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Monday, September 30, 2013

Mason's Retreat by Christopher Tilghman

This is a very appealing story of a family that has problems.  Communication being one of them, but in some ways the real problem is their values.

Edward Mason is a man who seeks success and money in that order.  He is not content to make a comfortable living.  He wants to take risks, be rewarded for them, and recieve fame and fortune as a result.  Given those parameters, he is remarkably likable, and is a good example of just how complicated people are.  He is a very flawed but entirely three dimensional character.  Part of why we like him is his wife Edith--she supports him unconditionally and when he fails, as he just has when the novel opens, she does not berate him, or mourn her fate.  She faces his next challenge at his side.  In many ways he has not been a good husband to her--he has failed to support her and he has cheated on her.  Yet she soldiers on with him.  They have two sons--Sebastian the elder, who does not like or understand his father, and Simon the younger, who adores his father above all else.

When the novel opens it is 1936 and the Masons are sailing across the ocean from Manchester, England to the eastern shore of Baltimore.  Edward has inherited a dairy farm from an aunt, and Edith's father has given him an ultimatum--make a success of it in a year's time, or his marriage to Edith is over.  It says everything about Edward that he is traveling first class, at his father-in-law's expense and he is acting like it is of his own doing.  The farm's estate house is called 'Mason's Retreat'--which could have one of two meanings: either it is a palacial home of luxury and leisure, or it is the place that one retreats to out of shame and defeat. 

Edward seems to have chosen the later--he immediately makes a mess of the farm, but it is a place that is fertile in it's own right and they live better than they have in years.  Sebastian loves the farm and the land and he finds his place in life there, as does Edith.  Not so Edward--when he has a chance to revivie his factory in England he grabs the chance, and is for once, very successful.  As is the case in many a family tragedy, that is unfortunately the beginning of the end.  A wonderful story is well told here.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Kings of Summer (2013)

I watched this movie without the benefit of knowing that it premiered to rave reviews at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.  It is a unique coming-of-age comedy about three teenage friends - Joe (Nick Robinson), Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and the eccentric and unpredictable Biaggio (Moises Arias) - who, in the ultimate act of independence, decide to spend their summer building a house in the woods and living off the land.  Joe has an easily understood reason for wanting to get out if his house--his father has been miserable since the death of his wife (Joe's mother), and he is hellbent on making everyone around him, and especially Joe, as miserable as he is.  Patrick and Biaggio have minor annoyances at home (parents who care and tend to hover a bit), but Joe is the motivator and the planner in this grand plan.

They cobble together a shelter and an outdoor living space and disappear.  The police are involved, but there is not what I would call an all out search for the boys.  They are not all that adept at living off the land--they stop at Boston Market for a chicken dinner each day indtead, and no one talks about how you could possible hunt or trap mashed potatoes.  The balance that they reach is upset when Joe invites Kelly (Erin Moriarty) to their lair--and she falls for Patrick--which crushes Joe.  He very much liked her and had his heart set on her.  Very quickly the equilibrium they had established is dramatically disrupted and the whole thing unwinds in wild and sometimes unpredictable ways.  Very nicely done movie.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Food Security at Risk in America

Here is the deal.  The House Republicans really need to have some housecleaning in the midterm elections, and the people who benefit from various aspects of what used to be a fairly decent but not extravagent safety net need to get out and vote.  That is the only way this is going to change.  They need to lose their seats in Congress, or we will be a country with an ever increasing gap between those who are making it and those who will soon be starving, or at the very least spending all their money on food, so that they can not buy other things, like heat and clothes.

Why now?  The House Republicans have been dysfunctional for quite some time now.  They have the lowest approval rating in I don't know how long, and they are the least productive Congress as well.  Sadly this did not result in a substantive change in the 2012 election as it relates to the House. 
This is at least in part due to the fact that some of the people who voted for Republicans in the last election are the very people who are harmed most by their policies.  So that needs to change.  We can't defeat them without the people who are at the very bottom of the economic ladder.

What got me going is that the House Republicans are now proposing to gut food stamps program, or what is now known as SNAP. Look at the use of SNAP since the recession began--use of food stamps has doubled.  The monthly benefit is modest in terms of dollars--
the Congressmen in favor of this are very unlikely to be able to eat on the amount being afforded people living in poverty.  Their per diem for food when they travel is at least 13 times what someone on food stamps is receiving, and yet they are not objecting to this.  For every dollar spent on SNAP, the economy gets $1.70 back--we need people, especially children, to be fed, and we need them to be clothed, and be educated.  That is not a luxury  item.

 It is the meanness of their policies that angers me, their self-righteousness and their lack of morality that saddens me, and the fact that without the help of voters who are affected, there is not much to be done about them.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

It is true, this would very likely be labeled 'chick lit', and while that is not a genre that I am overly fond of, I love everything this author has written. So it is really no surprise that I loved this book as well.

