Friday, June 30, 2017

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: June 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: Strong Poison
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
via Amazon
My wife is a huge mystery fan.  Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot: she loves them all.  In fact, I'm a little surprised that she hasn't chosen one for a book swap with me before this.  She is especially fond of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers and chose Strong Poison as the best choice for introducing me to that series.

Lord Peter is an English aristocrat, circa 1930, who solves mysteries basically because he's good at it and has nothing better to do.  He strikes me as a cross between Holmes and Bertie Wooster of the P.G. Wodehouse novels.  In fact, this book references both of those other works.  Fortunately, he is more grounded than Sherlock and far more useful than Bertie.

Strong Poison begins in a courtroom.  Harriet Vane, a successful mystery novelist, stands accused of murdering her lover.  Nearly everyone is convinced of her guilt but Peter is sure she didn't do it.  When a hung jury suspends the trial, Peter pledges his services to the accused.  To make things more interesting, he's in love with her, though as the story opens, he hasn't actually met her yet.

As far as the mystery itself goes, I figured most of it out fairly early.  The story's appeal, though, is more in the characters than the plot.  Peter's delightfully zany, if brilliant.  Harriet is understated, yet charming - a perfect complement.  Bunter is Jeeves to Wimsey's Wooster.  Police inspector Parker is the practical everyman, also in love with Peter's sister.

The most clever part of this series, though, is the "cattery."  Peter maintains a typing service - I suppose an early version of a temp agency - employing women to use as his own stable of spies.  If nothing else, I think it was a brilliant way for a woman of Sayers's era to involve more female characters in the dirty work of the narrative.  Miss Climpson, who runs the cattery on Peter's behalf, is an engaging personality in her own right and plays a particularly important role in putting the pieces together for the current case.

I'm definitely up for more of this series.  I am inclined to go back to the beginning.  Strong Poison was, in fact, the sixth of the series published by Sayers, though the first to introduce Harriet Vane.  Now I want to know the established principals better, especially Peter, so it's back to the origin story.  Our shelves are bursting with mystery novels so it's a genre that could keep me occupied for years to come.

For my half of the swap, I gave my wife my Coffeehouse book from last month: Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper (reflection here).  

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post July's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is July 28th.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Rick Riordan

Title: The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1)
Author: Rick Riordan
via Amazon
Our daughter loves mythology and is quite knowledgeable on the subject: Greek/Roman, of course, but also Hindu and more recently Norse.  As such, her discovery of and affection for the Percy Jackson series was practically inevitable.  Percy's world is a lot like Harry Potter's.  Percy's age is about the same as Harry's in the beginning.  He also doesn't know the secret of his extraordinary parentage - in his case, he is the son of a Greek god.  He has never fit in well in the "real world" but he discovers a place - a summer camp - where other kids like him gather and flourish.  Like Harry, Percy is a superstar upon arrival and doesn't entirely understand why.  Percy has two friends - one male, one female - who join him for all his perilous adventures.  Riordan's language is as American as Rowling's is British but the influence of the one on the other is unmistakable.

While derivative, the book is fun.  Percy gets to meet several of the gods, including his father - I won't spoil who that is but it's not difficult for the reader to figure out.  Even the series logo offers obvious clues.  The modernizing - not to mention Americanizing - of the concept is cleverly handled.  Riordan tries too hard with the kid-speak but overall, the pace of the storytelling is strong and suspense for details is well maintained.  The Purple Penguin has gone through all ten books - two five-book series - over the past year.  I don't know if I'll follow the story that far but I'm up for more.  It's not as good as HP or the Howl series but it's better than The House of Secrets.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Clone Wars: The Unknown

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 Unknown"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
The Lost Missions (Season Six), Episode 1
Original Air Date: February 15, 2014
via Wookieepedia
The Lost Missions kick off with a clone troopers story, pretty much always my favorite.   During a combat offensive, clone trooper Tup goes into a strange trance state and kills Jedi Master Tiplar.  Neither Tup himself nor anyone else seems to understand what has happened.  Dooku and Darth Sidious have an inkling.  When word gets back to them about the incident, they move quickly to get to Tup so they can find out what has gone wrong with his "programming."  We as the viewers know what this is really all about: Order 66, the operation carried out in Revenge of the Sith in which the clones simultaneously slaughter nearly all of the Jedi.  This is the first episode of a four-part arc.
via Wookieepedia
Tiplar was a Mikkian.  Her twin sister Tiplee, also a Jedi, was with Tiplar at the time of her death.  The design for the two characters originated with an unused concept for a female Sith Lord developed for Attack of the Clones.  Both of the twins were voiced by Anna Graves.

Next week: "Conspiracy."

Monday, June 26, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

Title: Thirst
Author: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
via Amazon
Dolatabadi is Iran's most revered living writer and one who has certainly earned his repressed artist street cred.  He was jailed by the Shah's regime for two years in the '70s simply for the fact that his books were always found in the homes of others arrested by the secret police.  Subversion was assumed.  Thirst, published in English in 2014, has never been published in the original Persian.

Thirst is an account of the Iran-Iraq War as told by two writers: one Iranian, one Iraqi.  There are three (or four? five?) story threads going on at once and the text weaves in, out and between them constantly and seamlessly.  At the heart of it all is one story about warring soldiers stalemated over a patch of earth, a water tank between them.  Neither side can approach the tank without being gunned down by the other: a perfect metaphor.  The political and historical messages are many.  Those in power control truth.  The Persian/Arab rivalry goes back well over a thousand years.  Soldiers are human.  War is absurd.

By design, the stories are difficult to follow.  As such, the overarching themes are emphasized over narrative details.  I sensed elements of other works: In the Labyrinth by Alaine Robbe-Grillet (review here) and All Quiet on the Western Front.  It's a good book with the playful, florid language I've come to expect from all Asian literature. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Squid Mixes: Italian Soda

Left to right: grapefruit, raspberry and almond
I had simple desires for Father's Day this year.  I wanted to watch a movie ("Ferris Beuller, you're my hero.").  I wanted to play games.  I wanted to go for a walk.  I wanted to mix drinks.

Round one was non-alcoholic, of course, so my daughter could enjoy it, too.  While we had some Torani syrups in the house, the supply was running low so a Saturday trip to the store was in order.  Unfortunately, that adventure was disappointing.  The Torani site's store locator sent me to Price Chopper.  I was hoping for the vast array one sees on a shelf behind the counter at a great coffeehouse:  lychee, blood orange, passion fruit, etc.  Unfortunately, PC's modest selection catered to more predictable tastes: vanilla, hazelnut, caramel and raspberry.  We have gotten more exciting flavors in the past, though always through mail order.  I guess that's what I'll need to do in the future.  We were low on raspberry so the trip wasn't a total loss.

Yes, I know I could make my own and I have in the past but that requires more effort than I was looking for on Father's Day.  Plus, the bottled variety is more shelf-stable.  That probably speaks to icky chemicals but I can live with it.

Italian soda is actually an American invention, first introduced in San Francisco in 1925.  I got my recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide.  They turned out well, though not quite as sweet as I would have liked.  Now, I seem to recall that when I've made them before, I have used 1.5 oz of syrup rather than the 1 in the recipe.  I'll have to remember that for next time.  Mind you, they still hit the spot in our recent sweltering heat.  Plus, they're pretty.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Clone Wars: Season Five

We have reached the end of Season Five in our exploration of The Clone Wars.   Episode posts resume next Tuesday with The Lost Missions.  But first, a quick reflection...

General Impressions

Season Four was so weak overall that it's been great to see the series rebound with interesting tales of consequence both for The Clone Wars and for the broader Star Wars saga.  Season Five belongs to Ahsoka Tano. The season's two best arcs - the Onderon civil war arc and the season's final stretch - both focus on the Padawan.  There are down turns here and there, including an unfortunate four-part droid story arc and the full-on return of Darth Maul.  In fairness, while I'm not a fan of Maul's resurrection in principle, his story arc is actually pretty good.

Favorite Episode: "The Wrong Jedi"
via Confessions of a Serial Wordsmith
You got your spoiler alert on Tuesday.  Now, it's fair game...

Ahsoka goes through a lot in Season Five.  First, she gets caught up in the civil war on Onderon where she comes perilously close to falling for Lux Bonteri.  More importantly, she gets a taste of the broader struggle on her own terms, away from Anakin and the Jedi Council.  In the season's final arc, she is exiled from the Order, then invited back when cleared of her alleged crimes.  Her decision to leave anyway is downright shocking, an axiom-challenging twist worthy of a franchise that once turned the villain into the hero's father.  As we have seen in the Star Wars story, anyone abandoning the Jedi Way is dangerous, if not galactically catastrophic.  And yet as the viewer, it's not difficult to see her choice as justified.  This isn't just the strongest episode of the season.  It's a strong challenger for best of the entire series.

