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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Skyfall (2012)

It is really hard to step into the shoes of a giant.   James Bond is a British legend, and when Daniel Craig took over he was immediately crowned the Bond for the 21st century.  ‘Casino Royale’ took the series back to the beginning, ‘Quantum of Solace’ was more or less a misstep, and this Bond movie takes us to a Bond who is later in his career.  The aged hero, a bit too old to pass the muster physically, but who still has his wiles about him.
The movie opens with yet another spectacular chase scene, with Bond and another agent, Eve (played by Naomie Harris) chasing a bad guy who has stolen a computer hard drive that has all of the names of all of Britain’s undercover agents on it and their cover stories.  Okay, this is a major act of stupidity that MI-6 would allow someone to have all this information on a laptop computer—what were they thinking?  Complete idiocy, but you have to accept that to move on.
Bond is nearing the end of his career as an agent, but M (still played by Judi Dench) is also on her last legs.  She is less of a mother figure and more of a ruthless witch in this—she seems very unsafe to work for.  Not the woman who will bring her agents home, but rather the woman who will leave them out in the cold.  Not even an ambulance for the wounded.  The bad guy in this one is a man from her past, out to bring her down.  He is played by Javier Bardem, and while he is less scary than the role he played in ‘No Country for Old Men’, he is still fairly creepy (something about the blonde hair adds a convincing air of menace).
All does not end well here, in the 50th anniversary of the James Bond series, but Daniel Craig comes off both as a hero and as a man. His bond is more human than superhero, and that is a very nice turn of events.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Roughing It by Mark Twain (1872)

Mark Twain did a series of memoirs about his travel experiences, and I had never read any of them prior to this year.  One of my sons is taking a Mark Twain class, and I have been reading the books with him, so I have had the opportunity to read them.

Twain's brother is appointed to a government position in Nevada, and he takes his little brother along as his secretary.  The west is still pretty wild at this point in time--the two travel some by train, but they also travel by stage coach.  My son called it the 19th century ‘On The Road’, and I think he is right on target with that assessment, because Twain not only describes the places that he goes and the means he uses to get there, but also the people he meets and their characters.
My absolute favorite part of the book is his observations of Mormons in Utah.  He does not spend a lot of time moralizing about the religion, or describing his moral opposition to polygamy.  Instead he tells a story.  In it the man first marries a woman about his age.  He likes her quite a lot, so he marries her sister, and then another sister, and then her mother, and he might not stop there.  But at some point in the process he marries an 11 year old girl and finds out that he likes her best, and then the little girl has all the power in the family, including over her mother.  That is completely inappropriate, thought Twain, and I really cannot disagree with him. 
His other worthwhile story in the book is his time in mining country while he was under the influence of ‘silver fever’—he is not one to forgive others, but he only cuts himself slightly more slack.
There are low points in the book (the casual racism that emerges from time to time is unsettling, especially as you try to tease out the fictional characters that Twain built and what we are meant to learn from them), as well as high pints—all in all it is a good travelogue of the American West immediately after the Civil War.

Friday, March 29, 2013

La Gran Cocina Black Bean Soup

I love this new cookbook, which is an encyclopedia of Latin American cooking.  You can only eat it during Passover if you are following the Torah's rules and not going by any Ashkenazi traditions--when i was in Poland before Passover last year I realized that the things that Polish Jews avoided during Passover were largely not an issue because they avoid them much of the rest of the year.  I eat like a Mediterranean all the other weeks of the year, so those are the rules I follow during Passover.

450 g (1 lb/2 cups) dried black beans
2 L (8 cups) water
1 small yellow onion, peeled
1 small green pepper, cored and seeded
1 bay leaf

60 ml (1/4 cup) extra-virgin olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 small yellow onion, minced
1 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded and minced
1 cubanelle pepper, seeded and finely chopped (or 10 Aji dulces)
1 bay leaf
10 ml (2 tsp) ground cumin
10 ml (2 tsp) dried oregano

15 ml (1 tbsp) red wine vinegar
10 ml (2 tsp) salt (or to taste)
2 ml (1/2 tsp) ground black pepper
1 large red bell pepper (optional)
10 ml (2 tsp) sugar

1. For beans, in a heavy pot, combine beans, water, onion, green pepper and bay leaf, then bring to boil over high heat. Lower to medium and simmer 1 1/2 hour or until beans are tender.
2. If using red bell pepper (I recommend!), preheat oven to 400°F. Place red pepper (why not make some more while you’re at it) on a cookie sheet and roast until black, around 45 minutes or so. Remove, transfer to a bowl, seal with plastic wrap and let cool. When cold, peel off skin, seed and chop. Make sure to keep the liquid at the bottom of the bowl.
3. When beans are soft, discard onion, pepper and bay leaf. Remove a good 1/2 cup of beans and mash into a purée. Reserve. Keep beans on low while you make the sofrito.
4. For sofrito, heat oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and sauté 20 sec. Add onion, peppers and bay leaf, then sauté 5 minutes or until soft. Add cumin and oregano, then stir-cook 1 minute. Incorporate mashed beans and cook 1 minute.
5. For soup, add sofrito to pot along with vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar and reserved red pepper with their liquid (my addition BTW). Simmer over low heat 30-45 minuts or until creamy. Remove bay leaf.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Defining Marriage

Marriage equality is in front of the Supreme Court this week, and I am happy to say that if my Facebook friends were deciding this issue, it would be a slam dunk.  My newsfeed is awash with pink equal signs against red backgrounds.  This is really important, but the SCOTUS is probably going to take the easy road on it.  Justice Kennedy already said the most likely option for the Proposition 8 case, which is that the party that brought the suit cannot show it has been harmed by same sex marriage.

Justice Scalia, a man I rarely agree with, noted that the momentum for marriage equality is relatively new--"newer than cell phones and the Internet", so the SCOTUS should be wary of weighing in too definitively too early.  Those are interesting analogies, because of course there is widespread penetration across the country for both, and someone who suddenly opted for both of those today would not be seen as an early adaptor or a trailblazer.  In no time at all, those two things have become an essential part of everyday life--so too should marriage equality.

