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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Twas the Night Before New Years

As a direct result of my age, the year has flown by.  There were a number of highlights to reflect upon, the biggest of which was a college graduation, but all the boys were in school and that is a good thing.  We had a trip to two less visited continents (for us)--Africa and Asia, and I very much hope that 2015 holds more travel to places that are new and fun.

The overall situation in the world at the end of 2014 is somewhat tenuous.  The Republicans rule Congress in the United States, so there is very little chance of movement on issues like climate change, race relations, health care reform,  or modernizing the infrastructure of the country, to name a few of the critical issues that we would be advised to make progress on over the next two years if we want to remain on the cutting edge.  There are rumblings of war about.  The hoodlums who fight under what they call a caliphate in the Middle East but who have very little in the way of a religious community about them are terrorizing a war torn region, the solution in Syria is nowhere near, nor is a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict (which I heard someone say about that, "The Hundred Year War ended, this will too."), Russia is encroaching on it's neighbors territory and so much more.  I read an op/ed piece by Paul Krugman that I wish everyone with dictatorship in their heart would read before mounting an armed response.  His bottom line is that war in unprofitable in the 21st century, and it has been for quite some time.  I would love to be here writing a year from now and have something positive to say about the progress towards peace on earth, good will toward men.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Million Dollar Arm (2014)

This story, based on a real one, is not so straight ahead happy as you might expect from something Disney put together.  JB Bernstein (played by Jon Hamm) is an LA sports talent agent who had a high paying job with a talent management group and decides to go out on his own.  That is largely a failure and he is about to fold when he comes upon a gimmick.  How about a contest in India to find a cricket player who can pitch at Major League Baseball speed?  Bring them to the US, have them work with Tom House (played by Bill Paxton), a pitching coach with a reputaion for breaking all the rules successfully, and get them a MLB tryout.  He gets a sponsor for his idea, and off he goes on a tour of India with Ray Poitevent (played by Alan Arkin) as his pitching scout in tow.

JB is a very shallow, largely unlikable guy who is quick with the witty comebacks but very short on heart.  He plucks two Indian boys who have some talent from small villages who speak no English and plops them down in the middle of a high stress situation in LA.  They are Dinesh (Madher Mittel, who was Dev Patel's criminal brother in "Slumdog Millionaire") and Rinku (Shuraj Sharma, the star of  "Life of Pi"), who play their parts to perfection.  JB does eventually have his cold heart melted, but it takes most of the movie to accomplish it.  The good news is that the story and the Indian scsenery make the movie work watching.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Eatery A, Des Moines, Iowa

We were driving back to Iowa City from Kansas City, as we often find ourselves doing, and we stopped here for a bite to eat.  Des Moines is a solid hour and a half away from us, so we do try to stop to sample the culinary offerings when we are driving through, because we are unlikely to make a special trip.  This was a good choice.

This is a bar and Mediterranean food restaurant, which has happy hour prices for beer on tap and pizzas in the middle of the day.  The pizzas have usual topping combinations, like olives, feta and preserved lemon, or figs, dates and honey, as well as some closer to traditional topping combinations.  The pastas are handmade, and include stuffed options that I almost always opt for because they are hard to make at home.  There are meats and sea foods (including octopus), as well as a number of vegetable side dishes, all of which look delicious.  The menu is extensive and inviting.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Cold Peanut Noodles

From the new Mark Bittman cookbook How to Cook Everything Fast, this one is a keeper.  While I am not one to shy away from a recipe that takes a bit of time, the cookbook is great for preparing weeknight food after a long day at work.  Everything is labeled as taking 15, 30, or 45 minutes to prepare.

Ingredients
Stir in  ingredients: 1-1 1/2  pound cooked meat, fish, tofu, or any cooked or raw vegetable
1 cup peanut butter
2 T sesame oil
2 T honey
1/3 c. soy sauce
2 T rice vinegar
Dash of hot sauce (or chile oil)
salt and pepper
a piece of ginger about 2" long by 1 " in diameter, peeled and cut into little slivers (slice length-wise, then slice each slice into match-sticks)
16 oz Spaghetti noodles
3 scallions, sliced into 1" sections

Instructions
1. Cook noodles in salted boiling water until a little bit chewy but definitely done
2. Make sauce (in bowl big enough to mix in the noodles): combine peanut butter, sesame oil, honey, soy sauce, rice vinegar, hot sauce, and sprinkle of pepper. Stir until blended, then mix in a little hot water (up to 1/2 cup) until sauce has consistency of heavy cream.
3. When noodles are done, drain well, then add to sauce, mix well, add ginger and mix again, add scallions and mix again.
4. When serving, can top with a little toasted sesame seeds if you'd like.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Jersey Boys (2014)

This is Clint Eastwood's homage to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It begins in the early 1960's in a Jersey neighborhood where the chances of mobbing up were far better than escaping, and Frankie, Tommy, and Nick are in and out of trouble, and in one scene Tommy is getting out of jail when Nick is going in.  Incarceration interferes with the trio's ability to make progress musically, but they manage.  The turning point for them is the addition of Bob Gaudio, who wrote the songs that made the Four Seasons famous.

Whether they’re singing or fighting, “Jersey Boys” is at its best when it focuses on the band members’ chemistry. The actors know their characters’ voices well enough to effortlessly plow through as many Four Seasons songs as the original musical contains. They sound spectacular, and there’s enough of each song to satiate fans and newbies alike.  There is enough music to keep the fan viewer happy, and for days afterwards the tunes will be playing in your head.  The movie is definitely 45 minutes too long, and it may be that Eastwood is too much of a fan himself to make the perfect fan movie.  He does have one scene where Bob is in a room by himself after a show watching, you got it, a Clint Eastwood movie.  So the director managed a cameo.  He couldn't resist.

Massage, Culture, and China

I totally do not get the attraction of massage, and my trip to China did not illuminate the allure for me.  If anything, it left me more confused.  Massage in Mandarin is 'an mo' or 'tui na', and it is part of the much greater body of knowledge referred to as traditional Chinese medicine, and it works through 'jing luo' to improve the passage of energy throughout the body and improve or maintain health.  The earliest record on massage is in the inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells of the Shang Dynasty (16th -11th century BC). During the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BC), a story that a miracle-working doctor Bian Que healed the faint prince through massage was written down, illustrating the amazing effect in such an early time. In the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386 - 589), six techniques of hand massage evolved and became more professional, such as to strand, shake, twine, twiddle, knead and roll, which are still widely used.  Acupoints are also involved.

And then there is the Sole Massage--where Chinese guppies with a voracious appetite for scaly skin eat away at one's feet in the open storefront pictured above.  I did not try this intervention, but knew that I was far from home when I saw it.  Just another great view from the Yunnan Province!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Chana Masala

Merry Christmas!  My family always does a Thanksgiving redux with a ham thrown in for Christmas dinner, but in the interest of internationalism, I am posting a good basic Indian recipe.  I am not usually a proponent of using a spice mix, but for making super easy chana masala, I recommend the Vindaloo spice mix from Penzey's as a way to get a rich complicated and spicy flavor in no time at all.

1 cup dry chickpeas
1 onion diced
6 cloves of garlic minced
4 slices of fresh ginger root
1-2 tsp. Penzy's Vindaloo spice mix
28 oz. crushed tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
chopped cilantro for garnish

Rehydrate the chickpeas by soaking them overnight.  Add salt and gently boil on stove until the are soft, then drain them and set aside.  Saute the onion in vegetable oil until soft, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and ginger root and saute another few minutes, stirring occasionally to keep it from burning.  Add the Vindaloo spice and stir several times.  Add the tomatoes and chickpeas, turn the heat down and cover.  Cook for 20 minutes or an hour, depending on your time frame.  Serve with rice and the chicken tikka masala recipe I posted recently.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ordering Food in China


There are many adventures to be had when one does not know either the language nor the written representation of words, and that happened to us almost daily when we were in China this summer.  One way to approach such a situation is to play it completely safe--eat at the restaurant in your Western hotel and while you will pay a high price for your meal and you may not get the very best representation of the regional cuisine, you will be unlikely to get any of the three things that I very much wanted to avoid on my first trip to China--blood, intestines, and feet.  I am sure those all have delicious renditions and I might very much enjoy them someday, but I wanted my first trip to be filled with food that I liked and hoped that I could make at home some day.  To come home with good memories and maybe a little bit of inspiration.


Mission accomplished (when you set the bar low enough, you are more likely to be satisfied).  We had a phrasebook, a dictionary, and I had the concierge at our hotel write out the symbols for chicken, beef, pork, and lamb so that we would be able to either figure it out for ourselves, or use the universal method for last resort communication--pointing.  The concierge was very skeptical that we would be successful, but he underestimated our love of spicy food and the willingness of his people to help non-Han people get food that they would enjoy.  We were also aided by the custom of the waitress seating you and then waiting at your table until you are ready to order--we quizzed her, and anyone who was willing to help, and almost always got something that we recognized, and often exactly what we were looking for.  menus with pictures were better than those without, and that is where I would recommend starting, but we had outstanding food at local restaurants that often cost under $10 a person. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Hundred Foot Journey (2014)

 True, the movie is predictable from start to finish, which did not diminish my enjoyment of it.  An Indian family had a restaurant in England that was burned to the ground in politically motivated riots, and they decide to immigrate to another European country.  One of the sons, Hassan, is a talented chef, one who cooks intuitively and beautifully.  They travel around Europe looking for the perfect spot, and stop in a quaint but closed-minded French village to set up shop, shaking things up with an enticing array of culinary delicacies. This new enterprise happens to sit across the street from a conservative and revered building that’s a town treasure.  Helen Mirren stars as Madame Mallory, owner of Le Saule Pleurer (The Weeping Willow), an elegant and expensive French restaurant that’s the winner of a prestigious Michelin star.  She is quite unwelcoming at first, but is swayed to their side after her head chef firebombs the competition and Hassan's hands are burnt.  She hires him to work for her, he brings her a second star, and she launches him into the highly competitive world of Parisian restaurants.  The movie could have ended there and then, after loads of luscious food has been prepared and pictured, but it veers back to a love story for the ending.  Predictable yes, but very enjoyable.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Honey Roasted Carrots with Tahini Yogurt

We worship all dishes Ottolenghi and this one is no exception.  This one comes from his cookbook 'Plenty More' which my wonderful friend Nancy gave me and I love it already.  It is easy to prepare and quite delicious.

Tahini-yogurt sauce:
  • Scant 3 tablespoons tahini paste
  • 2/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 2 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
Carrots:
  • Scant 3 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted and lightly crushed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and lightly crushed
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 12 large carrots, cut into 3-4" segments and halved or quartered, depending on the diameter
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Place all the ingredients for the tahini sauce in a bowl with a pinch of salt. Whisk together and set aside, or put in food processor to mix.
Place the honey, oil, coriander and cumin seeds, and thyme in a large bowl with salt and black pepper. Add the carrots and mix well until coated, then spread them out on a large baking sheet and roast in the oven for 35-40 minutes, stirring gently once or twice, until cooked through and glazed.
Transfer the carrots to a large serving bowl or individual plates. Serve warm or at room temperature, with sauce on the side, scattered with the cilantro.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

This is a sad sad, very sad book which the New York Times names as one of the best books of 2014.  Birhu Mishra is the eldest son of New Dehli immigrants.  He is the all around golden boy--smart, diligent, a good son and brother, friendly, and all things that anyone could want in a person.  Soon after he obtains admission to one of the elite charter schools in New York City he has a near fatal diving accident in a swimming pool, leaving him with severe anoxyic brain injury.  It is a game changer for his family.

Severe illness in a member of the family changes everyone forever.  In this instance, Birhu's younger brother Ajay loses an ability to have pride in himself.  He has many of the same talents as his brother, but his life, as well as the life of his mother, revolves around Birhu.  The father becomes despondent and alcoholic, and so the family has two secrets to hide, no just one.  The book is sparse and clear.  Nicely done.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Monster in Paris (2011)

This is a charming animated movie by Bibo Bergeron, known for his adaption of the wonderful book 'The Invention of Hugo Cabret' into the equally charming movie 'Hugo'.  It has shades of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame', mixed with song and dance, love, an inventor and a charming monkey.

The movie is set during the flood of 1910 in Paris.  Emile is a camera operator in a movie theater and his friend Raoul is a delivery man who has a penchant for invention.  He has designed his delivery truck with a number of features that are even today not available in a motorized vehicle.  He is fun and impulsive and in love with a singer, Lucille.  Emile and Raoul make a delivery to a professor's house and since he is away, Raoul takes the opportunity to show Emile the professor's arboretum and chemistry lab.  Things quickly go wrong and they create a 7 foot flea, who terrorizes Paris in no time.  It is like the Ebola virus of their time.  The flood is a far greater threat, but better to focus on the sensational rather than the realistic threats to safety.  Lucille is the one who discovers that the flea has the heart of a troubadour and the dance skills to match.  She dresses him in a disguise and convinces her friends that he is worth defending.  The story is nothing special, but it is a lot of fun, definitely family friendly and whimsical in the way that makes me love French animated films.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Lijiang, China

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain consists of 13 jagged peaks that might be more aptly called dragon teeth.  It is true there is snow on it, as it is the southern most glacier in the Northern Hemisphere.

Like much of the impressive mountain landscapes that I saw when I was in China Jade Dragon Snow Mountain was under ocean and it was during the last 600 thousand years that the different landscapes had come into being because of the uprising of the lithosphere. That is the naturalist part of the story.  Better yet is the legend.

The story about this mysterious and beautiful place goes like this: Once upon a time, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain were twins. They had lived on panning in Golden Sand River until one day an evil fiend usurped the river. The brothers were very brave and had a fierce fight with the fiend, Haba died in the fight and Jade Dragon drove off the fiend after wearing out 13 swords. For guarding the people and preventing the return of the fiend, Jade Dragon held the 13 swords in hands day and night. As time passed, the brothers had turned into the two snow mountains, and the 13 swords had become the 13 peaks. The mountain is a holy place for the local Naxi people not only because of the legend, but also because long time ago, it was a place for young lovers to sacrifice their young lives in honor of true love and to escape from the arranged marriages and feudal ethics.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Naxi Culture, Yunnan, China

This is one of the minority tribes of China.  They mostly live in the Naxi Autonomous County in Lijiang, Yunnan Province, while the rest live in Sichuan and Tibet. Their population is 308,893 according to the 2000 census. In the name Naxi (also spelled Nakhi), Na means senior and honored and Xi means people.

Their language belongs to the Tibetan-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan phylum. In the past, they used a pictographic language called 'Dongba' and another called 'Geba'. In 1957, they designed characters based on the Latin alphabet and now most can write in Chinese. The Dongba Scripture (or Dongba Jing) that their ancestors left has recorded all facets of the Naxi life and is highly valued for posterity as a means of studying their character and history.
The culture is very male-centric--the women do all the work and the men do nothing but be waited upon and complain.  They live on farming, stock breeding and handicrafts. Reaches of the Jinshajiang River is abundant in botanical resources such as trees and medicinal herbs. The Lijiang horse (the horse part of the Tea Horse trade route that runs through the region) has also enjoyed the reputation for years of one of the 'Three treasures of Lijiang' which were presented to the official courts because of its ability to transport goods in mountainous area.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What If? (2014)

Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) meets Chandry (Zoe Kazan) at a party.  They banter back and forth with each other, it all seems to be going pretty well, and he walks her home.  She gives him her number at her doorstep, and then lets him know that she as a boyfriend.  Not just any boyfriend either--a boyfriend with a capital 'B' who she has been living with for five years.  So he loses her phone number.

Only it isn't that easy to give her the slip. The first reason is because she is the cousin of one of his best mates and the second is that he keeps running into her independent of that.  Don't these people know that when that happens it is true love?  No they do not.  So instead they deny their feelings for each other because she doesn't want life to be confusing and he doesn't want to be the guy who breaks up a long term relationship.  The dialogue is just as clunky and messy as real life, and this movie careens along, alternating between funny and painful to watch until the two of them figure it all out.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Keralan Fish Curry

  • 2 1/2 lb. firm white fish
  • salt
  • 2 teaspoons turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 medium onions sliced
  • 2 long red chillies
  • 1 inch piece of fresh root ginger
  • 1 pinch of ground cumin
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind (or 2 tablespoons concentrated)
  • 1 tablespoon fish stock concentrate

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Secret Place by Tana French

I don't usually review murder mysteries, even though I read 3-4 times as many of them as I read anything else (maybe more.  I might be low balling that part of my life), but this book was #1 on Time magazine's best books of 2014 list, so it is elevated above its genre.

