Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: June 2017 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, June 30th.  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, May 26, 2017

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: May 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: Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper:  A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China
Author: Fuchsia Dunlop
via Amazon
Fuchsia Dunlop's originally went to China in 1994 on a fellowship to study the country's minority populations.  Instead, she fell in love with the food and devoted the next fifteen years of her life (more by now) to eating it, cooking it and writing about it.  No casual traveler, her efforts at self-immersion were bold.  She began her adventure with a dare to herself that she would eat everything put in front of her, no small consideration in China where the concept of what is edible is much broader than it is in Europe, or really most of the world.  Eventually, after bugging every professional cook she could find, she became the first Westerner to enroll at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine - before she'd even fully mastered the Sichuan dialect!  By the time she finished this memoir, she had already published three Chinese cookbooks in English.  Since, she has put out two more. 

Her main base of operations over the years has been Sichuan province but she has spent significant time in other parts of the country, much of it in fairly remote regions.  Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper includes material about her explorations of Kashgar in the far, central Asian west and Gansu province in the north.  Hunan, Mao's home province, gets a couple of chapters.  Both Hong Kong and Beijing get their due.  Dunlop does not shy from the issues of concern to western sensibilities: exotic or even illegal ingredients, pollution, animal treatment, adulteration, etc.  Reminders of China's troubled modern history are constant.

I enjoyed the book thoroughly, though it did leave me feeling cheated by the Chinese food I've eaten during my life.  The true variety of the cuisine is astonishing, every region boasting its own ancient traditions.  By Dunlop's own admission, there's too much to experience in a single lifetime, let alone one book.  What passes for Chinese food in most of the United States is so predictable and pedestrian compared to even the simplest street food Dunlop describes.  For as much time as I've spent in Asia, I have to this point had minimal interest in China but this book makes me want to go and just eat and eat and eat.

Dunlop also reminded me of the downside of ex-pat life, the lonelier side, the part where you miss people all the time, whether you're at home or abroad.  Mind you she was about 13 years into her chronicle before she started writing about China-fatigue but it was there.  Her book also makes me think about food on our own future travels.  Even mid-range restaurants can take a big chunk out of a family trip budget.  It's important to keep in mind that the most meaningful meals are the ones closest to what the natives are eating, no matter where you go in the world.

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 June's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is June 30th.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Clone Wars: The Lawless

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 Lawless"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 16
Original Air Date: February 1, 2013
via Wookieepedia
The Shadow Collective story arc comes to a close.  Using Almec as his prime minister puppet, Darth Maul has gained control of Mandalore.  Bo-Katan and other members of Death Watch, having watched their leader fall last week, switches sides and help Korkie Kryze and his friends spring Dutchess Satine from her cell.  Unfortunately, this prison break doesn't work and upon recapturing the fallen ruler, Maul uses her as bait to lure his old nemesis: Obi-Wan Kenobi.

This final chapter is in many ways the most predictable episode of the arc and also our most Star Warsy story in a while: confrontations between light side and dark side, light (and dark) saber duels, challenges to the Sith pecking order and (SPOILER ALERT) death.  It's not really a Star Wars story until somebody important dies, or at least loses an appendage.  Both sides suffer significant loss in this case.

I think it's worth another SPOILER to discuss them as both are characters I've particularly enjoyed...

Dutchess Satine is killed by Darth Maul with the dark saber, right before Kenobi's eyes.  Dying in Obi-Wan's arms, she confesses her eternal love for him.  Satine, as the peace-loving leader of her world, is certainly a worthy character in her own right.  The fact that she has added a dimension to Kenobi is a bonus.  She died a martyr, certainly a meaningful end in the Star Wars universe.

Savage Opress is struck down by Palpatine.  I was a big fan of Savage when he first emerged as part of Asajj Ventress's story.  Since he tracked down his long lost brother Darth Maul, his role has diminished to little more than a thug.  I was hoping for more.


via Wookieepedia
Among Satine's rescue party is Amis, a friend of Korkie's from the Royal Academy.  We first met him in "The Academy" back in Season Three.  This episode marks his last appearance in The Clone Wars.   Amis is voiced by Omid Abtahi.
via Wikipedia
Omid Abtahi was born July 12, 1979 in Tehran.  He and his family moved first to Paris when he was five, then Irvine, California when he was ten.  He graduated from Cal State-Fullerton with a double major in advertising and theater.  Professionally, he has been active on both stage and screen.  In the theater, he has performed in Fraulein Else, Your Everyday Typical Romantic Comedy and Urge for Going.  In addition to guest appearances and voice work, Abtahi has had regular television roles on Over There and Sleeper Cell.  He was Homes in the final Hunger Games film: Mockingjay - Part 2.

Next week: "Sabotage."

Friday, May 19, 2017

Squid Eats: Bluebird Barbecue

Bluebird Barbecue in Burlington was our second Vermont Restaurant Week adventure this year.  We went with friends: Mock, Nancy Mock (quickly becoming a local food celebrity), Mock Boy, Blue Liner and Baby Blue Liner (Blue Liner and his wife, let's call her Jello Shots, became parents for the first time last year). 

