Saturday, May 14, 2011

How to Drink

As many of you know, I am always on the lookout for good cocktails, or, failing that, good books about making them. I posted last fall about Dale DeGroff’s The Essential Cocktail, which has served me well and should be on the shelf of everyone who is serious about their personal bar. Right alongside should be Victoria Moore’s How to Drink.

I learned about this fabulous tome on Rowley’s Whiskey Forge—a blog for anyone who loves cooking, eating, and drinking (not necessarily in that order), or even just reading about said activities. I can’t do justice to his beautifully written review of this book, so I’ll just link to it here. Suffice it to say, How to Drink is extremely readable, while also providing plenty of recipes and essential information about brewing coffee and tea, choosing wine, and stocking your bar. Moore even has a section on making your own elderflower cordial!

After covering the basics, the book is organized by season, which takes me back to the days where you could tell what time of year it was by whether I was drinking a gin & tonic or a bourbon & ginger. Of course, now I live in San Francisco where seasonal drinking has less relevance, but that just means that practically every day is potentially a Pimm’s day. Lucky me.

*In non-drinking news, I’d like to offer an apology to anyone whose comment was lost due to the issues Blogger was having earlier in the week. Please know that I did not delete your comment on purpose and feel free to repost!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Playing Favorites

This past weekend I was obliged to ponder the question “What is your favorite book?” and, I have to admit, it took me awhile to come up with an answer. How do I pick just one? I’m a Libra for goodness’ sake! Just writing this post made me want to go back in time and change my answer five times. It’s like Sophie’s Choice without the Nazis. [Disclaimer: I never finished Sophie’s Choice. I should probably stop referencing it until I do.]

A few books came to mind immediately, notably Jane Eyre and Rebecca. But, having recently revisited Jane Eyre for the new movie version, I don’t think I could say it’s my absolute favorite, even though I loved it growing up (and it’s still a great book). For one, it’s amazing how my impression of Rochester has changed over time—much like revisiting Star Wars and wondering how I could ever have been attracted to Luke Skywalker; Han Solo is clearly where it’s at. Rebecca was another favorite of my teen years and would definitely vie for a top position on any favorites list. But how much of that is Du Maurier and how much is Hitchcock? Hard to say.

How much do I want this bag? A lot.

I finally settled on A Widow for One Year by John Irving when I realized that for me it was a great combination of literary style, narrative, and personal connection. It certainly wouldn’t be the Irving of choice for many—I suspect that would be A Prayer for Owen Meany—but I remember that when I read A Widow for One Year, I felt that I finally got Irving. He was an author I had enjoyed for years (is it the bears?), but it wasn’t until this book that I truly connected with his writing.

I wonder, if I re-read it now, would I feel the same way? Should one re-read favorites? Can one have a favorite that one doesn’t ever read again? I know that I should probably never re-read The Joy Luck Club (which I read soon after my mother’s death), but can I pick up Watership Down again?

How about you? Do you re-read? Do you have a ready answer to the question “What is your favorite book?”

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Royals and Rulers, Volume Three

And, with this entry on Hampton Court, home of Henry VIII, the last of my London recommendations have been posted over at Worth the Detour.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty more worthwhile things to see in London, that's just what I decided to write about from this latest trip. Other stops along the way included:

Highgate Cemetery

The old and the new: Big Ben and the London Eye

Ai Weiwei's "Sunflower Seeds" at the Tate Modern

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Back to Reality: The Voice

Last fall I wrote about how I was supremely bored with reality television and had stopped watching many of my favorites, including my beloved The Amazing Race. That may be changing, as I am absolutely giddy about The Voice. It remains to be seen whether this love will blossom or fizzle, but I’m eager to see what happens tonight.

The singing competition is an import from Holland and has a few innovative features. Instead of judges, there are four coaches: Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine, and Blake Shelton. In the first round, the coaches pick teams that will then compete in later rounds. The auditions in this phase are blind. The coaches, sitting on rotating chairs, hear the contestants perform and decide if they like them enough to press a button and turn around during the performance. If only one judge turns, the singer joins their team. If more than one judge turns, the singer gets to pick which coach they prefer to work with. If no one turns, the contestant does not move on.