Tana French is one of my favorite new writers of detective fiction.  Her Dublin series, of which this is the fifth installment, is the essence of fiction written around a crime.  Chris Harper was a play-the-field high school student who was found dead on the grounds of his exclusive school a year ago.  The police get a new lead via a post card on a semi-private message board the girls at the school use to post messages that they want to have remain anonymous but they want to get off their chests that implicates someone at the school in the crime.  The card is turned over to the police by a student at the school who is also the daughter of a police detective.

All of that sounds like a straight ahead murder mystery.  What makes this book stand apart is the detailed descriptions of the various girls who were involved with the victim, as well as their relationships with each other.  French had the mean girls vibe down pat, and her prose is both engaging and real.  The story moves back and forth between the present and more than a year before when Chris Harper was alive and clueless that his life would soon be ended by one of his romantic entanglements.  It is an excellent tale from start to finish.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

That Awkward Moment (2014)

This is a formulaic movie about romance from the man's point of view.  Three friends are brought more closely together when Mikey's wife informs him that she wants a divorce.  Jason and Danny have never had a serious relationship in all their years, and so their solution to Mikey's problem is to take him out to a bar and for the three of them to pick up random women.

The bad part of this movie is that the characters are predictable.  Men behaving badly is the rule here, but I think that it is not off the mark.  The good part is that while Jason and Danny are not the least bit interested in getting into a long term relationship, they both find themselves moving in that direction.  Poor Mikey, who really wants to be in a long term relationship, is the one that is left out.  This is a diversionary movie, one that can be watched in mixed company, and one where one can point out repeatedly why particular behaviors, speech content, and attitudes are not equivalent with grown up behavior.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Along the Tea Horse Road in China

The Ancient Tea Horse Road refers to a network of trade routes in Yunnan.  The route starts in Menghai and ends in Lhasa.  Many rivers are crossed en route,including the Mekong and the Yangtze, and the road has some very high altitude along the way (exceeding 12,000 feet at times), and the transit time was on average 6 months each way.  The network first emerged in significant terms during the Tang dynasty (618–907), reaching its zenith during the late-Qing period (1790s to 1911) and the first half of the twentieth century.

Today the route still includes remnant paths and roads, bridges of various sorts (arched, cantilever, and cable), caravanserais (madian 马店), market towns (large and small), staging posts, and shrines and temples (including mosques and even a few Christian churches)—all elements of what is now termed 'tangible cultural heritage'. As for the intangible cultural heritage of the route, it consists of a trading network that highlights the centrality of tea in the lives of the many ethnic groups in Yunnan (and beyond). The 'intangible' also refers to the rapid disappearance of the caravan itself, which for as long as recorded history, using a variety of 'beasts of burden' (oxen, horses, donkeys, mules, yaks and, at times, people), was the main conduit for the transportation of goods and ideas to and from Yunnan.[7] The tea road was not only an important route for commercial activity (including the trade in tea, salt, medicinal products and luxury goods) but also for cultural exchange, especially between Tibet and Southwest China (it was another important entry point for Buddhism into China, in addition to the more well-known Silk Road).

Friday, December 12, 2014

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

This is a book of quiet feminism.  It is also an allegory about how notions of beauty and civilization can endure in a world that periodically descends into barbarism and how women can persevere in a society that never ceases to devalue them in both war and peace.

The Beirut of Aaliya, the protagonist in this tale, is a city caught between the notion of a progressive and cosmopolitan European city and the persistent traditional Muslim notions of what women's roles should be. At an early age, Aaliya is married off to an older man. He's stupid and impotent and unworthy of her. After he mercifully divorces her, Aaliya is left with their spacious apartment, much to the chagrin of her own family, who thinks she should hand it over to one of her brothers, all of whom bullied her throughout her childhood. She refuses, never answering the door when they come knocking, and her family hates her for it.  So she is alone in the world, sleeping with an AK-47 and comforted by her books.

Aaliya is smart and literary. The book is interspersed with the tragedies that Lebanon has endured over the last 40 years with Aaliya's reading and translating into Arabic a wide variety of classics.  She spends much of the book dialoguing with the lives and works of great writers as she simultaneously recounting the events of her life, from girlhood to sunset years.  Aaliya's taste in literature is so wonderfully varied that the book never loses momentum, even though Aaliya herself is the most passive of protagonists.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Happy Valley (2014)

This is a crime series set in the north of England is in a valley that is largely impoverished and not all that upbeat.  The prevalence of drugs is ubiquitous--from the petty criminal on the street to the guy who is renting holiday caravans to a local politician, and the police really cannot keep up.  The series opening and closing segments feature people so paranoid and high they put themselves and others in danger with their paranoid delusions, and the police just do their best.

Catherine Cawood is the local sergeant.  She moved back to the area after her daughter committed suicide and left her small baby parentless.  The father of the baby was a rapist who went to jail on another charge, and Catherine elected to take the boy in.  She lost her marriage and her remaining son, both of whom thought it was masochistic to take on such an emotionally complicated situation, but she manages with the help of her sister.

The major crime presented is the same said rapist, who is now years later out of jail, and has graduated to kidnapping.  The mini series is tense from the beginning--you know it is going to end badly but you are not sure just how badly.  There are lots of weak characters and a lot of people get hurt.  It is emotionally complicated and dark, but very well done, and well worth watching.  The BBC does it again.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Pok Pok, Portland, OR

A recent trip to Portland found us at a wonderful restaurant that was almost literally across the street from this famed spot.  We had a 5:30 dinner reservation (we were eating at a small and popular restaurant and took the reservation we were offered) but arrived early so in wandering the neighborhood we checked out the scene at Pok Pok.  Even at 5:00 it was packed and there were people lined up hoping for a table.  We are not naturally attracted to lines, but thought that this place might be worth it, so we walked back the next day and managed to get there early enough that we got a table just as they opened.  And got to sit out on the porch watching all the food and people go by.
We had the famous chicken wings, and a couple of other dishes that were quite good, but the thing that was most impressive about Pok Pok was that almost everything that the tables around us ordered looked like something that we would enjoy. The menu is not that extensive, the lines are long, but the food is worth the wait.  And the ambiance is very much one step up from a food truck, but not two steps up.

