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Friday, October 31, 2014

Divergent (2014)

I think that the people who will like this film best are those who have read the books.  It matters less if you loved them or hated them than that you know what to expect.  The story itself owes a lot to 'The Hunger game' series, in that it is a post apocolyptic world divided into highly structured subgroups that have very specific roles in the society.  If you haven't read the books the movie will seem even more derivative than it does when you have read them.

The movie is enjoyable because the three main characters.  The society is split into five factions based on major character virtues.  The Erudite are the smart ones, the Amity are the peaceful ones, the Candor are the honest to the point of tactless ones, the Dauntless are the brave ones, and the Abnegation are the selfless ones.  Adolescents are tested when they are on the verge of adulthood and given their personality results, but they ultimately get to choose which faction to belong to--but beware, if you are not well suited to your faction of choice, there is no going back.  If you get kicked out, you are "Factionless", which is essentially like being homeless.  Two of the main characters are what is called 'Divergent', which means they do not fit neatly into one of the facitons, and they are seen as particularly dangerous, and Kate Winslet plays the Erudite leader who wants to get rid of them.  the other subplot is that the intelligent ones want to remove the selfless ones from controlling the government, which we have already more or less accomplished in the real wolrd (except it isn't intellect so much as money that controls our government--but it is certainly not selfless people).  Much of this is predicatble, but the acting is compelling and the movie enjoyable in its own way.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Shuhe Village, Yunnan Province, China

The Shuhe Village, near Lijiang, is another UNESCO World Heritage site, and well worth seeing once you have made the commitment to venture all the way south to the Yunnan Province.  One of my friends who is formerly from Beijing calls these cities that are preserved for tourists, and that may be the case, but if so the tourists are predominantly Asian.  There is something very worthwhile about preserving a culture and a way of life, especially since it is disappearing rapidly with the urbanization of the population.  Many Chinese will not have the experience of living at or near ground level, much less see the construction craftsmanship that these buildings demonstrate.

The city streets are remarkably free of traffic, and there is even an open town square--no matter what the cultural background is, a central meeting place for markets and social functions is a common element; we were there on National Children's Day, and there was a tug of war going on in the square for all to see.  When one team won, a member would change sides and they would begin againl, trying to have an evenly gifted team on each side.  It was like stepping back in time in a way that was particularly remarkable for modern China.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Vacationers by Emily Straub

This is a surprisingly light and enjoyable book, especially considering the content.  A family is going on a European vacation to a rental house.  It is the parents, their daughter who is off to college, their adult son and his wife, and the wife's best friend and his husband.  The parents are ostensibly celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary, but Jim, the husband, has just told his wife that he had an affair with an intern and lost his job as a result.  So he is unexpectedly retired and on the verge of divorce.  Franny, the wife, is the center of the action.  There are numerous things that happen with so many people who are not functioning at their maximal capacity are placed under one roof, no matter how idyllic the setting, and that is exactly what happens here  The ending is a good lesson to all who have been in long term relationships.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

This is a strange mix between a feel good movie and a sob story.  Hazel is a 17 year old who is permantently attached to an oxygen tank.  She has metastatic thyroid cancer in her lungs, and while the experimental chemotherapy that she is taking is controling her lung tumors, she still can't breath and occasionally goes into pulmonary edema and needs to be hospitalized.  Hazel does not have friends.  She left high school long ago and got her GED, so there is no socializing there for her.  Probably a non-issue since most teens have zero interest in being reminded of their mortality, and her peer group of teenagers with a terminal illness is very small.  She meets Gus, a 19 year old who had a leg amputation for osteosarcoma, in a cancer support group and they become friends and then more than friends and then one of them dies.  You wouldn't think this would be a popular story but it is.  I don't understand why that is.

I cried through much of this movie.  I know why.  It is because I have a 20 year old son who is a childhood cancer survivor.  Yes, he is one of the lucky ones, but I suspect that I am not alone as a parent in having thought about what he would have missed if his cancer had not responded to treatment.  So I get why parents of a young woman would be so excited for her to have a love affair.  They are not sure how much time she has left, and that is heart breaking.  The more she can live life the better, that is how I would feel if I were her mother.  I am not sure if you would cry, or even like this movie if you don't have that connection, but for me it was pitch perfect in capturing many of the little things that make childhood cancer so emotionally painful.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Stone Forest, Kunming, China

 This is a spectacular place to go--like Guilin, it is an area that was once under the water.  Geologists say the Stone Forest is a typical example of karsts topography (also like Guilin).   The difference is that the formations look nothing like the mountains of Guilin.

Approximately 270 million years ago - during the carboniferous period of the Paleozoic era - the region was a vast expanse of sea. Over time, the movements of the lithosphere gradually caused a retreat of the waters and the rise of the limestone landscape. Due to constant erosion by the elements, the area finally developed into the present-day appearance.
The area that the Stone Forest occupies is not on every tourist's beaten path, so it is possible to sit alone and enjoy the magnificent view here.  Plan to spend a half day walking around and enjoying the beautiful things that erosion has sculpted here.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

It is really hard to characterize this book, which was short listed for the Booker Prize this year.  Let me start by saying that I really liked it, and the story is unusual, almost hilarious, but equal parts sobering.  That is a confusing description, but really, I am doing my best here.

Paul O'Rourke is a dentist, and there is quite a bit of detail about the day to day life of a dentist included.He is likable in his inner life, meaning the reader is prone to like him, but he has derious problems in his actual life making and keeping friends.  He is rootless and he is not afraid to share that with any and all who ask, which tends to push people away.

The game changing event that occurs is that someone poses as him in an on-line life.  Someone who has strong opinions that he is not afraid to share, and Paul is set completely off balance by this.  What happens from then on is esoteric, perhaps a little unnecessarily complicated, but very thought provoking.  It is not nearly as light a read as it seems to be when you open the book, but well worth the effort.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Lady Windermere's Fan (1925)

Yes, I am still watching Ernst Lubitsch films.  This one is a silent film based on the Oscar Wilde play of the same name (the play was also the basis for the 2004 movie, "A Good Woman" with Helen Hunt and Scarlet Johanssen).  The play is just what you would expect from Wilde, a witty reparte that appears to be one thing but is slyly critical of all sorts of things underneath the text.

So how to make a movie without words and few intertitles that is true to the play for which it is named?  This movie demonstrates the genius of Lubitsch at it's best. The play is a mere 50 odd pages and it is well worth reading it before pulling the movie up on YouTube and comparing them.  The movie is visually witty and entirely true to the story, which is about a woman who thinks her husband is cheating on her but he is not.  The best character is Mrs. Erlynne, who is the object of much gossip with very little fact underlying it.  The play depicts this verbally, but the movie is pitch perfect in displaying it visually.  I loved them both, and as a pair they are the best advertisement for the artisitc ability of a silent film.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Baisha Village, Yunnan, China

When you make a two week trip to a country the size of China, it is very hard to figure out what exactly you are going to love and when you are going to wish that you had skipped.  I made many very traditional choices for my first trip, but choosing to travel to Yunnan was off the typical script and I am very happy that I made that choice.

A number of reasons why.  The first is that the region still has a number of towns that are not sky scrapers shadowing what used to be traditional life (although the occasional shopper wearing a mask, which is reminiscent of people living in highly dense communities where  illness can spread like wild fire, and not on the wide streets of this village that lacked even cars).  It was a relief to see this part of China.

Another is that the food culture of the country is so different from mine that I wanted to see more and more of what was different, and these villages afford that kind of window shopping.  The abundance of food is the first thing that struck me.  Not all of it fresh, but the culture of preserving food (rather than wasting it) is very appealing to me.  The amount of food that is grown in western countries that is never eater--either it rots in the field, or doesn't get sold, or gets thrown away by the consumer--is about half of food grown.  The front end of that problem seems less likely in China.  So much dried food everywhere and so much fun to ogle at.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

According to other reviewers, this author has written a book that parallels his own.  He is a Russian immigrant who works as a writer in New York, a place that is not as Russian as some (I had no idea, but there is a city in North Dakota where about 1 in 5 residents are Russian Americans) but more so than most.

Slava has left his South Brooklyn home behind, but not the family that he grew up with there.  The book opens with the death of his grandmother and the hatching of a plan to write up fake accounts of maltreatment at the hands of the Germans during WWII in order to get restitution.  The problem is that while the Germans perpetrated a war that changed everyone of that generation's life in Russia, very few if any of them had been interned in German camps.  Therefore they did not qualify for restitution.  Slava sees the great injustice in these rules.  The Germans can afford to pay.  People have suffered and are poor.  So he spends hours upon hours writing up phony accounts of their treatment.  It is not made up at all, except for where it happened.  When he gets caught he is of two minds.  To tell or not to tell.  Read it and find out which way his wind blows.  This is a very good first effort at a novel.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Don't Want to Be a Man (1918)

More of the Lubitsch silent movies from his German period.  This one stars Ossi Oswalda (the actress and the role have the same name) as a rambunctious young woman who is a bane for her uncle.  The movie opens with her smoking cigarettes and playing poker.  What to do?  The uncle turns her care over to a guardian who promises to take her in hand.

That sets Ossi's teeth on edge and she decides to pose as a man for an evening out.  During her time as a cross dresser she discovers that there are a number of downsides to the cultural expectations of men.  She decides that in the end she is happier with her life as a woman.  In the meantime, she has a little tryst with her guardian--we know and Ossi knows that she is actually a woman, but the guardian does not know that the man he thinks he is kissing is actually a woman.  Very risque indeed.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Chicken Wings

On a recent trip to Portland, these wings were a memorable highlight.  Andy Ricker, the chef at Pok Pok got the recipe from Ich Truong and they are spectacular.

