Monday, February 29, 2016

On the Coffee Table: Bee Wilson

Title: Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee - The Dark History of the Food Cheats
Author: Bee Wilson
via Goodreads
Swindled offers a history of food adulteration from ancient Rome to the present.  With vendors always out to enhance their profits, many have seen little harm in substituting chicory for coffee, cutting wheat flour with lesser grains, watering down wine and so forth.  But too often the health of the public has been sacrificed by adding lead to hard candies or selling nutritionally decimated milk to families for feeding their babies.  Since the early 19th century, the science of detection has fought valiantly, if not always successfully to keep pace with the science of corruption.

All the descriptions of the horrors of the past are just a set up.  Once the reader is feeling morally superior in light of the poisonings and swindlings of a darker era, s/he is reminded of the considerable powers of the 21st century food industry to pull the wool over our eyes.  From insufficiently regulated agriculture to indecipherable food labels, we average modern eaters have no better understanding of the mess that we shovel in our cake holes than did our ancestors.  If anything, we are even further removed from the source of our food, leaving us more vulnerable.

Even with the doomsday warnings, Wilson's book is a highly engaging read.  Somewhat surprisingly, it made me hungry.  Perhaps less surprising, it encouraged me to involve myself more in the actual production of food in our home.  Much of the discussion about the Middle Ages revolves around bread and, to a lesser extent, beer.  Both are foods I have made myself and Swindled has fueled the inspiration to continue. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: March 2016 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, March 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, February 26, 2016

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: February 2016

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: Alice, Let's Eat
Author: Calvin Trillin
via Goodreads
For the second month in a row, I share with you the delightful work of Calvin Trillin.  Alice, Let's Eat is the second book of his Tummy Trilogy.  My thoughts on the first book can be found here.

Alice is Trillin's wife, muse, eating and travel companion and tempering influence.  She is an essential character in Trillin's food writing, a willing accomplice to his adventures most of the time.  She is also clearly the more responsible of the couple, warning her husband against his tendency to binge.

The subject matter of this second book is much the same as the first.  Trillin favors high quality down home fare to what is billed as the more sophisticated cuisine of fancy restaurants.  He sums up his tastes thusly: "For years I have gone around the United States assuming that good food is available if the careful traveler sticks to regional specialties and the cooking of ethnic groups strong enough to have at least two aldermen."

In this volume, Trillin sings the praises of latkes in London, country ham in Kentucky and shellfish pretty much anywhere.  We join him for adventures in London markets, Vermont game dinners and Pennsylvania Dutch Country.  He shares his fantasy of guiding the late Chairman Mao on a mad-sprint food tour of New York City.  As ever, his two favorite food destinations are New Orleans and his hometown of Kansas City.  He is decidedly less impressed by Omaha.

Humor is the book's strongest selling point.  Out loud chuckles are frequent.  I am curious as to how much the restaurant world has changed since the book was published in 1978.  I know that ethnic cuisine is more varied and widespread.  There is not a single mention of Thai food, for instance, which is practically ubiquitous now.  I would like to think quality has improved apace but can't say for sure.  I expect I'll be tackling the third book of the trilogy - Third Helpings - soon.

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 March's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is March 25th.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

On the Coffee Table: Showa 1939-1944

Title: Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan
Writer and Artist: Shigeru Mizuki
via Amazon
This is the second volume of Mizuki's outstanding Showa comic book series.   I reviewed the first volume here.  Japan's Showa era was defined by the reign of Emperor Hirohito: 1926-1989, a period of extraordinary national transformation.  Mizuki lived through it all and his books weave historical events with his own personal experiences.

Obviously the years 1939-1944 were dominated by the Second World War.  Japan's weak democracy had become, in effect, a military dictatorship.  Domination of Asia and the Pacific was seen by those in power as the nation's destiny.  The event best known to Americans is the attack on Pearl Harbor but in fact that strike was only one part of a much broader offensive executed in several corners of the Pacific simultaneously.  Over a seven-hour period, Japan also attacked the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong.  All were resounding victories for the Japanese.  So began the most extensive and destructive naval war in human history, of course just one chunk of the greater, all-absorbing global conflict.

