Blogs: Adults

‘Tis a good thing that I canceled my Spring Break trip to Crimea because, whether hosting the Olympics amid conflict over human rights, racing to police Pussy Riot's random protests, or facing the tense scrutiny in the fight for Crimean annexation, Russia hasn't been this magnified since Reagan and Gorbachev sat through numerous photo-ops pretending to like each other. With all the negativity surrounding this great kingdom as of late, I was reminded of my first memorable images and introduction to Russian culture...skewed as it may have been. 

For someone whose formative years were sculpted in the late '70's through the 1980's, the image of Russia, other than my grandmother reading me sinister Baba Yaga tales, was discovered mainly through the synaptic helmet that was the burgeoning American media scene.  Initially, it was James Bond films, Robin Williams's discovery of true freedom in Moscow on the Hudson, or Yakov Smirnoff's anti-Cold War comic "therapy."  

Suddenly, the image became more ominous, a threat to the milk and honey U.S. zeitgeist. It was always "Us vs. Them," through the simplest, primordial lens of good vs. evil and everything was securely color-related. Anything referenced to Soviet life or Cold War politics was unscrupulously "red," moreso than any of the malingering effects of the McCarthy "Red Menace" years, and it seeped into American culture via John LeCarre and Tom Clancy books or the Hollywood films Red Dawn, Red Heat, and WarGames. You had  to choose or risk becoming ostracized: Yanks or Commies. Wolverines vs. Russkies. MI6 vs. KGB. Rocky vs. Drago.  

Once in high school, it was my trusty English teacher who introduced me to the more respectable literary and cinematic windows of Mother Russia. Not only did I devour classic films and books such as Ivan the Terrible  or every single frame available on Rasputin, but I learned that Russia had so much more to offer than Dr. Zhivago, Turgenev, and Tolstoy. Sure, I read the assigned Crime and Punishment  and Fathers and Sons, and I connected with Dostoyevsky while my classmates groaned, yet through college I learned that not all Russian literature was depression, oppression, and long brutal winters. There, slumbering comedic enlightenment came in the guise of The Master and Margarita, Gogol, and Viktor Pelevin with characters, stories, and political musings that I never knew existed outside of the omniscient, censoring hand of the Iron Editors (I assume in red  pen, naturally).  

The Russian legacy continues to innovate and astound into the 21st century as well, with genre fiction such as Sergei Lukyanenko's pseudo-Angelic Watch  series or stories from the hilarious pen of ex-pat Gary Shteyngart. Whatever your personal desires in Russian literature or culture, they can all be accommodated down at your local library should you seek more than blizzards, "If I Were A Rich Man," or the former governor of California's Oscar-snubbed role as a KGB agent. For in this expansive landscape of history and determination, Behemoth is not just a subversive, vodka-swilling black feline but a rich, thunderous bibliography of a resilient nation. Pazhalsta!

Photo of Asmat people in dug out canoesIt turns out that headhunting isn’t such a simple barbaric act as one would think.  It’s strategic, spiritual and essential to maintain the equilibrium of the universe. At least it was for the Asmat of New Guinea when they encountered Michael Rockefeller swimming towards shore on the morning of November 20, 1961.

Michael Rockefeller was living his dream, collecting primitive art for his father’s new museum, when his makeshift catamaran capsized and he vanished off the coast of New Guinea. After a search-and-rescue effort came up empty handed, it was determined that Michael Rockefeller drowned before reaching shore that fateful day.

Savage Harvest: A Tale Of Cannibals, Colonialism, And Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest For Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman presents a very different story. Balanced and exhaustively researched, Hoffman pieces together a picture of a divided island with a tense colonial history, a fierce cannibalistic warrior society stripped powerless by outsiders, and a privileged young man, unaccustomed to confronting barriers, and so passionate in his pursuit of art, that he cannot recognize the real danger he is in.Photo of book jacket: Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman

While perhaps not for the faint of heart, I found Savage Harvest to be a fascinating, one of a kind read for armchair anthropologists such as myself. It’s also the ultimate real-life whodunit for mystery fans. Books like this perfectly exemplify why I love reading non-fiction; stories like this simply can not be made up! 

If after finishing Savage Harvest, you find you can't easily let go of this story, check out items on this list to explore different aspects of the Rockefeller disappearance.

Lately, educators have been talking about grit as a character trait that can predict success. I have always associated the term with girls, thanks to Charles Portis's original book, a title that was remarkable for its time. In the late 60s and 70s, there weren't a lot of stories about young women with gumption. Sure, there was Nancy Drew, but she so often relied on 'the boys' when the going got rough; There was also Pippi Longstocking, but she was for  younger readers. When the most recent movie came out, I was glad to see that the Coen brothers were true to the original Mattie and her enterprising spirit. Truly, she was the hero in the book, and not Rooster Cogburn, as the 1969 John Wayne film version suggested.

Ree Dolly, the tenacious teenager from the movie Winter's Bone is cut from the same cloth as Mattie Ross. The movie follows follows the mostly falling fortunes of 17 year old Ree as she discovers that her meth-cooking father is on the lam, having put the family house up for bond. If he doesn't show up in court, the family - 2 kids and a mentally absent mother - will lose everything. She sets out to find him among all the hard luck people living in her corner of the Ozarks and gains some unwanted attention from those who wish her father to stay hidden. The book is based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, an author whose works have been called "country noir".

Another novel featuring a woman who finds herself in an untenable situation is the award-winning Outlander by the poet, Gil Adamson. In the winter of 1903, Mary has lost her baby son to sickness and is frequently beaten by her abusive husband. She takes desperate measures, killing her husband and fleeing west. She is pursued by her husband's vengeful twin brothers, a pair of single-minded, characters who could easily have stepped out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Along the way she falls into the company of a group of eccentrics in a hard-scrabble mining town. 

All of these stories share an unforgiving landscape, a sense of lawlessness, and a determined underdog on a quest. And there are more of these than you might think: Molly Gloss's story of eastern Oregon, The Hearts of Horses, the somewhat obscure and spoofy Caprice by George Bowering, and Away by Amy Bloom. All of these stories feature strong female characters who move the action along. If that's your cup of tea, then happy reading and watching.

I blame the library. The first time my four-year-old daughter, who I’ll call Thing One, saw a Disney book at the library, she became obsessed, and soon, her babysitter told her there were movies, too. It wasn’t long before she was wearing nothing but pink and purple, and insisting on wearing tiaras to the supermarket. She wanted new princess books all the time. I didn't mind her fashion choices, but I wanted her to value things like bravery, loyalty, brains, individuality, and diversity, and to see that a woman’s main job in life was not to be pretty, well-dressed, and passive. Princesses with the enormous eyes and tiny waists were getting too much power over my child's imagination. It was time to fight back...With research.

I found a number of picture books and several collections of folk tales that celebrate female strength. I especially like Jane Yolen’s Not One Damsel in Distress, a collection of stories featuring strong, clever girls. And some of them are actually princesses! The young women in these stories defeat serpents, outsmart sultans, discover underground caves full of treasure and steal ships to sail away from the controlling men who want to trap them in marriage against their will. Jane Yolen’s writing is engaging and suspenseful enough to charm any princess wannabe between the ages of, say, four and eight.

Here’s a list of more good books for princess loving girls, or boys, that will make their feminist parents happy. Feel free to let us know in the comments if you have other titles that should be included in this list!

Cover image of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb PerlmanWhen I first stumbled upon Deb Perlman's food blog Smitten Kitchen, I was home with a small toddler and on a mad Google quest for homemade cracker recipes. Goldfish crackers specifically. My sister had recently exposed my son to the highly seductive, cheesy toddler staple and I wasn’t having it. I was on a passionate whole grain, non-boxed snack mission, and I approached it with the fervor that only a well-meaning and admittedly obsessive new mother can know.   

While it was Perlman’s labor intensive goldfish snack cracker recipe that reeled me in (I know..), I quickly found that while she would indulge my whim for scratch baked versions of boxed favorites, the vast majority of her recipes are much less demanding. Her specialty is simple, uncomplicated food that tastes delicious and leaves the impression that you’re a much better cook than you really are (I may only be speaking for myself here). 

Perlman makes her creations in a teeny tiny Manhattan apartment kitchen that doesn’t allow for huge productions.  Me in my teeny tiny Portland ranch kitchen can appreciate that kind of efficiency and I've learned to trust that if a Smitten Kitchen recipe takes more than 30 minutes to make or 3 bowls to mix in, it’s because that’s the way it has to be, because it will be worth it.  While I still visit the blog fairly regularly, when The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook came out, I quickly made space on my crowded kitchen shelf.

If you invite me to a potluck, it’s a fair bet that I’ll be bringing some variety of baked dish from this book.  The caramelized onion and butternut squash galette is a fool-proof crowd pleaser and when I breeze in twenty minutes late, with play clay stuck to my pants and Legos in my coat pocket, 'galette' just makes more of an impact than 'casserole.'

Ah, the allure of the three handed woman.  What, you aren't familiar with this particular woman?  I am betting you are, but this was a new term for me, too.  Last night I was enjoying my favorite jazz show, and the host played a song with this very title by Louis Prima and Keely Smith. The lyrics were so delightful and wicked:

'She's a three handed woman, a three handed woman
She's right-handed, and left-handed, and under-handed too
She's a three handed woman and she knows just what to do
She's a three handed woman and she ain't no good for you'

What a fabulous turn of phrase!  It immediately conjures up images of a femme fatale, a con woman, a woman no man can resist.  I don't know about you, but I have certainly daydreamed about living a life of crime, taking advantage of worldly, handsome, and, of course, rich men, while every hair remains in place and the line up the back of my stockings never goes crooked.  You know, like this:  pulp cover 

How fierce is she?

If you would like to indulge your inner three handed woman, the library has many choices, whether you prefer books or movies.  Take a look at the list to give some a try. You might discover a few hidden talents that you didn't know you had, and it's all perfectly legal in your imagination!

 

I love cooking in late winter and early spring, because this is the time of year that you can get really experimental. In the summer, from the time the asparagus and rhubarb start to sprout until you get those last tomatoes, there’s all this pressure to eat local, eat what’s ripe right now. Then in the fall, everyone wants comfort food, which is heavily prescribed by tradition. Roast chicken! Minestrone soup! Pot roast! Next, the holidays come along, and if you don’t cook just what everyone’s come to expect from you during the holidays, there  might be a rebellion.

But now, at least until May, we can go a little crazy in the kitchen and try new things. For me, that means checking out some of the library’s wide collection of international cookbooks and traveling the world a little, in a culinary way. And now, after the excesses of the holiday and while the rain is falling down outside, we want lighter recipes that take us to warm and sunny places.

Try Jerusalem by by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, two cooks who were raised in opposite ends of that city and inspired by its cuisine. My husband and I both cook and peruse a lot of cookbooks, and often when we look at cookbooks, we’re all, “Ho-hum, we’ve seen this before.” Jerusalem’s recipes are new and exciting, full of contrasts and sunshine. Make chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice and a spinach salad with dates and almonds.

Or head off to Vietnam with its beguiling combination of salty, sweet, hot and sour. A great book to explore Vietnamese food is Vietnamese Home Cooking by Charles Phan. You will be inspired by this cookbook's big, gorgeous pictures to cook delicious things like Lemongrass Beef Stew and a salad with leeks and roasted eggplants.

Visit India with Madhur Jaffrey, who has released a bunch of cookbooks celebrating Indian food, most recently At Home with Madhur Jaffrey. She has the knack of taking exotic, ingredients-laden recipes and making them seem utterly doable in your home kitchen. This is a great cookbook for someone who is exploring Indian cuisine for the first time. Cook Salmon in a Benghali Mustard Sauce and treat yourself to Kheer, a saffron- and cardamom-scented rice pudding, for dessert.

Portland is rich in international grocery stores where you can find the ingredients you’ll need to cook some of these recipes, and even trips to Fubonn, Barbur World Foods, or International Foods Supply can make you feel like you're traveling. Bon voyage!

In any given year I read quite a few books. Once I stopped trying to finish novels that turned out to be awful, I found I finished notably more books each year. The pages fly by when you're enjoying a book. When reading becomes a dreary slog through the pages it's too easy to find a more pleasant way to pass your evening and not much gets read. Once you stop reading the awful books, however, it takes a certain something extra for a title to really stand out from the mildly pleasing and good enough crowd of the average novel. So far in 2014 I've read two books that have really stood out.   

The Rook book jacketThe first of these titles was The Rook by Daniel O'Malley. The scene opens with a woman standing in the rain, in the mud, in the center of a ring of bodies. She doesn't know her name, she doesn't know where she is and she doesn't know what happened. All she has is a letter in her pocket from herself. Having read the letter, Myfanwy discovers that she is a member of a secret government agency that protects the UK from supernatural threats and is one of the few that has a supernatural power. Most powers are useless or nearly so; her power is not useless. Myfanwy must discover why her memory is gone, who she really is, and who found her enough of a threat to wipe her entire past from her mind. I would consider this a fairly literary novel for the genre and the author's use of the letters Myfanwy wrote herself to fill in the back story of her world is an interesting one. 

As I have often done before, I used my husband as my test reader. This time it was for Red Rising by Pierce Brown. It had been well-reviewed but I thought it seemed like it might be too much action and too little character development for my taste. I handed him the book to try at the start of a weekend when I had a nasty cold. I told him he'd love it and staggered off to suffer through my sniffles. I slept oblivious through his all-night reading session and he finished the novel in a single sitting! When I asked him how it was the next day, he 'fessed up to why he looked so tired and had slept so late. I've often read novels in one sitting but that was unusual for him. Here’s a bit about that compelling read:

Red Rising book jacketOn Mars there's very little gravity so when they hang you they let your loved ones pull your legs to hasten your death. Darrow is sixteen and works in the mines of Mars.  He knows, as all the Reds do, that the materials he is mining will help to terraform Mars (that is, make it habitable for humans) so that one day his descendants can walk on the surface. All he knows, though, has been a lie: Mars has been safe for generations. The Reds are slaves who have been kept in ignorance and despair by the higher castes who live well on the surface. The materials the Reds mine are being used on other planets and moons now instead. Darrow is strong from years of mining, but his young wife is small and thin. She always gives him part of her rations because he's still growing and she's "not hungry". She scarcely weighs a thing when he pulls her legs down.  Darrow now has nothing left to lose and gets pulled into a conflict between the ruling Golds and the Sons of Ares who are trying to overthrow the corrupt system.  Darrow only wants to live in peace, but they have brought him war.

I started the book that same evening and, miserable as I was with watering eyes from the congestion, the pages just flew past. I would have also stayed up far too late to finish the book in a single sitting if my husband hadn't come and taken the book from me and told me to be sensible and go to bed since I was so ill. Happily, Red Rising has been optioned for a movie even though it was just released; hopefully it turns out to be a good production of the book!

Chris a page at the Hollywood Library says this about the documentary Room 237:

Have you ever watched a movie and thought "There might be more going on here"? Well here's a movie about some people who have read many amazing things into the subtleties of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

The Sixth Gun Volume One Book coverThere were no undead in the wild wild west.  At least, not that we know of…Toss in six magical guns with unfathomable power, a world turned upside down, and a reluctant heroine and you’ve got the fatastically addictive graphic novel series, The Sixth Gun.

Not a graphic novel reader?  Well, pardner, maybe it’s about time you started. Combining the classic western genre with a touch of the supernatural and fantasy, The Sixth Gun has something for everyone.

Becky Montcrief is the reluctant heroine who inherited one of the pistols.  Not knowing the repercussions of picking up a gun, she’s thrust into the unforeseen adventure of fighting for her life. You see, once you pick the gun, it’s with you till death do you part.

Drake Sinclair is an enigma draped in black with a complicated past. Crossing his path means trouble from him or the folks on his tail. Will his past deeds catch up with his mission of atonement?

The other folks?  Their stories are even better.

Strap on your holster and get ready for the adventure of a life and an afterlife time…

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