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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose

This is a deceptively serious book written in a light fashion.  It centers on a cabaret style club in France, owned by Yvonne.  She has a pet lizard and a weakness for sailors.  Her club is the hub of sexual transgressions, military intrigue, and social change.  The interlocking voices who tell the story — all seductive and unreliable in their own ways — show Paris as it devolves from the decadence and gallows humor of the 1930s to the terror and bravery of the Occupation.  In this alchemy of patriotism, xenophobia, sexual frustration and anti-Semitism, the book raises up underground heroes and cosmic villains. We hear first off from Brassaï, self renamed Gabor, in his affectionate letters to his parents in Hungary. While they are attempts at reassurance and full of gratitude for their financial support, he describes the bizarre sights of the city even while begging them not to worry.  The other characters are equally diverse and interesting and the scenes are disturbing and turbulent, all the while maintaining an air of off-handedness.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Hainan Li Culture, Kunming, China

The Li people are an ethnic minority in China, with their own customs and costumes.  The women comb their hair into a bun with metal or bone hairpins. During festivals, they wear bracelets, ear rings, necklaces, and foot rings. The practice of tattooing girls which prevailed in ancient times is now mostly discontinued.

When children grow into their teens, they are expected to move from their parents' house. Boys build their own houses, and girls will be under the authority of their parents. Usually these rooms are smaller than the ones they lived before. This is also the place where the youth find their lover.

The Li have a reputation for being good at singing and dancing. Their dances arise mainly from their work in the field, pestling the rice, and worshiping ancestors.

The most traditional Li festivals is the Spring Festival.
Before the Spring Festival, all the families prepare sumptuous dinners, brew wine and cook Dengye, a kind of cake. It can be stored for a time and after that, it turns to be hard and tenacious. If you cut it into slices and then fry or bake it, then it will take on quite another flavor. On New Year's Eve, the Li will worship ancestors; the following days, they visit and greet each other as well as sing and dance.

Sanyuesan is another well known Li festival.  It refers to the third day of the third month when this is celebrated. The elders are honored and visited by other people with yellow wine, cured vegetables and cakes; young people go out hunting and fishing and in the evening, they sing face to face, in traditional flowery clothes, and worship ancestors. This is also a wonderful time to express love to those persons who are dear to one's heart.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Summer Rolls with BBQ Brisket and Sriracha Mayonnaise

This recipe is adapted from the New York Times, and is super easy if you have the BBQ Brisket.  You can either make it or get some from your favorite local BBQ place.

There are lots of variations that can be made--the BBQ meat is a great combination with the sriracha mayonnaise so retain that piece, but substitute some homemade cole slaw for the shredded cabbage or add other pickled vegetables.  I have a recipe for the pickled daikon and carrot that was posted a couple of days ago.

For the barbecue mayonnaise:

  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • ¼ cup barbecue sauce
  •   Lime juice, to taste
  •   Sriracha, to taste

For the rolls:

  • 1 block (about 7 ounces) rice vermicelli
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 8 to 12 rice-paper wrappers for summer rolls, about 8 1/2 inches wide
  • 8 sprigs mint, leaves picked off
  • 8 sprigs Thai basil or basil, leaves picked off
  •   Pickled carrots and daikon (do chua), homemade or fresh or jarred from Vietnamese markets
  • ¾ to 1 pound barbecued beef brisket, thickly sliced
  • ½ cup thinly sliced red cabbage
  • 16 sprigs cilantro
  •   Whole lettuce leaves

Make the barbecue mayonnaise:

  1. Combine mayonnaise and barbecue sauce, and stir until smooth. Season to taste with lime juice and sriracha, and set aside. (Can be made 1 day ahead and refrigerated.)

Make the rolls:

  1. Put the rice vermicelli in a large bowl. Cover with boiling water, add the salt and let soak, swishing occasionally, until soft but still resilient, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold water until the water runs clear. Let drain for at least 30 minutes, or spread on a plate and refrigerate for up to 2 hours.
  2. When ready to serve, set out all the ingredients on a clean surface. Half-fill a bowl wide enough to fit the wrappers with lukewarm water. Place 1 wrapper in the water and pat it, gently bending to test, until pliable but not completely soft. Shake off excess water and lay the wrapper down.
  3. Place a straight line of mint and basil leaves across the circle, about 2 inches up from the bottom edge. Plump up that line with a small clump of vermicelli, a pinch of do chua and 1/8 of the brisket. Drizzle a scant teaspoon of barbecue mayonnaise over the meat. Finish with red cabbage and 2 cilantro sprigs.
  4. Bring bottom edge of wrapper tightly up over the filling, then fold the sides in to cover. Continue to roll upward, tightly but gently, and place finished rolls on a plate, seam-side down. Repeat with remaining rolls. Cover rolls with lettuce leaves to keep them fresh. Serve as soon as possible.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I read this book because it is assigned to one of my kids for a college class on the art of storytelling.  The class is using video games as the medium for the story, and the book is centered on a gigantic video world.

The year is 2044 and things have gone about how you would expect them to.  No one paid attention to climate change until it was far too late, there is little food and water throughout the world, and the have nots far outnumber the haves.  Wade is living in a trailer park high rise, an orphan who has been nominally cared for by his meth addicted aunt.  He spends most of his days in the virtual world of OASIS--where he not only games but also goes to school.

OASIS was the brainchild of James Halliday who grew up in the eighties.  After he died, his lawyers issued a public last will and testament to all OASIS users.  Somewhere within the game, Halliday had hidden three keys.  Solving the first riddle would lead to a puzzle and successful completion would lead to the first key and the next riddle.  The first person to receive all three keys and find the 'Easter egg' would win his legacy and billions of dollars.   Which is what Wade spends all his spare time doing.  He has some advantages, including a life long obsession with Halliday and his loves.  This gets him the first key, which then makes him a target for just about everyone, including a corporation that is willing to kill to get Halliday's fortune.

The reader knows the outcome of the game from the outset, so the story is really about how that happened, and it is remarkably enjoyable, even for a video game Luddite such as myself.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Miao Culture, Guilin, China

The Miao people are one of 55 ethnic minorities that are recognized by the Chinese government, but in reality they have been grouped together with a range of different cultures that share some common cultural practices and similar languages.  The Hmong of SE Asia are amongst the sub-cultures of Miao.

We saw Miao people in Guilin, and there are several places where tourists can step into the clothing and jewelry of the Miao and have their pictures taken. 

Silver accessories are a standard for the Miao people. For more than 400 years, it's been the custom to decorate oneself head to toe, with silver. A full set can weigh up to 20 pounds. The purpose of wearing all this silver is of course primarily aesthetic, but they are also worn as amulets to ward off evil, and as symbols of wealth. The clothes bear strong cultural message. The patterns range from ancient totem to historic legend. Historians view it as the "Wearable History Book".
The tradition of wearing silver is preserved by a great number of craftsmen, scattered through the Miao villages. Most of the silver accessories are made by hands in a traditional way. A silver head-piece takes a couple of months to finish. In some villages, every male is trained in silver-work. Each ornament is an exquisite work of art and sparkles with the wisdom of the Miao people.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Daikon and Carrot Pickle (Do Chua)

This is a key ingredient in Bahn Mi sandwiches, but can be added to fresh Vietnamese spring rolls as well.  Always have some in the refrigerator to add to salads or sandwiches!  I made this with kohlrabi instead of daikon, which we have in abundance.

1 large carrot, peeled and cut into thick matchsticks
1 pound daikons, peeled and cut into thick matchsticks
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons plus 1/2 cup sugar
1  1/4 cups distilled white vinegar
1 cup lukewarm water
1. Place the carrot and daikons in a bowl and sprinkle with the salt and 2 teaspoons of the sugar. Use your hands to knead the vegetables for about 3 minutes, expelling the water from them. They will soften and liquid will pool at the bottom of the bowl. Stop kneading when you can bend a piece of daikon so that the ends touch but the daikon does not break. The vegetables should have lost about one-fourth of their volume. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water, then press gently to expel extra water. Return the vegetables to the bowl if you plan to eat them soon, or transfer them to a 1-quart jar for longer storage.
2. To make the brine, in a bowl, combine the 1/2 cup sugar, the vinegar, and the water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Pour over the vegetables. The brine should cover the vegetables. Let the vegetables marinate in the brine for at least 1 hour before eating.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is a really great book, one that you should read even if you are one of those people who only read a handful of books a year.  Yes, it is set in WWII France, and yes, there are children involved.  It is much more hopeful than its subject and setting would imply.  The book is paints a lyrical backdrop to a gruesome war.

There are two main characters and two threads of the story.  The first is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, is the once sighted now blind daughter of  the widowed master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Shy but smart, courageous and resourceful, she has learned to navigate the streets of her neighborhood with the help of a wooden scale-model made by her master carver father.  She learns to read Braille and is able to submerge herself in the fantasy world of fiction.  The treasure of their museum is a blue diamond, the Sea of Flames, which endows the owner with eternal life but curses all that they love.  There is the rub.  They are forced to leave Paris when the Nazis invade, and go to live with Marie-Laure's great uncle Etienne, who has a great love of radios and a great fear of everything else.  He has PTSD from WWI and never leaves the house, but it is a loving environment for Marie-Laure to live in during the war.

The second is Werner Pfennig, an orphan with a idiot savant understanding of circuitry, comes of age in the coal-mining town in Germany. He gets admitted to a Nazi training school, and becomes a cog in the German war machine, hunting down Resistance radio transmissions in France and capturing the offenders. He starts off rah rah Germany but over time he changes, realizing exactly what he is doing and becoming disillusioned with both the war and himself.  At this point the two stories come together.  Werner listens to Marie-Laure's radio broadcasts, which include poetry, literature and music, and when he becomes aware of her danger, he vows to save her--will he succeed?  It is a bittersweet ending, that is all I can say. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Meyer from Berlin (1919)

Brace yourselves.  My youngest son is taking a film class focusing on Ernst Lubitsch, a director (and in this film, also an actor) who I had never heard of, but will spend this semester immersing myself in.  The bad news is that while he was a very influential director, much of his work is largely unknown today.  The good news is that a lot of his films are available on YouTube, this one included.

Meyer from Berlin is a German silent movie that features Sally Meyer, a character that Lubitsch created and played from 1916-1919.  Sally is a man who is oblivious to his flaws and has hutzpah, an overinflated sense of confidence that ends up serving him well.

Early in the movie we know that Sally is a womanizer.  When he is 'sick in bed' he manages to get up and kiss the maid when she brings him bouillon.  So when he takes off to an Alpine motel for some mountain climbing we are not surprised that he focuses his attention on the woman every man wants to woo, and he is successful at getting her attention because he seems so harmless.  The movie is beautifully shot  and it does not seem almost 100 years old.  The playfulness and off color suggestiveness is well done and fun to watch.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

I was not a huge fan of the author's first book, 'Seating Arrangements'--it was well written but every character in the book was so annoying that I had trouble focusing on the plot line. I just wanted them all to go away.  The people in this book are equally flawed as people (aren't we all) but much more enjoyable to read about.

This is an old story that rolls out against the backdrop of premier quality ballet.  Joan is a ballerina who is very good, good enough to dance in the corps in a company that tours both nationally and internationally, but she is not soloist material.  When she is Paris as a student she is backstage when a Russian dancer of the highest quality and artistry comes back stage.  She has a tryst with him, not because she likes him but because she wants to be enveloped by his talent.

He defects, she helps him, and they become lovers for a while but then he moves on, and she is heartbroken.  They have one last night when he tells her that he is marrying another woman, and she is left pregnant.  She dances for another month, but then goes back to her high school boyfriend, who loves her dearly, and they get married and raise their boy, Harry.

Well, Harry is quite a good dancer, and from there stems trouble, the unraveling of the truth that leaves everything changed and nothing for the better.  Mistakes were made, and some people paid for them and others did not.  A good read.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Elephant Trunk Hill, Guilin, China

In order to get this view of Elephant Trunk Hill you have to enter a park that is very beautiful, and unlike many of the more gorgeous views in China, it is not ridiculously crowded.

Elephant Trunk Hill is known as the symbol of the city of Guilin. It got its name because it looks like an elephant drinking water. The round opening that would be under the elephant’s trunk is known as Water-Moon Cave because at night the reflection of the moon can be seen through the arch and it looks as if it is under the water and floating on the surface of the water at the same time.

A legend tells that an elephant belonged to the Emperor of Heaven.  The Emperor of Heaven decided to conquer earth, and he did so from the back of a giant elephant. But the dedicated elephant came down to earth to help the people in their work and later worked himself sick. This angered the Emperor of Heaven, so the Emperor of Heaven deserted him, and the local farmers nursed the sickly elephant back to health. The elephant being extremely grateful and decided to desert the emperor and stay on earth to help the farmers plow their fields during a time of drought. The Emperor of Heaven was so angry that his elephant had deserted him he thrust his sword into the elephants back while it was drinking at the river's edge and turned it to stone. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Papadopolous and Sons (2012)

This is a light and enjoyable British comedy (found streaming on Netflix).  Harry Papadopoulos is a high flying real estate mogul, but it turns out that he got his start in a fish and chips shop with his brother Spiros.  The film opens with his family, all modestly spoiled, living in a much too big house with the saving grace that they all seem to like each other and to miss the wife and mother, who has died much too young.