Violet (Vi) and Daisy are identical twins who have a mother who never wanted or loved them and a predilection to see the future, which estranged them from almost everyone (including their mother) except each other.  Vi embraces her psychic gift, even though she is the less gifted of the two, but Daisy shuns it--in order to do so, she starts going by her middle name, Kate, and she leaves her depressed mother and her middle school traumas behind to start a new life.  When Vi tries to bring herself back into Kate's sphere, Kate drives her back to their childhood home and leaves her on the doorstep.  Literally.  As a result, the divide between the twins widens. 

Kate grows up to be a stay at home mother with a university professor husband who is practically perfect and Vi never finishes college.  She struggles with romance up until the time she comes out of the closet, at which point she starts to relax and blossom under the loving gaze of another woman.  There are several plot points that keep the reader on the edge of their seat, but really, the best part of the story is in the telling--Sittenfeld is a joy to read, her prose is so natural, hitting all the right tones.  A wonderful read.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Internship (2013)

I heard that The Onion review of this movie called it the best movie of 2007.  A good movie that was just a little bit behind it's time.  Well, I am also a bit behind the times, because I really enjoyed it.

Here is the story--Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are sales representatives for a small company that goes belly up.  They sold watches and the market for watches started plummeting when the penetration of cell phones started rising--but they didn't see it coming.  The job market for men creeping into middle age without a college degree was pretty lean, so they get the idea they should enroll in a virtual university and try for an internship at Google reserved for college students.

They know absoulutely nothing about Google, computer programing, or the internet other than that they are consumers, but somehow they manage to land the internship and use their real world experiences to help their team be competitive for the prize of winning a permanent spot at Google.  The plot is nothing earth shattering, but the dialogue suits the main characters to a tee, and they are well versed enough in comedic timing to pull it off without breaking a sweat.  Pleasant movie, if perhaps a bit dated for the most savvy amongst us.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Skinny Pancake, Burlington Airport, Vermont

 This is what airport food should taste like, but rarely does.  We flew in and out of the Burlington, Vermont airport recently and had the good luck to arrive for our outgoing flight early enough to have breakfast in the terminal.  Everything about this place was noteworthy--the locally sourced food, the locally made tables and chairs, and the broad selction of foods to choose from (which, judging by the menu, get even better as the day progresses).

We had a vegetable and egg breakfast crepe (which comes with a very nicely dressed side salad) and a Cobb salad--both were delicious.  The Cobb salad had Vermont's star blue cheese, Bailey Hazen Blue from Jasper Farms, Vermont bacon that tasted of both apple and maple, and vegetables that had both flavor and crunch.  So often an airport salad is listless in both flavor and texture--not so here.  Our kids had more traditional crepes, which were also quite good.

This is a very small trend that I would love to see take off--the United terminals in Chigago have a couple of nice dining options, but that is the exception rather than the norm.  I would love to see good to great food served at airports for several reason--first, there is nothing worth eating on the vast majority of flights, then the fact that travelers are spending more hours in airports due to travel rules and delays, and finally because we have incredible choices of food outside airports and those improvements should become part of airport food vendor options.  Hooray for the Skinny Pancake!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman

Reader beware--despite the title, and the prolific sex that occurs within the pages, largely between people who will be together for longer than a one night stand, this is not a romance.

The story chronicles the multiple relationships of Nate Piven, a thirty something year old up and coming author living in Brooklyn, over the time between college and the present day.  Nate has a problem that shouldn't be difficult to relate to--he can't live with women, but neither can he live without them.  His situation is complicated by the fact that his primary relationship is with himself.  His ability to participate equally in an intimate relationship is modestly impaired, and that impairment is greatly augmented by his need to endlessly analyze every aspect of every woman he encounters.  It gets worse once he sleeps with them.  It gets more complicated by the fact that while he has quite a few thoughts and impressions about women, he is largely unable to verbalize those in real life.  Which is perhaps not a hindrance to his career as an author, but it makes him a difficult romantic entanglement.

The breadth of Nate's love affairs allows us to see the range of personalities that smart, well educated New Yorkers encompass, and while the story is told solely from Nate's perspective, we get a good idea of what his significant relationships entail.  Ironically, while Nate is able to see that things he valued in high school he no longer finds attractive, he has a great deal of trouble operationalizing that insight into his choice of bed mates--leaving the reader unsurprised when his relationships collapse over time.  The book is written in an amused tone, and it rarely hits an off tone.  I wouldn't quiter agree with one reviewer that she is 'the Jane Austen' of our time, but she does share some of that appeal.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Before Midnight (2013)

This is most likely the last installment in a trilogy that began with 'Before Sunrise', where Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a young American in Paris, meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a Parisian woman.  They talk all night and clearly have a thing for each other, but the sun comes up and they go their separate ways.  Nine years later they meet again in 'Before Sunset', and while they have both moved on with their lives, it is very clear that the spark between them has not been extinguished by time.

