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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Reflections On The Way Things Used To Be

I do love the Supremes, but the song of theirs that best captures my reflecting on 2013 is not the song of the title but rather this:

I need love, love to ease my mind
I need to find, find someone to call mine
But Mama said
You can't hurry love
No, you just have to wait
She said love don't come easy
It's a game of give and take
You can't hurry love
No, you just have to wait
You got to trust, give it time
No matter how long it takes

 They were referring to a life long love affair, which I found quite early in life and hurried it along quite nicely, thank you.  In middle age I am now referring to a love of life and the things that it brings.  I am feeling thankful, but there is some bittersweet mixed in with that, and I want to take the lessons that 2013 taught and carry them into 2014.

Most of I am thankful to live in a functional community and in 2013 I lived with all my offspring nearby. What a gift.  I know that it will not last, but it made the year a fantastic one, where we had a meal together at least 3 times a month and not unusually more often than that. 

My yongest son watched a documentary on happiness and noted that the more a country functioned as a community the happier it's citizens were.  Denmark, which is not well know for it's sparkling winter weather was the happiest country on the planet.  They have a living wage for all, a populace that is physically active (over a third of commuters in Copenhagen bike to work), and universal health coverage--but they also value each other.  I know from personal experience that it is cost prohibitive to go out to eat there, so you must have people over--I have been a little negligent on that score, so will try to pick up the pace in 2014.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Bacchae by Euripides (405 BCE)

I have been immersing myself in the Classics (with a capital 'C') and despite a life long avoidance of learning anything to do with mythology, I am enjoying myself.

The story here is a brutal one, but then the Greek gods were not really known for their beneficence.  Hardly.  Smoting was more common than not.  This is the story of the god Dionysus taking revenge on his mother's family for not believing that the father of her baby was Zeus.  Semele, Dionysus' mother was the victim of Hera's revenge (since she wasn't powerful enough to take out physical revenge on Zeus, she made do with eithering cursing, killing, or tricking his consorts in ways that hurt Zeus emotionally).  Her family ruled Thebes, and at the time that Dionysus returns, his cousin Pentheus is the king.  Pentheus' sin is impiety--he refuses to see the writing on the wall, that Dionysus is indeed a god, and that Semele was telling the truth.  His mother and aunts go off to join the bacchantes, as does his grandfather, but no amount of family pressure or miracles moves him, and he is tragically killed by his mother as a result.  I am telling you, these Greek gods show no mercy.  Cadmus, who is Dionysus' grandfather as well as Pentheus', says it best--Pentheus had to be punished, but the punishment fell to the whole family, and that was a bit over the top.  Dionysus was not known for his sense of proportion--after all, he is the god of wine and enjoyment, but he was not an easy going god--do not piss him off.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Way Way Back (2013)

If you love a movie where the shy, geeky teen meets all the right people over a summer and takes a giant step forward in confidence despite his mother not standing up for him, well you are going to love this movie.  Duncan (played to perfection by Liam James) is the most awkward, shy teenage boy you have ever seen in a coming-of-age movie.  His facial expression, his body language, and his interactions all scream 14 year old uncomfortable in his own skin.  He is very easy to side with in a comedic drama that pits him against his mother's officioua boyfriend Trent (played by an extremely unlikable Steve Carell--the man is a genius in this kind of role).

The story goes that Trent has a beach house and he is taking Duncan's mother Pam (Toni Collette) there to wow her with the kind of special family they can blend together.  Sadly, Pam is all about Trent and has no clue that Trent is slowly breaking apart any self esteem that Duncan had.  Luckily, Duncan has a chance encounter with Owen (Sam Rockwell), a lovable if somewhat flaky owner of a water park.  Owen gives Duncan a job and he gives him confidence.  He brings Duncan a little bit out of his shell and when it is clear to other employees that the boss likes him and he is likable he suddenly has a social circle.  He is actually happy, despite Trent.  The characters in this movie are in some ways predictable in the roles that they play but they do them so well and in a slightly off base manner that it comes off as refreshing.  Do not miss this!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Paxta, Barcelona

This was the best meal we had in Barcelona, and one of the most memorable meals that I have had, period.  This is a Adria brothers place, and it is everything that you could hope for from them.

My spouse was very patient with me leading up to this meal.  I kept saying that I thought the 20-course version of the menu (90 €) would be plenty, and that it was not necessary to consider the 30-course version (120 €), and he said 'let's just see how we feel'.  It was a very successful strategy, it turned out--I was so enamored with the table we were seated at, and the ambiance, that I quickly changed my mind.  We were going for the whole menu--including the Sake Pairing.  It was an excellent decision.  The courses were quite

small and we were by no means overstuffed at meals end--the courses are also paced nicely--and it turns out they take that part very seriously.  Our wait staff were attentive and kind, but they made it very clear that if we needed a bathroom break, they needed at least a two course notice.

