Sunday, March 29, 2015

Family Movie Night: Red Army

Title: Red Army
Director: Gabe Polsky
Original Release: 2014
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5

The Soviet Red Army ice hockey team was, for decades, the best in the world.  Between 1954 and 1990, they won the world championship 22 times and never failed to medal at the Olympics, winning seven golds.  In the United States, their most famous game is the one they lost to what should have been an over-matched band of American college players in Lake Placid in 1980.  In learning the history of the Red Army hockey team, one realizes why that game deserves its reputation as the great David-Goliath moment in American sports. Goliath, however, has quite a tale to tell.

Red Army covers the tail end of the team's history.  Most of the story is told from the perspective of Viacheslav Fetisov, legendary defenseman and longtime captain of the Soviet team.  In addition to being an extraordinary hockey squad, the Red Army team was an instrument of propaganda, meant to demonstrate the inherent superiority of communism to the rest of the world.  Pressure to win and, of course, to prevent the best players from defecting to play in the NHL came from the highest levels of government.  As with the rest of society, the needs of the individual were subjugated to the interests of the state.  Fetisov and his mates were proud to play for team and country but the severe limits on personal freedom were difficult to bear.

The indie theaters have been promoting this movie for quite a while so our expectations were high.  To be honest, given my interest in the subject matter, a 4-star rating was a guaranteed minimum.  As it turned out, I needn't have worried about any potential disappointment.  Even for a non-fan like my wife, the film is highly engaging, the principal characters distinctly drawn.  While Fetisov comes off as an arrogant jerk at times - he flicks off the director in the early stages of the interview - he is the ideal vessel for the story, conveying an exquisite balance of the pride and anguish of his experience.  Extensive film footage and interviews of other top players round out this powerful film, a must-see for anyone interested in hockey, the Cold War or well-made documentaries.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: April 2015 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 24th.  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 27, 2015

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: March 2015

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes 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: The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Author: Michael Pollan
via Wikipedia
Koalas have it easy.  They never have to worry about what to eat because they only ever eat one thing: eucalyptus leaves.  For humans, it is more complicated.  Because we can theoretically eat anything, we have to make informed choices about what's healthy and what's potentially lethal.  That, in a nutshell, is the omnivore's dilemma.  Pollan's book explores not only the various options for human food but the numerous paths our chow might follow on its way to our plates.  The author examines four routes in particular: industrial agriculture, organic agriculture, sustainable farming (distinctive from the label organic) and hunting and foraging.  While there is some soap box testimony from time to time, preaching is not the point of the book.  Each of the paths explored is more complicated than the casual consumer might expect and Pollan encourages awareness more than any particular choice.

Growing up in the suburbs, I never gave much thought to what I ate.  My parents did the shopping and the cooking.  I ate what was on the table.  I am only one generation removed from agrarian society.  My father lived on a farm until he was twelve years old.  Yet in my concept, food came from Safeway.  While I admit to being pickier in my youth, it was never over political principles.

Then I went away to one of them little hippie colleges in the Midwest where I met a vegan for the first time.  I'd never even heard of the philosophy before.  My new friend confessed that he'd always loved meat until he learned how animals were treated in factory farms.  Meat wasn't the only problem, either.  Dairy and egg farms were the worst offenders, he told me.  The revelation changed his life and he was determined never to eat animal products again.

While he was happy to discuss his lifestyle choice, he wasn't out to convert the rest of us.  He was responsible about the health implications, too, conscientious about his own nutrition, either through alternate protein sources or dietary supplements.  Getting to know him was my first awareness of the broader implications of what I was eating.  Mind you, it didn't change much in terms of my own habits.  Inspired by my friend, I tried cutting out pork, just to see if I could do it.  The next morning's breakfast sausage ended that experiment in a hurry.

Pollan is no vegetarian, though he tries it on as an exercise for the sake of his adventures.  He asserts that consuming meat is central to the human experience. He does argue that animals should be allowed to live a life true to their nature, then killed in as humane and respectful a manner as possible.  Meat eaters, in turn, should be aware of the source of their meat and be able to see, quite literally, how the animals are raised and slaughtered.