The most offensive part of the arguments in the Proposition 8 case revolved around the issue of marriage being about procreation.  I did look up an encyclopedic definition of marriage:
"Legally and socially sanctioned union, usually between a man and a woman, that is regulated by laws, rules, customs, beliefs, and attitudes that prescribe the rights and duties of the partners and accords status to their offspring (if any). The universality of marriage is attributed to the many basic social and personal functions it performs, such as procreation, regulation of sexual behavior, care of children and their education and socialization, regulation of lines of descent, between the sexes, economic production and consumption, and satisfaction of personal needs for social status, affection, and companionship."

Ok, procreation is noted as a part of marital package, but so are a lot of other things--and it is noted that marriage may not be between a man and a woman, so procreation is not central to this definition (which went on to say that for most of the history of time, marriage has also been arranged by families rather than about love, which I think 9 out of 10 people in America would say is at least a part of marriage today--ie. things change).
Why should you speak out strongly for marriage equality?  First and foremost because it is wrong--just like banning interracial marriage was wrong, this too is wrong.  It costs same sex couples money, it denies them basic human rights, and it is destabiliazing to society.  Same sex marriage is a vote for traditional marriage.  WIth heterosexual marriages ending in divorce 50% of the time, those of us in one of those need to hope and pray that we can add a few long standing same sex relationships to the ranks of traditional marriage in order to better stabilize marriage as a whole.  Conservatives should embrace them with open arms as well.  Couples who want to marry represent the old guard.  Let us embrace them.  I only  hope the SCOTUS sees it my way, because while change is inevitable, the sooner it comes the better.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Adieu Chinua Achibe

Chinua Achibe died this past weekend at the age of 82.  I know him best through his book "Things Fall Apart", which was published long ago in 1958, but continues to be a world literature classic (two of my children read it in their high school English classes).  He was a master of understatement, of telling hard truths in a way that was both unvarnished but also tolerable.  The book tells the story of the pervasive racism that was the norm during colonialism, and then it was replaced with a brutal military regime that carried different vices from their predesessors, but no less deadly to the people.  He began the dialogue of post-Colonial Africa.  He told the story not through the eyes of a cultural  European, but rather through the eyes of a cultural African.  He not only inspired the revival of African literature, he demonstrated the use of story telling as a political tool.  He also began the process of educating non-Africans to the culture of Nigerians, and the challenges that clashes between traditional culture and Western values presented in Africa.  He began as critical of colonizers, but he ended with criticism for corrupt African regimes and the people who tolerate such corruption.  As you might imagine, this did not make him popular at home, and he eventually immigrated from Africa, but he continued to write about his homeland.

So he had great influence on those who are not African--but more importantly, in terms of his legacy, is the effect he had on fellow Nigerians, and African writers across the continent.  This TED talk given by Chinamande Adiche eloquently and brilliantly describes the profound importance of Chinua  Achibe for Nigeria, Africa, and the rest of the world.  He allowed her to see that her stories, told her way, were valuable and legitimate.  She had read only European stories before reading him.  She thought that was the way to tell a story, and she did not know how to tell her story in that way.  He showed her that it could be done her way, and that others would understand and learn from her story telling.  He was a remarkable writer and while he will be missed, his impact, his ripple, goes on.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gefilte Fish Pate

 For more than 20 years I have been not making gefilte fish for Passover.  Our friend that we always celebrate did not come home until the first night of Passover and she asked us to hots it--what?  Make gefilte fish?  I don't think so.  But this recipe is very simple, came out beautifully, and is more flexible in terms of serving size options.  It slices like a dream.  The only thing is that this amount of gefilte fish did not fit into my bundt pan, so I did two of them, and it was at least enough to serve 25 or more people.  Halving the recipe and putting it in a 7-cup or 8-cup bundt pan will do nicely for most celebrations.

This comes from Joan Nathan, a trusted name in Jewish Holiday cooking.


  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 4 medium sweet onions (about 2 pounds), peeled and chopped
  • 3 pounds whitefish fillet, bones removed, finely ground (I used the food processor to grind, but it is a fine grind that way.  I also used a 1/4 lb. of smoked salmon to add a little bit of that flavor, which I like, and you can eliminate the sugar that way because it adds a bit of sweetness)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 cups cold water
  • 6 tablespoons matzah meal
  • 1 tablespoon coarse salt
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground white pepper
  • 2 tablespoons sugar (or less)
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and grated (I chopped in food processor)
  • Fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
  • Horseradish, for serving


  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until translucent. Remove from heat and let cool.
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine fish, cooled onions, eggs, water, matzah meal, salt, pepper, and sugar. Beat on medium speed for 15 minutes. Add grated carrots and mix until well combined.
  4. Transfer mixture to 12-cup bundt pan, smoothing top with a spatula. Place bundt pan in a larger baking dish and fill baking dish 2-inches high with water. Transfer to oven and bake for 1 hour. Cover bundt pan with parchment paper-lined foil and continue baking until center feels solid when a wooden skewer is inserted into the center, about 1 hour more.
  5. Remove bundt pan from oven and let stand 5 minutes. Invert onto a flat serving plate and refrigerate overnight. Slice and serve garnished with parsley.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Damsels in Distress (2012)

To enjoy this film you really have to immediately succomb to it's tongue in cheek sense of humor, or you will find it anywhere from silly to annoying to down right out of touch.  It is a modern day setting with an almost 1950's sensibility about it--the characters are understated and quirky--they tapdance to raise their spirits, and they use donuts to lure students into their Suicide Prevention Center.  Pilates and bagels would feel more appropriate, but that is not where this film is coming from.  If you can get into that, you are well on your way to enjoying this movie.  For me it had a Wes Anderson feel about it--it is plot driven, well written, hilarious, and if you pay attention you may just learn something.

