Thursday, September 30, 2021

On the Coffee Table: The Sign of the Four

Title: The Sign of the Four
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of the Four is the second Sherlock Holmes novel, first serialized in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine.  It's a complicated plot, winding its way across India and through the streets of London.  But at its heart, it's a hunt for stolen treasure.

Some important elements are added to the franchise in this second installment.  Right off the bat, we learn of Holmes's drug use, both cocaine and heroin.  We also meet Mary Morstan, Watson's future wife.  It is, in fact, Mary's treasure (sort of) that they're after.  

Once again, there's a long segue - India this time rather than Utah.  Once again, I would say the segue is the weakness of the book.  The racism and colonialism of 19th century England are on full display.  Fortunately, it's not five chapters long this time.

Overall, I would say The Sign of the Four is not as strong as A Study in Scarlet - too much exposition, not enough detective razzle-dazzle.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Squid Mixes: Tequila Maria

I love tomatoes.  They are simply magical.  I don't understand people who don't like them.  I'm not sure any produce season excites me quite as much as tomato season.  The time of year brings wonderful possibilities for a food hobbyist, even a mixologist.

I made fresh tomato juice for the first time this year.  I used this recipe from Simply Recipes, minus the black pepper - a personal preference.  The result was nice, sweeter than what one typically finds at the supermarket.  But it's a lot of effort.  I doubt I'd do it again as I think the store-bought stuff is perfectly fine.

Tomato juice project #1 was the Tequila Maria, essentially a Bloody Mary with tequila rather than vodka.  I have been a huge fan of Bloody Marys for as long as I have been of legal drinking age.  On airplanes, I will happily take the mix without the vodka.  However, in my recent mixing adventures, I have been unimpressed with vodka in general.  I feel it dilutes the other ingredients whereas gin, its main white liquor rival, does a better job of enhancing them.  The taste experience: vodka pushes the flavors apart whereas gin draws them together.  So, what to do with my beloved Bloody Marys?  I'm certain gin and tomato juice would be terrible.  But what about tequila?

I got my recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide: white tequila, tomato juice, lime juice, white horseradish, Tabasco, Worcestershire, black pepper (skipped it), celery salt (didn't have it, used Kosher), cilantro.  Plenty of heat, which I want.  I'd leave out the horseradish and probably the cilantro next time, maybe in favor of more Tabasco.  I prefer red pepper heat to horseradish heat.  The verdict: we both liked the tequila.  A side-by-side comparison would be more meaningful but for now, I think I'm onto something.

Stay tuned.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Marvel Unlimited: Daredevil #226, The Man Without Fear #1-5

The Man Without Fear covers Daredevil's origin story.  The mini-series is not quite as strong as Born Again but it's still a lot better than the other Marvel stories I have read.  Plus, the cover art by John Romita Jr. and Al Williamson is absolutely stunning.

Frank Miller wins again.

My Recent Reads

Daredevil #226
Originally published January 1986
Writers: Frank Miller and Denny O'Neil
Artist: David Mazzucchelli

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #1
October 1993
Miller/John Romita Jr.

via Amazon

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #2
November 1993

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #3
December 1993

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #4
January 1994

via Amazon

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #5
February 1994

via Amazon

Friday, September 24, 2021

Star Trek: Disaster

Episode: "Disaster"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 5, Episode 5
Original Air Date: October 21, 1991

A quantum filament disables the Enterprise, leaving several of our heroes in unusual positions.  Troi, as ranking officer at the time of the disaster, assumes command of the bridge.  While leading a group of school children on a tour, Picard is trapped with them on an elevator.  Keiko goes into labor in Ten Forward and it falls to Worf to deliver the baby.

"Disaster" generally does well with critics but I'm not a fan.  Trek stories with children rarely work for me and there's far too much techno-babble.  That's not to say there aren't bright spots.  Troi in command is an idea worth exploring further.  Plus we learn Data's head can function separately from the rest of his body. 

Without question, the Keiko/Worf story is the highlight and, refreshingly, it doesn't follow the usual television script patterns for the situation.  Instead, by-the-book Worf gets impatient with Keiko for the unpredictability of the situation.  One wants to smack him, of course, but his clueless behavior is entirely within believable character parameters.  Lines like "Congratulations, you are fully dilated to ten centimeters.  You are now free to give birth." are pure gold.

So, not my favorite.  But not a total loss either.

Acting Notes

Erika Flores plays the role of Marissa Flores, one of the children on tour with the captain.  The same last name is not a coincidence.  Each of the three children had the same last name as the actors who played them.