That is the set up to 'Before Midnight'--which you should definitely not see unless you and seen the other two, and even then, you might want to think twice about it unless you are happily ensconced in a very long term relationship.  Otherwise it will definitely scare you, and not in a helpful way.  These people are having a serious middle of their marriage mud slinging fest that is painful to watch.  The difficult thing is that it certainly rings true--Jesse keeps his temper better than most, and Celine is witchier than most, but on the whole it really is believable.  Which does not make any of it easier to take in. 

I think these linked movies are a very rare body of work--they stand alone, but together they are a powerful commentary on the long lasting attraction that people have for each other.  I have a co-worker who had a love-of-her-life relationship in high school, but they got separated by circumstances post-graduation--she went off to college, he signed up for the military without contacting her.  It was the era that pre-dated cell phones, email, and social networking, and when he disappeared, she figured she had been ditched, and married someone else.  Then, 30 years down the road, both of them divorced, they met again--and married.  So it truly does happen to people, over and over again, that the loves of their youth follow them well into middle age--we just don't usually have a fictional film account describing it.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Worthy Burger, South Royalton, Vermont

This place is aptly named--they do make a worthy burger.  This is the second railside dining establishment that I ate at on a recent trip to Vermont, and it was very impressive.  They serve burgers and beer primarily, and their selection of both was delicious.

My family had the grass fed local beef burgers, but I am not a fan of the traditional burger, so I was more interested in the other three menu options--they were out of the fish by the time we dined (we were there on a Saturday evening, and it was definitely hopping at 6pm, but either they don't make many of them or they are very popular, because sometime between 4 and 6 customers who came before me claimed them all.
So I opted for the ground turkey with duck confit burger--very yummy, and the duck prevents it from being as dry as traditional turkey burgers can be--given the attention to detail the establishment has, I would try the veggie burger next time if I miss the fish a second time around. 

The dise are quite good--the French fries are good, but nothing special.  The side salad I had was delicious, with a berry dressing and a mild chevre on baby greens.  The pickles are house made and fantastic.  We got an appetizer special as well--chicken wings, which we shared a dozen of and could have easily had another round had we not been so full--they were delicious.  The beer on tap is remarkable, and this is a definite find. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Mushroom Salad

  •  1 lb. mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 1/3 cup chopped parseley
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp. dijon mustard
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  •  1 tsp. sesame seeds
    In a medium salad bowl, mix together the mushrooms and parsley.
    In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, the mustard, and lemon juice until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. 
    Add the oil mixture to the salad bowl and toss until all the ingredients are coated.  Add sesame seeds.
    Serve--best after sitting about 1 hour, keeps well.

    I love this salad because it is simple to make and highlights fresh mushrooms, but you don't need any exotic mushrooms to make it work--just plain old baby portobellos or even button mushrooms are what is required.

    Friday, September 20, 2013

    The Skin I Live In (2011)

    In my mind, Pedro Almodovar is a film maker who focuses on what is odd in people.  He tells stories about people who live on the fringes of society, people we might not otherwise know or meet.  This movie moves well beyond the usual perversions and vibrating sexuality that Almodovar is known for into the realm of medical science fiction and psychopathy.

    Dr. Robert Legard is the main attraction.  He is aptly played by Antonio Banderas, with just the right mixture of coldness and hardness that makes you feel like if he were to make it out of here alive he would be able to stand trial).  He is a gifted plastic surgeon who has been involved in developing artificial human skin in his home laboratory (the parallels to a 21st century Dr. Frankenstein are purposeful, I think), and he has operated a private clinic on the grounds of his isolated estate.

    Early on in the film, which is cinematically exactly what you would expect from Almodovar--lush, bright colors, and nothing out of place, not one false note in the scenes and how they are filmed--we meet Vera (Elena Anaya).  She is angry, making angry art, dressed in a weird head to toe body suit, and pretty soon we figure out why--she is a prisoner.  Exactly why she is a prisoner we do not find out until much later in the film, but we know right from the beginning that all is not well with Dr. Legard.  It turns out his wife and his daughter have killed themselves, for very different reasons, and if we were being generous we might say it has unhinged him, but I don't think that was the first blow to his sanity.  In any case, the story is very told, and no matter how creepy everyone in it is, we do want to know what happens to them all in the end.  The film maker once again does an amazing job.

    Thursday, September 19, 2013

    Vermont: A Sense of Place

     I have been going to the same place in Vermont for over 30 years.  While the economy of the state has fluctuated over time, with some parts of the state doing poorly even through the 1990's when things were pretty good nationally, and the restaurants have routinely opened and closed, as you would expect anywhere, there are several things that have remained the same.

