Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cocktail Culture

Just a quick post to express my excitement at receiving my very own copy of Dale DeGroff’s The Essential Cocktail. After discovering the “Blood and Sand” (equal parts blended scotch, cherry Heering, sweet vermouth, and orange juice) in the Great White North, I knew I had to get this book. It’s a great mix of recipes and history and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves classic cocktails. This new bible comes on the heels of being supremely disappointed by the drinks at The Burritt Room in the Crescent Hotel. I had been hoping for a new Bourbon and Branch (who had me at their cucumber gimlet), but, sadly, the cocktails at The Burritt Room were more creative than tasty. DeGroff’s recipes are a great antidote to places that aspire to be part of the new cocktail culture, but try just a bit too hard.

In other book news, I also received my outstanding order of two Penguin Classic clothbound designs by Coralie Bickford-Smith. Originally designed for Waterstone’s in the UK, these editions are simply gorgeous and, priced at under $15 at Amazon, a great addition to any library.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Opera 101—Rock Me Amadeus

From the opening bars of Le Nozze di Figaro (familiar to anyone who has seen Trading Places, another great story of putting one over on an undeserving aristocracy), I was thrilled with my decision to explore the world of opera this year.

In New York, one of my great luxuries was an annual subscription to the New York Philharmonic. So, once my budget here allowed (food and rent are not the only things around here that cost money…), I looked into both the symphony and the ballet. Not thrilled with the programming of either, and seeing that the opera season would include a number of “warhorses,” perfect for a beginner like me, I decided to take the plunge.

Over the years, despite my love of concert music, I have seen only a few classic operas live: La Bohème (it’s an opera), La Traviata, a horrific Carmen in Paris, and a number of productions of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. But these have been few and far between.

So, naturally, I decided that some research was in order. I turned, as I often do, to The Teaching Company, which provides educational courses on CD and DVD. These recordings cover a range of topics, from science to history to literature, and can usually be found at your local library. I can’t recommend them enough. If you have any interest in concert music, I highly recommend Robert Greenberg’s lectures, especially How to Listen to and Understand Great Music (48 CDs) and How to Listen to and Understand Opera (32 CDs).

The Marriage of Figaro is featured prominently in Greenberg’s discussion of opera buffa, or Italian comic opera. It’s a fun opera, easy to follow, and very tuneful. Last night’s production seemed to be a very traditional interpretation, but I highly enjoyed it. I was reasonably impressed with the orchestra and singers, whose acting was particularly strong. The set was appropriately Spanish looking. My only complaint was with the supertitles, which were remarkably inconsistent, and, at times, incomplete. My Italian filled in the gaps, but I feel like they could have been handled much better than they were.

But, all in all, this was a great start to the season.

Looking good, Mozart!

[Note: If you missed the multitude of Trading Places references in this post, get thee to Netflixit's a classic.]

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Technological Gains vs. Tactile Loss

Weeks ago, I dug out my mother’s old copy of Théâtre de Beaumarchais in order to finally read Le Barbier de Séville and Le Mariage de Figaro in preparation for seeing Le Nozze di Figaro at the San Francisco Opera. It’s one of the few books of hers that I have, and the only work of fiction. I finally opened it this past weekend. This is what I found:

Once I got over the shock that my mother wrote in books (!), I was thrilled to turn the pages and discover what she had written almost 60 years ago: thoughts and connections from years before I was born. Reading them now, more than 20 years after she died, was both fascinating and comforting. Just seeing her handwriting (so very French, so very her), brought back a flood of memories—like I could feel her fingerprints.

I’m lucky to have plenty of fond memories of both my parents, but it made me realize how lucky I am to have these tangible memories as well: letters, photos, postcards. With digital cameras, emails, and texts, are kids today even familiar with their parents’ handwriting? Are these technological gains worth the tactile loss? Are they gathering different physical memories?

As much as I personally loathe the Kindle, I never thought that one of my arguments against it would be that you couldn’t write in it. But I guess I’m particularly glad that it didn’t exist in the 50s, or I might never have known that, apparently, Mom wasn’t a fan of trilogies either—there’s not one mark in La Mère coupable.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Trilogy of Trilogies

As I finish up the second most-awaited third volume of the year, I’m left wondering about trilogies.

Hollywood has long taken advantage of the popularity of original works to produce sequels, but rarely are these films better than the original (feel free to post your inevitable defense of The Empire Strikes Back and Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan here). Of course, Hollywood’s trilogies suffer greatly from the fact that they are rarely planned; rather, they are most often attempts to capitalize on the success of the original. As such, they are generally ill-conceived, rushed, and often leave you even more depressed than when you started—Wachowski brothers, I’m looking at you.

But what of literary trilogies? Two of the biggest book releases of 2010 were conclusions to trilogies, the first volumes of which were released in the US in 2008: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games series seems to have been planned as a trilogy, but, while the Millennium Trilogy was only submitted to publishers after the (now late) author had completed all three books, rumor of a manuscript for a fourth book leads one to believe that the series would have continued.

What’s intriguing to me is that, while opinions vary on which book in the Millennium Trilogy is “the best” (as often seems to happen with books in an extended series), everyone I know who has read the Hunger Games trilogy was disappointed with Mockingjay, myself included.

Are the second and third volumes of literary trilogies doomed to disappoint? After all, people say that Purgatorio and Paradiso are a snooze, and only Inferno is worth reading.  As I pick up Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy to prepare for Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro later this month, do I bother to read La Mère coupable?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Games Without Frontiers

So, I had a bit of trouble crossing the border into Canada last week because immigration officials were convinced that I wanted to move there to work. Of course, it didn’t help that I had actually brought my resume along to updatesince I would love to find another job that I like as much as my current one (but where I'm, you know, adequately paid and appreciated), but not in Toronto.

Officials thought it was odd that I seemed to be coming just for a few days to visit friends. If they had known that I would spend much of that time hanging out and playing games, they probably would have been even more concerned. Why visiting to go up to the top of a tower and look down is more “normal,” I have no idea, but many people don’t seem to understand the appeal of games, or what I mean when I ask “Do you like games?”

I don’t mean Monopoly. And I don’t mean video games. Mostly I mean German-style board games, or Eurogames.

Eurogames emphasize strategy over luck, while not being as intense as something like chess. They have a theme and often involve building or developing things: cities, lands, train lines, etc. Although the first time you play generally takes a lot longer as you learn how the game works, unlike something like Risk, they have built-in endpoints that prevent a game from being interminable. They aren’t always German, or even European—that’s just what they’re called because they often are. Classic examples of the genre are Carcassone and Settlers of Catan.

If you’ve never tried them, invite a couple of people over, make some fabulous cocktails, and enjoy the following suggestions!

Exploring the world of Eurogames: Carcassonne, Dominion, Notre-Dame, and Ticket to Ride

Taking it to the next level: Agricola, Race for the Galaxy, and The Settlers of Catan

Games for people who think they don’t like games: Acquire, Bohnanza, and the Mystery Rummy series, especially Murders in the Rue Morgue

Friday, September 3, 2010

"Madame Bovary, C’est Moi!" Or, a Book Salon for the Twenty-First Century

As I mentioned in my inaugural post, one of my projects for the year was reading twelve classics that I had never gotten around to before. While the year started out strong, my newfound interest in reading led me to discover so many great contemporary books (such as Await Your Reply, City of Thieves, and 13 Reasons Why) that I had a bit of trouble keeping up with my should-reads. As you might guess, I soon found myself with half the year gone and Don Quixote and War and Peace still unread.

What to do? In an effort to conquer the remaining books on my list, I started a book salon with a few like-minded work colleagues. The concept is simple: instead of reading and dissecting one book, as in a book club, everyone selects whatever book they want that fits the theme of that month. The initial topics that I proposed revolved around my remaining should-reads: classic boys adventure, dystopian novels, quests, and Russian authors.

After a fabulous first discussion on quests (Moby-Dick, Don Quixote, The Road), this month’s salon was “Cherchez la femme!” and everyone chose books with eponymous heroines. Selections included Jane Eyre, Lolita, and Madame Bovary. I read two short works, both twists on classic tales: Mary Reilly is a retelling of the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde from the viewpoint of a maid in Jekyll’s household and The Penelopiad tells the story of Homer’s Odyssey through the eyes of Penelope and the twelve hanged maids. Both provide an interesting take on narrative viewpoint and the female perspective. You can see my reviews of both of these works at

So far, both these themes have proved to be excellent jumping-off points for literary discussions and I eagerly await our next salon: Russian Roulette.

Please feel free to post your thoughts and questions on the book salon concept. What do you think would make a good theme for a book salon session?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Cry “Havoc!” and Let Slip the Dogs of War (and Peace)

Yes, I’m finally jumping on the blog train. With just minutes to spare, as usual. First Facebook, now this. How will I ever keep my hard-won luddite cred?

Still, I feel the need to document my attempts to recover from academia and get back into such radical notions as reading for pleasure and taking advantage of life in the big city. While this blog will probably have a strong focus on books, I expect to bring up all aspects of pop and high culture, from Mad Men to Madama Butterfly.

Why now? Well, for much of the last twenty years, September has meant the start of a new year, a time for new projects. This fall, I’m particularly looking forward to exploring the world of opera with my first subscription to the San Francisco Opera. I’m also about to take on the biggest challenge of my reading year: War and Peace.

One of the things most responsible for my becoming a reader again was a friend’s 24-in-a-year reading resolution and challenge on Facebook. In a moment of weakness (or madness), I decided to up the stakes by making half of those books classics that I should have read already, but had never gotten around to. This idea had been lingering in the back of my mind ever since a conversation with a fellow professor where I was too embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read Don Quixote. Other books on the list include Catch-22, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, The Education of Henry Adams, Lord of the Flies, Macbeth, La Princesse de Clèves, and, of course, War and Peace. In my next post, I will discuss how I have dealt with the difficulties of getting through this challenge. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what would be at the top of your "should-read" list.

Last, but not least, I want to give a shout-out to Stasia, a fabulous blogger (among other things), who inspired me to get on this crazy train. Check her out at