Here is the story.  Seven Oaks is a small liberal arts university, and we are focused on four women who go there.  Violet is the team leader--she has the goal of improving the men on campus.  The movie very correctly identifies the maturity differential between men and women that starts somewhere around sixth grade and doesn't seem to really evaporate until the mid-20's for many men and women (or even later--read Michael Chabon's latest book, 'Telegraph Avenue' to hear more about men who get well into middle age without reaching maturity).  These women talk openly (and hilariously) about this phenomenon, and go about trying to 'help' men by encouraging the use of deodorant and soap (I personally would go further and add laundry and changing your bed sheets to the list of accomplishments that would be helpful).  They do not try to address the impossible, merely the attainable.  Such fun.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

As I work my way through the New York Times 100 Notable Books list each year, I find things that I certain I would not have picked up to read had they not been on the list and that I am glad that I did.  Which I guess is where the motivation to continue to go to that list each Thanksgiving when it comes out.  This is not the the best book that I read in that way ('Everyone Dies Alone' by Hans Fallada holds that honor, and it will be very hard to unseat it because the summary of the book sounds every bit as depressing as the book itself, and yet somehow it manages to convey a ray of hope, despite all that happens).

This book does not take place in times of war.  It is high school.  You can argue that growing up and the traumas that occur can have every bit the same trauma as war and I don't disagree with that, except for the magnitude of effect.  When bad things happen in high school, the ripple effect can be smaller.  Not so in 'The Starboard Sea'.  Jason Prosper is bright and handsome and talented.  Unfortunately that does not protect him from bad things happening to him.

The story starts off as a boarding school story that you may have heard before.  "A Separate Peace' comes to mind.  But then it takes a big left turn into a culture of hazing that is unchecked and ends in a tragedy--which is likely to be repeated.  This is particularly instructive in the wake of manslaughter charges being filed in the case of a drum major hazing at Floridad A&M from 2011.  How is it that otherwise good people remain siltent in the face of profound cruelty?  This book explores that--as you might expect, there are no simple answers

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Afghan Cuisine

It is always fun to try new cuisines.  I love to do it when I am traveling, but going to Afghanistan for a pleasure trip seems unlikely to happen in my life time.  I am more likely to go as a professional, and even that seems very remote.  The country has been at war for over 20 years—the Russians and the Americans as unlikely to change this mountainous tribal culture, and it is unlikely to be tourist friendly in the near future.  So the best way to try the food is to go to a restaurant outside the country.  We had some fantastic Central Asian food when we were in Ukraine, so I know that it can be done.
I had the pleasure of eating with my wonderful sister-in-law at the Helmand Restaurant in Baltimore not too long ago.  It is an Afghan restaurant, and I quickly realized that my palate does not have an adequate familiarity with Central Asian.  We ordered several vegetarian dishes—which included many very recognizable raw ingredients: potatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, okra, eggplant, cauliflower, tomatoes, chickpeas and pomegranates.  All the dishes were served with rice as well as naan—which was the best recognized part of the meal (the rice had cumin seeds in it and seemed very similar to biryanis that I have had in Indian restaurants). 
I am usually very good at recognizing spice profiles, but I had a lot of trouble doing that with Afghan food.  Spices that are commonly used include mint, saffron, cilantro, coriander, cardamom and black pepper.  The end result is a complicated and satisfying combination of flavors, which are complimented by an abundant use of yogurt-based sauces.  I came home feeling motivated to try some of these palate pleasing combinations.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Where Do We Go Now? (2011)

I seem to be reviewing movies that ask what might be considered to be philosophical questions.  Where do we go now?  Why stop here?  But this movie isn't slapstick, not at all.  It addresses very serious and ongoing issues about religion, violence, and community, but in a way that you can enjoy and occationally laugh about.  I think both approaches have merit, and a balance between them is a good way (for me, at least) to frame the problems and think about solutions.

The setting is Lebanon.  Lebanon has done some fantastic films of late ('Caramel' being my favorite) and it has a complicated history in the Middle East--we often forget that because as Americans we are so focused on Israel and the conflict between Jews and Muslims.  The issue with Israel is about it's existence as a country--the Palestinians do not recognize it's existence, and there are many Arabs who share that point of view.  It's youth makes it's legitimacy a focus.  Lebanon is only a tad older as an independent nation than Israel (1943 versus 1948), and it has the same religious baggage.  The Roman Empire conquered the region in 64 BC and it became a center for Christianity in the region.  Christians still are a significant population in Lebanon, and that is where the story for this film centers.

It is set in a small village which has both Muslims and Christians--they argue with each other along religious lines--and they kill each other along those divides as well.  Violence is raging in the country, and news of atrocities on both sides are an all too frequent occurence.  The women of the village are just tired of all the death, all the mourning, all the funerals, and so they plot to keep their men in line.  They do all sorts of things to effect change--deception, sexual distraction, prevarication, secrecy, you name it, they use it.  They have a goal in mind and they work across religious boundaries to effect that change.  It is a crowd pleaser, to be sure, but underneath all the humor there is a message that all this needs to end, and if men can't bring that about, maybe it is time to give women a crack at solving the problem.  

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Gideon's Trumpet by Anthony Lewis

I have always been a reader, and whenever possible, I have tried to read what my children are reading.  It started out with 'The Hungry Caterpillar', progressed to the Harry Potter series and now I am immersed in British Victorian novels and socio-political classics (which it turns out that I am no better at deciphering in my 50's than I was in my 20's) .  So when my eldest son decided to go to law school, my husband and I encouraged him to read some of the recommended classics in the history of law, and pormised that we would read them as well.

My very first book in this project to better prepare myself to be the mother of a lawyer related the history of the Supreme Court case 'Gideon vs. Wainwright', which was decided on March 18, 1963, exactly 50 years ago this week.

While there are many many stories about what is wrong with America, this is a story about what is right.  The book was written in 1964, and delineates the path that Gideon was able to take to actually get his case heard before the Supreme Court and the immediate implications that the decision had.

Gideon was in prison when he brought his case forward.  He had had several previous convictions and spent a percentage of his adult life behind bars.  He was tried on a felony charge in Florida, and he asked for an attorney to represent him--he was refused.  Gideon felt that he did not get a fair trial because he had to defend himself, but the Florida Supreme Court disagreed.  Gideon did not ask for his aquittal nor did he ask to be retried.  His contention was that he was not treated fairly, and a clerk who read all such petitions from those who cannot navigate the Supreme Court system in the ordinary way agreed with him.  But a precedent, from as recently as 1942, disagreed with them--Betts vs. Brady was a case that upheld the right of states to make their own decision about legal representation.  So Gideon's case faced an uphill battle.

The story is very well told here, and is understandable to someone who has little knowledge of how the Supreme Court works.  One high point is that when the attorney for Florida informs other state Attorney Generals that this case is going before the Supreme Court and asks them for an amicus curiae brief in support of states rights in this matter, 23 states respond with an amicus curiae brief in support of Gideon instead.  That warmed my heart. 

The implications of the Gideon case were far reaching--when the court decided that all defendents should have access to an attorney, regardless of their ability to pay, it necessitated the devlopment of the public defender system, which up until that point did not exist, and it required the development of a way to pay for such a system as well.  It didn't solve all the problems with criminal jurisprudence, but it certainly righted one wrong--and not all that long ago.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Pros and Cons of Athletic Prowess

February was Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month--but apparently not everyone embraced the message.  It is not a month to encourage violence against women.  But it appears that many in Steubenville, OH disagree.  Two high school girls have been charged with harassing and threatening not the perpetrators of rape but the victim.  Her identity was revealed not just by her rapists, but also by mainstream media--if the boys who raped her were going to be punished at the behest of the public, so too would the victim.

Here is the story:   Two high school football stars were found guilty on Sunday of raping a 16-year-old intoxicated girl last summer, then taking pictures of it, tweeting about it, and posting pictures of her nude on the internet, in a case that drew national attention for the way social media spurred the initial prosecution and later helped galvanize national outrage.  Please note--the community law enforcement valued the perpetrators, both star football players, over a girl who could not consent to what they physically did to her, and then proceeded to publically humiliate her as well.  Not making themselves look like good boyfriend material in the process, no doubt about that, but until there was more widespread outrage, the plan was to sweep their crime under the carpet, giving the message to all athletes that the law does not apply to them.

Because the victim did not remember what had happened, scores of text messages and cellphone pictures provided much of the evidence. They were proof as well, some said, that Steubenville High School’s powerhouse football team held too much sway over other teenagers, who documented and traded pictures of the assault while doing little or nothing to protect the girl.
One of the football players, Trent Mays, 17, who had been a quarterback, was sentenced to serve at least two years in the state juvenile system. The other, Ma’lik Richmond, 16, who had played wide receiver, was sentenced to serve at least one year. Both could end up in juvenile jail until they are 21, at the discretion of the State Department of Youth Services.
Mr. Mays’s minimum sentence is twice as long as Mr. Richmond’s because he was found to be delinquent beyond a reasonable doubt — the juvenile equivalent of guilty — not just of rape but also of distributing a nude image of a minor.
I will not argue that incarceration is likely to increase either of these teens respect for women. Not hardly.  There is nothing good to come of caging people up.  So I beg to differ with commentators who argue that they have been saved from becoming adult rapists.  But wrong is wrong.  Athletes, from childhood into professional sports, are not above the law.  The ability to perform on the football field in the 21st century should not give you license to rape and pilage with impugnity.  But not everyone agrees.
A society that values it's athletes over it's citizens is bound to continue to reap what it sows.  The seeds are spoiled in Steubenville, and the plague is not limited to them.  CNN demonstrated that sports equals money for broadcasting, and they knew what side their bread was buttered on.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

5 Broken Cameras (2011)

Every story has two sides.  This documentary, which was one of the five finalists for the Academy Award  this year, tells the story of a Palestinian in the West Bank town of Bil'in.

The movie opens with the birth of Emad Burnat's fourth son.  He has bought a video camera to commemorate the event, and he begins by telling his audience how things have changed for Palestinians over the course of the lives of his four sons.  When he and his wife have their first child, there is hope for a better life for them--by the time their fourth son is born, they are confined to the West Bank, and watch as the Israelis encroach upon their land in the name of building a 'safety barrier' around a new settlement.

The settlers try to take more land, the Palestinians try to maintain their land.  The film is told from one point of view, but it is very hard to sympathize with the settlers.  It is just very painful to watch.  The Israeli soldiers are not portrayed as bad people, the Palestinians are definitely trying to fight back in a non-violent, overwhelm them with numbers sort of protest, but it is hard not to sympathize with the people who want to pick their olives and keep their arable land.

The name of the film comes from the number of cameras that it took to film it from start to finish.  The first camera is shot, at the same time that one of the protestors is shot as well.  You can see why Israel would not be particularly supportive of the film being made--it shows Palestinians as people that you can relate to.  They seem nice.  They appear to share values with us.  The movie quietly but emphatically argues, in it's own way, that a solution needs to be found, so that these people can raise their families in peace.  Now we know that not all Palestinians want peace, but this film shows that those people do exist.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (1883)

This is not so much as a book but as a series of the author's experiences and thoughts about the Mississippi river.  He originally published a bulk of the book as individual articles in The Atlantic magazine, and when you read it as a book, you notice right away that it really doesn't tell a story from front to back--or really in any kind of order.

The opening chapters are very technical, explaining in what for me was far too much detail how ships navigate up and down the river.  I quickly bored of the descriptions of ships, life on ships, jobs on ships, and the running of ships.  Enough about the boat already.

The thing I couldn't understand was that actually being on the Mississippi river is an incredibly peaceful and strangely moving experience.  That was somehow omitted from the book--and maybe you don't feel that when you are in charge of getting the boat from point A to point B without mishap.

 I spent 10 days one summer long ago on a steamship on the Mississippi that harkened back to the time of Twain.  Which meant that there was more mold than you might like in ones cabin, but otherwise the rooms were remarkably spacious (by boat cabin standards) and it was easy to fall into the slow but steady rhythm of the river.  The timing of my trip was flat out awful--my youngest son was at the end of a year of chemotherapy, and anyone who knows anyone who has gone through such a grueling regime knows that the end is the worst--the risk of infection is highest right before you end completely, and in his previous round of chemotherapy he had his only frightening admission for infection of his whole year plus of treatment.  So being stuck on a boat was not reassuring for me.  Then there was the fact that my eldest son was having his Bar Mitzvah--I wanted his life event to go well, and to be as unaffected by what we had all been going through as possible--which was going to be much more complicated by my being on a river boat for a week.  One of my friends was cooking at my house for his party while I was on this trip.  When I say the timing wasn't good, I am not exaggerating.  Yet despite all that, I loved the river and the time I spent on it that summer.  I felt like I got a glimpse of what held Twain's love for it.

The second half of the book is just wonderful, going through the towns that are on the river.   New Orleans is very recognizable today through Twain's eyes--it is funny how much it's present day character was present over a 100 years ago.  He talks about the Civil War and the fight for control of the river--which centered on Vicksburg, and the description of that sounds like a bygone era.  Since I live in Iowa, which has many river towns (Dubuque, Keokuk, Davenport,  and Burlington are described by Twain), I particularly enjoyed descriptions of towns which were a bigger part of the commerce of the state a century ago.  Overall, it is not so much a work of art but a tale of love by the author--one that resonated for me once I got past the mechanical details of the whole thing.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Pasta with Artichoke and Lemon

1lb. spaghetti or fettucine
2 Tbs.   Extra-virgin olive oil
1large shallot, minced
4garlic clove, minced
1jar (12 oz.) marinated artichoke hearts, chopped
2 Tbslemon juice
1/4cup white wine
2Tbsp. capers
½cup chopped Italian parsley
¼cup chopped basil or sorrel (optional)
3Tbsp. unsalted butter

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta. Cook the pasta according to the package directions.
  2. While waiting for the water to boil, start the sauce. Pour in enough olive oil to film the bottom of a large sauté pan. Over medium-low heat, cook the shallot and garlic until soft and fragrant. Add the artichoke hearts, lemon zest and juice, white wine, and capers. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and cook for about 10 minutes, until the liquid is syrupy and reduced by half. Stir in two-thirds of the chopped parsley and basil/sorrel. Add the butter and continue cooking and stirring until the butter melts and melds into the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper and keep on low until the pasta is cooked.
  3. Once the pasta is cooked and drained, toss with the sauce and the remaining chopped herbs. If the sauce doesn’t seem saucy enough to coat the pasta (this will happen if the sauce has been reduced too far), drizzle in a bit of olive oil and toss again. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)

This is largely a light-hearted romantic comedy/drama, but there is one kernel of truth that I think is worth noting.

Celeste and Jesse are the stereotypical couple who find that their friendship is solid, even when their marriage is on the rocks. So they decide that the best thing to do is to split up.

This is where the split began.  Celeste is the money maker and Jesse is the artist.  Celeste thinks that Jess should work harder, and cannot imagine herself parenting children with someone who has his work ethic.  So they fight.  We movie goers miss the bulk of it, but apparently it was bad.  So she stays in their house, and he movies into their backyard to live in his studio.

The problem is that they really are very compatible with each other, and they spend all their non-working time together.  It comes to a head one night when mutual friends point out that it is not natural--and what will they do when they start to date other people?  Good question.   Once someone asks it, Jesse decides that he really does need to get out more, and that is the beginning of the spiral that leads far too late to each of them learning that perhaps a little marital therapy would have gone a long way towards happiness for each of them.  Don't let this happen to you, that is all I can say.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Katherine Boo is a Pullitzer Prize winning journalist and this crushingly depressing book is her first. She is married to a native Indian, and she has embraced his country as her own.  We are lucky to have an American who can translate what she observed in the underbelly of Mumbai’s slums into language and images that we can understand.  But boy is it painful to read.
First there is the crushing poverty of the majority of the characters that inhabit the book.  Boo reports on the people who live in the Annawadi slum in Mumbai.  She followed—with the help of translators—some interconnected families there for over three years, and allows us to see what it is like to live in abject squalor (3,000 people live in 335 huts that are self-built without the benefit of an urban infrastructure and all of the risks of living more or less outside in poverty). 

Her storytelling is outstanding—she clearly knows, and mostly likes the people she is reporting on.  She allows them their dignity and she even teases them.  She doesn’t cheapen or disrespect them by feeling sorry for them.  We meet Abdul, who is a young adult ‘recycler’—which means that he collects garbage, sorts it, and sells what is reusable.  The definition of what is reusable in Mumbai is very broad, and while Abdul has limited formal education, he is an excellent sorter of garbage, and this both leads to his success and his vulnerability.  

In the Annawadi slum, those whose lives are modestly more stable than others are at risk for having their hard work and good luck sabotaged—she relates a story that happened to Abdul and his family in detail, which illustrates the state of India’s criminal justice system for the poorest of the poor.  Nothing about these stories is fair.  While I have reason to understand that, this book made me appreciate the scale on which I judge fairness is entirely different than Abdul’s.  He would not recognize the world that I live in, as I see his more akin to Dante’s ‘Inferno’ than life on earth.
So, this book is spectacularly interesting, but I recommend reading in one sitting—it is too painful to stretch out over several days.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Lemon Meringue Pie

My friend Ivy is a fabulous cook, but she has a fear of pie dough that we were determined to overcome in our last baking session.  This is the final frontier for her--a lemon meringue pie, and she did a spectacular job, using this Cook's Illustrated recipe from back in the 1990's, when the magazine resurrected itself in it's current image.

Pie Shell:
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter , chilled and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
4 tablespoons vegetable shortening , chilled
3–4 tablespoons cold water

Lemon Filling:
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon table salt
1 1/2 cups cold water
6 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon lemon zest from 1 lemon
1/2 cup lemon juice from 2 to 3 lemons
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Meringue Topping:
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/3 cup water
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
4 large egg whites
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the pie shell:

1. Mix flour, salt and sugar in food processor fitted with steel blade. Scatter butter pieces over flour mixture, tossing to coat butter with a little of the flour. Cut butter into flour with five 1 second pulses. Add shortening; continue cutting in until flour is pale yellow and resembles coarse cornmeal with butter bits no larger than a small pea, about four more 1-second pulses. Turn mixture into medium bowl.
2. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons cold water over mixture. Using rubber spatula, fold water into mixture; press down on dough mixture with broad side of spatula until dough sticks together. If dough will not come together, add up to 1 tablespoon more cold water. Shape dough into ball, then flatten into 4-inch-wide disk. Dust lightly with flour, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 30 minutes before rolling.
3. Generously sprinkle work area with 2 tablespoons graham cracker crumbs. Place dough on work area. Scatter a few more crumbs over dough (see illustration 1, below). Roll dough from center to edges, turning it into a 9-inch disk, rotating a quarter turn after each stroke and sprinkling additional crumbs
underneath and on top as necessary to coat heavily, (see illustration 2). Flip dough over and continue to roll, but not rotate, to form a 13-inch disk slightly less than 1/8-inch thick.
4. Fold dough into quaarters; place dough point in center of 9-inch Pyrex pie pan. Unfold to cover pan completely, letting excess dough drape over pan lip. To fit dough to pan, lift edge of dough with one hand and press dougn in pan bottom with other hand; repeat process around circumferences of pan to ensure dough fits properly and is not stretched. Trim all around, 1/2-inch past lip of pan. Tuck 1/2 inch of overhanging dough under so folded edge is flush with lip of pan; press to seal. Press thumb and index finger about 1/2-inch apart against outside edge of dough, then use index finger or knuckle of other hand to poke a dent on inside edge of dough through opening created by the other fingers. Repeat to flute around perimeter of pie shell.

5. Refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes. Use fork to prick shell at 1/2-inch intervals; press a doubled 12-inch square of aluminum foil into pie shell; prick again and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

6. Adjust oven rack to lowest position, heat oven to 400 degrees. Bake, checking occasionally for ballooning, until crust is firmly set, about 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees, remove foil, and continue to bake until crust is crisp and rich brown in color, about 10 minutes longer.

For the filling:

7. Mix sugar, cornstarch, salt, and water in a large, nonreactive saucepan. Bring mixture to simmer over medium heat, whisking occasionally at beginning of the process and more frequently as mixture begins to thicken. When mixture starts to simmer and turn translucent, whisk in egg yolks, two at a time. Whisk in zest, then lemon juice, and finally butter. Bring mixture to a brisk simmer, whisking constantly. Remove from heat, place plastic wrap directly on surface of filling to keep hot and prevent skin from forming.

For the meringue:

8. Mix cornstarch with 1/3 cup water in small saucepan; bring to simmer, whisking occasionally at beginning and more frequently as mixture thickens. When mixture starts to simmer and turn translucent, remove from heat. Let cool while beating egg whites.

9. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Mix cream of tartar and sugar together. Beat egg whites and vanilla until frothy. Beat in sugar mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time; until sugar is incorporated and mixture forms soft peaks. Add cornstarch mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time; continue to beat meringue to stiff peaks. Remove plastic from filling and return to very low heat during last minute or so of beating meringue (to ensure filling is hot).

10. Pour filling into pie shell. Using a rubber spatula, immediately distribute meringue evenly around edge then center of pie to keep it from sinking into filling. Make sure meringue attaches to pie crust to prevent shrinking . Use spoon to create peaks all over meringue. Bake pie until meringue is golden brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer to wire rack and cool to room temperature. Serve.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Flight (2012)

It is remarkable just how unlikable Denzel Washington's character, Whip Whitaker, is in this movie. The movie opens with a protracted plane crash, and the ensuing events are about what you would expect to happen in the aftermath of such a disaster.  The plot is largely predictable and none of the rest of the characters are all that likable.  So, you might ask, why bother with this?

The first reason is that Washington was nominated for an Academy Award for this role.  Regardless how you feel about who wins those awards each year, whether they are predictable, or rigged, or unfair, or spectacularly accurate, it is almost always true that the nominees in each category have done a good job.  They may not be better than some who have been overlooked for a nomination, but in and of themselves, the nominees are worth watching.

The second is that this is a pitch perfect depiction of a man on a self-destructive path to the bottom of the alcohol and drugs ladder of life.  He is several rungs up from where Robert De Niro was in 'Being Flynn', but it is the exact same ladder.  While everyone around him is trying to hide the fact that he was drunk on a plane that crashed, he is dead set on continuing to drink and push literally everyone away from him.  He is the poster child for someone who failed his intervention and is hell bent on going down with the ship (or in his case, the plane).  There is a lot of truth in his performance, and it is worth slogging through the rest of the movie to get to the end.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Brie Appetizers in Puff Pastry

I have been looking to make some easily passed appetizers that would be just as good hot or at room temperature that I really liked, and this recipe fits the bill.  This version is with brie and nuts ans dried fruit, but I think there are lots of possible combinations of fillings that would be equally delicious.

3 Tbs.  brown sugar

1/4 cup  dried cranberries

1/4 cup  pecans

1 pound puff pastry, homemade or store-bought

1/2 pound Brie cheese, cut into 1/2" cubes   1) Preheat the oven to 450F. Grease the cups of a 24-48-cup mini-tart pan, or mini-muffin pan.  The yield depends on the size pan.  This recipe is for small cups.

2) Combine the brown sugar, cranberries, and pecans in food processor and pulks until chopped.

3) Roll the pastry 1/8"  thick on a floured surface. Cut out  2 1/4" squares (larger if your mini muffin pans are larger), using a knife or pastry wheel and a straight edge; an accordion cutter, or a pastry/biscuit cutter. You'll probably need to gather and re-roll the dough a couple of times to get the right amount of squares.

4) Press the center of the squares into the prepared mini tart or muffin cups; their corners should stick out from the edge of the cups. Fill each square with 3/4 teaspoon of the brown sugar mixture, and top with a cube of Brie.
5) Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until the pastry is golden and the Brie is just beginning to bubble
6) Remove from the oven, allow to cool for 5 minutes, remove the pastries from the pan, and serve warm.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Fast and Easy Puff Pastry

This recipe is so easy to make that I highly recommend it over either the lesser quality of a Pepridge Farm frozen puff pastry (which has the annoying fold to deal with as well), or spending the earth for a butter-based version of higher quality.  This is inexpensive and delicious, as well as easy to make. One morning I made 12 batched--it is a bit of a mess to assemble, so make as much as you think you will need for several months and freeze.

I reccommend watching Alton Brown's tutorial on 'Good Eats' about working with puff pastry, because it is easy to follo, accessible to the less experienced cook, and very helpful.