    Vermonters are New Englanders, in that they have a live and let live attitude--not inclined to get into other people's business.  And they don't talk all that much about it.  What it allows is for the flourishing of an alternative life style culture
    which thrives in the state--lots of Subarus and lots of Volvos.  Lots of leafy, locally sourced salads at diners.  The topography also stays the same, and I mean that in a good sense.  The mountains are covered with forests.  The fields are lush and well cared for.  It is no easier and probably harder to make a living as a farmer in Vermont as anywhere else in the country, but there are still plenty of people having a go at it.  That is a reassuring thing to return to year after year (or, in my case, more like year after every other year).
    As an Iowan I do not travel to Vermont to get a look at farms and barns and cows.  We have plenty of all that within walking distance of my house, and quite a bit more as you travel through my home state.  So what is it that brings me back year after year?  I do love the mountains, the cheddar cheese, and the maple syrup, but what I like most is that it remains stable and appealing decade after decade.

    Wednesday, September 18, 2013

    Inka Heritage, Madison, Wisconisn

    On a recent trip to Madison we had lunch at this Peruvian restaurant.  I have very little experience with traditional Peruvian food--for one thing, the last time I was in Peru was in the early 1980's and I was definitely traveling on a budget, so I did not have the chance to eat high end Peruvian food, and I was only there a few days as a lay over en route back from Bolivia.  I loved the Quechua and Aymara Indian women in their traditional dress, as well as their gorgeous native weavings from alpaca--and the fact that for both of us Spanish was a second language.
    But the food did not strike me as amazing--I ate a lot of rehydrated purple potatoes is what I recall.

    The thing that I love about Peruvian food, besides the ceviche (which is excellent and also a large portion for the price at Inka Heritage), is the causas.  What is a causa?  Is it versatile Peruvian potato dish makes a great light meal or a fine appetizer to share with the table. A causa can be layered with any number of fillings — chicken salad and tuna salad are favorites, and both are available at Inka Heritage. Vegetarian fillings are options as well. They are served cold, which takes some getting used to because they are nothing like potato salad.  A causa rellena is often topped with extravagant garnishes and sauces for a colorful presentation.

    The other thing that is quite well represented at this restaurant are rice and seafood dishes (they have chicken and meat options as well)--these are either sauce based, or as pictured
    here, they are like paella, but with much different flavors to the rice.

    This was not a fancy restaurant, but it was very nice, and the prices were reasonable.  The portion sizes were substantial, and we shared dishes as a table, which is a great strategy to get to try as many possible things on the menu.

    I am still quite new to this cuisine, but I definitely like what I have had so far.

    Tuesday, September 17, 2013

    Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

    This is the beginning of a semester of watching films that I either missed or avoided in my previous liberal arts education.  My youngest son is taking a film analysis class, and this was the first of what I am sure will be many things we watch together as a family in order that we be able to teach and reinforce the new ideas and concepts that he is learning.

    This is a short 45 minute film from the early 20th century--Buster Keaton is best known to me for his slapstick physical comedy.  The movie is a silent one, and the sound track does a lot to emphasize the emotional tone of each scene--I didn't really see that until I watched 'The Artist' a couple of years ago--the music, combined with the exaggerated acting, give the viewer much of the idea of what is going on in each scene.  The medium of silent films allows the viewer to see just how much non-verbal communication can impart.

    The plot is a simple one.  A shy and inexperienced--but earnest--boy is very interested in wooing a similarly inexperienced girl.  The villain is a sharply dressed but unscrupulous man who goes about defaming the character of the boy.  The movie demonstrates the lengths the bad guy will go to get his way, intersperses some hilarious physical comedy along with a great chase scene before all is revealed and the boy does indeed get the girl.  Wonderful short film that is available on both YouTube and Netflix streaming.

    Monday, September 16, 2013

    Abe Turns 21

    Thanksfully, the Merle Haggard song "Mama Tried", which I know best as covered by the Grateful Dead,  does not apply.

    You know, the one that goes like this:
    "I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole.
    No-one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried.
    Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading, I denied.
    That leaves only me to blame cuz Mama tried."

    I don't know why 21 sounds so old to me, but maybe it is because there are so few things that you become eligible for when you turn 18, other than standing trial as an adult and voting, so 21 becomes the default age of majority in my mind.

    What does it mean, besides the fact that you can go into a bar with your actual driver's license (as opposed to someone who looks more or less like you and has a birthday that qualifies them for being served alcohol)

    So, as of today, three of my four children have crossed this all important threshold.  Congratulations Abe--may this be the year that you figure it all about.

    Sunday, September 15, 2013

    The Book of Life

    The new year has begun.  The Days of Awe, a time for reflection, self-assessment, and the asking and receiving of forgiveness, are behind us.  The fast of Yom Kippur has come and gone (for another year), and the shofar has blown.

    I am struck every year by the beauty of this tradition, which goes back literally centuries.  Assessing the gifts we have, the flaws we balance them with, and the ways to keep balance, harmony, peace, and goodness in our lives, to critically evaluate ourselves and our world, in order to both be grateful and to ask forgiveness is something that we might forget to do if we weren't following this tradition.

    I am doing a lot of college level reading these days.  My youngest son is an auditory learner, and needs to listen to all of his assignments for his various college classes, and at this point, my husband and I are doing the bulk of that reading out loud.  I have been reading about cinema for his film analysis class, and there is a lot about philosophy and art wrapped around the readings that focus on the mechanics of writing and producing a quality film.  One of the concepts that struck me was the idea of 'slow film'--in the era of multitasking, where we might be simultaneously writing an essay, texting a spouse, chatting on Facebook with a friend, and emailing, all while listening to music, it made me pause.  The paper was juxtaposing some very slow filming, even filming in slow motion, can reveal things that the fast pace of movies like 'The Bourne Identity' cannot.  There is value in slowing things down, even to the point of what might be considered boredom, in order to better reflect on what brings passion and satisfaction to life.  So, I am taking a moment to reflect as I have a bagel with whitefish salad.

    Saturday, September 14, 2013

    The American Cheese Society Meeting Annual Cheese Sale

     The American Cheese Society (ACS) is the leading organization supporting the understanding, appreciation, and promotion of farmstead, artisan, and specialty cheeses produced in the North America.   Over 1,400 members strong, ACS provides advocacy, education, business development, and networking opportunities for cheese makers, retailers, enthusiasts, and the extended industry.

     Consumers and chefs benefit from access to a wide and varied selection of the highest quality, American-made cheeses that are safe, delicious, healthy, and wholesome.
    It is important to support cheese makers of all sizes and business models to craft safe, diverse, and delicious cheese based on the best production methods.   In addition the ACS believes that dairy farmers deserve the right to make cheese from raw or pasteurized milk as a viable way to protect their livelihood, support local economies, add diversity to the nation’s diet, and preserve long-standing methods and traditions.
    Artisan, farmstead, and specialty cheeses are part of a broader movement that focuses on sustainable agricultural practices, farm-to-table distribution, informed food choices for consumers, and connecting local producers with consumers.
    The ACS Annual Meeting is held in late July or early August each year, and they have a Judging & Competition that proudly recognizes American cheesemakers’ efforts to produce the highest-quality American cheeses made from American milk sources.  That is all well and good, but the very best part of the ACS annual meeting from a consumer standpoint is that they sell off all the cheese that is left over at the end of the competitions at bargain basement prices on the Sunday after the meeting ends.  We have gone on three occasions, this year included, and brought home 100+ pounds of cheese to enjoy over the months to come.

    Friday, September 13, 2013

    Pig in a Fur Coat, Madison, WI

    We chose this restaurant because the chef was recognized as a rising chef by the James Beard Foundation, and it was not a mistake.  The restaurant is in a funky neighborhood in Madison, away from the circle around the Capital, in more of a warehouse district.  Inside it reminded me quite a lot of The Purple Pig in Chicago, with high tables that are solidly built.  Diners are perched on bar height chairs and you share a table with other diners.  We were a group of five, so they put one of us at the head of the table, and it worked out beautifully.

    Now to the food--there are small plates, appetizer plates, and larger portions, and we shared a mixture of them all.  The French Fries fried in duck fat was my favorite, but others at my table favored the poutine, which was the aforementioned fires covered with gravy, with some fried cheese curds and some fois gras for those who didn't think the dish was quite rich enough. They do make things that are fired exceptionally well, but the porchetta with mashed potatoes was stunning as well.  They have a lovely selection of Wisconsin microbrewery beers to go along with the fabulous food, and I would highly recommend this place.

    Thursday, September 12, 2013

    The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

    Since I read extensively in the murder mystery/detective genre, and am especially fond of many British novelists of this ilk, I might very well have come upon this book in my own sweet time without knowing the pseudonym of the author.  Unfortunately I did not have the chance to read it anonymously, and did so knowing it is the product of J.K.Rowling.  That was perhaps a mixed blessing, in my case, because while I ardently adore the Harry Potter series, I was not at all impressed by her last book, 'Casual Vacancy'.  So I was pretty flexible in my approach--hopeful that the book would be good, but acknowledging that it might not be.

    I have already disclosed a positive bias towards the genre that Rowling chose for her second (and apparently her third) post-Harry Potter efforts.  She has created a strong protagonist, in the shadow of great school-of-hard-knocks gumshoe detectives--Cormoran Strike is an Afghani War veteran who suffered a loss of one leg below the knee in the war, but to date doesn't seem overly burdened by PTSD.  He has a complicated love life with a woman who seems like she has Borderline Personality Disorder and a father who is well known for shady activities.  Lots of room to grow stories with a start like that.  He manages to get an incredible secretary/side kick (in a completely believable way), and while his private detective agency is very much struggling, the case in this book is well articulated and interesting.  Rowling as Galbraith continues to be an excellent story teller--the wrap up of the story is weaker than what comes before it, but this is a strong start as a murder mystery writer.

    Wednesday, September 11, 2013

    Twelve Years Ago Today

    Twelve years ago today my youngest son got his last dose of chemotherapy.  He had cytoxan running into his central line when the North World Trade Center Tower collapsed.  It was a terrifying day for the country, and a certain amount of chaos followed for all of us.  My sister-in-law was stranded at a meeting in Los Angeles and had to rent a car and drive across the country back to her home in Baltimore, so that she could be with her family as everyone coped with the attacks on New York City, the Pentagon, and by intention, the rest of us.

    Our family felt another kind of chaos.  It was the end of a year of chemotherapy, which came on the heals of surgery and radiation for my youngest son.  The goal was to eradicate a malignant brain tumor that was diagnoses when he was just five years old--so over 20% of his life at that point had been spent in the high acuity care of an oncology team.  There is a strange thing that happens to you when you feel you are literally fighting to save a loved one's life that ous task, such as getting chemotherapy and blood trasnfusions becomes a habit.  Habits are hard to break, and so it was at the end of treatment--we knew intellectually that the fix was in.  We would just have to wait to see if the treatment would work.  We all missed the active phase.  We found waiting to see what would happen very hard. 
    Which is sort of what the rest of America was doing the fall of 2001--waiting to see what would happen next. For very bad reasons we had very good company in our wait and see vigil. 

    Tuesday, September 10, 2013

    Braise, Milwaukee, WI

    Braise is both a cooking school and a restaurant, located in a warehouse transition neighborhood in Milwaukee.   Almost my entire family came to Milwaukee in early August to enjoy a meal with my brother and his wife.  They were in town for their second triathalon in a week's time, and we were taking the opportunity to see them relatively close to our home in Iowa--they reside in the far north state of Alaska, and so we need to grab every chance we can get to see them and they picked out this dining establishment for our time together.  The first thing to be said is that the bread is remarkable.  We had three different kinds and eeach and every one of them was terrific.

    There are some very enticing vegetarian options on the menu, but no vegan ones--no worries, the chef made something for the vegan in the crowd, and the three vegetarians were happy with the choices presented.  The highlights for those who partake of meat were the risotto with ham--which sounds like it might not be all that special, but the ham itself was fantastic, and the risotto was perferctly cooked--moreover the combination was better than the sum of it's parts.  The other dish that was a surprise favorite was the roast chicken--it was moist and flavorful, and everything that chicken whould be but so often is not.  The appetizer favorite was called pork buns, but these were nothing like the steamed Chinese bao that I was thinking of--these were more like small pancakes with a wonderful vegetable and pork filling that was bright and flavorful and delicious. 

    Monday, September 9, 2013

    Brugge, Belgium

    This is an incredibly cute town--it is like taking a step back into medieval Europe in the very best sense of the word (there is plumbing and electricity and automobiles but the buildings and the ambiance is very much out of a by gone era.

    We were in Belgium for a very short period of time this summer, but decided that we had to spend a bit of time here--so we took a train from Brussels, and an hour later we were trasported back in time.
    Brugge streets are full of tourists--I am not sure if I saw even one native citizen beyond the horse cart drivers that we saw in the main square.  There was a steady stream of people going from the train station to the main square, where we immediately bought frites and sat to soak up the atmosphere.  A horse drawn cart ride through town seemed like a good way to get an over view, and we were fortunate enough to make that decision before all the carts were taken--I am not kidding when I say we were not alone.  We followed the ride with a stroll through the medieval streets, had lunch, bought a few chocolates, and went back to the train to Brussels.  Well worth a day trip, and if you want to see a museum or two, an overnight would be warrented.  One thing I must do now--rewatch the Colin Ferrell dark comedy 'In Brugge'. 

    Sunday, September 8, 2013

    Harvest by Jim Crace

    This is book number five for me to read of the Man Booker Prize 2013 long list books, and while it is incredibly well written and the story has a good wrap up at the end, it is not exactly my style.  It is the Man Booker style, though, and I could see it sailing on to the short list--the prose is complex and rich and evocative of the place and time that the story is set in.  It is just a little bit too much for me--I prefer sparser speech, but I can see the artistry that the author brings to this book.  He has stated that this book will be his last, and if that is the case, he has certainly closed his writing career with an admirable work.

    The story is set in England in a pre-Industrial time period.  The land is feudally owned and operated, the law is dispensed locally, and what the master says goes, regardless of things like truth and fairness.  The harvest is critical to the survival of the town and it's people, and Crace is at his best when he is describing the process.  You can smell the earth mingled with sweat as people labor to bring in the grain.  You can imagine their urgency to get the work done and the anxiety that there are not enough of them to get the work done in time. 

