Wednesday, May 31, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Jules Feiffer

Title: Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel
Writer and Artist: Jules Feiffer
via Amazon
Kill My Mother is a film noir in comic book form, though it does manage to extend beyond that genre's usual trappings.  At the heart of the story is a family drama - actually the dramas of two families, intertwined.  The tale gets complicated so I will fall back on the book jacket summary:

As our story begins, we meet Annie Hannigan [blogger note: a rather dark-hearted homage to the Little Orphan], an out-of-control teenager, jitterbugging in the 1930s. Annie dreams of offing her mother, Elsie, whom she blames for abandoning her for a job soon after her husband, a cop, is shot and killed. Now, employed by her husband s best friend an over-the-hill and perpetually soused private eye Elsie finds herself covering up his missteps as she is drawn into a case of a mysterious client, who leads her into a decade-long drama of deception and dual identities sprawling from the Depression era to World War II Hollywood and the jungles of the South Pacific.

Along with three femme fatales, an obsessed daughter, and a loner heroine, Kill My Mother features a fighter turned tap dancer, a small-time thug who dreams of being a hit man, a name-dropping cab driver, a communist liquorstore owner, and a hunky movie star with a mind-boggling secret. Culminating in a U.S.O. tour on a war-torn Pacific island, this disparate band of old enemies congregate to settle scores.

The story's certainly interesting but I had a few artistic issues.  The characters have a poured-out-of-a-bottle look which doesn't appeal to me.  Also, the female characters look too much alike, meaningful to the narrative but confusing.  That said, the plot twist is especially good, and not one you'd have been likely to see in the film style's heyday. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Clone Wars: Sabotage

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "Sabotage"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 17
Original Air Date: February 8, 2013
via Wookieepedia
"Sabotage" kicks off the final story arc of Season Five.  I haven't watched ahead but I know what's coming.  The series has been gradually building towards a climax for a long time and the payoff is nearly upon us.  We'll have plenty to talk about once it's over.

Anakin and Ahsoka are summoned to investigate a bombing at the Jedi Temple.  Given the near-impenetrable security, the Council fears the job was carried out from within, perhaps even by a Jedi.  As rumors swirl, the political pressure mounts from both the civilian population and the Repulican Senate.  The truth must be found quickly.

Soon, a suspect emerges: a civilian technician, Jackar Bowmani.  But he's nowhere to be found.  Next, his wife turns up and that's when things get really interesting...
via Wookieepedia
Letta Turmond is Jackar's wife.  She is a human Coruscan citizen.  I hesitate to share any more details just yet for fear of spoiling but she is sure to be a character of great consequence in this story.  She is voiced by Kari Wahlgren.
via Batman Wiki
Kari Wahlgren was born July 13, 1977 in Hoisington, Kansas.  After graduating from the University of Kansas as a theater major, she found some radio work in Kansas City before heading to Los Angeles.  On-camera work was scarce so she focused on voice-overs.  Her career took off.  She has had major roles in several animated series: Witch Hunter Robin, Last Exile and Samurai Champloo among others.  Star Wars has been especially good for her, with work in television and video games. 

Next week: "The Jedi Who Knew Too Much."

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: June 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, June 30th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

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

Friday, May 26, 2017

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: May 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: Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper:  A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China
Author: Fuchsia Dunlop
via Amazon
Fuchsia Dunlop's originally went to China in 1994 on a fellowship to study the country's minority populations.  Instead, she fell in love with the food and devoted the next fifteen years of her life (more by now) to eating it, cooking it and writing about it.  No casual traveler, her efforts at self-immersion were bold.  She began her adventure with a dare to herself that she would eat everything put in front of her, no small consideration in China where the concept of what is edible is much broader than it is in Europe, or really most of the world.  Eventually, after bugging every professional cook she could find, she became the first Westerner to enroll at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine - before she'd even fully mastered the Sichuan dialect!  By the time she finished this memoir, she had already published three Chinese cookbooks in English.  Since, she has put out two more. 

Her main base of operations over the years has been Sichuan province but she has spent significant time in other parts of the country, much of it in fairly remote regions.  Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper includes material about her explorations of Kashgar in the far, central Asian west and Gansu province in the north.  Hunan, Mao's home province, gets a couple of chapters.  Both Hong Kong and Beijing get their due.  Dunlop does not shy from the issues of concern to western sensibilities: exotic or even illegal ingredients, pollution, animal treatment, adulteration, etc.  Reminders of China's troubled modern history are constant.

I enjoyed the book thoroughly, though it did leave me feeling cheated by the Chinese food I've eaten during my life.  The true variety of the cuisine is astonishing, every region boasting its own ancient traditions.  By Dunlop's own admission, there's too much to experience in a single lifetime, let alone one book.  What passes for Chinese food in most of the United States is so predictable and pedestrian compared to even the simplest street food Dunlop describes.  For as much time as I've spent in Asia, I have to this point had minimal interest in China but this book makes me want to go and just eat and eat and eat.

Dunlop also reminded me of the downside of ex-pat life, the lonelier side, the part where you miss people all the time, whether you're at home or abroad.  Mind you she was about 13 years into her chronicle before she started writing about China-fatigue but it was there.  Her book also makes me think about food on our own future travels.  Even mid-range restaurants can take a big chunk out of a family trip budget.  It's important to keep in mind that the most meaningful meals are the ones closest to what the natives are eating, no matter where you go in the world.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post June's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is June 30th.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Clone Wars: The Lawless

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "The Lawless"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 16
Original Air Date: February 1, 2013
via Wookieepedia
The Shadow Collective story arc comes to a close.  Using Almec as his prime minister puppet, Darth Maul has gained control of Mandalore.  Bo-Katan and other members of Death Watch, having watched their leader fall last week, switches sides and help Korkie Kryze and his friends spring Dutchess Satine from her cell.  Unfortunately, this prison break doesn't work and upon recapturing the fallen ruler, Maul uses her as bait to lure his old nemesis: Obi-Wan Kenobi.

This final chapter is in many ways the most predictable episode of the arc and also our most Star Warsy story in a while: confrontations between light side and dark side, light (and dark) saber duels, challenges to the Sith pecking order and (SPOILER ALERT) death.  It's not really a Star Wars story until somebody important dies, or at least loses an appendage.  Both sides suffer significant loss in this case.

I think it's worth another SPOILER to discuss them as both are characters I've particularly enjoyed...

Dutchess Satine is killed by Darth Maul with the dark saber, right before Kenobi's eyes.  Dying in Obi-Wan's arms, she confesses her eternal love for him.  Satine, as the peace-loving leader of her world, is certainly a worthy character in her own right.  The fact that she has added a dimension to Kenobi is a bonus.  She died a martyr, certainly a meaningful end in the Star Wars universe.

Savage Opress is struck down by Palpatine.  I was a big fan of Savage when he first emerged as part of Asajj Ventress's story.  Since he tracked down his long lost brother Darth Maul, his role has diminished to little more than a thug.  I was hoping for more.


via Wookieepedia
Among Satine's rescue party is Amis, a friend of Korkie's from the Royal Academy.  We first met him in "The Academy" back in Season Three.  This episode marks his last appearance in The Clone Wars.   Amis is voiced by Omid Abtahi.
via Wikipedia
Omid Abtahi was born July 12, 1979 in Tehran.  He and his family moved first to Paris when he was five, then Irvine, California when he was ten.  He graduated from Cal State-Fullerton with a double major in advertising and theater.  Professionally, he has been active on both stage and screen.  In the theater, he has performed in Fraulein Else, Your Everyday Typical Romantic Comedy and Urge for Going.  In addition to guest appearances and voice work, Abtahi has had regular television roles on Over There and Sleeper Cell.  He was Homes in the final Hunger Games film: Mockingjay - Part 2.

Next week: "Sabotage."

Friday, May 19, 2017

Squid Eats: Bluebird Barbecue

Bluebird Barbecue in Burlington was our second Vermont Restaurant Week adventure this year.  We went with friends: Mock, Nancy Mock (quickly becoming a local food celebrity), Mock Boy, Blue Liner and Baby Blue Liner (Blue Liner and his wife, let's call her Jello Shots, became parents for the first time last year). 

The special menu for Restaurant Week was a "$30 Barbecue for Two" platter with a choice of meats and appetizers.  For our large group, we ordered three such platters so we could sample everything.  I will admit upfront that it was not the most nuanced restaurant meal I've ever had, more like a boarding house dinner with everyone grabbing what they could.  Some got into testing the different sauces but I was just shoveling in the grub.  Mind you, it was loads of fun - just a lot more eating than critiquing for me.  Among the meats, the smoked chicken was my favorite; among the appetizers, the Red Hen Baking Fat-Tire Toast.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Clone Wars: Shades of Reason

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "Shades of Reason"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 15
Original Air Date: January 25, 2013
via Wookieepedia
The Maul/Opress/Death Watch story continues.  Darth Maul gets his new underworld buddies, known as the Shadow Collective, to launch simultaneous attacks on Mandalore, undermining Dutchess Satine and allowing Pre Vizsla to usurp her power.  The political intrigue, however, is just beginning.  Apart from being an interesting story in its own right, this tale provides insight into how the Sith, or really anyone with sufficient forethought, might exploit a power struggle on an individual world for their own political gain.  The whole scenario was like something out of Machiavelli.
via Wookieepedia
Ziton Moj, a Falleen working for Black Sun, joined the Shadow Collective last week when Savage Opress killed the rest of Black Sun's leaders.  While this arc marks his introduction and only appearance in The Clone Wars, Moj does feature in subsequent novels and comic books.  He is voiced by Corey Burton.

Next week: "The Lawless."

Friday, May 12, 2017

Squid Eats: Stone Corral Brewery

via Twitter
Vermont Restaurant Week was the last week of April.  The idea is for participating restaurants to offer special prix fixe menus in order to encourage new customers.  We hadn't yet tried Stone Corral Brewery in Richmond so it seemed as good an excuse as any.

Beer is a big deal in Vermont.  Our proud, humble state (yes, it really can be both simultaneously) is home to more breweries per capita than any other in the United States.  Having a small population throws many such distinctions our way.  I believe we have the most tennis courts per capita, too.  Getting back to beer, there were already loads of independent breweries when we first moved here 15 years ago and the industry has only grown since.  Brewpubs are everywhere and in light of the high level of competition, the products are usually pretty darn good. 

Part of Stone Corral's prix fixe was a four-glass beer flight.  My wife and I have different beer preferences.  I'm an IPA man, the hoppier, the better.  She tends more toward a floral or fruity flavor.  A gose is usually a safe choice for her.  She likes Belgian whites, too.  And Guinness.  I'll drink hers and she mine but we tend to our comfort zones given the choice.  As such, getting two flights between us is fun because overlap is unlikely.  The most interesting variety for me at Stone Corral was their bourbon porter.  I love both beer and whiskey and there's really no reason why they can't go together since they're made from the same stuff.  It was like a rich, dark boilermaker.

Mussels are a favorite with us.  In fact, whenever I see mussels on a menu, I just assume my wife will want to order them.  At Stone Corral, they were served with a Thai chile sauce, actually sweeter than what I expected and indeed what one normally sees with mussels.  It was different - not bad, just different.

Dinner was the prelude to a concert, this time the VSO String Quartet's performance at the Shelburne Museum.  The concert was planned in conjunction with the museum's recent exhibition, Backstage Pass: Rock & Roll Photography.   Included in the musical program were works by Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and the Talking Heads.  The photos were marvelous, too: the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Elvis, just about everybody.  I think my favorite had Eric Clapton sitting by a hotel swimming pool with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

A most enjoyable evening.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

On the Coffee Table: John le Carré

Title: Call for the Dead
Author: John le Carré
via Amazon
Call for the Dead was John le Carré's first novel and the world's introduction to his best-known character, George Smiley.  Smiley is no James Bond.  He's late middle-aged, short, stout and cuckolded by his beautiful society wife.  As we join his story, his days of international espionage are long behind him and his lack of talent for agency politics has taken its toll on his career.  The higher ups still trot him out from time to time for some dirty work, though, and that's how he stumbles into a mystery story.

Smiley had just run what he considered a routine security check on Samuel Fennon when the man turned up dead, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  Smiley is initially baffled as Fennon had essentially come out clean.  Probing into the past - Fennon's, Fennon's wife's and also his own, Smiley discovers a story more complicated than he initially assumed.

My previous exposure to Smiley was only on screen: Alec Guinness in the BBC's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People and Gary Oldman in the feature film version of TTSS.  It's Guinness's face (without the Kenobi beard) I imagined throughout the book.  I like the character a great deal, though his development is a bit herky jerky, the background essentials laid out matter-of-factly in the first chapter.  Other details emerge more slowly as the story requires, the pattern I would have preferred from the beginning.

Overall, the story has a more earthy feel than Bond.  John le Carré draws from his own career in British intelligence for his work, bringing a strong sense of realism.  I thoroughly enjoyed the story despite figuring out the answer to the mystery before George did.  I am definitely up for more.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Liar's Poker

Title: Liar's Poker
Author: Michael Lewis
via Amazon
Michael Lewis is that unusual author who has managed to become a star across two genres, in his case business and sports.  So far, three of his books - The Blind Side, Moneyball and The Big Short - have been made into successful films.  Liar's Poker was his debut, a memoir of his own time on the trade floors of Salomon Brothers in the mid-'80s.

High finance was a suddenly glamorous world in the '80s, portrayed most prominently in popular culture through Oliver Stone's film Wall Street and Tom Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, both released in 1987.  Lewis was one of many seeking Wall Street jobs in record numbers.  Salomon Brothers was seen as the best of the best and Lewis fell into his own gig with them essentially through dumb luck.

My own impression of that world is shaped by my experiences temping in New York in the late '90s/early aughts.  Liar's Poker confirms all of my suspicions that traders are vile, ruthless, reptilian life forms devoid of scruples. (Apologies to any of you who are traders or have loved ones in the biz and to any of you with a fondness for reptiles.)  No matter the topic, Lewis is an expert at drawing vivid, memorable characters, even if they're not especially likeable.  To his credit, he doesn't even paint himself as a particularly commendable person, though he does occasionally express regret at screwing over a customer.

As might be expected of an earlier work, Liar's Poker is not as good as The Big Short, though in providing some early history of the mortgage bond market, it does make for an interesting prequel.  Liar's Poker is funny, just not as funny.  I still can't say I understand any better how the markets work but the fly on the wall perspective is entertaining nonetheless.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Clone Wars: Eminence

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "Eminence"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 14
Original Air Date: January 18, 2013
via Wookieepedia
We don't have too many episodes to go at this point.  There are only six more for Season 5, then the 13 "Lost Missions" episodes.  As we're fairly well along in the broader story, a lot of narrative threads are converging.  My reactions to an individual episode or arc are subject to my feelings about those individual threads.

"Eminence" brings us back to the Savage Opress/Darth Maul story we last visited in "Revival."  For anyone following my episode order, the Netflix order, that was several weeks ago.  For anyone following Andrew's, the DVD order, it was just last week.   I have mixed feelings about the arc.  On the one hand, I like Savage and pretty much all of his background tale.  On the other hand, I am not so keen on the reemergence of Darth Maul.  On yet another hand (or a foot?), "Eminence" brings us back to the Mandalore/Death Watch struggle which I enjoy. 

When we last saw Savage and Maul, they had just gotten away from an encounter with Obi-Wan Kenobi.  This week, we find them adrift and alone in space, but suddenly rescued by Death Watch soldiers, led by our old friends Pre Vizsla and Bo-Katan Kryze.  The two parties form an unlikely alliance, the brothers supplying Sith muscle, Death Watch providing numbers, equipment and supplies.  Neither side is playing straight, though.  We take a nice stroll through Star Wars's underworld, too, as the new partners work to broaden their sphere of influence.
via Wookieepedia
Along the way, the new team of baddies call on the Hutt family.  Among the Grand Hutt Council is Oruba, for whom the meeting goes especially poorly.  "Eminence" is Oruba's third Clone Wars appearance.  He is voiced by Corey Burton.

Next week: "Shades of Reason."

Friday, May 5, 2017

Squid Eats: Michael's on the Hill

via Vermont Restaurant Week
For my recent birthday, we went to Michael's on the Hill for dinner.  Located in Waterbury Center, Michael's is one of the most highly regarded high-end restaurants in Vermont.  It's just barely south of Stowe, a ski resort town. 

The meal was nice.  Unlike another recent adventure (see here), the service was expertly provided by our waitress, sporting a ski goggle tan.  The food was good.  We shared a paté plate and I had the double pork chop for the main course.   It was a pleasant evening.  But here's the big question: was it worth the price?

I don't mean this as a knock against Michael's in particular.  The prices are printed on the menu.  No one is being duped.  Mine is more a question of whether fine dining in general is worth the cost.  I thoroughly enjoyed my meal but was it truly several times better than a kimchi taco at Mad Taco (see here).  My pork was good but I don't salivate thinking about it the way I do those kimchi tacos.  The visceral reaction is certainly reflective of something.

There is one course, though, where fine dining nearly always comes through: dessert!  I had the Cordillera Fair Trade Chocolate Truffle Torte with Mint Julep Sorbet and Preserved Raspberry Sauce.  The sorbet alone was one of the most amazing things I've ever tasted.

With fine dining, you're paying for an overall experience.  The food is the vital component but the quality of service and the general atmosphere are important, too.  I have had meals in my life when I walked away feeling light-headed and tingly - a different sort of visceral response, I suppose.  Michael's on the Hill didn't quite attain that standard for me, but it was good.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Clone Wars: Point of No Return

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "Point of No Return"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 13
Original Air Date: January 11, 2013
via Wookieepedia
After escaping from the planet Abafar, D-Squad catches up with what they assume is a Republic Star Destroyer.  Naturally, all is not as it seems.  The vessel has been stolen by Confederacy droids and loaded with explosives.  Their target is a Republic Strategy Conference. 

Our friends soon discover a small group of surviving Republic droids aboard the ship, led by Bunny, a rabbit droid.  Now all struggle together to foil the Confederacy's evil plan and get themselves safely off the ship before it detonates.  With this episode, the four-part D-Squad story arc finally comes to a merciful end. 
via Wookieepedia
Bunny is the nickname of BNI-393, a feminine LEP servant droid.  "Point of No Return" marks her only Clone Wars appearance.  She is voiced by Catherine Taber.

Next week: "Eminence."