The small plates are inspired by the Nikkei cuisine of the Japanese who migrated to Peru about a century ago: fresh fish combined with corn, aj√≠ peppers, yuca, potatoes and, in Pakta’s case, a host of creative flourishes — algae from around the world, flavorful flower petals, succinct wild herbs and bursting soy “caviar” bubbles.
There was a rhythm between the Japanese and the Peruvian inspired courses that was refreshing, and the two causas that we had were absolutely fantastic.  This is a very special place that is not to be missed if you are in the neighborhood, and are lucky neough to score a reservation.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Almost Never by Daniel Sada

Daniel Sada is a giant amongst Mexican authors.  He is a writer's writer, and those of us who read him in English are apparently missing his best qualities (which I suspect would be true about reading David Foster Wallace in translation--the brilliance in his use of words and the melodies that he creates would be a real challenge for a translator to manage, and those are the sorts of things that Sada is known for).  He died before this was published, and I think it is a pleasant afternoon read that is well worth picking up.

This is a salacious, almost tongue-in-cheek, story about sexual obsession that well might appeal to any sentient human being with a few nerve ends and a beating heart. Demetrio, a young agronomist in Oaxaca — it is 1945, in a vibrant metropolis of Mexico — falls in love with a beautiful and inexhaustibly athletic prostitute by the name of Mireya. He is gleefully enjoying her countless charms, visiting her so often that she has no time for other customers, when his mother writes and insists that Demetrio accompany her to a wedding in the desert town of Coahuila. At the wedding, he meets the virginal Renata, whose beauty is so arresting that he cannot help but propose marriage. Although Renata accepts, she is not so easily won. There is to be no touching, she tells him, and certainly no conjugating. Not even a whisper of love, for at least a year. But Demetrio is full of vim and vigor — this is post-World War Mexico, after all, and the country is bursting with possibility. So it’s back to Mireya. And then forth to Renata. And then back, forth, back. You get the picture. It is a quick read that gives many cultural insights alongside the eternal struggles between men and women.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

24 City (2008)

I was unaware that there was a Chinese equivalent to the "mockumentary", but this film falls more or less into that category.  The film maker, Jia Zhang-ke made this film, and his point was to tell a story about the generations of people who worked in a state factory, which is just about to be demolished.  He and his team interviewed about 50 people to get their insights and experiences, but amongst the group he was unable to find the right mix that he required to demonstrate the profound changes that have been occurring in China over the past 20 years.  So instead of doing a straight ahead documentary, with an interviewer asking real people for their experiences, he did a combination.  There are actors who are telling stories that propel the plot forfawrd intermingled with interviews with actual factory workers, and the audience does not know which is which.  It is a docu-fiction hybrid, an essay in contemporary history and an experiment in cine-portraiture, vividly shot on high-definition video. The result is a deeply serious and sombre film, trying to find a way of telling the stories of people affected by the gigantic political and economic changes sweeping that country whose concerns must in the end affect us all: 21st-century China.  The cinematography is fantastic, there are occasional flashes of humor, but overall it is a vision of what it is like to be a cog in the wheel that is industrial China, where there are pockets of billionaire wealth, but most people are just trying to make ends meet.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Kernza and Perrenial Grains

Wes Jackson, from the Land Institute in Kansas has been working on perennializing what for over 30 years, in an effort to save our agricultural soil from the damage of annual grains.  He has a biblical way of speaking: “The plow has destroyed more options for future generations than the sword,” he says. “But soil is more important than oil, and just as nonrenewable.” Soil loss is one of the biggest hidden costs of industrial agriculture — and it’s created at literally a glacial pace, maybe a quarter-inch per century. The increasingly popular no-till style of agriculture reduces soil loss but increases the need for herbicides. It’s a short-term solution, requiring that we poison the soil to save it.  With global climate change and the need to maximize use of water, the time to worry about this is now.
Perennial grain cropping systems could address a number of contemporary agroecological problems, including soil degradation, NO3 leaching, and soil C loss. Since it is likely that these systems will be rotated with other agronomic crops, a better understanding of how rapidly perennial grain systems improve local ecosystem services is needed. A recent study quantified soil moisture, lysimeter NO3 leaching, soil labile C accrual, and grain yields in the first 2 yr of a perennial grain crop under development [kernza wheatgrass, Thinopyrum intermedium (Host) Barkworth & D.R. Dewey] relative to annual winter wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) under three management systems. Overall, differences between annual and perennial plants were much greater than differences observed due to management. In the second year, perennial kernza reduced soil moisture at lower depths and reduced total NO3 leaching (by 86% or more) relative to annual wheat, indicating that perennial roots actively used more available soil water and captured more applied fertilizer than annual roots. Carbon mineralization rates beneath kernza during the second year were increased 13% compared with annual wheat. First-year kernza grain yields were 4.5% of annual wheat, but second year yields increased to 33% of wheat with a harvest index of 0.10. Although current yields are modest, the realized ecosystem services associated with this developing crop are promising and are a compelling reason to continue breeding efforts for higher yields and for use as a multipurpose crop (e.g., grain, forage, and biofuel).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Plutocrats by Chrystia Freeland

The subtitle of the book sums it up: "The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else".  I am posting this review on Christmas Eve because I think the current trend in wealth distribution is something that is far out of keeping with the teachings of the prophet who is celebrated during this season.

