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: