Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: May 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, May 25th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

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

Friday, April 27, 2018

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: April 2018

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: Zoo Station
Author: David Downing
Zoo Station is the first in a series starring John Russell, an English journalist living in Berlin.  We join his story in the late 1930s.  Hitler's hold over central Europe is already increasing and only the most optimistic doubt that war is looming.  While most ex-pats are trying to find a way out, Russell is reluctant to leave his eleven-year-old son, who lives with his German ex-wife.  Meanwhile, the intelligence services of three different nations are working to recruit him to their cause.

Zoo Station is unusual as a spy narrative goes.  First, Russell is an agent rather than an operative.  Le Carre's George Smiley is an operative, in the direct employ of the British Secret Service.  It is Smiley's job to recruit agents, those who would provide him with sensitive information.  Russell is an appealing agent for the British, Russian and German operatives because of his job, his bilingualism and his ability to travel freely.

Downing's research is meticulous, providing a vivid portrait of prewar Berlin.  In fact, all of the book's settings are richly detailed: Krakow, Prague, Kiel, London, Sachsenhausen concentration camp, etc.  The author also effectively paints the mounting tensions inherent in life under Nazism, especially among the Jews, homosexuals and developmentally disabled.  Russell's compassion for the oppressed is strong but sorting out his own place in the mess is an understandable challenge.  Overall, the story's human elements are all strong.

The cloak and dagger tale is rather lacking in elegance, though I like the fact that tension rises at seemingly mundane moments, like waiting in a car at a train station or in the customs line at a border.  Part of le Carre's genius is conveying the soul-breaking tedium that predominates intelligence work.  Russell's adventure moves a little too quickly to be believable.  That said, I'm definitely up for 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 May's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is May 25th.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Squid Mixes: Dry Manhattan

A Dry Manhattan is so called because it substitutes dry vermouth for sweet.  I prefer the classic but the dry is perfectly nice.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.

Friday, April 20, 2018

A Window Above: Who Are You

Song: "Who Are You"
Writer: Pete Townshend
Band: The Who
Original Release: July 14, 1978

The Concert for New York City at Madison Square Garden was organized by Paul McCartney a month after the 9/11 attacks to honor the city's valiant first responders.  The evening's lineup was impressive: McCartney himself, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Billy Joel, Destiny's Child, Melissa Etheridge and on and on.   Obviously, with so much talent on stage for such an emotionally charged event, expectations were high.  And yet, for most of the concert, the energy seemed off, at least from our seats on the couch at home.  Jon Bon Jovi and the Backstreet Boys mugged on stage with police caps from the audience.  Politicians were booed.  The performances were good, but not great, perhaps everyone a little too impressed with themselves - just showing up and being sad was enough.  Prepped for catharsis, I was feeling let down.

Then the Who came on and played their guts out.

They played the songs they knew everyone wanted to hear and they played like they meant it.  The energy in the room exploded.  You could hear Daltrey and Townshend straining to be heard and they looked like they were willing to bleed if they had to.  Suddenly, it all made sense.  These emotionally exhausted firefighters and policemen didn't want pity.  They didn't want pandering.  They didn't want cute.  They didn't want a hug.  Instead, they wanted to celebrate what was worth living for and, yes, maybe dying for.  Sometimes, the kids just wanna rock.  The Who understood all of that and embraced their role in the moment.  That is why they triumphed where everyone else fell short.

The video below includes the entire set.  It's well worth your time.  I learned later that the NYPD has long felt a kinship with The Who because of the line about the policeman in "Who Are You" so the fact that they opened with it was meaningful in itself.  The moment at the end of the song when the flag behind the stage turned from Union Jack to Stars and Stripes was powerful and sincere.   

But wait, there's more.  First, the sad part: the concert was bassist John Entwistle's last US performance.  He died of a heart attack eight months later.

Seven years after the show, the band received Kennedy Center Honors.  New York's Finest had a little surprise for them:

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Squid Mixes: Perfect Manhattan

Fortunately, the snow has melted since the photo above was taken, on March 15th. 

