Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: January 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, January 26th.  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, December 29, 2017

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: December 2017

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: The Man Who Ate Everything
Author: Jeffrey Steingarten
via Amazon
Jeffrey Steingarten has been the food critic for Vogue magazine since 1989.  The Man Who Ate Everything is a collection his articles, published in 1997.  His work reminds me of Calvin Trillin's which I explored a couple of years ago: a comparable sense of humor, maybe slightly higher brow.  Steingarten is just as enthusiastic an eater as Trillin but he is a far more competent cook, willing to spend hours in his kitchen testing recipes.  He shares Trillin's passion for barbecue, though he is not as partial to one style as Trillin is to Kansas City.  Steingarten even pokes some fun at Trillin by name in his chapter on fruitcake.

Many of the chapters had my mouth watering, none more so than "Playing Ketchup," a self-devised taste test of numerous varieties of the ubiquitous American red sauce.  True to the title of the book, Steingarten's no snob.  While he samples all of the gourmet products he could find, he is partial to good ol' Heinz 57.  In another chapter, Steingarten justifies taking the risks of eating shellfish by resolving not to ski in exchange.  Of course, he doesn't ski anyway.

While I didn't enjoy Steingarten quite as much as I did Trillin, I'm still glad to have read the book and would happily read 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 January's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is January 26th.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Warren Berger

Title: A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas
Author: Warren Berger
via Amazon
This is yet another of the excellent books I've been assigned to read as part of my graduate school program.  This is one of our guiding texts as we embark upon the action research thread of our journey.

Berger advocates using the inquiry process to tackle all of life's big struggles.  Rather than always seeking answers, we should embrace the power of the questions themselves.  As he shares in the book, this approach has led to such innovations as the Polaroid camera, Netflix and better, stronger, more affordable prosthetic limbs.  Successful and innovative companies such as Google, IDEO and Airbnb have thrived on developing corporate cultures that encourage inquiry and exploration.  Berger outlines a simple process for incorporating the strategy in our own lives: developing innovations in our own work, in our schools, redefining personal relationships or even planning a career move.

It's an inspiring and liberating idea.  Too often, one bucks up against the How to? in life and gives up.  But Berger shows how you can get out of that trap: with more questions.  This is certainly a book I will come back to and share with others.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Squid Mixes: Cosmopolitan

Cheers from our winter wonderland!
 A cosmopolitan, cosmo for short, combines cranberry juice with vodka, lime juice and triple sec.  I got my recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide.  The lime juice supplies most of the flavor, the cranberry juice the color.  My effort was a bit cloudy but the wife described it as lovely and asked for a second one so I guess it was a success.  Cosmos took off in the late 1990s when they were prominently featured in the television sitcom, Sex and the City

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Window Above: Washing of the Water

Song: "Washing of the Water"
Writer: Peter Gabriel
Original Release: September 27, 1992
Album: Us

I was a great admirer of Peter Gabriel in the late '80s and early '90s.  His albums So and Us still rank among my all-time favorites.   "Washing of the Water" was never released as a single but I think it's one of Gabriel's best.  It presents a mesmerizing juxtaposition between the gentle, soothing tune and lyrics about deep, serious pain.  The song itself provides the healing for which it pleads.

The song has been popular among singing groups over the years since.  My own college a cappella group performed an arrangement back in the day.  Naturally, no one does it better than Chanticleer:

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Squid Mixes: Moscow Mule

Ginger is a big deal at our house.  My wife and daughter feel about ginger the way I feel about garlic, which is to say that putting it in anything is always the right choice.  So, a suggestion to buy ginger beer tends to be well received.
The Moscow Mule is the most popular of the buck family of drinks.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.  It mixes ginger beer with vodka, plus a bit of lime juice.  Regular visitors may recall that last year, my wife and I explored scotch whiskey as part of our Advent celebration.  This year, we are exploring locally-made Vermont spirits.  I made the mules with Smugglers' Notch Distillery vodka, perfectly serviceable.  Vodka is not the world's most satisfying choice for mixed drinks as its own flavor disappears - by design, of course.  If you really like the mixer, though, as we do, it works just fine.
The two other local spirits we've tried so far are Barr Hill Gin and Mad River First Run Rum.  The gin is a bit unusual for the fact that it is made with honey in addition to the usual juniper berries.  It made for an interesting gin and tonic.  I'm not sure I like it exactly but it's fun for something different.  The rum is nice.  Overall, the local spirits haven't been over-the-top wonderful but they serve their purpose just fine.

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Window Above: I Dreamed a Dream

Song: "I Dreamed a Dream"
Composer: Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyricists: Alain Boublil (French); Herbert Kretzmer (English)
Musical: Les Misèrables
Premier: September 24, 1980, Paris

I am not a fan of music reality television.  In particular, I truly despise Simon Cowell.  As a vocal music teacher, I spend my entire working life building up students' nerve.  Few things make the average person anxious quite like the idea of singing in public and convincing even the most outwardly confident teenager to take that risk requires endless encouragement over months and years.  Then people like Simon undo all of that work in a matter of seconds.  I know he would argue he's waking his contestants up to the realities of the industry.  To hell with your industry, Simon.  Music is far too important to allow egomaniacs like you to ruin it.

Susan Boyle's first appearance on Britain's Got Talent is one of the greatest moments in television history, musical or otherwise.  If YouTube views is a measure of pop culture impact, 218 million is a damn impressive number.  The story is well-known now.  A frumpy, middle-aged Scottish woman takes the stage.  Neither the audience nor the judges are remotely shy about expressing their skepticism.  They even laugh at her choice of song.  Then she starts to sing.

Joke's over.

Astonishment quickly evolves into adoration.  The looks on the judges faces tell a whole new story.  They all know - even Simon knows - that in this moment, Susan Boyle is bigger than all of them.  Their "judgement" is immaterial.  The producers certainly appreciated the power of this triumph and have worked hard at recreating it with other contestants in the years since.  But no one can top the original.