Throughout the competition, the coaches will work with the singers to develop their talent, eventually sending only the best to compete against the other teams. In the (final) live performance phase, the television audience will vote to save one contestant on each team, leaving the coach to decide who they want to save and who will not move on. Finally, one contestant from each coach’s team will compete in the finale.

Really, they had me at blind auditions. I loved the concept from the first I heard of it. One of the biggest flaws in the judging of American Idol was both Simon’s and Paula’s tendency to be swayed by a contestant’s looks. I also love that the coaches can’t just give bland positive feedback; they have to actually commit to the singers. And, unlike American Idol, these contestants have actually been screened for talent, so there are no “bad” auditions.

What has been really interesting is watching the judges during the auditions and seeing the decision play across their face. Does this person really have a unique talent? Does it make sense for me to work with them? If I don’t turn, will I be sorry? If I do, will I be sorry?

And, of course, one gets to play along: What would make me turn? Why are they taking so long? Who is Blake Shelton and why have I never known about this man? Why is Christina Aguilera ending up with such a bad team? What the hell is Carson Daly doing on this show?

These and other questions may be answered tonight (Tuesday) at 9pm on NBC.

John Marcher, I hope you are watching this.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Great Unread—April

Since none of the unread novels in my collection fit well with this month’s book salon topic, Royals and Rulers, I decided to take up a purchase that I had never gotten around to in my teaching days.

Shakespeare: The Tragedies, by Nicholas Marsh, is part of Macmillan’s “Analysing Texts” series on British literature, which also includes three other volumes on Shakespeare. Sadly, this volume, which examines Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello, and therefore one might think would be the most popular and relevant for students, is apparently now out of print.

I bought this and two other volumes in the series at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association, one of the largest academic conferences in the country and where first-round interviews for almost all tenure-track jobs in English and other language departments are held. One of my favorite things about having to attend the MLA was going to the book sale on the last day while publishers were packing up their booths and selling their stock at steep discounts. Really, it’s amazing I don’t have more of a “book problem.”

The MLA is also where I picked up my May challenge book, Brighton Rock, part of Penguin’s six-volume “Deluxe Edition” Graham Greene centennial series, which included, as one might expect, The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, and The Quiet American, but also, inexplicably, Orient Express and Travels with My Aunt. (Really, Penguin, how do you not include The Power and the Glory in that collection? Or, if you are looking to add something comic, Our Man in Havana?)

Anyway, back to Shakespeare. The Tragedies was definitely a “challenge” book, despite its short length. I’m not really sure why I kept it this long, when I have gotten rid of almost everything academic not related to either France or film, but it was probably because, like many people, I always intend to read more Shakespeare. And, after reading The Daughter of Time for my Royals and Rulers book salon, I had thought of reading Richard III for this month’s challenge, but ultimately decided against it. (Since I have the complete works of Shakespeare in a three-volume boxed set—purchased at an English bookstore near my apartment in Paris with the credit from trading in all the paperbacks I had accumulated while living there—almost any play could count as a challenge book for me.)

The Tragedies was an interesting approach to analyzing the texts, doing a close read of very specific extracts rather than discussing the plays as a whole, more in the style of the French “explication de texte” than much of the analysis I’ve read in English. Each chapter looked at one brief extract from each play, focusing on the openings, endings, heroes, heroines, society, humor, and imagery. Even though this meant that only a very small percentage of the text of each play was discussed, the author did manage to tease out larger meanings that helped me understand the works better. One benefit of the close read is that it made sense even for plays that I hadn’t read in a long time, such as King Lear. This leads me to actually want to attempt the other volume I purchased (Shakespeare: The Comedies, natch), even though I haven’t yet read most of the plays.

I hope everyone is making good progress on this challenge. I’d love to hear about what you’ve been reading. As stated above, my challenge read for May will be Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, one of my favorite authors. A new adaptation, with Helen Mirren, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and will hopefully be released soon in the U.S., although I’ve seen no sign of it.