The next stage in my own omnivore awareness came when I lived in Japan for two years.  The Japanese, like many cultures older than our own, have a reverence for food far beyond what is typical in American society.  To eat Japanese is to live Japanese is to be Japanese.  To walk and eat at the same time is extremely rude.  To use your chopsticks to move a plate is unthinkable.  To pour your own beer when your friend has an empty glass would be inconceivably thoughtless.  Everyone takes these things seriously.  Seem silly?  Quite the contrary.  It's beautiful.  It's the world as it should be.

Pollan argues that many of our food-related health problems stem directly from the fact that the United States has, at best, a rather flimsy food culture in comparison to other countries.  We resort to fad diets because our default meal does not balance nutrients the way other cuisines have managed to sort out over time.  Our tendencies are shaped by the whims of the military industrial complex rather than wisdom accumulated over generations.  Obviously, people in other countries die, too.  In Japan, for instance, the rate of stomach cancer is higher than ours because of their typical diet.  But epidemic obesity and increased rates of diabetes are peculiarly American phenomena (or at least they were until other countries adopted our habits).

The most important development in my omnivore adventure was meeting my wife.  As I've written before, she's a wonderful cook and has an insatiable interest in all things edible.  She truly is the only reason I can claim to know anything about food.  For her, one of the strongest appeals of living in Vermont is the access to farm-fresh produce.  Ours is still one of the most rural states in the country and you're rarely far from a working farm.

Obviously, Pollan's book isn't about me.  But it has inspired deep consideration of my own relationship with food.  It's led me to engage with my students on their experiences with hunting - a major rite of passage for many young men in our area.  I find the hobby terrifying but Pollan has challenged my assumptions.  Similarly, I now find myself curious about mushrooms, a food I've always avoided, much to my wife's disappointment.  If my seventh grade science teacher had mentioned how much we still don't know and may never know about the fungus kingdom, the mystery lover in me might have found greater enthusiasm for biology at a younger age, too.

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 24th.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Star Trek: The Lorelei Signal

My friends and I are embarking on a new journey to watch all 22 episodes of Star Trek's animated series.  We'll be posting on Wednesdays.  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of our adventure.

Episode: "The Lorelei Signal"
Series: Star Trek: The Animated Series
Season 1, Episode 4
Original Air Date: September 29, 1973
via Memory Beta
"The Lorelei Signal" is a siren song story.  The men of the Enterprise are drawn to a remote planet in the Taurean system by mysterious music.  The planet's beautiful woman inhabitants want to rob them of their vitality.  Fortunately, the women of the Enterpirse are unaffected and spring into action.

My favorite part of the episode is a simple shot of the ship flying past the planet as Scotty sings Welsh ballads from the captain's chair.  With each passing week, it becomes more clear that The Animated Series was James Doohan's opportunity to shine.

In a more challenging part of the story, our heroes use the transporter to revert back to their younger selves after their adventures leave them prematurely aged.  One wonders why people don't use the technology in this way more often.  The transporter could be the fountain of youth humanity has sought for countless generations.  In fact, the TNG episode "Rascals" incorporates the transporter in a similar way.

via Memory Alpha
Theela is the Head Female of the Taureans.  "The Lorelei Signal" marks her only appearance in the Star Trek universe.  She is voiced by Majel Barrett.  By the time TAS came along, Barrett was married to producer Gene Roddenberry.  Her voice is an important one in the franchise.  She performs the voice of most onboard computers from The Original Series through Voyager

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, please add your link to the list below.  In the meantime, please visit the others who are participating.  Next week: "More Tribbles, More Tribbles."