Traditional Construction, Yunnan Province, China

When one of my friends who is from China asked me about my recent trip to his country, I talked about how much I enjoyed watching the building of traditional Chinese buildings, especially in contrast with the ubiquitous cranes on every major city's sky line in China and his response was that it is for the tourists.  I would agree with that, but suspect that was one of the goals that UNESCO had in naming World Heritage sites in China.  They were trying to incentivize preservation in a country where change is happening at an almost unbelievable rate.
Ancient Chinese architecture has numerous similar elements in part, because of the early Chinese method of standardizing and prescribing uniform features of structures. The standards are recorded in bureaucratic manuals and drawings that were passed down through generations and dynasties. These account for the similar architectural features persisting over thousands of years, starting with the earliest evidence of Chinese imperial urbanism, now available through excavations starting in the early 1980s.

A fundamental achievement of Chinese wooden architecture is the load-bearing timber frame, a network of interlocking wooden supports forming the skeleton of the building. This is considered China's major contribution to worldwide architectural technology. However, it is not known how the builders got the huge wooden support columns into position.

Unlike western architecture, in ancient Chinese wooden architecture, the wall only defined an enclosure, and did not form a load-bearing element. Buildings in China have been supported by wooden frames for as long as seven millennia. The emergence of the characteristic articulated wooden Chinese frame emerged going back to the Neolithic Age. As long ago as seven thousand years mortise and tendon joinery was used to build wood-framed houses, and persists in Lijiang's old city today.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I was on the road when I read this book, which was long listed for the Booker Prize and on the New York Times list of notable books this year.  When I pulled it out of my bag, a colleague in the room said, "Are you reading Siri Hustvedt?  I love her, but I don't always understand her books."  Well, that is not the problem with this book.  It is very clear what her message is, and that is that women are not valued the way men are, at least not in the art world.  The book recapitulates real life in that respect.

The story is about Harriet Burden, an artist who was married to a gallery owner who never did much to promote her career.  The whole "he couldn't" argument may be very true to those who know the art world, but it doesn't have a warm feel about it.  The story is  told  after Harry's death, by a number of different people, including her children, and in a number of different ways.  Harry did three shows under a male pseudonym and her work was much better accepted when it was thought to be a male artist.  The book conveys the enormous weight that Harry operated under, and her sense of injustice that followed her beyond her grave.  Beautifully written and sadly true.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Locke (2013)

The entire movie takes place in real time and in a car.  Ivan Locke is unexpectedly traveling to attend the premature birth of his child.  While he is en route he makes telephone calls to various people that he is letting down and those dialogues are interspersed with angry conversations with his long dead father.

Ivan is a builder of skyscrapers.  He has a real love for his job.  When the concrete pour goes well, he is proud and satisfied.  At the end of a project earlier in the year he had a drunken one night stand with Bethan, a middle aged woman who he almost literally did not know.  Bethan gets pregnant and decided to keep the baby, a miracle that she can't pass up.  She tells Ivan, and it is clear that she hopes this will win him to her, but she is quite wrong about that.  What she doesn't get is that he himself was abandoned and denied by his father, and so he feels unable to deny Bethan's child.  He has made a commitment to himself that he will be there are the birth of the child and give him his name.  He will not do more for the mother, but he will do that.

There are two problems--the first is that he has not told his wife, whom he loves, about his predicament.  The other is that the biggest concrete pour of his career is occurring the morning after the birth of his child and he is going to miss it.  So while he is driving, he is juggling all the anger and disappointment by telephone, while also managing the final details of the concrete pour.  It is a My Dinner with Andre kind of movie, small in scope and real life in detail. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Chicken Tikka Masala (a la Cook's Illustrated)

I had dinner at my sister-in-laws' house this week and she made this delicious dish.

  • Chicken Tikka
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 pounds BLSL trimmed of fat
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
  • Masala Sauce
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced fine (about 1 1/4 cups)
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • 1 fresh serrano chile, ribs and seeds removed, flesh minced (see note above)
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon garam masala
  • 28 oz. crushed tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves

Instructions

1. FOR THE CHICKEN: Combine cumin, coriander, cayenne, and salt in small bowl. Sprinkle both sides of chicken with spice mixture, pressing gently so mixture adheres. Place chicken on plate, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes. In large bowl, whisk together yogurt, oil, garlic, and ginger; set aside.
2. FOR THE SAUCE: Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until light golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, chile, tomato paste, and garam masala; cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes, sugar, and salt; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in cream and return to simmer. Remove pan from heat and cover to keep warm.
3. While sauce simmers, adjust oven rack to upper-middle position (about 6 inches from heating element) and heat broiler. Using tongs, dip chicken into yogurt mixture (chicken should be coated with thick layer of yogurt) and arrange on wire rack set in foil-lined rimmed baking sheet or broiler pan. Discard excess yogurt mixture. Broil chicken until thickest parts register 160 degrees on instant-read thermometer and exterior is lightly charred in spots, 10 to 18 minutes, flipping chicken halfway through cooking.  Alternatively, the chicken can be grilled, which adds a nice flavor to the overall dish.
4. Let chicken rest 5 minutes, then cut into 1-inch chunks and stir into warm sauce (do not simmer chicken in sauce). Stir in cilantro, adjust seasoning with salt, and serve.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Paper Towns by John Green

I read an opinion piece in the last six months that seriously dismissed adults who read young adult books, stating that those of us who enjoy such reading are shallow and need to challenge ourselves more.  I either disagree completely with the assessment that this literary genre is unworthy of adult attention or I am that shallow person.  Maybe it is both, because I read oodles of books in the murder mystery genre and those are clearly not the height of intellectual stimulation either.