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

I love the droids but I hate the droid stories.  What madness led those in charge to believe that a four-part arc led by the droids would be a good idea?  "A Sunny Day in the Void" is the worst of the four because it has the robots getting lost in a flat, empty desert - not even the elegant, rolling, Tunisian dunes we get on Tatooine.  This is Utah Salt Flats emptiness without the mountains in the background.  Just awful.

Favorite New Character: Gregor

Amazingly, the four-part droid arc was not a total loss.  In Part 3, "Missing in Action," we meet Gregor, a former clone trooper now working as a dishwasher in Pons Ora, a sketchy town on Abafar.  He has amnesia, having sustained a head wound in battle.  He remembers nothing of his soldier past.  Fortunately, he comes around in time to see that he has to help the droids and their leader, Colonel Meebur.


The Clone Wars series was pulled by Cartoon Network in March 2013.  However, the production team already had 13 Season Six episodes in the can.  These shows, dubbed The Lost Missions, were released first on German television in February 2014.  Netflix released the shows to American and Canadian audiences in March of the same year.  We're in the home stretch, folks.

Please visit my friend Andrew Leon today for his Season Five recap.  Next Tuesday: "The Unknown."

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Clone Wars: The Wrong Jedi

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 Wrong Jedi"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 20
Original Air Date: March 1, 2013
via Wookieepedia
What is the true moral position of the Jedi Order within the Star Wars universe?  For me, this is the question that lies at the heart of the best Clone Wars episodes and what, in fact, makes the series more interesting than the prequel movies themselves.  All of the movies are set upon an obvious Jedi vs. Sith conflict, with Jedi the unquestioned good guys, the Sith the unquestioned bad.  We know that Anakin ultimately abandons one for the other but that is due to his personal failings and Palpatine's manipulation.  We are never left to question whether the Jedi might, in some instances, actually be in the wrong.  In The Clone Wars, that's all on the table, nowhere more so than in the final episode of Season Five.

Ahsoka Tano stands accused of murder and treason.  We all know she's been framed but Anakin is the only Jedi who believes it.  Tarkin and the Senate want her to have a civilian trial so they demand Ahsoka be kicked out of the Jedi Order.


We really can't explore the story any further without spoiling.  Ahsoka is removed from the Order.  While Padme stands in as public defender for Ahsoka, Anakin tracks down Asajj Ventress, Ahsoka's accused accomplice, to learn the truth.  Asajj argues for her own innocence and implicates another: Barriss Offee, Ahsoka's confidant within the Order.  Anakin confronts Barriss.  They duel.  Barriss is brought before the court just at the moment of verdict and confesses all, her speech an impassioned accusation of the Jedi, blaming them, not the Separatists, for the war.  This is not the first time we've heard this asserition but it is the first time we've heard it from a Jedi.  Nonetheless, Ahsoka is vindicated.  Perry Mason couldn't have planned it any better.

But wait, there's more.  Here's where things really get interesting.  The Jedi Council apologizes to Ahsoka for doubting her and welcome her back to the Order.  Instead of rushing back to their welcoming embrace, she walks away.

She walks away!  Her faith in herself and her faith in the Jedi have been shaken.  While she is clearly sad to leave, she sees that her way lies along a different path.  Now, more than ever, it is becoming increasingly clear that The Clone Wars has been largely Ahsoka's story all along, not Anakin's.


Ian Abercrombie, the original voice of Palpatine in The Clone Wars, died on January 26, 2012 of kidney failure.  The episode "Lawless" was dedicated to his memory.  While some of his parts for future episodes, including one Lost Missions arc, had already been recorded, the series needed a new voice actor for the role.  In stepped master thespian, Tim Curry.
via Garfield Wiki
Timothy Curry was born April 19, 1946 in Grappenhall, Cheshire, England.  Curry attended boarding school at Kingswood School in Bath where he was a talented boy soprano.  At university in Birmingham he studied English and Drama.

The London stage beckoned.  Curry got his first full-time role in the London production of Hair but it was his second gig that set him on the path to international superstar.  Fair or not, Curry will always be best associated with his most famous role: Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  He performed the part in London and Los Angeles productions before landing the screen gig.  Frank doesn't merely steal the show in Rocky Horror, the world's greatest of all cult films.  He is the show.

