Friday, July 20, 2018

A Window Above: All Out of Love

Song: "All Out of Love"
Writers: Clive Davis and Graham Russell
Original Release: February 1980
Band: Air Supply

This is one of my favorite guilty pleasure songs.  I first fell in love with it while driving through the Mt. Fuji region in the summer of '96.  I'm pretty sure my companion and driver got tired of me playing the Air Supply tape over and over again but that's the risk you run when you let me pick the music.  Then again, it was his tape so maybe he didn't mind so much.  Now, if this song comes on the radio at the end of a drive, I won't turn off the car until it's finished.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Squid Mixes: Foghorn

A foghorn combines ginger beer and gin.  My recipe comes from The New York Bartender's Guide.  Ginger beer is a super heavyweight as far as flavor goes so pick one you like.  The gin doesn't stand a chance.

Monday, July 16, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Rohinton Mistry

Title: A Fine Balance
Author: Rohinton Mistry
Mistry, an Indian-born Canadian writer, has won a lot of literature's big prizes in his career: Neustadt, James Tait Black, Booker shortlist, etc.  It's the sort of resume that suggests he's likely to win the Nobel one day.   A Fine Balance, published in 1995, was his third book, second novel.

A Fine Balance covers a long, dramatic sweep of Indian history:  1947-1984, Independence to the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination.  The story follows four characters: Dina Dalal, a 42-year-old widow born of a wealthy urban family but determined to make it on her own after her husband's death; Ishvar and Om Darji, two tailors from the countryside, their lives torn apart by inter-caste violence and Maneck Kohlah, student and son of a grocer in the far off mountains.  The four live together in Dina's apartment.  Their relationships initially fraught with tension, they eventually form a strong familial bond. 

The heart of the tale takes place in 1975-76 during Gandhi's Emergency.  In a society built on centuries-old social injustice (aren't they all?), the crackdowns on the poor are especially brutal during this time.  The tailors always manage to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Easy as it is to roll one's American, Caucasian eyes and think, "Oh boy, India...", it's not much of a stretch to imagine an African-American or Native American or Latino-American or most any other minority family in the United States feeling they have also been victims of history for generations on end.

Mistry's acclaim is well-deserved.  The text is elegant without overwhelming in detail.  Few characters truly disappear in the story, nearly every chance encounter coming around full-circle to play a meaningful role later in the narrative.  The symbolism can be a bit heavy-handed, especially with a quilt Dina produces. The fine balance of the title is between hope and despair.  Most of the narrative weighs to the despair side but the moments of hope are genuinely touching.  The ending is rotten and unnecessarily so.  Dazzlingly artful through nearly 600 pages, Mistry resorts to the worst of all narrative cop-outs just before the final curtain. 

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Window Above: The Final Cut

Song: "The Final Cut"
Writer: Roger Waters
Original Release: March 21, 1983
Band: Pink Floyd
Album: The Final Cut

After fully immersing myself in the Beatles for a year or so in my early teens, I was ready to explore beyond.  Pink Floyd was the next band I pursued with any depth.  While the heart of the group's opus is contained on three masterful albums - The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall - there are plenty of treasures to be found beyond those.  

One late album drew my early attention: The Final Cut, especially the title track.  Whereas far too many of Roger Waters's lyrics are devoted to former band member Syd Barrett's descent into schizophrenia, The Final Cut is instead dedicated to Waters's father.  Waters felt the ideals of his father and the rest of the War Generation were betrayed when Britain entered the Falklands War.  The album's material is the usual Pink Floyd dark but unusually political.  The title track, however, is deeply personal.

Here's the funny thing: until I started putting this post together, I'm not sure I'd actually listened to the song or the album in at least 25 years.  I owned it on vinyl back in the day and never upgraded to CD.  As closely as I connected with it in my adolescence, it's not exactly cheery stuff.

I didn't know a lot about love at that age but I knew enough to understand the fear of betrayal.  "The Final Cut" goes beyond the typical petty jealousy one finds in every fifth song.  Even now, I would say I am a fairly guarded man and easily relate to a reluctance to be vulnerable with people.  Over time, if you're lucky, you surround yourself with people you trust but I didn't really have much of that at 14.  Rather, I did but not in the places I was looking for it.  The line about selling "your story to Rolling Stone" is an honest appraisal of the pitfalls of love for a famous man, which Waters certainly was by 1983.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Kafka on the Shore

Title: Kafka on the Shore
Author: Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore is really two stories intertwined.  In the first, teenage Kafka Tamura runs away from home in Tokyo to escape a difficult relationship with his father and find his long-lost mother and sister.  In the second, the aging Nakata follows a calling of his own which he doesn't even understand.  Both paths lead to Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku, a city I have visited myself.  Unfortunately my most prominent memory of the trip was getting brutally ill.  Kafka's story is a mix of Sophocles and John Irving with a touch of surrealism.  Nakata's is that of Buddhist pilgrimage. 

A library plays a prominent role in the novel, particularly Kafka's thread.  Libraries have become a big thing in our family, too.  Our daughter (14) went on a job shadow at a local college library.  Historically, she has been shy about expressing dreams for her own future but walking into that big building entirely devoted to books was definitely a wide-eyed, cathedral moment for her.  We just got back from a family trip to Europe and libraries were a major theme, along with oysters and ice cream.  We visited four in total: the British Library and the Wellcome Collection in London; the National Library of Scotland and the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinbrugh.

