wish that my brother had lived longer because I think that I would have learned a lot from him.  My living brother has a gentleness that reminds me of him--no one else really has that--I am not sure what side he got it from, or if it was the result of living in a wheelchair that taught him patience, but those traits completely skipped me.  Well almost.  I see some of it in a couple of my offspring.  But having a day when you allow yourself to be flooded with these thoughts is kind of like a gift from the grave.  Sad but also emotional in a pleasurable way--I find myself smiling and crying, being happy to have such a day, but looking forward to it being over.