I would like to start with a quote from Senator Ted Cruz' non-filibuster in September, 2013:

“What we have here is our core values as Americans and Christians slipping away into this facade where we should take care of our poor, sick, and disabled,” said Cruz in hour 19 of his filibuster. “It is disheartening to know that the nation our forefathers built is no longer of importance to our president and his Democratic counterparts. Not only that, we are falling away from core Christian values. I don’t know about you, but I believe in the Jesus who died to save himself, not enable lazy followers to be dependent on him. He didn’t walk around all willy nilly just passing out free healthcare to those who were sick, or food to those who were hungry, or clothes to those in need. No, he said get up, brush yourself off, go into town and get a job, and as he hung on the cross he said,”I died so that I may live in eternity with my Father. If you want to join us you can die for yourself and your own sins. What do I look like, your savior or something?” That’s the Jesus I want to see brought back into our core values as a nation. That’s why we need to repeal Obamacare.”

That is a misrepresentation of what Jesus represented, and I am pretty sure the current Pope would concur.  The super rich share Ted Cruz' same values.  There is nothing shocking in here to anyone who reads the news.  There is an income gap in America that exceeds any we have seen before, including the  early 20th century, which was the last time it was this extreme.  What was shocking to me was that it was colonial America that had the least income disparity, even when including slaves.  That is depressing.  The super rich believe they are better than everyone else, and that they deserve their money.  They pay people wages that they cannot live on and then are contemptuous that 46% of people do not pay income tax--actually, they can fix that.  They believe they should not have to pay taxes, but should rather be free to give their money to causes they believe in.  They are, in their own minds, better than the rest of us, and they are shocked and hurt that we do not agree with them.  This book will not put you in the holiday spirit, but it is well worth reading and thinking about.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The English Teacher (2013)

I had an extended layover in an airport recently and I was having some trouble escaping the Sunday football games, so I was looking for something to pass the time that would not require that it be completely quiet (and yes, I do think that it might be time to think seriously about noise reducing headphones, but I travel so lightly these days that I have been slow to devote the space they require--but I may have to bite that bullet, I admit it).

 I decided to spend some time on Netflix looking for something light to watch, and this is what I came up with--and for me, it worked perfectly.  Julianne Moore plays a middle aged high school English teacher who gets sucker punched by one of her former students.  She breaks all sorts of rules and makes promises she can't keep in order to get her former student's play staged at her high school. Her boundaries become so tenuous that she actually has sex with her former student--they are both adults and it is not a violation of any law, but it demonstrates how much she really wants the whole thing to work out. Nathan Lane plays the director to perfection, and Greg Kinnear plays the father of the play write.  Over the course of the movie, the English teacher starts to see where her blind spots have been and moves towards a more mature perspective on both the play and her life as a whole.  She manages to emerge with a new lease on life, and a romance that is age appropriate to boot.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Fundacio Miro, Barcelona

My recent trip to Barcelona was a very short one, and I had two goals; eat modernist cuisine the Catalan way and to walk everywhere so that it would balance out the food part as well as reaquaint me with the city.  On a rainy afternoon my spouse and I opted to walk up to the Fundacio Miro, and oh my goodness, we were so happy that we did.  The grounds and the museum are gorgeous, with plenty of outdoor sculpture to see and beaucolic places to sit and read or contemplate (if you were there on a nicer day than I was).
Indoors there is a comprehensive collection of Joan Miro's work as well as the works of contemporary artists.  The idea for the foundation came from Miro himself, and while he certainly did an excellent job of chowcasing his own work, there is a nice selection of other artists.  More importantly, it is inspirational to be within the walls of the collection, which I think was one of the things that Miro was hoping to accomplish, to inspire people to create as well as appreciate art.  Don't miss this when you are next in Barcelona.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Good Lord Bird by James McBride

This book won the National Book Award, and is on the 100 notable books for the New York Times this year, so it has gotten some critical attention.  It is yet another story set in pre-Civil War America (1856 to be exact) related to the final days of slavery.  All of which sounds very serious, but james McBride has written this as a tongue in cheek spoof rather than a damning indictment on slavery in its' final days.  Tracy Chevalier's book 'The Runaway' focuses on the Fugitive Slave laws, but McBride focuses on a historical character to tell his tale.

John Brown is the central character, and in this book, he is a bit of a crazy man.  he and his sons round up bands of like minded miltant abolishionists and remove slaves from their owners at gun point.  From the vantage point of this story, theirs is a futile effort, bound not just to fail but to get them all killed in the process.  The story is told through the eyes of a slave boy, Henry,  He is mistaken for a girl by John Brown and lives the rest of the novel out in dresses as a girl names Henrietta.  The social commentary is that the slaves all know immediately that he is a boy but the white folk are all fooled.  Not to give too much away, but racism and slavery are alive and well by book's end.