Flores was born November 2, 1978 in Grass Valley, California.  After her Trek appearance, she was a regular on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman until she left in the middle of the third season.  Other TV guest appearances included Dear John, Empty Nest and House, her final professional role in 2009.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Squid Mixes: Vesper

A Vesper combines gin, vodka and Lillet Blanc.  I got my recipe from The Geeky Chef Drinks by Cassandra Reeder.  Reeder named the drink after Vesper Lynd, a Bond girl in the original Ian Fleming 007 novel Casino Royale, also the book to introduce the "shaken, not stirred" catchphrase for martinis.  

The Lillet brings a pleasant brightness to the martini-style beverage.  I'm not sure I followed Reeder's instructions for the spiral cut on the lemon quite right but the result wasn't bad.  If I were to work at perfecting the technique, I'd want a thinner strip, I think.

Believe it or not, folks, ol' JB has his martini order all wrong.  You're supposed to stir.  Generally speaking, one only shakes beverages that involve fruit juices.  In honor of the super-spy, though, Reeder calls for shaking the Vesper.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Marvel Unlimited: Daredevil #228-233


Daredevil issues #227-233 comprise the Born Again story arc.  Having reached the end, I feel confident in saying it's one of the best comic book stories I've ever read - certainly the best Marvel and probably the best American work.  It's comparable with the best Alan Moore books and maybe even the best Japanese manga.  I am simply blown away.

Karen Page was once Matt Murdock's secretary and girlfriend.  She was one of very few people who knew Murdock's secret: he is also Daredevil.  Now she's a desperate junky and she sells that secret for a fix.  Unfortunately, the information makes it all the way back to New York City's arch-criminal: Kingpin.  The crime lord eschews the usual comic book villain approach of targeting the hero's loved ones.  Instead, he leverages his widespread influence to destroy Matt Murdock's life.  He ruins his finances.  He fabricates criminal charges that rob Murdock of his career.  Kingpin leaves his nemesis an empty, soul-less hull with no idea where to turn.  As a final insult upon injury, Kingpin blows up Murdock's entire apartment building.

But the crook slips up, leaving behind a clue.  Deep in the hole as he is, Murdock knows who's turning the screws.

As excellent as the basic narrative is, the true magic is in the telling.  Miller and Mazzucchelli's world-building is exemplary.  One can practically hear the sounds of Hell's Kitchen, even smell it.  One can feel the pavement underfoot.  The messes of both Karen's and Matt's lives are real.  We are squeezed by the same darkness they are.  We feel their relief when all comes, more or less, right.

So good.

My Recent Reads

Daredevil #228
Originally published March 1986
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: David Mazzucchelli

Daredevil #229
April 1986

Daredevil #230
May 1986

Daredevil #231
June 1986

Daredevil #232
July 1986

Daredevil #233
August 1986

Friday, September 17, 2021

Star Trek: Silicon Avatar

Episode: "Silicon Avatar"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 5, Episode 4
Original Air Date: October 14, 1991

The Chrystalline Entity is back.  First introduced in "Datalore," the Entity is a space-dwelling creature that attacks planets, draining them of resources - not unlike Marvel's Galactus and sort of a precursor to the Borg concept.  In the earlier episode, we learned that the Entity killed the colonists on Omicron Theta, Data's "birth" world.  This time, it destroys Melona IV just as that world is about to be colonized.  Riker, Data and Crusher are all on the planet during the attack though mysteriously, they and most (but not all) of the colonists are spared.

Enter Kila Marr, a xenologist who has devoted her career to studying the Entity.  She is brought aboard the Enterprise in order to help pursue and investigate the Entity.  Turns out, she has a personal reason for her interest: the Entity killed her son, one of the colonists on Omicron Theta.  At first, she doesn't trust Data.  The fact of Lore's association with the creature and the fact that the Entity seems to continually spare Data leads her to suspect our favorite android of being in kahoots.  Eventually, though, she comes around, especially once she discovers Data has access to her son's memories.

In the end, the story is more about Marr's Ahab-esque obsession than anything to do with Data.  That's a shame because, it's worth noting, we never do get any resolution as to why the Entity never harms Data, despite having had the opportunity three times.  There are a few nice moments in the episode such as when Marr acknowledges the Entity's beauty upon first seeing it.  Otherwise, this story's a bit of a drop off after such a strong run immediately before it.

Acting Notes

Ellen Geer (Marr) was born August 29, 1941 in New York City.  Her parents, Herta Ware and Will Geer, were both professional actors.  Film credits include Kotch, Harold and Maude and Patriot Games.  She was a regular on The Jimmy Stewart Show but most of her television work has been guest appearances, including CHiPs, Dallas and Desperate Housewives.

Much of her most important work has been off-camera.  She's been the artistic director of the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum since 1978 and has taught acting at UCLA for many years.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Squid Mixes: Gin Rickey

A gin rickey combines lime juice, gin and club soda.  I got my recipe from Grub Street as discovered by my wife.  The writers, Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfield, suggest an unusual approach: squeeze half a lime, then slice up the spent half and muddle it in with the rest of the drink.  It's a bit fussy for my tastes but on the other hand, the result is quite pulpy, which I like.  Overall, it made for a refreshing, summery drink.