But as fast as you can say 2008 down turn, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. The multimillion dollar property that he has just purchased has dropped precipitously in price, and now the bank wants it's money back.  The family is out on the street with the clothes on their back and a modest nest egg in the bank--plus the shop that Harry started out in.  Spiros convinces him that they should reopen it, go back to the days of their youth, and much to everyone's surprise--except Spiros--it is a marvelous success.  There is a nice romance tucked into the narrative, as well as a life lesson or two, and while it is not deep, it has some nice reminders about what is important in life.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty

This is a big book, a very important book, and the book that startled everyone by becoming a phenomenon.  The subject is a dry one, economics, and the author is an academic, which happily does not adversely impact his ability to write with ease and lucidity, because for me, at least, this is not a subject that I am altogether good at. He uses examples from Jane Austen and Balzec repeatedly throughout the book to illustrate various points about return on investment.  So he is well read and a good teacher.  It is a book that has been demonized as promoting communism and lionized for highlighting the recent trends in economic distribution.

The authors have made further use of statistical techniques that make it possible to track the concentration of income and wealth deep into the past—back to the early twentieth century for America and Britain, and all the way to the late eighteenth century for France.  The beginning of the book looks at the economic wealth of nations over time and the economic return on investment that was relatively stable until the 20th century.  He makes the point that in order to make money, it helps a lot if you have money.  Everyone has seen some version of that in their life.

The book then goes into the income distribution inequality issue.  It is not something that we created in the 21st century.  It surely predates modern times.  Rousseau, in 'Discourse on the Origins of Inequality' posits that inequality began when man started living in groups, which goes back about 10,000 years.  Certainly the Sumerians described it in early cuneiform texts. The controversial part of the book (which is superb, a must read) is that Piketty and his colleagues showed that incomes of the now famous “one percent,” and of even narrower groups, the 0.01%, are actually the big story in rising inequality in our time. And this discovery came with a second revelation: talk of a second Belle Époque. In America in particular the share of national income going to the top one percent has followed a great U-shaped arc. Before World War I the one percent received around a fifth of total income in both Britain and the United States. By 1950 that share had been cut by more than half. But since 1980 the one percent has seen its income share surge again—and in the United States it’s back to what it was a century ago.  This is the key statistic in the book, and from there, Piketty talks about the consequences of such a wealth concentration.

So take some time and read this magnificent book (which my spouse assures me is the #1 book on Amazon that people bought and did not read).  I am an efficient reader and it took me several months to read, mostly because I am horribly undereducated in this arena andI read it in pieces so as to be able to digest it.  If you can't manage the whole book, then read Paul Krugman's outstanding book review:

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Glazed Chinese Long Beans

My favorite farmer's market stand (aside from the man who sells the best melons) is the Asian vegetable stand, because they sell things that no one else sells.  Better still they give advise about how to prepare what you buy; they don't want you to have a bad experience just because you have never made something before.  Chinese long beans are very similar in taste to green beans, maybe a bit starchier, but they look entirely different.  Here is a delicious way to have them.

1/2 pound Chinese long beans
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup onion
1 tablespoon freshly minced ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Pinch red pepper flakes
1/4 cup stock
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, optional

In a pot of boiling water, blanch long beans for 2 minutes until slightly tender. Allow to cool.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add olive oil. Add onions, ginger and garlic. Mix together. Add red pepper flakes and long beans. Allow to cook for a few minutes. Stir in  stock, honey and sesame oil. Season with salt and pepper, to taste, and add sesame seeds, if desired. Mix together

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

I had never heard of the director of this movie, Ernst Lubitsch, until my youngest son started a class that examines the director's body of work.  He was a German Jew who was first a successful comic actor and then a director during the Wiemar Republic.  It was a time when Jews were allowed the full rights as citizens in a legal sense but still very much outsiders to German society in many ways.  In that context, Lubitsch thrived.  Starting during WWI he made silent films that were sophisticated, sexy, and polished.  The narrative did not depend on slapstick and it was this quality that American filmmakers wanted him to bring to Hollywood.

This is his first talking movie, and it is sensational.  One hypothesis about why it fell into obscurity is that it is very suggestive and that starts with the opening credits.  The film opens with 'Trouble in" and there is a double bed in the background that is in view for several seconds before the words 'Paradise' appear.  So the viewer is immediately clued in that this is going to have something to do with a troubled romance that includes, but is not limited to, sex.  Very risque for 1932, or maybe it wasn't and it became so later.  In any case, the acting is perfect, a mix of sultry and comic in just the right proportions.  If you missed Ernst Lubitsch's work, get this DVD, and don't skip the 47 minute German silent film from 1917, Das fidele Gefangnis (The Merry Jail).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sweet Cravings by Kyra Bussanich

This is a Happy Birthday post for son #3.
Our household has been gently exploring the gluten free world.  We have not succumbed to the latest diet craze--oh that we could work towards reducing carbs!  Our impetus is that the girlfriend of our third son, born 22 years ago today, has celiac disease.  Since I have a history of vegetarianism, yet another dietary restriction that drives people who don't ascribe to it crazy, I have always tried to be very inclusive of others (even though my days of eschewing meat are long behind me).  Usually that would mean something proactive--like cooking a vegan meal when a vegan is in the mix--but instead we have just tried to avoid wheat rather than work around it.

