Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Perhaps you have thought that you will never need to see Xanadu. Maybe you don't like Olivia Newton John, or roller skates, or ELO, or shiny things, or muses. That is fine. But don't let yourself go through life without seeing the very best fashion makeover musical montage sequence ever committed to film. Featuring Gene Kelly and what I like to call the "Xanadu wipe."

[Also, extremely disturbing cat shirt about two minutes in. Don't say I didn't warn you.]

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Yvain, The Knight of the Lion (ca. 1177)

In my continued journey down the path of Harold Bloom's list of books in the Western Canon, I recently read Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain, The Knight of the Lion (ca. 1177) -- a 12th century Arthurian Romance, translated by Burton Raffel. I had been putting off reading this book for a bit, mostly because I'm not that keen on tales of knights and ladies and I thought a 6818 line poem written in the 12th century might be a little dull. Well, Chrétien de Troyes may have restored my faith in chivalry (it might help that there are no dragons in this), and Raffel's translation is exceedingly readable and crisp.

This romance tells the tale of Yvain, a young and unproven knight at King Arthur's court. One of his fellow knights is defeated next to an enchanted spring near a chapel deep in the woods -- hanging over the spring is a basin, and next to the spring is a rock, and if you pour some water from the basin onto the rock, you will cause an impressive and scary storm. After the storm subsides, you will see some awesome birds, but a big and powerful knight will come and chew you out for storming all over his forest and castle. It was that knight that shamed Yvain's friend, and the entire court decides to head out to the magic spring to avenge him. Yvain knows that if he goes with everyone else, the jerky knight Kay will win the honor of fighting the knight, so he sneaks out ahead and finds the spring himself. After fatally wounding the knight, he chases him back to his castle and finds himself trapped behind the gates (in a really awesome way) and dependent upon the help of Lunette, a lady at the court and the main advisor to the soon-to-be-widowed lady of the house.

Through a convoluted and entertaining series of events, the wise Lunette arranges for her mistress to forgive and marry the smitten Yvain, who stupidly messes up and loses the love of his wife. This makes him go insane, rebound thanks to some carefully applied potions, befriend a lion, and regain his reputation.

I don't want to give too much away (although the plot is so rich and the characters so varied that I could tell you everything and it would still be worth reading), but needless to say there are a lot of knightly adventures, chivalrous quests, and moral lessons in this romance. It is amazing to read something written over 800 years ago that still seems so fresh and with characters (including female characters) who have flaws and motivations that don't seem that different from people today.

The translator purposefully discards the original meter and rhyme of the Old French version, which would be nearly impossible to recreate in English, at least in any readable way, and instead gives us a metered but unrhymed modern English translation that (as far as I know) retains the tone and metaphors of the original. This edition also includes a well-written afterward by Joseph J. Duggan that puts the book into its cultural context, gives biographical information on Chrétien de Troyes, and discusses his many known and probable inspirations and sources for the romance.

[You will have to buy or borrow the Raffel translation, if you want to read it, but there is a perfectly suitable, although slightly more archaic translation by W.W. Comfort available in the public domain.]

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

German Pancakes

If you are not one of the 2.4 million people to whom I have already raved about this recipe and harassed into making it in their own kitchens, then you need to pay attention. These puffy oven pancakes are amazing and exciting. You will love them.

To make:

1. Whisk together 1 cup of flour, 1 tsp of sugar, and 1/3 a tsp of salt.

2. In another bowl, thoroughly whisk together 4 eggs and 1 cup of milk.

3. Put the dries into the wets and whisk the whole gang together until well blended, then let the batter sit at room temperature for 1/2 an hour.

4. Heat your oven to 475.

5. Divide 1/2 a stick of butter between two pie pans. I used one pie pan and one 9X9 baking dish. A woman I work with sometimes puts all the butter and all the batter into one big rectangular baking dish instead of dividing it.

6. Move your lowest oven rack down to the lowest slot in the oven. Make sure the other rack is considerably higher so that your pancakes don't puff into it.