  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 1/2 cup Vietnamese fish sauce (Ricker recommends Phu Quoc or Three Crabs brand)
  • 1/2 cup superfine sugar
  • 2 lbs medium-size chicken wings (about 12), split at the joint
  • Vegetable oil (for frying)
  • 1 cup rice flour
  • 1/4 cup tempura batter mix (Ricker recommends Gogi brand)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • Optional: 1–2 tsp naam phrik khao soi (roasted chile paste, for “spicy wings”)
(1) CHOP garlic finely, sprinkle salt, and chop together for about 15 more seconds.
(2) SCRAPE into a small bowl, add warm water, and let sit for a few minutes. (3) POUR through a fine sieve set over a bowl, and use the back of a spoon to stir and smoosh garlic against the sieve, reserving leftover garlic. (4) ADD fish sauce and sugar to bowl and stir until dissolved. (5) PLACE chicken wings in a separate large bowl, add 1/2 cup of fish sauce mixture (reserve the rest in the refrigerator), and toss well. (6) COVER and refrigerate wings for at least four hours, or overnight, tossing every hour or so. 
(1) HEAT 3/4-inch vegetable oil in a small pan over high heat and add reserved garlic.
(2) REDUCE heat to medium-low, fry until garlic is lightly golden brown, about 5 minutes, and transfer to paper towels to drain (set aside until final cooking stage).
(3) TRANSFER wings from refrigerator to a colander in the sink and let drain for 15 minutes.
(4) STIR together rice flour and tempura mix in a large bowl and toss wings until coated well.
(5) POUR enough oil into a wok or dutch oven to completely submerge the wings, about 2 inches, and bring oil to 325 degrees (measure with a candy thermometer).
(6) FRY wings in two batches, gently knocking them against the bowl before adding to the oil.
(7) COOK each batch until evenly golden brown, about 10–12 minutes, prodding every few minutes.
(8) TRANSFER wings to paper towels to drain. 
(1) ADD 1/4 cup water to the reserved fish sauce mixture.
(2) COMBINE 1/4 cup of the water–fish sauce mixture and half the chile paste (if you are using it), bring to a full boil in a nonstick wok, and reduce for about 45 seconds.
(3) ADD half the wings and toss every 15 seconds, until a caramelized glaze coats the wings, about 1 minute.
(4) ADD 1 tbsp of the fried garlic, toss well, and cook about 30 seconds longer.
(5) RINSE and wipe out wok, and repeat with the next batch of wings.
(6) SERVE wings with pickled vegetables, cucumber spears, and herb sprigs.

Monday, October 20, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I loved this book, which was  short listed for the Booker Prize this year.  A word of warning, though.  My husband, who admittedly is not a huge fan of the books on the aforementioned short list, did not love this book.  So you are officially forewarned this did not receive the spouse medal of approval.

Rosemary is largely looking back on her life, beginning in 1970's Indiana and going forward into the present by the end.  She is largely mourning the loss of her sister Fern, and the loss of her brother as a result of that.  Fern is an unusual sibling (I am not going to spoil this, so if you manage to not read other reviews of this book you might get to see things through Rosemary's eyes rather than judging her too early in the story), but she was no less a sibling to Rosemary than if she had been completely ordinary.  In some ways, it her differentness made it harder for her siblings to move beyond her loss.  The story is about ignoring grief and then turning 180 degrees and embracing it, building your life around what happened and moving forward in that way.

There is a lot to think about in this book, which is deceptively light and whimsically packaged.  It is a cautionary tale of unintended consequences and how to go about doing the best you can with what the past has dealt you.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Lunchbox (2014)

In one of the reviews that I read this movie was compared to an Ernst Lubitsch film "Shop Around the Corner"--which is ironic, because in my quest to maintain my liberal education I have been watching all the films that my son's film class watches, and this semester it is all about Lubitsch, a director I had literally never heard about six months ago.

The story is set in Mumbai, which has what I have come to know is a famously efficient and accurate lunch box delivery service througout the city.  Workers can contracat with a lunch box service or home cooks can prepare lunches for loved ones that will be delivered warm at lunch time.  The food in this movie makes it worth the watch--I would love for a cookbook to come out covering how to make all these delectable dishes!

The story is that Ila (Ninrat Kaur) is neglected by her spouse.  She is desperate to reconnect with him, and her helpful and meddling neighbor suggests she cook him an extra special lunch, which she does.  The lunch box comes back clean, like he licked the plate, but he says nothing to her that evening.  When she questions him a bit further, she begins to realize that the lunch went to someone else.  That someone is Saajan (played by Irrfan Kahn), a widowed man who lives a solitary existence both at work and at home.  Instead of correcting the error, they start a correspondence, notes within the lunchbox, which leads them to a place neither of them thought they were going to.  they got on the wrong train but ended up at the right station.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Harissa Marinated Chicken with Grapefruit Sauce

This is another adaptation from Ottolenghi/Tamimi, who are masters of blending flavors--this one can marinate overnight, or a couple of nights, and then it is an easy weeknight dinner to finish off.  Delicious!

