Wednesday, June 28, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Rick Riordan

Title: The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1)
Author: Rick Riordan
via Amazon
Our daughter loves mythology and is quite knowledgeable on the subject: Greek/Roman, of course, but also Hindu and more recently Norse.  As such, her discovery of and affection for the Percy Jackson series was practically inevitable.  Percy's world is a lot like Harry Potter's.  Percy's age is about the same as Harry's in the beginning.  He also doesn't know the secret of his extraordinary parentage - in his case, he is the son of a Greek god.  He has never fit in well in the "real world" but he discovers a place - a summer camp - where other kids like him gather and flourish.  Like Harry, Percy is a superstar upon arrival and doesn't entirely understand why.  Percy has two friends - one male, one female - who join him for all his perilous adventures.  Riordan's language is as American as Rowling's is British but the influence of the one on the other is unmistakable.

While derivative, the book is fun.  Percy gets to meet several of the gods, including his father - I won't spoil who that is but it's not difficult for the reader to figure out.  Even the series logo offers obvious clues.  The modernizing - not to mention Americanizing - of the concept is cleverly handled.  Riordan tries too hard with the kid-speak but overall, the pace of the storytelling is strong and suspense for details is well maintained.  The Purple Penguin has gone through all ten books - two five-book series - over the past year.  I don't know if I'll follow the story that far but I'm up for more.  It's not as good as HP or the Howl series but it's better than The House of Secrets.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Clone Wars: The Unknown

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 Unknown"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
The Lost Missions (Season Six), Episode 1
Original Air Date: February 15, 2014
via Wookieepedia
The Lost Missions kick off with a clone troopers story, pretty much always my favorite.   During a combat offensive, clone trooper Tup goes into a strange trance state and kills Jedi Master Tiplar.  Neither Tup himself nor anyone else seems to understand what has happened.  Dooku and Darth Sidious have an inkling.  When word gets back to them about the incident, they move quickly to get to Tup so they can find out what has gone wrong with his "programming."  We as the viewers know what this is really all about: Order 66, the operation carried out in Revenge of the Sith in which the clones simultaneously slaughter nearly all of the Jedi.  This is the first episode of a four-part arc.
via Wookieepedia
Tiplar was a Mikkian.  Her twin sister Tiplee, also a Jedi, was with Tiplar at the time of her death.  The design for the two characters originated with an unused concept for a female Sith Lord developed for Attack of the Clones.  Both of the twins were voiced by Anna Graves.

Next week: "Conspiracy."

Monday, June 26, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

Title: Thirst
Author: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
via Amazon
Dolatabadi is Iran's most revered living writer and one who has certainly earned his repressed artist street cred.  He was jailed by the Shah's regime for two years in the '70s simply for the fact that his books were always found in the homes of others arrested by the secret police.  Subversion was assumed.  Thirst, published in English in 2014, has never been published in the original Persian.

Thirst is an account of the Iran-Iraq War as told by two writers: one Iranian, one Iraqi.  There are three (or four? five?) story threads going on at once and the text weaves in, out and between them constantly and seamlessly.  At the heart of it all is one story about warring soldiers stalemated over a patch of earth, a water tank between them.  Neither side can approach the tank without being gunned down by the other: a perfect metaphor.  The political and historical messages are many.  Those in power control truth.  The Persian/Arab rivalry goes back well over a thousand years.  Soldiers are human.  War is absurd.

By design, the stories are difficult to follow.  As such, the overarching themes are emphasized over narrative details.  I sensed elements of other works: In the Labyrinth by Alaine Robbe-Grillet (review here) and All Quiet on the Western Front.  It's a good book with the playful, florid language I've come to expect from all Asian literature. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Squid Mixes: Italian Soda

Left to right: grapefruit, raspberry and almond
I had simple desires for Father's Day this year.  I wanted to watch a movie ("Ferris Beuller, you're my hero.").  I wanted to play games.  I wanted to go for a walk.  I wanted to mix drinks.