The actual meeting that John Brown had with Frederick Douglass in Rochester is portrayed in the book.  Douglass does not come off well--he is drinking and a bit of a lech in this account.  That parallels another author's recent depiction of him.  Colum McCann's book 'TransAtlantic' has Douglass' visit to Ireland in it and he is definitely trying to make time with a very young maid in the household he is staying in--I am not clear on where these are coming from, but then all that I know about Douglass is what he wrote about himself.  All in all this book covers a serious time in American History with an even hand that has a sense of humor.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2012)

I like F. Scott's Fitzgerald's book of the same title, but I have always been a little perplexed by it's continued popularity.  I have enjoyed the previous film interpretations of the novel, and while I looked forward to this latest version of an oft told tale, I was surprised by it.  For once, I actually got a version of the story that had an impact on me.

The narrativ eof the movie sticks largely to the story, but it has a grittier, darker edge from beginning to end.  Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby has a thin veneer of foppishness that does little to hide the tension and desperation that is so near the surface that it cannot be missed.  That is the Gatsby I feel in the book, a man who cannot sit still, who is much like the modern day plutocrats--he seeks approval, not just of his audience, the guests who attend his lavish, almost circus like parties, but the adoration and attention of one woman--Daisy Buchanon.  Carey Mulligan plays Daisy with the even handedness that the role demands--she is pretty, but she is shallow.  She is attracted to Gatsby, but she seeks more than just money.  She needs respectability and he really can't give that to her.  She is not likable and that is very clear in this interpretation.  Very nicely done.

Nick Carraway is the one telling the story and while he knows everyone's secrets, he is largely generous in his judgements of those around him.  He works and he lives on the very edges of the world of the super rich because he is Daisy's cousin--but his loyalties soon move towards Gatsby because he seems of all of them to be the most virtuous.  All that despite his bootlegger ties and his underworld compatriots.  It is a much more intense, and maybe a little hyperbolically told story than previous films, and I liked it very much.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Block of Discord, Barcelona

There are two distinctive and very different parts of Barcelona that draw visitors that are interested in architecture's attention.  One is the very oldest part of Barcelona, which dates back a thousand years.  The second one is the modernist neighborhoods in L'Exaimple that date back 100 years.  This block, so called the Block of Discord, is one of the most photographed in all of Barcelona.  It has houses that represent the 'Modernisme' period (which is Catalan for 'modernism').  It is the historiographic denomination given to what is primarily related to an architectural style, but which also involved other arts (painting and sculpture), and especially the design and decorative arts, which received special attention.  Although it was part of a general trend that emerged in Europe around the late 19th century and continuing into the 20th century, in Catalonia the style acquired its own distinct and unique personality. Its distinct name comes from its special relationship primarily with Catalonia and Barcelona, which were intensifying their local characteristics for socio-ideological reasons after the revival of Catalan culture and in the context of a spectacular urban and industrial development.  That political relationship is lost for the most part on the modern tourist, except for one thing.  You have never seen anything like it.  The style is very distinctive, and so that fact that it had sociopolitical roots has left it's mark on Barcelona.  The whole neighborhood is full of great buildings and the added bonus is that you get a good walk out of the tourist experience.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru

This book is odd.  I picked it up because it was on the New York Times 100 Notable Books list for 2012--i had neither heard of the book nor the author before, and it was a very pleasant surprise.  There is a thread of myticism that runs through the narrative, and contributes to the main story in a way that is significant and innovative.

While there are many tales woven in and out of various times throughout the book, if the book were to been seen as having a central story, it belongs to Jaz (short for Jaswinder) Matharu, the son of Punjabi immigrants, and his wife Lisa, a Jewish woman from Long Island who worked in publishing before their son was born. That son, named Raj, has been diagnosed with severe autism, and the difficulty of raising him has strained the marriage; when we first meet the couple, they’re on a “healing vacation” near Joshua Tree National Park. When they finally visit the nearby desert, they come upon a formation called the Pinnacle Rocks. And there, Raj disappears.

That is the turning point of the book, which takes another turn when months later, he just appears again, on a military installment near where he initially went missing.  Jaz and Lisa have very different responses to their son's dissapearance and then reappearance, and it is a fascinating and not altogether answered mystery.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Point Break (1991)

I watched this as part of my effort to watch the movies that my son's Film Analysis class, so I had read an article about directors, good and bad.  I am learning all sorts of new vocabulary, and this weeks' concept is an auteur, a director who puts such a stamp on their work that it is recognizable as theirs.  It is a terms that was coined by Truffault, and the idea definitely applies to his body of work.  This is an early film by Kathryn Bigelow, who is better known for 'Zero Dark Thirty; and 'The Hurt Locker', and the contention is that she deals with morally ambiguous situations as a rule.  She is not quite cut from the Hollywood director cloth.  She is interested in the ways her characters live dangerously for philosophical reasons. They aren't necessarily men of action so much as they are men of thought who choose action as a way of expressing their beliefs. It adds an intriguing element to their characters, and makes the final confrontation in this movie as meaningful as it can be, given the silliness of the final standoff.