So, assuming that you are ready to stoop to the level of teens, John Green is a great choice.  I can't believe I missed this book by him, since I loved The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska.  He has a wonderful ear for what drives the passions of young adults.  In this book Quentin and Margo were the best of friends in grammar school, but as they grew older they also grew apart.  Margo became a legend for her exploits and Quentin is a mere mortal--a nice guy who has nice friends and good grades.  He also carries a mammoth torch for Margo which she was oblivious to until one night when they share their first adventure in many years.  After that night, Margo disappears and Quentin becomes obsessed with following her.  It is a pitch perfect end of high school novel that will ring true to every reader.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Jesus Henry Christ (2013)

The critics hated this movie but I quite enjoyed it.  It has a Wes Anderson aura about it that is quirky and enjoyable.

Patricia (Toni Colette) has had a tragic life, losing twin brothers to linked accidents and another brother to AIDS, she decides to have a baby through the miracle of in vitro fertilization.  The child, Henry, is a child prodigy, a boy with a photographic memory and a speed reader who can not just read the book but digest it and remember it all.  He is bound and determined to find out who his father is, and comes upon Slavkin (Michael Sheen), a professor who has ruined his daughter Audrey's life by writing a book about her.  She is now the focus of relentless bullying which has made her bitter and difficult.  Henry, a boy who is largely friendless as a result of his overwhelming talents, befriends her and gradually melts her heart.   DNA proves that Slavkin is father to both of them and oddly they make a more or less functional family.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Building a Roof in China

Before going to China I would have called this structure a pagoda, but that would have been wrong.  A pagoda is a many tiered structure that has a ceremonial function.  This is a building with a traditional roof.  Chinese architecture has remained largely unchanged sine the Tang Dynasty.  The method of construction is static, with the decorative details being the thing that changes over time.

The significant feature of Chinese architecture is its emphasis on articualtion and bilateral symetry in the building, which is associated with the cultural importance of balance.  There is an ancient tradition of laying out the building that is related to auspicious symbols and feng shui.  Animals and fruits that symbolize good fortune and prosperity are often included in the building.  The number of animals on the roof corners is an indication of the grandeur of the building--the more animals the better. 
"The architecture of China is as old as Chinese civilization. From every source of information—literary, graphic, exemplary—there is strong evidence testifying to the fact that the Chinese have always enjoyed an indigenous system of construction that has retained its principal characteristics from prehistoric times to the present day. Over the vast area from Chinese Turkistan to Japan, from Manchuria to the northern half of French Indochina, the same system of construction is prevalent; and this was the area of Chinese cultural influence. That this system of construction could perpetuate itself for more than four thousand years over such a vast territory and still remain a living architecture, retaining its principal characteristics in spite of repeated foreign invasions—military, intellectual, and spiritual—is a phenomenon comparable only to the continuity of the civilization of which it is an integral part."
—Liang, Ssu-ch'eng, 1984


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Old City, Lijiang, China


This is yet another old town in China that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Deservedly so.  In the 13th century AD, during the later Southern Song Dynasty, the ancestors of the ruling Mu family moved their main centre from Baisha to the foot of the Shizi Mountains, to a new town known as Dayechang (later Dayan), where they began building houses.  The Old Town is the only old city built without a city wall. If the Chinese character 'Mu' (represents the governor of Lijiang) is put into a frame (represents the city wall), you have the character 'Kun' which means 'siege' or 'predicament'. This would mean that the governing Mu family and their descendants would always be trapped like a rat in a hole. Because of this symbolism, the Old Town was never given a city wall.


As a result of the combination of the multinational culture and the progress of Naxi ethnic minority, the buildings here incorporate the best parts of the architectural traits of Han, Bai, and Tibet into a unique Naxi style. The layout of the town is free-style and flexible, the houses are close and diverse, and the lanes are narrow and meandering. Naxi people pay much attention to the decoration, the commodious and applied houses are mostly timber and tile structure compound with a garden, each has engraved vivid figures of people and animals on doors and windows, beautiful flowers and trees in the garden.Living in such a beautiful and comfortable environment is a real pleasant thing.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Cluny Brown (1946)

This is the last film that Ernst Lubitsch finished, and while he was recovering from a massive heart attack that left him with congestive heart failure and not much time to live, it bears many of the touches that are associated with his work, and is delightful all these many years after it was made.

Cluny Brown is an enthusiastic, cheerful, and naive girl who 's greatest talent is for plumbing.  That is not a job for a woman, and her uncle quickly gets her a job as a parlor maid in the English countryside, hoping that will keep her out of trouble.  Before she goes, she meets Adam Belinski, a Czech writer who has escaped the Nazi's occupation of his country.  He is quite taken with Cluny, and coincidentally they end up on the same estate--he as a guest and she as the hired help.  The servants have a great deal of trouble with both of them.  Cluny doesn't know her place and Belinski treats everyone as equals, and they are a match made in heaven.  Belinski knows and eventually Cluny figures it out herself.  There are some wonderfully suggestive scenes that got through the scrutiny of the Production Code censors, some well timed comedic dialogue, and a well told story.  There are some wonderful characters who make the classism of the English a thing to laugh about rather than marvel at, and it is a very enjoyable movie.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Halibut in Honey Mustard Lemon Sauce


This is fast, simple, and delicious--you could do it with any fish filet.  We had it for lunch with rice pilaf and roasted asparagus.
  • one halibut filet 
  • 1/2 lemon, juice of, large
  • 2 tablespoons honey mustard
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • salt and pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. aluminum foil large enough to cover the fish
  3. Place the fish  in the center of the tin foil, and salt and pepper it.
  4. In a small bowl, place the olive oil, lemon juice, honey mustard and white wine and mix into an emulsion.
  5. Pour the sauce over the fish (be sure to lift the sides of the foil to create a barrier and prevent the sauce from spilling onto the counter).
  6. Place the capers over the fish.
  7. Fold the foil into a pouch.
  8. Place in the oven for 20 minutes and test for doneness (fish should be white and flaky in the center).
  9. Serve with the sauce.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Aeneid by Virgil (19 BC)

I both read this and listened to it--which, while it takes more than twice the amount of time, is a good approach to getting a better understanding of an ancient epic poem.  Virgil was commissioned by Augustus to write this work, and Virgil toiled over it for ten years, finishing it the year that he died.  So it may not have undergone a final edit.   Nonetheless, it is one of the most widely read ancient works.  It has been popular literally since it was written.

Virgil had grown up at a time when Rome was more or less continually in a state of civil war, and he was eager for a return to stability and a time of peace.  That was Augustus' wish as well, and he asked Virgil to write a work that would celebrate the glory of Rome.  Virgil set The Aeneid at a time parallel to The Odyssey and following The Iliad.  The hero, Aeneas, is a Trojan who left his city after Priam's death, which he witnessed. Jupiter foretold his fate, which was to leave Troy and found Lavinium, the city that would more or less become Rome.  They take to the sea, and after seven years of wandering, they make off for the land of their destiny.  Then, much like what happens to Odysseus, they are tossed about in the ocean (Aeolus, god of the winds, is involved, at the behest of the troublesome Juno) and end up in Carthage.  Aeneas is welcomed by a bewitched Dido, and Book IV is considered to be one of the ageless love stories.  I found it more a story where humans are manipulated by the gods and as a result the love they feel lacks any emotional depth. The next two books are the voyage to Italy.

The rest of the poem, Books VII-VII are the battles that ensue when they land, with much blood and death.  Men are brave, men die, one woman is a valiant warrior who also falls (Camilla is a great huntress in the mold of Diana, and a remarkable ancient woman), and in the end Aeneas and his Trojans win, but are destined to mingle their blood with the conquered Latins and create the land of Rome.  There are some chronological issues, with the events of the Aeneid taking place at the end of the Trojan War, which occurred in 1240 BCE, while the founding of Rome is generally acknowledged to be 753 BCE.  No matter, it is a great tale.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Le Weekend (2103)

Wow.  This was no comedy.  My spouse and I looked at each other when the credits rolled at the end and said, "Let's try really hard not to end up like that."

Nick and Meg are off on the train from England to spend the weekend in Paris to celebrate their 30th anniversary.  Well, celebrate may be a stretch for this couple, who are alternatingly genially and bitterly mean to each other.  They check into a hotel suite that they cannot begin to afford.  Nick has just been fired from his job as a university philosophy professor and Meg is dissatisfied with her job.  They need to be job hunting rather than making each other more or less miserable in the city of love.  On top of this they have a son who is unemployed, ungrateful, and who has emptied their retirement account but is not satisfied with that.

Midway through the weekend they run into a colleague of Nick's from their school days.  Morgan is on his third marriage and has a best selling novel to his name.  He has a young and pregnant wife and untold riches, and he seems genuinely happy to run into Nick.  Morgan's son is the only Achilles heel, an unhappy boy who is adrift with a distracted father who loves him but doesn't know how to like him.  There are moments where this cast of characters chance upon the messy facts of real life, mixed with equally prevalent painful moments of truths that are better left unseen. 


Friday, November 28, 2014

Chile Relleno Casserole

I have oodles of green chiles on hand and made this recipe recently.  It does not require cooking the peppers ahead of time, which is nice if you are still in the summer bounty time of the year, but it works equally well with peppers that have been charred, peeled and seeded.  The dish is delicious as a breakfast buffet item (it can be served with a Mexican tomato sauce or not), and it is very good at room temperature, so it can be taken to a pot luck.
But my favorite way to have it is in a breakfast sandwich--use it just as you would use egg, and you can add bacon or ham or whatever else you would add, and it becomes a portable breakfast that is delicious.

In a 9" x 13" pan,
pack in as many peppers as you can--you can use poblanos, jalopenos, banana peppers, what ever level of heat you want will work.
Seed them and stuff each of them with grated cheese that melts well (I use Chihuahua when I have it, a Mexican blend when I don't).

The egg batter is:
5 eggs
1/4 c. flour
1 1/4 c. milk
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper

Mix in a blender, and pour over the stuffed peppers.  Bake at 350 degrees until the egg is puffy and set, about 30-40 minutes.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Act of Giving Thanks

I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with several of my nieces and nephews recently and they tried to convince me that since Thanksgiving is a day of family that I should really make the trip back East to enjoy it with my extended family.  I let them know that while I loved them all very much, traveling at Thanksgiving is off the table for me.  Just too much craziness with fellow travelers who don't travel often, and shall we say, are not in the mood of the holiday when they are stuck or delayed.  Which in November is bound to happen somewhere.  As a people we have lost the sense of wonder at how quickly we can get places and have replaced it with irritation when that doesn't materialize for us.  So traveling at Thanksgiving is more like hand to hand combat than a celebration.

The fact that we are not together often enough does not change the fact that I love being an aunt.   I am not much of a lover of small children, but I do love teens.  My nieces and nephews are all growing into amazing people doing many cool and different things, and I take neither the credit nor the blame.  It is perfect.  I can just enjoy them.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

To Be of Not to Be (1942)

This film is set in Poland during the Nazi occupation.  The depiction of the enemy in WWII while the war was going on by Ernst Lubitsch, a German Jew who had been in the United States almost 20 years by the time the Nazis started to spread out across Europe, is part Casablanca and part Hogan's Heroes, and very good indeed.

The setting is Warsaw, and while there are a fair number of bombed buildings, the movie is generous in it's depiction of Warsaw because the city put up a strenuous resistance and as a result, 85% of the city was reduced to rubble.  Joe and Maria Trura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard) are Polish actors who become part of the Polish underground resistance.  Maria catches the eye of a young Polish airman (Robert Stack) who is falsely convinced that she will leave her husband for him. So there is the romantic triangle that Lubitsch so loved interwoven into the plot, but there is also the need to stop  a spy from giving all the information that he gathered about the Polish resistance to the Nazi's.  That part of the plot is handled as more of a dark comedy, and very deftly done.  Even with the hindsight of 70 years this film holds up well on many levels, and it is no wonder that Mel Brooks elected to remake it in 1983.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Chicken Marbella

This is from a very old cookbook, the Silver Palate, which when I started eating meat again after a long hiatus was one of the ones I started with.  I still don't cook very much meat (my spouse does the lion share of that in our household), this is a favorite.

It is a great recipe for a crowd.  It can be served at room temperature. It can be made ahead of time and heated up.  It calls for chicken pieces, but it is very good with BLSL chicken if you are serving in a location where wielding a knife and fork is a challenge.

4 chickens, 2 1/2 pounds each, quartered
1 head of garlic, peeled and finely pureed
1/4 cup dried oregano
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup pitted Spanish green olives
1/2 cup capers with a bit of juice
6 bay leaves
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup Italian parsley or fresh coriander (cilantro), finely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl combine chicken quarters, garlic, oregano, pepper and coarse salt to taste, vinegar, olive oil, prunes, olives, capers and juice, and bay leaves. Cover and let marinate, refrigerated, overnight (can be transferred to a zip lock bag for this phase.

Arrange chicken in a single layer in one or two large, shallow baking pans and spoon marinade over it evenly. Sprinkle chicken pieces with brown sugar and pour white wine around them.

Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, basting frequently with pan juices.  With a slotted spoon transfer chicken, prunes, olives and capers to a serving platter. Moisten with a few spoonfuls of pan juices and sprinkle generously with parsley or cilantro. Pass remaining pan juices.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Reflecting on Five Years of Blogging

I have been blogging more or less every day for the past five years and while that would be nothing for someone who does it professionally, I am a rank amateur, and so I am going to briefly revel in the glory of the little that I have accomplished.

I started blogging for two reasons.  The first was that I wanted to write more, and to consider writing quite a bit more when and if I get the chance to retire (or at least work part time) in the future.  In order to do that I would need to write more than I was (which was pretty close to zero) and a blog seemed like a great way to get my mind thinking regularly and to practice getting some of those thoughts down on 'paper'.

So that is where I started, but having an idea and actually blogging were fairly far apart in time.  For many years I was a good letter writer and correspondent, but after the advent of email my letter writing slowed to almost nothing.  When my FIL was diagnosed with a serious but not immediately terminal illness the thing that he wanted to do before he died was to get to know the people in his life a little better.  I initially wrote long and hopefully thoughtful emails to him, but found that I was waiting for a response rather than continuing to write more.  That wasn't exactly fair to someone who was trying to empty out their bucket list.  So I decided to start this blog.

I wrote several things, and then I sent the web address to my aspiring writer son--I thought he would be the best judge of whether it was something to do publicly and if it would be unduly embarrassing to him, me, or someone else I cared about.  Once he gave the thumbs up, I sent it to my FIL, and I am very happy to say that he read it regularly.  I know this because his cousin had lunch with him weekly and they talked about it.  So rarely does something fulfill more than one purpose and this alone brought me pleasure.  As does the writing now that I have been at it awhile.  So thanks to all who check in on occasion, and on to the next five years.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Bletchley Circle (2012)

Every so often I feel compelled to divulge yet another in a long series of BBC Crime dramas that I have found enjoyable, adn this is one of those times.  The series opens with a scene from during the war when all four women were code breakers.  Susan and Millie are good with patterns, Lucy has a photographic memory, and Jean has access to people in all the right places.  They were a team that solved things.  Their lives were exciting and they felt like what they did made a difference.  They didn't know it at the time, but when the war ended and the men came home they were going to go back to the status of women, which was significantly less thrilling than the life they had led.  And due to the Official Secrets Act, none of them could talk about what they did during the war.

Fast forward nine years.  Susan is now a mother of two going slightly batty at the lack of intellectual stimulation in her life.  She has been following the story of a serial killer and his victims and thinks that she has spotted a pattern.  Long story short she gets the gang back together to track a serial killer.


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Roasted Butternut Squash with Pumpkin Seeds and Ricotta Insalata

My spouse ate at the Purple Pig in Chicago recently and came home to recreate this dish.

Brown 1/4 c. of butter.

While you are waiting for the browning to take place (it takes a while, and you really can't go off and leave it), prep the butternut squash by cutting it in half, seeding it, use a vegetable peeler to get rid of the outer skin, then cut into 1/2 inch cubes.

Toss the squash with salt and pepper, and the browned butter, then roast in a 400 degree oven until it is starting to brown, about 30 minutes.  Check on it often, stirring it a bit when you do so to promote even baking.

Toast the pumpkin seeds, grate some ricotta insalata, and toss the finished squash with them and serve.  It is a slightly sweet, very richly flavored dish that goes with almost anything.