    Two things come into the village life that set about a chain of events that leads to its evacuation.  The first is a woman of unsettling beauty.  Her arrival one night with two men in tow coincides with a destructive fire that throws immediate suspicion on them.  The second is the arrival of the new master of the house.  He rides in on horseback proclaiming to know God and all that is good, but things quickly go from bad to worse.  We see the story through the eyes of an outsider.  Walter Thirsk rode into town 12 years before and fell in love, so he never left.  He was tied not to the place, but to a woman, and when she died, he ceased to have the same intense connection with the place--and truthfully, he was still more or less an outsider to them.  It was sometimes hard for me to follow the exact story that unfolded, but again, it is so beautifully written that did not lead to distress.

    Saturday, September 7, 2013

    Belgian Chocolates

    Today I am back off to Spain, and still remembering my last European trip.

    There is something about these adorable shapes that prevail in Belgian chocolate shops that is really appealing.  When I brought home a small box of these from my summer stop in Belgium, I served them to a table of 8 people, and we all jsut looked at them at first.  One by one the chocoaltes were removed from the plate and enjoyed, but the very last one was a shell shaped chocolate--it really looked like the best one and no one wanted to be thought of as ther person that would hog that sepcial chocolate.  Eventually there were no other choices, but even then, there was hesitation--and ultimately the chocolate was carved up into even smaller pieces and shared around the table.

    The quality of the chocolate is also superior--I am not always crazy about the fillings (strawberry buttercream is not a favorite, and while I like marzipan in very small quantities, more than one chocolate with that filling is over my limit, I am afraid), they are top quality ingredients.  The funny thing about Belgium is that the things they do better than anywhere else are available everywhere--you do not have to search out a chocolate shop--oh, no.  They are everywhere.  The only challenge is to find the best value.  And all the fun might be in trying out the options.

    Friday, September 6, 2013

    Grand Place, Brussels

    All the guidebooks would have you believe that there is very little to see as a tourist in Brussels, as the medieval city was leveled in the 18th century in order to build the spanking new capital city.  We did not see much of the city on our recent and brief stay, but the 'new' buildings they built are really impressive.

    I did not get a really good picture of the whole square, nor did I find one on line--which is too bad because it is hard to describe how truly grand the Grand Palace really is.  You can enter it from many sides, and it opens onto an enormous open area.  At night there are many people sitting in circles on the brick pavement with food and beverages, lounging in the shadows of these great buildings.  It is a very social place to be, with four entirely different architectural styles on each side of the square and seemingly no rhyme or reason as to why one side is gothic and antoher is in an old B elgium style, and everything in between.  We visited the Grand Place on several occasions over a couple of days and found it to be fun, relaxing and quite beautiful in an over the top kind of way.

    Thursday, September 5, 2013

    A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

    This is a very nicely written book that utilizes two voices to tell the story of Japanese culture from the time of Hirohito up to the present.

    Ruth is a novelist who lives on the West Coast of British Columbia, and she is adjusting to having gone from East Coast city living to being in a desolate small town (it seems like it might be a story that the author herself could relate to).  She finds a box that contains a diary of a young Japanese girl--it is not clear if the diary has been swept there after the tsunami that struck Japan or not--it seems too soon for that, but as Ruth reads the diary she wonders about the writer.

    Nao is the diary's author--she is a teen who has Japanese parents but has largely grown up in California--her father loses his job and they have to return to Japan, where she becomes acquainted with two quintessential aspects of what it is to be Japanese--you mustn't be different and when the culture is a shame culture, the bullying is brutal.  So as Ruth reads the diary she becomes increasingly worried about Nao--what happened to her?  We share Ruth's concern.  Nao is being physically abused and harshly humiliated by her peers.  Her father is depsondent and suicidal.  She has discovered that he uncle, a kamikaze pilot during WWII, committed suicide rather than kill people because of his opposition to the war.  The bad news for Nao just keeps coming.

    This is a fantastic book--it makes you think, it has introspective qualities, it is well paced, and it is unusual.  The author is a Zen Buddist priest and an independent film maker in addition to being an author--while I don't know what those qualities bring to her writing specifically, she has a great voice.

    Wednesday, September 4, 2013

    Belgium: For Every Beer, There is a Glass

    The beer in Belgium is remarkably and consistently great.  Should you get the chance to visit the country, you should be prepared to have a beer with every meal--or at least the meals that take place in the afternoon or later.  On a recent trip there I was not much outside of the sights that visitors would be attracted to--the Grand Palace area in Brussels and the incredibly charming town of Brugge--but it was remarkable how many people were sitting outside at all hours of the day and night, enjoying Belgian beer.

