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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Stand Up Guys (2013)

This is a diversionary movie populated by three actor who I have enjoyed for many years--it is not great art, but it is pretty funny.
Al Pacino plays a life long criminal who has just gotten out of prison after a very long stretch.  The job that he was doing when he got arrested and eventually sentenced for went very wrong.  Not only did he get caught, but worse yet, the son of the crime boss was killed.  His story is that the kid panicked and there was nothing to be done, but that is not the message that the boss wants to hear.  Now that he has done every single day of his time, he wants his long time buddy, played by Christopher Walken, to kill him.

So it is a bad situation.  Walken could refuse, but then his granddaughter stands to pay the price as well as he.  So instead he decides that he will give him the very best day that money can buy and then he will kill him.  Part of a great day is springing their long time wheel man, Alan Arkin, from the nursing home he now resides in.  The movie is well paced, the lines are well delivered, and while it is not high art, it is enjoyable.  Especially if you like these old guys.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

DOMA Unconstitutional: A More Perfect Union

With the bad there comes some good.  Just one day after the cornerstone of protecting the rights of under-represented American citizens is gutted by 5 old white men, we get a decision that is so right you would have to believe that it would have happened but for the fact that we have a Supreme Court that is more about protecting the wealthiest and most powerful amongst us than it is about protecting the Constitution and the rights of all Americans.  Sometimes the right thing happens.

The 'Defense of Marriage Act' is unconstitutional.  From the name it sounds like it might be a good thing. After all, 40-50% marriages in the U.S. today are predicted to end in divorce.  The rate of divorce in American is fifth in the world, and three of the four countries ahead of us are part of the former Soviet Union, a government that is not associated with celebrating the sanctity of marrage.  This law was not about defending marriage--it didn't seek to right the wrongs that have happened in the institution of marriage in the United States.  It sought to limit the civil liberties of gay Americans by denying them the benefits of marriage that our country confers on those who manage to stay married, against all odds.  That ended this week.  Now all marriages that are sanctioned by the state will be recognized by the Federal Government.  We are not done, by any means, with marriage equality.  There are still far more states that do not allow it than there are where you can get married--but there has been a flurry of change this past year, and there are several more states that are likely to come next: Michigan, Illinois, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Hawaii, New Jersey and Nevada, to name a few.  The train has left the station, and yesterday, the SCOTUS made it clear it is not coming back.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Voter's Right's Act Gutted by SCOTUS

Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. are appalled today.  The first is that the Voter's Rights Act was just gutted by the Supreme Court.  The second is that the majority who voted for the gutting of the most important piece of Civil Rights legislation are the same ones who were in the minority on the court decision related to marriage equality (Justices Scalia, Roberts, Alito, and Thomas).  They had the gall to publicly denounce the other justices as lacking judicial restraint.  Look in the mirror men (because no woman on the court voted for this outrage), you are hypocrites.  Your abuse of judicial power is rampant, this year included, this decision included.  You just get apoplectic when you don't get your way.

The court struck down the clause in the Voter's Rights Act that required states that have historically suppressed voting for minority voters to have to get federal permission to change voting.  The first question to ask is has voter suppression been an issue in the past decade?  More so now than ever, if the Republican activity in the 2012 election is an indication of what the future holds.  I find it both frightening and pathetic that an outnumber majority attempts to maintain it's hold on elected power by keeping citizens from voting and by gerrymandering voting districts.  These are short term solutions to their problems, but they will be effective for that short term.  The presidency of George W. Bush demonstrated how much damage can be done in a short period of time.  already, less than a week after the decision, states are queuing up to makes changes that are very unlikely to benefit under-represented minorities.

So how to respond?  The first is to ignore Scalia completely.  The man has gotten his way more times than not and he is an inveterate meddler with the will of Congress.   The second is to mitigate the changes that are inevitable coming--we are well on our way to the mid-term elections and it makes sense to try to get out the vote starting now.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Alebrijes or Carved Wooden Animals, Oaxaca

I really love these carved animals, or alebrijes, that are everywhere to be seen in the Oaxaca region of Mexico.  I brought back two lizards, just like the one pictured her--I planned to attach them with fishing line to a tree outside, but so far I haven't been able to part with them long enough to get them outside.  I also brought back an absolutely gorgeous rooster.  When I am traveling and I see something everywhere, sometimes I lose sight of the fact that no one will have even one of them, and if I don't get one that I will be so sorry later on.  That philosophy means that the art in my house lacks focus and a clear theme, but it also means that I love every piece.  The additional silver lining is that it reminds me of the trip that it was acquired on, and Oaxaca is a very special place indeed.

The tradition had been around for hundreds of years, and is likely to stem back to the time of colonialism, when the Dominican monks taught local people to carve a local tree.  The local churches have clearly benefited from the skills they learned--both originally, and in the attempts to restore Oaxaca's many local churches.  The alebrijes are usually made by a family--the man carves, using very simple tools, and the woman paints--that was true of the ones that I bought, and I was able to meet both artists when I purchased them.  I did not get to visit a village that specializes in these carvings--so I have something that I need to do on my return to the region!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Discourse on Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1754)

I have spent the last two weeks being deeply immersed in Western Civilization from the Age of Enlightenment up to the present.  I am reading a textbook to my youngest son, and he has been listening to audiobooks of the other readings for the course.  One of his very generous history teachers in high school listened to these books with him, and helped him to understand what they were talking about.  She provided the historical context for him, which was a tremendous amount of work.   So I wouldn't necessarily have had to read this book, but I never read some of the classic works that made up the political theories of the time, and it seemed like a good opportunity to play some catch up ball.

I have been making a small but concerted effort to read some non-fiction as an over-50 year old, for whom college was a very long time ago.  My husband noted to me over the weekend that it was probably okay to take a hiatus from that, because as Ethan progresses through college with us acting as his main tutors, I am very likely to read a lot of non-fiction.  I got a glimpse of that as I read his American Studies class reading to him last fall, but we are going through the work for this course in a much more compressed time frame, and in the course of helping him learn, I am learning too.

Rousseau was living in France when he wrote this essay (he later returns to Geneva where he is from), and he saw massive inequality all around him.  The drawing on the book pretty much sums up what he saw--the peasants were literally carrying the clergy and the noblemen.  They did most of the work and they paid all the taxes, and they lived lives of quiet desperation.  Where did this inequity come from and how did it begin?

This is the interesting part--Rousseau thinks that if you go back to man at the beginning of time that he was a loner--he didn't live with other people.  I have some trouble with this, because when man is born he is a baby, and he needs care, and so at the very least somebody is going to have to take care of him, so there are at least two people together, but as far as I can tell, he never really talks about child rearing at the beginning of time.  The part I liked best is that Rousseau thought that man was basically good then.  He disagreed with Hobbes that man needed government and religion because he was basically bad--Rousseau felt that there were other roots of society, and that those were the things that led to inequality, but that man left to his own devices was a good guy.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Amour (2012)

First and foremost, do not think about this as a light romantic comedy.  It is super serious, sobering, and disturbing.  The director is in no mood to spare you any of the pain and suffering that this elderly couple go through as she slowly slips from life with a series of strokes.  You are meant to squirm and be uncomfortable and to think about your grandparents, your parents, your friends, your neighbors and ultimately yourself facing the unbearable choices that lay before all of at the end of life.  If you want to postpone that inward reflection, do not see this movie. 

This movie won the Best Foreign Language Film this year, and it was nominated for Best Film. So why the dire warnings up front?  you really need to be in the mood to really enjoy what this movie has to offer--which is rich and deep and absolutely worth devoting your time and energy to.  The couple are close, they have had a cultured and full life together, but when she learns that she is going to gradually slip away and there is nothing that can be done about it, she makes her husband promise he will let her die at home.   Well, that turns out to be a very tall order indeed, and it is well worth thinking about the price that one's family pays when that is the promise you extract from them.  Think twice before those words pass your lips.
You will not walk away from the movie and leave it in the theatre--you will take it home with you.

Monday, June 24, 2013

El Catedral Restarante, Oaxaca

The best meal for the price that I had on my recent trip to Oaxaca was at this restaurant.  I was with a group that had many different priorities.  Some wanted to eat for a modest price.  Others wanted a memorable meal.

While it was my first trip to Oaxaca, I had done my usual due diligence of trying to find restaurants that I would enjoy on the trip--including an estimation of the cost--now it is very hard to know what a modest price is for a crowd--what might seem very reasonable to one person seems like a fortune to another.  Then there are the people who want an appetizer, a dessert, a few drinks and something for the main meal, and don't understand how it all added up to so much.  But I boldly made this choice--even though one person groaned when they saw just how close it was to the central plaza.

I had a sinking feeling when I went into the restaurant--the tables were set with elegant place settings and there were multiple waiters attentively standing in wait for a very few tables.  The building was just gorgeous, with high ceilings and the arches that you see on the exterior are echoed inside as well.  I was amongst the first to open my menu--and was very pleasantly surprised that there were an abundance of dishes to be had at very reasonable prices.  The house wine was excellent, and the meal came with an amuse-bouche, no less.  The food was outstanding (lots of updated versions of regional dishes that were flavorful, inventive and satisfying (for both the palate and the pocket book).  We were dining in the court yard, and when there were the first signs of rain, a canopy high above us rolled out and we remained dry.  A success!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Humberto Batista, Oaxaca

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Oaxaca was a visit to the studio of Humberto Batista. He is an internationally known artist whose art is a combination of assembling figures from other objects, and then more traditional art forms, including painting and collage.  The first and foremost thing about this visit was just how incredibly warm and welcoming the artist himself is--he is someone who has a playful look in his eye that you can discern from the moment you meet him. He welcomed a group of American strangers into his studio--which is also his home--with the aplomb of an expereinced host.  The second thing that was wonderful about the visit was the pieces themselves.  They range from what I would consider table top size--about a foot high, something that you could imagine having on your desk or on a side table in your living room.  These figures are more playful than serious.  You will find yourself chuckling the longer you look at them.  Then his larger pieces, which are 2-3 feet high, are very very powerful. 

They are beautifully put together, and they really made me think in a very good way.  I really loved them--but when I was thinking about whether I should try to bring one home, I realized that it would be the sort of thing that I would put in the lobby of an office building rather than in my living room.  I like them so much, but it is not art that I would want to live with, which is an interesting phenomenon.  I so rarely find such moving art available at a price point that I can afford--but this work made me wish that I had an office space that could accomodate one such sculpture.

The artist also has a really interesting collection of wooden carved masks that are not made him, and then there are some really large pieces that are even more evocative.
If you get a chance to see Humberto Batista's work, take it--he is a powerful, thoughtful, and unique artist.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Oz The Great and Powerful (2013)

This is a diversionary movie, nothing more, but I enjoyed it. 
I am old enough to have grown up in a time when as a child there was an annual airing of 'The Wizard of Oz', so I saw the original movie at least a dozen times.  I saw dozens of characters from the movies at countless Halloween parties throughout my youth.  The movie, with it's charming actress who came to a tragic end, was a part of the national pop culture.  So this film steps into some pretty big shoes.

The movie is a prequel to it's 1939 brethren, and it is a darker and more complex presentations of the forces of good and evil--there are some heavy hitting actors in this who can carry that off.  James Franco plays Oscar, a two bit con man who leaves the circus and ends up in Oz.  He is way out of his depths in terms of magical powers, but what he lacks in talent he makes up for with resourcefulness, and with the help of the good witch (Michelle Williams) he manages to pull off a major con on the bad witch (Rachel Weizl) and the good people of Oz. This could be enjoyed by adults and children alike (although beware--it is dark in spots and violent in others--not for the very young).

Friday, June 21, 2013

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a classic teen love triangle moving into young adulthood--but with a significant sci-fi twist that gradually gets revealed.  The author doesn't have a reputation as a fantasy writer (he is robably best known for "Remains of the Day') and so if you are trepidatious of that genre, this would be a good way to put your tow in the water.

The book is not, however, a good fit for someone who requires an upbeat story or a happy ending, because both are sorely lacking here.  The story of what is really going on unfolds for the reader as well as the three main characters in a gradual manner.  The more we know, the less we like about what is going on, but it is done in such a way that we do not catch the full brunt of what the author is saying to us until the last third of the book, and by then we are so involved with the characters that we keep reading, even though their situation is terrifying.

Here are the basics:  Kathy is the narrator.  She goes to a boarding school with Tommy and Ruth.  There is something special about the school, and the characters lives revolve around the school--there is no mention of family.  Ruth sees that Tommy loves Kathy and that Kathy loves Tommy, and she goes about making sure that they don't figure that out about each other, and eventually that a relationship between them would be a betrayal of her.  Typical high school girl drama, where Kathy doesn't see the manipulation until it is much too late.  What makes this different is that these people do not have their whole lives ahead of them--their time is short.  So it changes the emotional dynamics quite a bit and not at all, both at the same time.  Layered into this is what society has become, the lack of morals that exist, and how these kids came to be.  What we can do medically and what we should do medically are two separate things, and the book does a nice job of getting the reader to think about that.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Lorenzo Ortiz and Black Pottery, Oaxaca

The afternoon that we spent watching Lorenzo build a very large pot was nothing short of magnificent.  He starts with clay that comes from a mine that is in his village, San Bartolo Coyotepec.  Zaptotec and Mixtec people have been making pots in the same way that Lorenzo does for centuries.  They were used to carry liquids--mescal, for example.  Up until the general availability of plastic, ceramic pots were the primary mode of taking liquids from point A to point B.

The way that Lorenzo starts is with a lump of clay that he kneads on a stone surface until it has reached the consistency that he is looking for.  Then he starts to literally punch a pouch into the clay, so that it starts to have almost a hollow tube look about it.  Then he puts it on what amounts to a wheel--it is a dried gourd that is balanced on a ceramic dish.  He rotates the emerging pot slowly as he builds up the walls.
Once he has a tall cylinder, he uses ropes of clay to bring the top in to a smaller opening--it is remarkable that the pot is symmetrical and smooth as he works.  It is even more amazing that it does not collapse upon itself--but it doesn't.  After we watch him throw the pot, he shows us the kiln area, and the studio where he sells what he and his daughter have made.  The whole time that Lorenzo was making this pot, she was etching pots that were close to dry with patterns of flowers and leaves and other designs--all done using things that were made for other things--like chap-stick bottoms and toothpaste lids. 

The only problem is that they sell them for almost nothing--I bought three beautiful pots and it was less than $20.  Fortunately, they all made it home, and I have them sitting in a window sill of my Civil War era house, reminding me of the master potter who made them.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Not Fade Away (2013)

I really enjoyed this movie, but it may be one of those things that you had to have been there to really like the message.

It is a musical history piece more than a story told from start to finish.  It features a band that had some talent and some troubles and they never made it--but it also seems that if just a couple of things had gone better for them rather than worse, they would have stood a chance of making it.  The strength of the movie is the way it captures the mood of the era in which it is set.  The pervasive disregard for authority, the lack of ambition to attain education and power, the desire to make music and be famous, the wide use of recreational drugs, the open sexual freedom to the extent that what would shock people now would not have shocked these people, it all is very atmospherically wrapped into this movie.  The second strength of the movie is a terrific musical score--Steve Van Zandt, who was part of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.  There is definitely story imbedded in this movie, and it is a nice period romance that doesn't detract from the rest of the movie.  Enjoy this one!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Margaret Fuller: A New American by Megan Marshall