His stage and screen credits since are numerous.  Movies include Annie, Clue and Legend.  He has done extensive voice work, too, with roles in Fern Gully, Peter Pan & The Pirates, for which he won a Daytime Emmy as Captain Hook, and The Wild Thornberrys.  Between 1978 and 1981, he also recorded three albums with A&M.  His single "I Do the Rock", co-written with Michael Kamen, even reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  I'll let you judge for yourself...

Next week: "The Unknown." This Thursday, we'll be recapping Season Five.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Squid Eats: The Kitchen Table Bistro

via Kitchen Table Bistro

My parents were in town this past weekend for our daughter's clarinet and piano recitals.  As discussed last week, our favorite post-recital restaurant has closed up shop so we're in search of a new spot.  We have been to The Kitchen Table Bistro in Richmond before.  My wife and I have gone for our wedding anniversary several times and years ago, her employer had a Christmas party there.  This was, however, our first time bringing my parents.

Service was a bit slow, though otherwise professional and friendly.  The food is always good.  Unfortunately, I wasn't in the best shape to enjoy it as I had gorged on snacks at the piano recital.  Even so, I enjoyed what I had.

My wife and I started with oysters on the half shell.  I love oysters - there's something borderline naughty about them, they're so sexy.  For the entree, she and I split the mustard crusted day roasted pork shoulder, actually surprisingly delicate for pork.  It fell apart easily with just a fork, knife barely required.  So full, I wasn't even up for much dessert, though I snuck a couple bites of wife and daughter's lemon poundcake with strawberries and rhubarb ice cream.  Our daughter, a rhubarb fan, was particularly excited for the ice cream, though my mother was disappointed by it.

Overall, my parents seemed impressed.  I think we may have found a reasonable replacement for Sonoma Station.

Oh, and the recitals went very well.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Clone Wars: To Catch a Jedi

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: "To Catch a Jedi"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 19
Original Air Date: February 22, 2013
via Wookieepedia
Ahsoka is on the run.  She is suspected of murdering a prisoner, then killing several clone troopers on her way out.  We all know she's innocent and that someone is setting her up.  The viewing audience gets a pretty clear sense of who that "someone" is but the Padawan doesn't quite see it yet.  On the streets of Coruscant, Ahsoka finds a surprising ally in Asajj Ventress, herself an exile from the other side of the war.

There's one more episode to go in this four-part arc.  Homages to The Fugitive and Hitchcock continue.  There's a chase scene through a subway train that's highly reminiscent of the Harrison Ford classic.  All of the episodes in the arc, including this one, are named for Hitch films.
via Wookieepedia
During her wanderings in the underworld, Ahsoka encounters Spots Podal, a vagrant Gotal.  She trades food with him for his cloak.  This episode marks his first and only appearance in the series.  He is unnamed in the episode but was given a name in the Star Wars site's online trivia gallery.  He is voiced by Dave Filoni.

Next week: "The Wrong Jedi."

Monday, June 12, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Storybook Love

Title: Fables, Vol. 3: Storybook Love
Writer: Bill Willingham
Artist: Mark Buckingham
via Amazon
In the excellent Fables comic book series, fairy tale characters live among us in secret within their own New York City enclave, Fabletown.  This third collection includes issues #11-18. The Storybook Love arc itself only takes up four of those issues, #14-17.  It's a great story with significant character and relationship development, particularly between the series's two leads: Bigby (Big Bad Wolf) and Snow White.  It also ends with a great cliffhanger.

Issue #11, "Bag o' Bones," tells the adventures of Jack (he of the beanstalk) during the American Civil War.  The story gives a sense of how long the Fables have been in our world.  It also made me grateful for the time I have spent with the source material since I last visited this series.  The tale is straight out of Grimm: Jack wins a magic bag in a card game, then uses it to cheat Death.  Disastrous consequences follow.

Issues #12 and 13 are a two-part arc in which the Fables must cover their tracks when a nosy reporter gets way too close to their secret.  Just as the Potterverse wizards must hide their true nature from Muggles, so must the Fables preserve the ignorance of the Mundies.  The Fables, though, are inclined towards darker, more violent tactics to achieve their ends. 