A Perfect Manhattan combines rye whiskey with equal parts dry and sweet vermouth.  It is so called because of the equal portions of the two kinds of vermouth.  The drink was nice and it was certainly good to get back to whiskey drinks and the Manhattan family.  I do prefer bitters to the dry vermouth but it was a pleasant variation.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.

Friday, April 13, 2018

A Window Above: You Send Me

Song: "You Send Me"
Writer: Sam Cooke
Original Release: October 7, 1957

I have discovered a drawback of listening to classical music radio all the time.  I realized the problem one night during holiday season when VPR Classical played a gospel song performed by Mahalia Jackson.  Western art music, as "classical" is more accurately termed, is awfully white.  African-American influence is severely lacking.  Oh sure, there are composers who have worked to incorporate it: Gershwin, Debussy and Dvorak prominent among them.  But most of the stylistic thrust comes from Europe.

Without a doubt, the single greatest cultural force in the musical world over the past century-plus has been African-America: blues, jazz, rock and hip-hop all have their roots in that tradition.  Throw in Afro-Caribbean styles like reggae and calypso and there's no question of Africa's dominant influence for several generations running.  Listen to nearly any other radio station and the African strains are obvious.  Even country music has benefited.  Classical music is certainly not without a "soul" of its own but it still lacks that certain something.  Occasionally, one thirsts for a blues scale or a spot of syncopation.  Fusion won't cut it.  Only the real thing will do.

For me, no music is more spiritually nourishing than soul music, the older the better.  Sam Cooke is as good as it gets.  Cooke is credited by many with inventing soul but of course, that is oversimplifying history.  He came up in gospel, becoming lead singer of the Soul Stirrers in 1950 at the tender age of nineteen.  His vocal talents were obvious but it was his good looks that drew young female admirers to the group's performances.  His crossover to secular material, a genuinely crucial moment in the history of soul music, came in 1956 with the song "Loveable," a rewriting of the gospel song "Wonderful."  As both singer and songwriter, Cooke established himself as a force in the music industry, ultimately signing with RCA in 1963.

Alas, the extraordinary success ended soon after.  The events surrounding his death in 1964, ultimately ruled a justifiable homicide, have been called into question by Cooke's family and supporters in the years since.  Whatever the truth may be, the details suggest that he may not have been the world's nicest person.  His musical contributions, though, are undeniable.

"You Send Me" was Cooke's first and amazingly only #1 hit on the Billboard charts.  "Summertime" was the B-side of the single.  The song is a lock for nearly any all-time greats list and has been covered by numerous artists, including Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Kazu Kibuishi

Title: Amulet, Book Two: The Stonekeeper's Curse
Writer and Artist: Kazu Kibuishi
I guess I have been rather lax with this series.  I read Book One: The Stonekeeper over three years ago (see review here).  As Book Two begins, Emily and her younger brother Navin and their robot crew (reminiscent of the enchanted servants in Disney's Beauty and the Beast) are in the underground city of Kanalis to find a cure for their ailing mother.  All of the town's residents are humanoid animals, apparently victims of a curse (again, reminds one of B&B).  Meanwhile, the elves - the baddies in this tale - are after Emily, who fortunately has gained a new protector: Leon Redbeard, currently in fox/humanoid form.

I'll admit that I had to remind myself about the story details after three years off.  Even so, I'm impressed by the material, especially the breathtaking artwork.  There's a lot to like, even if some of the narrative elements feel derivative.  There's the B&B stuff mentioned above.  Also talking trees a la Wizard of Oz.  For Star Wars fans, there's a much discussed life force, a prominent temptation of power theme, satisfying duels and, of course, daddy issues. 

Of course, we'll see if I remember all of this by the time I get to Book Three in 2021.  Thank goodness for online synopses!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Squid Cooks: Chicken Cutlets with Quick Pan Sauce

I learned good lessons from last week's dish, pork stir-fry with greens (read here).  I got all of my ingredients ready this time and put them close to hand before I started cooking.  All went smoothly.  I successfully dredged.  I successfully deglazed and reduced.  I almost felt like a real cook!