Round one was non-alcoholic, of course, so my daughter could enjoy it, too.  While we had some Torani syrups in the house, the supply was running low so a Saturday trip to the store was in order.  Unfortunately, that adventure was disappointing.  The Torani site's store locator sent me to Price Chopper.  I was hoping for the vast array one sees on a shelf behind the counter at a great coffeehouse:  lychee, blood orange, passion fruit, etc.  Unfortunately, PC's modest selection catered to more predictable tastes: vanilla, hazelnut, caramel and raspberry.  We have gotten more exciting flavors in the past, though always through mail order.  I guess that's what I'll need to do in the future.  We were low on raspberry so the trip wasn't a total loss.

Yes, I know I could make my own and I have in the past but that requires more effort than I was looking for on Father's Day.  Plus, the bottled variety is more shelf-stable.  That probably speaks to icky chemicals but I can live with it.

Italian soda is actually an American invention, first introduced in San Francisco in 1925.  I got my recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide.  They turned out well, though not quite as sweet as I would have liked.  Now, I seem to recall that when I've made them before, I have used 1.5 oz of syrup rather than the 1 in the recipe.  I'll have to remember that for next time.  Mind you, they still hit the spot in our recent sweltering heat.  Plus, they're pretty.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Clone Wars: Season Five

We have reached the end of Season Five in our exploration of The Clone Wars.   Episode posts resume next Tuesday with The Lost Missions.  But first, a quick reflection...

General Impressions

Season Four was so weak overall that it's been great to see the series rebound with interesting tales of consequence both for The Clone Wars and for the broader Star Wars saga.  Season Five belongs to Ahsoka Tano. The season's two best arcs - the Onderon civil war arc and the season's final stretch - both focus on the Padawan.  There are down turns here and there, including an unfortunate four-part droid story arc and the full-on return of Darth Maul.  In fairness, while I'm not a fan of Maul's resurrection in principle, his story arc is actually pretty good.


Favorite Episode: "The Wrong Jedi"
via Confessions of a Serial Wordsmith
You got your spoiler alert on Tuesday.  Now, it's fair game...

Ahsoka goes through a lot in Season Five.  First, she gets caught up in the civil war on Onderon where she comes perilously close to falling for Lux Bonteri.  More importantly, she gets a taste of the broader struggle on her own terms, away from Anakin and the Jedi Council.  In the season's final arc, she is exiled from the Order, then invited back when cleared of her alleged crimes.  Her decision to leave anyway is downright shocking, an axiom-challenging twist worthy of a franchise that once turned the villain into the hero's father.  As we have seen in the Star Wars story, anyone abandoning the Jedi Way is dangerous, if not galactically catastrophic.  And yet as the viewer, it's not difficult to see her choice as justified.  This isn't just the strongest episode of the season.  It's a strong challenger for best of the entire series.


Least Favorite Episode: "A Sunny Day in the Void"

I love the droids but I hate the droid stories.  What madness led those in charge to believe that a four-part arc led by the droids would be a good idea?  "A Sunny Day in the Void" is the worst of the four because it has the robots getting lost in a flat, empty desert - not even the elegant, rolling, Tunisian dunes we get on Tatooine.  This is Utah Salt Flats emptiness without the mountains in the background.  Just awful.


Favorite New Character: Gregor

Amazingly, the four-part droid arc was not a total loss.  In Part 3, "Missing in Action," we meet Gregor, a former clone trooper now working as a dishwasher in Pons Ora, a sketchy town on Abafar.  He has amnesia, having sustained a head wound in battle.  He remembers nothing of his soldier past.  Fortunately, he comes around in time to see that he has to help the droids and their leader, Colonel Meebur.


Onward

The Clone Wars series was pulled by Cartoon Network in March 2013.  However, the production team already had 13 Season Six episodes in the can.  These shows, dubbed The Lost Missions, were released first on German television in February 2014.  Netflix released the shows to American and Canadian audiences in March of the same year.  We're in the home stretch, folks.


Please visit my friend Andrew Leon today for his Season Five recap.  Next Tuesday: "The Unknown."