This film, dating back to the early 1990's, is about a band of surfers who have pulled off successful bank robberies for years.  Keanu Reeves stars as Johnny Utah (seriously, that is his name), a rookie FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate surfer groups and try to figure out who the bad guys are.  He gets adopted early into a local group, makes the rookie mistake of falling for one of them, and then discovers that while she is not part of the bank robbing quartet, that the guys he likes and respects for their unconventional lifestyles are the guys he is after.  The story unfolds in a way that keeps the audience involved and Keaves has to grapple with his own demons as well as his love interest and the bad guys.  Especially intersting given what the director has done since this time.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Marco Polo Pasta

1 lb. spaghetti
1 1/3 cup toasted  walnuts
1/2 cup chopped black olives
1/2 cup roasted red peppers (from a jar)
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup fresh basil, cut in strips (I used more basil than Julia did)
sea salt/fresh ground black pepper to taste
2-4 cloves minced fresh garlic
6 T good quality olive oil
fresh grated Parmesan cheese for serving


Fill a large pot with water, add a good sized pinch of salt, and heat water until it comes to a boil. While water is heating, toast walnuts nuts in a dry pan for 2-3 minutes until just starting to brown, drain canned olives and red peppers and chop coarsely, and chop herbs. Combine nuts, olives, red pepper, herbs, salt, and pepper in a bowl.

When water comes to a boil add spaghetti, stir, reduce heat slightly and cook pasta.
When spaghetti is done, drain in a large colander. Heat the olive oil in the same pot you used to boil the spaghetti in, add garlic, and cook just a minute, long enough that you barely begin to smell a garlic smell, taking care not to let the garlic brown. Add spaghetti to the pan, toss to coat with oil and garlic mixture, and season with salt and pepper if desired.

Put spaghetti to large serving bowl, top with mixture of nuts, olives, peppers, and herbs,

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fobbit by David Abrams

This was on the New York Time Notable Books list for 2012, and since it deals directly with the war in Iraq and I deal with that as part of my job, I read it.  It is written by a career Army journalist who did a tour in Iraq in 2005, and it is a darkly satirical look at the 21st century war and the soldiers who fight it. 

I am sure that it is very hard, if not impossible, to avoid becoming cripplingly cynical when you watch war up close. That comes through loud and clear in this book, which focuses on military personnel who are not in battle.  We know that in Iraq, especially early in the war, being in a support unit was absolutely no guarantee of safety and the risks these men and women faced every day were very real.  the book incorporates inner monologues, diary entries, correspondence, press releases and conversations of several active duty soldiers, each with their own particular voice and their own version of events, each with their different responsibilities and views on the war.  They all share one quality,though.  They are characters who try to shield their malaise and opinion from public discourse--their real feelings come out in many ways, but not in the straight forward sense.  The problem I have with this dark book is that while it does tell a real story, it does so in a way that came off as disrespectful to me.  I recommend
'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' for capturing the same sentiments in a way that makes soldiers look weary rather than frightened.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

One Year After Sandy Hook

It should have been awake up call but we are still asleep.  Andy Borowitz (New Yorker blogger extraordinaire) posted that yesterday, along with a post about how Americans are safe from gun violence as long as they stay out of schools, movie theaters, malls, their driveways, their workplace, their homes, highways.....yes, if we cease to exist we might indeed be insulated from gun violence.  He has really nailed the variety of ways we think about this that keep us exactly where we are--in the year since 20 elementary school children were shot dead in their school, not one month has passed without another school shooting.

His post today is the epitome of what I like to call passive aggressive humor ( as long as we have politicians who are bought and paid for by powerful lobbys, and we continue to vote for them, nothing will change.  Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I have a glimmer of hope that it might be possible that money won't buy everything. Unfortunately that hope does not extend to addressing gun violence. I feel like it is our approach to renewable energy and climate change--if we do not have one solution to a complex problem, then it is doomed.  These are complex problems and the solutions will be equally complex--unfortunately we live in a black and white country (literally and figuratively), and nuance is not something we are good at.  I know that, so I pause to be sad about it on this ever so tragic anniversary.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Heat (2013)

This is not a movie that will become a classic, but it was definitely fun, and the people who come off looking best are two women, one Hispanic man, and one African American man, so if you like things a little atypical for Hollywood heroes, this one has that.  It is past paced, funny, and entertaining.

Sandar Bullock plays a highly effective and equally disliked FBI agent who is sent to Boston to assist in the investigation and arrest of a drug king pin.  She is assigned to work with a local beat cop played by Melissa McCarthy, who is brash, mouthy, unconventional, and just sas disliked by colleagues, but there is an equal mixture of fear in her case.  The two of them are used to going first and getting their way, so they have a rocky start to their parnership.  They are both adept at physical comedy, and they pull of the back and forth banter quite well.  I forgive a lot when the characters are likable and interesting, and these two are great together.