Music is important to the book, too.  Nakata's disciple Hoshino, a truck driver by profession, has an unexpected love affair with Beethoven's Archduke Trio.  Kafka listens to loads of different music over the course of his story but Schubert's Sonata in D Minor gets the deepest discussion.

Definitely a fun read and my favorite Murakami so far.  The story is weird but not over the top - just enough to draw you away from realism from time to time.  Not as much eye-popping prose as in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (reflection here) but I found Kafka more captivating.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Squid Mixes: Americano

My Americano recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide: sweet vermouth, Campari and sparkling water with a lemon peel garnish.  It's sort of like a Negroni with bubbles, though sweeter without the gin.  The bitter/sweet balance is quite pleasant, in fact.

The drink was created by Gaspare Campari in the 1860s.  In Italy, it was originally known as a Milano-Torino as it combined Campari from Milan and vermouth from Turin.  The Americano name was an homage to the boxer Primo Carnera, the first Italian heavyweight champion in the United States.  The Americano, not the vodka martini, is also the first drink ordered by James Bond in the first of Ian Fleming's original novels, Casino Royale.

Friday, July 6, 2018

A Window Above: Sister Christian

Song: "Sister Christian"
Writer: Kelly Keagy
Original Release: October 1983
Band: Night Ranger
Album: Midnight Madness

Our daughter is pretty good at navigating the frequently divergent tastes of her parents.  There are interests she shares with Mom but not me: costume dramas, stinky cheese, mushrooms.  There are interests she shares with me but not Mom: Star Wars, superheroes, power ballads.  She was especially shocked when she found out her mother doesn't care for the song "Sister Christian."

"It's okay," I reassured her.  "Not everyone likes awesome things."  And so, a family running gag was born.

"Sister Christian" was by far the biggest hit for Night Ranger, a hard rock band based in San Francisco.  Lead singer and drummer Keagy wrote the song about his younger, teenaged sister, distressed about how quickly she was growing up.  The song title is the result of a mondegreen.  Keagy's sister was actually named Christy but guitarist Jack Blades heard it as "Christian" which stuck.

The song plays during an absolutely bizarre scene in Boogie Nights.  I love the fact that the tape stops in the middle of the song - a completely obsolete technological concept now.  Apologies for the adult material in the clip, definitely a leap beyond my blog's usual PG-13 standards but well worth it.

The band does a fantastic acoustic version:

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Squid Mixes: Gimlet

The gimlet is our first summery cocktail of the season.  My recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide indicates 6 parts gin, 2 parts Rose's lime juice.  A sweeter ratio is featured in the Raymond Chandler novel, The Long Goodbye:  "a real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's lime juice and nothing else".

As with many classic drinks, both the gimlet and Rose's lime juice have nautical pasts.  In the eighteenth-century, the British navy was eager to find ways to fend off scurvy and citrus was the answer.  Captain James Cook provided his crewmen with a daily ration of lemon or lime juice, both of which combined very nicely with their daily gin ration.  The alcohol preserved the juice and the juice improved the flavor.  This is also, of course, how British sailors came to be known as "limeys".  In 1867, Lauchlan Rose patented a method of preserving lime juice with sugar rather than alcohol.  Not coincidentally, he opened his first factory for the product right by the docks in Leith, Scotland.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: June 2018

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Dark Star
Author: Alan Furst
Dark Star is the second book in Furst's Night Soldiers series.  My reflection on the first book is here.  The series now totals 14, all espionage thrillers based in Europe, 1930s-40s.  Most of the stories have no direct connection to each other, though book #1 is referenced a few times in #2.  Like Night Soldiers, Dark Star follows the career of a single spy, in this case André Szara, a Soviet journalist of Polish/Jewish background.  The story covers Szara's life from 1937-40.  While most of the early action takes place in Paris, he also makes stops in Brussels, Prague, Berlin and Moscow.  He makes it to Poland just in time for the outbreak of war, when the story makes a sharp and desperate turn.

I enjoy Furst's style a great deal.  An early passage establishes Szara's character nicely:
What he remembered later was not that he had fought bravely, he had simply decided that life mattered more than anything else in the world and had contrived to cling to it.  In those years he had seen heroes, and how they went about their work, how they did what had to be done, and he knew he was not one of them.
Furst is not as gritty and believable as le Carré nor does his location research seem as exhaustive as David Downing's.  But the elegance of his prose exceeds both.  The portrayal of Poland just as the country is coming to grips with its historical fate is especially impressive. 

There are a lot of characters to keep track of which can get confusing.  At the beginning of part 2, there is a diagram of Szara's intelligence network, definitely helpful.  But it mostly pertained to the people below him on the chain, whereas I was more likely to mix up the people above him.  The characters are rich, though, and mostly likeable, especially his lovers.

Some of the pacing towards the end feels off, seemingly glossing over what could have been some interesting parts of the narrative.  I wonder if Furst initially had a longer series devoted to Szara in mind or if an editor simply told him enough was enough already.  There's also a weird plot summary passage, depicted as Szara's own musings, as if Furst didn't quite trust his readers to paste all the pieces together on their own.  

Even with a few flaws - or simply choices that I didn't quite agree with - I'm definitely up for book #3: The Polish Officer.

Finally, a shout out to Random House's customer service department.  In the midst of reading, I discovered my volume was missing a huge chunk of text: pages 53-84.  After a quick email exchange, Random House sent me a new copy, no fuss.  Well done!