The author of this Margaret Fuller biography vascillated between sympathy for the plight of an intelligent and ambitious woman who was severely hampered by the constraints of her time and admiration for what she accomplished despite those constraints.  I was impressed that she was able to manage the irritation that I felt.  Fuller was fortunate to have access to the great Romantic thinkers and writers of her time.  She was on a first name basis with Ralph Waldo Emerson (known by her and other friends as 'Waldo'), Henry David Thoreau was visibly distraught when she was lost at sea, and she was a leader in the women's rights movement and knew all of the leaders who went on to meet at Seneca Falls and moved the women's sufferage movement foreward.  So she had tremendous influence, and successes that were worthy of admiration for a man of her time, not just as a woman.  So what is it that I found so irritating about her?  She just came across in the book as relatively naive about the realities of intimate relationships.  She was almost laughably clumsy in her relationships with men, and despite her great insights into many things, and she seemed completely unable to meet her own needs for intimacy.
She became so frustrated with her love life and the constraints on her personal life that she moved to Europe, where she had the incredible job of being a corespondent, writing pieces--as a woman, under a woman's name--about European events.  She seems to have been less unhappy there, and in Italy became involved with an uneducated man who fathered her child and she married.  It was a 180 degree contrast from other men she had been interested in previously--which were men who were her intellectual equals, men she could share her intellectual passions with.  In the end, maybe she found that she needed a different sort of man for her spiritual and personal passions, and by all indications she was happy with him, just worried that when they returned to America that he would not fit in, not with her friends nor with the country.  She never had a chance to see how that would turn out, because her ship, her family, and her book sunk, just yards off the unnavigable shore of Fire Island within clear view of shore.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Painted Huajes and Jicaras (Gourds)

The markets in the oaxaca region are well worth going to for several reasons.  The first is that the prepared food is outstanding--if nothing else, get several tamales to try (the ideal situation is to go with several people so that you can share them, and maximize the tasting possibilities), and try at least one plate of warm corn tortillas covered with a mole (the colorado mole is my favorite).  I think second would be the opulence of the fresh fruits and vegetables if I were actually doing my own cooking, but since I was not on my recent trip, the next best reason to be in a market is to be able to see, appreciate, and buy the numerous things that others have made.

I was particularly intrigued by the half gourds that are used to serve the traditional beverage, tejate.   Tejate has an unusual taste and is made from a whole host of local ingredients including corn, seeds, rosita flowers and cacao beans.
This traditional Oaxacan drink can be seen being made in the markets where the ingredients get beaten together and are then served very cold in a traditional Tejate cup, a 'jícara'. It is very intimidating to look at (especially if one is already working to avoid drinking the water or anything that might have been washed in it), and very hard to describe what it tastes like--but the beauty of the jicaras is undeniable--traditionally they are painted with a red background, but you can on occasion see them painted other colors, then decorated with flowers and swan-like birds.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

This is 40 (2013)

My kids hated this movie and my husband hated this movie--not to mention that it wasn't what I would call a run away critcal success.  So I hesitate to say this, but I found a lot of truth wrapped in amongst the story that was told here.

The movie is loosely designed to be a follow-up to Judd Apatow's 'Knocked Up'.  Pete and Debbie had a rocky relationship in the first movie, and no surprise, it hasn't really gotten any better.  I think the reason for that is that while they are sexually attracted to each other, they have no real relationship.  They lack intimacy.  There are lots of good reasons for that--we meet both of their fathers and it is no leap of faith to see that they were ill equipped by their parents to form an intimate long term relationship with each other.  So when problems arise, they don't have each other to problem solve with--indtead, they hide it from each other.  They have a more intimate relationship with their family planner than they do with each other.

So, you might ask, what did I like about this movie?  Well, it certainly isn't funny, so you have to drop that expectation right away.  Approach it as a drama and you will be much happier.  The things that rang true for me were the bad choices they made--they were realistic bad choices--and the consequences that ensued from those bad choices.  For instance, instead of sitting down and trying to figure out what to do about a failing business, a thieving employee, a mooching parent and the inability to pay their morgage, they go to a high end resort and have sex all weekend.  I can see the short term appeal of that, but you just end up another day older and deeper in debt.  This is a "how not to do it" kind of story, and just about everyone will see some failed strategy that they have previously employed portrayed here.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

One L by Scott Turow (1977)

This is a harrowing tale.  One of self inflicted injury--the tale of the first year of law school at Harvard--which is something that has been famously been told over and over again, but this one is told inmemoir style, and soon after the experience, so there is a rawness to it that some of the other law school horror stories lack.

It was written over 30 years ago, and of course the ability to abuse students in such a way has changed--you can still teach Socratically, but the bullying aspect of the story told here have become largely a thing of the past--much like in medicine, you cannot be outright mean without the expectation that you will be charged with harassment and risk being fired.

Turow was a non-traditional student, so on top of the difficulty of any one year of professional school, he also had a family that he was neglecting--that really does not play much into the book (he wrote a post-script years after this book was first published noting that yes, he was still married to that long suffering woman), so I think it does reflect the ups and downs of the first year of law school--and closely parallels the emotional roller coaster of the first year of medical school and the first year of a medical residency program.  You start off idealistic, you then realize that the work is completely overwhelming and you are crushed by it--and by how much more your peers seem to know than you do.  Then it becomes a grind, just trying to manage the work, ignoring the rest of your life, and then at the very end there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

Another I read noted that there are valuable things in One L for today's law students and they are this:
Still, there are bits of advice for the aspiring law student that might be distilled from One L:
  1. Despite all apparent evidence to the contrary, you are not far less intelligent than your classmates. The scramble for law school admissions tends to admit students within a particular class at a particular school who are roughly equivalent in talent and intelligence for the study of law.
  2. Spend more time in the library and less time stressing about the adequacy of your study group, or your study group’s outline.
  3. Treat your classmates, and your professors, with generosity and compassion.
  4. Cling tightly to your sense of right and wrong.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Green Salad with Jicama, Guava, and Pepitas

This is another Susanna Trilling recipe that I made when I took her cooking class in Oaxaca--it is a very brightly flavored salad andif you are going for complicated, but not composed in a asalad course, this is an excellent choice.