As a teacher, I live for the Susan Boyles of the world, those kids who walk into my classroom and unexpectedly knock my socks off.  It happens - certainly not every day, but it happens.   They remind me of the privilege that is my job.

Want to know something funny?  The story of Ella Fitzgerald's first performance at the Apollo Theater is remarkably similar.  Alas, I can't find a link to a video.  But if you ever have the chance to see the excellent documentary The Savoy King, it tells the tale.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Squid Mixes: Canadian Coffee

Canadian Coffee is essentially a variation on Irish Coffee.  The recipe I used is by Charmie777 at Genius Kitchen.  It combines whiskey - I used Canadian, of course - with coffee and maple syrup as the sweetener.  The whipped cream topping is optional.  I think it's a winner for our Christmas cocktail as it is yummy and it meets everyone's dietary restrictions.  We'll just have to make cocoa separately for the kids.

The drink isn't too strong.  One doesn't even taste the whiskey, really.  Doesn't knock you out the way some of the other recipes we've tried do, either.  We tried it with regular coffee but we'll use decaf over the holidays.  I think as long as we can find a pleasant tasting one, it should be fine.

I used Vermont syrup, of course, though I'll try to track down a Quebecois product for the drink.  Blasphemous?  A little.  Don't tell my neighbors.  Here's the shocking truth, though, folks: Quebec is actually, by far, the world's largest maple syrup producer accounting for 70% of the total market.  I won't concede that they make the best syrup.  But there's no denying they make the most.

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Window Above: Perhaps Love

Song: "Perhaps Love"
Writer: John Denver
Album: Perhaps Love by Placido Domingo
Original Release: September 1981

Humility in the face of love: a potent and timeless theme in music and poetry.  John Denver wrote "Perhaps Love" as his first marriage was falling apart.  He wrote it for Placido Domingo, the opera megastar, for the latter's crossover album.  The two sang the song as a rather odd though commercially successful duet.  The song caught on when a Philadelphia station started playing it hourly because... the station owner's wife had a crush on Domingo.

I first heard the song in music class in what must have been the third grade.  I liked it a lot and, as luck would have it, my father had bought the album so I went home to listen to it some more.  I'd forgotten about it, though, until Denver included it on his acoustic album Love Again in 1997.  By then, of course, I'd also had a lot more experience with the song's subject matter and was able to appreciate it all the more.

I can't deny it.  I'm a sucker for songs like this.  Below are both versions.  I prefer John solo but the duet is fun in its way.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Squid Mixes: Alhambra Royale

This was another in our quest for a Christmas cocktail, again with the idea of offering a non-alcoholic alternative to the kids.  The Alhambra Royale combines hot chocolate with cognac.  My recipe, from The New York Bartender's Guide, includes an orange peel garnish and a whipped cream topping.  The real fun is the fact that one ignites the cognac before pouring it into the cocoa, a first for me.

The drink is nice, but strong.  Perhaps the fact that I forgot to stir after adding the cognac was a bit of a problem.  We both preferred the chai toddy.

One more Christmas candidate next week...

Friday, December 1, 2017

A Window Above: Stairway to Heaven

Song: "Stairway to Heaven"
Writers: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant
Band: Led Zeppelin
Album: Led Zeppelin IV (or whatever you would like to call it)
Original Release: November 8, 1971

There are a few songs in the rock music canon that stand apart as transcendent masterpieces.  They are the emblems of rock yet they step over a line into something completely different, a higher art form of which they are each the only example.  The two most obvious songs in this category, at least to me, are Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."  While the Beatles' catalogue practically requires its own genre, I'm not sure even their best quite matches up.

"Stairway to Heaven" is an extraordinary song for many reasons.  The haunting melody and ethereal lyrics are lovely in and of themselves.  But what makes the song a classic is the gradual build from the Renaissance-style acoustic guitar and recorders in the intro to the hard rock anthem finale.  My favorite moment is the drum entrance that kicks off the fifth verse.  Until that moment - over four minutes into the recording - you don't even notice the absence of drums.  Build is a popular device in musical composition.  Few works have achieved it so elegantly.

For all of its critical and commercial success, or perhaps because of it, "Stairway" is much mocked in popular culture.  Still, it endures.  I love this quote from Erik Davis:
"Stairway to Heaven" isn't the greatest rock song of the 1970s; it is the greatest spell of the 1970s. Think about it: we are all sick of the thing, but in some primordial way it is still number one. Everyone knows it... Even our dislike and mockery is ritualistic. The dumb parodies; the Wayne's World-inspired folklore about guitar shops demanding customers not play it; even Robert Plant's public disavowal of the song—all of these just prove the rule. "Stairway to Heaven" is not just number one. It is the One, the quintessence, the closest AOR [ed. note: Album-Oriented Rock] will ever get you to the absolute.
No song transports me back to my teenage years quite like "Stairway," recalling lying back in the beanbag chair in my bedroom.  As a music teacher, I so wish that I could bring my students to the blissful joy I felt when I first discovered it.  I kept a door-length poster of the Gandalf-esque illustration on the inner fold of the album packaging above my bed for years.  Once in the night, it fell on top of me.  I woke up terrified! 

Many have covered "Stairway" over the past (is it possible?) near half-century, but none more beautifully than the band Heart.  The following is their show-stealing tribute at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2012.  My two favorite parts of the video: the band members' obvious emotional response to the performance and Yo-Yo Ma headbanging:

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Squid Mixes: Chai Toddy

My sister has suggested that we pick a cocktail for our family gathering this Christmas.  After a too long summer, it's finally cold enough in New England to start thinking about warm drinks.  My initial thought was something along the lines of Irish Coffee but my wife suggested this chai toddy as a nice way to offer an appealing non-alcoholic alternative for the kids.