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post July's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is July 27th.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Squid Mixes: Yorsh

This concoction could hardly be simpler: pour the beer, pour the vodka over it, drink.  No need to stir.  "Sounds very Russian," my wife says.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.  It tastes like beer and vodka. 

Not sure I really see the point unless you've simply decided your beer's alcohol content is insufficient to your needs.  According to tradition, one is supposed to drink the whole thing in one go after a toast.  We didn't.

Drink responsibly, folks.

Yorsh dates to at least the 17th century.  Is it referenced in an anonymous Russian poem of that time period: "Tale of Woe and Misfortune."  However, the earlier version involved mead rather than beer.

Na Zdorovie!

Friday, June 22, 2018

A Window Above: So Lonely

Song: "So Lonely"
Writer: Sting
Original Release: November 2, 1978
Band: The Police
Album: Outlandos d'Amour

"So Lonely" is my favorite Police song.  It's a great song but my affection is owed entirely to nostalgic memories of my own high school garage band and one of the best summers of my life.  Game Designer and I had a band with two other friends, a pair of identical twins, senior year.  I was the lead singer - mostly by default as I didn't actually play an instrument.  Well, I did, but ours wasn't a funk band so the trombone wasn't much use.  We more or less perfected six songs by the time we all left for college and "So Lonely" was one of them.  The vocal line is on the high side, a bit of a stretch at that point in my life.  Both the bass line and the guitar solo are fantastic and remind me of the twins who played them with us.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Squid Cooks: Seared Scallops with Pan Sauce

Across the board, I am a far pickier eater than my wife but there are a few things I like a lot more than she does.  Scallops are high on that list.  As she was out of town for work recently, it seemed like a good time to try this recipe.

Scallops, like shrimp, are pretty easy and you don't even have to worry about peeling them.  My recipe came from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: The Basics.  Learning how to make a sauce is fun, though I'm not entirely sure I'm doing it right.  The end result was tasty so I suppose I can't be too far off.

Daughter was only moderately impressed - chewy, she said.  She ate all of hers - no seconds, though.

Monday, June 18, 2018

On the Coffee Table: George Orwell

Title: Down and Out in Paris and London
Author: George Orwell
Orwell is, of course, best known for his fiction classics, 1984 and Animal Farm.   This was my first experience with the author beyond those.  Down and Out in Paris and London was his first full-length work.  First published in 1933, the book is a memoir of the author's relatively brief experiences with poverty, first in Paris, then in London.

During his Paris adventure, the narrator eventually finds work in the restaurant industry, first in a large hotel, then in a newly opened establishment.  This material is, as my wife, expert in both reading and cooking, puts it, one of the cornerstones of food writing.  The pirate ship atmosphere of the professional kitchen would be familiar to anyone who has read more recent cook memoirs.  It would seem little has changed over the decades since, though I rather hope stricter enforcement of health regulations have had some impact.  In London, the narrator lives as a tramp for several weeks, moving from one wretched shelter to the next as his means allow and the law requires.  In both cities, his descriptions of the pathetic squalor of life among the poor are vivid and memorable.  The fun is in the colorful characters he encounters along the way.  It's Orwell so, naturally, there is plenty of social commentary on offer, too.

One recent writer who specifically cited the influence of this book on his own work was, of course, Anthony Bourdain.  Kitchen Confidential was my own introduction to food lit and I would still rate it among the best books I've ever read.  My wife and I went to see Bourdain at a book signing in New York in what must have been 2001 and were big fans of his TV travel shows for years.  Bourdain obviously didn't invent the foodie movement of the late '90s and early aughts but he is the guy who made it cool for the alterna-crowd of my generation.  For me, he was an inspiration as a writer, a traveler and a food enthusiast.

May he rest in peace.

Friday, June 15, 2018

A Window Above: Wig in a Box

Song: "Wig in a Box"
Composer: Stephen Trask
Musical: Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Premier: 1998, Off-Broadway

We have never seen the stage show Hedwig and the Angry Inch but we did watch the film adaptation a few years ago.  The book was written by John Cameron Mitchell, drawing on his own experiences as an army brat in both Berlin and Kansas.  Mitchell also directed and played the starring role on both stage and screen.  In a funny connection with a previous post in this series, Mitchell made his own Broadway acting debut as Huck Finn in Big River.

The story is extraordinary: Hedwig has disastrous lovers, a botched sex change and a topsy-turvy performing career while trying to build a quasi-normal and happy life.  Stephen Trask's music is wonderful, drawing inspiration from David Bowie, John Lennon, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. 

"Wig in a Box" is the showstopper.  Apparently, the song occurs at different points in the stage and film versions but at an emotional low in both cases.  There are many videos of stage performances, including Neil Patrick Harris in the show's Broadway revival, but I love the film version:

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Riad Sattouf

Title: The Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985
Writer and Artist: Riad Sattouf
This is the second volume of Sattouf's childhood memoir.  My reflection on the first is here.  The Sattouf family spent 1984-1985 living in Syria, though the book does include one trip back to France to visit the grandparents.

The insights into Syrian life are interesting: the differences between urban and rural society in the Arab world, the status of women in a traditional family, schools, etc.  The book is good but not exactly gripping.  I'm curious about Riad's world but there's no strong, broader story to latch onto.  I want more of a reason to care than I'm getting.  There is a third volume out now that covers 1985-87.  I think I'll take a pass, at least for now.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Squid Mixes: Trilby Cocktail

The Trilby cocktail comes in many forms.  It is essentially a Manhattan variant, though what exactly varies is not consistent.  My recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide switches out the rye for bourbon.  Other versions use orange bitters rather than Angostura.  It's tasty.