1/2 jicama, peeled and cut into 1" length matchsticks (about a cup)
1 orange, juiced
1 lime, juiced
2 tangerines, section and cut in half
5 guavas, seeded and cut in chunks
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
2 large avocados, chunked
1/2 c. cilantro, finely chopped
1 head red lettuce
1 bunch purslane
1 bunch watercress
1/2 c. toasted pepitas
1/4 lb. queso fresco, crumbles up
1 pomegranite, seeded

Put the cut up jicama in a bowl with orange and lime juice and marinate for 1/2 hour.  Add tangerine wedges, guava, onion, avocado and cilantro.  Toss to cover with juice and let sit for 10 minutes.  Drain the juices and add to the dressing (see below).

1/4 c. grapefruit juice
2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
1/4 c. olive oil
1 Tbs. garlic, minced
1 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 c. orange and lime juice from marinating the jicama (see above)
Mix together with a whisk.

In a bowl, mix lettuce, watercress, and purslane and add some dressing--toss and put on plates--then add some dressing to the fruit, toss that, and top the greens with the fruit. Sprinkle crumbled cheese, pepitas, and pomegranite seeds over salads and serve.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Oranges (2012)

This movie has a great cast, and the script is up to the caliber of the people who act in it--Hugh Laurie (David), Catherine Keener (Paige), Oliver Platt (Terry), and Allison Janney (Cathy) are all very good in this comedic drama about the intertwined lives of two families. 

These two families have been very close for over 20 years.  They live across the street from each other, the men jog together regularly, and their kids were friends as well, at least up until high school, when the girls from each family had a bit of a falling out (the one who never forgave the other is the narrator of the story) and the boy had a crush on the girl, which didn't go that well either.  But no matter, because kids grow up and move away, to college and beyond, and the parents remained inseperable.

Except this being the 21st century, once moved away is not all moved away--first Vanessa (David and Paige's daughter) comes home to live.  She gets a job, but other than that she just slides into her parents' social life, never bothering to get one of her own.  She also doesn't notice that her parents are miserable and distant with each other--she is unmotivated to move forward with her life, she doesn't rock any boats in her house, and she doesn't want to hear that she is stuck in a major way.

Terry and Cathy's daughter (who plays the bad girl opposite Vanessa's good if boring girl role) Nina comes flouncing home after a love affair gone wrong.  David makes one false move--he kisses Nina--the daughterof his best friend and someone he has known all her life--and she kisses him back, and the tranquil lives of all involved get upset.

Now I have known many people who left their wives for people their daughters went to high school with.  There is no new ground there.  What is interesting in this is two-fold.  First of all both David and Nina agree that the affair (which is discovered before it even begins because Nina's mother really cannot leave any thing to chance, she absolutely must control it) is completely inappropriate.  They are just going forward with it anyway, because they were unhappy and this makes them happy and what is life about, afterall, if not seeking contentment.  So the drama is not so much about that as it is about how everybody changes as a result of their affair.  That it wasn't jsut Vanessa who was stuvk, it was almost everyone, and it took a big shocking thing to get them all to see that they all neede some change.  Very enjoyable.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

I really like the author's 'New American Haggadah', which has some really great stories to read aloud at your Seder while you are going through the usual traditional story.  I have not been one for different haggadahs--I do not need the feminist haggadah or the hippie haggadah or the hip haggadah.  I wasn't born Jewish so I did not arrive in adulthood with any preconceived ideas about what a Seder should and should not include, but I do think that if you are going to participate in a ceremony that is millenniums old that you really should stick to the historical roots for the most part.  For me, the whole point is to be rooted in the past, and then to make that past relevant to the present.  He really did a remarkable job at that.

This is a collection of short stories that are really very much centered on being Jewish and all the manifestations of what that might mean.  There is the good, the bad, and the ugly, all mixed together.  Englander tells it like he sees it--no candy coating and without a chip on his shoulder.  The first story (which is the title story) has a 'Who will hide us?  Who will be the righteous Gentile for me?'  It was a childhood story shared between two firends, but now that they are grown, one of them has 10 children--hiding her family would be a task indeed.  Clearly she was not thinking of having to be kept hidden when she was family planning.  And it is ironic, because in the United States for the foreseeable future the targeted group for hatred would be more likely to be Muslim.  Would I hide or help in that scenario, risking my own family?  I quickly realize that the answer is 'It depends".  Which is not the answer I wanted to have, but the story (and another book I read recently, 'Hope: A Tragedy') made me realize that there is a lot to consider, and then to marvel at the fact that people did in fact do that during WWII.

Englander has a deft way of making us laugh and enjoy and cry and these short stories are a great example of 21st century Jewish story telling.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Carved Angels, Oaxaca

Wood carving in general and wooden carved angels in particular are ubiquitous in the Oaxacan region.  There are beautiful angels, girl angels, boy angels, baby angels, dwarf angels.  You name it, it comes in the form of an angel.  Why is this?  It is the land of churches, gorgeous churches build during the 16th century, undoubtedly with native blood, sweat, and tears, and very much against their will, I strongly suspect.

The silver lining is that while the Spanish Conquistadors are long gone, the churches remain.  The Mexican government seized the church properties throughout Mexico from the Catholic church in the mid 19th century, and they have been responsible for the restoration of said churches over the last 150 years.  Which has the added benefit of training and supporting lots of artisans who have the technical and artistic skills necessary to restore the churches to their former glory.  You see elaborate carved angels for sale throughout the region--I brought home a couple of them as gifts.  Very unusual looking, both of them (these photos are from the store that I bought them in), but who couldn't use an angel looking over the household?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Hyde Park on the Hudson (2012)

Much like the movie 'Lincoln', this film focuses on a small and particular period of time in FDR's presidency, the visit of King George V and his wife, Queen Elizabeth.  It is the first time that a British king has visited England's former colony, and they are on a mission to get America's support in what is presumed to be a was with Hitler's Germany.  They are not well loved in American, nor do they really understand American sentiments.  So not a particularly happy occasion for them.

FDR, played by Bill Murray with an air of confidence and charm, is not the king of his castle.  His life is not his own.  He is clearly completely bullied by the women in his life, and his revenge is that he belongs to none of them.  He is catting about, and while it is done with an air of discretion, everyone knows it.  There is much that is left unsaid--the press doesn't say that he is in a wheelchair, his wife is clearly not in love with him, but she doesn't make a scene about that.  Instead she makes a scene about other things--like taking the Queen down a notch or two.  Into this mix he brings Daisy (Laura Linney), his distant cousin.  He carries on a physical and an intellectual relationship with him, and she is rather quickly whisked into the sunshine of his charm--only to discover that she is not the only one. 

I adore Laura Linney, and this role allows her to show the finesse that she brings to the roles she plays.  She allows Daisy to be wooed, and hurt, and subdued into taking her place as one of many Roosevelt mistresses.  I was surprised by how the Roosevelt mansion was portrayed as a place going to wrack and ruin, that it had the aura of a faded duchess rather than a radiant queen.  The actual queen was portrayed as stuffy and difficult rather than warmly supportive (as she is played in 'The King's Speech'), and Bertie (the king) is played very sympathetically.  This is not a great movie, but it is a good one, especially if you like a bit of  historical drama portrayed on the big screen.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Peaches for Father Frances by Joanne Harris

I fell in love with Joanne Harris when I read 'Chocolat' shortly after it came out over twn years ago.  The book was a part of a trilogy, but they did not share the same characters.  This book is the sequel to 'Chocolat'--Vianne returns to the fictional village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes in southwest France after she receives a letter from her now dead friend Armande, asking that Vianne put flowers on her grave, pick her peaches, and see to her house.

Things are much changed in Lansquenet when Vianne arrives. It’s Ramadan 2010 and the Les Marauds neighborhood where Armande once lived is teeming with new arrivals from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. A mosque with a minaret adorned by a silver crescent moon stands across the river from the church. The French government has outlawed headscarves in schools and is considering a ban on wearing the Islamic veil in public. Most troubling, Father Francis has been stripped of his position as village priest and accused of setting fire to a Muslim school for girls located in the shop where Vianne once sold chocolates (remember--she herself got in trouble opening a chocolate store across from the church on the eve of Lent, so she knows what trouble feels like).

The book highlights the changes that have occurred in Fance the last decade, with waves of French speaking Muslims from former colonies who come to France but do not want to adopt French ways--they want to keep their communities separate, and retain the traditions that they brought with them, even if they are illegal in their adopted country.  The book highlights that extreme problems can be caused by a very few, but when those influences are eliminated, it is possible to form a community from disparate parts.  This is not high literature, but it is very enjoyable, especially if you read the first book.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Porfirio Santiago, Teotitlan Master Weaver, Oaxaca

I visited the workshop of the Santiago family on an En Via tour--they have been weaving rugs using Zapotec designs for generations.  They use looms that are exact replicas of the lookms that the Spaniards brought over, and we know that Zapotecs wove before that using backstrap looms.  This is an old and honored profession in this part of the world.

The 2 En Via recipients are two of Porfirio's daughter-in-laws.  The current pattriarch of the Santiago clan
has seven sons--three of them live in the same compound that the store and the looms reside in, but all of them are involved with the weaving business--one of them is working on marketing rugs outside of Mexico.  They share space in the store, but they each have their own style and things that they weave.  Each rug is sold from one of the siblings and the profit goes to that sibling--so as you walk through the store you will notice differences in both what is available (some of the siblings have moved to making more stylish things, like leather strapped purses, which are really quite nice, while Porfirio himself has stuck strictly with the business of weaving rugs). 

The Santiagos still do natural color wool dying.  The Spaniards loved the reds that were obtainable using a ground up female cochineal bug--they are a very nice color of periwinkle, but when ground, they produce a rich and earthy red color.  The region also has natural indigo dyes, and so the
colors that are seen in the rugs today harken back to the day when natural was the only option available.

When we visited the Santiago's store and weaving studio, Porfirio was very active in the presentation--he showed us how to spin, and then he got up on one of the looms to show us the weaving process for a rug that is is making on commission for a friend--he very happily let me get onto the loom and show the shuttle back and forth.  The looms they use are very simple two harness looms, so it requires a lot of skill on the part of the weaver, because the patterns are largely created by the weaver in the weft, rather than warping the loom through mutliple harnesses to create the final pattern.  Spectacular!

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Late Quartet (2012)

This is a movie about musicians--their lives, their motivations, their relationships.  The movie examines life on two levels--the first is that of a group of people working together professionally over many years. The second is the effect that being in an intimate work group, like a string quartet, has on the rest of your life.  And then that in fact the string quartet is a sort of family in and of itself, and that is at the heart of this movie.

The Fugue String Quartet has been together for 25 years and they are int he midst of preparing a challenging piece (Beethoven's Opus 131) to play to celebrate this momentous occasion.  As they are starting to practice, the eldest member of the quartet, chellist Peter (Christopher Walken) is really not able to keep up.  He at first thinks it is secondary to his advanced age (compared to the rest of the group--he was a teacher and father-figure to various members, the rest of whom went to Julliard together), but his doctor (Madhur Jaffrey, a rare combination of actress/chef) tells him no, that he has early Parkinson's Disease and while he might be able to continue to play the chello for a while, that he cannot expect that to last very long.  So he decides to end his time with the quartet, and goes about finding a replacement.  This sends the other three members into a tail spin. 

Change is difficult and the very existence of the Fugue Quartet is in danger.    The first violinist, Daniel (Mark Ivanir) is a technically gifted musician but somewhat constrained emotionally--he quickly accepts the change and wnat to move on.  The second violinist, Robert (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) wants to be considered for first violin, which is absolutely not an option as far as Daniel is concerned.  Robert's wife Juliette (Catherine Keener) and the violist, wants Peter to stay.  The tumult is both involved int heir personal lives (Robert and Juliette are married, they have a daughter who is a violinist who gets invovled with Daniel, Peter was a guardian of Julliette, and Daniel loved Juliette but suppressed those emotions for the good of the quartet)--so it is a very dignified on a professional level and very messy on a personal level, and I loved it.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

There really is neither hope nor tragedy contained within the pages of this book, but what is there is unusual.  It seems like the kind of story that you would love or hate, but in fact I found myself puzzled and not exactly sure how I felt about it.

The story is this--a couple, Solomon and Bree, stretch their resources to buy a house they really cannot afford with the intention of renting out two of the rooms in order to make the mortgage.  That seems like an inherently bad idea to me--they have a young child, and I know from experience that having people in the house complicates even the best of situations.  Then they add on the complication that Solomon's mother is supposedly dying of dementia comes to live with them for her 'final days'.   Firstly, predicting death is a notoriously poor science, and dementia is not one of those illnesses which is a swift killer, so the doctor who sends her to live with them under the pretense that her days are numbered should be taken to task.  The mother has a Holocaust obsession that is unwarranted, in that neither she nor her close family were in Europe during WWII, and is very annoying (for those who live with her).  Then add the element of the unbelievable.  Anne Frank is not dead, but is rather living in their attic.  She came with the house.

It is hard for me to decide if this is black humor or magical realism.  I can't decide if the comedy is off putting or allows for difficult choices to be presented in humorous ways.  I can't even decide what I think about the book beyond saying that I have not read much that gives me as much trouble with decision making as this book.  What I do know is that the part I liked best is when Solomon starts to contemplate two things--could he survive living in someone's attic, and if he could, who does he know that would risk hiding he and his family in their attic should that become necessary in the future.  When he asks friends and neighbors about it they treat him as if he needs medication, but it is the sort of idea that is hard to figure out.  Who are the righteous amongst us?  Very thought provoking, fairly humorous, and the sort of book that you will be thinking about long after you finish it.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Pastoral Artisan Cheese Shop, Chicago

I recently spent a weekend in Chicago, and accidentally found this wonderful purveyor of artisanal cheeses in the Chicago French Market.  I was in the market looking for pastrami, but right next door was this shop, and the day we were there was the one day that they invite their producers to come and serve their wares to their customers.

A couple of highlights, beside the fact that they carry Green Dirt Farm cheeses, which are made by a long time friend of mine, Sarah Hoffman--which should have been proof enough that they know their artisanal cheeses.  But I had three cheeses that were new to me that I really loved.

The first is from Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, Wisconsin--it is an Alpine style cows milk cheese (it reminded me of a Tomme) called Pheasant Ridge.  I later discovered that it won best in show at the American Cheese Society's annual meeting in 2010, 
so no surprise that it is spectacular, but it was new to me and I was blown away by how delicious it was and came home with a pound of it to share with others.

The second was Cremont cheese from Vermont Cremery.  This is a mixed cow and goat milk Camembert style cheese that is really interesting--the goat milk gives it a sharpness that elevates it above cow milk versions of the cheese style, and it was really enjoyable.  The woman noted where the goat herd is located, outside Randolph, Vermont, which is a part of Vermont I have been going to for over 30 years, so I will have to go visit them next time I am there.

The third was a cheese I really shoudl have known about because it is an Iowa-made cheese that is available in the grocery store just around the corner from where I live.  The cheese is called Prairie Breeze, from Milton Cremery.  It is an aged Cheddar style cheese that was both sharp and creamy.  Delicious.

Pastoral also makes sandwiches, which are quite good--we picked up a few on our way out of town , and Le Canard was the one that really hit the spot:  Herbed duck confit, Fromager D’Affinois, local shallot confit, whole grain dijon mustard and field greens on a chewy Baguette roll.  Perfect picnic  food.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

I really loved this movie.  Bradley Cooper shows a depth that I have failed to see in his earlier work, and Jennifer Lawrence proved that she is even more flexible as an actress than I previously gave her credit for (and I have liked her work since she blew me away with her performance in "Winter's Bone").

The movie opens with Pat (Bradley Cooper) being discharged against medical advice to the care of his mother (Jacki Weaver).  She is a woman who seems quite adept at walking on egg shells and we soon see why--her house is volatile enough with just her husband (Robert DeNiro).  Add to that her grown son, who is completing a hospitalization in lieu of incarceration and you have quite the powder keg.  Pat got into big trouble when he came home one day to find his wife in the shower with another man--so upset that he beat him to within an inch of his life.  Now he is out of the hospital, ambivalent about taking his medication, obsessively exercising to keep his wieght down to please his now ex-wife Veronica, who has a restraining order against him.  Given that he is an optimistic manic, he is not dissuaded that his marriage can be repaired by all the signs that it has failed--including that his wife was having a raging affair before all this happened.