My recipe - combining chai with brandy, dark rum, heavy cream and sugar - came from Making, a knitting magazine.  The drink is certainly pleasant and it made me quite sleepy.  We might also try out a hot chocolate possibility.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: December 2017 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, December 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, November 24, 2017

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: November 2017

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: The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984
Author and Artist: Riad Sattouf
via Amazon
This is the first of two volumes of Riad Sattouf's graphic novel childhood memoir.  Sattouf spent parts of his childhood in France (his mother's homeland), Syria (his father's) and Libya.  As such, he provides a vivid contrast between the first and third worlds of the late '70s/early '80s.  France seems like a paradise compared to the frequent power outtages, poor water and sanitation and sketchy governments of the Arab world. 

While the cross-cultural experiences are certainly interesting, the more interesting story is the drama within Riad's own home.  His father is quite a colorful character: ambitious and a bit rough around the edges.  At times he comes across as almost progressive but he is not shy in expressing his bigotry towards Jews and he has a surprisingly sympathetic view towards Arab dictators.  Riad's mother's story is darker.  He hasn't said as much yet but she appears to be heading towards a severe depression.

The artwork is minimalist, yet engaging.  Sattouf likes potty humor, which I do not but it's infrequent.  I'm definitely interested in the second book which covers 1984-85.  A third book is scheduled to be released soon as well.

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 December's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is December 29th.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Squid Mixes: Mary Pickford

The Mary Pickford is a Prohibition Era cocktail combining light rum, Maraschino liqueur, pineapple juice and grenadine.  It's pleasant, quite fruity.  The pineapple is the dominant flavor, despite being in equal parts with the rum.  I got my recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide
via Wikipedia
The drink is named after the famous Canadian-American film actress.  She was one of the biggest stars of the silent era, one of the founders of United Artists and winner of the second ever Academy Award for Best Actress.  The drink was created for her at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Window Above: Reformation Symphony

Piece: Symphony No. 5 in D major/D minor, Op. 107 (Reformation)
Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
Premier: 1832

For the first 30 years of my life, I experienced music as a performer, a listener, a student, a conductor, a teacher, a consumer.  I never imagined that experiencing music as a parent would be so different from everything else.  Mind you, I've been eager to know what part music might play in my daughter's life from the beginning.  At the ultrasound when we first learned we were having a girl, I instantly realized that it was the least of what I wanted to know about her.  What's her favorite color?  What's her favorite ice cream flavor?  And, of course, what instrument will she want to play?

As it turned out, the answer was quite a lot of them.  Over the years, she's played around with the violin, the saxophone, the harmonica, the recorder and on and on.  At this point, she's pretty settled on three: piano, clarinet and bass clarinet.  But, I know she'd play more if there were just more time in the week.

Now 14, she's getting to be pretty good.  I don't say this to brag.  I get annoyed when people brag about their kids, even with myself.  I don't feel her story is truly mine to tell anymore.  My wife and I are certainly stakeholders.  We supplied DNA.  We pay for instruments and lessons.  We drive her all over northwest Vermont, it seems.  We make her practice and cheer her on.  But she's the one doing the work and if she were ever doing music just to please us, it stopped being about that a long time ago.  Her love is genuine and her own talent, work ethic and passion are plenty enough to carry her far.  I was always a kitchen-timer practicer with music.  As soon as the time was up, I stopped.  Not her.  She'll keep playing.  Because she loves it.  I figured out a long time ago: that's really the only good reason to do it at all.

As we watch her progress with each difficult piece mastered, each audition passed, each hurdle cleared, there is certainly pride.  But increasingly, my feeling is one of awe and, I can't deny it, envy.  She has found her musical path a lot sooner in life than I did, not to mention the drive to follow it.  Who knows where it will take her or how long she'll stick with it?  But for now, it makes her happy, gives her a sense of pride and belonging.  Not everyone has that at her age, or any age.  She's not even old enough to appreciate how lucky she is.

This past summer, she got into a local youth orchestra.  She now has the opportunity to play with similarly motivated musicians once a week.  Together, they get to play more sophisticated music than she's likely to see in her school band program for a long time.  In their first concert, they performed the exquisite fourth movement of Felix Mendelssohn's "Reformation" Symphony, his fifth.  The following was performed by the New Philharmonica Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti:

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Squid Mixes: Horse's Neck

This one is seemingly all about the garnish, a long strip of peel from a single lemon, the end draped over the rim.  The drink itself is basically a highball: blended whiskey, ginger ale, Angostura bitters. Quite tasty, though the garnish is too much work.  In pictures I've seen, the strip is longer and thinner.  With practice, I'm sure I could learn but it doesn't seem worth it.  My recipe was from The New York Bartender's Guide.

The drink dates back to at least 1890.  Originally, it was a non-alcoholic beverage.  Brandy or bourbon was added by the 1910s. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

A Window Above: Piano Concerto in A minor

Piece: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16
Composer: Edvard Grieg
Premier: April 3, 1869, Copenhagen

The day I took the train to Rochester, New York for my grad school audition at Eastman, the city had a 48-inch snow storm.  Even after 15 Vermont winters, that's still the most I've ever seen in a single day.  What was already a surreal weekend among the musically gifted was made even more so by the crazy weather.  Of course, it's western New York.  There are no snow days.  Life goes on.  Get your boots on and get your sorry ass out there.

Eastman was an extraordinary experience for many reasons.  In truth, I was way out of my league.  The Eastman School of Music, part of the University of Rochester, is one of the best conservatories in the world.  I'll spoil the ending: I didn't get in.  But my weekend trip was most enjoyable.  I even made a small group of friends among the other auditioners.  I kept up with one of them, a piano accompanist, for a little while afterwards.  I don't remember his name.  Otherwise, I'd track him down on Facebook.

The most memorable part of the trip was not the weather or in fact anything to do with my audition.  The highlight was a concert.  That particular weekend, the Eastman Orchestra was featuring the winners of its annual concerto competition.  Naturally, we all went.

The soloists included two violinists and a pianist.  The first two, both master's candidates, were thin, wispy, East Asian women in sexy, elegant, slinky dresses.  They dressed for success and played to match.  Perfectly satisfying.

Then the third came out, the pianist.  She was a doctoral student from Hong Kong and, frankly, she looked silly: geeky glasses and a red dress with little yellow pompoms all over it.  She bounced around, grinning wide and waving at the audience like a five year old.  As one of my companions said, you really didn't want to take her seriously.  But then she sat down to play.