8-10 BLSL chicken thighs and/or breasts


1 red pepper
¼ tsp coriander seeds
¼ tsp cumin seeds
¼ tsp caraway seeds
½ tbsp olive oil
1 small red onion, roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 mild fresh red chillies, seeded and roughly chopped
1 dried red chilli, seeded and roughly chopped
1/2 tbsp tomato puree
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp Greek yogurt

Grapefruit Sauce:
2/3 cup  pink grapefruit juice
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2/3 cup maple syrup
1/4 tsp salt
a pinch ground cinnamon
1 star anise

First make the marinade for the chicken. Blister the skin off the pepper by holding it over a flame and letting it char, then peel it.  Saute the olive oil and add the seeds and stir, then add the red onion and the garlic and saute until soft.  Put all the marinade ingredients in a blender until very smooth texture is achieved.
To marinate the chicken, rub the marinade all over the chicken thighs. Put into a gallon sized bag, seal, and refrigerate overnight.
The next day make the sauce. The sauce makes the dish. Do not skip the sauce! It makes a great sauce for fish or pork, too.
Preheat the oven to 425. Lay out the chicken, well spaced, on a lined baking sheet and place in the hot oven. After 5 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 350 and cook for another 12-15 minutes, until the chicken is almost cooked. Then, place it under the broiler for 2-3 minutes to give it extra color and cook it through completely.
Meanwhile, place all the sauce ingredients in a small pan and bring to a light simmer. Simmer for about 20 min in a Windsor pan if you have one, or until reduced to a third.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

This falls into the genre of fictional stories with a historical setting that is largely accurate.  Zummo is an artist who does inspired human renditions in wax.  He has a checkered past and secrets to hide, but he is both an excellent craftsman and an unparalleled artist.  Florence seduces him with a commission to do his greatest work, but also poses a greater danger. An air of menace infects the city around the time of Dante's exile.  The Medici court is the culprit, and there Zummo makes an enemy of sinister Dominican Padre Stufa. Strict laws governing sexual propriety are enforced, and Zummo is not one to follow the Catholic edicts.  Nor is Stufa, but he is a do as I say not as I do kind of tyrant. Jews like Zummo are banished to a ghetto. People are arrested and tortured on hearsay. It is a city of shadows, watchful eyes, and whispering tongues.

It is in this atmosphere that the Grand Duke's asks Zummo to produce a secret commission: he wants the sculptor to make him a lifesize figure of a beautiful young woman, modeled his wife who has left him and whom he mourns.  Zummo throws himself into the commission and in the midst of it he meets arresting young woman.  She turns out to be more than just a convenient model for the Grand Dutchess who has flown the coop, she has a spot within the story. This is light but entertaining, especially if you love Florence and it's art.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Design for Living (1933)

This movie, which is much less well known than Lubitsch's 'Ninotchka', is in my opinion a far funner movie to watch.  And in the romantic comedy genre, enjoyment is the name of the game.  The movie script is a very loose adaptation of Noel Coward's popular stage play, but Lubitsch and his writer, Ben Hecht used only one line from the original play. Really, they kept the idea intact, which is a long term menage a tois between two men who are very good friends and a woman who loves them both and cannot choose between them.

Gina (Miriam Hopkins) meets George (Gary Cooper) and Tom (Frederic March) on a train.  She is working as an illustrator for advertising and they are a struggling painter and play write, respectively.  Max, Gina's boss, is clearly over the moon about her, but she is much more attracted to the two handsome strangers she has met.  She has a go with each of them, and even after that, she still cannot decide, so they decide to swear off sex and work on their careers.  Which is wildly successful in terms of fame and fortune, but they are still stuck, with Gina unable to choose between the two friends. 

The movie is witty and fun, and risque for the time, I would think.  They talk about sex and sleep in big beds, so there is no hiding what is going on--it predates the Production Code by a couple of years, which made prudishness the law, which may explain how it manages to look much more modern than other older movies, and just shows that sex has always sold well.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Marinated Sweet and Sour Fish

 This is another Ottolenghi inspired dish--my husband is on a roll!  The thing about this is that you make it ahead of time and let the flavor blend and grow--but do not serve it cold. The flavors are flat and the curry tastes too sharp. And so I recommend it be served at what would be room temperature in the Mediterranean, which is somewhere between 85 to 95 degrees.

3 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and cut into 1cm slices
1 tbsp coriander seeds
3-4 peppers sliced
6 garlic cloves, crushed
3 bay leaves
2 tomatoes, chopped
1½ tbsp curry powder
1½ tbsp sugar
3 tbsp cider vinegar
Salt and black pepper
1 lb. Halibut
Seasoned flour, for dusting
1 large egg, beaten
1/4 cup chopped coriander

Heat two tablespoons of oil in a large sauté pan. Add the onions and coriander seeds, and cook on medium heat for three minutes, stirring often. Add the peppers, cook for five minutes, then add the garlic, bay, tomatoes and curry powder. Cook for eight minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the sugar, vinegar, a teaspoon of salt and some black pepper, and cook for five minutes.
Heat the remaining oil in another frying pan. Dip the fish first in flour and then in egg, and fry for three minutes, turning once. Transfer the fish to the pepper pan and add 1/2 c. water, so it's just coated by the vegetables and some liquid.
Cover and cook for 10-12 minutes, until the fish is cooked, then remove and leave to come to room temperature. The fish can be served at this point, but it's better after a day or two in the fridge. Serve garnished with coriander.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgramage by Haruki Murakami

I love this author, who has the sparse and beautiful art of story telling embedded in his bones.  He is my odds on favorite to win the Nobel Prize in the not too distant future.  His work is consistent, mesmerizing and prolific.  The great news about this book is that is short, wonderful and not too densely written.  So if you have yet to discover this author, start here.  The book is far more concisely written than the rambling title would suggest.

Henry David Thoreau said that 'Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.' Tsukuru is an engineer who narrowly escapes this fate.  He led a charmed existence in high school, with a group of four fellow students, two men and two women, who fulfilled almost all the needs that a high school student could desire.  There was a sexual tension that kept them from forming boy-girl relationships, but other than sexual intimacy, they shared everything with each other.  Tsukuru was the only one of the group who left their hometown to go to college, and during that time the group ostracized him for reasons that escaped him.  The break caused him suicidal grief, but eventually he found the will to live and continued his life as planned in Tokyo.

Tsukuru gets involved with a woman who he thinks might be 'the one', but she holds him at arm's length, saying there is something that keeps him from throwing himself completely into a relationship, and she thinks it is this now ancient shunning that he endured.  She insists that he go to each of the members of his former group and unravel what went so wrong.  While she might be meddling into his life in the way of a psychotherapist, she does help him find each of his former gang and one by one he manages to piece together what happens.  It is cathartic for him and in the end he is able to feel and express love for what he hopes will be his life partner.  A compact and splendid tale.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Skeleton in Armor by Henry Wadsworth Longellow

Today on the celebration of the discovery of America, I am honoring Leif Eriksson.  The poem is about a skeleton in armor that was dug up in Salem, Massachusetts that gave a hint as to the true discovers of the new world.

“Speak! speak! thou fearful guest!
Who, with thy hollow breast
Still in rude armor drest,
      Comest to daunt me!
Wrapt not in Eastern balms,
But with thy fleshless palms
Stretched, as if asking alms,
      Why dost thou haunt me?”

Then, from those cavernous eyes
Pale flashes seemed to rise,
As when the Northern skies
      Gleam in December;
And, like the water’s flow
Under December’s snow,
Came a dull voice of woe
      From the heart’s chamber.

“I was a Viking old!
My deeds, though manifold,
No Skald in song has told,
      No Saga taught thee!
Take heed, that in thy verse
Thou dost the tale rehearse,
Else dread a dead man’s curse;
      For this I sought thee.

“Far in the Northern Land,
By the wild Baltic’s strand,
I, with my childish hand,
      Tamed the gerfalcon;
And, with my skates fast-bound,
Skimmed the half-frozen Sound,
That the poor whimpering hound
      Trembled to walk on.

“Oft to his frozen lair
Tracked I the grisly bear,
While from my path the hare
      Fled like a shadow;
Oft through the forest dark
Followed the were-wolf’s bark,
Until the soaring lark
      Sang from the meadow.

“But when I older grew,
Joining a corsair’s crew,
O’er the dark sea I flew
      With the marauders.
Wild was the life we led;
Many the souls that sped,
Many the hearts that bled,
      By our stern orders.

“Many a wassail-bout
Wore the long Winter out;
Often our midnight shout
      Set the cocks crowing,
As we the Berserk’s tale
Measured in cups of ale,
Draining the oaken pail,
      Filled to o’erflowing.

“Once as I told in glee
Tales of the stormy sea,
Soft eyes did gaze on me,
      Burning yet tender;
And as the white stars shine
On the dark Norway pine,
On that dark heart of mine
      Fell their soft splendor.

“I wooed the blue-eyed maid,
Yielding, yet half afraid,
And in the forest’s shade
      Our vows were plighted.
Under its loosened vest
Fluttered her little breast,
Like birds within their nest
      By the hawk frighted.

“Bright in her father’s hall
Shields gleamed upon the wall,
Loud sang the minstrels all,
      Chanting his glory;
When of old Hildebrand
I asked his daughter’s hand,
Mute did the minstrels stand
      To hear my story.

“While the brown ale he quaffed,
Loud then the champion laughed,
And as the wind-gusts waft
      The sea-foam brightly,
So the loud laugh of scorn,
Out of those lips unshorn,
From the deep drinking-horn
      Blew the foam lightly.

“She was a Prince’s child,
I but a Viking wild,
And though she blushed and smiled,
      I was discarded!
Should not the dove so white
Follow the sea-mew’s flight,
Why did they leave that night
      Her nest unguarded?

“Scarce had I put to sea,
Bearing the maid with me,
Fairest of all was she
      Among the Norsemen!
When on the white sea-strand,
Waving his armed hand,
Saw we old Hildebrand,
      With twenty horsemen.

“Then launched they to the blast,
Bent like a reed each mast,
Yet we were gaining fast,
      When the wind failed us;
And with a sudden flaw
Came round the gusty Skaw,
So that our foe we saw
      Laugh as he hailed us.

“And as to catch the gale
Round veered the flapping sail,
‘Death!’ was the helmsman’s hail,
      ‘Death without quarter!’
Mid-ships with iron keel
Struck we her ribs of steel;
Down her black hulk did reel
      Through the black water!

“As with his wings aslant,
Sails the fierce cormorant,
Seeking some rocky haunt,
      With his prey laden, —
So toward the open main,
Beating to sea again,
Through the wild hurricane,
      Bore I the maiden.

“Three weeks we westward bore,
And when the storm was o’er,
Cloud-like we saw the shore
      Stretching to leeward;
There for my lady’s bower
Built I the lofty tower,
Which, to this very hour,
   Stands looking seaward.

“There lived we many years;
Time dried the maiden’s tears;
She had forgot her fears,
      She was a mother;
Death closed her mild blue eyes,
Under that tower she lies;
Ne’er shall the sun arise
      On such another!

“Still grew my bosom then,
Still as a stagnant fen!
Hateful to me were men,
      The sunlight hateful!
In the vast forest here,
Clad in my warlike gear,
Fell I upon my spear,
      Oh, death was grateful!

“Thus, seamed with many scars,
Bursting these prison bars,
Up to its native stars
      My soul ascended!
There from the flowing bowl
Deep drinks the warrior’s soul,
Skoal! to the Northland! skoal!”
      Thus the tale ended.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Custis Lee Mansion in the Arlington National Cemetary

This is the second of three posts realted to Columbus Day weekend--this year I am focusing on the birth of our nation, and the role that the Civil War played in who we are as a country today.

The mansion, which was intended as a living memorial to George Washington, was owned and constructed by the first president's adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, son of John Parke Custis who himself was a child of Martha Washington by her first marriage and a ward of George Washington. Arlington won out as a name over Mount Washington.  Custis hired George Hadfield, an English architect who came to Washington in 1785 to help construct the U.S. Capitol, to design his estate. The north wing was the first structure completed in 1802. It was in this building that Custis made his home, with a significant portion of it used to store George Washington memorabilia that Custis was acquiring with regularity. Among the items purchased and stored in the north wing were portraits, Washington's personal papers and clothes, and the command tent which the president had used at Yorktown.
Robert E. Lee's wife inherited the house from her father, George Washington Parke Custis and Lee is said to have loved the property--not hard to understand when you are there because it has a gorgeous view of the Potomac River, and the modern sites of the Congress and various memorials.
When Lee decided to join the Confederate forces, he must have known that he would be giving up his wife's ancestral home.  Union troops would have to take control of Arlington, where the heights offered a perfect platform for artillery—key to the defense or subjugation of the capital. Once the war began, Arlington was easily won, but it was harder to seize it legally. The federal government was still wrestling the Lee family for control of the property in 1882, by which time it had been transformed into Arlington National Cemetery, the nation's most hallowed ground.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Homefront and Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War

In kicking off Columbus Day weekend, I am going with some history.  This time in the form of a quilt.  I live in a 150 year old house that was built during the Civil War, and when I get settled in, or maybe not until I retire, I would love to make a quilt to emulate some of the ones from this exhibit that originated at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts.  I love the appliqued scenes, and the colors are brighter than those depicted in many quilting history books that I have seen.

The quilts are not the only thing that the exhibit deals with.  Cotton was king in the South, and slavery was the engine that drove it.  The war brought cotton production to a grinding halt--post war production was just 4% of 1860 production and cloth was scarce as a result.  Wool became more popular and the exhibit has a number of quilts that are pieced with wool as a result, but this is the sort of quilt that I am interested in making.  Wish me luck.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Groundhog Day (1993)

 I loved this movie the moment that I saw it, and now, re-watching it two decades late, it still resonates. 
--> Maybe this is my preamble to Columbus Day weekend, when he rediscovered America, long after the Vikings from Iceland had been there.  The difference was that when Columbus discovered it, he brought Europe to the New World, which changed everything forever.

This movie is not quite so momentous as all that.  The movie, as almost everyone knows, is about a TV weatherman man, Phil, who finds himself living the same day over and over and over again in a small town where he is unknown to everyone but the camera man and the producer who accompanied him there.  The is a singularly unlikable self-centered man who had been cursed with the task of finding a better character underneath his unappealing exterior.

Phil, who shares his name with the groundhog in the movie, is the only person in his world who knows this is happening.  Every morning the bedside alarm clock flips from 5:59 to 6:00 and the radio plays Sonny and Cher's 'I Got You Babe' day after day.  After going through periods of dismay and bitterness, revolt and despair, suicidal self-destruction and cynical recklessness, he begins to do something that is alien to his nature.  He decides to take the time to do things to better himself, things he never slowed down long enough to learn.  And finally the audience, who are the only ones who know how this change came about, starts to like him.  They side with him in his quest to get the girl.  The movie is so effortless that I suspended belief in the fantastical and fell into the framework of the endless loop of a day joyfully.  There is a lot to be learned in this, and it is all taught through comedy rather than drama.  Remarkable.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Quiet Streets of Winslow by Judy Troy

Since the midsummer I have been letting 'The New Yorker' and 'The Week' dictate what I will read next, and this was one that I would never have found without them.  On a 3,000 mile round trip car ride I populated my public library hold list with this being one of the results.

The book is a murder mystery of sorts.  I am a life long reader of the genre, and would say I read about four or five for every book of heftier intellectual material year in and year out.  So I wasn't upset by the book opening with the discovery of a dead woman and the subsequent hunt for her killer.  The story is told from the viewpoint of the prime suspect, the sheriff, and the suspect's nephew.  It is well written and unlike a classic murder mystery, the point is not to bring the killer to justice but to understand what is going on through several perspectives.  Life is fragile, the impulse for violence is omnipresent, jealousy is a terrible thing, and dissatisfaction is all too easy to achieve.  That is what I got out of the story, and it was an enjoyable lesson despite the disheartening message.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Mark Bittman's Choucroute

  • ½ head green cabbage
  • 1 quart sauerkraut
  • 2 large onions
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds or juniper berries
  •   Black pepper
  • 1 pound boneless pork shoulder roast (or 1 1/2 pounds bone-in)
  • 1 pound smoked sausage
  • 1 bottle not-too-sweet riesling (or a little more than 3 cups beer, apple cider, chicken stock or water)
  1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Core the cabbage; cut it into wide ribbons and scatter in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Drain the sauerkraut and spread it on top of the cabbage. Halve the onions and nestle them among the vegetables. Tuck in the bay leaves and sprinkle with the caraway seeds or juniper berries and lots of black pepper.
  2. Put the meat and sausages on top of everything and pour in the wine or other liquid. Sprinkle the meat with salt and pepper and cover tightly with foil. Transfer to the oven and cook, undisturbed, for 2 hours.
  3. Test the pork shoulder by inserting a fork into the thickest part: If it slides out easily, turn the oven up to 450 degrees, leave the pan uncovered and return it to the oven until the meat and the vegetables brown a bit, another 25 to 30 minutes. If the pork isn’t fork-tender, re-cover the pan and return it to the oven for another 30 minutes before proceeding.
  4. To serve, just break the pork into chunks with two forks and set the pan on the table with a serving spoon and plates, plenty of roughly torn baguettes and crocks of mustard and butter.
 We made this because we had a pork shoulder and a lot of cabbage on hand--but it is easy, uses winter vegetables, and has the stick to your ribs quality that is appealing if you are going to be out in the cold for a long period of time, or need something substantial to see you through--not exactly fall food per se, but keep it in mind in the months ahead.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ninotchka (1939)

The Ernst Lubitsch film semester continues.  The movie has some heavy hitters--besides Lubitsch as director, Billy Wilder wrote it (apparently he was a writer before he was a director), and Greta Garbo stars.

This is Garbo's second to last film and the movie has been billed by the moniker "Garbo laughs!".  I don't know enough about her work to be able to comment on whether that is a rarity or not, but it is entirely accurate.  Right about mid-film her love interest makes a huge effort to get her to laugh, and he is wildly, though unexpectedly, successful.  It is noteworthy because Garbo plays a Russian envoy who is sent to Paris to help save failing negotiations to sell the opulent jewelry confiscated from Russian royalty.  She enters the scene as an impossibly smart, no-nonsense woman with no sense of humor.  She meets a man who turns out to be her nemesis in mucking up the gears of her mission, but who none-the-less captures her heart.  So the capitalist melts the heart of a die-hard communist, a message which surely had some appeal to Americans. 

This was definitely not amongst my favorite Lubitsch films, but it is a well known one, and without flaws other than that I like other of his films more.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

After reading 'The Goldfinch' I decided I really needed to read more by the author.  This is her second book, and while it is in many ways a much lighter book than her latest, it doesn't exactly step out of the darkness into light either.  It does have a rich tradition of story telling that harkens back to fellow Mississippian, William Faulkner.  Maybe it is the long hot humid summers and the dirt roads.

The story is told through Harriet, a 12-year old girl who has too much time on her hands and an active imagination.  She sets out to find the murderer of her older brother Robin and exact retribution.  She has no intention of bringing him to the police.  She is bent on killing him herself.  Once she is convinced she has found her man, she gets her best friend to help her.  He is more wooed by her than he is a co-conspirator, but Tartt perfectly captures the mind set of youth who are perfectly comfortable acting as judge, jury, and executioner.  It is only after their plan veers off course that there is even a question that this might be a plan fraught with problems, and then the second thoughts last only moments.  The story is fantastic on many levels of the word, and comes to a satisfying conclusion.  This is a winner.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Roasted Eggplant with Yogurt and Pomegranates

Another one from the Ottolenghi/Tamimi pair.  And it really comes out looking just this beautiful.

  • 2 large and long eggplants
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp lemon thyme leaves, plus a few whole sprigs to garnish
  •  salt and black pepper
  • 1 pomegranate
  • 1 tsp za'atar
  • 9 tbsp buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil, plus a drizzle to finish
  • 1 small garlic clove, crushed
  • Pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 200°F. Cut the eggplants in half lengthways, cutting straight through the green stalk (the stalk is for the look; don't eat it). Use a small sharp knife to make three or four parallel incisions in the cut side of each eggplant half, without cutting through to the skin. Repeat at a 45-degree angle to get a diamond-shaped pattern.
Place the eggplant halves, cut-side up, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush them with olive oil—keep on brushing until all of the oil has been absorbed by the flesh. Sprinkle with the lemon thyme leaves and some salt and pepper. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, at which point the flesh should be soft, flavorful and nicely browned. Remove from the oven and allow to cool down completely.
Sift through the pomeganate after cutting it in half and get all the seeds out.
To make the sauce. Whisk together all of the ingredients. Taste for seasoning, then keep cold until needed.
To serve, spoon plenty of buttermilk sauce over the eggplant halves without covering the stalks. Sprinkle za'atar and plenty of pomegranate seeds on top and garnish with lemon thyme. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Road, the Man, and the Bicycle

Yes, it is Yom Kippur, but this is not a Yom Kippur post.  Please go forward in peace and seek the ability to forgive.  I am terrible at that, so I have no practical advice to offer in that arena.

 It is the 24th birthday of my second son and it is my wish that the upcoming year be filled with inspiration and good luck for him.  This summer after graduating from college with a degree in English, a concentration in writing, and a minor in Spanish he took off with all that education on board to ride his bicycle cross country on the Northern Tier Route by himself.  Pictured above is his bike and below is both the bike and the man as they crossed from Pennsylvania into New York.  It is a long way to go by yourself, and as is so often the case with personal quests, some of it was very good and some of it was very hard.
The thing that I learned about myself as a result of all this is that I was not a very good offspring.  I took off one summer for South America and had very little contact with my parents the entire time I was gone.  I traveled to two regions that were literally off the grid--the Altiplano and the jungle in Bolivia.  In the Altiplano we were not only out of telephone contact, we were not on a road.  We would stop and ask bicycling Aymarans we met the basic direction that we wanted to go and we pointed the car in that direction.  In sharp contrast, I knew almost every step of the way where my offspring was and what challenges and successes he had during his trip.  In conclusion, I apologize to my parents and thank and congratulate my child.  It is complicated to realize that I ask for more reliability in my offspring than I was capable of providing myself.  It is tempting to offer the excuse that technology affords us so much more, but the truth is that it is a much deeper divide than that.  So I am thankful.  May you all be written into the book of life.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed

This book, which is set in Sudan during the 1986-1987 time period when the country was on the brink of civil war, is aptly named.  There are three main characters, all women, who have separate narratives that come together at the end of the book. 

The first is Kawsar, an elderly woman who cannot stand watching the police indiscriminately beat children in the street.  She speaks up and is herself beaten for her efforts.  Her time in police custody is marked with vicious beatings that leave her body broken and she is not longer able to ambulate.  She lies in her home, at the mercy of anyone who comes in her door.  Her only salvation is that she has nothing to take, and when her home is invaded it is not even clear to her that the men even notice her existence.  The child that escapes as the result of Kawsar's intervention is Dequ, an orphan who is from a refugee camp and cared for by prostitute.  Dequ sees that Kawsar has suffered for her in a way that no one in her life has, and they form a bond.  The third woman is Filsan, one of the few women in the military.  She is a hard hearted woman who is one of the few souls that war softens rather than hardens.  In the end the three of them form a family group of sorts to escape the escalating violence in Sudan.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Dragon Boat Holiday, China

I was in China when Duanwu, or the Dragon Boat Festival was celebrated this year.  If you are visiting in the early summer, be aware of this holiday because virtually everything is closed in celebrationl, so one needs to plan a day of festivities or plan around it.

The story best known in modern China holds that the festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC) of the of  Chu during the a particularly contentious warring period of the Zhou Dynasty.  Through a series of unfortuante events he ended his own life in despair, but left behind many fine pieces of poetry.

The festival occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, so it moves around the Gregorian calendar from year to year, but is in June at some point.  The masculine image of the dragon was thus naturally associated with Duanwu, whereas the phoenix is associated with women. The summer solstice is considered the annual peak of male energy while the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, represents the annual peak of feminine energy.  I am not clear on what is so masculine about this, but in addition to racing dragon boats the main component of celebrating is eating zongzi (pictured above--sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves) and drinking realgar wine.  We did one of the two.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Roast Chicken with Oranges and Fennel

This is from the Ottolenghi and Tamimi cookbook 'Jerusalem'.  The great thing about this recipe is that if you are cooking for a crowd, but also have to work a full day then you can do all the prep work the day before, and cook it the next day.

  • 6 1/2 tablespoons Arak (or Ouzo or Pernod)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange (or clementine) juice
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons grainy mustard
  • 3 tablespoons light brown sugar or honey
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 8 bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces (a mix of thighs and drumsticks is nice)
  • 4 clementines, unpeeled, sliced thin
  • a few sprigs of thyme
  • 2 to 3 medium onions (or fennel bulbs) cut lengthwise and then into quarters
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds, lightly crushed
  1. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together arak, oil, orange and lemon juices, mustard, brown sugar and salt. Season with pepper, to taste.   Place chicken with clementine slices, thyme sprigs, onion pieces (or fennel wedges), and crushed fennel seeds (if using) in a large mixing bowl or ziplock bag. Turn several times to coat. Marinate chicken for several hours or overnight.
  2. Preheat oven to 475 degrees. After 30 minutes, check on the chicken. If the skin is browning too quickly, turn the oven down to 400ºF and continue roasting until the skin is brown and crisp, 20 to 25 minutes longer. I roast the chicken at 475ºF for 45 minutes and at 400ºF for 10 minutes, but every oven is different, so just keep an eye on it. Remove pan from the oven.
  3. Transfer chicken and clementines and onion pieces with juices to a serving platter. Let rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Or, proceed to step 4, which I have never done.
  4. Optional: Pour cooking liquid into a small saucepan. Place over medium-high heat, bring to a boil, then simmer until sauce is reduced and you are left with about 1/3 cup. You can degrease by using a spoon to remove some of the fat from top of the sauce. Pour heated sauce over chicken.