This cookbook, written by a pastry chef who is gluten intolerant herself, is a step away from avoidance.  The bad news is that she doesn't  use a gluten free flour mix--that would have been ideal from my standpoint.  Instead, she developed her own recipes that require a pantry overhaul.  She uses rice flour, tapioca starch, potato starch, and xanthum gum (none of which do I stock normally) instead of wheat flour.  The author has been heralded as the queen of gluten free baking--starting with winning the Food Network's Cupcake Wars--so this is an excellent resource if you are going gluten free but don't want to leave baked goods behind.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Zaza's Pasta

This store, which sells several things that are related to pasta, is really all about fresh made pasta.  And it is spectacular.  The best.   I can't say enough great things about it.   Last week I went in and bought a pound each of spinach fettuccine, pumpkin fettuccine, and garlic chive fettuccine--they were all delicious, and they cook in 3-4 minutes, so you can go from walking in the door to eating within 15 minutes.  That isn't the most important feature of a meal for me nowadays, but back when I had four boys to feed, that was of paramount importance.

Zaza's also sells frozen ravioli by the dozen as well--these are also scrumptious,.  They also cook up in no time.  I really hope this new venture is successful.  The ability to stop and get great quality fresh pasta raises the quality of life in Iowa City to a new level for me that I hope can be sustained.  The shop is south of downtown at 518 Bowery Street, with two parking spots nestled behind the store.  I love the feel of the store and wish it all the best.  Meanwhile, I am getting pasta once a week and basking in the luxury that such good food engenders.    This week was egg fettuccine,and large lobster tortellini in a beet pasta.  I can't wait to see what next week holds.  Check out their Facebook page!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Guns in School--What Could Go Wrong?

Only a million things.  Here is the thing about guns.  Most people are not very good with them.  That is a fact.  You are 22 times more likely to be shot accidentally if you have a gun than if you do not.  Your risk of death by suicide is 10 times greater if you have access to a gun.  Guns are far more likely to be used unintentionally than intentionally.  And here is the thing that is worst of all, as the 10 state in the U.S. has passed laws allowing for guns to be legally carried on school campuses.  In states where gun ownership is highest there is 9 times the rate of unintentional firearm deaths than in the states where gun ownership is lowest.

True, people practice gun safety and have guns locked up and safe and out of the hands of children.  But these accidents continue to happen, and the body count continues to rise.  And now guns in schools is a stark reality.

So far there are no added precautions or qualifications for carrying a gun to school.  You would think that the people who know most about guns would be enraged by this, but they don't seem to be.  The first time a teacher shoots a child, well, I would like to think that would be the end of that, but I am undoubtedly deluding myself because nothing seems to stop this madness.  This week we had the second accidental shooting of a teacher who was carrying a gun on a school campus--both of them shot themselves, thankfully, but that won't be the end of it, you can be sure.  Praying for sanity in this insane climate, and hoping Kevlar vests are not the new school uniform.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Girl on a Bicycle (2012)

I so rarely pan movies in my blog, but for this movie I am going to make an exception.  Here is why.

I am a great lover of French romantic comedies, so I have a bias to like them even when they are just so-so.  In addition, I like movies that are multi-lingual, and this movie has French, English, Italian, and German sprinkled throughout.  So the playing field was decidedly tilted in this movies' favor, but that was not enough to save it.

First of all, the plot is a bit silly (even for the genre--it is not silly as in farce, it is silly as in dumb) and the dialogue does not save it.  Second of all, the movie is replete with cliches--so much so that I wondered if it was a parody, but from what I can tell by reading reviews it is not a spoof.  The reason I say that is because the degree to which the characters are exact stereotypes of their nationalities is so over-the-top as to be comical.  The Italian follows his heart even then it leads him astray.  The German is under emotional and over controlled.  The French woman is so flighty that she doesn't attend to basic tasks of daily living, and the Australian is an incompetent romancer.  I have never panned a French romance, but there is a first time for everything.

Friday, September 12, 2014

No Book But the World by Leah Hager Cohen

There are many messages to be found in the midst of this book.   The book is about a family of four.  Neel and June are the parents and they live in a compound in the woods with five cottages that Neel uses as a private school to practice his hypotheses of early-childhood education. The school is a surprising success, but when June gives birth to two children, Neel shuts it down to work out his theories on his offspring. Of course, the more he chides June for teaching their children to read, sing, play instruments and do math, the more he himself instructs them, which leaves them damages and vulnerable.