The special menu for Restaurant Week was a "$30 Barbecue for Two" platter with a choice of meats and appetizers.  For our large group, we ordered three such platters so we could sample everything.  I will admit upfront that it was not the most nuanced restaurant meal I've ever had, more like a boarding house dinner with everyone grabbing what they could.  Some got into testing the different sauces but I was just shoveling in the grub.  Mind you, it was loads of fun - just a lot more eating than critiquing for me.  Among the meats, the smoked chicken was my favorite; among the appetizers, the Red Hen Baking Fat-Tire Toast.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Clone Wars: Shades of Reason

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: "Shades of Reason"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 15
Original Air Date: January 25, 2013
via Wookieepedia
The Maul/Opress/Death Watch story continues.  Darth Maul gets his new underworld buddies, known as the Shadow Collective, to launch simultaneous attacks on Mandalore, undermining Dutchess Satine and allowing Pre Vizsla to usurp her power.  The political intrigue, however, is just beginning.  Apart from being an interesting story in its own right, this tale provides insight into how the Sith, or really anyone with sufficient forethought, might exploit a power struggle on an individual world for their own political gain.  The whole scenario was like something out of Machiavelli.
via Wookieepedia
Ziton Moj, a Falleen working for Black Sun, joined the Shadow Collective last week when Savage Opress killed the rest of Black Sun's leaders.  While this arc marks his introduction and only appearance in The Clone Wars, Moj does feature in subsequent novels and comic books.  He is voiced by Corey Burton.

Next week: "The Lawless."

Friday, May 12, 2017

Squid Eats: Stone Corral Brewery

via Twitter
Vermont Restaurant Week was the last week of April.  The idea is for participating restaurants to offer special prix fixe menus in order to encourage new customers.  We hadn't yet tried Stone Corral Brewery in Richmond so it seemed as good an excuse as any.

Beer is a big deal in Vermont.  Our proud, humble state (yes, it really can be both simultaneously) is home to more breweries per capita than any other in the United States.  Having a small population throws many such distinctions our way.  I believe we have the most tennis courts per capita, too.  Getting back to beer, there were already loads of independent breweries when we first moved here 15 years ago and the industry has only grown since.  Brewpubs are everywhere and in light of the high level of competition, the products are usually pretty darn good. 

Part of Stone Corral's prix fixe was a four-glass beer flight.  My wife and I have different beer preferences.  I'm an IPA man, the hoppier, the better.  She tends more toward a floral or fruity flavor.  A gose is usually a safe choice for her.  She likes Belgian whites, too.  And Guinness.  I'll drink hers and she mine but we tend to our comfort zones given the choice.  As such, getting two flights between us is fun because overlap is unlikely.  The most interesting variety for me at Stone Corral was their bourbon porter.  I love both beer and whiskey and there's really no reason why they can't go together since they're made from the same stuff.  It was like a rich, dark boilermaker.

Mussels are a favorite with us.  In fact, whenever I see mussels on a menu, I just assume my wife will want to order them.  At Stone Corral, they were served with a Thai chile sauce, actually sweeter than what I expected and indeed what one normally sees with mussels.  It was different - not bad, just different.

Dinner was the prelude to a concert, this time the VSO String Quartet's performance at the Shelburne Museum.  The concert was planned in conjunction with the museum's recent exhibition, Backstage Pass: Rock & Roll Photography.   Included in the musical program were works by Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and the Talking Heads.  The photos were marvelous, too: the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Elvis, just about everybody.  I think my favorite had Eric Clapton sitting by a hotel swimming pool with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

A most enjoyable evening.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

On the Coffee Table: John le Carré

Title: Call for the Dead
Author: John le Carré
via Amazon
Call for the Dead was John le Carré's first novel and the world's introduction to his best-known character, George Smiley.  Smiley is no James Bond.  He's late middle-aged, short, stout and cuckolded by his beautiful society wife.  As we join his story, his days of international espionage are long behind him and his lack of talent for agency politics has taken its toll on his career.  The higher ups still trot him out from time to time for some dirty work, though, and that's how he stumbles into a mystery story.

Smiley had just run what he considered a routine security check on Samuel Fennon when the man turned up dead, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  Smiley is initially baffled as Fennon had essentially come out clean.  Probing into the past - Fennon's, Fennon's wife's and also his own, Smiley discovers a story more complicated than he initially assumed.

My previous exposure to Smiley was only on screen: Alec Guinness in the BBC's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People and Gary Oldman in the feature film version of TTSS.  It's Guinness's face (without the Kenobi beard) I imagined throughout the book.  I like the character a great deal, though his development is a bit herky jerky, the background essentials laid out matter-of-factly in the first chapter.  Other details emerge more slowly as the story requires, the pattern I would have preferred from the beginning.

Overall, the story has a more earthy feel than Bond.  John le Carré draws from his own career in British intelligence for his work, bringing a strong sense of realism.  I thoroughly enjoyed the story despite figuring out the answer to the mystery before George did.  I am definitely up for more.