Oh... my... lord!

From the instant her hands hit the keyboard, every jaw in the audience was on the floor.  Mind you, Grieg's Piano Concerto is one of the world's true kick-ass pieces.  She owned every note.  We were putty in her hands.  I have never seen an audience jump to its feet as quickly as we did and never was a standing ovation more richly deserved.  The evening was hers.

My daughter knows this story and knows how important the piece is to me as a result.  Our first Vermont Symphony concert included the Grieg Piano Concerto on the program.  This past spring, she learned a reduction of the piece herself.  The first time I heard her play it at her lesson was one of those moments when I knew I have lived my life well.  Sometimes, I second-guess decisions I have made but every choice that led to her playing the Grieg was undoubtedly the right one.  

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Squid Mixes: John Collins

John Collins or Tom Collins?  The same drink or not?  It's hard to tell.  The New York Bartender's Guide makes a clear distinction.  John incorporates blended whiskey, Tom gin.  The official IBA recipe for John, though, calls for gin.  Both drink names date to the 1860s and have been popular enough to inspire their own glassware: the Collins glass.

I mixed the whiskey version.  It tasted a lot like last week's sour, though less sour.  The whiskey-to-lemon juice ratio is the same, 2:1.  No doubt, the addition of sparkling water dilutes the sourness a bit.

Friday, November 3, 2017

A Window Above: Make You Feel My Love

Song: "Make You Feel My Love"
Writer: Bob Dylan
Original Performer: Billy Joel (as "To Make You Feel My Love")
Release Date: August 19, 1997
Album: Greatest Hits Volume III

I would not say I'm an Adele fan, though I do find her easier to take than many of her contemporaries.  I don't always care for the songs but there's no denying the woman can sing.  This song isn't even close to her biggest hit.  But it is her best.  At 19, she took a song written by music royalty, recorded by industry giants and made it all her own.

As heart-wrenchingly beautiful as the melody is, I mostly love this song for its lyrics.  While it's easy enough to envision the song being sung to a lover, I perceive greater depths.  Listen to the song again, this time imagining it sung parent to child.  Listen once more, this time as a message from a god to a reluctant believer.  It works pretty well for all three.  One could probably find other possibilities.  The mixing of religious devotion and earthly love - even lust - within the same text is a trick as old as the troubadours, probably older.  Doctor Robert is an old soul and I wouldn't put it past him, though I haven't found anything to confirm any intentional hidden meanings.  That they work anyway speaks to his remarkable genius.

I have included three clips below: the song's two most famous pre-Adele performers and the composer himself.  Yes yes, we all know Dylan's music is best sung by other people.  That doesn't change the fact that he is, at worst, Top 3 among living songwriters.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Squid Mixes: Whiskey Sour

Whiskey sours were very popular in Japan when I was there in the mid-'90s.  One could order them in a wide variety of fruity flavors and florescent colors.  My concoction, derived from The New York Bartender's Guide recipe, was not so dazzling visually but it was certainly sour!  The blended whiskey and lemon juice are in 2:1 ratio with only a teaspoon of sugar syrup.  Mind you, I like sour so I was not unhappy.  Wife liked it, too.

Sours have been around a long time, the first known mention in a Waukesha, Wisconsin newspaper in 1870.  Add egg white (yuck!) and it's a Boston Sour.  Float red wine over the top and it's a New York Sour.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: November 2017 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, November 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, October 27, 2017

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: October 2017

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: HHhH
Author: Laurent Binet
via Amazon
I'm pretty sure I like this book.  I certainly like it most of the time.  HHhH is mostly a work of historical fiction, exploring the characters and events surrounding the assassination of Nazi monster Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942.  I say "mostly" because Binet's approach to the story is highly unusual.  Interlaced with the historical tale is the author's recounting of his own challenges in writing the book.  While his commentary is, to a point, interesting, I find it distracting.  The instant the assassination story gets rolling, Binet pulls back to indulge in his meta crap.  I enjoyed his overall style but I just wanted him to shut up about himself after a while.

But of course, the meta crap is exactly why Binet's book has gotten attention.  After all, there are other books and movies about Operation Anthropoid, the assassination plot's code name.   Interestingly, and to me somewhat puzzlingly, there is a movie adaptation of HHhH.  It was released in France in May and an English translation entitled The Man with the Iron Heart will be released later this year.  From what I've read, it doesn't sound like the movie includes the meta crap - a good choice in my opinion.

I know, it sounds like I didn't actually enjoy the book but I really did.  Binet writes well even as he meanders.  He leaves no doubts as to the deep evil of the Nazi regime, a sobering reminder in the midst of today's racial struggles.  Binet, a Frenchman, also paints a loving picture of Czechoslovakia (as it was at the time) and Prague in particular.

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 November's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is November 24th.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Squid Mixes: Tuxedo Cocktail

The tuxedo, pictured here on the railing of our newly completed deck, tastes a lot like last week's cocktail, the casino.  However, it uses dry vermouth instead of lemon juice.  It's nice.

My recipe - gin, dry vermouth, Maraschino liqueur, orange bitters, garnish with a cherry - comes from The New York Bartender's Guide.  Interestingly, the official IBA recipe adds absinthe.  I have never had absinthe.  Until 2007, it was illegal in the United States and is still heavily regulated.

Monday, October 23, 2017

On the Coffee Table: A Murder of Quality

Title: A Murder of Quality
Author: John le Carré
via Amazon
George Smiley is back.  This time, the brilliant yet eternally marginalized former spook, is investigating a murder at a prestigious English prep school.  This, the second Smiley novel, is a straight up mystery story, very little espionage apart from occasional allusions to the protagonist's past.  We get some insight into Smiley and his disastrous marriage in particular but again, details are sparing.  Those hoping for a spy novel would be disappointed but as a whodunit, it's not bad - lots of good misdirection.