The two children are Ava, who tells most of the story, and Fred, two years younger and suffering from an autism-spectrum disorder that leave him mute and sucking his thumb well into adulthood.  If he were enrolled in the public school system, he’d be evaluated but instead he is left to the devices of Ava and a girl who's family moves into the compound who perpetrates mean girl games upon Fred that he comes to see as normal play, much to his undoing.

The novel moves on two tracks. As it opens, Ava is happily married, but Fred is a vagrant, and he’s been arrested in connection with the death of a 12-year-old boy. Ava hasn’t seen him in two years, but she journeys to see what she can do for him.  Still with almost no words to use, Fred has been given over to handyman/drug dealer Dave and his pal Umberto, who is all mindless evil (and will appear in a sequel.  Families who live with a challenged child know what it is to be awake at night, tormented by what will happen when they die and their loved one is left alone. That’s what this novel is about. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Family and Survival

In addition to being the 13th anniversary of the terrorists attacks on the World Trade towers and Washington, DC, it is also the 13th anniversary of my youngest son's last chemotherapy.  Since that time he has left his teens, had another brain surgery, finished his freshman year of college, and started to contemplate life beyond the confines of his parent's home.  None of that would be possible without the support of his family and friends.  So today I want to take a few moments to thank the people that make our lives richer.
The very best thing that you can do to help someone attain their highest potential is to never let on that you expect anything less of them.  That is a job that parents do, but they can't do it alone.  That is where the social support of a community and an extended family come in.  You have to feel loved and have confidence if you are going to achieve, and our family and our community has been remarkable in their support for us.  I am blessed with people who will pitch in at the worst of times, and over a lifetime, which is what makes everything bearable. Schools, religious communities, friends, family, and even strangers have all made childhood cancer survivorship a better place for my youngest son. Thank you all!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Szechuan Eggplant Stirfry

--> The summer of new vegetable dishes has officially entered the eggplant season--I am knee deep in eggplant and looking at all sorts of ways to make it!
5 Asian eggplants, about 2 pounds
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 green onions, white and green parts, sliced on a diagonal
1 -inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 fresh red chile, sliced
1/2 cup chicken broth
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
Thai holy basil and fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

Cut the eggplants in 1/2 lengthwise and then slice crosswise into wedges, no more than 1-inch wide.

Heat a wok or large skillet over medium-high flame and add the oils; tilt the pan to coat all sides. When you see a slight smoke, add a layer of eggplant, stir-fry until seared and sticky, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove the eggplant to a side platter and cook the remaining eggplant in same manner, adding more oil, if needed.

After all the eggplant is out of the pan, add the green onions, ginger, garlic, and chile; stir-fry for a minute until fragrant. Add the broth. In a small bowl, mix the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and cornstarch until the sugar and cornstarch are dissolved. Pour the soy sauce mixture into the wok and cook another minute, until the sauce has thickened. Put the eggplant back in the pan, tossing quickly, until the sauce is absorbed. Garnish with sesame seeds, Thai basil, and cilantro and serve.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Homefront (2013)

Simply put, this is the action-adventure meth movie that counters 'Winter's Bone' as the drama met movie.  They both demonstrate the destructive effect that the drug has on rural communities, but in one there are long moments of anguish and in the other there are chase scenes and gun battles.  This is the overstated of the two genres.

Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay, and it is a competent effort on his part.  The ex-DEA agent who has a death threat on his head and a little PTSD from his time undercover is played by Jason Statham, who is a classic action adventure actor with a sub genre where he is protective of someone young, this time his daughter.  His nemesis is played aptly by James Franco, who is initially reluctant to school the new bad ass in town, but when his men are thwarted in their efforts to put him in his place he gets over the top angry about getting even.  Again, the role that meth plays in fraying everyone's judgement is well depicted throughout this movie.  The other piece of the story that is true and well done here is that the drug dealers are heavily armed and have a lot of cash, which puts small town police forces at a distinct disadvantage.  Winona Ryder does a competent job as Franco's recently returned girlfriend.  The acting elevates the script, and while it was definitely a bit too evil for my taste, the level of violence that meth breeds was well depicted.

Monday, September 8, 2014

In Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

This book tells the story of Zafar, an enigmatic British-Bangladeshi who has had a far reaching life.  He was born in Bangladesh, educated in the United States and the United Kingdom, and been a Wall Street banker, and potentially more. One day in the light of the financial collapse of 2008, he turns up at the London home of an old friend. As we learn, there have been rumors that about Zafar's life that are far more romantic than the story he relays--he is not an international man of mystery.  Instead he is world weary and seeking a sort of personal peace.

Zafar and the narrator studied mathematics at Oxford, and the text is infused with theorem's and concepts, some of which require graphics in addition to footnotes (something you don't often see in a work of fiction.  The novel is very optimistic about mathematics' ability to an answer the world’s crises. But the world cannot forever be held at bay, and the book is especially preoccupied with the way class hierarchies enervate British society in a modern society. Appropriately enough, the two protagonists—the Pakistani elite and the Bangladeshi self-made man—are both visible outsiders to   upper class society. As the novel reveals gradually, even after they have succeeded in school and jobs, there are still subtle ways they can be reminded they don’t belong there.  The book is far more pleasant than the message it conveys and is highly recommended.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Steamed Eggplant with Parsley

My spouse and I were looking for new eggplant recipes now that there is a veritable abundance of eggplant available locally and I was surprised that one of the first ones that I wanted to attempt was one by Julia Child from her cookbook 'The Way to Cook' (available on Google Books, page 291).

Steam whole eggplant until they are thoroughly cooked through--for larger eggplant this might take 20-30 minutes, but 10-15 minutes for the thinner and smaller Japanese eggplants.

Cut in half and place in a serving dish with sides.  Make a dressing that is 1 part lemon juice and 2 parts olive oil, seasoned with minced garlic and salt and pepper as you would for a salad dressing.  Add a pinch of sugar if you want it to be a bit sweeter.  Pour the dressing over the eggplant while it is still warm so that it will be absorbed.  Cover with lots on minced parsley, and other minced herbs as you would like (or some chilies if you want it to be a bit spicy).

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Bad Words (2013)

Warning--even though this move stars Jason Bateman, it is by no means a comedy--there is nothing funny about this.  He plays an entirely unlikable character in this movie.  Guy Trilby uses a loop hole in the rules for spelling bees that mandates that the entrant may not have advanced in school beyond the 8th grade--which he, as a 40 year old, has not.  He brings in his grammar school transcript to verify his lack of higher education.  His motives are not entirely clear from the start, but he is out for revenge.  It is hard to assess who might be the focus of his anger, because he hates everyone and every thing.  He is mean, racist, sexist, and the fact that he is smart just makes him more effective and therefore more unlikable.

Two characters soften the prickly scenario considerably. The first is Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter who’s covering this bizarre revenge scenario. Guy refuses to answer her questions about why he would embarrass himself, much less make children cry.
Then there’s Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a 10-year-old spelling bee competitor who seems impervious to Guy’s foulmouthed insults. It turns out they both have their own reasons for cuddling up to the despicable Guy, but they are no less effective as foils to his endless spewing of hatred.

Other characters, including the news commentators, the parents of contestants, and the head of the spelling bee are really no more likable than Guy, which is another story unto itself, but the profound personality effects of bad and absent parenting are painted with a very broad brush in this dramatic movie.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Divorce Papers by Susan Pieger

This is a fun book about what is really a miserable topic--divorce.  And a child is involved to boot.  Mia is served with divorce papers at an upscale restaurant, and up until that point she claims that she had no idea that her successful pediatric oncologist husband was either having an affair with an old medical school classmate or that he was contemplating ending their marriage.  Once she recovers from the shock she is both smart and angry, and she decides to get even.  She hires a lawyer and the book dissects the dissolution of a marriage, step by step.

Sophie is the lawyer that she hires, and through memos, letters, emails, and motions the story of both Mia and Sophie are told not so much in prose but in the format of a file of information.  Even though the topic is a serious one it is almost playfully told.  It is a very easy way to see just what it would be like to go through a divorce, step by step, dissolving the ties that bind, but without all of the pain that would accompany it if it were you.  A remarkable accomplishment.

Li River Cruise, Guilin

When you are on a cruise on the Li River in the Guilin region, you are not alone.  Dozens of boats leave more or less simultaneously every day to view the dramatic Karst mountains of the region (including the model for the painting on the back of the 20 RMB), but don't let the crowds dissuade you--each boat has plenty of room to get around, and the Li River is wide and accomodating.
Each boat has an outdoor kitchen in the back where chefs work throughout the river cruise to prepare food for the passengers.  Unfortunately, the boat is divided between Chinese and foreigners, and so is the food.  My fantasy is that the food on the Asian deck was far better, because our food was a bit on the bland side.  The truth may be that despite all the fun I had watching chefs on various boats that none of the food matches the quality of cuisine in an average Chinese restaurant.
The food was especially disappointing considering that much of it was sold directly from the river.  Men on these pseudobamboo rafts (maybe some of them are still actually made out of bamboo, but the sheer number of them caused me to doubt that) paddle alongside the boat and sell fuit to the passengers, but also fresh fish to the chefs on the back of the larger boats.
Once we neared Yangshuo, the bamboo rafts abounded.  They had a paddler and then 2 chairs with an umbrella overhead so that the people who hired the raft could sail in comfort down the river.  At one spot there was a little lift at a drop in the river, so you could experience the brief exhiliration of the drop (think the drop at the end of the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' ride--we are not talking Class 3 rapids), and then have the boat hauled back up to do it all over again.