Friday, June 8, 2018

A Window Above: Promises I've Made

Song: "Promises I've Made"
Writer: Emitt Rhodes
Original Release: 1970
Performer: Emitt Rhodes
Album: Emitt Rhodes

"Promises I've Made" was a Pandora discovery for me.  I loved it so much that I couldn't believe I'd never heard it before!  After all, late '60s and early '70s pop is my wheelhouse (in case you haven't noticed).  One would think a McCartney-derived song by such an obviously gifted artist would have come across my path before.  But no.  I'd never even heard of Emitt Rhodes, though I learned soon afterwards that his song "Lullaby" (same album) had been featured in The Royal Tenenbaums.

The Emitt Rhodes story is a sad one, that of a huge talent chewed up and spit out by a heartless recording industry.  His first album met with considerable critical and modest commercial success, peaking at #29 on the pop charts.  Like his musical hero Sir Paul, Rhodes played and sang all of the parts, then over-dubbed.  However, because of this time-intensive process, he was unable to meet the demands of his contract.  Dunhill, the recording company, sued him and withheld royalties.  Understandably embittered, he moved on to other things, working mostly as an engineer and producer for Elektra Records.  There is an apparently excellent documentary about Rhodes called One Man Beatles, available on various streaming services.  I haven't watched it yet but I'm curious. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Squid Mixes: Snakebite

A snakebite combines cider and beer in equal parts.  The cider definitely provides the dominant flavor.  A side-by-side comparison with straight cider might be interesting sometime.  The color might actually be the biggest difference.

Friday, June 1, 2018

A Window Above: Ultraviolet

Song: "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)"
Writers: U2 and Bono
Original Release: November 19, 1991
Band: U2
Album: Achtung Baby

I have mixed feelings about U2.  On the one hand, they are one of the most dependable bands in the world, producing a vast catalogue of engaging music over several decades.  On the other hand, they've been successful and enduring enough for reasonable comparisons with groups like the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd or even Led Zeppelin, the Who, Stones and Beatles.  I have never felt the boys from Dublin quite measure up.  The songs are good, even occasionally great, but not genius or innovative.  Bono's a top front man but as instrumentalists, the others definitely fall short of the masters.  No group of their ilk has benefited quite as much from sound production, either, suggesting that their success is owed as much to the likes of Brian Eno as to any of the band members themselves.  (Yeah, I hear you throwing Pink Floyd back at me on that one but David Gilmour and Roger Waters were far more involved in the production of their own music than the U2 boys have been.)  Maybe 50 years from now, history will judge U2 more kindly in comparison than I do now... but I doubt it.

That said, I do like U2.  I've even seen them live, the Zoo TV tour, 1992.  Even if they're not in the very top tier, they're significantly better than average.  Do you want to know the secret of the band's success?  It's not Bono, at least not entirely.  It's the drums.  Larry Mullen Jr.'s fast, driving rhythms behind the much slower melodic rhythm is every bit as emblematic of U2's sound as Bono's sexy crooning.  The effect is most noticeable in "With or Without You" and it is an element of the band's music many others have sought to imitate. 

My favorite U2 song, though, is "Ultraviolet."  Unfortunately, it was the one song from Achtung Baby that they didn't play at the concert I saw.  It has served as one of their encores - as a prelude to "With or Without You" - in the years since but alas, not that night in Ames.  Mullen's drums are especially effective in this one.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Squid Mixes: Stiletto

A stiletto combines bourbon with amaretto and lemon juice.  My recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide puts those ingredients in 4:1:2 proportion.  The end result is nice.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: June 2018 Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, June 29th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us:

Friday, May 25, 2018

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: May 2018

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Working with Emotional Intelligence
Author: Daniel Goleman
This is the second Goleman emotional intelligence book I've read.  My reflection on the first is here.  This book is targeted to the business community, though I think much of the material pertains to any workplace, including education.  The overwhelming majority of ink is spilt over proving the existence and importance of EQ, much less on how to help.  Clearly the idea is to encourage people to hire him at great cost for workshops and seminars.

Even so, I do feel better equipped to recognize problems.  Unfortunately, Goleman's description of a work environment low on emotional intelligence fits my own current situation to a T.  Even if my own job is basically satisfying - and it is - too many of my colleagues are miserable everyday.  One deals with the problem in one of two ways: by hiding or by trying to help (a confidant also pointed out to me, one can also just leave but that's just an extension of hiding).  On a given day, I probably do some of each and neither is satisfying.  Goleman's thinking does fuel some new ideas on approaches to take.  Having been in my district a while, I have gained a certain measure of trust among my colleagues and even - dare I say it? - administrators.  A few thoughtfully planted suggestions in the right ears could potentially move things in a positive direction.  Food for thought. 

As with the first book, Working with Emotional Intelligence isn't a great cover-to-cover read.  I would read a bit, think a bit, read a bit, think a bit, etc.  The material is good, though.  I don't know if I would read more Goleman after this but I'm glad to have been exposed to his work.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post June's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is June 29th.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Squid Mixes: Canadian Cocktail

Cheers, ay!

A Canadian Cocktail combines Canadian whisky with triple sec, Angostura bitters and bar sugar.  Basically, it's a sweeter version of a Manhattan.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.

Friday, May 18, 2018

A Window Above: Stand by Me

Song: "Stand by Me"
Writers: Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Original Release: April 1961
Performer: Ben E. King

My affection for this song is mostly tied to my love for the 1986 movie of the same name (read more here).  Because of the film, the song reached Billboard's top 10 twice, 25 years apart.  It was by far King's most successful solo recording, earning him millions in royalties over the years.  King was also the lead singer of the Drifters for many years, singing lead on that group's top hit, the bittersweet "Save the Last Dance for Me."

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Squid Mixes: Boccie Ball

Yes, I agree.  Bocce is not spelled with that strange extra I.  But that's the way it's spelled in The New York Bartender's Guide edition I own so we'll keep it there.

The drink combines amaretto and orange juice.  The recipe calls for an orange slice garnish but I went with a section of clementine.  The drink is quite lovely.  Amaretto is scrumptious stuff.  Technically, I have a nut allergy but I have also recently learned that an almond isn't really a nut.  It is a droop, like a peach or plum.  This is good because almonds are yummy, especially in liquor form!  I discovered some time ago that it goes nicely with lime.  Orange works, too.

What any of this has to do with the game of Bocce - Italian in origin, dating all the way back to Ancient Rome - I don't know.  Maybe The Scamp knows.  She's quite an expert at chasing balls rolling across the floor.  Sadly, I think she's on the verge of outgrowing that short and precious time when a kitten will play Fetch.

Friday, May 11, 2018

A Window Above: Maybe I'm Amazed

Song: "Maybe I'm Amazed"
Writer: Paul McCartney
Original Release: April 17, 1970
Album: McCartney

I have had a complicated relationship with Paul McCartney for most of my life.  No, of course I've never met the man.  But Sir Paul was a Beatle and that band has loomed large in my musical experience since I was 13 (story here).

When I first fell in love with the Beatles, I was all about Paul.  He was the best-looking member, as confirmed by my older sister, and the one with the prettiest voice, as confirmed by Dad.  What early teen doesn't wish above all things to be beautiful?  But as I learned more about the Beatles story, particularly the break-up, my feelings toward Paul soured.  I also never cared much for his solo work.  While none of the ex-Beatles quite lived up to their own impossible standards after the split (nope, not even John), Paul's offerings especially tended toward the nauseatingly saccharine.

However, there is no denying McCartney's one supreme musical gift: melody.  Without a doubt, he is the world's greatest living melodic composer and he has to be on a very short list with guys like Mozart, Beethoven and Rossini for the all-time crown.  While his lyrics are frequently atrocious - "Live and Let Die," anyone? - his capacity for creating heart-rending tunes is astonishing: "Here, There and Everywhere," "Yesterday," "Let It Be," "My Love," "Blackbird," "Hey Jude" and seemingly on forever. 

April 17, 1970 is a date of enormous significance in rock music history.  With his first solo album, Paul sent a clear message to the adoring public: the Beatles were finished.  Both John and George had already released solo work while the band was still a going concern but Paul had long been the one working hardest to hold the group together.  Mind you, it was his own control-freak tendencies that drove the others away.  Even so, if Paul was giving up, the Beatles were done.

The album is deeply personal and intimate.  McCartney is the only performer, recording and dubbing all of the tracks himself.  None of the work is exactly Beatles-worthy, with one glaring exception.  "Maybe I'm Amazed" is, in my humble opinion, the last truly great song he ever wrote.  Humility in the face of love - there's that theme again.  The melody is vintage Paul as are the chromatic piano runs.  Incredibly, the studio version was never released as a single.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Squid Mixes: Rum Screwdriver

A rum screwdriver is simple enough: dark rum and orange juice.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.  Once again, ingredient management becomes an important aspect of this hobby.  As my wife bought OJ for last week's drink, I had to use the rest quickly (with some welcome help from juice-loving daughter).

The rum did a nice job shining through again this week.  Perhaps it's the rum I'm using, nothing special but effective:

Friday, May 4, 2018

A Window Above: The Tracks of My Tears

Song: "The Tracks of My Tears"
Writers: Smokey Robinson, Pete Moore, Marv Tarplin
Band: The Miracles
Original Release: June 23, 1965

1965 is to the pop music industry what 1939 is to cinema: arguably the golden year.  The Beatles were well-established and the Rolling Stones and Kinks eagerly followed their lead across the pond.  The Beach Boys were coming into their own, too.  Bob Dylan was finding a mainstream audience.  Perhaps best of all, Motown was in full-flight.  The Four Tops, the Temptations and the Supremes were all cranking out smash hits.  Check out a list of the top songs from 1965 (like this one) and you'll be amazed by the level of quality.  There are masterpieces like the Beatles' "In My Life" and "Yesterday" that aren't even on that list.

It is telling of 1965's prowess that a song almost universally hailed as one of the all-time greats never even cracked the top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100.  "The Tracks of My Tears" draws you in with one of the most gently soothing electric guitar licks you'll ever hear.  Cue the Miracles, the writers and singers of Motown's tightest vocal harmonies, then the inimitable Smokey spinning soul music's best falsetto.  The song is an unforgettable three-minute journey from lullaby to urgent plea.

"The Tracks of My Tears" experienced a resurgence in popularity when it was featured in the film Platoon in 1986.  That's about the time I first heard it, too.  My first-ever pop music concert was Smokey Robinson at Wolf Trap in the summer of 1988.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Squid Mixes: Robson Cocktail

A Robson Cocktail combines dark rum, orange juice, lemon juice and grenadine.  My recipe comes from The New York Bartender's Guide.  I have written before that rum doesn't usually compete well with citrus but it pops out nicely here.