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Clone Wars: The Wrong Jedi

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 Wrong Jedi"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 20
Original Air Date: March 1, 2013
via Wookieepedia
What is the true moral position of the Jedi Order within the Star Wars universe?  For me, this is the question that lies at the heart of the best Clone Wars episodes and what, in fact, makes the series more interesting than the prequel movies themselves.  All of the movies are set upon an obvious Jedi vs. Sith conflict, with Jedi the unquestioned good guys, the Sith the unquestioned bad.  We know that Anakin ultimately abandons one for the other but that is due to his personal failings and Palpatine's manipulation.  We are never left to question whether the Jedi might, in some instances, actually be in the wrong.  In The Clone Wars, that's all on the table, nowhere more so than in the final episode of Season Five.

Ahsoka Tano stands accused of murder and treason.  We all know she's been framed but Anakin is the only Jedi who believes it.  Tarkin and the Senate want her to have a civilian trial so they demand Ahsoka be kicked out of the Jedi Order.


SPOILER ALERT!!!


We really can't explore the story any further without spoiling.  Ahsoka is removed from the Order.  While Padme stands in as public defender for Ahsoka, Anakin tracks down Asajj Ventress, Ahsoka's accused accomplice, to learn the truth.  Asajj argues for her own innocence and implicates another: Barriss Offee, Ahsoka's confidant within the Order.  Anakin confronts Barriss.  They duel.  Barriss is brought before the court just at the moment of verdict and confesses all, her speech an impassioned accusation of the Jedi, blaming them, not the Separatists, for the war.  This is not the first time we've heard this asserition but it is the first time we've heard it from a Jedi.  Nonetheless, Ahsoka is vindicated.  Perry Mason couldn't have planned it any better.

But wait, there's more.  Here's where things really get interesting.  The Jedi Council apologizes to Ahsoka for doubting her and welcome her back to the Order.  Instead of rushing back to their welcoming embrace, she walks away.

She walks away!  Her faith in herself and her faith in the Jedi have been shaken.  While she is clearly sad to leave, she sees that her way lies along a different path.  Now, more than ever, it is becoming increasingly clear that The Clone Wars has been largely Ahsoka's story all along, not Anakin's.


END OF SPOILER


Ian Abercrombie, the original voice of Palpatine in The Clone Wars, died on January 26, 2012 of kidney failure.  The episode "Lawless" was dedicated to his memory.  While some of his parts for future episodes, including one Lost Missions arc, had already been recorded, the series needed a new voice actor for the role.  In stepped master thespian, Tim Curry.
via Garfield Wiki
Timothy Curry was born April 19, 1946 in Grappenhall, Cheshire, England.  Curry attended boarding school at Kingswood School in Bath where he was a talented boy soprano.  At university in Birmingham he studied English and Drama.

The London stage beckoned.  Curry got his first full-time role in the London production of Hair but it was his second gig that set him on the path to international superstar.  Fair or not, Curry will always be best associated with his most famous role: Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  He performed the part in London and Los Angeles productions before landing the screen gig.  Frank doesn't merely steal the show in Rocky Horror, the world's greatest of all cult films.  He is the show.

His stage and screen credits since are numerous.  Movies include Annie, Clue and Legend.  He has done extensive voice work, too, with roles in Fern Gully, Peter Pan & The Pirates, for which he won a Daytime Emmy as Captain Hook, and The Wild Thornberrys.  Between 1978 and 1981, he also recorded three albums with A&M.  His single "I Do the Rock", co-written with Michael Kamen, even reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  I'll let you judge for yourself...



Next week: "The Unknown." This Thursday, we'll be recapping Season Five.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Squid Eats: The Kitchen Table Bistro

via Kitchen Table Bistro

My parents were in town this past weekend for our daughter's clarinet and piano recitals.  As discussed last week, our favorite post-recital restaurant has closed up shop so we're in search of a new spot.  We have been to The Kitchen Table Bistro in Richmond before.  My wife and I have gone for our wedding anniversary several times and years ago, her employer had a Christmas party there.  This was, however, our first time bringing my parents.

Service was a bit slow, though otherwise professional and friendly.  The food is always good.  Unfortunately, I wasn't in the best shape to enjoy it as I had gorged on snacks at the piano recital.  Even so, I enjoyed what I had.

My wife and I started with oysters on the half shell.  I love oysters - there's something borderline naughty about them, they're so sexy.  For the entree, she and I split the mustard crusted day roasted pork shoulder, actually surprisingly delicate for pork.  It fell apart easily with just a fork, knife barely required.  So full, I wasn't even up for much dessert, though I snuck a couple bites of wife and daughter's lemon poundcake with strawberries and rhubarb ice cream.  Our daughter, a rhubarb fan, was particularly excited for the ice cream, though my mother was disappointed by it.

Overall, my parents seemed impressed.  I think we may have found a reasonable replacement for Sonoma Station.

Oh, and the recitals went very well.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Clone Wars: To Catch a Jedi

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: "To Catch a Jedi"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 19
Original Air Date: February 22, 2013
via Wookieepedia
Ahsoka is on the run.  She is suspected of murdering a prisoner, then killing several clone troopers on her way out.  We all know she's innocent and that someone is setting her up.  The viewing audience gets a pretty clear sense of who that "someone" is but the Padawan doesn't quite see it yet.  On the streets of Coruscant, Ahsoka finds a surprising ally in Asajj Ventress, herself an exile from the other side of the war.

There's one more episode to go in this four-part arc.  Homages to The Fugitive and Hitchcock continue.  There's a chase scene through a subway train that's highly reminiscent of the Harrison Ford classic.  All of the episodes in the arc, including this one, are named for Hitch films.
via Wookieepedia
During her wanderings in the underworld, Ahsoka encounters Spots Podal, a vagrant Gotal.  She trades food with him for his cloak.  This episode marks his first and only appearance in the series.  He is unnamed in the episode but was given a name in the Star Wars site's online trivia gallery.  He is voiced by Dave Filoni.

Next week: "The Wrong Jedi."

Monday, June 12, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Storybook Love

Title: Fables, Vol. 3: Storybook Love
Writer: Bill Willingham
Artist: Mark Buckingham
via Amazon
In the excellent Fables comic book series, fairy tale characters live among us in secret within their own New York City enclave, Fabletown.  This third collection includes issues #11-18. The Storybook Love arc itself only takes up four of those issues, #14-17.  It's a great story with significant character and relationship development, particularly between the series's two leads: Bigby (Big Bad Wolf) and Snow White.  It also ends with a great cliffhanger.

Issue #11, "Bag o' Bones," tells the adventures of Jack (he of the beanstalk) during the American Civil War.  The story gives a sense of how long the Fables have been in our world.  It also made me grateful for the time I have spent with the source material since I last visited this series.  The tale is straight out of Grimm: Jack wins a magic bag in a card game, then uses it to cheat Death.  Disastrous consequences follow.

Issues #12 and 13 are a two-part arc in which the Fables must cover their tracks when a nosy reporter gets way too close to their secret.  Just as the Potterverse wizards must hide their true nature from Muggles, so must the Fables preserve the ignorance of the Mundies.  The Fables, though, are inclined towards darker, more violent tactics to achieve their ends. 

#18 is a Lilliputian story.  Jonathan Swift's minifolk play a meaningful role in the Storybook Love arc so it's only appropriate they should get their own tale.  "Barleycorn Brides" tells of how the Lilliputians, initially all male, managed to find female mates.

I continue to be impressed by the series and curious about the source material.  I'm definitely up for more.  Next up, Volume 4: The March of the Wooden Soldiers.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Squid Eats: Toscano Cafe Bistro

For years now, we have had a family tradition.  After our daughter's end-of-the-year dance recital, we would go to Sonoma Station for dinner (previously discussed here).  It was my parents' favorite restaurant in Vermont, too, so as they were usually in town for the recital they were only too happy to go.  Alas, Sonoma Station closed its doors last month. 

Our lives are changing in other ways.  For a few years now, the girl's interests have slowly been moving away from dance and towards music.  She plays three instruments: piano, clarinet and bass clarinet.  Now 13, she's gotten pretty good at all of them, particularly the piano.  She's taken lessons for five years and left me in the dust ages ago.  Admittedly, I was a late bloomer in music but her comfort, knowledge, sensitivity and passion already exceed anything I experienced before college.  It's a joy to watch.  In part because of this shift in interests, in part because dance weekend is crazy enough without having to worry about out of town guests, we invited my parents to come for music recital weekend instead this year. 

With all of these changes, it is certainly a good time to forge new traditions.  We asked the Purple Penguin if she had any requests for her post-recital dinner this year.  She told us to surprise her.  Challenge accepted!  She loves Italian, so...

We had never been to Toscano Cafe Bistro in Richmond before.  We certainly know the neighborhood.  Sonoma Station was just down the road and Bridge Street Cafe (read more here), another now defunct family favorite, was across the street.  Downtown Richmond was also our trick-or-treat area of choice for a long time. 

We started with mussels (if they're on the menu, we're getting them) and deconstructed bruschetta.  I had pork tenderloin as an entree.  My wife and I shared a peach cobbler for dessert.  The food was all good as was the service.  It was noisy, so not the best place for intimate conversation and probably not a reasonable Sonoma replacement for my parents.  Prices are on the high side but they reflect high quality. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Clone Wars: The Jedi Who Knew Too Much

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 Jedi Who Knew Too Much"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 18
Original Air Date: February 15, 2013
via Wookieepedia
This week's episode is the second in a four-part arc that finishes Season Five.  Last week, Letta Turmond, wife of civilian technician Jackar Bowmani, was exposed as the saboteur behind the bombing of the Jedi Temple.  Now in custody, she asks to speak to Ahsoka.  While our favorite Padawan is visiting the prisoner, Letta is killed by what appears to be a Force choking.  Since Ahsoka was the only one in the room with her, she becomes the obvious suspect.  But Ahsoka didn't do it.  But no one believes her.  Well, Anakin does.  Ahsoka is on the run and Anakin leads the chase to find her, leading to a Fugitive homage scene.

When I bring up The Clone Wars with my students who know it, this is the story that comes up.  For all of the many narrative threads followed in the series, this Ahsoka Gone Rogue tale is the one people seem to remember best.

"The Jedi Who Knew Too Much" is directed by Danny Keller.  He was primarily a storyboard and previsualization artist for The Clone Wars.  This is the seventh and last episode he directed.  He also did character animation work for Meet the Robinsons, Garfield: The Movie and The Matrix Reloaded among others.

Next week: "To Catch a Jedi."

Friday, June 2, 2017

Squid Mixes: Pimm's Cup

Pimm's cup is a very English drink.  It is one of two traditional drinks at Wimbledon and many other high profile British events, the other being champagne.  Its base is Pimm's No. 1, a liqueur invented by one James Pimm in 1823 London.  The cocktail could hardly be simpler: 1.5 oz of the liqueur over ice, top off with lemon-lime soda or, the preference at our house, ginger ale.  Garnish with lemon.  There are more complicated recipes in bar books, usually including additional garnishing with cucumber and mint, but the basic formula on the back of the bottle suits us just fine.  The liqueur itself brings a spicy, fruity flavor to the party - evokes cinnamon for me.

American Bar by Charles Schumann includes three Pimm's recipes.  They list our drink, with ginger ale, as Pimm's Rangoon.  Pimm's No. 1 is mixed with lemon-lime soda, Pimm's Royal with champagne.  My wife just bought a new bottle of the liqueur so we may well have the chance to try all three.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Jules Feiffer

Title: Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel
Writer and Artist: Jules Feiffer
via Amazon
Kill My Mother is a film noir in comic book form, though it does manage to extend beyond that genre's usual trappings.  At the heart of the story is a family drama - actually the dramas of two families, intertwined.  The tale gets complicated so I will fall back on the book jacket summary:

As our story begins, we meet Annie Hannigan [blogger note: a rather dark-hearted homage to the Little Orphan], an out-of-control teenager, jitterbugging in the 1930s. Annie dreams of offing her mother, Elsie, whom she blames for abandoning her for a job soon after her husband, a cop, is shot and killed. Now, employed by her husband s best friend an over-the-hill and perpetually soused private eye Elsie finds herself covering up his missteps as she is drawn into a case of a mysterious client, who leads her into a decade-long drama of deception and dual identities sprawling from the Depression era to World War II Hollywood and the jungles of the South Pacific.

Along with three femme fatales, an obsessed daughter, and a loner heroine, Kill My Mother features a fighter turned tap dancer, a small-time thug who dreams of being a hit man, a name-dropping cab driver, a communist liquorstore owner, and a hunky movie star with a mind-boggling secret. Culminating in a U.S.O. tour on a war-torn Pacific island, this disparate band of old enemies congregate to settle scores.

The story's certainly interesting but I had a few artistic issues.  The characters have a poured-out-of-a-bottle look which doesn't appeal to me.  Also, the female characters look too much alike, meaningful to the narrative but confusing.  That said, the plot twist is especially good, and not one you'd have been likely to see in the film style's heyday. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Clone Wars: Sabotage

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: "Sabotage"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 17
Original Air Date: February 8, 2013
via Wookieepedia
"Sabotage" kicks off the final story arc of Season Five.  I haven't watched ahead but I know what's coming.  The series has been gradually building towards a climax for a long time and the payoff is nearly upon us.  We'll have plenty to talk about once it's over.

Anakin and Ahsoka are summoned to investigate a bombing at the Jedi Temple.  Given the near-impenetrable security, the Council fears the job was carried out from within, perhaps even by a Jedi.  As rumors swirl, the political pressure mounts from both the civilian population and the Repulican Senate.  The truth must be found quickly.

Soon, a suspect emerges: a civilian technician, Jackar Bowmani.  But he's nowhere to be found.  Next, his wife turns up and that's when things get really interesting...
via Wookieepedia
Letta Turmond is Jackar's wife.  She is a human Coruscan citizen.  I hesitate to share any more details just yet for fear of spoiling but she is sure to be a character of great consequence in this story.  She is voiced by Kari Wahlgren.
via Batman Wiki
Kari Wahlgren was born July 13, 1977 in Hoisington, Kansas.  After graduating from the University of Kansas as a theater major, she found some radio work in Kansas City before heading to Los Angeles.  On-camera work was scarce so she focused on voice-overs.  Her career took off.  She has had major roles in several animated series: Witch Hunter Robin, Last Exile and Samurai Champloo among others.  Star Wars has been especially good for her, with work in television and video games. 

Next week: "The Jedi Who Knew Too Much."

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.

END OF SPOILER


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.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Liar's Poker

Title: Liar's Poker
Author: Michael Lewis
via Amazon
Michael Lewis is that unusual author who has managed to become a star across two genres, in his case business and sports.  So far, three of his books - The Blind Side, Moneyball and The Big Short - have been made into successful films.  Liar's Poker was his debut, a memoir of his own time on the trade floors of Salomon Brothers in the mid-'80s.

High finance was a suddenly glamorous world in the '80s, portrayed most prominently in popular culture through Oliver Stone's film Wall Street and Tom Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, both released in 1987.  Lewis was one of many seeking Wall Street jobs in record numbers.  Salomon Brothers was seen as the best of the best and Lewis fell into his own gig with them essentially through dumb luck.

My own impression of that world is shaped by my experiences temping in New York in the late '90s/early aughts.  Liar's Poker confirms all of my suspicions that traders are vile, ruthless, reptilian life forms devoid of scruples. (Apologies to any of you who are traders or have loved ones in the biz and to any of you with a fondness for reptiles.)  No matter the topic, Lewis is an expert at drawing vivid, memorable characters, even if they're not especially likeable.  To his credit, he doesn't even paint himself as a particularly commendable person, though he does occasionally express regret at screwing over a customer.

As might be expected of an earlier work, Liar's Poker is not as good as The Big Short, though in providing some early history of the mortgage bond market, it does make for an interesting prequel.  Liar's Poker is funny, just not as funny.  I still can't say I understand any better how the markets work but the fly on the wall perspective is entertaining nonetheless.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Clone Wars: Eminence

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: "Eminence"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 14
Original Air Date: January 18, 2013
via Wookieepedia
We don't have too many episodes to go at this point.  There are only six more for Season 5, then the 13 "Lost Missions" episodes.  As we're fairly well along in the broader story, a lot of narrative threads are converging.  My reactions to an individual episode or arc are subject to my feelings about those individual threads.

"Eminence" brings us back to the Savage Opress/Darth Maul story we last visited in "Revival."  For anyone following my episode order, the Netflix order, that was several weeks ago.  For anyone following Andrew's, the DVD order, it was just last week.   I have mixed feelings about the arc.  On the one hand, I like Savage and pretty much all of his background tale.  On the other hand, I am not so keen on the reemergence of Darth Maul.  On yet another hand (or a foot?), "Eminence" brings us back to the Mandalore/Death Watch struggle which I enjoy. 

When we last saw Savage and Maul, they had just gotten away from an encounter with Obi-Wan Kenobi.  This week, we find them adrift and alone in space, but suddenly rescued by Death Watch soldiers, led by our old friends Pre Vizsla and Bo-Katan Kryze.  The two parties form an unlikely alliance, the brothers supplying Sith muscle, Death Watch providing numbers, equipment and supplies.  Neither side is playing straight, though.  We take a nice stroll through Star Wars's underworld, too, as the new partners work to broaden their sphere of influence.
via Wookieepedia
Along the way, the new team of baddies call on the Hutt family.  Among the Grand Hutt Council is Oruba, for whom the meeting goes especially poorly.  "Eminence" is Oruba's third Clone Wars appearance.  He is voiced by Corey Burton.

Next week: "Shades of Reason."

Friday, May 5, 2017

Squid Eats: Michael's on the Hill

via Vermont Restaurant Week
For my recent birthday, we went to Michael's on the Hill for dinner.  Located in Waterbury Center, Michael's is one of the most highly regarded high-end restaurants in Vermont.  It's just barely south of Stowe, a ski resort town. 

The meal was nice.  Unlike another recent adventure (see here), the service was expertly provided by our waitress, sporting a ski goggle tan.  The food was good.  We shared a paté plate and I had the double pork chop for the main course.   It was a pleasant evening.  But here's the big question: was it worth the price?

I don't mean this as a knock against Michael's in particular.  The prices are printed on the menu.  No one is being duped.  Mine is more a question of whether fine dining in general is worth the cost.  I thoroughly enjoyed my meal but was it truly several times better than a kimchi taco at Mad Taco (see here).  My pork was good but I don't salivate thinking about it the way I do those kimchi tacos.  The visceral reaction is certainly reflective of something.

There is one course, though, where fine dining nearly always comes through: dessert!  I had the Cordillera Fair Trade Chocolate Truffle Torte with Mint Julep Sorbet and Preserved Raspberry Sauce.  The sorbet alone was one of the most amazing things I've ever tasted.

With fine dining, you're paying for an overall experience.  The food is the vital component but the quality of service and the general atmosphere are important, too.  I have had meals in my life when I walked away feeling light-headed and tingly - a different sort of visceral response, I suppose.  Michael's on the Hill didn't quite attain that standard for me, but it was good.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Clone Wars: Point of No Return

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: "Point of No Return"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 13
Original Air Date: January 11, 2013
via Wookieepedia
After escaping from the planet Abafar, D-Squad catches up with what they assume is a Republic Star Destroyer.  Naturally, all is not as it seems.  The vessel has been stolen by Confederacy droids and loaded with explosives.  Their target is a Republic Strategy Conference. 

Our friends soon discover a small group of surviving Republic droids aboard the ship, led by Bunny, a rabbit droid.  Now all struggle together to foil the Confederacy's evil plan and get themselves safely off the ship before it detonates.  With this episode, the four-part D-Squad story arc finally comes to a merciful end. 
via Wookieepedia
Bunny is the nickname of BNI-393, a feminine LEP servant droid.  "Point of No Return" marks her only Clone Wars appearance.  She is voiced by Catherine Taber.

Next week: "Eminence."

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: May 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, May 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, April 28, 2017

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: April 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: My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals
Editors: Melanie Dunea
via Amazon
The premise of photographer Dunea's coffee table book is self-explanatory.  She asked 50 famous chefs the same six questions:
  • What would be your last meal on earth?
  • What would be the setting for your meal?
  • What would you drink with your meal?
  • Would there be music?
  • Who would be your dining companions?
  • Who would prepare the meal?
For each, she included the answers along with a full-page (at least) photo.  The responses predictably ranged from the simple to the extravagant.  Quite a few of them wanted sashimi.  The portraits are mostly great, though the nude of Anthony Bourdain is quite disturbing.  All, of course, express a deep intimacy with food.

Naturally, such a book leaves one pondering one's own answers to the questions.  I couldn't resist the exercise...

What would be your last meal on earth?

I imagine a huge, multicultural buffet: pasta, pizza, fried chicken, taco bar, pad kee mao, ice cream and bread pudding for dessert.  I think I could go for some of that sashimi, too.


What would be the setting for your meal?

Stoves in Yokohama.  It was our favorite place when I was an English teacher in Japan.  Long Island Iced Tea was our drink of choice (learn more here).  It's still there, up and running 20 years later.


What would you drink with your meal?

Drinks would be flowing: beer, wine, spirits.  All would be merry, though no one would be drunk.  I wouldn't have to worry about the hangover in the morning but I don't want to be remembered as an idiot.


Would there be music?

The Beatles, all four of them.  Lots of the chefs wished for dead people come back to life, including musicians.  So, I get to have the Beatles, together, all bygones bygone.  Acoustic instruments only.  What would begin as a concert for us, including rousing singalongs, would evolve.  In time, they would forget about us and spend the rest of the evening playing for each other, enjoying one another's company as old friends.  They'd play the old stuff, dribble in the better solo songs.  George would drag out the sitar.  We would be flies on the wall for the greatest rock 'n' roll reunion ever.


Who would be your dining companions?

In the beginning, it would be all of those who have been dear to me during my life.  Most would have no previous connection with each other except through me so it would be a chance for them to know each other, too.  Over the course of the night, though, the crowd would dwindle to an ever more intimate group.  Eventually, it would be just the three of us: wife, daughter and me.  Finally, just my wife and me.

The Fab Four, still mostly oblivious to our presence, would intuitively know which songs I would need at the very end.  They would finish their last set with "Here, There and Everywhere," the world's most perfect tune and, not coincidentally, our wedding song.  Then they, too, would finally pack up and wander off into the night.


Who would prepare the meal?

There would be a team of grandmothers of various nationalities, all snapping at each other in different languages as they jockeyed for position in the kitchen.  But all of the food would be steeped in the love and wisdom of countless generations.  They would turn out all the lights for us after the Beatles left, and return in the morning to make a hearty breakfast for wife and daughter.


How about you?  What would your answers to the questions be?

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 26th.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Yasser Seirawan

Title: Winning Chess Tactics
Author: Yasser Seirawan with Jeremy Silman
via Amazon
It was through playing chess that I first learned the difference between a strategy and a tactic.  A strategy is a broad plan of action designed to gain a long-term advantage: controlling the middle of the board, for instance.  A tactic is an action intended for short-term gain: forking the king and queen with a knight.  Naturally, the two ideas are closely related and, in fact, often employed in concert but the distinction is important.

Tactics are my greatest weakness as a chess player.  I am good at setting up strong positions (strategic play) but I am not good at seeing the tactical possibilities that will lead to victory.  Even more problematic, I tend to be vulnerable to tactics employed by my opponents.  If I'm ever going to progress as a player, this is the part of my game that needs shoring up.

The Winning Chess series is written by Yasser Seirawan, a Syrian-born U.S. chess champion.  His book on tactics covers all the tricks: forks, pins, skewers, deflections, etc.  He also profiles several of the great tacticians of chess history: Alekhine, Tal and Kasparov among others.  He includes full transcriptions of some of their most famous games, too.  This was my second time reading the book.  It's all fascinating but I think I'll need to refer back to it often for it to help my game.

If you'd care for a game, I'm ikaspiel at Chess.com.  My current rating is 1246.  I hope to improve that in time for my next chess post!