This was definitely the most peaceful and beautiful day of the trip.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Reaching for the Moon (2013)

This movie is about the life of the poet Elizabeth Bishop.  She was a shy and unconfident poet who had great promise, but she was not one who enjoyed the spotlight at all.  Perhaps part of her hesitation in life was that she was gay and it was the 1950's.  She decided at one point that she would take a trip to Brazil to visit an old friend, Mary, from college, someone who was also gay.  She very quickly and deftly charms Mary's lover, the architect Lota de Maceda Suares, a woman who has enough confidence for all three of them--leaving Mary the odd woman out.

Elizabeth had two big problems.  the first was alcohol, which at least as far as the movie goes she was on occasion able to control, but the tension of living under the same roof with her lover and her lover's former lover--a woman obviously still in love with Lota--was a lot to bear.  The second problem was that her father died when she was an infant and her mother died when she was a child--she never leThe problem with movies about real people is that sometimes they are not all that likable, and the movie does suffer a bit from that, but overall quite enjoyable as a movie, and it streams on Netflix.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Eggplant Meatballs

Do not get me wrong, I love a good pork and beef meatball--I had my Monday Meatballs this very Monday.  But I continue on the search for great recipes with vegetables in order to continue to efficiently and effectively use all the things that I get in my CSA each week (let it not be said that I am completely free of obsessions--not throwing anything away and avoiding wasted food are ongoing goals that I more or less manage to achieve).  Here is one from my friend Chris Owens, whose daughter Sam has been challenging her to eat more vegan food.

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 lb unpeeled eggplant, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 cup white beans
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 cup panko
  • pinch red chili flakes
 Heat the oven to 375°. Spray a large rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray.

Place 1/2 tablespoon olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. When hot add the eggplant and 1/4 cup water. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to the bowl of a food processor.
Add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of oil to the skillet with the onion and garlic and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add to the food processor along with the drained beans and parsley and pulse until well combined and chopped, but not pureed.
Combine the mixture with the panko and red chile flakes. Taste for salt then roll into 12 meatballs, about 2-inches in diameter. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and bake until firm and browned, about 25 to 30 minutes.  Serve with your favorite marinara sauce over pasta, or spiral cut zucchini noodles.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

This book marks the final installation in the 'All Souls' trilogy by USC historian Deborah Harkness.

Diana Bishop is a witch and a Yale historian.  Her husband is Matthew Clairmont, a vampire and Oxford biochemist, and have been searching for Ashmole 782 (a.k.a. the Book of Life) through the first two books.  In this series the daemons, vampires and witches live amongst us, but these creatures live an uneasy existence alongside humans, and love across the inter-species lines separating witch, vampire and daemon is as fraught with danger and is just as prohibited as romance between the Capulets and the Montagues.

Located in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the magical Ashmole 782 may hold the key to why some supernatural creatures are losing their power or suffering from blood rage, an affliction Matthew harbors in secret that can turn him and his progeny into deadly killers.  In this final installment Diana proves herself to be not just a witch, but a weaver who has great magical powers.  Matthew and his son Marcus gather enough DNA to uncover the biology behind the supernatural creatures and the information they uncover breaks the conventional views of vampires and witches.  Great conclusion to a very fun series.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor in the 21st Century

Yes, this just about sums it up.
A company has a fixed amount of profit with which to share amongst the workers, so that when the man at the top takes several million for himself, it leaves the those below him with less to go around.  That is the state of labor in the 21st century.  I am reasonably certain that wage earners would rather that the worker would much prefer that the salary for his work go up, not to have something tricklhy down from the multi-millionaire who is taking the lion's share of the available salary dollars.

The very sad thing is that it is the people who need income redistribution the most who vote for the politicians who are least likely to support such a change.  I am all for what Kansas governor Grover Norquist is doing, which is putting Republican ideas about small government and lower taxes into action--those who call for these changes should live by those decisions, and if they are happier that way, fabulous.  But in the mean time, pay workers their fair share.