The movie involves the obligatory dirty cop, near death experiences, almost super human strength on the part of the main characters, as well as some cowboy maneuvers that require that they rescue themselves--it is a typical narrative, but with non-traditional heroes, and a very fun comedy thriller.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sensi Tapas, Barcelona

When we were recently in Barcelona we stayed in the Bari Gotic--it is not the neighborhood with all the upscale famous restaurants, but it is the neighborhood that is the most fun to walk around in. When you decide to sty there, you opt out of having a cab be able to find your hotel--at least not easily.  So every other night we were there we opted to leave to get dinner, but one night we decided to stay nearby, and it was a bit of a challenge.

This place was packed when we went in at 10pm, so we elected to try a couple of other places--one of which decided that we were too far over the median age to serve food to us, and the other was done serving for the night, so we went back to this place, and just as we walked in, there were two places that opened up at the bar, and the head waiter, presumably assuming that we had been waiting since we first approached him, happily seated us.  It was a cozy place to sit, with a great view of the rest of the restaurant, a nice view of the kitchen, and so it worked out just right.  The menu is varied, and everything we had was very good.  I particularly liked the chorizo braised in beer--if I had been at all hungry when we finished our first round of orders, I would have had another of these.  The patatas bravas were excellent, although not unique--it is always a disappointment when these are not good, so it was a relief to have them be delicious.  The duck confit timbale was delicious, as was the braised pork tapa.  There was an Asian tapas menu that we completely stayed away from, but if I went back, I would give that a try, because everything we had was nicely done.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Derby Day by D.J. Taylor

I read this book because it was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and I had yet to read it.  It is a British novel through and through, with all the pomp and circumstance that makes the English aristocrasy so appealing and annoying at the same time.

The story is set in London and environs during a few weeks in the reign of Queen Victoria, it is not merely a work of historical fiction but one written in a language appropriate to its time — i.e., it is a Victorian novel. It is fun and can be read purely as such, yet it is also a serious novel about a society caught between the familiar and the new, in which “the world is changing” and leaving many people behind.The 'Derby' of the title is the great horse race that has been run at Epsom Downs for centuries, an event that brings together the whole range of British society from the highest to the lowest for one glorious race.

In this story there is one horse in particular that is the focus on a horse, Tiberius, and Mr. and Mrs. Happerton.  In some ways the couple deserve each other--they each have significant flaws that unfold over the course of the novel, and the horse and the race are on the one had at the center of the novel, and on the other hand, a distracting side bar to the main story of corruption and betrayal.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Coming of Age in Chore Boots

I saw this wonderful one woman play at Riverside Theater last weekend--my only regreat is that I did not get to see it sooner so that I could tell more people about it (although I think it sold out most nights, so that might have just pile on the disappointment.

Janet Shlapkohl is a very talented person--not only did seh write and perform this play, I suspect she created her wardrobe for it as well.  The play is a memoir of growing up in rural America.  She weaves in things like the Vietnam War and the Farm Crisis of the 1980's with things that were happening in her life in a way that is interesting, funny, serious, and thought provoking.  It is very hard to be all of those things at once, but she very successfully pulled that off.  She also managed to talk about her husband and everyone she shares 50% of her genes with in a way that was not embarassing to them--which is really a miracle when you think about the modern approach to memoir writing.

One of the many things that I liked about the play was that there was an excellent use of music to compliment the story--not just during the paly itself, but before the play and at intermission.  The art of telling a story that is at times laden with pain but that is not painful to hear is a balancing act, and the music helped to set a hopeful tone of survival and the power to move forward with your life in happiness, no matter what barriers you might encounter along the way.  If this is ever re-staged, it is a must see.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Pecan Tart

I have been making this Pecan Tart, from the out-of-print Greyston Bakery cookbook for over 25 years--it is simply the best pecan tart ever.

My friend Ivy and I spent a couple of years cooking everything out the  cookbook--many of the recipes were printed out of order, and some of them just needed serious revision, but there are some real winners in there, including the shortbread crust that goes with this tart, which can be used for any dessert tart.

Shortbread Crust
1/2 c. butter
1/4 c. confectioner's sugar
1/2 tsp. orange extract
1 c. flour

Put all ingredients in a food processor, pulse till they come all together, the press into an 8-9" tart pan with a removable bottom.  Blind bake the crust at 350 degrees for 15 minutes (cover the crust with aluminum foil, then add pie weights).
Once cooled, add whole pecans to fill the tart shell--about 2 cups, maybe more.

1/4 c. butter
1/3 c. brown sugar
2/3 c. corn syrup
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 egg
1 Tbs. flour

Melt butter over medium heat, add corn syrup and brown sugar until sugar dissolves.  Remove from heat, stir in flour and vanilla.  After 10 minutes add egg, whisking vigorously so egg does not congeal.  Pour over the pecans until tart shell is almost full (may be too much, but don't over fill).  Bake 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Killer of Sheep (1974)

This movie was made by a film student at UCLA in the 1970's, and depicted Watts less than a decade after the Watts Riots.  One of the many ironies of the movie is that while it was made for about $10,000 it could not be distributed because the film maker, Charles Brunett, could not afford the musical rights to the sound track, which ended up being about $150,000.  Burnett's movie is about poor African Americans leading lives of quiet desperation, and the music that accompanies it is written for, by, and about African Americans.    The fact that Burnett himself was too poor to pay for the soundtrack to his classic movie is just one of the many complexities that surround the movie.

People who enjoy the classic Hollywood narrative will not relate to this movie.  It is a slowly unfolding story that goes nowhere slowly.  Stan is the man that the movie is named for--he works in a slaughterhouse killing sheep.  He is a quiet unhappy man leading a quiet unhappy life with his beautiful, tired wife.  Interspersed between scenes of Stan at work and at home are scenes of children at play in a desolate wasteland that would give middle class parents nightmares.  It is like scenes that have been filmed in third world countries, but it was filmed here, in Los Angeles, a city that would prefer to see itself as glamorous.  The movie slowly unfolds and abruptly ends but if you can allow yourself to be taken up in the atmosphere of it, it is well worth the journey into what amounts to a culutral immersion more than a story.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Remembering Pearl Harbor

 Seventy two years ago the Japanese bombed American ships in Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu.  The act of war brought the United States into what was truly a world wide war, and launched our country on an industrial superiority trajectory that has just recently begun to wane. 

The attack was the surprise of my grandparents' generation, and I think can be likened to the attacks of September 11th for my generation.  The  way we view the world was changed in some alarming and in some unknowable ways.  The prejudice that pervaded the 1940's and 50's against the Japanese is paralleled by the prejudice that Muslims are experiencing in America today.  It is a process that is conscious and unconscious.  Some things we know we are doing, and for those things we can intellectually examine and change.  It is the unconscious things that worry me--Islamophobia does not help anyone; not the object of the phobia nor the one who is fearful.  Fear is never the solution that works best, at least not in the long run.   Not to mention that it certainly doesn't fix the situations that led up to the attacks.  We have a dysfunctional government that reflects a conflicted populace.  We can't yet agree on what the most constructive path forward is, but in the meantime, best that we remember past surprises, and what happened as a result of them.  Are we proud of interning Japanese citizens during World War II?  What should we have done differently?  May the past teach us how we should go forward in the present.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela, Prince of Peace

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”~ Nelson Mandela

I struggle with forgiveness in my personal life.  I have no difficulty with it when the other side feels regret and sorrow. Often there is blame on both sides, and I can move toward compromise and letting go of my anger and disappointment in those situations.  That is not the struggle. The hard part is when the forgiveness is one sided.  In that situation, I am a terrible example. The capacity that Mandela demonstrated to forgive is the thing I found most inspirational about him.

Martin Luther King said that 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.'  I am not sure that I believe that in my heart, though I would love to.  In this instance, I think there is some short term evidence of that in Mandela's life.  After being sentenced to life in prison and spending 27 years incarcerated, he lived the almost identical time afterwards as a world wide symbol that change is possible, that wrongs can be righted, that progress can be made. There is ever so much more to do in terms of social justice, but fact of Mandela's life and accomplishments is a source of hope,in a world with few such beacons.  May his memory be a blessing.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

This Is the End (2013)

Let's be very clear on this.  Even though this got an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes and a sold showing of 7/10 on IMDB, this is not a great movie. Perhaps part of my problem is that I didn't find the slapstick humor very funny, and I didn't find the actors, all playing themselves, to be very likable. 

Seth Rogan is visited by his long time friend Jay Barushel.  Jay doesn't like LA and he doesn't much like Rogan's new friends there.  He is making an effort to repair his ties with Rogan, who seems altogether oblivious to the tensions, but then again, their relationship may not be all that deep to begin with.  They begin the weekend with smoking pot, video games, mixed with alcohol and not much else.  This is a relationship you could pretty much have with your dog--save the video games--but then a partner is not entirely necessary for that either.  You can play solo, or get on the Internet and play with an unnamed partner.

Rogan takes Barushel to a party at James Franco's house, which is populated with many well known actors behaving badly, and where he has an exceedingly bad time, but largely with first world problems.  Then come the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding through town.  People are raptured to heaven, the ground opens and swallows many into hell, and as luck would have it, these guys remain in limbo.  It is just no where near funny enough or thoughtful enough as a movie to make it as entertainment from my point of view--although many critics and movie goers disagree with me on that count.

I did find myself thinking about and then talking about The End Times, and that is why I reviewed it, because there is something positive to be said about preparing for the worst (especially if you have a strong pessimistic streak like myself).  I think that to live your life as if each day might be your last is an approach that leaves you with few regrets, because none of us really know when, or how, the end will come.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness

McGuinness translates his real life experiences in Romania in the waning days of the Ceausescu regime into this book, which is an on-the-edge-of-your-chair thriller that does what it's title claims walking the reader through the very bitter end of the most repressive regime in Eastern Europe.