For more about rickeys, read here.  

Monday, September 13, 2021

Marvel Unlimited: Squadron Supreme #10-12; God Loves, Man Kills; Daredevil #227

Coincidentally, both of the stories I spent the most time with this week address similar themes: the extreme power of superheroes and the implications for the broader society.  Squadron Supreme asks what would happen if the heroes were granted absolute power to create a utopia as they saw fit.  God Loves, Man Kills, an X-Men graphic novel, explores the dangers of religious zealots taking violent action against superior, mutant beings they see as a threat.  With the Squadron, one is left wondering who the good guys truly are.  With the X-Men, that's a lot more clear.

To be honest, I've always found the persecution theme in the X-Men line a little hard to take.  I get the intended metaphor for real world bigotry and this particular tale is entirely believable within that framework.  It is, nonetheless, a very white perspective on American racism.

However, there are moments when it works, perhaps even too well.  In the opening pages of God Loves, Man Kills, two black children are lynched, not because they are black but because they are mutants.  Their murderer says right after she pulls the trigger "You have no right to live."  That sentiment is at the heart of racism, be it violent or passive.  The two bodies are left hanging from the crossbar of a swing set: strange fruit, indeed.

Both stories are... fine.  Both are occasionally poignant.  Both leave the reader with plenty to think about.  

Now it's back to Daredevil and in his return to the title, Frank Miller wasted no time in reminding readers what a dark comic book story is supposed to feel like.  Both of the stories above could have done with a bit of Frank Miller atmosphere.  In presentation, Squadron Supreme is rather farcical - not a weakness, exactly, but it doesn't haunt me.  Miller haunts me.  The X-Men story is stronger and perhaps even more relevant 38 years later than it was at the time.  But it didn't quite follow through with the darkness established in that opening scene.  The baddies were less scary when they were going after superheroes than when they were going after defenseless children.  In contrast, Miller takes you down into a deep hole right away and doesn't let you up until he's good and ready.  And that can take a while.

Brutal yet effective storytelling.

It's good to be back.

My Recent Reads

Squadron Supreme #10
Originally published June 1986
Writer: Mark Gruenwald
Artist: Paul Ryan

via Amazon

Squadron Supreme #11
July 1986

Squadron Supreme #12
August 1986

via Marvel Database

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills
January 1983
Chris Claremont/Brent Anderson

via Amazon

Daredevil #227
February 1986
Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli

via Amazon

Friday, September 10, 2021

Star Trek: Ensign Ro

Episode: "Ensign Ro"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 5, Episode 3
Original Air Date: October 7, 1991

Ensign Ro Laren (Michelle Forbes) is assigned to the Enterprise against Picard's wishes.  Ro, a Bajoran,  had previously been court-martialed for disobeying orders but was pardoned by Admiral Kennely so she could serve on a particular mission: to persuade Bajoran rebels to stop attacking Federation settlements.

"Ensign Ro" is an important episode for the future of the franchise.  For starters, it introduces the Bajorans and their struggle against their conquerors, the Cardassians, the backdrop for Deep Space Nine, Star Trek's next spinoff.  Just as importantly, Ro herself became a popular recurring character with both the audience and the production staff, one with a lasting impact.  Forbes was offered the opportunity to reprise the role as a lead character for both DS9 and Voyager.  While she turned them down both times, elements of Ro are clearly evident in both Kira Nyris in DS9 and Tom Paris in Voyager.  

The real world parallels for the Bajorans - the Jews, the Armenians, the Kurds, indeed, the Palestinians - are many and obvious.  There's some interesting foreshadowing, though unintentional as DS9 wasn't even a discussion yet.  In a conversation with Picard, Keeve, one of the Bajoran rebels, makes note of the fact that because of their non-interference policies, Starfleet generally ignores suffering such as that of his people.  It's a frequent and reasonable criticism of Trek: they don't sit with problems for very long, always heading off to the next week's adventure.  DS9 and the Bajorans are about to change that.

Another strong episode - that makes four in a row by my reckoning.  

Acting Notes

Michelle Renee Forbes Guajardo was born January 8, 1965 in Austin, Texas.  Initially an aspiring ballet dancer, she started her professional acting career at age 16.