Grenadine, originally produced from pomegranate juice, is now more often made with black currant and/or artificial flavoring.  In mixology, it is used as much for coloring as for taste.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: May 2018 Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, May 25th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us:

Friday, April 27, 2018

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: April 2018

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Zoo Station
Author: David Downing
Zoo Station is the first in a series starring John Russell, an English journalist living in Berlin.  We join his story in the late 1930s.  Hitler's hold over central Europe is already increasing and only the most optimistic doubt that war is looming.  While most ex-pats are trying to find a way out, Russell is reluctant to leave his eleven-year-old son, who lives with his German ex-wife.  Meanwhile, the intelligence services of three different nations are working to recruit him to their cause.

Zoo Station is unusual as a spy narrative goes.  First, Russell is an agent rather than an operative.  Le Carre's George Smiley is an operative, in the direct employ of the British Secret Service.  It is Smiley's job to recruit agents, those who would provide him with sensitive information.  Russell is an appealing agent for the British, Russian and German operatives because of his job, his bilingualism and his ability to travel freely.

Downing's research is meticulous, providing a vivid portrait of prewar Berlin.  In fact, all of the book's settings are richly detailed: Krakow, Prague, Kiel, London, Sachsenhausen concentration camp, etc.  The author also effectively paints the mounting tensions inherent in life under Nazism, especially among the Jews, homosexuals and developmentally disabled.  Russell's compassion for the oppressed is strong but sorting out his own place in the mess is an understandable challenge.  Overall, the story's human elements are all strong.

The cloak and dagger tale is rather lacking in elegance, though I like the fact that tension rises at seemingly mundane moments, like waiting in a car at a train station or in the customs line at a border.  Part of le Carre's genius is conveying the soul-breaking tedium that predominates intelligence work.  Russell's adventure moves a little too quickly to be believable.  That said, I'm definitely up for more.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post May's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is May 25th.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Squid Mixes: Dry Manhattan

A Dry Manhattan is so called because it substitutes dry vermouth for sweet.  I prefer the classic but the dry is perfectly nice.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.

Friday, April 20, 2018

A Window Above: Who Are You

Song: "Who Are You"
Writer: Pete Townshend
Band: The Who
Original Release: July 14, 1978

The Concert for New York City at Madison Square Garden was organized by Paul McCartney a month after the 9/11 attacks to honor the city's valiant first responders.  The evening's lineup was impressive: McCartney himself, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Billy Joel, Destiny's Child, Melissa Etheridge and on and on.   Obviously, with so much talent on stage for such an emotionally charged event, expectations were high.  And yet, for most of the concert, the energy seemed off, at least from our seats on the couch at home.  Jon Bon Jovi and the Backstreet Boys mugged on stage with police caps from the audience.  Politicians were booed.  The performances were good, but not great, perhaps everyone a little too impressed with themselves - just showing up and being sad was enough.  Prepped for catharsis, I was feeling let down.

Then the Who came on and played their guts out.

They played the songs they knew everyone wanted to hear and they played like they meant it.  The energy in the room exploded.  You could hear Daltrey and Townshend straining to be heard and they looked like they were willing to bleed if they had to.  Suddenly, it all made sense.  These emotionally exhausted firefighters and policemen didn't want pity.  They didn't want pandering.  They didn't want cute.  They didn't want a hug.  Instead, they wanted to celebrate what was worth living for and, yes, maybe dying for.  Sometimes, the kids just wanna rock.  The Who understood all of that and embraced their role in the moment.  That is why they triumphed where everyone else fell short.

The video below includes the entire set.  It's well worth your time.  I learned later that the NYPD has long felt a kinship with The Who because of the line about the policeman in "Who Are You" so the fact that they opened with it was meaningful in itself.  The moment at the end of the song when the flag behind the stage turned from Union Jack to Stars and Stripes was powerful and sincere.   

But wait, there's more.  First, the sad part: the concert was bassist John Entwistle's last US performance.  He died of a heart attack eight months later.

Seven years after the show, the band received Kennedy Center Honors.  New York's Finest had a little surprise for them:

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Squid Mixes: Perfect Manhattan

Fortunately, the snow has melted since the photo above was taken, on March 15th. 

A Perfect Manhattan combines rye whiskey with equal parts dry and sweet vermouth.  It is so called because of the equal portions of the two kinds of vermouth.  The drink was nice and it was certainly good to get back to whiskey drinks and the Manhattan family.  I do prefer bitters to the dry vermouth but it was a pleasant variation.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.

Friday, April 13, 2018

A Window Above: You Send Me

Song: "You Send Me"
Writer: Sam Cooke
Original Release: October 7, 1957

I have discovered a drawback of listening to classical music radio all the time.  I realized the problem one night during holiday season when VPR Classical played a gospel song performed by Mahalia Jackson.  Western art music, as "classical" is more accurately termed, is awfully white.  African-American influence is severely lacking.  Oh sure, there are composers who have worked to incorporate it: Gershwin, Debussy and Dvorak prominent among them.  But most of the stylistic thrust comes from Europe.

Without a doubt, the single greatest cultural force in the musical world over the past century-plus has been African-America: blues, jazz, rock and hip-hop all have their roots in that tradition.  Throw in Afro-Caribbean styles like reggae and calypso and there's no question of Africa's dominant influence for several generations running.  Listen to nearly any other radio station and the African strains are obvious.  Even country music has benefited.  Classical music is certainly not without a "soul" of its own but it still lacks that certain something.  Occasionally, one thirsts for a blues scale or a spot of syncopation.  Fusion won't cut it.  Only the real thing will do.

For me, no music is more spiritually nourishing than soul music, the older the better.  Sam Cooke is as good as it gets.  Cooke is credited by many with inventing soul but of course, that is oversimplifying history.  He came up in gospel, becoming lead singer of the Soul Stirrers in 1950 at the tender age of nineteen.  His vocal talents were obvious but it was his good looks that drew young female admirers to the group's performances.  His crossover to secular material, a genuinely crucial moment in the history of soul music, came in 1956 with the song "Loveable," a rewriting of the gospel song "Wonderful."  As both singer and songwriter, Cooke established himself as a force in the music industry, ultimately signing with RCA in 1963.

Alas, the extraordinary success ended soon after.  The events surrounding his death in 1964, ultimately ruled a justifiable homicide, have been called into question by Cooke's family and supporters in the years since.  Whatever the truth may be, the details suggest that he may not have been the world's nicest person.  His musical contributions, though, are undeniable.

"You Send Me" was Cooke's first and amazingly only #1 hit on the Billboard charts.  "Summertime" was the B-side of the single.  The song is a lock for nearly any all-time greats list and has been covered by numerous artists, including Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Kazu Kibuishi

Title: Amulet, Book Two: The Stonekeeper's Curse
Writer and Artist: Kazu Kibuishi
I guess I have been rather lax with this series.  I read Book One: The Stonekeeper over three years ago (see review here).  As Book Two begins, Emily and her younger brother Navin and their robot crew (reminiscent of the enchanted servants in Disney's Beauty and the Beast) are in the underground city of Kanalis to find a cure for their ailing mother.  All of the town's residents are humanoid animals, apparently victims of a curse (again, reminds one of B&B).  Meanwhile, the elves - the baddies in this tale - are after Emily, who fortunately has gained a new protector: Leon Redbeard, currently in fox/humanoid form.

I'll admit that I had to remind myself about the story details after three years off.  Even so, I'm impressed by the material, especially the breathtaking artwork.  There's a lot to like, even if some of the narrative elements feel derivative.  There's the B&B stuff mentioned above.  Also talking trees a la Wizard of Oz.  For Star Wars fans, there's a much discussed life force, a prominent temptation of power theme, satisfying duels and, of course, daddy issues. 

Of course, we'll see if I remember all of this by the time I get to Book Three in 2021.  Thank goodness for online synopses!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Squid Cooks: Chicken Cutlets with Quick Pan Sauce

I learned good lessons from last week's dish, pork stir-fry with greens (read here).  I got all of my ingredients ready this time and put them close to hand before I started cooking.  All went smoothly.  I successfully dredged.  I successfully deglazed and reduced.  I almost felt like a real cook!

The resulting dish - recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: The Basics - was less than dazzling, though the chicken was pleasantly moist.  But it was a good skill builder and that's what I need. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Mary Roach

Title: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
Author: Mary Roach
This book is my second experience with the work of Mary Roach (see previous post here).  While Bonk explores sex, Gulp follows the human digestion process from input to output.  I will admit to apprehension as I approached this book.  My wife warned me it was gross.  As she put it, "Don't go thinking it will get easier in the next chapter, because it won't!"

That said, it wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting.  I am a wimp with gross, too, so I don't say that lightly.  There were definitely some chapters that were tough.  For instance, I now know more about constipation than I could possibly have wanted.  But for the most part, Gulp is both enlightening and entertaining.  Roach is nothing if not funny.

I have no quarrel with Roach over her unusual book topics.  I applaud her thorough and fearless research.  However, I am occasionally put off by the self-aware voice in her writing, not unlike that of French author Laurent Binet (see here).  For the most part, I enjoy your style, Ms. Roach.  But I can't say I care that you think Palatine Uvula would make a great pen name for a romance author.

Friday, April 6, 2018

A Window Above: Waitin' for the Light to Shine

Song: "Waitin' for the Light to Shine"
Composer and Lyricist: Roger Miller
Musical: Big River
Premier: February 1984, Cambridge, Massachusetts

I adore Huck Finn.   I am a sucker for nearly any interpretation of or allusion to Mark Twain's great American odyssey.  So, I was always going to love Big River.

Nearly every summer growing up, I would go to Cleveland for a week on my own to stay with my grandmother.  In 1987, when I was 14, she got us tickets to the touring show Big River, knowing my affection for the source material: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  We were both blown away, especially by the booming voice of the actor who played Jim, Michael Edward-Stevens.  No, I didn't actually remember the name but thanks to the modern miracle of the Internet, I know it now.  I also now know that Cleveland was the first stop on the tour.

Big River was released in the mid-'80s, the same era that spawned Cats, Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera, probably the last household name musicals on Broadway until Hamilton came along.  Big River was a modest success in comparison, though it still dominated the Tonys for its year.  A 2003 revival led by a deaf and hearing-impaired cast was also a big hit.  It's a shame more people don't know the show because it's loads of fun.  The music is inspired by the country, bluegrass and gospel of the twentieth century but it evokes the Mississippi River culture of an earlier time perfectly.  The characters, of course, are unforgettable.

We first hear "Waitin' for the Light to Shine" at the beginning of the tale, before Huck sets off down the river.

We get the reprise at the moral climax - one of the crucial moments in all of American literature - when he resolves to steal Jim out of slavery again, doing what we all know is right but still firmly against his own southern upbringing.