#18 is a Lilliputian story.  Jonathan Swift's minifolk play a meaningful role in the Storybook Love arc so it's only appropriate they should get their own tale.  "Barleycorn Brides" tells of how the Lilliputians, initially all male, managed to find female mates.

I continue to be impressed by the series and curious about the source material.  I'm definitely up for more.  Next up, Volume 4: The March of the Wooden Soldiers.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Squid Eats: Toscano Cafe Bistro

For years now, we have had a family tradition.  After our daughter's end-of-the-year dance recital, we would go to Sonoma Station for dinner (previously discussed here).  It was my parents' favorite restaurant in Vermont, too, so as they were usually in town for the recital they were only too happy to go.  Alas, Sonoma Station closed its doors last month. 

Our lives are changing in other ways.  For a few years now, the girl's interests have slowly been moving away from dance and towards music.  She plays three instruments: piano, clarinet and bass clarinet.  Now 13, she's gotten pretty good at all of them, particularly the piano.  She's taken lessons for five years and left me in the dust ages ago.  Admittedly, I was a late bloomer in music but her comfort, knowledge, sensitivity and passion already exceed anything I experienced before college.  It's a joy to watch.  In part because of this shift in interests, in part because dance weekend is crazy enough without having to worry about out of town guests, we invited my parents to come for music recital weekend instead this year. 

With all of these changes, it is certainly a good time to forge new traditions.  We asked the Purple Penguin if she had any requests for her post-recital dinner this year.  She told us to surprise her.  Challenge accepted!  She loves Italian, so...

We had never been to Toscano Cafe Bistro in Richmond before.  We certainly know the neighborhood.  Sonoma Station was just down the road and Bridge Street Cafe (read more here), another now defunct family favorite, was across the street.  Downtown Richmond was also our trick-or-treat area of choice for a long time. 

We started with mussels (if they're on the menu, we're getting them) and deconstructed bruschetta.  I had pork tenderloin as an entree.  My wife and I shared a peach cobbler for dessert.  The food was all good as was the service.  It was noisy, so not the best place for intimate conversation and probably not a reasonable Sonoma replacement for my parents.  Prices are on the high side but they reflect high quality. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Clone Wars: The Jedi Who Knew Too Much

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 Jedi Who Knew Too Much"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 18
Original Air Date: February 15, 2013
via Wookieepedia
This week's episode is the second in a four-part arc that finishes Season Five.  Last week, Letta Turmond, wife of civilian technician Jackar Bowmani, was exposed as the saboteur behind the bombing of the Jedi Temple.  Now in custody, she asks to speak to Ahsoka.  While our favorite Padawan is visiting the prisoner, Letta is killed by what appears to be a Force choking.  Since Ahsoka was the only one in the room with her, she becomes the obvious suspect.  But Ahsoka didn't do it.  But no one believes her.  Well, Anakin does.  Ahsoka is on the run and Anakin leads the chase to find her, leading to a Fugitive homage scene.

When I bring up The Clone Wars with my students who know it, this is the story that comes up.  For all of the many narrative threads followed in the series, this Ahsoka Gone Rogue tale is the one people seem to remember best.

"The Jedi Who Knew Too Much" is directed by Danny Keller.  He was primarily a storyboard and previsualization artist for The Clone Wars.  This is the seventh and last episode he directed.  He also did character animation work for Meet the Robinsons, Garfield: The Movie and The Matrix Reloaded among others.

Next week: "To Catch a Jedi."

Friday, June 2, 2017

Squid Mixes: Pimm's Cup

Pimm's cup is a very English drink.  It is one of two traditional drinks at Wimbledon and many other high profile British events, the other being champagne.  Its base is Pimm's No. 1, a liqueur invented by one James Pimm in 1823 London.  The cocktail could hardly be simpler: 1.5 oz of the liqueur over ice, top off with lemon-lime soda or, the preference at our house, ginger ale.  Garnish with lemon.  There are more complicated recipes in bar books, usually including additional garnishing with cucumber and mint, but the basic formula on the back of the bottle suits us just fine.  The liqueur itself brings a spicy, fruity flavor to the party - evokes cinnamon for me.

American Bar by Charles Schumann includes three Pimm's recipes.  They list our drink, with ginger ale, as Pimm's Rangoon.  Pimm's No. 1 is mixed with lemon-lime soda, Pimm's Royal with champagne.  My wife just bought a new bottle of the liqueur so we may well have the chance to try all three.