Sunday, March 22, 2015

On the Road: The Green Mountain Film Festival

We spent the weekend at The Green Mountain Festival in Montpelier, enjoying six movies over the past two days.  Despite the fact that it was the first official weekend of spring, it's still bitterly cold here in Vermont - not the best time of year for standing in line outside a movie theater.  But the films were worth it.  A quick rundown:

Title: Awake: The Life of Yogananda
Directors: Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman
Original Release: 2014
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Awake is a biography of Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian guru who brought yoga and meditation to the West in the 1920s.  I knew nothing of the man before and the engaging film - quite trippy at times - makes me want to learn more.  The movie includes interviews with followers and admirers, including George Harrison.  The final credits roll to my favorite Harrison solo tune: "Give Me Love."

Title: Soul of a Banquet
Director: Wayne Wang
Original Release: 2014
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Amazon
Another biography, this one focusing on Cecilia Chiang, a prominent restauranteur in San Francisco.  The film has a nice balance, providing both cultural and personal background before digging into the food.  Chiang stresses that the key to authentic Chinese cooking is the intense prep work.  We get a ringside seat to the process as she and her staff prepare a decadent meal for the dinner party of a friend.

Title: When the Ocean Met the Sky
Director: Lukas Huffman
Original Release: 2014
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Huffman is a Montpelier native and he was on hand for the screening.  When the Ocean Met the Sky is the story of three brothers hiking in British Columbia to fulfill the wishes of their parents, just passed.  Unfortunately, this was the least favorite of the weekend for all three of us.  The storytelling was telegraphed, the dialogue lacking in subtlety.  The scenery, on the other hand, is stunning and comic relief is provided capably by tour guide Carter, played by Terry Field.  Huffman held a Q&A session afterward but we didn't stay for it.

Title: Song of the Sea
Director: Tomm Moore
Original Release: 2014
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Song of the Sea was created by the same folks who brought us The Secret of Kells.   The festival's headliner family film, and the weekend favorite for both wife and daughter, it is a cel-animated beauty.  The story is set in modern times but based on the Celtic myth of the selkie, beings who live on land as humans but in the water as seals.  The touching tale, like its predecessor, is well-deserving of a place in our family's rotation.

Title: Antarctica: A Year on Ice
Director: Anthony Powell
Original Release: 2013
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5

This one was my favorite for the weekend.  Anthony Powell spent ten years documenting the human communities which inhabit the world's most remote continent.  Much of the footage is done with stop-motion photography capturing the extraordinary seasonal changes.  Afterward, our daughter said she would love to spend a year there, and not just for the penguins.

Title: Sometimes I Dream I'm Flying
Director: Aneta Popiel-Machnicka
Original Release: 2013
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Our weekend ended on a bit of a downer.  The documentary Sometimes I Dream I'm Flying follows the career of Weronika, a professional ballet dancer from Poland.  The dancing is beautiful but Weronika's life seems both stressful and lonely.

Over dinner on Saturday night (at Asiana House), My Wife described this as her perfect vacation: we get to do something we wouldn't normally, in this case watching independent films that wouldn't make it to Vermont without the festival; everything - theaters, restaurants, hotel - is within easy walking distance of where we parked the car on Saturday morning and we eat well.  Throw in the fact that Montpelier's only an hour's drive from our house and I'd have to agree.  Already looking forward to next year's festival!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Star Trek: One of Our Planets Is Missing

My friends and I are embarking on a new journey to watch all 22 episodes of Star Trek's animated series.  We'll be posting on Wednesdays.  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of our adventure.

Episode: "One of Our Planets Is Missing"
Series: Star Trek: The Animated Series
Season 1, Episode 3
Original Air Date: September 22, 1973
via Memory Beta
In this week's story, the Enterprise takes on a planet munching cloud.  Through a mind meld with the cloud, Spock manages to convince the entity of the damage it is doing to other living beings.  The cloud agrees to leave the galaxy.  The solution works out fine for our friends but what will the cloud subsist on now?  Can it survive only on uninhabited worlds?  Can it tell the difference?  Is the planet feast okay as long as it's happening in someone else's neighborhood? 