    What is remarkable about the beer?  It is flavorful, it is the body, it is the breadth of choice that is available everywhere, and it is the ubiguity with which everyone seems to enjoy it.  The other very fun aspect of beer in Belgium is how it is served--it seems that most, if not all, beers have their own glass.  The perfect vessel in which to enjoy each particular beer is prescribed.  I thought the system that is recommended for wines was complex, but that doesn't hold a candle to the beer glass collection one would have to amass to be able to serve a wide range of Belgian beer correctly.

    Tuesday, September 3, 2013

    Belgium: Flanders and Wallonia

    I know so little about the politics of Belgium that I was surprised to learn that there is a hot and heavy controversy brewing about the future of the country as a whole.  I do admit that a nation that shares both French and Dutch as it's spoken language seems odd--I had some trouble navigating in Brussels the very first day I was there because the map that I had the street signs solely in Dutch, but on the actual streets it could be either Dutch or French, and if you are not all that conversant in the Romantic and the Germanic languages, it is hard at times to figure out exactly where you were and where you needed to turn to get where you wanted to go.

    It goes back to 18th century Europe--empires were not always built on the foundation of one culture and one language.  When those empires started to come apart, it was more often might that determined where national boundaries lay.  After WWI, Woodrow Wilson advocated that nations be built on the basis of commonalities--be that language, culture, religion, whatever it was that might unite a group of people under a common flag.  That strategy failed miserably at the time--in retrospect, the world in general and France in particular should have backed off on their revenge mission given what happened not all that much later in the 20th century, but at the end of the day, Belgium remained one country with a divided language and culture.

    So, what is the controversy?  During the industrial revolution, Wallonia was second only to the United Kingdom in industrialization, capitalizing on its extensive deposits of coal and iron--up to the late 20th century, it was the wealthier half of the unhappy marriage.  Since all of the European Union operations, as well as NATO, are centered in Flanders, the fortunes have changed and now they are angling for a seperate state.  So much for a 'neutral' Belgium.

    Monday, September 2, 2013

    We Need New Names by Noviolet Bulawayo

    I am working my way through the Man Booker Prize 2013 long list nominees that are currently available in the United States, and this year there are (at this point) 6 of the 13 nominees available, and this is one of them.

    The novel is about a young girl, Darling and it is set in Zimbabwe for about a third of the story and then it moves to Detroit, where Darling emigrates to pursue the American Dream.  At the beginning of the book I am struck by what Zades Mda complains about in his memoir, 'Sometimes There is a Void'--is it entirely necessary to portray African nations and African life in a uniformly negative light?  Is that a fair representation?  I really don't know the answer to that, and Mda himself says no, that it isn't at all balanced, but that is what we have here in this story.  Darling spends her days with her friends, stealing fruit from trees to stay fed.  She has to avoid predatory priests and child prostitution.  Her father is dying of AIDS, and she is witness to the suicide of a stranger who is similarly afflicted.  Her 10-year old friend is pregnant from a rape by her grandfather.  These may very well represent small village life in sub-Saharan Africa, but rather than using fiction to explore the undelying effects this all has on the social fabric, it is really just presented and we move on in the story.

    The second two thirds of the book is about the transition to the reality of life in America as compared to what Darling thinks it will be--in this segment of the story I am reminded of the film 'Lost Boys of the Sudan', where a group of boys in war-torn Sudan are pulled from a refuge camp and brough the the U.S. under a church sponsorship.  They are stunned by the amount that they have to work to be successful in the U.S without much in the way of a formal education.  They are subject to all sorts of barriers, but the dream that they had was that it would all be quite easy, when in fact the process of climbing the ladder of success is very arduous. This book is very well written, but I think I would have been happier with the two halves of the story staying separated rather than merged.  It is the author's first book, though, and a very strong showing.

    Sunday, September 1, 2013

    My Afternoons with Margueritte (2010)

    Germain (Gerard Depardieu) is a man with very low self esteem.  As the movie unfolds we have no trouble seeing why that might be.  His mother verbally abuses him as a child, and now that Germain is a middle aged man, he lives in a trailer in his mother's backyard and their relationship has not changed a bit.  He was equally bullied by his teachers and fellow students as a child.  He cannot keep a job, he is not married, and he thinks of himself as dumb and illiterate.  The noteworthy thing is that he remained kind despite the lack of kindness afforded him.

    Germain spends afternoons in the park with a group of pigeons.  He does odd jobs, but he makes time to eat his lunch outside and talk to his feathered friends.  There he meets Margueritte (Gisele Casadesus, 97 years old when the movie was filmed).  She is a bird like woman, frail and brilliant, kind and wise.  She is charmed by Germain's relationship with the pigeons that she herself has come to enjoy, and they become fast friends.  She reads to him, and he listens--it turns out that he is an auditory learner.  He loves Camus, he loves picturing the stories she tells him, and before long he loves her.  She helps him to see himself as worthy of love, and that has all sorts of beneficial down stream effects on Germain--and in the end he is able to do something meaningful for him as well.  The film is equal parts charming and sentimental.