Wednesday, January 30, 2019

On the Coffee Table: William Shakespeare

Title: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Author: William Shakespeare
It's Hamlet, arguably the most important literary work in the English language.  It's been in print and in performance for four centuries plus.  Do we really need a plot synopsis?  Surely, you read it in high school or you've watched one of the numerous film adaptations or even been lucky enough to see it on stage, right?  No?  Well, alright...

A ghost appears at Castle Elsinor.  Denmark's most recently deceased king has returned as specter to tell his son, college boy Hamlet, the true tale of his passing.  He was murdered by his own brother!  The brother, Claudius, then married Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and claimed the throne.  Hamlet was already put off by Mom's too-quick wedding - less so by his own political usurping, interestingly - so this new info only fuels his angst.  He considers murder.  He considers suicide.  He decides on feigning madness in order to mess with everyone (typical teenager...), then schemes with a theatre troupe to trick Claudius into confessing.  Gertrude tries to talk some sense into him but, still enraged, Hamlet "mistakenly" kills Polonius, Claudius's top advisor.  The killing wasn't the mistake.  The target was.  In an effort to cover his own crimes, Claudius ships his nephew off to England with instructions to behead him.  It doesn't work out.  Hamlet returns and now also has to confront Polonius's understandably angry son, Laertes.  Everyone is also upset because Ophelia, Hamlet's "girlfriend" and Laertes's sister, has killed herself.  Hamlet and Laertes duel and everyone in the room dies - only a slight exaggeration.  Rufus Sewell... er, Fortinbras, King of Norway... arrives upon the final, gory scene and restores order.

Oh, so you do know the story.

I don't really mean to be so irreverent.  In my opinion, plot isn't The Bard's strength.  Romeo and Juliet?  Two stupid teenagers fall in love and are dead by their own hands two weeks later.  Macbeth?  Just kidding.  I adore that one.  Hamlet?  The character has been portrayed as both wimp and goon over the centuries but seriously, in the final analysis, the guy is such an asshole!  Poor Ophelia.  If her suicide is over heartbreak, what a waste.

I guess I do mean to be irreverent.

But yes, obviously, the play is amazing, entirely deserving of its stature in world culture.  What is The Bard's genius?  Ask a thespian and s/he will speak of the rich, dynamic characters and the performance instruction subtly embedded throughout.  Ask a literature professor and s/he will speak of the life-altering language.  One can hardly read Hamlet without noting the lines that will live on in reference forever: "Good night, sweet prince," "What dreams may come," "to thine own self be true," etc.  The correct answer is both, of course, and undoubtedly more. 

I hadn't read Hamlet since high school, myself.  Since then, I've seen both the Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh films.  I've seen The Lion King as well as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the latter on both stage and screen.  Hamlet is everywhere if you're looking and, again, deservedly so.  However, I've never seen the play performed live on stage.  I would like to, naturally.  Reading Shakespeare silently on the couch doesn't quite get to the heart of the matter.  At the very least, his work should be read aloud.  We're not that family - yet.

One final note, only a slight tangent, in case you have any doubt of my deep love for Shakespeare.  We recently watched Shakespeare in Love for family movie night, our daughter's choice and her first time seeing it.  For my wife and I, though, it holds a special place in our history.  We went to see it on our first date 20 years ago.  In the years since, much has been made of the controversy over that film winning the the Best Picture Oscar over Saving Private Ryan.  Apparently, Harvey Weinstein worked his sleazy magic in staging that coup. 