That much history is easily gleaned from textbooks.   Mizuki provides a more intimate view.  Not only does his stunning artwork bring us closer to the action but his own experiences in the Japanese army offer a sobering perspective on the conflict.  He himself has no sympathy for Japan's war objectives but as a grunt soldier, his personal opinions were immaterial.  His life was in constant peril.  In truth, it's amazing he survived to tell his story.

In some ways, the book encourages one to learn more but even in a sequential art medium, the details of naval battles tend to run together.  I will leave it to others to judge the work's historical accuracy.  Every once in a while, Mizuki lapses into hypotheticals: how the world might be different if the Japanese had won the Battle of Midway, for instance.  But he also brings us back to the underlying realities of the conflict: the Pacific Theater hinged ultimately on American superiority in both military intelligence and supply lines.

Showa is top notch.  Anyone with an interest in Asian history or the power of what is still seen by most in the English-speaking world as a frivolous medium should give it a look.  The next volume, 1944-1953, covers the American occupation, every bit as important to the shaping of modern Japan as the War was. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Clone Wars: Bounty Hunters

My friends and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008 (as opposed to the one that started in 2003).  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of the fun.

Episode: "Bounty Hunters"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 2, Episode 17
Original Air Date: March 27, 2010
via Wookieepedia
This week's episode opens with a dedication to Akira Kurosawa.  The Japanese master filmmaker was one of the most important influences on George Lucas and his galaxy far, far away.   You don't really know Star Wars until you've seen Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress.  Numerous narrative elements found their way from that 1958 samurai film to 1977's A New Hope.  1961's Yojimbo also had considerable impact on the Star Wars franchise.  But before this Clone Wars episode, there had never been a tribute in the Star Wars canon to Kurosawa's masterpiece: The Seven Samurai

(For the record, the original Marvel Star Wars comic book series did a Seven Samurai send up early in the run.   The early Marvels, however, are not canon.  My thoughts on that story are part of this post.)

After crash landing on the planet Felucia, Anakin, Obi-Wan and Ahsoka stumble upon what appears to be an abandoned village.  Soon they discover one of the families hiding in a cellar.  The Jedi are quickly surrounded by four bounty hunters who claim to be in the villagers' employ, protecting them from pirates.  The Jedi join in the affair but instead of merely playing the role of hired thugs, they teach the peasants to defend themselves.

Straight-up Kurosawa so far.

There are more treats in store.  Turns out, we know these pirates.  They are lead by none other than my favorite Clone Wars character: Hondo Ohnaka. The Kurosawa/Hondo combination automatically makes this episode a winner for me.

via Wookieepedia
Dilanni is one of the villagers who trains to fight the pirates.  He is pessimistic about their chances and appears to give up in frustration.  But he comes around to save the day in the end.  He is voiced by Stephen Stanton.

Stanton was born August 22, 1961 in Augsburg, West Germany.  Much of his work has been as an audio double for better-known actors such as Alec Guiness, John Cusack and Bruce Willis.  Most important to The Clone Wars, he is an excellent voice match for Peter Cushing.  Stanton is the voice for Wilhuff Tarkin, Cushing's character in A New Hope.  In "Bounty Hunters," he also voices the ill-fated pirate scout in a scene lifted directly from Seven Samurai.

He's no one-trick pony.  He is also a visual effects artist, having worked on the staffs of such films as Cliffhanger, The Last of the Mohicans and Batman Returns.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants today.  Next week: "The Zillo Beast."


Monday, February 22, 2016

On the Coffee Table: M.F.K. Fisher

Title: Serve It Forth
Author: M.F.K. Fisher
via Amazon
Serve It Forth was the 1937 debut of M.F.K. Fisher, one of America's most important food writers.  I have written of Ms. Fisher's work before here.  Her expertly executed prose combines with her unashamed sensuality to make for most enjoyable reading.  The topics covered in this volume run from the decadent feasts of ancient Rome to the simple pleasures of eating alone.  Fisher reminds us that we are defined not only by what we eat but just as surely by where, when, how, why and with whom.

The best chapters are about Fisher's own experiences.  She roasts tangerine segments on the radiator of her French hotel room while the chambermaid tells ribald tales of her own encounters with traveling cyclists.  She visits a beloved restaurant on what by chance is her favorite waiter's last night on the job.  I can't help being reminded of my own comparable adventures: the bite of steak tartare which launched the love story that would become my marriage.  Or the order of chicken fajitas shared with a friend, tears streaming down our cheeks - from the potent peppers, to be sure, but also from the pure joy of finding genuinely spicy Mexican food in Japan.  Or the pot of hard-shelled crabs leftover from an embassy dinner party, shared with another friend at 12:30 in the morning.  To read Fisher is to remember that great food nourishes the soul as well as the body.

Serve It Forth and the previously discussed Consider the Oyster are the first two books in the still larger collection entitled The Art of Eating.  I look forward to reading the other three.  The next is provocatively entitled How to Cook a Wolf.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Family Movie Night: Sullivan's Travels

Title: Sullivan's Travels
Director: Preston Sturges
Original Release: 1941
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
My Wife is on a mission, a mission to share as many screwball comedies as possible with our daughter.  It all started with a couple of Cary Grant movies over Christmas break.  The Purple Penguin expressed curiosity in more of the same.  Now there's a list of 30+ films posted on the refrigerator.  I expect our Family Movie Nights will draw heavily from that list in the coming months.

Preston Sturges was one of the masters of the genre.  Sullivan's Travels, produced during his strongest creative period, is a social satire.  The title character, played by Joel McCrea, is a movie director, successful but restless.  Bored with his usual comedies, he longs for something with more relevance.  He sets off on an adventure, determined to observe the plight of the downtrodden.  Nothing goes according to plan, though he manages to learn quite a lot anyway.  He makes a friend, too: an unnamed "Girl" played by Veronica Lake, all of 18 years old at the beginning of filming, not to mention six months pregnant.

Some of the film's commentary is obviousSullivan discovers the societal importance of comedy, as expressed in the movie's most famous line: "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!"  Other messages are more subtle.  Sullivan is consistently able to get out of what could be life-ruining trouble simply because he is rich and well-connected.

Sullivan's epiphany comes at a movie screening at a Southern African-American church.  The minister and the congregation sing "Go Down Moses" before playing host to a group of white prisoners.  Despite the memorable musical performance, none of the black actors in the scene were credited.  Even so, the film earned high praise from the NAACP at the time for the characters' respectful portrayal.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Clone Wars: Cat and Mouse

My friends and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008 (as opposed to the one that started in 2003).  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of the fun.

Episode: "Cat and Mouse"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 2, Episode 16
Original Air Date: March 20, 2010
via The Clone Wars Wiki
"Cat and Mouse" is a space battle episode, following a well-used (over-used?) Clone Wars theme: Anakin defies orders but all is well that ends well.  In this case, he is supposed to be a blockade runner, delivering supplies to Bail Organa on Christophsis. Instead, he launches an assault on the Separatist fleet.
Stealth Ship via Wookieepedia
There are a couple of unusual elements in play, though.  Anakin is in command of the Republic's new stealth ship and its cloaking device.  One doesn't see cloaking devices much in Star Wars.  This is Star Trek stuff.  As such, the story feels more like a submarine battle, a la Hunt for Red October.   The ship is even shaped like a sub.  The episode also introduces a mysterious character, Admiral Trench, an old adversary of Admiral Yularen's, previously presumed dead.
via The Clone Wars Wiki


Still in theaters, The Force Awakens is already the third-highest grossing film of all-time.  The power of the Star Wars brand has never been more evident.  A massive portion of the credit is due to the legion of artists who have contributed to the franchise over the years.  The original film, now known as Episode IV: A New Hope, won a well-deserved Oscar for art direction and set design.  John Barry, Norman Reynolds and Leslie Dilley were awarded for art, Roger Christian for set.  Reynolds and Dilley were also on the Oscar-winning art team for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

John Barry was born in London in 1935.  After the success of the first Star Wars film, he was hired as the second unit director for The Empire Strikes Back.  Two weeks into filming, he collapsed on set.  He died the next day, June 1, 1979.  Meningitis was the diagnosis.

Norman Reynolds was born March 26, 1934, also in London.  In addition to his two wins, he has had four other Oscar nominations: The Incredible Sarah, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Empire of the Sun.  He was the second unit director for Alive and The Exorcist III.
Reynolds via Wookieepedia
Leslie Dilley was born January 11, 1941 in Rhondda, Wales.  Apart from his two wins, he also had Academy Award nominations for The Empire Strikes Back, Alien and The Abyss.  He has a few acting credits as well, including appearances in Deep Impact, Pay It Forward and Cold Creek Manor.

Roger Christian was born February 25, 1944 in London.  His only other Oscar nomination was for Alien.  He was second unit director for both Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace.  Unfortunately, he was also the director for the notoriously terrible Battlefield Earth
via Wikipedia
If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants today.  Next week: "Bounty Hunters."

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Mock Squid Soup: March 2016 Blog List

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

Next meeting is Friday, March 11th.  As announced last month, the plan for this month is for each participant to pick someone else's movie from our ever-growing society library.  I maintain a list of those movies here, also to be found on my page list as "Mock Squid Soup Film Library."

The signup list:

Friday, February 12, 2016

Mock Squid Soup: That Thing You Do!

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.  Last week, society members posted three clues as to their chosen film for the month.  Today is the big reveal.  A reminder on my clues:

- The writer/director is one of Hollywood's all-time superstar actors.  He appears in the film, though in a supporting role.  Interestingly, the actual male lead is a dead ringer for a younger version of the megastar and was nearly passed over for the part as a result.  However, the two are not related.

- The female lead is the daughter of rock 'n' roll royalty.

- The film is the only one I know of that takes place, at least in part, in northwest Pennsylvania.

Drum roll please...

Title: That Thing You Do!
Director: Tom Hanks
Original Release: 1996
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
That Thing You Do! tells the tale of a one-hit wonder band from Erie, Pennsylvania who take the country by storm during one mid-'60s summer.   It's a bit like an inspiring sports story in light-hearted, musical form.  Or perhaps it's The Commitments, gone over with a washcloth.  Whatever it is, it's adorable.

The hero is Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott, the Tom Hanks double), a genuinely talented drummer stuck working for his dad at the local home appliance store.  One day, a pal recruits him to sit in with his band for a talent show.  Guy surprises his new mates by upping the tempo at the performance and the magic begins.  First, a vagabond agent discovers the act, then a Hollywood record label represented by Mr. White (Hanks).  The band tours state fairs en route to LA.  As happens in life, some relationships develop while others suffer.

Liv Tyler (daughter of Aerosmith frontman Steve) is Faye, the lead singer Jimmy's girlfriend.  Ms. Tyler's film performances are uneven in my experience.  She flourishes with great material (see Lord of the Rings) but lacks the talent to carry a movie on her own.  Faye is a good role for her.  She and Scott have wonderful chemistry, essential to the successful execution of the plot.  She has a monologue towards the end in a consequential moment with Jimmy that is, frankly, painful.  It's the big clunker line in an otherwise well-written screenplay, not entirely unlike Andie MacDowell's "Is it raining?" disaster in Four Weddings and a Funeral.  But it's not really her fault.  I blame the writer (Hanks again) for that one.

Two scenes have always stood out for me in That Thing You Do!  The first, I will admit, is a strange choice.  I love the scene in which Guy's girlfriend Tina (Charlize Theron) dumps him.  Tina has fallen in love with her hunky dentist but has yet to tell Guy.  Tina and Guy are on the phone engaged in what he assumes is their usual comfortable prattle.  Suddenly bored with their conversation, she hangs up on him.  No explanation.  No further discussion.  She's had enough and she's moving on.  Done.  I love it!  It would be rotten in real life but in the movie, it works.

The second scene is more obvious: the first time the band hears their own song playing on the radio.  My one lasting image from the movie has always been Liv Tyler running down the Erie sidewalk, screaming with delight.  If you wish to see pure joy portrayed on screen, look no further.

For those two scenes alone, I would happily watch the movie anytime.  In many ways, though, the true star is the title song, genuinely catchy.  In the movie universe, it hit #7 on the Billboard chart.  In the real world, it reached a nothing-to-sneeze-at 41.

Next meeting is Friday, March 11th.  I'll post March's blog list tomorrow.  For March, pick another society member's choice from our ever increasing library to review.  Today, please visit my fellow cinephiles, listed below:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Clone Wars: Senate Murders

My friends and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008 (as opposed to the one that started in 2003).  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of the fun.

Episode: "Senate Murders"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 2, Episode 15
Original Air Date: March 12, 2010
via Wookieepedia
As the title would suggest, "Senate Murders" is a good, old-fashioned mystery story.  Senator Amidala is leading the opposition to escalation of clone troop production.  While she enjoys drinks with her party allies, one of her strongest supporters and dearest friends,  Onaconda Farr, drops dead.  Later, poison is revealed as the cause of death.

"Senate Murders" is an unusual Star Wars story for the fact that no Jedi are directly involved.  Neither Anakin nor Obi-Wan even puts in an appearance.  I am always appreciative of the tales that remind us there is more to this universe than lightsabers and telekinesis.  It's a nice development episode for Padme as well.
via Wookieepedia
Mon Mothma is also one of Padme's important allies.  Mothma is known to the devotees for her appearance in the Rebel Briefing scene in Return of the Jedi.  Caroline Blakiston, the actress who originally performed the role, interpreted the character's name as "Moon Mother," thus her cool, calm portrayal.
via Wabbit Wiki
Kath Soucie voices Mon Mothma in The Clone Wars.   She was born November 18, 1953 in Cleveland, Ohio.  She studied at New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts and began a successful stage career.  On-camera acting was not her cup of tea but she got her first voice-over gig in 1986 on Rambo: The Force of Freedom.  The credits since then are impressive: Fifi La Fume in Tiny Toon Adventures, Dexter's mother in Dexter's Laboratory and several Rugrats characters among many others. 

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants today.  Next week: "Cat and Mouse."


Friday, February 5, 2016

Mock Squid Soup: February's Three Clues

Today, for this month's edition of Mock Squid Soup, all society members are invited to post three hints about their film choice for the month.  All are welcome to guess, of course.  My three clues:

- The writer/director is one of Hollywood's all-time superstar actors.  He appears in the film, though in a supporting role.  Interestingly, the actual male lead is a dead ringer for a younger version of the megastar and was nearly passed over for the part as a result.  However, the two are not related.

- The female lead is the daughter of rock 'n' roll royalty.

- The film is the only one I know of that takes place, at least in part, in northwest Pennsylvania.

Any guesses?  Society reviews will be posted next Friday, February 12th.  See you then.  Meanwhile, please visit my fellow cinephiles today:

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Clone Wars: Duchess of Mandalore

My friends and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008 (as opposed to the one that started in 2003).  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of the fun.

Episode: "Duchess of Mandalore"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 2, Episode 14
Original Air Date: February 12, 2010
via Wookieepedia
With the terrorist group Death Watch threatening the neutral planet Mandalore, senators vote for a pre-emptive Republic invasion.  Sounds familiar somehow. Naturally, the situation is not all that it seems.  We, as viewers, are let in on the secret of the political manipulations of Chancellor Palpatine.  And, of course, Death Watch is still out to kill Duchess Satine.

With this episode the Mandalore story arc comes to an end.  The arc has a lot going for it.  Most importantly, it provides excellent character development for Obi-Wan Kenobi as we learn of his past affections for the Duchess, a compelling character in her own right.  The Mandalore-Death Watch history provides depth to the Boba Fett story and also a broader sense of galactic politics.  On top of all that, we get some always welcome exploration of city life on Coruscant.  So, there's a little bit for fans of the originals and a little bit for fans of the prequels.  Nicely done.

Pre Vizsla is the leader of Death Watch.  The Mandalore arc marks his entrance but he'll be back.  He is voiced by Jon Favreau.
via Clone Wars Wiki
Favreau was born October 19, 1966 in Queens, New York.  He went to Queens College but dropped out to pursue a career in comedy.  He got his first big break in the Notre Dame football film Rudy.  23 years later, he's a Hollywood titan, having found some success on screen but even more as writer, director and producer.  He wrote, produced and acted in Swingers.  He directed and acted in Elf.  He is executive producer for both Avengers movies.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.
via Wookieepedia
One of Favreau's more unusual projects was the TV series Dinner for Five.  The concept could hardly be simpler: Favreau would invite four people in the entertainment business to dinner.  They would eat in a real restaurant off of the real menu served by the real wait staff.  No scripts, just five people chatting about the biz.  Among his guests over four seasons: Ben Affleck, Ed Asner, Peter Bogdanovich, George Carlin, Tony Hawk, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Stan Lee, Alanis Morissette and Martin Scorcese.  The episodes were uneven.  Some of the groups were more interesting than others.  But the idea was wonderful.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants today.  Next week: "Senate Murders."