The story is told through the eyes of a British national who is an invited professor at a Bucharest university.  He quickly gets lapped up by those who are eager for change, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that what is happening is not communism but rather totalitarianism, with an aim to starve it's people all the while providing for the well being of the leaders.  Romania was a place of untold horrors, and this book is a roller coaster ride through just a few of them.  We really never get to know the characters in any depth--this is not a book that allows us inside the lives of the people who suffered.  It is rather a litany of their pain, amplified by Ceausescu's desperate attempts to avoid the inevitable, but more of a thriller than an intimate portrait.  I prefer the later as a literary style, but this is a very quick read that takes one through the Ceausescu regime tactics, and those who fought back against them.  The book shows none of the bitter dark humor that you find in Romanian films--this is an outsiders view in, and nicely done for what it is.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Pumpkin Streusal Tart

This is a recipe attributed to Ronald Reagan, and it is fabulous.  Who knew that I would be serving holiday desserts that the Reagan's preferred?  It is really spectacular!


2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. orange zest
1/2 tsp. salt
2/3 c. butter
1 egg
1/4 c. whipping cream


1 15 oz. can pumpkin
3 eggs
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. cream
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. bourbon
2 Tbs. flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
3/4 c. flour
1/4 c. sugar
1/3 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. butter
3/4 c. toasted chopped walnuts
1/4 c. crystalized ginger
  1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, orange peel and salt. Cut in butter until crumbly. Add egg. Gradually add cream, tossing with a fork until a ball forms. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or until easy to handle.
  2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out pastry into a 13-in. circle. Press onto the bottom and up the sides of an ungreased 11-in. fluted tart pan with removable bottom.
  3. In a large bowl, combine the filling ingredients. Pour into crust. For topping, combine the flour, sugar, brown sugar, salt and cinnamon. Cut in butter until crumbly. Stir in walnuts and ginger. Sprinkle over filling.
  4. Bake at 350° for 45-55 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Company You Keep (2012)

This is a movie that is better after you watch it than while you are watching it.  What I mean is that while the plot and the cast are very solid (the later is in fact blockbuster), the story that it refers to is one that is very complicated, and requires more thought that the 2 hour viewing time allows. 

The story is about three Weather Underground radicals who were theoretically all involved in a bank robbery in Michigan 30 years prior to the setting of the movie and are all still on the run (which means that the movie is set in the early 2000's although if it said that I missed it--but the math doesn't work out otherwise).  Because a man was killed in the bank robbery, they are wanted for murder, which doesn't have a statute of limitation.

One of the three decides to turn herself in.  Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) decides that her children are old enough to be able to manage without her, and she is tired of the guilt.  What she doesn't anticipate is that there is a link between her and Nick Sloan (Robert Redford), which exposes him as well.  He is the father of an 11 year old daughter, and his wife has been killed in a car accident.  He sets out to prove that he was not involved in the bank robbery rather than take his daughter and go underground.  Ben Shepherd (Shia LeBeouf ) is a reporter who first figures out Nick Sloan's identity, and then figures out that he is likely innocent--he is much more successful than the FBI operation at unraveling what happened those 30 years ago.

I watched this film with one of my kids, who found the persecution of these three people morally unsound when the police officers who were beating and on occasion shooting and killing unarmed protesters were not prosecuted.  Two of the three had led upstanding lives in the time since the robbery, and it is hard to imagine what going to jail would do to balance out justice.  A murder is a murder, and there is that to contend with, but the movie brings up the moral ambiguity of the time, especially now that we know that Richard Nixon is on tape saying that he knew the war in Vietnam was unwinnable in the winter of 1971, but that in order to get re-elected he couldn't pull out--and thousands of men in uniform and civilians died so that one man could remain president.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

This is a wonderful work of historical fiction, set in Russia at the time of the Russian Revolution.  It is 1917.  The Mad Monk, Grigori  Rasputin, who was equal parts feared and reviled, has been killed.  His two daughters, Masha and Varya, become wards of Tsar Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov and were moved, under imperial guard, to the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Seloe, the royal family's private village outside the capital.

This is Masha's story to tell, and she describes life for the Romanovs before the revolution and what follows immediately after Nikolay abdicates.  We know from history what happens next, that Nikolay's brother refuses to take the reigns of power, that the Red Army quickly devolves from an army of communist ideals into just another invading force that rapes and pillages and murders with impunity, and that the Romanovs all perish at their hands.  But this telling is tender and the parts that we know are interwoven with another story that is wonderful to read.

Masha holds a special role in the Romanov household because the czarina hopes that she has the special healing powers that her father possessed to prevent the hemophiliac Alexei from bleeding to death.  She is unable to save Alexei, but she does have a close relationship with him in the book that marks her for life.  The Romanovs come to a brutal end, but Masha does not entirely escape herself.  The book intermingles Alexei's last days with Masha's future life, and the effect is successful.