The occasional morsels about Smiley's history are satisfying.  I especially appreciated this passage, one that reveals much of the art behind our hero's unassuming character:
The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction.  A man who, like Smiley, has lived for years among his country's enemies learns only one prayer: that he man never, never be noticed.  Assimilation is his highest aim, he learns to love the crowds who pass him in the street without a glance...he could embrace the shoppers who jostle him in their impatience...He could adore the officials, the police, the bus conductors, for the terse indifference of their attitudes.
Definitely up for more.  Next in the series is a classic of the genre: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Friday, October 20, 2017

A Window Above: All-Night Vigil

Piece: All-Night Vigil, Op. 37
Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Premier: March 10, 1915, Moscow

The first piece I ever conducted in front of a live chorus was "Priidite, poklonimsya," the first movement of Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil, one of the masterworks of the a cappella repertoire.  It begins with a sustained, unison "amin" (Russian for amen) and my professor had stressed to me the difficulty of achieving a clean entrance.  He himself had struggled to get it right with our choir.  I was quite nervous standing in front of my singing colleagues.  Student conductors weren't a standard part of the experience for any of us so they were all watching me in curious anticipation.  I brought my hand down and they all came in, perfectly.  I was so surprised that I lurched a little, but I controlled my beat.  The main body of the piece is quite a challenge for a beginner, switching meters - unmarked in the score - every two measures.  We made it through together but I don't remember much else.  The moment that stayed with me, that will probably always remain with me, was that first, perfect entrance.  I expected many emotions from the experience: fear, anxiety, relief.  What I did not expect was the thrilling rush of power.  I brought my hand down and people sang.  Wow!

The All-Night Vigil is often mistakenly referred to as Vespers.  Only the first six of the 15 movements are from the Vespers service.  Movements 7-14 are from Matins and 15 is from The First Hour.  Our professor was a Russian choral music specialist and we performed several of the movements during my college career.  I would imagine that over the years, he's covered all of them.  It is also a piece my father has sung as a member of the Choral Arts Society of Washington.  That group made a recording of the work in 1987 at the National Cathedral, under the baton of Mstislav "Slava" Rostropovich.

I love several of the movements for different reasons.  #1, of course, is forever tied to the experience described above (we didn't do the chants in the beginning).

#2 is my favorite as a listener.  It is slow and luscious, with that dazzling final note for the basses.  I imagine myself lying in a meadow, staring up at a universe of stars.  (This clip's a particularly gratifying find for me, given the group and its conductor - recorded a couple decades too late for this blogger to have been involved)

#9 was my favorite to sing - wonderfully dramatic.  The second tenor solo was one of my first solos in the college choir.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Strengths-Based Leadership

Title: Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow
Authors: Tom Rath and Barry Conchie
via Target
Like Emotional Intelligence, this was a book from last summer's grad school course.  Strengths-based learning is a major theme of the program and while we usually talk about emphasizing our students' strengths, in our leadership class, we were encouraged to explore our own.  Rather than fretting over our deficiencies, not to mention those of others, we should all be building on what we do well.

The book includes a passcode to an online assessment (more on that later).  My own strengths shook out as follows:

Input - "People strong in the Input theme have a craving to know more.  Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information."

Learner - "People strong in the Learner theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve.  In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them."

Intellection - "People strong in the Intellection theme are characterized by their intellectual activity.  They are introspective and appreciate intellectual discussions."

Context - "People strong in the Context theme enjoy thinking about the past.  They understand the present by researching its history."

Connectedness - "People strong in the Connectedness theme have faith in the links between all things.  They believe there are few coincidences and that almost every event has a reason."

In total, the book highlights 34 themes which fall into four different categories: executing, influencing, relationship building and strategic thinking.  Four of my five (all except connectedness) are strategic thinking strengths.  As I am comfortable in that area, I should look to build teams around me of those with strengths in the other three areas.  For the record, connectedness falls into relationship building.

I am fully on board with the basic thesis: make the most of your own strengths and, when you can, those of others.  Here's the problem: you'll get the most out of the book if you take the online assessment and each individual book copy comes with its own passcode.  So, sharing books doesn't work.  Everyone needs to buy their own copy. 

If you're interested in strengths - and you should be - a more satisfying self-evaluation route might be the VIA Survey.  Their strengths cover a broader range of life endeavors AND the initial survey and the basic report are free.  For the record, my top five VIA strengths:
  1. Love of learning
  2. Judgment
  3. Curiosity
  4. Love
  5. Prudence

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Squid Mixes: Casino

The casino is a tasty drink combining gin, lemon juice, Maraschino liqueur and orange bitters.  It tastes a lot like a Manhattan, actually, but with gin instead of rye.  I got my recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide.

The Little Squirt sends her regards.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Window Above: Moonshadow

Song: "Moonshadow"
Writer: Cat Stevens
Original Release: September 1970

To my mind, Cat Stevens is the world's most under-appreciated songwriter.  Born Steven Demetre Georgiou and now known as Yusuf Islam, he may not have the overall body of work to compare with the McCartneys, Dylans, Paul Simons and Joni Mitchells of the world.  But Cat Stevens has a remarkable gift for creating authentic-sounding folk songs.  I don't mean the political anthems created by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger for the labor movement.  I mean songs that genuinely sound as if they sprung from an ancient oral tradition.  The two best examples I know are "The Wind," which I featured in this post, and "Moonshadow."

While I probably first heard the song in my early teens, I never gave much thought to moon shadows as being a real thing until I moved to Vermont in my late 20s.  For the Londoner Yusuf, the revelation came while on vacation in Spain.  For me, it was on I-89.  On my way to White River Junction to be an All-State judge the next morning, I saw moon shadows of pine trees on virgin snow.  So enchanted, I was tempted to turn off my headlights in order to see them more clearly but fortunately thought better of it.  The following evening, I dragged my wife out for a night drive to find more.  Poetically, the direction we picked led us towards the more rural area where we live now.  15 years later, I still look forward to clear winter nights when the bright moon reflects off the snow to create quasi-daylight and reveal those magical shadows.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Squid Mixes: Rum Buck

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have our Thanksgiving beverage.  One sip of the rum buck - light rum, lime juice and ginger ale - and my wife proclaimed "very nice."  We may play around with ginger ale vs. ginger beer but we have a winner.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.