Pat's father, also names Pat, makes it clear that Pat Jr. comes by his bipolar disorder naturally.  His father is an irritable manic rather than an optimistic one, and the house with the two of them in it is a powder keg waiting to explode.  Enter Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence)--she is the sister of Pat's best friend's wife.  Her husband was killed as a pedestrian by a car, and she has not coped well with it--there are some powerful reasons for her to feel guilty, which makes the resolution of grief all the more complicated.  Her way of denying she is in trouble is to sleep around, but she is trying to get a handle on that.

Pat seems like a train wreck to the viewer, but Tiffany sees him as a possible way out of her misery.  She makes a dela with him--she will get a letter to his ex-wife (defying all restraining order restrictions) and he will be her partner in a dance competition.  Already you can see that the plot is believable, simple, and fraught with potential trouble for everyone invovled.  Add to that Pat Sr.'s ritualistic and superstitious reltionship with professional sports and gambling, a disasterous bet, and a chance at redemption, and you get a movie that has a lot of sharp edges, many of them exposed and played out over the course of the movie, and an ending that gives you hope for both Pat and Tiffany. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Oaxaca Al Gusto by Diana Kennedy

Diana Kennedy has been writing about regional Mexican cooking for literally decades, and she started way ahead of the pack.  This book on Oaxacan cooking, which came out relatively recently, is a gorgeous book, something that you would be proud to have on your coffee table.  The opening chapter informs you that the triumvirate of Oaxacan cooking is chocolate, corn, and chilis.  When I was in Oaxaca, a Zapotec woman told me that a Oaxacan woman mut be able to make chocolate, tortillas, and moles, or she would be considered unmarriagable.  She told me this as she was grinding cocoa beans by hand to make the particularly granular chocolate that Mexico and three of the seven Oaxacan moles are famous for.

The book then goes on to delineate the dishes of the sub-regions of Oaxaca.  It is very detail oriented in that way, but that also makes it somewhat unusable as a home cook.  There are so many ingredients that are unobtainable for the average home cook as to make the book potentially frustrating if you bought it to cook from.  On the other hand, if you bought it to look at, to learn from, and to remember Oaxacan cuisine by, it is a perfect match.  The photographs are works of art.  They remind you of the foods that you ate in Oaxaca and the places that you ate them.  The picture of native cooks are priceless--the regional dress in Oaxaca is unlike many places (Guatemala being an exception), and as you page through the book, you can figure out where in the region you are reading about by the way the people are dressed.  So definitely buy it if you are looking for something to put on your coffee table, and look to the early cookbooks by Rick Bayless, or Susanna  Trilling's cookbook if you are hoping to replicate Oaxacan cuisine at home.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Fumare Meats and Deli, Chicago

 When I was last in Chicago we decided that we would try to find a deli that had things that we could not get in Iowa City.  That is how we ended up in the Chicago French market (which is a really nice upscale market that is part of a working train station--I would love to be able to walk by this place every day on my way to or from work--really nicely done).  That is how we ended up at Fumare Meats and Deli.  In my search for a meat counter that would be memorable, time and again Fumare's pastrami was noted.
Here is a photo of President Obama ordering the famous Montreal style pastrami sandwich on rye (there was a bit of a scandal about this, because it was initially reported that he placed an order with mayo.  What was he thinking?  It was later clarified that he ordered that for a staff member, and that his sandwich was ordered with the oh-so-much-more traditional mustard.  Phew.  The POTUS' reputation vis-a-vis food remained untarnished.  The fact that the media reported this at all is a source of some concern for me--rather than do in-depth analysis of the problems that face us at home and around the world they are instead reporting on what the POTUS is ordering.  It is no wonder that we are in trouble).

The good news is that the pastrami is magnificent--it is cured, smoked, and slow cooked with lots of peppers and spices each and every day, and it is really delicious. They sell lots of other smoked meats and salamis, but the pastrami is really special.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Les Miserable (2012)

This is a classic book, that has been retold primarily in a musical over the most recent years.  I think that is a real shame, because while the post-Napoleonic political atmosphere was fairly histrionic phase of history, it is not quite as histrionic as it comes off in music.  The overwhelming use of song eliminates a lot of dialogue, which is again too bad, because there are some really important things going on, and the story itself is really beautifully told in the book, and is lost in the musical.

The character of Jean Valjean is the icon for the situation that pervaded France in the late 18th and early 19th century.  The Ancienne Regime, where nobility and the church took 90% of the profit and did 10% of the work, leaving the peasants with 90% of the work and 10% of the profits, became unstable.  It was never fair, but after a particularly grueling--and expensive--round of wars, the king needed more money and the plight of the lowest class became even worse.  Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew and he is imprisoned for the crime.  The punishment far exceeds the crime and he is a marked man for the rest of his life.  The man who pursues him, Jalvert, is a simple man working for the government--Valjean has broken the rules and he is to be brought to 'justice'.  Jalvert does not stop to consider whether the justice he is enforcing is a moral one or not.

The tension between these two characters, the effect they have on the course of each others lives and the way they each end up is very moving in the book, and contributes to the reader's greater understanding of what might have motivated the French to undergo such ongoing radical change that took literally decades to settle down was present in the movie, it is true, but in a way that at times seemed almost silly, rather than powerful.  Still it is a good story, start to finish.  The singing is very uneven, with Eddie Redmayne and Anne Hathaway putting in the best performances amongst the people you might have heard of.