Among TAS episodes, "One of Our Planets Is Missing" is generally well-regarded for its adherence to basic Trek principles of respecting all life, even that which is initially perceived to be hostile.  To me, the mind meld feels a bit hokey but hey, it works!  My favorite part is the anatomical diagram they create for the cloud.  The ship enters one end of the digestive tract and exits via the other.  Reminds me of that old joke:

Q: What do you do if you get swallowed by an elephant?
A: Run around and around until you get all pooped out.


Robert Wesley
via Memory Alpha
Mantilles is the Federation colony in the cloud's path and Bob Wesley, a retired Starfleet officer, is its governor.  Wesley first appeared in the second season TOS episode, "The Ultimate Computer."  In that episode, he was portrayed by Barry Russo but in TAS, he is voiced by James Doohan.

James Doohan (Scotty) began his show biz career in radio.  After his World War II military service, he found work in Canadian radio dramas.  He estimated that he performed in over 4,000 radio programs.  A master of voices, his Scottish accent for Montgomery Scott was just one of many he'd considered trying.  He offered creator Gene Roddenberry several choices but the producer wisely let the actor choose his own favorite.  This experience was invaluable when the animated series came along as Doohan was the go-to choice for miscellaneous male voices (Majel Barrett was the default choice for the females).

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, please add your link to the list below.  In the meantime, please visit my fellow travelers.  Next week: "The Lorelei Signal."

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Family Movie Night: The King and I

Title: The King and I
Director: Walter Lang
Original Release: 1956
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
The King and I is both dated and culturally insensitive.  Let's just admit that upfront.  The original story was written by Anna Leonowens, recounting her experiences teaching the royal family of Thailand in the 1860s.  Researchers have since revealed that much of Leonowens tale was wildly inaccurate or simply made up.  The film is banned in Thailand for its disrespectful depiction of the King.

Now let's set all of that aside for a moment.  The King and I is an extraordinary visual spectacle, winning well-deserved Oscars for both art direction and costume design.  The movie often feels like a grand theater production with a stage about four times the normal size.  The songs, written by the great team of Rogers and Hammerstein, are classics, especially "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance?"  It is the film that made Yul Brynner's career.  The actor played the role of The King of Siam on both stage and screen, ultimately winning two Tonys and an Academy Award for the part.

None of us had ever watched The King and I before this weekend.  While there's a lot to get past in terms of the Orientalism, one can't deny the film dazzles the senses.  The dialogue is often genuinely funny.  I think our daughter enjoyed it the most of the three of us.  On the most basic level, it's fun.  But if you're looking for an accurate or respectful portrayal of Thai culture, you won't find it here.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Mock Squid Soup: April Blog List

MOCK! and The Armchair Squid are proud to present Mock Squid Soup: A Film Society!

Next meeting is Friday, April 10th.  As announced last month, the plan for April is for each participant to pick someone else's March choice to review themselves.  Let's keep this friendly, though.  If no one else's movie strikes your fancy, pick a new one to toss in the hat.  Here is the movie list, each followed by the Society member who reviewed it:

Horns - Cherdo
Death to Smoochy - Toi Thomas
Strangers on a Train - Brigit
The Dish - angryparsnip
Superman Returns - Tony Laplume
Three Days of the Condor - MOCK!
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead - The Squid

And here is the signup list:

Friday, March 13, 2015

Mock Squid Soup: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

MOCK! and The Armchair Squid are proud to welcome you to Mock Squid Soup: A Film Society, meetings on the second Friday of each month.  We are trying a new format this month, suggested by the wise and wonderful Nancy Mock.  Instead of selecting one film for all to watch, everyone is invited to write a review of any movie they would like to share.  Then a wrinkle: in April, each participant will pick one of the other people's movies to review.  My choice for March is...

Title: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
Director: Tom Stoppard
Original Release: 1990
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
When Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead was first staged at the 1966 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it turned its playwright, Tom Stoppard, into a titan of the theatre world practically overnight.  The absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy tells the story of Shakespeare's Hamlet from the perspective of two minor characters who, at least from their point of view, serve little purpose in the narrative except to die.  I first encountered the play as a high school freshman when one of my best friends played the part of Ophelia.  For her, it was the first role of many that would eventually lead her to drama school.  She jabbered about it constantly.  I was already tired of the play by the time I finally watched it.

I was more receptive when we read the play senior year and it certainly helped that by that time, we'd read Hamlet, too.  Older and comfortably weirder, I was charmed by the playful banter and the philosophical musing.  I'm not sure I qualify as an existentialist but I've always found the idea appealing.  I learned the word avuncular from the play.

I'm not even sure when I watched the film the first time but I loved it instantly.  An American friend in Japan left me her VHS copy when she went back home and I would often watch it over dinner in my apartment.  The movie feels like an old pal at this point.

Stoppard directed the film himself and he's probably the only person who could have done right by the material.  For what was surely a bare bones budget film, the acting is world class.  The titular leads are Gary Oldman and Tim Roth.  It was early in both men's careers but they already had serious indie film cred - Oldman from Sid and Nancy, Roth from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.  The big catch was Richard Dreyfuss, who plays the Lead Player.  Ian Richardson, a founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, plays Polonius.  Filming was done in what was still Yugoslavia.

In anticipation of this post, I picked Ros&Guil (as my Ophelia friend used to call it) for Family Movie Night a few weeks back - probably not the best choice in hindsight.  The humor is occasionally a bit tawdry but not too bad.  I doubt my daughter even got most of the jokes, which was the problem.  She didn't understand what was going on.  She was a good sport about it but it clearly didn't work for her.  Maybe one needs to be a jaded teen/twenty-something to get it.  Maybe someday.

To be fair, I found myself a little impatient with the movie, too.  It's still funny but slow at times, a problem not helped by the girl's wiggling (more emotional than physical).  It's also dark - a lot darker than I need at this point in my life.  Being parent, husband and teacher, it's a lot easier to see the clear purpose in life than it was when I was young and proudly independent.  I actually docked a point from my rating.  I'd have thought of R&G as a solid 5 before but not anymore.  I've written a lot on this blog about movies that change for us over time.  The ones I've featured to this point have improved with age.  This one slipped.

Mind you, it's still a strong 4.  You should still watch it if you never have.  I'd be delighted to hear what interesting people think about it.

Next meeting is Friday, April 10th.  I'll post April's blog list tomorrow along with a list of everyone's March choices.  Let's keep this friendly, though.  If no one else's movie strikes your fancy, pick a new one to toss in the hat.  In the meantime, please be sure to visit the other society members this month:

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Star Trek: Yesteryear

My friends Maurice Mitchell, Spacerguy and I are embarking on a new journey to watch all 22 episodes of Star Trek's animated series.  We'll be posting on Wednesdays.  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of our adventure. 

Episode: "Yesteryear"
Series: Star Trek: The Animated Series
Season 1, Episode 2
Original Air Date: September 15, 1973
via Memory Alpha
Kirk, Spock and a team of Starfleet historians pay a visit to the Guardian of Forever, a time portal first featured in "City on the Edge of Forever."  Upon returning from his time travel adventure, Spock is suddenly a stranger to all but Kirk.  The Enterprise has an entirely different First Officer, an Andorian named Thelin.  Apparently, there has been a disruption in the timeline and Spock must travel back to his own childhood in order to save his own life.
Of all the animated series episodes, "Yesteryear" has by far the strongest legacy within the Star Trek universe.  The story provided broader concepts of both the planet Vulcan and Spock's personal history, to be drawn upon by future series and films.  Producer Gene Roddenberry was explicit in his instructions to screenwriters that they should take full advantage of the opportunities animation presented.  D.C. Fontana's story was a perfect demonstration of such possibilities, covering more ground on Vulcan than had been feasible with TOS's one visit in "Amok Time."

via Memory Alpha

Thelin's support of Spock's quest to rectify the past, knowing it would likely cost him his own position on the Enterprise, is touching.  Presumably, in the corrected timeline, Thelin still has a career in Starfleet on another ship.  We just don't know which one.