Overall, I would mostly agree with those who say Ryan should have won.  It is an unforgettable and undeniably powerful movie.  Its champions rightly point to the hyper-realistic opening 20-minute rendering of the D-Day invasion as one of the greatest film segments in cinematic history.  However, I assert that Shakespeare in Love contains a segment of comparable, if qualitatively different, magnitude.  Hugh Fennyman (played by Tom Wilkinson), Shakespeare's financial backer, is witness to the very first rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet's famous balcony scene.  The look of astonishment and wonder on Fennyman's face is every bit as potent as the hellfire on the beach of Normandy.  The horror of the one doesn't exceed the magic of the other.  The overwhelming death in the one is not inherently more relevant than the celebration of life in the other.  War is not greater than art.  Ryan may still be the better movie - and I think it is - but the D-Day scene is not the reason why.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Squid Cooks: Sausage and Peppers

Another recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: The Basics and an easy one.  The rolls my wife bought were enormous, a good 10.5 inches long - cut in half, still easily long enough for two sausages.  The only real "work" was chopping and waiting for everything to cook. 

Monday, January 28, 2019

On the Coffee Table: Julia Child

Title: My Life in France
Author: Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme

Julia Child is a hero at our house and frankly, she should be at yours, too.

My wife has been the primary cook in her family since she was 14 and food is her lifelong art and passion.  Using the word "foodie" to describe her always feels trite.  Her love runs much deeper than a hobbyist's enthusiasm.  The only reason I know anything substantive about food and drink myself is that I have lived with her for the past 20 years.  When we went to the Julia Child exhibit at the Smithsonian some years ago, there were honest tears.  No one in our culture did more to bring Old Country reverence for food into the American home than Julia Child.  It's not close.  One of a kind.

Julia Child's memoir My Life in France was half of the basis for the 2009 film Julie and Julia so anyone who has seen it is already familiar with the basics.  Julia and her husband Paul Child moved to France in 1948.  Paul served as exhibits officer at the US Embassy in Paris.  In need of her own interests to pursue, Julia went to cooking school.  Studying led to teaching which led to an ambitious and unprecedented cookbook project: translating French traditional cooking to the needs and capacities of the American home kitchen.  The book led to the public television show which made her a national household name.

The Childs loved France.  Their adventures took them to other, less exciting (for them) spots - DC, Boston, Bonn, Oslo - but love always brought them back to France.  After Paris, Paul had a posting in Marseilles, then later they built a house in Provence.  The story of their marriage is an inspiring one of mutual support and admiration and their time in France always seemed to bring out the best in them.

As one might expect, the atmosphere of the book is light, fresh and humorous.  It's easy to understand why people enjoyed being around Julia so much. However, Julia is not shy about sharing the lonelier side of diplomatic life - relevant to my own family history.  Interestingly, Paul Child worked for the same agency my father did, though earlier and in a different part of the world.  My dad's postings were in Asia.  The rich and fulfilling expat life Julia Child describes in Paris is not unlike what my parents share about their time in Tokyo.  But the times of loneliness are also part of both stories.  Not every post is glamorous.  I have often asked my parents why they left the foreign service and the emotional stress on the entire family of moving all the time is always part of the discussion.

While Julia Child's television appeal is largely due to an exuberant, larger-than-life personality, her overall success was about commitment.  The woman worked her ass off.  She had help from collaborators along the way - her co-authors, her husband, a good editor - but none of it would have happened without her own boundless energy.  Julia Child is often touted as a late-middle-age success story. The first book was published when she was 49.  But the lesson is clear: be ready to work hard!

Friday, January 25, 2019

A Window Above: Help!

Song: "Help!"
Writers: John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Original Release: July 19, 1965
Band: The Beatles

The Beatles story is one of a meteoric rise to unprecedented teen idol fame followed by a gradual transformation into something far more meaningful and enduring.  It's astonishing to ponder the fact that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" were spawned by the same four young men, just three years apart.  1965 was their cusp year when they shifted from straight up rock 'n' roll to world-changing art rock.  Interestingly, many of the best songs from their entire opus emerged during this time: "Yesterday," "In My Life," "Norwegian Wood," "We Can Work It Out," etc.  The first signs of teeter-totter over that edge could be seen in the lead single from their second feature film.

