Saturday, March 31, 2012

le weekend

We had fun with some old friends this weekend, eating out and going to the beach and the pool and talking, talking talking. And it didn't start raining until everyone had to go home. Perfect.


This is a "found" sand castle, but the kid added a few embellishments to someone else's masterwork.


Good friends, good food, a good night.

Friday, March 30, 2012


As much as I complain about daylight savings time and having to get up early on Thursday's to take the kid to strings class, there is a benefit — getting to go to the beach and watch the sun rise.



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Thursday, March 29, 2012

xbox — get up and get moving

I got the kid an Xbox for her birthday. I've been resisting a video game system fo a long time, as it's such a time suck, and we already spend a lot of time goofing off on the iPad. But the kid had been making a beeline to the Xbox exhibition model every time we go to Best Buy. After watching her playing a Puss in Boots game, where she was actually "dancing" and "dueling" and "walking" on a tightrope, I thought it might not be such a bad idea. I like the idea of the active playing you can do with the Kinect system.

I have always liked games, since I first got my computer, but I was mostly drawn to the intricate puzzle worlds of Myst or strategy games with ancient civilization themes. Watching (and joining) her play Lego Harry Potter makes me realize how slow my reaction skills are compared to hers. As familiar I am with the Potter characters and stories, I just don't see some of the little Lego objects and their obvious translation into action or gameplay as quickly as she does.

She is not only getting to act out, via the Lego universe, scenes with characters related to movies that she hasn't even seen yet (and books she hasn't read) like Voldemort's horrible snake Nagini, but she is pretty quick at solving problems — like which power/spell to use in her wand. It will be interesting to see how these sorts of games translate into some of her problem-solving in the future, although I notice she has a typical 8 year-old's frustration with getting stuck on a level — well, the frustration is typical for any age, really.

Besides the Harry Potter game, we picked up a few others — the Puss in Boots, of course, which is a lot of fun (Antonio Banderas voices his most famous character), and one based on the television show LOST for me, although I really haven't had any time to play it yet. So far the Kinect system seems to feature more shoot-em-up and adult- or adventure-themed games, so it's good that the kid likes the few that are more geared to her age. There are some workout and sports-themed ones, too made for the Kinect system, so we'll see if these video games can get me up and moving and off my laptop for a spell.
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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

attitude at the grocery store?

Aren't times tough enough that a person shouldn't be getting sassed at the checkout counter? I was running errands yesterday before I had to pick up the kid after school and stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few things. We get our prescriptions there, so I got those first, and then after a hasty glance at my list I grabbed some cereal for the kid, a loaf of bread, and some bologna for sandwiches.

On my way to the ten items or fewer checkout lane I checked out the prepared food section, because sometimes these timesavers also save my sanity. They had a big pre-made salad, a spinach quiche, and some marinated mushrooms from their olive bar that I could use to either make a light dinner or a couple of lunches for us.

I put my items on the conveyor belt and fished for my card when I heard the cashier say something — but she was also looking around, so I wasn't sure at first that she was talking to me.

She repeated her questions, "$32? What are you buying?" I just stared at her. Certainly she wasn't giving me crap for what I was purchasing, was she? But she repeated herself, again. I looked at the product read-out. Yes, those items all add up to $32. Kinda sucks. But I'm also kinda in a hurry, and I'm not always going to be a coupon queen. If I want some marinated mushrooms, etc., dammit, why the hell not? Of course now I'm even more pissed at myself for letting this check-out person make me question the wisdom of my purchases and my lack of frugality.

I'd like to think she meant well, but it was clearly a shaming exercise, one she probably has done before. Maybe it makes her feel superior about her purchases at the end of the day. But I have no desire to look into her grocery bag. I will admit to vicariously looking at others' groceries and trying to piece together what sort of meals and lifestyles they might have. Sometimes it's fun, as the items don't seem to go together. But to take those harmless musings to the next level and actually call someone out for their three packages of Ho-Hos, "You're not really going to eat those, are you?" No way would it ever even occur to me to do that.

Maybe she was just envious of my marinated mushrooms, or the kid's Lucky Charms (a breakfast cereal she may have thought were mine — admittedly my few assorted items probably looked like a single gal who doesn't know how to shop). Regardless, I'm looking forward to our quiche and salad — with a nice side condiment of marinated mushrooms. And hopefully, less input next time. Maybe I should request the store install a self-check-out lane.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

back to school

The kid headed back to school after our week off of spring break. We had a great time. She doesn't have a t-shirt to show for it, but she did get a new haircut (pictures forthcoming) and a stye in her eye. Oh well, such is life. Now just a little more than two months and she'll be off for the summer. Whew, that was fast.

One of the highlights of her spring break is still our visit to Lion Country Safari. We saw lots of fabulous animals, but the highlight for the kid was the amusement part of the park.

Monday, March 26, 2012

khan al-khalili

Article first published as Book Review: Khan al-Khalili by Naguib Mahfouz on Blogcritics.

Khan al-Khalili, first published in 1945, was the first of Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz's contemporary novels set in his beloved Cairo.

The story is set in 1942, and the African campaign during World War II has started to directly affect the inhabitants of Egypt, as the Germans bomb the city. Ahmad Akif, a civil servant who hates his going-nowhere job, has had to move his parents and himself from a more prosperous neighborhood to the Khan al-Khalili — where they believe the holy site and mosque of al-Husayn will protect them from any future bombing sorties. Not the case.

Ahmad is a difficult protagonist to like at first, as he is so disdainful of everyone and everything around him. Profoundly insecure, he considers himself a genius and is constantly having an internal dialogue about how bad luck has held him back from any success in life. But the rich culture of the Khan al-Khalili bazaar is about to change his life in many ways. He will meet a young girl, Nawal, who touches his heart. He will make friends who open his eyes to thinkers like Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. And he will realize exactly how much his younger brother Rushdi really means to him.

Nobel Prize-winning author (1988) Mahfouz paints a compelling picture of Cairo during the war — from an angle that many readers have probably never encountered before. The men that Ahmad spends time with at the Zahra Cafe are constantly debating politics and ideas. Some are sympathetic to Hitler and the Germans, some to the Russians, but most are not fond of the British, who occupied Egypt from the 1880s until the 1930s. But nothing, especially political sympathies, are simple for Ahmad or his circle. Cairo is caught in the crossfire, and there are as many criticisms of the Germans as hopeful thinking that they will banish the Brits and end the war.

Egyptian food and religious festivals, especially Ramadan, provide backdrop and texture for many of the emotional events in the novel. Soon the interpersonal tragedies of the Akifs far outweigh the fear and inconvenience of being rousted out of bed and having to go to a bomb shelter in the middle of the night. The war is always there in the background, but it is Ahmad's growth, the opening of his heart, that is the main focus of the novel. The war and other circumstances all join to drag Ahmad from his classical and familiar Arabic texts into a more modern, if irrevocably changed, world. Khan al-Khalili is a great introduction to the work of Naguib Mahfouz and the rich and complicated life of modern Egypt and Egyptians.
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Sunday, March 25, 2012

i'm walking here!

We've been on spring break all week, much of it relaxing, but we did plan an excursion to Lion Country Safari. We saw lots of great animals — lions, wildebeest, flamingoes, giraffes, chimps, zebras — but probably the one that made the most impact (escpecially on my car door window) was this female ostrich. She clearly was not in the mood for us or any of the other cars, as she made a point of visiting each and sharing her views.
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Saturday, March 24, 2012

no admittance

After eight years I have finally had to declare a closed door policy on my bathroom. This may seem strange to some that I waited this long, but this is also the first time since my daughter was born that we have lived in a place that had more than one bathroom.

When she was a baby and toddler this wasn't an issue, except that I needed to keep the door open to hear what she might be getting up to as I got in and out quickly. As she got older and more independent it sometimes became necessary to let her get in to use the potty while I was showering, etc.

But it just seemed nuts to me that she strolled right in the other day while I was finishing up some personal business and asked me if could help her open a can of dog food. Bless her, she was feeding the dog. But I suddenly realized that there was no reason I needed to leave the door open any more. Certainly a can of dog food could wait. And if she had some other pressing business, it could be accomplished in the other bathroom. We are ever evolving.
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Friday, March 23, 2012

the hunger games — on film

I'm not a big fan of jittery camera work, which the film adaptation of The Hunger Games uses in abundance, but I have to admit that it suited the story perfectly. If you have managed to skip the books or all of the hype surrounding the movie, it features sixteen year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who lives with her mother and sister Prim in District 12 in the country of Panem, what remains of North America. After a civil war, only 12 of 13 districts have survived, and they are kept under the tight control of a vengeful Capitol, led by a vindictive President Snow. To punish the districts and keep them in line the Capitol each year holds the Hunger Games, which pits 24 children, 2 per district, in a fight to the death, much like Roman gladiatorial combat. In just a few deft scenes the film was able to depict District 12, where Katniss, her childhood friend Gale, and acquaintance Peeta all hale from, giving the audience the feeling of what Appalachia might be like in a dystopian future.

Katniss and Peeta are forced to train for the arena
"May the odds be ever in your favor."

Katniss is thrown for a loop when her younger sister Prim, only 12 years old, is chosen, and volunteers to be the female contestant for district 12 in her sister's place. She is rushed through a series of hasty goodbyes and a whirlwind exposure to the excesses of food and fashion that the Capitol enjoys, all the time being filmed constantly. Seeing the Capitol depicted onscreen, with all of its inhabitants' garish costumes and make-up was a huge contrast to the blood and guts arena. The casting was perfect down the line, with Jennifer Lawrence a standout as Katniss. Josh Hutcherson, who is frequently called on to play a bratty (Zathura: A Space Adventure), even obnoxious (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) teen, was convincing as the sweeter, gentler Peeta, who knows that without Katniss he has no chance of winning in the arena.

I was wondering if the book's critiques of reality television and warfare would be able to survive such a hyped film — would the audience be guilty of being hungry for the Hunger Games? But the film was never exploitive of what the kids were put through. The fast-paced editing definitely sped past some of the deaths, but I don't think longer shots would have deepened their impact. On the reality television side, Stanley Tucci, was the perfect, oily host, Caesar Flickerman, who framed the contest in pre-Games touchy-feely interviews with the contestants and play-by-play, or death-by-death, coverage once the Games had begun.

Katniss watches Peeta yuk it up in his interview with Caesar Flickerman
Although hardly seen, Donald Sutherland was menacing as the white rose-fancying President Snow. It may seem strange to some viewers how meekly the citizens of Panem take the fate of their children, and how those 24 teens immediately fall into the kill-or-be-killed gameplay rather than banding together to fight The Man. Caesar Flickerman introduces the 74th Hunger Games — after almost three quarters of a century, most of the fight seems to have gone out of the people — at least until Katniss lights a spark that will burn in the future.

By being herself, as stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) advises her, combined with a bit of showbiz that mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, perfectly cast as drunken past Hunger Games champion) coaches her to employ, she shows compassion for some of her fellow contestants and flouts the rules at crucial junctures in the Games, much to the dismay of the controlling President Snow. Kravitz, sporting Cinna's trademark gold eyeliner, only had a few scenes with Lawrence, but he managed to make their relationship seem as close and true as the characters in the book. He made me wonder if author Suzanne Collins had taken the story in a slightly different direction, Cinna might have blown the Peeta/Gale/Katniss love triangle to bits and Katniss could have run off with him.

Cinna wishes Katniss luck before she enters the arena
But the main focus of the film is the arena, the Hunger Games, and they were as brutal as they were in the book, maybe more so, as the audience had to watch the bodies fall. The film actually helped make some of the other tributes, if not more relatable, at least more identifiable, as the book is told solely from Katniss's point of view. The film also took us behind-the-scenes in the Capitol's control room, showing us how many of the trials the kids suffered in the field originated there — something Katniss suspects in the book, but is too busy running from threats, trying to survive to give it much thought.

The movie clocked in at over two hours and 20 minutes, but it was fast-paced and exciting all the way. As much as I knew what was coming, after recently reading the books, it still was suspenseful and edge-of-seat scary at times. It was interesting to see how certain stand-out scenes were translated to the screen — the "tracker jacker" wasps, Katniss's alliance with District 11's young Rue, the fabulous, burning gowns designed by Cinna that helped make Katniss "the girl on fire."

Former District 12 champion Haymitch gives Katniss some support and advice before she heads off to the Hunger Games
I saw The Hunger Games in IMAX, with a full crowd, evenly mixed of adults and teens, many of us not chaperones. The filmakers were pretty smart to release it during spring break, when kids home from college could attend the screenings in packs, like the gaggle of teenage girls seated in the row behind me. I was more than a little freaked out to see some folks walking out after the film with young kids in tow. I have taken my eight year old to a few PG-13 movies myself — Percy Jackson and the Olympians and the latest Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movie. But The Hunger Games doesn't have just a few scary scenes, or some shoot-em up chases. It features violence against children. That is the content of the whole film. It's not just a fantasy, but a deep, dark story set in a world not so incredibly different from our own. I wouldn't recommend my daughter seeing this one until she was thirteen, or mature enough to have read the books.

As much as The Hunger Games isn't really about which of two guys a girl should end up with, old Twilight habits die hard, as an audible and collective teenage girl sigh could be heard throughout the cinema (followed by quite a few adult giggles) when poor childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) watched Katniss kiss Peeta on the jumbo television screen back home. As much as both Peeta and Gale (and Cinna) think Katniss is hot stuff, The Hunger Games is not a love story, but the story of a young girl, a hero, coming of age. It's great to see a brave and resourceful and female hero, and in IMAX. The Hunger Games may be controversial, but in a good way. It gets people thinking and talking.
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Thursday, March 22, 2012


Steer clear if you don't want to know about major plot points in Mockingjay, the third and final book in the The Hunger Games series.

"War is Hell" may be a phrase heard so often to have become a cliche, but Suzanne Collins's final book in her Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, doesn't let its heroine or readers forget the reality or power of those three words for an instant. The action picks up right where Catching Fire left off. Katniss Everdeen has been scooped up out of the arena of the 75th Hunger Games and taken to District 13, which has not only survived its rumored destruction, but has rebuilt itself into a police state, run uber-efficiently by the forbidding President Coin.
"My name is Katniss Everdeen. I am seventeen years old. My home is District 12. I was in the Hunger Games. I escaped. The Capitol hates me. Peeta was taken prisoner. He is alive. He is a traitor, but alive. I have to keep him alive…"
Katniss may have made it out of the arena, but her sometime fiance and friend, Peeta Mellark, was left behind and the evil President Snow has wasted no time in torturing and exploiting the boy, trying to quash Katniss's role as the Mockingjay, the symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol's tyranny. Katniss is so upset about her friend and so unsure about the way of life in District 13 that she is an unwilling rebel leader. President Coin, childhood friend Gale, mentor Haymitch, and others must persuade her to take on her role. But who can she trust?
"I’m sick of people lying to me for my own good. Because it’s really mostly for their own good."

Katniss is more at home in her beloved woods

Katniss is a free spirit. She thrives in the open air. But District 13 is the opposite of freedom. It is sterile, with every hour of the day of its residents accounted for; the food portioned out based on body weight. Coin and her team want Katniss to be the Mockingjay — on their terms. But she negotiates some terms of her own, including immunity for Peeta and the other Hunger Games champions who have been captured and possibly brainwashed, a la The Manchurian Candidate. As much as Katniss doesn't want to give up on Peeta, once he has been brought to District 13 she is so upset at his altered behavior that she avoids him. Katniss can't seem to function inside four walls. Outside in the arena, Katniss could be free and use her hunter's instincts to protect Peeta and others. Inside the cell-like atmosphere of 13 she shuts down.
"I sit back on my bed cross-legged and find myself rubbing the smooth iridescent surface of the pearl back and forth against my lips. For some reason, it’s soothing. A cool kiss from the giver himself."
Collins keeps hinting at where Katniss's heart really lies by having her cherish a pearl, a gift from Peeta. The pearl was such a nice symbol, it was a little strange that it didn't occur to the character (or author?) to have Katniss use it to help deprogram Peeta, or at least have her show it to him at some juncture. But it just disappeared after a point and was never referred to again.

Where Katniss finally does get an opportunity to feel more at home is on the field. Coin and Co. really just want to use the Mockingjay for pro-Rebel propaganda film clips, but Katniss manages to go on a few missions where she sees the horrors of war first-hand. Back at the weapons lab she is even more horrified when she sees her friends Gale and Beetee working on weapons that are meant to destroy the innocent. When will these games and toys that kill children ever end?

While she debates how deeply she wants to get involved in the rebellion, Katniss is also still bouncing back and forth a little between Peeta and her longtime friend Gale, but it should be clear to anyone who can read between the lines that Peeta is the one who truly holds her heart, even if Katniss can't quite see it until almost the last page. Sorry, Gale fans.

Katniss and Collins have much more on their minds than which cute guy she should choose. Katniss is in the middle of a horrible, bloody, civil war, and she is as much of a pawn as ever. She and her fellow arena survivors are all suffering from post-traumatic stress. Katniss has had to grow up fast and watch people she loves be tortured and even killed in front of her eyes. Mockingjay pulls no punches. It is violent and at times heartbreaking. There are no real winners in a civil war. Katniss learns that the Hunger Games never really end. One of the most harrowing passages happens right at the beginning of the novel, when Katniss tours the rubble that was once her home.
"I stared down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather. This is where the bed I shared with my sister, Prim, stood."
As much as there are some shattering things that happen to our hero, Mockingjay is not ultimately a downer. Katniss grows up. She loses a lot, but she also learns what she needs. She will never really be free of the Games and the horrors that she lived through, but she can still sing and she can still get through each day and finally open her heart to love Peeta. She may worry about telling their children about their pasts — as her parents kept things from her, and many parents shield their children.

There were many scenes in the book that should seem familiar to anyone who has seen footage or interviews with people who lived through World War 2 or Vietnam or any other modern war. People will always seize at life and try to put starvation, concentration camps, and other horrors of war behind them, but they will never forget. There is a scene at the end of Mockingjay with Prim's cat Buttercup, that had me in tears, as it is often the little, human things, the day-to-day parts of life that we take for granted that are so often threatened or obliterated by war. Young people certainly need fun, adventure, and fantasy in their lives, and the Harry Potter series fills that bill, but The Hunger Games trilogy, as quick and addictive a read as they are, also has something to say. About life. About our past, our present, and hopefully, never about our future.
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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

catching fire

Steer clear if you don't want to know about major plot points in Catching Fire, the second book in the The Hunger Games series.

Like Theseus, the Greek mythical hero that she is patterned on, Katniss Everdeen can be kind of a dope sometimes. She is incredibly instinctive and resourceful and clever, but completely incapable of seeing the bigger picture. She is also seventeen years old, and even though she has helped support her family since her father's death, and been in tons of life-threatening situations, she has also led a sheltered life. A born rule-breaker, she managed to survive and win the Hunger Games with her fellow district competitor, Peeta Mellark at her side, the first time the Games has ever had two champions in one year.

Sinister President Snow sees the double winners as a direct challenge to his authority and places all the blame with Katniss. As she and Peeta embark on a victory tour of the nation, he visits her and threatens her. She must help quell any rebellious feelings that may be stirring in the districts, or he will come down hard and fast on her and her friends and family. It is soon clear as they travel that the two young winners and "lovers" presence is having the absolute opposite effect desired by Snow, as Katniss and her token, the mockingjay, are taken up as a symbol of hope and a rallying cry to end the oppression by the Capitol.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and Liam Hemsworth as Gale in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games
The love triangle is still pretty unconvincing in the second book, and ultimately not as important to the story as what is happening in Panem. We like the two guys she likes, sort of, but we never really get to know them, as Katniss doesn't seem to know them very well, either. Sex and love are something she is clearly unprepared for. If there wasn't a Twilight series, one feels that author Suzanne Collins and her heroine could concentrate on what really interests them — the politics of Panem and the coming-of-age of Katniss and the difficult moral choices she continually faces. If Collins really wants the love triangle to feel a bit less lop-sided in the final book, Mockingjay, she better tell us more about Gale, who right now is just the strong silent type.

When Collins isn't having Katniss puzzle over the teenage problem of who she really likes the most, she is telling the reader more details about Panem and the rebellion that Katniss and her mockingjay symbol helped jumpstart in the first novel, The Hunger Games. There are times that Catching Fire feels like it's treading water a bit, with expository paragraphs recapping what happened in the first book. Are there really readers who, not having read The Hunger Games, would pick this one up first? Should the author really care about them so much?

We see all the characters through Katniss's eyes and narration, so the reader must at times fill in the blanks, or finds themself actually ahead of Katniss in terms of evil President Snow's plotting. This tends to keep all the other characters rather sketchy, but they are still interesting and appealing enough to stand out, especially Peeta Mellark, their mentor Haymitch, fellow Hunger Games champion Finnick, and stylist Cinna.

Donald Sutherland as President Snow in the upcoming film.
When the action takes us back into the arena, I was a little ticked off (pun intended), but the pacing is great and there are enough surprises to indicate that the series is really going somewhere. It's not just a "which cute guy should I choose" or a first book reboot. Collins has something to say about war and governments and the innocent ones who get caught in the crossfire. Her story isn't heavy-handed, but it will be interesting to see if a sequel that so clearly illustrates oppressive governments and corrupt society will have an effect on the belief systems of young readers who grew up loving these characters and re-reading the books.

The other nice thing about this series is that with all of the science fiction-like creatures and threats that encompass Katniss's world, she and the other main character, Peeta, are really just a couple of kids who are doing their best to keep each other alive. Unlike a lot of other YA fiction, Katniss isn't a vampire or a wizard or anything "special" except a very resourceful young lady. As frustrating as she may be at times — she has a tendency to get a hold of the wrong end of the stick and fiercely pursue it — she is brave and real and we can't help rooting for her. Or hesitate grabbing up the final book in the series and see how it all comes out.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

the hunger games

I finally decided to give this book a try, not only due of all the praise and hype, but because I am intrigued by Stanley Tucci's blue hair in the previews. The Hunger Games is technically a YA novel, but like the Harry Potter series, adults will enjoy it, even appreciate it more than teens. It's also a lightning-fast read. I finished the series in just a few days, but as fast-paced as it is, the characters and the problems of the world they live in stay with you long afterward. My reviews of the other two books are to come. Needless to say I will also be checking out the soon-to-be-released movie adaptation.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games
Author Suzanne Collins has woven some familiar ideas — Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, reality television shows, ancient Roman gladiatorial combat, the Greek myth of Theseus, Romeo and JulietThe Wizard of Oz and much more, into a still original look at a dystopian future where 24 teenagers are forced to fight to the death in a yearly televised contest, the Hunger Games. The games are supposedly a lesson or a punishment for the sins of previous rebellious generations, but they have clearly morphed into the main source of entertainment for a spoiled Capitol that can cure practically any wound or disease and seem removed from death — hence a lust for bloodsport.

What takes The Hunger Games beyond just a mere will-or-won't-our-heroine-survive drama are all of the little moral dilemmas that keep cropping up as she tries to survive her time in the arena. 16 year-old Katniss Everdeen has been the head of her family for years. She is accomplished with a bow and arrows and hunts to keep her family and friends from starvation. When her younger sister Prim is selected as the female Games participant, the devoted and intrepid older sister volunteers in her stead. Katniss has learned survival techniques in her many hours hunting in the forbidden woods outside of the district where she lives, but she still assumes that she will be dead meat as soon as the Games begin. She just wants to die with some honor and ensure that her family won't suffer.

The boy tribute, the other competitor from her district, Peeta Mellark (the names!), is obviously besotted with her (obvious to everyone but Katniss), and doesn't feel he has much of a chance, either. Katniss at first distances herself from Peeta, who tries to help her at every turn, as she knows that she will ultimately be forced to kill him at some point in the games. The rules state that at the end there can only be one winner.

During the early days of the Games Katniss meets and befriends a younger girl, Rue, and the two briefly form an alliance. They bond instantly, much like kids do on the modern-day playground. But always hovering in the background are the rules of kill or be killed. Like Spartacus, these gladiators are never far from death.

The Games are broadcast live, and Katniss is at all times aware that what she is doing and saying is going straight back to the Capitol and her friends and family back at home. There are times when she is even mugging for the cameras. Like Survivor or Project Runway or The Bachelor or any of the other reality competitions we all tune in to these days, how much of the drama is real, or prompted by getting better ratings and sponsors? Katniss quickly learns that if she shows tenderness towards Peeta and plays up the romance angle everyone watching back home will lap it up — and sponsors will respond too, by sending in silver-parachuted, much-needed supplies.

There were a few loose ends or questions I had during the book that I felt weren't completely answered. Katniss's country, Panem, what is left of North America after a post-apocalyptic war, has been reduced to 12 districts (District 13 had been obliterated in a huge conflict that led to the current state of things). We learn that district 12, where Katniss and Peeta hail from, is what we call Appalachia. I was hoping for more clues to where and what the other districts were. Or how about a map? The Capitol seems to be located near modern-day Denver, but all of the other districts were a mystery.

Katniss is a great central character. She has been so beaten down by life that she can't pick up on the romantic (tri)angle, either at home, where she is "friends" with older boy Gale, or during the Games with Peeta. There is a lot of chaste kissing in the last third of the book that may give younger readers a thrill, but may have the older readers rolling their eyes. I sympathized with Katniss, who grew impatient with all of Peeta's lovey-dovey-ing, when she was trying so hard to keep them both alive under very harsh circumstances. The characters' priorities were very different, which kept them interesting.

Katniss may be naive in many ways, but she has naturally good instincts. Once she sees how things are going, she can quickly adapt. She is a brilliant hunter, but also has a huge heart, connecting to and feeling for the other contestants. Knowing that The Hunger Games is a trilogy, most readers won't be too worried about Katniss's ultimate fate. Collins is aware of this, and makes the conflict center around the life and death decisions Katniss has to make and how far she is willing to go to survive. The Hunger Games is a fast but absorbing read. It may raise more questions than it answers, but its characters and setting are more than compelling enough to make me snatch up the next novel and see where it takes Katniss next.
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Monday, March 19, 2012

happy st. joseph's day

My family has a dish, sfincione, that my grandmother used to make on holidays, but no one can really remember if it was associated with Christmas or Easter or that we just begged her to make it whenever there was a large group of us getting together. Over the weekend I caught an old rerun of a Molto Mario where Mario Batali prepared Sicilian dishes for St. Josephs Day, including a version of sfincioni.

Aha! that makes total sense, as  my grandmother used to send my father Joseph a St. Joseph's Day card every year. Our house always commemorated March 19th rather than the more widely popular Saint of two days previous.

Mario made his sfincione with broccoli, and more like a calzone, where Grandma made a higher filled bread and used salami and prosciutto and even tiny meatballs, but it is clear that the filling could consist of anything the heart or stomach desires. Here is his recipe, courtesy of the Food Network:

Note: Prepare basic bread dough recipe using semolina flour. I recommend buying a prepared tile baking stone for all pizza and bread working at home. They are available at gourmet shops and specialty chef supply stores. 
1/2 basic bread dough, recipe follows
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons plus 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound broccoli, broken into 1-inch florets, stems sliced 1/4-inch thick
Freshly grated nutmeg
1 pound fresh ricotta 
Preheat oven and baking tile to 500 degrees F. 
Split dough into 2 pieces, 1 slightly larger than the other, and roll out into 2 rounds about 12-inches in diameter, again 1 slightly larger than the other. Coat the paddle with the sea salt. Place the larger dough round on the paddle spread with coarse sea salt. 
In a 12 to 14-inch saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium high heat. Add the broccoli and cook until softened and light brown, stirring constantly, about 10 to 12 minutes. Allow to cool. Season with several gratings of fresh nutmeg and salt and pepper. 
Smear the large dough round with 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Spread ricotta over the dough and smear within 1-inch of the edge all around. Place the broccoli pieces on top of the ricotta, and drizzle with the remaining olive oil and breadcrumbs. Place the second dough round on top and press down on the edges to seal. Poke holes in the top layer. Drizzle lightly with water and some oil and bake until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Let rest 5 minutes before serving. 
Basic Bread Dough:
1/4 cup light red wine or white wine
3/4 cup warm water
1 package yeast
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups semolina flour 
Combine the wine, water, and yeast in a large bowl and stir until dissolved. Add the honey, salt, and the olive oil and mix thoroughly. Add 1 cup of the flour and mix with a wooden spoon to make a loose batter. Add 2 more cups of the flour and stir with the spoon for 2 to 3 minutes to incorporate as much flour as possible. 
Bring the dough together by hand and turn out onto a floured board or marble surface. Knead for 6 to 8 minutes, until you have a smooth, firm dough. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with a towel. Set aside to rise in the warmest part of the kitchen for 45 minutes. 
After 45 minutes, cut the risen dough into 2 equal pieces and knead each portion into a round. Cover again and let rise for 15 minutes. The dough is now ready to be used.
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Inactive Prep Time: 1 hour

It may not be just like Grandma's, but I definitely have to give this a try.

Happy St. Joseph's Day!


march is women's history month — my grandmother gertrude


grandma's list
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Sunday, March 18, 2012

this might actually not ... suck

The first trailer for Tim Burton's and Johnny Depp's Dark Shadows premiered on Ellen on Thursday. I have to admit that I have been dreading another Burton/Depp film, as the last few things they have done together were extremely disappointing. But if the flavor of the wacky trailer is true to the finished film, this may be more of an Ed Wood than an Alice in Wonderland, which would be wonderful. Here's hoping ...

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

happy st. paddy's day

Still looking for that four leafed clover?


Friday, March 16, 2012

march is women's history month — leonora carrington

I didn't realize that surrealist painter Leonora Carrington died last year. I had no idea that she had lived so long — she was the ripe old age of 94. Carrington was one of the few women to be welcomed into the very male club that was the Surrealists. Her work always had a quirky, original, and feminine quality.

She apparently tried to live a surreal life as well:
Leonora plunged recklessly into Surrealist Paris life. At one smart party she arrived wearing only a sheet, which she dropped at an opportune moment; she sat at a restaurant table and covered her feet with mustard, and served cold tapioca dyed with squid ink to guests as caviar. Visitors to the rue Jacob might wake up in the morning to a breakfast of omelette full of their own hair which she had cut while they slept.
Self portrait, 1936
Carrington met the much older artist Max Ernst in 1937. It must have been an instant attraction, as Ernst soon separated from his wife and settled with Carrington in France. But after the Nazi occupation of France, Ernst was arrested by the Gestapo. Art patron and fan Peggy Guggenheim helped him escape to America, leaving Carrington behind. She headed for Spain where she had a nervous breakdown. Her parents had her institutionalized where she was treated with cardiazol. Carrington managed to run away to Mexico, where she settled. She and Ernst were not together after that and he married Guggenheim.

Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen
Crookery Hall, 1987

She apparently also did some writing, which I will have to check out:
A few years later, in a short story called The Debutante, she fantasised about a girl who befriends a female hyena at the zoo and decides to have it take her place at her debutante ball. The debutante assists in preparing a disguise for the animal, becoming a willing accomplice in the murder of her maid, Mary, whose face the hyena wears after eating the rest of her. The hyena reappeared in a 1937 self-portrait, along with two other figures from her short stories — a wild white horse and a white rocking horse.
A very interesting woman and artist.

Quotes from The Telegraph, Leonora Carrington, Obituary, May 26, 2011

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

hotel reserve

I caught a strange little movie the other day on TCM, Hotel Reserve, A spy movie based on a book by Eric Ambler, starring a very young James Mason. Although not a film noir, the British black and white film was filmed with some interesting camera angles and lighting. It's set in a Riviera hotel with an assortment of international guests (and suspects.) Mason plays a young Austrian who the French police have asked to help smoke out which one of his fellow travelers is a spy — or risk being arrested as the spy himself.

A lurid poster from Argentina
It's a bit like watered-down Hitchcock or Casablanca, but it's still fun. Typical of British mysteries of the period, like And Then There Were None. It's nice to see Mason being a hero, not a villain, and being so enthusiastic, as opposed to his usual world-weary type. Some other familiar actors turn up: Herbert Lom, Patricia Medina. But the main attraction is Mason, who plays the wronged man with enthusiasm.

Stripes! From the blinds, their clothes — the lighting designer surely had fun
Hotel Reserve is not a great film, but it's a good one, with reminders about how fluid sympathies and nationalities were pre- World War 2, and just how suspicious everyone could be about someone going on holiday or taking photographs. Check it out if you get a chance.

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