Bucks are a family of drinks combining ginger ale or beer with a citrus juice and a base liquor.  The Moscow Mule, which uses vodka, is probably the most famous example.  With gin, it's a Ginger Rogers.

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Window Above: A Whiter Shade of Pale

Song: "A Whiter Shade of Pale"
Writers: Gary Brooker, Keith Reid, Matthew Fisher
Band: Procol Harum
Release Date: May 12, 1967

13 years ago, we were still living in our stuffy apartment in Burlington.  One day, I was home alone with the baby.  She was fussy.  None of the usual tricks - feeding her, changing her, cuddling her, playing with her - seemed to help.

"A Whiter Shade of Pale" came on the radio with its soothing, ethereal, Bach-inspired organ intro.  The fussing stopped instantly.  It was my first awareness that she was actually listening to the music.  What's more, even before she had the words to express them, she was already developing her own opinions about the songs.  A lifelong love was already underway.  It was, without a doubt, one of the great musical moments of my life.

"A Whiter Shade of Pale" is one of the most frequently played songs in the history of recorded music.  It is one of fewer than 30 singles that has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and is a shoe-in for any greatest songs list anyone puts together.  It has been covered by at least 1,000 different artists and turns up in movies all the time, most memorably for me in The Commitments:

It is an unusual hit song for the fact that so much of it is instrumental only.  Over a four-minute recording, there are only two verses and two choruses.  The organ is the star.

The trippy lyrics are suggestive of a sexual encounter, though Reid claims a more basic girl-leaves-boy scenario was intended.  He also swears it's not about a drug experience (though they all say that).  Whatever the words are about, they're certainly beautiful, well worthy of the song's musical sophistication:

"The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away"


"I wandered through my playing cards."

Good stuff.

Procol Harum, formed in Essex, England and active for years, can't be considered a true one-hit wonder.  In total, they charted six songs in the UK and three in the US.  But "A Whiter Shade of Pale" will always be their greatest legacy, one of which they can surely be proud.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Squid Mixes: Singapore Sling

We are currently planning a Southeast Asian themed dinner party and I am in charge of the featured cocktail.  The Singapore Sling seemed the obvious choice.  The drink's origins are traced back to a particular bartender: Ngiam Tong Boon at the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore, sometime before 1915.  Recipes vary greatly.  Mine came from The New York Bartender's Guide: gin, lemon juice, sugar, sparkling water with cherry brandy floated over the top.  A cherry and an orange slice are added for garnish.

The "floated over the top" part is the trick.  This was my first experiment with a layered cocktail.  I followed what instructions I could find on the web but as you can see from the photo, the brandy didn't so much float as sink directly to the bottom.  Gravity wins again.  There are recipes without the floating bit so I may opt for that for the party instead - easier anyway.

My wife, however, is more inclined to encourage a more authentic approach to world cuisine.  In other words, forget what the expats drink at the Raffles.  What do actual Southeast Asians drink?  Beer and French wine are both popular.  As for spirits, whiskey or rum very diluted with soda is the Thai tradition - this according to the excellent Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.  Perhaps we will have all options available for our guests.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: October 2017 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, October 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, September 29, 2017

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: September 2017

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: March: Book One
Writers: John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Artist: Nate Powell
via Amazon
Racial tension is nothing new in the United States.  In truth, it is the central theme of our history.  This land was not "settled" by Europeans.  It was stolen.  Our economy was dependent on African slave labor for generations.  More than once, our government has used an attack by foreign powers as an excuse to betray its own citizens.  Obviously, the events in Charlottesville brought the issues into sharper focus than we've seen in a long time.  But pretending this is a new or even reawakened problem is ignorant, naive, delusional or worse.

Congressman John Lewis is a genuine American hero, a front line veteran of the Civil Rights Movement.  In the three-part graphic novel series March, Lewis tells the story of his life in the struggle. Book One begins in medias res, Lewis joining in the march across the bridge in Selma in 1965, then jumps ahead to the morning of Obama's inauguration in 2009, then back to Lewis's childhood in rural Alabama.  This first volume about his early life takes us up to his experience with the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville in 1960.

Lewis's reflections on discrimination and the fight to end it are deeply personal.  He recalls the conversations he had on the bridge in Selma, the pain of realizing what separate but equal meant to his own education and the challenges of training for non-violent resistance.  As much as we might pat ourselves on the back for the progress made in the half-century since Selma, the lessons of Lewis's story are just as relevant now.  Equality is incrementally closer but still a long way off.  It has been heartening, in the weeks since Charlottesville, to see that so many are still willing to take a stand.  May Lewis's example serve us all in our always uncertain yet forever hopeful future.

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 October's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is October 27th.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

What Is The Clone Wars?

via Wikipedia
This post marks the end of a two-year project.  My blogger friend Andrew Leon and I have watched and reviewed every episode of The Clone Wars series which ran from 2008 to 2014.  I began the journey with a hope that the show would prove to be more than supplementary to the Star Wars movies.  While I do feel it's mostly that, it's been gratifying to see that the writers were invested enough to develop rich story lines that hold up well on their own.  The films will always be the primary attraction of the Star Wars franchise and that is as it should be.  But if you're going to put in all the time, money and creative energy required of an animated television show, you might as well make it a good one.  For the most part, I feel they succeeded.

The Clone Wars serves many purposes.  Multiply 121 episodes by 22 minutes and you have over 44 hours to flesh out the Star Wars universe.  The Mos Eisley cantina clientele implies dozens of worlds to explore and The Clone Wars visits several of them.  More interesting to this blogger, the show's best stories explore broader moral questions.  In particular, are the Jedi and the Republic truly the unassailable good guys we've always been lead to believe?

The morals at the beginning of each episode imply fables.  But whom are these fables for and who is the teller?  Are they to be told over a bar table?  at a campfire?  at a child's bedside?  I have a guess about Star Wars's Aesop and I'll get to that as we explore the particulars.

Is the show perfect?  Definitely not.  Some of the stories are downright groan-inducing.  Also, with the various threads and multi-episode arcs, it would be difficult for the casual viewer to tune in any old week and feel drawn in.  Of course, that's true of a lot of TV shows these days but I can see how it might have been a drawback for The Clone Wars.

Still, overall I like the show.  It makes me curious about Rebels but I'm going to hold off on that one for a while.  Let's hand out the hardware...

Favorite Episode: "Rookies"

"Rookies" doesn't even feel like Star Wars most of the time as it's not ultimately about Jedi, Sith, droids or any of the usual trappings.  It's a story about grunt clone soldiers assigned to a remote outpost, a brutally tedious life until suddenly it isn't.  We hear their guy banter and the songs they listen to on the radio.  It feels more like an old war movie from the 1950s than the galaxy far, far away.

When all goes wrong, we find out what these young guns are really made of, how devoted they are to their duty and, ultimately, to one another.  This is the moment that pulls the clones away from any concept of mindless conformity.  They have minds and hearts.  The loss of any one is felt by all.  The climactic scene is genuinely heart-wrenching.  I teared up.  The creators themselves thought enough of the story that they produced both a prequel ("Clone Cadets") and a sequel ("ARC Troopers") for Season Three.

The episode also introduces Fives.  More on him in a bit.

Least Favorite Episode: "A Sunny Day in the Void"

The droid stories are tiresome at best.  It's a challenge to pick just one to highlight (lowlight?).  "A Sunny Day in the Void" is the second of a four-part droid arc (good lord!).  The setting is a desert planet, and not one with the elegant Tunisian dunes of Tatooine.  This one is simply flat and empty with dentist office lighting.  It's as if some creative genius thought to combine the tedium of a rudderless narrative with the thrill of sensory deprivation.  Torturous.

Favorite Arc: Mortis

If some trusting friend had time for only one story arc, I would pick Mortis.  Anakin, Obi-Wan and Ahsoka stumble upon a planet pulled out of time.  The three residents are a father, his daughter and his son.  The three are acting out an ongoing morality play with the daughter representing the light side of the Force, the son the dark and Dad the arbiter between.  The outcome of the struggle is said to have fateful bearing on the galaxy as a whole.  The father is fading and wants Anakin to take his place.  He is essentially offering the power of a god.

I don't know if Mortis is truly the best story of the series but it was certainly the one that left me with the most to write about.  For the devoted, it provides ample material for discussing the basic moral landscape of the Star Wars franchise. 

Favorite Principal Character: Ahsoka Tano
via Wikipedia
Presumably, the primary original intention of the Clone Wars series was to flesh out the character of Anakin Skywalker during the time period between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  Much of his development would be gleaned from his relationships with the other principals, including his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi and his secret wife Padmé Amidala.  A funny thing happened along the way.  Over time, many of the series's more interesting stories followed not Anakin but his apprentice, a newly invented character: Ahsoka Tano.

At first, Ahsoka's main narrative purpose along with the others was to reflect her master: Anakin as a teacher, Anakin as a bad influence, Anakin as a whiny child with attachment issues, etc.  But by the fifth season, Ahsoka's experiences pull her further and further away from Anakin and, ultimately, the Jedi Order.  Her departure from the narrative is the single most shocking and revealing moment of the entire series.

In light of this path, I came to see Ahsoka as The Clone Wars storyteller.  Perhaps Anakin's role is still the focus but these fables are Ahsoka's cautionary tales to... someone.  I get the much touted idea of the droids as the Star Wars chroniclers but, again, those morals imply a lesson to be learned.  Who better than a fallen Jedi to teach them?

And why write Ahsoka out of the story?  Was it part of a broader narrative plan, cut short by the series's abrupt cancellation?  Or, was it a more deliberate choice to get her out of the way so the show's creators could get back to the Anakin-centered show they really wanted?

Favorite Recurring Character, Previously Established: Asajj Ventress
via Darthpedia
Asajj Ventress was first introduced in the comic books, then came to the awareness of most fans in the earlier Clone Wars TV series of 2003-2005.  Initially a Sith minion, her story takes a turn in Season Three when Count Dooku betrays her and she finds herself on the run.  Her path from that point is an interesting one indeed.  Part of why I resent the Darth Maul resurrection in Season Four is the fact that his subsequent story line could just as easily have been followed with Ventress as the lead, rendering his return unnecessary.  Without a doubt, Maul is the best part of Phantom Menace but overall, Ventress is the better character.  Over the course of the series, she winds her way through many different narrative threads and the story is always improved upon her arrival.

Ventress is also an important link to Star Wars's Kurosawa legacy.  Her name is drawn from Asaji, the Lady Macbeth equivalent in Throne of Blood

Favorite Recurring Character, New: Fives
via Wookieepedia
Before Season Six, I would have chosen the pirate Hondo Ohnaka over Fives.  Prior to the final season, Fives was a great character but always obscured within the ensemble.  The outstanding Inhibitor Chip arc that opens Season Six provides the showcase he deserves.

As noted previously, Fives is introduced in "Rookies" as one of the five clone troopers in Domino Squad.  He also appears in Season Three's Citadel arc and Season Four's Umbara arc.  In the Inhibitor Chip arc, he and his droid pal AZI-3 get awfully close to uncovering the terrible secret of Order 66, the Sith's plan to destroy the Jedi by manipulating the clones.  Through Fives, we get our most intimate view of the complicated relationship between the clones, the Jedi and the Republic, the best thread going in The Clone Wars series.

Best Threads

The Clone Wars is not one story but several threads interwoven.  As might be expected, some paths proved rich in narrative possibilities while others were mostly annoying.  The threads listed below were by no means the only good ones, though they were the most satisfying to me.  Nor are they mutually exclusive.  The episodes where they intersect are some of the best of the entire run.  In approximate order of preference:

Clones - The very existence of the clones presents a moral dilemma.  The folks we have been led to see as the good guys in this struggle wage war with a genetically-engineered slave army.  The clones themselves are almost invariably loyal, dependable and respectable but to say their relationship with the Jedi who lead them is complicated is putting it mildly.  All of the stories in this thread are strong, including several of the series's best single-episode tales.

Ahsoka - The Ahsoka thread takes a while to get going, or at least for the viewer (and the writers?) to recognize that her story is developing apart from Anakin's.  Eventually, she, and we, are led to see the struggle between Republic and Separatists in a different light.  From there, her transformation happens incrementally.  By the end, she's questioning everything about the cause and, more to the point, her place in it.  Unfortunately for all of us, this story ends just at the moment when it starts to get really good.

Ghosts - This thread is only two arcs long but it packs a lot of punch.  It begins with the Mortis arc described above and wraps up with the final arc of the series, The Clone Wars's most substantial Yoda story.  These tales focus on the more mystical aspects of the Force, allowing us to explore the moral landscape of the Star Wars universe with minimal narrative clutter.  If one were to design a college course or discussion group around the philosophy of Star Wars, this thread would be required viewing.

Ventress - After her fall out with Count Dooku, Assaj Ventress's thread takes us to Dathomir, easily my favorite of the worlds introduced in The Clone Wars.  There, we meet her family, the Nightsisters, well-worthy of a spinoff series or standalone film of their own.  On Dathomir, she also encounters Savage Opress, one of the best new characters in his own right.  The Ventress thread leads to the unfortunate resurrection of Darth Maul but even that branch thread has its moments.  Eventually, Assaj's path bends back around to intersect with Ahsoka's for a meaningful Season Five encounter.

Duchess Satine via Wookieepedia
Mandalore - Many Clone Wars stories explore the political angles of the Star Wars saga.  Mandalore is the planet we get to know best in this context.  Mandalore is officially neutral during our initial visit.  The world is led by Duchess Satine, an old flame of Obi Wan's, just to add a touch of spice.  Satine's government is facing an insurgency from the militant opposition group Death Watch, whose armor will look awfully familiar to anyone acquainted with Boba Fett.  The series returns to the Mandalore-Death Watch struggle several times at various points in the ongoing struggle.

Hondo via Wookieepedia
Hondo - Hondo Ohnaka is a Weequay pirate introduced in Season One.  While his own story is only minimally developed, much as with Ventress, other stories always improve as soon as he shows up.  To add to the fun, voice actor Jim Cummings patterned his performance after Ricardo Montalban's Star Trek character, Khan. 

Clone Wars 101: A Ten-Episode Introduction:

The following is not a top ten list.  While several would certainly qualify for that too, a number of my favorites are not included here.  Instead, I have imagined a scenario in which I introduce the series to a curious friend (or more likely, my daughter) to what I see as the strongest aspects of The Clone Wars series.  Each is an early story in one of the threads listed above so if it sparks interest, there is an obvious path for further exploration.  Listed in order of original air date:

"Ambush" (Season 1, Episode 1) - The series begins and ends with Yoda stories, interesting as they're really the only Clone Wars stories with the little green Jedi as the protagonist.  In addition to showing off his badass fighting skills, Yoda clearly indicates to the clones that he values them as individuals.  It would be nice to say that attitude sets the tone for the rest of the series but, in fact, we learn over time that not all Jedi feel the same way - for some, quite the contrary.  Asajj Ventress also puts in an appearance.

"Rookies" (1.5) - Simply the best.  See above.

"Hidden Enemy" (1.16) - This is another important clones story, and a more troubling one.  There's a traitor in the ranks and Cody and Rex are out to find him.  The episode is intended as a prequel to the Clone Wars movie.  Ventress appears again.

"Storm Over Ryloth" (1.19) - In trying to run a blockade, Ahsoka ignores orders and gets most of her squadron killed as a result.  While certainly an important development story for Ahsoka, it also paints a clear picture of the relative status between the Jedi and the clones

"The Deserter" (2.10) - While hunting down General Grievous on the planet Saleucami, Rex meets Cut, a clone deserter, and his family.  Over the rest of the story, Rex and Cut debate duty vs. personal choice. 

"Mandalore Plot" (2.12) - Our first visit to Mandalore, where we meet Duchess Satine on one side of a civil war and Death Watch on the other.

"Bounty Hunters" (2.17) - Dedicated to the legendary Akira Kurosawa, "Bounty Hunters" is a Clone Wars send up of the Japanese filmmaker's masterpiece: The Seven Samurai.  The episode title is misleading.  While there are bounty hunter characters in the story, they are hardly the focus.  Hondo is the villain, though this is not his first appearance.  If I were to extend my orientation tour to eleven episodes, the addition would be "Dooku Captured," Hondo's introduction.

"Heroes on Both Sides" (3.10) - This episode represents a big moment for Ahsoka, especially in hindsight.  While accompanying Padmé on a trip to Raxus, the Separatist capital, she meets Lux Bonteri, son of a Separatist senator.  For Ahsoka and for us, Lux offers a perspective on the struggle she's never seen before.  Not only are some of the Separatists nice people, some of them actually have legitimate gripes against the Republic and even the Jedi.  Lux comes back for a vital arc in Season Five, one in which Ahsoka takes yet another small but crucial step in her personal journey.

"Nightsisters" (3.12) - The first step of Ventress's personal journey. As noted above, Dathomir is one world where I would happily spend more time. 

"Overlords" (3.15) - The beginning of the Mortis arc.  There is some good Ahsoka material here, too, but it's mostly an Anakin story, and probably the best one.


This is a long post.  Congratulations and thank you if you made it all the way through.  I thought about splitting the material into multiple posts but I found with Star Trek that I refer back to these wrap-ups and it's useful having everything in one place.

Also, a big thank you and congratulations to Andrew Leon, my partner in crime for this journey and the man who suggested it in the first place.  I probably would have gotten to the series on my own eventually but exploring it with another Star Wars devotee was more meaningful.  Andrew is continuing on with the unfinished Legacy episodes so be sure to check out his posts for those.