Many years later, I got to know the song again when I conducted a local middle school district festival.  The choral arrangement combines the initial song with the reprise perfectly.  I would direct the show in a heartbeat given the chance, though the demographics in our small town Vermont high school would have to change dramatically for that to be possible.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Squid Cooks: Pork Stir-Fry with Greens

As I wrote in this post, stif-fries are well within my comfort zone.  This recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: The Basics is a nice one.  I think I could do it better a second time, and it would simply be a matter of setting up my ingredients more sensibly as the timing is still quite intuitive.  One has to be more careful with pork than beef in terms of thorough cooking but in small enough pieces, it's still easy.  I think I probably let the garlic brown for too long and that would have been helped if the follow up ingredients had been closer at hand.

The sauce requires the juice of half a lime which was a little much, or should at least have been set off by more soy sauce.  Here, my dear friends, is exactly where my cocktail mixing experience should come in handy.  As discussed in my drink posts, citrus is potent flavoring, easily muscling out everything else, even salt as it turns out.

Overall, the dish was a success, even making good leftovers for the next day's lunch.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: April 2018 Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, April 27th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us:

Friday, March 30, 2018

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: March 2018

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat
Author: Bee Wilson
Consider the Fork is an ambitious project, exploring the history of human cooking through the evolution of the tools we and our ancestors have used for the job.  Each chapter follows a specific technological path: knives, fire, grinding - particularly grains - and even the very existence of a kitchen as a separate, specialized room of the house.  Human life has revolved around food preparation for thousands of years.  How we eat and cook has had an enormous impact on language, social structures, home design and even the alignment of our jaws.

The most amusing chapter for me to read on a personal level was about measurements.  The idea of standardized measures at all, let alone in the kitchen, is actually a relatively recent human development.  Many accomplished cooks, my wife included, eschew the idea of specific measurements with food unless absolutely necessary.  She feels she can pretty well judge a tablespoon of oil without getting out the measuring spoons and, to be fair, I believe she probably can.  Even if she can't really, the resulting food that comes out of the kitchen is proof enough for me that she definitely knows what she's doing.  On the other hand, I have no such faith in my own capacities.  If the recipe says a cup, I want to be as on the dot as I can possibly manage.  Once, as a joke, my late grandmother-in-law gave me a set of measuring spoons with indications for a dash, a pinch and a smidgen.  The real joke?  I use the spoons faithfully.  Drink recipes call for a dash of something all the time - sometimes multiple dashes.  How am I supposed to judge three dashes of bitters without a spoon?!!!

According to Wilson, we're both full of it.  There's more science in my wife's eyeball measuring than she'd admit and my spoons and cups aren't nearly as exact as I believe.  She is, hands-down, the better cook so at least at our house, I suppose she wins the philosophical argument.

Consider the Fork is a keeper.  With so many books about the history of particular ingredients, an exploration of preparation is essential to a broader study of food.  Wilson's writing is both informative and engaging, reflecting thorough research and a genuine passion for cooking.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post April's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is April 27th.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Squid Cooks: Shrimp Scampi

My wife recently reminded me of the first time she called on me for prep help in the kitchen.  The job: peeling and deveining shrimp.  I don't remember the incident with the detailed precision she does but she reliably reports that I complained through the whole operation.

I'd like to think I've come a long way since then.  I still find working alongside my wife in the kitchen to be intimidating but I'm not put off by the work itself.  Even so, I was amused to see that the package of shrimp my wife got for me was already deveined, though she admitted that was all they had at the store.  Even funnier is the fact that in his recipe for shrimp scampi in How to Cook Everything: The Basics, Mark Bittman admits that he doesn't even bother with deveining.  I guess he doesn't enjoy that job any more than I did 19 years ago.

Cooking shrimp, once peeled, is frightfully simple.  Daughter loves shrimp so she was an easy sell.  The pan sauce was tasty, too.

Friday, March 23, 2018

A Window Above: Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters

Song: "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters"
Writers: Elton John and Bernie Taupin
Album: Honky Château
Original Release: May 19, 1972

New York City was my landing spot in the late '90s after two amazing years in Japan.  Moving there was actually one of the crazier decisions of my life.  I'd never even visited before making the choice.  It had a few important draws: I already had friends in the area so I wouldn't have to work too hard at building my social network.  Also, the public transportation system is excellent which meant I could manage without a car.  New York is also, of course, the performing arts capital of the world so as a young musician, the city had many adventures on offer.

At first, the novelty of a new place was exciting but the city definitely wore on me over time.  For anyone who has never experienced it, reverse culture shock can be absolutely brutal, far worse than initial culture shock.  There were horrible moments when I didn't feel I truly belonged in either place.  And in many ways, I was culture shocking with New York at the same time - not fun.  I probably would have been better off going home to Maryland to re-acclimate before heading off on the next adventure.

By the time we left the New York/New Jersey area four years later, I'd had more than enough.  But you'll notice that in the previous sentence, I used we rather than I in the dependent clause.  New York, you see, is where I met my wife.  So while my stay in town was not always easy, it was essential.

No song in the world better encapsulates my own feelings about the big city than "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters."  By the end, I hated the place.  But the people who made up my life there were wonderful, my wife best of all.  It wasn't a great place to live for me but it was the perfect place to fall in love.

There is a bit more to the song, of course.  In time, the narrator finds his footing and a determination to make his own way.  It is one of the more emotionally direct of Taupin's lyrics.  Sir Elton is in top form, too.  No pianist in the world gets so much out of a simple chord change.