It's hard to call "Help!" under-appreciated.  Rolling Stone ranked it as the 29th greatest rock song ever in 2011.  Only six Beatles songs ranked above it, plus John Lennon's "Imagine."  (That's right: eight of the 30 best ever were penned by Beatles.  Not exactly surprising but certainly impressive.)  But it's still not usually a song that comes up when people discuss the band's masterpieces.  To me, there are few if any more perfect pop songs in existence: a beautiful melange of the frenetic energy of the early '60s with the Dylan-esque mellow of the decade's latter half.  Have you ever heard the Beatles' Love album, a wonderful collection of remixes created for Cirque de Soleil?  Did you notice that "Help!" is the one song that's virtually untouched?  They may have messed with some of the levels but there's little doctoring compared to the other tracks.  Why?  They got that one right the first time.

Lennon described "Help!" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" as his two most honest Beatles songs.  His one regret with the former was the tempo.  He envisioned it as a slower song.  The studio executives wanted it faster.  Far be it from me to question the master but I think the marketing types were right in this case.

As with nearly all Beatles songs, there have been numerous covers by top acts.  Many seem to think Lennon was right as they have generally employed slower tempos.

Roy Orbison - If you only have time for one of these, don't miss this. It's lovely:

Deep Purple:

Tina Turner:

Back up to tempo... Bananarama:

Vitamin String Quartet:

Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?

Enjoy: A Window Above

What are you listening to these days?

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Squid Cooks: Roasted Chicken Cutlets

Not much to this one, another recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: The Basics.  I guess the new skill developed here is the breaded crust.  Easy enough.  One suggested variation I might try sometime: using miso instead of egg as the glue for the bread crumbs.  More seasoning might be nice.  Bittman suggests the typical herbs: tarragon, oregano, rosemary, cilantro or mint in place of the parsley in the basic recipe.  I'm thinking something with a bit of heat would be nice: paprika or old bay, perhaps.

Friday, January 18, 2019

A Window Above: T-Shirts

Song: "T-Shirts"
Writer and Performer: James Smith
Original Release: July 20, 2018

James Smith, now all of 19 years old, made his breakthrough on Britain's Got Talent four series (seasons) ago.  "T-Shirts" was another Spotify find for me.  The far superior acoustic version above was released in August.  The kid can play.  I love the "Blackbird" guitar riffs heard throughout.  Clever.

Below is the original, also quite good:

Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?

Enjoy: A Window Above

What are you listening to these days?

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Squid Mixes: Cinderella

As noted in my State of the Blog 2018 post, mixing mocktails is one of my major goals in the drinks hobby.  During our Europe last summer, our daughter found many delicious beverages, especially in Paris.  It seemed only logical to learn to make them myself.  Christmas brought with it not one, not two but three recipe books to explore.

My Cinderella recipe came from Mocktails: The Complete Bartender's Guide by Kester Thompson: orange juice, pineapple juice, lemon juice, grenadine and soda water or ginger ale with orange and pineapple garnish.  It's our house so obviously, we picked ginger ale.  All three of the books emphasize the importance of fresh juice.  In truth, so do most books for alcoholic cocktails.  Of course, therein lies most of work.

The resulting beverage was, frankly, fantastic.  There's enough sour from the lemon to keep the sweet from overpowering.  Is it worth the work, though?  We have a wonderful lemon squeezer so that's easy.  There's a lot of knife work with the pineapple but then the blender does the hard part.  The labor is in the oranges.  They're too big for the squeezer so I've got to do those by hand.  I needed six in total.  In answer to the question, it is a lot of work for one drink but not bad for three.  A pitcher for a party would be manageable.  Maybe I just need to sort out the orange issue.

A note for the curious: one pineapple yielded about 14 ounces of juice.

I will concede the fresh juice in itself is worth the effort.  Could one make the drink with store bought juices from concentrate?  In a pinch, sure.  But it's the difference between a drink that is good and one that is potentially amazing.  Amazing is worth the work.

Friday, January 11, 2019

A Window Above: Louise

Song: "Louise"
Writer: Joseph Terrell
Original Release: October 26, 2013
Band: Mipso
Album: Dark Holler Pop

Mipso hails from Chapel Hill, North Carolina where they got to know each other as college students.  I fell in love with "Louise" on one of my rabbit hole explorations on Spotify.  It's a masterful piece of song writing: surprising chord changes, a sneaky little bridge and a life metaphor just as deliciously clunky as the old farm car upon which it's built.  Marvelous.

Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?

Enjoy: A Window Above

What are you listening to these days?

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Squid Mixes: Whiskey Fix

In Imbibe!, David Wondrich describes a fix as a "short punch," simply a smaller version of the full glass.  I drew from two separate books for my mixture, the generalities from Imbibe! and a few specifics from The New York Bartender's Guide (NYBG).  Wondrich's recipe, originally from Jerry Thomas (1862), indicates sugar, lemon, water and spirits with in-season fruit to garnish.  The "spirits" can be brandy, gin, Santa Cruz rum or whiskey.  Wondrich recommends "plain old domestic whiskey," still not particularly helpful in a country of considerable variety in this product.  NYBG specifies blended whiskey.  The only bottle in our cabinet was Crown Royal - not exactly domestic, though Canada is considerably closer to me than Kentucky or Tennessee.  Okay, admittedly CR is distilled in Manitoba - not close at all.  Still, it's in the cabinet.  It will do.

NYBG is also more specific with the garnish.  Orange twist.  Thank you.

Nice drink.

Monday, January 7, 2019

On the Coffee Table: Alan Furst

Title: The Polish Officer
Author: Alan Furst

Furst's Night Soldiers series continues with this third installment.   My reflections on the first two books are here and here.  Our hero this time is Alexander de Milja, a captain in the Polish army.  We meet him in September 1939, just as Warsaw is falling to the Germans.  He is recruited for intelligence work by the ZWZ, the Polish underground resistance.  His story takes him first on a gold-smuggling train to the Romanian border then back to Warsaw before following the government-in-exile to Paris.  Most of the rest of the book has de Milja in France, based in the capital with jaunts to Brittany.  He returns to eastern Europe for the final act, a stint with partisan guerillas in the forests of Ukraine.

Each of Furst's protagonist so far has played a different role in The Game.  Kristho, in the first book, was an operative working in the shadows, a man of action valued for his brawn and cold decisiveness.  Szara, in the second, was an apparent outsider, a journalist managing the passage of information through a clandestine network.  De Milja, as the title suggests, is a professional soldier offered a choice: go to the front or work the back alleys.  The latter offered the best chance to survive so he took it.  He is smarter than Kristho, more cocksure than Szara and too handsome to fade into the crowd like le Carre's George Smiley.  His work represents more of the craft the romantic associates with the spy narrative.

I enjoyed de Milja's story the most when he was in Poland, though apparently all of the novels in the series must eventually run through Paris.  In fact, all visit the Brasserie Heininger, based on the real-life Bistro Bofinger.  The France chapters pose an interesting historical question: what is it to work for a government which, at least for the time being, doesn't exist?  In fact, we know 70+ years on that particular Polish government won't even return to power once the war's over.  Of course, de Milja couldn't know that.  He is a soldier loyal to his country.  That's all that matters.

Of the three books so far, I would say I enjoyed this one the most.  I am certainly up for continuing the series, though my wife was less impressed by the next book, The World at Night.