Here is the puff pastry recipe (from the King Arthur web site):

2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

1/2 teaspoon salt*

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup cold unsalted butter,* cut in pats

1/2 cup sour cream

*If you use salted butter, reduce the amount of salt to 1/4 teaspoon

1) Whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder.

2) Add the butter, working it in to make a coarse/crumbly mixture. Leave most of the butter in large, pea-sized pieces.

3) Stir in the sour cream; the dough won't be cohesive. Turn it out onto a floured work surface, and bring it together with a few quick kneads.

4) Pat the dough into a rough log, and roll it into an 8" x 10" rectangle.

5) Dust both sides of the dough with flour, and starting with a shorter end, fold it in three like a business letter.

6) Flip the dough over, give it a 90° turn on your work surface, and roll it into an 8" x 10" rectangle. Fold it in three again.

7) Chill the dough for at least 30 minutes before using. To make pastry, roll into desired size.
8) Freeze dough for prolonged storage, up to 2 months. To use, thaw in the refrigerator overnight.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Being Flynn (2012)

This movie centers around two characters.  Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro) is a complicated and deeply unlikable character.  He is well into the several year spiral that occurs when people become homeless.  He drives a cab, which is his, but he self-describes himself as one of the three greatest writers of all time (the other two being J.D. Salinger and Mark Twain).  Nothing is a conversation with this man--it is his way or the highway.  Even if you aren't short sighted enough to argue with him, it doesn't matter, he argues anyway.  His speech is peppered with profanity, but in a lot of ways that is the least offensive part of what he has to say.  He brings up forbidden topics, he is a misogynist, he is openly and unapologetically racist.  In summary, he is unbearable.  Brilliantly so, in De Niro's deft hand, but really, every time he opens his mouth you want to walk out.

The other character is his son Nick, who is an aspiring but unsuccessful writer and poet.  He is traumatized by the suicide of his mother when he was 22 years old.  She worked more than one job his entire life in order to raise him and he is scarred by the thought that she read an unfinished story of his that did not cast the most flattering of light upon her, and that is why she killed herself.  The only helpful thing that his father does is to disabuse him of the notion that his mother killed herself because of him--doesn't happen that way, my boy.

The sad part is that, minus the obnoxious foul mouthed language, it starts off being a story of like father like son.  Nick is underemployed and drinking and drugging enough to have his girlfriend leave him as a result of it.  Finally, ever so slightly, the story takes a turn for the better.  De Niro gives a pitch perfect performance about what is so hard to do when trying to lend a hand to someone tough who is spiraling downward.  Considering the prevalence of the condition throughout the United States, particularly amongst veterans, it is a movie that while painful, is well worth watching and thinking about.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan is fantastic . The man is Nobel Prize material. The thing I especially enjoyed in this particular book of his is that it reminds me of John LeCarre. It has a little bit of the Cold War tale of intrigue about it, and it is set in the early 1970’s to add to that impression McEwan is a master at telling tales of double dealing, deception, and ultimately disappointment, and this one is no exception.

His protagonist is Serena Frome, who is described as a strikingly gorgeous 23-year-old Cambridge math student who is recruited to join MI5. Serena is a woman who likes sex—quite a lot of it. Her appetite for it drives the drama in this book. She embarks on an affair with a Cambridge professor who is has her reading the classics and teaching her why they are indeed so highly regarded.

She gets an education in the classroom, but the one in the bedroom is the one that propels her into a job. Not long after the professor dumps her, literally by the side of the road, she lands herself a job working as a glorified secretary for England's famous spy agency. Serena is no super spy but a woman of above average intelligence and apparently little interest in climbing the spy ladder.

The first half of the book, Serena mostly meanders the gray, dour halls of MI5, engaging in affairs with unappealing men, attending lectures about the dangers of communism, and debating the politics of British spy bureaucracy. From this a story finally emerges: Serena's superiors, noting her love for literature of all stripes, put her in charge of her first mission: She is to secretly recruit and fund a novelist, as part of a propaganda campaign called "Sweet Tooth." The agenda: Stoke the careers of writers who already tend to write stridently pro-capitalist works — nothing about "the decline of the West, or down with progress or any other modish pessimism" — and win the disenchanted British public's hearts and minds.

Serena being Serena, she immediately jumps into bed with her recruit, a promising young essayist and University of Sussex professor (bearing no small resemblance to McEwan himself, reviewers have noted) named Tom Haley. Before long, they're in love and Haley — released from the grind of his university job — has produced an unfortunately dark, dystopian novella. Almost overnight, he's winning literary prizes and drinking whiskey with Martin Amis (wink wink).

Will Serena's cover be blown? Can their relationship survive her subterfuge? And how will Serena's superiors feel about funding Tom's decidedly anti-capitalist fiction? Well, that is the unraveling that happens at the end of a deftly told tale that is equal to McEwan’s other novels.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Asparagus with Pignoli Nuts

I was visiting my great friend Ivy recently for a long weekend filled with baking and good food.  She had recently gotten a vegetarian food filled cookbook called : Fast, Fresh and Green by Susan Middleton, which is full of wonderful and not-too-complicated recipes.  I really loved this one--when I was making it i thought there were too many pignoli nuts, but as I ate it, I found the nuty flavor balanced really nicely with the asparagus.  I cut my asparagus into two inch sections ans that worked even better.

1 bunch fresh asparagus, ends trimmed, cut on diagonal if preferred--I cut mine up, but you can leave them whole
1-2 Tbsp. butter
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/4 tsp. freshly-squeezed lemon juice (I reduced this from 1/2 tsp. in the recipe)
freshly ground black pepper
In a large frying pan, melt the butter until brown, but not burnt.
Add the pine nuts.
Cook until the pine nuts are a golden color, about 3 - 4 minutes more.
Fill a large saucepan with water and add 2 tsp. salt.
Bring to a boil and drop the asparagus in.
Cook until crisp-tender, 3 - 4 minutes only.
Do not overcook, they will continue to cook in the butter.
Drain the asparagus and place immediately into the butter-nut mixture.
Coat well.
Sprinkle with lemon juice, toss again.
Season with freshly grated black pepper.
Serve immediately while asparagus is hot.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Pitch Perfect (2012)

This is a great follow-up to those who are going through ‘Glee’ withdrawal.  It is set in a college setting rather than a high school one—the competition is no less juvenile, but there is no faculty supervision.  The story is that two of the most competitive a capella groups in the country are to be found at the same college—so they have juvenile competitions on campus, where the performances are good enough to make up for the juvenile nature of the dialogue and the excessive vomiting (what is up with that?  The script writer must have had some traumatic vomiting on stage experience, because it happens not once but twice, and really adds less than nothing to the movie).
I was thinking about musicals this morning.  I was listening to Stephen Spielberg’s long time publicist, Marvin Levy, talk about the films that he wishes he could have done publicity for and they were all old movies.  He said that he would have loved to do the publicity for ‘Singing in the Rain’.  I am too young to remember when the movie first came out, but I loved it when I was doing musical theatre myself in high school.  The singing and dancing talent was overwhelmingly evident, and it is just not there in the 21st century movie.  We just do not produce much in the way of modern musicals that will survive the test of time (not to disrespect ‘Les Miserable’, but there just aren’t actors who sing and dance in combination on a regular basis who are performing in movies).  It made me realize that I should stop by the library’s DVD collection and take out a musical or two this weekend.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The short review would be to recommend that Ms. Rowling go back to writing children’s books. That would be a cheap shot, just because it is so easily delivered. How to follow up the Harry Potter series? It not only made her fabulously wealthy, but the books have an enduring power to them that is undeniable. I don’t think that writing an adult book was an inherently bad move, but this is really disappointing.

 Do not get me wrong. This is not a bad book, and if she were someone else, I might feel even more generously about it, but she isn’t someone else, and I can’t shake the feeling that she really didn’t end this book in a satisfying way. Other than that it is a solid effort. Rowling has a nice way with words, so it is pleasant to read even if the ending is not all that the rest of the book is cracked up to be.

We are introduced to the British village of Pagford and the seamier side of its inhabitants when the ever likable Barry Fairbrother drops dead unexpectedly, opening up a seat on the parish council—a so called ‘casual vacancy’. After that we get to see all the unhappiness and pettiness of one town unfold, slowly, painfully, and unlikably. The book is not going to increase tourism to quaint English villages. Each person’s past comes bubbling up, with several inconvenient truths emerging left and right. The parish council’s web site is repeatedly hacked and unflattering but accurate stories about various council members and candidates as well are posted. Not very nice.

The only aspect of the story that reflected Rowling’s past novels is her teenaged characters—they are far better fleshed out than most of the adults in the book. She really has a flair for that age group. The book overall is worth reading, and we hope for something better in the future from this very talented story teller.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Pedophiles, Popes, and Priests

The Vatican is such a beautiful place—opulent and medieval to be sure, but the level of artistry is overwhelmingly gorgeous.  It is such a shame that such beauty exists amidst such  scandal, and a determined lack of changing what is immoral.
It is so hard to think about this, but with the pope resigning, it is impossible not to reflect on the period of time that he resided over in the Catholic Church, so it is inevitable that the issue of priests and child abuse would come to mind.  Pope Benedict was remarkably ineffectual in healing his followers, many of whom have specifically turned away from the church.  The problem is two-fold.  Did the Catholic Church effectively deal with their problem priests?  Definitely not—and that did not improve over time.  They spent a lot of effort protecting their own to the detriment of Catholic children.  The argument has been made that the 4% of Catholic priests who are predatory child molesters represents the prevalence of that in the general population—I find that hard to believe.  It is true that about 5% of men are attracted to children, but not all of them act on that attraction, and the prevalence of attraction to children may be far higher in priest, we just do not know.  But the damning behavior of the church is that they hid their perpetrators, while continuing to give them access to children.  That is unforgivable.  Punitive damages are appropriate, and the Pope, much like a CEO, bears responsibility for his church and their crimes.
Children who are sexually abused are damaged for life.  It is not just the child who is affected—their family, friends, educators, and coworkers are all affected by child abuse.  The fact that a religious institution facilitated the ongoing abuse of children is a stain on their character.  
As a side, I think it is potentially fascinating to address the conundrum of a current Pope and a former Pope co-habiting the planet.  Unfortunately, I don’t see the Catholic Church discussing that openly, so I am likely to not learn much about it.  This is the chance for the Catholic establishment to educate non-Catholics about their religious beliefs, but I don’t see them taking the opportunity.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Why Stop Here? (2012)

Let me start off with a pretty big disclaimer—this movie is nowhere near as good you might hope it would be.  There are some terrific actors in the line-up—Melissa Leo, Jessie Eisenberg, and Tracy Morgan, to name a few--but the movie just doesn’t have the ‘pow’ factor that you might expect given the fantastic cast.  It is well worth watching, however, and it has some valuable points to be seen.

Here is the story.  Penny (Leo) is a long time drug addict with proven bad taste in men.  She loves her two children, Eli (Eisenberg) and his much younger half sister (who has clear emotional stunting), but she is no mother to them.  She is more like an unreliable aunt.  Eli is a talented pianist with a chance at a scholarship and a way out of the dead end life his mother leads, but he needs to make sure Penny can take care of herself and her remaining child.  So he cajoles her into going into rehab—only she doesn’t qualify.  In order to get in she needs to be actively using, no matter that she hasn’t been sober for any length of time her entire adult life.  So Penny takes Eli to her local dealer, Sprinkles (Morgan).  He doesn’t have anything, so they take off on a modestly successful and modestly doomed adventure to score from another dealer.  We laugh, we cry, we hope that no one gets hurt, and we really get a sense that while Eli is flawed, he is lucky to be as together as he is, because Penny is really a mess.  
Fortunately, there are no bed people in this story—while drug dealers and heroin addicts are probably not on your list of enduring friends, these are not evil people, and in the end Eli gets his shot at a scholarship and his mother seems to gradually wake up to the idea that Eli needs to move on.  The cautionary tale about parental lack of responsibility and self-centeredness are a little over the top, but I do think that the tradition of putting your children’s interests at the forefront, doing things for their good, is a bit lost right now, and this movie reminds us of why that is important.