Thelin never appeared on television again but he does turn up in two Star Trek novels: The Fire and the Rose and The Chimes at Midnight.  He is granted a full name in the licensed material:  Thelin th'Valrass.  In "Yesteryear," he is voiced by James Doohan.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, please add your link to the list below.  In the meantime, please visit my fellow participants.  Next week: "One of Our Planets Is Missing."

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Family Movie Night: Grease

Title: Grease
Director: Randal Kleiser
Original Release: 1978
Choice: Purple Penguin's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Amazon
Before John Hughes started cranking out teen classics in the mid-1980s, there was Grease, a box office smash and one of the iconic films of its era.  Set in a 1950s California high school, good girl Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) and bad boy Danny (John Travolta) are in love, though they treat each other horribly for much of the story.  Their colorful friends - the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds - aren't much help.  As far as a plot synopsis goes, I can't possibly do better than Tom & Lorenzo.

Our daughter had never seen Grease before but her interest was piqued when I was playing the Broadway soundtrack in the car.  As I have written before, musicals tend to have either strong music and mediocre story (My Fair Lady) or the other way around (A Chorus Line).  Rare indeed is the classic that can pull off both (take a bow, West Side Story).  Grease falls solidly in the My Fair Lady camp.  On the strength of its songs - "Summer Nights," "Greased Lightning" ("That was cool!" the Purple Penguin said), "We Go Together" and many more - Grease will live forever.  While the '50s imagery and the farcical concept of teen life are still fully capable of capturing the imagination of adolescent girls (one of my current middle school students is obsessed with the movie), Grease was never a threat to win a Pulitzer.

My Wife kept reassuring the girl that high school isn't really like what's portrayed in the film.  For one thing, I pointed out, there's no way so many of the guys at her school will be able to dance.  Apart from the music, the dancing is very strong, led by Travolta, of course.  For the second year in a row (Saturday Night Fever came out in '77), he was the perfect casting choice in a movie where his feet alone could have carried the film.  The next Gene Kelley?  Not a chance.  It would be 16 years before he got another role with comparable cultural impact.  21 years after that, he made an ass of himself at the Oscars.  Oh, Danny...

As for the rest of the cast, Olivia Newton-John is there for her voice and her looks, not her acting.  Most of the supporters are strong, especially those cast in the few "adult" roles: Eve Arden as Principal McGee, Sid Caesar as Coach Calhoun and Joan Blondell as Vi.  The class of the operation is Stockard Channing, admittedly a bit old at 34 for the part of Rizzo.  Already an accomplished stage actress, her stock soared after Grease and decades of acclaimed work followed, rewarded with a Tony and three Emmys.

There's no shortage of dirty jokes but I think most of them went over our 11-year-old daughter's head.  She didn't even complain about the kissing.  The dance-off story required some explanation afterward but otherwise, she enjoyed the movie.

It's amazing to think Grease is nearly 40 years old.  I have no doubt that 40 years from now, it will have lost none of its charm.  The story will still be dumb but "Greased Lightning" will always be cool.

On the Coffee Table: Best of Enemies

Title: Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part One: 1783-1953
Writer: Jean-Pierre Filiu
Artist: David B.
via Amazon
The lesson has become clear.  Want to learn about the world?  Read comic books.  It's a great place to start, anyway.  Over the past few years, I've explored ancient India, pre-war Berlin, 20th century Japan, the Holocaust, Israel, Palestine, Iran and West Africa through the dynamic medium of sequential art.  Most of the work has only recently been translated from either Japanese or French, two literary traditions that embrace comic books as mainstream reading material to a far greater extent than does the English language tradition.

Such is the case with Best of Enemies, a series originally published in French, outlining the history of US relations with the Arab/Muslim world from American Independence to the present day.  This first book begins with the Barbary pirates of the late 18th century and ends with a CIA-orchestrated coup in Iran, 1953.  I'll admit upfront, I knew very little of this history before.  I knew the ancient and medieval history through the Crusades.  I knew a little about the Ottomans in World War I and the carving up of their empire afterwards.  I knew the history of the Israeli conflict from 1948 onward.  But the rest was all new.  I'd heard of the Barbary pirates, sure, but never really gave much thought to who they were.  The lesson is clear: learn about the world through comic books.

There is plenty of debate over how much of the world is actually encompassed by the term Middle East.  Is it just the Arabian peninsula?  Just the Arab-speaking countries?  Plus Israel?  Does Turkey count?  Iran?  Egypt?  North Africa?  For its purposes, Best of Enemies includes all of the above under the umbrella.

Impressively, the book manages to stay reasonably neutral.  There are no heroes, exactly.  Plenty of mud is flung in both directions.  The history of relations between the two entities is one of compromise, corruption and manipulation.  For both sides, money has always been king.  American and Middle Eastern regimes have been willing to compromise myriad principles for the sake of cash.  The discovery of oil only made things worse.  The black-and-white artwork is somewhat satirical though again, evenhanded.  I'm definitely keeping an eye out for Part Two: 1953-1984.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Star Trek: Beyond the Farthest Star

My friend Maurice Mitchell and I are embarking on a new journey to watch all 22 episodes of Star Trek's animated series.  We'll be posting on Wednesdays.  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of our adventure.

But first, an acknowledgement of the great loss suffered by the Star Trek community this past week.   There isn't much I can say about Leonard Nimoy that hasn't already been said.  Spock is Trek.  Nimoy was Spock, and a whole lot more.  He lived long and he prospered.  The legacy will certainly outlive the man.
via Wikipedia
RIP, old friend.  Thank you for sharing part of your journey with us.

Episode: "Beyond the Farthest Star"
Series: Star Trek: The Animated Series
Season 1, Episode 1
Original Air Date: September 8, 1973
via Memory Alpha
Four years after cancellation, Star Trek was thriving in syndication.   Fans clamored for new stories and a Saturday morning cartoon was the result.  The show's run was very short, only 22 episodes over two seasons.  The jury's still out on the place of the series in the overall franchise canon.  But this much is beyond dispute: since 1969, these 22 episodes are the only new stories about the original characters to air on network television.  As such, they're certainly worth a gander.

"Beyond the Farthest Star" finds our heroes exploring the outermost rim of the galaxy, thus the title.  Pulled into the orbit of a dead star, the Enterprise finds another ship in a similar predicament, apparently trapped for the past 300 million years!  Our friends manage to pull away, but not before a non-corporeal entity sneaks onto the Enterprise and gains control of the starship.

The story is solid Trek.  Losing control of the ship to a more powerful being is a long-standing formula.  Our heroes win by convincing their nemesis that they would rather destroy themselves than submit to its domination, knowing the damage it could do to others.  The franchise's moral compass is intact.  There's some subtle elegance in the storytelling, too.  The tale begins and ends with essentially identical log entries about star charting - rather Jabberwocky-esque.

The animation is a mixed bag.  Characters are very stiff, almost like shadow puppets.  But everything else is gorgeous.  One of the advantages of an animated show in that era was that you didn't have to worry about special effects.  If you could draw it, you're all set.  The alien ship the Enterprise crew discovered is genuinely beautiful and would have been a major challenge to produce in a live-action show.

Overall, a strong opening offer.  There are no references in future Star Trek stories, though a similar narrative is explored in the third season TNG episode, "Booby Trap."

via Memory Alpha

Animation also allowed the introduction of characters who would have been challenging to produce with contemporary makeup capablities.  The absence of Chekov in the animated series also left the navigator's chair open for Lieutenant Arex, a member of a tripedal species called either Edosians or Triexians depending on whom you ask.  Arex is seen in "Beyond the Farthest Star," though not voiced.  In later episodes, James Doohan was his voice.  Arex would have a life beyond the animated series, appearing in both novels and comic books.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, please add your link to the list below.  In the meantime, please visit Maurice and any others who are participating.  Next week: "Yesteryear."

Sunday, March 1, 2015

On the Road: Pastéis de Nata

Our new February break tradition is a short family vacation in Montreal.  The city is just a couple hours from our house in northwest Vermont, yet it is an entirely different world: urban, multi-lingual, cosmopolitan, etc.  A couple days is enough to provide an escape from our much quieter country life, and also to remind us why we chose it.  A few highlights from this year's trip:

The city of Montreal doesn't have a zoo, exactly.  Instead, it has the Biodome.  The animal exhibits are divided into four replicated ecosystems:  Tropical Forest, Laurentian Forest, The Saint Lawrence Marine Eco-system and a polar area divided into both Arctic and Antarctic.  Within each zone, the animals wander more or less freely.  Climates are carefully controlled so the tropics are warm and humid whereas the Laurentian zone is set for brisk autumn.  There are a few larger mammals and reptiles.  We saw caimans and a capybara in the tropical zone.  Most of the animals in the Lauentian forest were asleep, including a Canadian lynx, whom we had seen on a previous visit.

Most of the animals on offer are birds.  The tropical ones are the most colorful, including turquoise tanagers and scarlet ibises (surely on the short list of the world's most beautiful animals).  There are puffins in the Arctic and penguins in the Antarctic.  The latter, of course, were our main reason for coming.  As mentioned in previous posts, our daughter is penguin-crazy.  The Biodome has four penguin species in all, including the regal king penguins.  The display is not as engaging as the the one at the New England Aquarium in Boston.  There is plexiglass between birds and humans.  On the one hand, it allows one to be physically closer to the birds and surely helps with climate control.  But there's something nice about being in the same room with the penguins, hearing them, smelling them, almost feeling they could splash you if they felt like it.  Even so, we were glad to see them.

My main objective for the trip was the Pâtisserie Notre-Dame du Rosaire, a bakery that specializes in Portuguese treats.  As discussed here, I am currently exploring breakfast traditions around the world.  The Portuguese are into pastries and when I looked up the recipe for the favorite choice - pastéis de nata - I instantly realized it was beyond my own current baking capabilities.  While I might learn to make them eventually, best first to try one to see if they're worth it.
The bakery was different from what I expected - better.  The website suggests a sleek, modern operation with the usual French varieties with a few Portuguese offerings.  But the reality is a more quaint shop in a traditional ethnic neighborhood known as Little Portugal.  The natas consist of an egg custard in a tart shell.  The pâtisserie had the traditional, sugar custard (top left corner) but also other options including maple (a Canadian variation?) and chocolate.  Verdict: they're delicious and well worth learning to make myself someday.

Our best meal of the trip was our dinner at Saka-Ba!, a ramen restaurant in the Mont-Royal neighborhood.  I yearn for the traditional noodle shops I knew in Japan and, not surprisingly, have never been able to find quite their equal in North America (though there is a place near the Time-Life building in New York that comes close).  The reviews for Saka-Ba! were good so we had high hopes.  The food was excellent.  My kimchi ramen was outstanding, and so spicy I couldn't even finish it.  In my book, that's a very good thing!  The ladies both went with more traditional choices and were thoroughly satisfied.  The atmosphere was less pleasing - more singles bar than homey Japanese izakaya.  Come to think of it, the atmosphere of the bakery was really what I wanted for the ramen shop, too.  Oh well, you can't have it all.  The noodles were plenty good enough to make up for the noise.

Overall, it was a most enjoyable visit.  We stayed closer to downtown this year at the Hotel Quartier de Spectacles, right on Rue St. Catherine and just around the corner from the nearest subway station.  We didn't have quite as nice a room this year but breakfast was better (though not included gratis).  As ever, it's nice to be back home but I look forward to future Montreal adventures.