7. Put the pie pans with their butter into the oven until the butter melts.

8. When the butter is melted, swoosh it around to coat the bottom and sides of each pie pan, then divide your batter evenly between the two pans.

9. Bake for 12-15 minutes until they are golden brown and set in the center. They will puff up to a considerable degree (like three or four inches above the side of the pan).

10. Cut into wedges and squeeze lemon juice on top, then dust with powdered sugar.


Monday, April 20, 2009

The Last Vampire (1994)

Christopher Pike's The Last Vampire (1994) came out a little late for me to have read it in my Christoper Pike phase. I did, however, have enough remembered love for him that I rescued it and three other Pike books from the recycling bin at the bookstore where I worked in high school and college. And thank God I did, as they are now fueling my personal Christopher Pike re-read-a-thon.

The Last Vampire introduces us to Alisa Perne (aka Lara Adams aka Sita). She is a very rich and very beautiful young woman who also happens to be a 5000 year-old vampire. When she finds herself blackmailed by a private detective who seems to know too much about her background, she quickly neutralizes the situation by killing him, then later realizes that she needs his password to get into his computer and find out who hired him and put him on her trail. To access the files, she uses her connections to have herself enrolled at the high school that the detective's son attends. Her plan is to seduce him, access the files, and then deal with whoever is on the other end of the threats.

Everything goes as planned except that Sita finds herself falling deeply in love with the detective's son, Ray. He reminds her so strongly of her husband (who she married before she was turned into a vampire and who is the only man she ever loved) that things become way more messy for Sita than they have for centuries. To add to her troubles, a dark force is on her trail and it means business.

You know, this book was actually pretty good. I like vampires, so that might have a lot to do with it, but adding the supernatural elements really enhances Pike's often goofy dialogue and overly dramatic descriptions. I particularly liked Sita's backstory -- which also happens to cover the origin of all vampires everywhere, and which has a neat twist of Hindu mythology built in.

The Last Vampire is the first in a six book series. It is probably doubtful that I would buy any of the other books in the series on purpose, but if I ever come across them, you know they will go right on top of my guilty pleasure reading pile.

Okay, I couldn't resist sharing just a bit of the goofy Pikey descriptions that I love so well:

His face has a depth his father's never imagined. He is cut in the mode of many handsome modern youths, with curly brown hair and a chiseled profile, yet his inner character pushes through his natural beauty and almost makes a mockery of it. The boy is already more man than boy. It shows in his brown eyes, soft but quick, in his silent pauses, as he takes in what his classmates say. He reflects on it, and either accepts or reject it, not caring what others think. He is his own person, Ray Riley, and I like that about him.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

We've gone on holiday by mistake...

Why had I never seen this before?:

The trailer makes it look more ordinary and less funny than it is (although it does include some of my favorite lines). For a quick taste of the movie, you could also take a look at all the swears, or the fan-made lego versions.

Seriously, go rent it and watch the whole thing right now. The bits and pieces don't do it justice.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Baby Jesus Pawn Shop (2008)

My latest acquisition from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program is Lucia Orth's first novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop (2008). I wasn't sure I'd like this, firstly because the cover is really dumb, and secondly because the other book I'd gotten from this publisher wasn't one of my favorites. And yet, like so many other times before, I was happily surprised.

Baby Jesus Pawn Shop is the story of Doming Aquinaldo, a man who flees his home in Mindanao for the big-city anonymity of Manila after his step-father is murdered (and Doming is targeted) by local officials for organizing the sugar cane workers. He gets a job as a driver for Trace Caldwell, an American intelligence officer, and his wife, Rue, who eschews the social engagements with diplomat's wives and does agricultural research at the Rice Institute. Rue and Trace are drifting further and further apart as he becomes enmeshed in the compromises, injustices, and betrayals necessary to keep Ferdinand Marcos in power, the communists under control, and the US military bases unchallenged. Rue wants to leave their loveless marriage, but has fallen in love with the country and can't bear to leave it. What surprises her is that she also falls in love with Doming, and he falls in love with her as well.

The love story is generally given a pretty light touch, and is enveloped by a detailed and moving portrait of the Philippines towards the end of the Marcos' twenty-three years of power. Poverty, torture and injustice are all mixed up with humor, beauty, and love. Nothing is too florid or heavy-handed (except some of the dialogue between the lovers, which gets a little goofy at times), and I felt like I learned a lot about the country and its history, without sacrificing depth of character or narrative.

Absolutely worth a second look.

Monday, April 06, 2009

A for Anything (1959)

I recently bought Damon Knight's A for Anything (1959) because I liked the cover and it was fifty cents, completely forgetting that I read another book by Knight back in 2005 and loved it. Since Knight is such a strong writer, it should come as no surprise that I loved this nicely covered book as well. Sci-fi authors are lucky that they had such talented cover artists, or I don't even know how I'd decide what to read...

In A for Anything, it is 1971 (the not-so-distant future!) and a scientist invents a machine (a "Gismo") that can make an exact replica of anything else, including itself (and, eventually, people). The scientist is excited and sees this as the answer to all of humanity's problems -- why if no one had to work, go hungry, or want for anything, then what could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters the government tries to seize the invention before it causes the downfall of capitalism. On to their plan, the scientist mails out 100 pairs of Gismos to random addresses and then heads to his idyllic retreat with his family to await the utopia. It soon becomes apparent that his good-intentioned idea has resulted in anarchy, violence, and a huge power struggle between those who have the Gismos and those who don't.

Jump ahead to 2049:

Over half the population has been killed in a series of large-scale wars and small-scale battles for position. No scientific progress has been made since 1970. Huge swaths of the country have reverted to nature. And the country is divided up among a set of noble families who own slaves (which they call Slobs) and live lives of medieval decadence under the ever-present shadow of potential treason and overthrow by a rival family.

Our protagonist, who we never really like all that much, is Dick Jones, a young man who is next-in-line as the leader of a settlement in the Poconos. Just before he is about to fly to Colorado for his four years of military service at the Eagles, the gigantic court of a very big boss, he gets in an argument with his cousin that ends in a duel. But leaving his small pond in the Poconos for the oceanic grandeur of a Colorado mountaintop knocks Jones down a peg. In fact, much of the book is about Jones learning to navigate the complex levels of power that make up life in Eagles. As one might expect, this uneven society can't last forever, and when it finally explodes, Jones is right at the center of it.

I found tons of parallels between this book and Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano -- a distopic society based on the saving grace of technology, the philosophical exploration of worker and owner (or slob and ruler), and the climax and ending of each book (which I won't give away here) are remarkably similar. Someone else should read this too, so we can talk about it!

[Very green back cover available here.]

Friday, April 03, 2009

I believe in Leonard Cohen

The show was just amazing -- three and a half hours, four encores, and he played almost every song I could possibly want to hear. The band was great, our seats were great, and I'm still just all tingly and excited about it. A friend of ours after the concert said that it was like religion, and it really was. That is, if your religion involves a deliciously low voice, a 74 year old man who skips on and off stage every time, a lot of kneeling, and the perfect words. This was a big splurge for our no-money budget, but it would have been worth even twice as much. Just wow.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Pugilist at Rest (1993)

The Pugilist at Rest (1993), Thom Jones' first collection of short stories, came up on my random book reading system this week, much like his second short story collection, Cold Snap came up for me almost exactly three years ago. I'm not sure how I waited three years to read this, since I liked Cold Snap so much, and I hope it doesn't take another three years for his third book to make its way out of Dr. M's secret closet of unread books and onto my bookshelves.

Each of Jones' stories is so filled with character and detail that they seem like complete novels in my memory. Janitors, doctors, soldiers, epileptics, boxers, and philosophers weave in and out of his writing. And although some phrases and situations are repeated in multiple stories, each individual piece is so vivid and different that nothing seems stale or forced about the repetition.

There was one story in this bunch that I didn't like that much, but it was quickly forgotten in the awesomeness that is the rest of this book. Go read it! Yes!