Forbes had a two-year stint on Guiding Light in a dual role: Solita Carrera/Sonni Carrera Lewis.  The gig earned her a Daytime Emmy nomination.  NextGen was her big break.  She caught the producers' eye as Dara in "Half a Life" and they offered her the Ro Loren part the following season.  In total, she made eight appearances as Ro.  Later, she had regular roles on Homicide: Life on the Street, In Treatment, True Blood and The Killing, for which she received a Primetime Emmy nomination.  Films have included Kalifornia, Swimming with Sharks and Columbus.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Squid Mixes: Romulan Ale

In the Star Trek original series episode "The Enterprise Incident," Spock and the Romulan Commander drink an unidentified blue beverage.  Romulan drinks have been blue ever since.  Romulan ale was first identified as such in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in this scene.  Every franchise appearance of the stuff implies it is strong in flavor and high in alcohol.  Beyond that, no specifics are offered.

But no doubt, it's definitely blue.

I got my recipe from The Geeky Chef Drinks by Cassandra Reeder.  She suggests a combination of overproof white rum, blue curaƧao, lemon juice and ginger beer.  "Overproof" definitely exceeds our needs so I went with standard Bacardi.  For ginger beer, I used Fever-Tree, definitely a spicier option.

The result is quite nice, though it didn't pack the punch I might have wished.  Obviously, a stronger rum would make a difference but I would prefer to intensify the ginger.  Perhaps one could cut out the lemon juice in favor of more ginger beer.  Or maybe seeking out stronger ginger beers or other gingery ingredients would be good.

I'm definitely pleased with the blue.  My wife has been quite resistant to the idea of blue drinks but I convinced her to try this one.  In general, I am trying to expand the color palette of my liquor cabinet.  I have a sentimental affection for blue drinks anyway.  I had a friend in college who was partial to them.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Marvel Unlimited: Squadron Supreme #6-9

My Recent Reads

Squadron Supreme #6
Originally published February 1986
Writer: Mark Gruenwald
Artist: Paul Ryan

via Amazon

Squadron Supreme #7
March 1986
Gruenwald/John Buscema

Squadron Supreme #8
April 1986
Gruenwald/Bob Hall

via Amazon

Squadron Supreme #9
May 1986

via Amazon

Friday, September 3, 2021

Star Trek: Darmok

Episode: "Darmok"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 5, Episode 2
Original Air Date: September 30, 1991

The Enterprise encounters a Tamarian ship.  The Federation had previous contact with the Tamarians but had struggled to communicate with them, their language impenetrable for the universal translator.  Dathon, the Tamarian captain, kidnaps Picard and brings him along to the surface of a nearby planet where the two must face a monstrous adversary together.

"Darmok" is amazing.  The premise is deeply frustrating at first but as our friends unravel the puzzle of a purely idiomatic language, a beautiful story emerges: the patience of Picard, the self-sacrifice of Dathon, the exchange of narrative traditions.  In the end, it is quite simply the very best of everything Star Trek is supposed to be.

Is it the best episode of the series?  of the entire franchise?  There's a strong case to be made.  If ever a friend were to ask to watch one episode that exemplifies Star Trek, I would choose "Darmok" without a second thought.  The clear moral expression is one reason.  Just as importantly, "Darmok" is a perfect bottle episode.  Unlike the other likely choices for the Greatest Hits album, this particular installment requires no backstory.  All of the character establishment you need for the principals is achieved before the opening credits.  You don't have to "get" Data or Worf or even Picard.  You don't have to know about the Borg or Tasha Yar.  Instead, it's the entire concept boiled down to 42 minutes.

Fittingly, "Darmok" is in turn reduced to its own idiom: "Picard and Dathon... at El Adrel."

So say we all.  ;)

Acting Notes

Paul Winfield (Dathon) was born May 22, 1939 in Los Angeles.  Though some sources say March 7, 1941 in Dallas.  The acting career is better documented.  

Winfield hit the industry at a time when work for black actors was scarce indeed which makes his resume all the more impressive.  He made his screen debut on Perry Mason in 1965.  Other television credits included principal roles on The Charmings and 227, the narrator on City Confidential plus numerous guest appearances, miniseries and TV movies.  He won an Emmy for his guest role on Picket Fences.   Films included Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Terminator, Mars Attacks! and 1972's Sounder, for which he received an Oscar nomination.

Winfield was gay, though he lived discreetly.  He was with his partner, architect Charles Gillian, Jr., for 30 years.  Winfield passed away in 2004 from a heart attack.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Bitters of the Month: Maple Orange

This month, we're testing Runamok's Maple Orange bitters, the third in the Vermont-based company's recently introduced line.  For us, the best test for orange bitters is an Old-Fashioned...

Bitters Battle: Regan's Orange Bitters #6 vs. Runamok Orange Maple

Runamok has had a good run in our tests so far, knocking out two of our standing favorites.  This time, Regan's holds up once again.  It is simply more orangey - perhaps not surprising.  Generally speaking, adding sugar detracts from the tanginess of orange flavor.  If you want that tanginess - and it turns out we do - sweeter is not the way to go.  

Winner and Still Champion: Regan's Orange Bitters #6