The resulting dish - recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: The Basics - was less than dazzling, though the chicken was pleasantly moist.  But it was a good skill builder and that's what I need. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Mary Roach

Title: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
Author: Mary Roach
This book is my second experience with the work of Mary Roach (see previous post here).  While Bonk explores sex, Gulp follows the human digestion process from input to output.  I will admit to apprehension as I approached this book.  My wife warned me it was gross.  As she put it, "Don't go thinking it will get easier in the next chapter, because it won't!"

That said, it wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting.  I am a wimp with gross, too, so I don't say that lightly.  There were definitely some chapters that were tough.  For instance, I now know more about constipation than I could possibly have wanted.  But for the most part, Gulp is both enlightening and entertaining.  Roach is nothing if not funny.

I have no quarrel with Roach over her unusual book topics.  I applaud her thorough and fearless research.  However, I am occasionally put off by the self-aware voice in her writing, not unlike that of French author Laurent Binet (see here).  For the most part, I enjoy your style, Ms. Roach.  But I can't say I care that you think Palatine Uvula would make a great pen name for a romance author.

Friday, April 6, 2018

A Window Above: Waitin' for the Light to Shine

Song: "Waitin' for the Light to Shine"
Composer and Lyricist: Roger Miller
Musical: Big River
Premier: February 1984, Cambridge, Massachusetts

I adore Huck Finn.   I am a sucker for nearly any interpretation of or allusion to Mark Twain's great American odyssey.  So, I was always going to love Big River.

Nearly every summer growing up, I would go to Cleveland for a week on my own to stay with my grandmother.  In 1987, when I was 14, she got us tickets to the touring show Big River, knowing my affection for the source material: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  We were both blown away, especially by the booming voice of the actor who played Jim, Michael Edward-Stevens.  No, I didn't actually remember the name but thanks to the modern miracle of the Internet, I know it now.  I also now know that Cleveland was the first stop on the tour.

Big River was released in the mid-'80s, the same era that spawned Cats, Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera, probably the last household name musicals on Broadway until Hamilton came along.  Big River was a modest success in comparison, though it still dominated the Tonys for its year.  A 2003 revival led by a deaf and hearing-impaired cast was also a big hit.  It's a shame more people don't know the show because it's loads of fun.  The music is inspired by the country, bluegrass and gospel of the twentieth century but it evokes the Mississippi River culture of an earlier time perfectly.  The characters, of course, are unforgettable.

We first hear "Waitin' for the Light to Shine" at the beginning of the tale, before Huck sets off down the river.

We get the reprise at the moral climax - one of the crucial moments in all of American literature - when he resolves to steal Jim out of slavery again, doing what we all know is right but still firmly against his own southern upbringing.

Many years later, I got to know the song again when I conducted a local middle school district festival.  The choral arrangement combines the initial song with the reprise perfectly.  I would direct the show in a heartbeat given the chance, though the demographics in our small town Vermont high school would have to change dramatically for that to be possible.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Squid Cooks: Pork Stir-Fry with Greens

As I wrote in this post, stif-fries are well within my comfort zone.  This recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: The Basics is a nice one.  I think I could do it better a second time, and it would simply be a matter of setting up my ingredients more sensibly as the timing is still quite intuitive.  One has to be more careful with pork than beef in terms of thorough cooking but in small enough pieces, it's still easy.  I think I probably let the garlic brown for too long and that would have been helped if the follow up ingredients had been closer at hand.

The sauce requires the juice of half a lime which was a little much, or should at least have been set off by more soy sauce.  Here, my dear friends, is exactly where my cocktail mixing experience should come in handy.  As discussed in my drink posts, citrus is potent flavoring, easily muscling out everything else, even salt as it turns out.

Overall, the dish was a success, even making good leftovers for the next day's lunch.