Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best/Worst of 2010

So, it's the last week of 2010, and if the Aztec calendar is anything to go by, we all vanish like a cosmic blip in another year. This also means that every website will be rolling out its "Best of 2010!" lists this week, so in the spirit of saying goodbye to a fairly sucky year that everyone seems glad to be over with, here's my own list.

Best and Worst of 2010, or, a list that will make sense to no one but me

Best/Worst Thrift Store:

Since the economy tanked in 2009, there's been a resurgence of thrift and resale stores in the metropolitan area, and more use of the gag-worthy word "recessionista" than I care to remember. I have sort of a love/hate relationship with the whole upscale resale thing because a lot of the resale stores that sprung up in the past year aren't really all that great, and many of the newer ones charge as much as you would pay for new clothes on sale, which defeats the purpose.

But one that is pretty awesome is Labels Exchange on Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray. The owner, Monique, is really friendly, and the store is well-organized in a unique underground space next to Blueberry Art Gallery (both stores opened in other locations on Mount Vernon and moved last summer). Labels Exchange has a great selection of new and vintage clothes, takes consignments, and has enough cool finds at good prices to make it worth visiting often.

Worst thrift store? Elinor Coleman's Vintage Mirage, although technically a vintage store, definitely wins the dubious honor of worst thrift store, from overcharging for mass-produced labels and mistagging items (faux leather belt without tag labeled as a real leather Betsey Johnson is just one example).

Best/Worst Noodles and Dumplings

Ever since eating the most delicious spicy noodles in a shack underneath the train station in New York City's Chinatown last January, we've been on a quest to either find or replicate them. Alas, we haven't had much luck (the spicy hot pot at Uncle Liu's, if you pour sesame oil sauce all over it, comes the closest) but by happy accident we found the excellent A and J Restaurant in Annandale. A and J is a bare-bones operation that consists of one small dining room and doesn't take credit cards or reservations, but the spicy beef soup is insanely delicious and the tiny, tender dumplings are awesome. It's also cheap, with the most expensive item on the menu being about ten dollars. Prepare to slop delicious broth all over yourself.

Worst Chinese food in the area goes to China 1 on Route 1 in Alexandria (and I'm pretty sure that first review in fake). Having never cooked Chinese food myself, but eaten a ridiculous amount of it in my lifetime, I will say that I think it's very hard to make excellent Chinese food, but pretty easy to make mediocre but edible Chinese-esque food. China 1 makes epically terrible, to the point of inedibility, food that can only by a stretch of the imagination be called Chinese. Their dumplings are, bar none, the worst dumplings I've ever tasted, clumsily made with a thick, pasty, gooey skin and a wad of dubious meat that looks like dog kibble inside. I'd rather eat Mrs. Lovett's meat pies.

Best/Worst Pizza Place

Alexandria finally gets a good pizza place! Pizza Paradiso just opened up on King Street, and we've already been four times. Paradiso serves up Neapolitan-style pizza with charred crusts, little sauce, and inventive toppings. They also have an extensive beer, wine, and coffee menu. The little pizzas are expensive but worth it. Just avoid their non-pizza offerings.

Conveniently enough, the worst pizza place is right across the street. Bugsy's Sports Bar is an Old Town institution, but I think it's more for its cheap beer and many TVs than food. The pizza is limp, greasy, and smothered in mediocre cheese and sad toppings.

Best, Now Worst Bar

Sadly, the award for best and worst bar goes to the same place: Eventide. Under the inimitable Steve's stewardship, Eventide offered inventive, delicious drinks, painstakingly selected liquors, and the company of the consummate bartender. Unfortunately, Steve recently departed Eventide, and without him, it seems likely that Eventide will revert to one of the cavernous yuppie watering holes that line Clarendon Boulevard. Besides, any place that would let Steve go without a fight is lame.

Best Candy Store

Sugar Cube remains my all-time favorite, from bulk favorite like Swedish fish and sour belts to an impressive selection of licorice, beautiful hand-made truffles, retro candy, gift boxes, gourmet chocolate, and even sugar-free candy. The sizeable store is run by friendly sisters Kim and Alyssa who know their candy and run a cute blog. Sugar Cube even offers a free weekly tasting session on Saturday afternoons to try new products.

Best Ice Cream That is Not Ice Cream

Technically speaking, it's frozen custard, but Del Ray's The Dairy Godmother continues its winning streak. Godmother has three daily flavors (always chocolate and vanilla, plus one flavor of the day) as well as a selection of sorbets, although they deep-sixed their baked goods case to make way for ice pops. They still sell ice cream cakes, sandwiches, and truffles, though. My personal favorite is their coconut cream custard, Thai coffee ice pop, and the almond ice cream sandwich - a slab of frozen almond custard sandwiched between two squares of almond sponge cake. Their website lets you print out a monthly flavor forecast, or get one of their cutely named sundaes, a milkshake, or a malt. But be prepared for a wait, especially in the summer, the line can snake all the way around the back of the store.

For amazing gelato, you'll have to go to Georgetown and hit up Dolcezza. Dolcezza serves gelato, an ice-cream-like confection that has less air than ice cream and a denser texture. Dolcezza uses local, organic, seasonal products (and has the overly-precious website to prove it), which I don't care about - I would eat delicious gelato even if it was served on the back of a dead baby seal that was trundled down from the Arctic in a Hummer. The gelato is expensive, but mind-meltingly delicious, and make sure to try the fruit flavors, too - grapefruit and blood orange are particularly good.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Hearts in contraction.



There's a scene in Bridget Fielding's Bridget Jones Diary where her titular heroine, Bridget, has just arrived at a hotel with her insufferable sort-of boyfriend and starts blathering on about Srebrenica and the Serbs and not having "pinned down" the difference between a Bosnian and a Serb, or a Bosnian Serb, or which is attacking which. Bridget is an idiot and reading that book made me feel faintly nauseous, but she can be forgiven for not really getting it. After all, I've read a fair bit on the subject, and I still have trouble wrapping my head around it.

Which is kind of the point, according to Roger Cohen, the author of Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo. Cohen is an author and journalist, and was the New York Times Balkan correspondent during the strange and terrible days of the mid-1990s when concentration camps were springing up a few hours drive from Paris and Muslims were disappearing into mass graves.

Cohen starts his book not with the history of the 'impossible country' of Yugoslavia (author Brian Hall's phrase) but with the more intimate history of one man, Sead Mehmedovic, as he searches for his vanished father. Mehmedovic personifies the blurred ethnic, cultural, and religious nature of Yugoslavia's inhabitants: the son of a Muslim father who fought on the side of the Germans in World War II against the Yugoslavian partisans and a Catholic mother, raised both in Croatia and Serbia, who was herself the daughter of an Austro-Hungarian father and a mother of mixed Viennese-Serbian parentage.

And there you have it, the ridiculousness, of trying to disentangle the ethnic lines in the aftermath of the collapse of Yugoslavia. A Serbia for the Serbs, free of Bosnian Muslims? The expulsion of the Serbs from Croatia? A Muslim Bosnia? The idea is fatuous in the face of families like Mehmedovic's and countless others, whose blended marriages and families were more the norm than the exception. And yet the idea and its concommitant nationalism took hold powerfully enough to spur the death of hundreds of thousands of people in that confused corner of Eastern Europe.

The thread of Mehmedovic's search for his father continues throughout the book, and for Cohen it seems to personify the casting about for a story of origin that seemed to obsess Yugoslavia and later, Bosnia. The first book in Hearts, "The Lost Century," traces the rise of Yugoslavia both as a nation and an idea in the aftermath of World War I under the dictatorship of Tito. It is clear that Cohen viewed the dissolution of Yugoslavia after the death of Tito as inevitable, and perhaps he's right - history does seem to agree with him. And yet, Cohen also rejects the trope, so readily employed by America and the European powers reluctant to get entangled, of the 'centuries-old blood feuds' or 'tribal hatreds' that were viewed as intractable, impenetrable, and unsolvable. At the center of Hearts is a sort of dichotomy perhaps very fitting given the book's subject matter - that of the author blaming nationalism and the persistant view of Bosnian Muslims as some sort of foreign, invading force, while at the same time, Cohen invokes images of fatalism, apathy, and a sort of entrenched malaise coupled with violence that seems to seep from the very mountains of Bosnia.

That aside, Hearts manages to marry both the perspective of the foreign journalist, focused on upper-level machinations by the officials of the United Nations and the Clinton administration, with the perspective of those on the ground. By following the lives of a few Bosnian families, Cohen shows the waste, confusion, and senselessness of the dark days of 1994 and 1995. At the same time, he skillfully relates the political maneuverings that led to so much delay, up to and past the point when intervention could have conceivably headed off the camps and mass executions.

Hearts is, bluntly speaking, a mess: a mash of interviews, personal narrative, gleanings from his own and others' reports, interspersed with attempts to explain the complicated history of Yugoslavia and the conditions that led to the inferno. But ultimately, a book about Bosnia could really be nothing else - any attempt to straighten out the sources, to plot the snarled history on a linear line, loses something important. From the morass of its own history, Bosnia and Croatia's muderous nationalist leaders, Mladic, Tudjmann, and Milosevic, attempted to straighten the ethnic lines, inventing them when necessary, and the result was carnage.

Hearts Grown Brutal is heavy going and often requires rereading and annotating, but Cohen provides a timeline, a historical preface, and a list of the people included in an attempt to help the reader navigate the text. Despite its muddled nature, Hearts is an admirably complete account of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the resulting chaos, all the more so for its inclusion of various sources of information and its far-ranging perspective

Monday, December 27, 2010

Beautiful boy

American Illustration 29 arrives on February 28, 2011, and this year's cover features the artwork of one of my favorite illustrators, Sam Weber.



You can see more of Weber's artwork at his site, Sam Paints.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Stormy weather/Under the sea


Yesterday we drove all the way to Maryland to watch Julie Taymor's The Tempest because no theaters here were playing it. Her adaptation of Titus is one of my favorite movies, and I've been really excited to see this since I saw the trailer.

Taymore does a gender switch with Prospero, casting the excellent Helen Mirren as Prospera, the widowed duchess whose brother usurps her position and sets her and her young daughter adrift in a rotting canoe. Fortunately Prospera is smart, resourceful, and happens to be well versed in sorcery (in a flashback, she's shown pottering about in her laboratory under the indulgent gaze of her husband).

Now, Prospera and her daughter, Miranda, live on their mostly-empty island, attended by Caliban (Djimon Hounsou in pie-bald makeup, looking like a golem) and Ariel (Ben Whishaw, in white body makeup and disheveled hair). With over a decade with nothing much to do, Prospera's become really, really good at sorcery, and when a boat carrying the king of Naples, her brother, Antonio, and the king's young son, Ferdinand, along with Alan Cumming's treacherous Sebastian, happens conveniently along, she blows up a storm and forces them onto the island. The shipwreck also spits up the requisite Shakespearean fools, Trinculo and Stephano (Russell Brand, looking like a filthy carney, and the hilarious Alfred Molina).

Taymor handles the gender switch of the main character extremely well - it doesn't seem gimmicky at all, and I thought it gently reshuffled some of the relationships Prospero has with the other characters in a very welcome way. Mirren's Prospera and Miranda have a less overbearing, more poignant relationship as Prospera engineers Miranda's infatuation with Ferdinand, and Ariel and Prospera have a genuinely moving scene when the flighty spirit contemplates leaving his mistress (the acrobatic portrayal of the featherweight Ariel is pulled off with great aplomb by Whishaw, who gets some of the most visually interesting scenes). Prospera's gentle, almost maternal protectiveness towards the delicate Ariel humanizes a character that is often played as too remote or powerful to be sympathetic.

Alan Cumming, predictably, steals every scene he's in as the oily, quick-witted Sebastian, particularly during the castaways march into the island, when Sebastian clashes wits with the babbling, good-natured duffer Gonzalo, played genially by Tom Conti.

The scenes with Mirren, Cumming, or Molina and Brand's drunken, bumbling sailors are definitely the best. The action lags whenever the sweet-natured but boring Ferdinand and Miranda show up, and their love story is sort of two-dimensional (but it's written that way in the play, and neither Felicity Jones or Reeve Carney has the skill to make bland characters interesting). Prospera's sudden about-face and forgiveness of her murderous brother is also thinly sketched, but the excellent actors and Taymor's reliably inventive scenes and costumes make the movie well worth watching, if not quite as solid as the sturdy Titus.

Normally I'd stop there, but because this is a Taymor film, her sets and costumes are almost characters themselves. The island is a variegated, bizarre, and threatening Eden, with sun-baked black rock, forests of loopy, dead-looking trees, man-sized aloe plants, and dripping marshes. Prospera's 'cell' is built into the side of a mountain, with a door built into the right angles of the room and two staircases that lead away down two dizzyingly-pitched walls - sort of a visual representation of the deception on which Prospera's sorcery relies.

Caliban in particular is one of the most interesting character designs. He looks sort of like a man made out of clay who got sun-bleached and half-heartedly dried, with one blue and one brown eye, webbed fingers, and thick talon-like fingernails. Taymore uses zippers, zippers, and more zippers to mimic the stripes of Neapolitan fashion, with heavy, quilted and studded doublets and zippers glinting off of the edges of ruffs, capes, and padded shoulders, and her mountebank design of long-toed shoes and skinny stripes suits the lanky Brand wonderfully.


I also finally, finally watched Ponyo last night, which as it turns out, is kind of an excellent foil for The Tempest. Ponyo is from the wonderful Hayao Miyazaki, director of Spirited Away. I give Disney much credit for releasing the English-dubbed version of Ponyo with both great voice actors (Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Betty White, and Cloris Leachman) and also for not messing with the story line or otherwise mucking up Miyazaki's film.

Ponyo is sort-of-kind-of a retelling of The Little Mermaid, except the mermaid is an adorable, chubby red-haired goldfish, her father, Fujimoto, is a skinny, David Bowie-esque undersea magician who looks like a refugee from a barbershop quartet and pilots a weird undersea craft with flippers, and her mother is the massive, island-sized Goddess of Mercy, Granmamare. Oh, and Ponyo has magical powers that can let her sprout little chicken-feet like legs, and in escaping from her overprotective father, releases some sort of undersea magic that yanks the moon down way too far, throws the ocean out of whack, and releases massive, Cambrian-era prehistoric fish.

Even with the caveat that I'm probably missing all sorts of subtext because I'm not Japanese, I'm still going to say that it's kind of bizarre.

Anyway, little Ponyo gets rescued from a jar she's gotten stuck in by Sosuke and decides she wants to live on the land with him. Her father dispatches his large, grumpy waves to get her back, but Ponyo gets away and returns to the land on the back of the now out-of-control ocean, brilliantly imagined as huge, flailing fish made out of water. Sosuke's level-headed mother, Lisa, seems to be used to tsunamis and floods on their island, and she leaves Ponyo and Sosuke to go help out the other inhabitants, but the ocean continues to swell, so Ponyo and Sosuke set off for a final confrontation between Ponyo's father and the Goddess of Mercy, who seems more kindly disposed towards letting Ponyo stay on land.

The visuals of the movie are stunning, from the exuberant, dangerous fish-waves to the prehistoric marine monsters and Ponyo's massive, just-a-bit-frightening mother. The pacing of the movie is slow, almost languid, except for the chase scenes, and Miyazaki isn't afraid to take his time, even in a kid's movie (the movie clocks in at nearly two hours, but doesn't feel overlong).

What I find particularly interesting about Ponyo and Spirited Away is that Miyazaki's animation absolutely nails the way children move - from Ponyo struggling to pick things up while refusing to put down her treasured green bucket to the way Sosuke kicks off his sandals before plunging into the waves. It also doesn't hurt that goldfish-Ponyo is one of the most adorable character designs I've seen in a while.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Kick Ass



I've had a girl-crush on Saiorse Ronan since she nailed the role of Briony in Atonement, and despite apparently being Dakota Fanning's doppelganger, this movie looks ten kinds of awesome.

Christmas Wishes

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Funny Games


I just finished Catching Fire, the sequel to Hunger Games and the second book in the Mockingjay series by Suzanne Collins. Collins doesn't lose any of the momentum of her first book, and the sequel ratchets up the tension.

When the first book ended, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark had returned from the Capitol's Hunger Games as the victors, but Katniss' last act of defiance in the arena haunts her. Established in their Victor's Village houses, Katniss can finally provide for her family, yet she and Peeta have to keep up their charade of being wildly in love with each other for the cameras.

The return of Panem's murderous, serpentine President Snow lets Katniss know that she's in the shit, as they say, but with limited options, she can only wait and see what revenge Snow will take. The next Hunger Games happens to be the 75th Games, or a "Quarter Quell" with special rules governing the reaping. Snow announces that this year, the tributes will be made up of past victors from each District, and Peeta and Katniss are sent back to the arena.

This time, the stakes are even higher. Their opponents are former victors, a mixture of the pathetic and the powerful. Katniss has an encounter in the woods with two strangers and has been hearing rumors of uprisings, although the Capitol-sanctioned television stations continue to show everything as normal. Every action has taken on a greater significance, and this time, she's determined that Peeta will survive to carry on what is promising to become a full-fledged revolution.

Catching Fire ups the brutality, violence, and sexuality. There's more overt physical violence, and Katniss' entanglements with Peeta and Gale are becoming more significant. This book's arena, a deadly jungle surrounded by water, is also more inventive and terrifying. As the ending makes clear, the scope of the novel is going to widen significantly in the third book.

Catching Fire still feels like there's a second book hiding behind the first one - I would have loved to have this be an adult novel instead of YA, but Collins does an admirable job of conveying complicated themes and emotions in relatively simple language.

Also, I know I'm not a sooper doooper internet reveiwwwwer, but I thought this review from Entertainment Weekly was not only sloppy, but missed the point. Reviewer Jennifer Reese slams the book for lacking the "erotic energy that makes Twilight so creepily alluring." Firstly, Twilight is about as alluring as a case of scabies. Secondly, Reese writes that Peeta and Gale, Katniss' two love interests, are virtually indistinguishable and that Katniss' interest in the two of them clumsily sketched.

Well, see, here's the thing, Jenny, not every YA book has to be about the sexy sexy sexytimes or some pallid emo kid with a circulation problem. It's refreshing, after the tide of literary crap that Twilight spawned, to see a YA novel with a heroine who doesn't spend her time moping around in the forest. For Katniss, romance is kind of beside the point...because when you're being pursued by a pack of bloodthirsty Careers, you don't really have a lot of time to sit around and moan about why that cute guy in chemistry who needs more sunscreen doesn't seem to like you. And besides, I find Collins' handling of Katniss' confusing feelings for both young men refreshing. She doesn't think she can figure it out right away, but she prizes loyalty and bravery over hair gel.

And finally, if you're going to slag a book, at least bother to pay attention to the details when you read it. The carnivorous "candy pink birds" with skewer beaks weren't even in Katniss' arena, the 'glitzy outfits' are replaced with camouflage forest gear in the first arena and jumpsuits with flotation devices in the second...and all the tributes wear the same outfit in the arena. Good lord, I finished this book on my lunch hour, you'd think you could at least read it before you review it.

Lethal lettuce

So, it's been accepted that terrorists (and their kissing cousins, violent extremists!) are stepping up attempts to attack targets during the holiday season. I'm not sure why - anger at the commercialization of Christmas? Can't get Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" out of their heads? Unhappy childhoods?

Anyway, the latest threat is to an establishment that this nation holds very dear: the buffet. According to WMAL, this article on The Blaze, and CBS News, terrorists are planning to try to poison those salad bar and buffet-going folks.

It may seem funny, but read this account of a similar plot that was carried out by a commune in Oregon in 1984.

Members of the Rajneeshee commune who were trying to rig a local election managed to sicken over 700 people by infecting local restaurant's salad bars with salmonella, which they manufactured in labs on their property. There were no fatalities, amazingly enough, but the members of the commune who carried out the attacks also planned to contaminate the city's water supply.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Dorking it up over here

So, most of you who know me in person, and that's probably everyone who reads this blog, knows that I am (was? not so much anymore except in theory) a big comic book reader. I never really liked Superman, since he's the biggest square in Squaresville, but I did really like Batman, because he was a little more tortured-anti-hero-hero.

I got into the Top Cow line of comic books, because they sort of pushed more boundaries as comic books went - series where the villain was also the hero, a heavier involvement of the supernatural, and a lot of cross-overs that pulled characters from one universe to the next (the Batman/Darkness crossover was a brilliant idea, total flop in execution. OF COURSE we want them to fight.). But the Darkness series, while extremely uneven in quality of artwork and in writing - when it was bad, it was awful - was interesting in that it centered around a Mafia family in New York. The series definitely worked the best when following the family, because it became a sort of gritty noir, but ultimately the writing was just too shoddy to keep me interested (which is kind of a shame, because really, all the writers would have had to do was to read the Times periodically, change the names, and then illustrate it. Aliot Spatzer gets caught with prostitute, pays off murderous crime family to make the witness vanish...)

Which brings me to this amazing blog, Law and the Multiverse. Have you ever wondered about the legality of killing someone's alternate universe character? Thought about who foots the bills after Superman creates a swath of destructions after battling a villain? Whether people with superpowers would be considered a legally protected class? Well, Law and the Multiverse is here to answer those questions and more.

Teddy bear


Theodore Roosevelt is my second favorite U.S. President (my first is Rutherford B. Hayes, because he had crazy eyes and looked like he should have been carrying a sign and shrieking from the streetcorner). Edmund Morris' Pulitzer Prize-winning biography pretty much reinforces the awesomeness and sheer strangeness that was Teddy Roosevelt.

What makes this biography great is that it does a masterful job of explaining how someone as contradictory in philosophy, belief, and behavior as Roosevelt could have existed. After all, Roosevelt was a conservationist who enjoyed shooting animals, a man who firmly believed in manifest destiny and racial superiority and yet expressed some truly revolutionary beliefs about enfranchisement and social equality, a man whose image was masculine to the point of caricature who was in reality physically very delicate, a skillful persuader who wasn't afraid to roundhouse someone he disagreed with, and a politician who was equally at home in a tent on the plains or in a New York salon.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt covers Teddy's life from his birth until the moment President McKinley dies and the telegram naming Roosevelt as President is being frantically carried to the Roosevelt's vacation cabin. Morris examines Roosevelt's childhood and young adulthood minutely, combing through reams of correspondence and revealing a much more three-dimensional portrait of Teddy than the Rough Rider with the clashing teeth and blunderbuss. It is clear the Roosevelt was a simply extraordinary person with an almost superhuman will and a fantastically agile mind, who nonetheless had a warm and humorous character.

"Teedie," as Theodore was nicknamed, was a fragile, asthmatic child with a small and delicate frame. This precarious health plagued him for most of his life, with recurrent asthma attacks and chronic stomach problems. The portraits of the young Theodore show a skinny, ropy teenager with bushy sideburns and a serious glare behind his round spectacles. As a child, Teedie became obsessed with studying naturalism, and in a foreshadowing of his later big-game hunting days, devoted a considerable amount of time to taxidermy.

The letters and recollections from Teddy's adolescence make it clear that he was a person with an unusually multi-faceted intellect, but it isn't until he reaches Harvard that it becomes clear just how unusual he is. As a student, Roosevelt wrote The Naval War of 1812, which was published when he was 23. Roosevelt, who had never served in the forces or been at sea, produced a masterpiece of scholarly research that became required reading by the Navy and influenced naval policy. Roosevelt would go on to become an accomplished author, writing two biographies (Governeur Morris and Thomas Hart Benton), several natural histories, his multi-volume The Winning of the West, and innumerable essays and articles...in addition to, you know, becoming a New York State assemblyman, a police commissioner in New York, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

Roosevelt has confounded other biographers, simply because he is too much of a Renaissance man. How else could one explain someone who hauls along a Winchester and a copy of Anna Karenina while thundering across the frozen plain in pursuit of buffalo and antelope? Someone who found time to take on Tammany Hall and civil service reform while stumping for the Republican party and keeping up a simply dizzying breadth of correspondence?

Wisely, Morris lets Roosevelt speak for himself, including long excerpts from his letters, journal entries, and articles. The letters reveal someone with an almost superhuman capacity for knowledge who simply by accident of personality avoided being cold and unrelatable. Comparing Roosevelt to his contemporaries, such as the icy Henry Cabot Lodge, makes the contrast even more striking.

Morris creates as complete a portrait of Roosevelt as any in existence, contradictions and all. I was sorely disappointed when The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt ended, although I'm looking forward to reading Theodore Rex. I think Morris can be forgiven for a bit of hero worship, since it's nearly impossible to read this book without being swept up in the depth of the author's feelings for his subject.

The only discordant note that I found was Morris' analysis of Roosevelt's relationship with his first wife, the beautiful Alice Lee. After Alice's death two days after the birth of their daughter, Roosevelt destroyed nearly all the letters he and Alice had exchanged and erased every mention of her he could find. He never spoke of her again, and only five letters survived from their long correspondence before and during their marriage. But it's clear, from the recollections of those Morris cites and the surviving letters, that Roosevelt loved Alice very deeply. Morris faults Alice for having a shallow and uncomplicated mind and writes that by dying young, Alice rendered a 'great service' to Roosevelt, leaving him free to marry the more complicated Edith Carow. That seems rather unfair to Alice - after all, how many twenty-two year old women of that era had the opportunity to, I don't know, publish a naval history?

Morris is at his best when focusing on Roosevelt. When he discusses other people, like Edith, Alice, or Roosevelt's siblings, his analysis of their character and behavior seems to depend more on conjecture. That aside, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is a wonderfully realized biography of a complex and fascinating person.

According to IMDB, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is being adapted into a movie for director Martin Scorsese, and Leonardo DiCaprio is slated to play Teddy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Coming soon to a Metro near you...

Random bag searches! (I'd embed the video but YouTube's code is messed up.)

This is the third time that Metro has announced that it'll do random bag searches, but apparently this time, they're for real. Metro's leadership has assured us that the searches will be quick, unintrusive, and won't cause congestion at the stations, which I believe is right up there with "working escalators," "courteous Metro staff," and "trains that don't slam into other trains and kill the first carload of passengers." Oh, and " fixing the runaway escalators" and "unicorns" and "post-racial America."

After all the negative press Metro got after the fatal train crash, numerous system failures, inattentive drivers, and the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board that Metro's infrastructure was dangerously decrepit, Metro launched this radio ad about how there was a "new commitment" to customer service on the system.

Hahahahaha. Hah. Ha. Right. The last time I ran into their "new commitment" I was trying to give a wallet someone had left on a seat to a station manager (at least I think he was a station manager, he may have also been an unmedicated street person. It's very hard to tell the difference at some stations) so it could be sent to the lost and found, and ended up getting into a shouting match with him because he kept shoving the wallet back at me and telling me I had to deal with it. I ended it by telling him I didn't care if he threw it away or lit it on fire as long as he waited until my back was turned.

I used to commute with Metro every day, I don't anymore. In fact, knowing that I'd have to take Metro to some parts of DC is enough to make me opt to stay home in my Cocoon of Safety (tm).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Things I am extraordinarily excited about...

Director Julie Taymor's next movie is Shakespeare's The Tempest! I loved Taymor's film adaptation of Titus Andronicus. I own maybe four DVDs and that's one of them. The Tempest will star Helen Mirren, Alan Cummings, Russell Brand, and Alfred Molina.

Breaking news...

Santa is apparently a terrorist.

The Pentagon Metro station was shut down this morning due to a suspicious package, which has been identified as...a Christmas ornament. With blinky lights.

Pie and a moment of silence.


The last two survivors of the massacre huddle together, wondering which one of them will be taken next...delicious cranberry apple pie, recipe from Cook's Illustrated (which I'm not posting online because it's copyright protected....hear that, Judy?!)

Seriously though, this pie is delicious. The crust is Cook's never-fail vodka pie crust recipe, and the pie is a fairly traditional apple pie with a layer of sweetened, smooshed cranberries on the bottom. I like it much better than regular apple pie, which I tend to find too sweet, even with tart apples like Golden Delicious. The cranberries add a delicious tartness to the apples and a beautiful dark red color. I've gotten to the point where I can consistently make a flaky pie crust, but I don't have enough practice to make the pie crust really pretty yet.

In other news, I'd like to call for a moment of silence for a tremendous loss to drinkers in the greater metropolitan area. Steve Warner has left Eventide.

Steve is the consummate bartender, who led the bar at Chadwick's for years before leaving for Eventide. So great was our loyalty to Steve that we'd make the trek over to Eventide and endure the crowds of yuppie scenesters to try Steve's fabulously inventive cocktails. Sure, the food at Eventide was good, but I've never even eaten dinner there. We only came for Steve. And now Steve is gone, along with the general manager, and I really have no reason to go back, good food or no, and going there now would feel like some sort of betrayal.

I hope Steve returns to the bar scene, soon. It sounds like Eventide may be turning into one of the cavernous sports bars that line Clarendon, and I have a feeling that without Steve at the helm, Eventide is going to take a turn for the lame.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The happiest place on Earth.

Ukraine's Emergency Situations Ministry has announced that it is planning to officially open Chernobyl to tourism as early as next month.

Although Chernobyl has been an unofficial tourist destination for years, Kyiv's government said that radition is 'returning to normal' and plans to establish a safe tour route through Chernobyl and the abandoned towns around it.

If you're worried that you'll come back from your Chernobyl tour looking like the Simpsons' three-eyed fish, don't worry: according to a spokeswoman for the Emergency Situations Ministry, which I imagine could cover anything from a nuclear meltdown to realizing that you're out of toilet paper, the tour operators will have to "meet strict criteria in order to operate."

Which is reassuring, because nothing says "strict safety standards" to me like a crumbling nuclear accident site in the middle of a former satellite country in Eastern Europe. In fact, after my Chernobyl tour, I may go get a new kidney at one of their awesomely safe black-market organ operations!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sugary and scandalous

Duncan Hines has put its foot in it with its latest commercial, "Hip Hop Cupcakes."


After angry blog postings from Racialicious and others, Hines pulled this spot, but you can still find the video on Eater.com.

What I'd like to know is what adman thought that was hiphop. Have them lip-synch some Eazy E and then come talk to me.

Hungry future.

Last week I serendipitously read both James Howard Kunstler's The Witch of Hebron and Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games. Although both are post-apocalyptic, dystopian works, their philosophical foundations diverge wildly.
The Witch of Hebron is the sequel to World Made by Hand. I read World but didn't realize that Howard meant to make it a series. There's really no reason to, World doesn't need one, but I have a feeling that Howard is about to go all Wheel of Time on us and never let it end.

The World Made by Hand series is set in New England. Peak oil has peaked, Washington's been nuked, the U.S. has crumbled after an ill-advised war in the Holy Land, there's been a disastrous influenza epidemic that's decimated the population, and life has gone back to the 18th century. The series centers around Union Grove, a small, closely-knit community where members soldier on with various levels of despair. Union Grove has become home to the New Faithers, a group of vaguely Mennonite-ish Christians who nonetheless like a stiff drink and a rousing barn-raising. The New Faithers are led by Brother Jobe, a man who speaks like he's country-fried stupid but has some mysterious and deadly powers. The New Faithers have built a compound that resembles a beehive - most of the activity is directed towards feeding and caring for an obese, epileptic woman they call Precious Mother who has the ability to see snatches of the future during her 'fits' and the equally bizarre ability to deliver quadruplets every nine months, like clockwork.

Jasper, the son of the town's doctor, runs away after his puppy is accidentally killed by the New Faithers' stallion. The novel follows Brothe Jobe and the men of the village as they set out in search of Jasper, who has fallen in with a psychotic young murderer who calls himself "Billy Bones" and styles himself as a homicidal highwayman. The titular witch is a mysterious, irresistably attractive woman.

I find Howard's writing very uneven. There are legitimately chilling moments, such as when the men searching for Jasper find a cellar filled with enslaved children, but Howard writes cringe-worthy love scenes and his increased dabbling in the supernatural with this second novel feels clunky and awkward.


Collins' Hunger Games is also set in a dystopian future America, but her universe, while borrowing heavily from other works, is dazzlingly imaginative. Hunger Games takes place in Panem, a conglomeration of Districts ruled by an oppressive and exploitative Capitol. At one point, the Districts rose up against the Capitol and were crushed. As a reminder of their rebellion, the Capitol instituted the Hunger Games: every year, the names of all the children between 12 and 18 are put into a lottery and two, a boy and a girl, from each District are selected. Those chosen are taken to the District, put in a constantly changing arena designed by Gamemakers, and fight to the death while the whole show is televised live and the inhabitants of each District required to watch.

The novel's heroine is Katniss Everdeen, a resourceful and intelligent teenager who supports her widowed mother and gentle younger sister by hunting and trapping in the woods that surround their District, District 12, which seems to roughly correspond to the coal-mining towns of Appalachia. Katniss' younger sister is chosen in the lottery, so Katniss takes her place, and is sent to the Capitol along with Peeta, a childhood friend.

The Games have become a giant festival - the winner and the winner's District is showered with food and prizes - and there are children called Career Tributes who have trained their entire lives for a chance to win in the arena. Peeta and Katniss go up against the murderous Careers and, heartbreakingly, a handful of young contestants who don't have a hope of surviving.

Hunger Games is a YA book and is a fast and snappy read, but Collins' Panem is excellently drawn. The idea of a televised death match is nothing new (2010's "Gamer," Battle Royale) and there is a long and rich tradition of dystopian YA fiction (The Giver, "The Lottery," House of Stairs). Although Collins draws from some obvious sources - her Panem and the Hellenic names of the inhabitants of the Capitol brings Rome to mind - her skillful mix of futuristic elements combined with the rural, subsistence life of District 12 feels gritty and real. There's one fumble in a scene where Katniss and the suriviving Tributes have to face off against a pack of mutated predators and what should have been one of the most terrifying scenes of the book becomes cartoonish, but overall, Collins handles the horror of Games premise without veering into the grotesque.

Reading Hunger Games right after finishing The Witch of Hebron made me very glad that Collins is out there and that her series has become popular. The disturbing thematic elements of World Made by Hand are more present in Witch and pretty much ruined any enjoyment I could have wrung out of it. Collins' Katniss is smart, quick, intelligence, and resourceful and stoic without being brutal. She's willing to kill to defend herself or someone else, but balks at the savagery of the other tributes. Katniss saves herself and her fellow tribute, Peeta, keeping him alive after a life-threatening injury and finally masterminding a way to get them both out of the arena alive.

In Howard's future, women don't get to be smart or sneaky or even savage. They can be wives, mothers, prostitutes, or rape victims. Howard even has one of his characters whack three swaggering, armed assailants with a samurai sword after they invade his bedroom while his wife cowers in a corner in what comes across as an aging man's gleeful fantasy. Sure, a preadolescent can successfully perform emergency surgery using only hemostats and brandy and we're supposed to buy it, but the idea of a woman succesfully defending herself is so preposterous to Howard that it never, ever happens.

It's pretty obvious in this and Howard's first book that he kind of digs the idea of going back to the 18th century, even if it takes a nuclear war and an epidemic to get there. Personally, I really like things like eyeglasses, anesthetic, advanced dentistry, and the rule of law. I think what makes Howard's series such a slog is that it never ends. Things will never get better or improve, so the characters just sort of try to survive, and if you're a chick, well, it really sucks to be you, because if you don't die of childbirth or something you're probably just going to get attacked at some point so the manly men of Union Grove have a reason to go be manly all over the countryside. The whole post-apocalyptic thing is really sort of beside the point - Howard could have saved all the exposition and just set the series in an 18th-century frontier town and it would have been more or less the same.

After Witch, Hunger Games was like a welcome breath of fresh, coal-dust-tinged, dystopia-scented air. Katniss isn't out of danger yet - pissing off the Capitol is about to bring the wrath down like a ton of bricks on her starving town - but you get the feeling that she'll claw her way through, and personally, I'm more excited about the second book of the series than I have been about any new release in quite some time.

Check out this interesting article in The New Yorker about dystopian fiction for young adults and why it's such a fascinating and varied genre.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Holiday Shopping Guide, insanity edition

So, we're getting closer to Giftmas, and those of you who didn't do your shopping early and online like me and the rest of hermitkind are sort of screwed. The traffic sucks, the malls are scary, everyone is running around with that weird manic look in their eyes, and the canned Christmas carols are enough to induce instant homicidal rage at yet another rendition of that horrible Mariah Carey Christmas song.

But fear not. I have answers. Behold: my 2010 holiday gift guide.

For him:


Go to Off the Grid and watch their amazing, hilarious Christmas shopping guide video. An adorable blonde Shirley Temple lookalike dressed like a Christmas elf hands over such goodies as the Survival Garden (control your food supply!) and the EvacPack, backpacks stuffed with dehydrated food and survival supplies "for any short term survival situation." Perfect for that guy who has everything, including a debilitating fear of the future. I'd also recommend throwing in a copy of T.C. Boyle's short story, "Peace of Mind," about a family who sells their house to move to an off the grid community to avoid the coming meltdown of society only to find themselves living next to a sociopathic survivalist who enjoys lynching their kids' pet rabbits.

For her:

The Hoodie Footie pajama from Pajamagram. The Grandy Group has been pushing this really hard on their morning show.*


Nothing says "I love you" like a snuggle suit that covers as much as a burqini. Finally, something both political conservatives and conservative Muslims can agree on! World peace is just a zip-front velour suit away.






*Yes. I listen to the Grandy Group, and Sean Hannity, even though I always end up shrieking and turning it off when he tries to interview someone because he's incapable of letting anyone finish a sentence, and Rush, and Mark Levin. Why? Why do I listen? Because honestly, I'd rather listen to a right-wing nutjob than the crap that's on the FM band.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Comfort food


Comfort Me With Apples is the second, less satisfying of Ruth Reichl's three memoirs, Tender at the Bone and Not Becoming My Mother. Comfort picks up where Tender left off, with Reichl and her husband Doug living in a house on Channing Way in Berkeley that's one step up from a commune. Reichl is still wrestling with guilt about having a regular job, surrounded by housemates who sneeringly reject her bourgeois aspirations (although they don't mind snarfing up her food and leaving the dishes for her to do).

Meanwhile, her husband's art career is taking off and taking him further away. Reichl ends up tumbling into bed with a fellow food critic who embodies everything she wants to be - rich, self-assured, and confident in the snootiest of restaurants with the sneeriest maitre d's.

Reichl and her lover bounce across France, then she returns to Berkeley and her flourishing career, although her marriage is crumbling. Eventually Reichl ends her affair and starts another one, separating from her first husband and moving in with the man who would become her second.

Comfort, like Tender, includes recipes that are emotionally significant to Reichl, but the focus is much less on the food than in Tender and more on Reichl's life. She's already found her calling, but the rest of her life refuses to fall in line, and Reichl loses her beloved father and an adopted daughter before the book culminates in a happier ending.

Although Tender was wince-inducingly real, there's something oddly superficial about Comfort. Even the chapter dealing with Reichl's protracted and painful court battle to keep the daughter she and her second husband adopted feels rushed. Instead of the slow, sensual language of Tender, Comfort find Reichl rocketing to China, Thailand, and France and unfortunately leaving behind the sweet, painful introspection that made Tender such a delight.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christina's Lament (or, So Bad It's Good)


So,  it's been kind of tough for our girl Christina. You step back from your career for a hot second to have a baby and get married to some guy no one has ever heard of, prompting people to speculate that, hey, maybe this one will actually work, then resurface, do a disastrous interview that makes you sound petty and out-of-touch, then release a CD that gets roundly panned, along with a derivative and stale video that tastes like reheated Lady Gaga combined with a cell phone and perfume commercial.

Oh, and get divorced.

So, what's a girl to do when her planned comeback flops?


Hint: NOT star with two of the biggest scene-chewers, CHER and la Tucci.


See? Even la Tucci's furrowed brow is saying, Christina, why? I have singlehandedly stolen every scene I've ever been in, foolish girl.

Although I'm pretty sure Christina was hoping that Burlesque would catapult her to relevancy again, every time she's on screen it's like, move, you're blocking my view of CHER, who despite being sixty-five still looks amazing (and amazingly lifelike despite having lost most of the mobility in her face).

So, but, yes, Burlesque. It's bad, I mean really bad - Christina plays the small-town naif with foot-long eyelashes, and I'm pretty sure they doused her in High Beam. There's an evil developer who wants the indebted but plucky club - you can tell he's evil because he smirks a lot and has  a scale model of the GIANT SKYSCRAPER he wants to build right on top of said plucky little club. Throw in a hunky bartender with a conveniently absent fiancee in New York who just happens to have a couch for Christina to sleep on after her seedy hotel room is burgled and the money saved from her just a steeltown girl on a Saturday night  - whoops, wrong movie.

Christina has a rival, Kristin Bell's snarky Nikki, who does an unsurprising 180 in the heartwarming last scene and takes her rightful place in the chorus line and ceding the spotlight to Christina.

Unsurprisingly, CHER and la Tucci save the movie - la Tucci gets the zingiest one-liners and CHER demonstrates that despite being old enough to qualify for Social Security, her thighs are still enviable and her hair shiny and, aside from an odd resemblance to Peter Burns, still has amazing pipes.

Happening right now


Sudanese in America are voting on Sudan's referendum about whether it should split into two countries. One of the three US voting sites in in Old Town Alexandria, for Sudanese expatriates to vote on their country's future.

The agreement to hold the referendum was part of the 2005 peace accords that ended twenty-two years of civil war between the north and south. The vote has been delayed again and again by the Khartoum-based government, while violence has continued to rage in the south. Because Sudan's oilfields are largely located in the south, there is concern that the most likely outcome of the referendum - the split into two countries - could result in more violence, which could create more waves of refugees, which could in turn destabilize the countries surrounding Sudan.

It's hard to be optimistic about this referendum, knowing that even a free and fair election may only result in more upheaval, and that it's highly unlikely that the north will let the south separate without a fight. Still, even the fact that the referendum looks like it'll happen is a victory.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Solitary confinement.

After you read this book, you will want to floss.


Emma Donoghue's Room takes on a subject that has been attempted by many other authors (most recently, Chevy Stevens' Still Missing) but does it with much more authenticity, ingenuity, and dexterity than most.

Room is written from the point of view of Jack, a five-year-old boy who has lived his entire life in the soundproof cell in the backyard of the man who abducted his mother seven years ago. Kidnapped from a parking garage at nineteen, his mother is now twenty-six, and has created a fascinating and surprisingly safe world for Jack, the son of her captor, within their prison. They have a TV, but Jack and his mother spend most of their day reading and singing to one another and making up games with the objects in their cell, who are nearly realized characters. The minuteness of their environment makes each different piece - a plant, a melted plastic spoon - take on weighty significance. Even discarded egg shells are turned into toys. (Somewhere, a yuppie parent is salivating over the idea of an environment in which their child can be completely controlled and kept away from all polluting influences.)

I generally dislike books that are written from the point of view of a child narrator. They tend to be inauthentic, cloying, or infuriating. But Donoghue's Jack is shockingly real, and Donoghue does a remarkable job at capturing the way children can grasp complicated topics with remarkable ease while getting thoroughly confused by minutiae. The relationship between Jack and his mother is surprisingly healthy and nuturing although, by necessity, claustrophobic, although only she is aware that their continued survival is dependent upon the man who keeps them imprisoned and who can withhold things like heat and food at will.

I don't want to ruin the novel for anyone who hasn't yet read it, but I will say that, although many reviewers claim every novel they read makes their heart race, Room really delivers during the harrowing scene in the middle of the book. But what is more heartbreaking is the severing process that Jack and his mother undergo after they're freed. I read somewhere that infants conceive of their mothers as extensions of themselves, and that for a toddler, watching its mother leave is sort of like watching part of itself leave, the part that it knows it can depend on to keep it alive - then imagine a five year old trying to comprehend this idea.

By focusing on Jack and his mother and scarcely mentioning their captor, Donoghue avoids the sensationalism and exploitativeness of other novels that cover the same topic. The only part that rang false, at least for me, were the competent police officers who find Jack's mother. Elizabeth Smart's captor was visited by police at least twice who didn't seem to think that the presence of two random little girls in the backyard of a convicted sex offender was anything to be worried about - the idea that the officers in Donoghue's Room would 1) listen to the incoherent child and 2) actually be able to act on his instructions just seems overly optimistic. In Belgium, Marc Dutroux kidnapped six girls and starved several of them. His house was searched twice by police for charges relating to a car theft ring, and the police even heard the girls screaming and didn't do anything. Dutroux's mother even warned the police twice, and Dutroux's conversation with an undercover police officer made it blatantly obvious that he was the most likely suspect in the disappearance of the girls. In fact, the Belgian police were so sloppy that Dutroux managed to escape while being transferred.

It seems more likely that the police who pick Jack up would turn him back over to his captor with the admonishment to be a good boy.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Your Radiant Ghost




Portrait of the Actress Anni Mewes, by Edwin Scharff


In January of last year, workers excavating ground for a new U-Bahn station near Berlin's City Hall dug up a bronze sculpture. From January until October, as excavations continued, the workers found ten more sculptures.

The bust they found was by German artist Edwin Scharff. Several of the pieces had been taken by the Nazis from German museums in the 1930s and then shown as examples of "degenerate art" in the 1940s. They ended up being stored in the Reichspropagandaministerium and vanished during the chaos of the war.

How the sculptures ended up buried near City Hall is related in this New York Times article.

The pieces include the sculpture pictured above, by Scharff, and pieces by Karl Knappe, Otto Baum, Emily Roeder, and Otto Freundlich. Freundlich died in the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. His sculpture, "Der Neue Mensch" ("The New Man") was photographed for the cover of the degenerate art exhibition program in 1937, below.