Friday, January 4, 2019

A Window Above: Variations on an Original Theme

Piece: Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36
Composer: Edward Elgar
Premier: June 19, 1899, London

Elgar wrote his masterpiece, better-known to the masses as Enigma Variations, just as he was on the verge of giving up as a composer.  As noted in the title, he wrote the theme himself, then set the variations as dedications to his friends and loved ones, including both his wife and a friend's dog.  The star of the show is "Nimrod," dedicated to his friend Augustus J. Jaeger, a music editor.  Elgar valued Jaeger for his willingness to offer severe criticism when necessary.  Jäger is German for hunter and Nimrod was a mighty hunter in the Old Testament.

The piece is knock-your-socks-off stunning and we've had the great pleasure of hearing it live twice in the past year, once by the VSO and once by a youth orchestra.  At the youth orchestra concert, there was an older gentlemen sitting behind me who couldn't see the stage well and also clearly didn't have much experience at classical music concerts.  His daughter (I assume) was offering explanations and descriptions between pieces.  But he understood "Nimrod" just fine.  After it was over, I heard him whisper simply, "Wow!"

Side story: have you ever wondered how the name of a mighty hunter came to be an insult?  It's all Daffy Duck's fault (thanks, Mock!):

Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?

Enjoy: A Window Above

What are you listening to these days?

Thursday, January 3, 2019

On the Coffee Table: Andrew Tobias

Title: The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need
Author: Andrew Tobias

As I have written before, I don't understand high finance at all.  It's not the numbers.  I adore math.  It's simply that I've never had any money to invest so I've never needed to learn much.  However, through the work of Michael Lewis, I have come to enjoy reading about the financial world.  After all, I'm not exactly likely to become a professional baseball player, dragon treasure burglar or galactic hitchhiker either.  I can still enjoy the books about such characters.  So, when my mother gave me this Andrew Tobias treatise in an effort to clear out her own bookshelves, I figured why not?

Fortunately, much like Lewis, Tobias is an engaging and humorous writer.  Even better, for someone like me, he has plenty of sensible advice for saving money in the first place.  The title is tongue-in-cheek.  Tobias offers no magic formula for getting rich and readily admits to his own spectacular failures.  Instead, he offers simple, practical advice - mostly, how not to get hosed.  He asserts there are way too many authoritative-seeming books on the market while most people just need to remember a few basic principles and follow their own common sense.  Or be Warren Buffett.  If you can manage to simply be Warren Buffett, you're all set.

There's advice for those of means, too.  I didn't understand most of it but I am assuming it's equally sage.  As a cover-to-cover read, it wasn't half bad.  I laughed out loud several times and made it through quickly.  I'll keep the book around for reference.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

On the Coffee Table: Émile Zola

Title: The Belly of Paris
Author: Émile Zola

The Belly of Paris was the third in a 20-volume series for Zola, the 19th-century French novelist.  Florent, a mistakenly exiled revolutionary, returns to Paris to begin a new life.  Zola has built for him a rich and textured world in Les Halles, the city's enormous central market.  Florent's brother and sister-in-law run a charcuterie and bring him into the fold, with mixed degrees of enthusiasm.  The neighborhood runs on gossip and intrigue and Florent is quickly in over his head - though he doesn't usually realize it.

The world building is excellent and the description of each food stand is richly detailed.  The story, however, lacks in nuance.  In the end, it all seems a twisted allegory for the plight of the revolutionary spirit during the oppressive Second Empire.  The tale ends much as it began with little change for most involved, though perhaps worse off in a few cases.  It is a morality play without temptation.  Florent bumbles along with little idea of the machinations of scheming women around him.  When his reckoning comes, it's not shocking.  It's inevitable.  No Huck-like moral crisis along the way.  He is principled and careless.  Oh well.

The tour of Paris is fun, though I doubt I'll visit Zola's work again.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Squid Mixes: Bishop

Happy New Year!

Another case of a slight change in recipe resulting in a new name for the drink, the only significant difference between this drink and last week's is the lack of rum.  My wife's question was whether it's truly a punch without the rum - perhaps more of a wine cooler.  Not that that's a bad thing.  It's definitely juicier this way.

I got my recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide