Tuesday, August 31, 2010

All Delighted People EP

There's a note of irony in Sufjan Stevens' career that any hipster among his fans is sure to appreciate.  His greatest success by any measure--commercial, critical, or artistic--came from the same subset of his music that spurred a career-jeopardizing existential crisis.

Michigan (2003) wasn't Stevens' first album--it was his third--but it was the first one that anyone paid attention to.  The Avalanche (2006) was the most listenable B-sides/rarities/outtakes album since the mid-1990s' Beatles Anthology series, plus it was Stevens' only album to date to crack the mainstream Billboard charts.  And Illinois, released in 2005, has already taken its place among the greatest indie albums of the last decade, possibly of all time.

Together, these three form the beginning--or what ought to have been the beginning--of Stevens' supremely ambitious "Fifty States Project."  Now, tragically, these three appear like they're forming the entirety of the project.  The grand plan was to write albums inspired by each of the fifty states, of which Michigan and Illinois were the first two, and The Avalanche carried the momentum of Illinois to become its partner or sequel album.

Sufjan Stevens hasn't necessarily been forthcoming about his intentions for the future of the project.  2006 gave us "yes, of course I'm serious about finishing it."  In 2008, we got the sea change of an opinion to "no, I'm not going to finish it, and I was pretty much joking the whole time."  And by 2010, these prognostications more or less moderated to "I probably won't finish it, but I won't rule out working on it more in the future."

It would be a shame if he didn't put more work into it.  While 2004's Seven Swans remains popular, and undoubtedly A Sun Came!, Enjoy Your Rabbit/Run Rabbit Run, and even The BQE enjoy their own followings, it's the Fifty States Project that put Sufjan Stevens on the map and has produced his best work.  But it's possible that like many artists' magna opera, Stevens poured just a little too much of himself into it.

The self-destruction that threatened to follow saw Stevens giving quotes like "I've lost faith in the album" and of the song as units of musical expression.  Nowhere did the breakdown appear more evident than in 2009's The BQE a mess of an orchestral tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which was somewhere between horror and genius--but even fans have nowhere where to place it.  We had no idea whether or not Stevens would release a conventional album with words ever again.

Therefore, the ambush of a release of All Delighted People was even more of a shock to fans.  (And if that weren't enough, a full-length is planned for October.)  Conventional it is not--apparently Stevens wasn't kidding when he hinted at abandoning the traditional song/album structure--but it does have words, it has a few remnants of convention about it, and it has a whole lot of content.  The EP weighs in at 8 songs that last a total of more than 57 minutes (which many artists would be content to market as a full-length album).  Do the math, and you'll find that the average song length is more than seven minutes--which isn't to say that Stevens has mundanely released an EP with eight seven-minute songs.  Rather, the shortest is barely three minutes, the second-longest is eleven, and the longest is a hefty seventeen-minute jam session.

The middle of the album, tracks two through five, are where the album is at its most conventional and immediately accessible.  "Enchanted Ghost" is the shortest track and seems the most like material that might have made it onto Seven Swans or Michigan.  It's still my favorite track on the album, and while the following few tracks occasionally lose energy or direction, fans expecting Stevens' earlier work will be the most at home in this chunk of music.

"All Delighted People" makes its appearance as two tracks, which are not precisely the same song in terms of content and are drastically different songs in terms of style.  Both, but particularly the first title track, feature some jarring dissonances and abrupt stylistic changes.  It wasn't the sort of thing I was sure I liked at first; in fact, one of my first thoughts was "this will take some getting used to."  But here's the thing: by the second time I played through the EP, I wasn't just used to it--I was into it.

Aside from more dissonance and sharper transitions than we're used to, a few stylistic departures from Stevens' earlier work pervade the EP.  Electronic effects and wailing, meandering electric guitar solos show up more in "Djohariah", the seventeen-minute track that closes the album, than in Stevens' past seven studio albums combined, and they show up throughout the rest of the album as well.  Stevens' falsetto, very much a part of all the music he has released, shows up in All Delighted People as a frailer yet more pronounced version of its old self, less agile and more obvious than it was in the past.

All Delighted People is not Illinois.  Not that anyone really expected it to be--as The Avalanche showed, Stevens clearly could have made the rest of his career into re-releasing Illinois about five times, and he would have been plenty successful doing so.  But there's always been a sense of boundary-pushing in Sufjan Stevens' music, and All Delighted People carries that tradition further than any of his previous albums.

Currently listening: "Magpie to the Morning", Neko Case

Monday, August 23, 2010

Matt Plays Food Blogger: Chicken Biryani

I've never understood the national appeal of the New York Times. It's a regional newspaper--why would I want to read about what's happening in New York when I could just as easily read about what's happening in my own city? However, it has been an excellent source of delicious things to cook. Maybe I'm a Times fan after all.

Today's recipe was one I found describing how to make an Indian/Pakistani chicken and rice dish in a rice cooker. I don't have a rice cooker, but, hey, I just so happen to have an appliance that cooks things thoroughly and slowly! My slow-cooker version of chicken biryani is a lot simpler and takes fewer preparation steps, but I can't imagine it tastes much different from the original.


  • 1-1.5 lb. chicken thighs. This week's Mega Ultra Chicken Thigh pack from Safeway had eleven thighs, and I used five of them in this. I think it came out to 1.2 lb. or so.
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 inches of ginger, minced (I used a microplane)
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced (I microplaned this too)
  • 3 small serrano chilis, stemmed and chopped (you could use just about any sort of chili)
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/4 tsp garam masala
  • 6 cardamom pods
  • 6 cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • a pinch of saffron
  • 3 cups of chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 cups rice (I used Thai Jasmine, because that's what I had around. The original used basmati. I'm not sure how different those two are.)
  • 1 cup of plain yogurt
  • 3 tbsp chopped fresh mint
  • 3 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
  • juice from 1 lime
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
This is a whole ton of ingredients. Half of them are spices, though, so you might already have them lying around. I think you could probably get away with using 3 tsp garam masala instead of the coriander/chili powder/cumin/garam masala combination to cut down ingredients. I already had all these spices except for cloves and saffron, and it was a good thing, because those two bundles of joy cost me about twenty-five dollars.

Saffron is not messing around. I'd heard of how expensive this business was, of course, but exactly how much it gouged my wallet astonished me. You have no idea how strongly I'm considering dropping out of grad school and moving to Spain to become a saffron farmer.  

Preparation and Cooking

The original recipe suggests blending the onion, garlic, ginger, and chilis together to form a paste. Unfortunately, I don't have a food processor or blender, so I chopped and minced as above. Then slightly brown the paste (maybe "golden-brown the paste") by cooking in about 1 tbsp of olive oil. Take the paste out of the pan and set it aside. Brown the chicken in the same pan (first adding another tablespoon of olive oil if you need to) and put it on the bottom of a slow cooker. Layer the browned paste on top.

Throw in all the spices, powdered and whole, except for the saffron. (If you have a bit of cheesecloth or a dry, empty tea bag, you might want to throw the cardamom pods and cloves into a small bundle. You don't want to crunch down on one of these later.) Dump in the chicken broth and rice. Cook on low for 5 hours and 30 minutes. (Or longer, if you're worried about your slow cooker's ability to get the chicken cooked through.)

As the 5-hour mark approaches, chop the fresh herbs, juice the lime, and mix the saffron into the yogurt. Mine didn't mix so well--clearly my first time working with saffron. I probably should have tried harder to mix them. Add the chopped herbs, the lime juice, and the saffron yogurt at 5:30 or so, and stir everything together. Cook for another half hour, just enough to get everything to cook through.


I liked this a whole lot.  The turmeric turned the rice a fantastic yellow color, and all the fantastic south Asian spices melded together beautifully.  This is one of the first dishes I've made where the sweet-savory-salty balance was dead-on.

The chicken was tender and not too dried out--I think cooking it for longer than 6 hours in my particular crockpot more or less kills it.  The rice decomposed into a sticky mush, which I actually didn't mind at all, especially because the rice cooks in the chicken broth with all the spices dissolved in it.  Plus, given the choice, I'd much rather have a casserole consistency than crunchy undercooked rice.  That said, it makes for a fundamentally different dish.  You could probably work some fancy timing for exactly when to add the rice, but that would involve more work than a slow-cooked dish is supposed to.

It's my belief that lamb is probably the most tragically underrated meat there is, and nowhere does it go better than in Indian-ish cooking.  The reason I stuck with chicken here is that the dish uses chicken broth--I don't know if there's such a thing as lamb broth, lamb in chicken sauce just isn't as good as chicken in chicken sauce, and using beef broth in an Indian dish seems, well, sacrilegious.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'm not sure if the vaunted saffron actually did anything at all.  But I'm naturally unwilling to make compromises to my authenticity.

Currently listening: "Lightning Rod", Guster

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

3-Sentence Reviews: Netflix from Summer 2010

The Netflix project encompasses basically four sorts of movies: ones that family or friends recommend to me (in good faith), which I am honor-bound to put in the queue as soon as possible; recent releases that I never got around to seeing in the theater; older movies that I feel get referenced enough that it would be worth it to watch; and random loose ends that Netflix thinks I'll like. I've been through some of each over the summer, and here are micro-reviews of a few of them.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist: Michael Cera yet again brings George Michael Bluth to the big screen—impressive, considering that the Arrested Development movie has been stalled in pre-production since 2007—and Kat Dennings reprises her Charlie Bartlett role of Susan Gardner equally as faithfully. It’s a particularly salient example of the indie trend of the late 2000’s, where quirk is the highest virtue, awkwardness is a sine qua non, and the characters are all cooler than you are because their tastes manage to be at once more vintage and more obscure than your own. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is buoyed by a handful of funny moments and a decent supporting cast, hindered by some strained-belief moments and a few downright impossibilities, and for all its music-elitist trappings, nothing more than a love story in the end.

Lethal Weapon: Lethal Weapon was made in 1987, and you can tell--like virtually every movie from that decade, it has not aged well. The premise of "older by-the-book cop works with younger renegade cop to beat the bad guys" may have been novel at the time, but it's hard to say because it's been so thoroughly played out since then. And although action scenes in movies haven't really impressed me since I was 14, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the plot--it unfolded at a reasonable pace, and the developments were sensical without being predictable.

Saw: The thing about Saw wasn't that it was overly violent--there were a couple of gruesome scenes, but not even as many as I would have predicted--or poorly acted--the acting was pretty bad, but it is with most movies. My big complaint about Saw was that it was boring, which is pretty much the most flagrant foul that a horror movie could commit. The first half was sort of interesting, seeing the setup, and trying to understand the situation; by an hour into the movie, I got distracted finding some sweet apps for my phone, and apparently that was more interesting than the second half of Saw.

The Shawshank Redemption: The more that a movie is overhyped, the less I usually appreciate it as much as I'm supposed to (see The Dark Knight and Juno). Shawshank is the rare movie that defies that expectation and lives up to its among-the-best-movies-ever status. Morgan Freeman turns in the performance of his career, and the very best and very worst parts of humanity are explored in a story that leaves just enough ambiguity to be interesting.

Monty Python's Life of Brian: As someone who likes Monty Python in general, and is quite a big fan of The Holy Grail specifically, I couldn't help but be disappointed with Life of Brian. I expected cutting religious satire and witty commentary, and there are a few brilliant scenes (like the Roman guards giving Brian a Latin lesson as he vandalizes their buildings). But as the movie wears on, we get speech impediment humor and predictable gags, which stand up to neither the film's premise or the comedic genius of most of Monty Python's works.

Casablanca: If Shawshank is one of the best movies of the 1990s and a contender for "best movie ever," then Casablanca is its counterpart from the 1940s. There are constantly two or three plot threads in play, but rather than being confusing, all of them are interesting and sensical, and most impressively, we care about all of them. While the ending is predictable, how the movie gets there is not--and the characters and dialog are among the most enduring fixtures of American cinema.

Currently listening: "Brick by Boring Brick" (acoustic version), Paramore

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Dark Tower, At Long Last

I have a confession to make. Throughout my five-month pilgrimage to the Dark Tower, I've been using phrases like "I'm not really a Stephen King fan, but…" It's been disingenuous. Prior to the Dark Tower, I'd read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, watched Carrie and part of The Shining on TV… and that's about it. I think the issue is that I'm not a horror fan—and before I dig myself into another hole, it's not that I've even read that much horror. The most fair and accurate thing I can say is that I don't really like the idea of horror. And that much abstraction is a poor vantage to judge Stephen King from.

In my defense, "this is the Stephen King that you should read even if you're not a Stephen King fan" was only part of the reason I decided to read the Dark Tower books. Another important part was recommendation from friends. But probably the biggest was its major influence on Lost. I commented on that before, in a few of Season 6's "Lost Speculations and Observations" posts, but that was before I'd read the entire series.

(For Lost fans, there is a huge Dark Tower influence on the show. Certain numbers with an unexplained cosmic significance repeatedly show up. There is a superposition of related but non-identical worlds. The iconic setting manipulates time and space unpredictably. And there's a villain known as the Man in Black who is thousands of years old, wields mysterious magic including the ability to not-quite-resurrect people, takes the identity and form of other people, and possesses the singular ambition to rule the iconic setting.)

The Dark Tower is a seven-book behemoth of a series that is ultimately best categorized as epic fantasy, although some critics, reviewers, and publishers seem to take issue with that. It's told through a Western lens, but that does not make it a Western. It's written by a prolific horror writer, but that does not make it horror. There are robots and other bits of futuristic technology, but that only sort of makes it science fiction.

Aside from its genre, the other important thing to remember about the Dark Tower is that Stephen King considers it the most important thing he's written. He sees it as both his magnum opus and a linchpin that unites all the rest of his works. Furthermore, he actually inserts himself as a character into the last third of the series.

Therefore, "Stephen King for people who aren't Stephen King fans" though it may be, the Dark Tower series is sure to be better appreciated by actual Stephen King fans. I enjoyed the fallen-priest-seeking-redemption character of Pere Callahan, but reading about him in the Dark Tower context would surely be more rewarding to someone who had already read Salem's Lot. Similarly, the gleeful evil of Randall Flagg/The Man in Black was creepy enough to me, but the fan who had already read The Stand probably got even more out of his appearances.

Callahan, Flagg, and a few other touchstone references to other books show that the "linchpin" nature of the Dark Tower is primarily one of setting and character rather than style or tone; despite the handful of horror scenes that crop up throughout, the Dark Tower is decidedly not horror. Yet, King's strengths and weaknesses apparently carry through all of his works. Friends I've talked to who have read more King than I have, whether they liked his books or not, overwhelmingly agreed that he crafts some fascinating settings and compelling plots, but that his language and writing style are subpar.

My own thought throughout reading the books was that Stephen King is an incredible storyteller, but an underwhelming author. I found myself caring deeply about what was happening, excited about what was going to happen next, and often disappointed with how "next" ended up happening. King has such a strong idea of where he wants the story to go (and don't get me wrong, it's nearly always a great place) that he has no qualms getting the story there by any means necessary.

There are two devices that King uses repeated to accomplish that. The first, and more believable, is the motif of the physical constants of the universe breaking down. If we accept as part of the setting that there are six metaphysical "beams" that support reality and are subtly observable in each world—and we should because it's fantasy—then it's just as easy to believe that the gradual breaking of these beams is causing reality to skew a little. From there, it's not much of a stretch to allow King to fudge directions, time spans, and distances just a bit. Where it might be construed as a careless continuity error in any other setting, west suddenly becoming north in the Dark Tower actually makes some twisted amount of sense.

The second, less creative, and more egregiously abused device is the theme that fate directs some of our actions without us knowing how. King expresses this as "ka," which (as any Scrabble aficionado knows) is a two-letter word to describe an indwelling vital force in Egyptian myth, similar to the concept of the soul in Judeo-Christian teaching. There's nothing particularly Egyptian about King's ka, but "indwelling" is putting it mildly.

Ka quickly becomes King's go-to deus ex machina, his perpetual trump card if something needs to happen but can't reasonably. A character is faced with a crossroads he's never seen before and has no legitimate means of picking the correct path? Ka comes to the rescue. A character needs a particular password to gain access to a building, or an item to survive the travel from city to city, but it would be ludicrous for the character to have it? Ka gives it to him.

To his credit, King tries very hard to integrate ka into the setting. Unfortunately, he only gets about halfway there. His characters believe in it so intensely that we believe that they believe that ka is guiding their actions. But it's overused to the point that in a few extreme cases, it becomes easy to wonder if the characters are actually responsible for doing any of this themselves, or if ka could pretty much just replace the entire story?

Another unfortunate side effect of ka is its effective removal of the emotion of surprise from all of the characters. Not only do impossible things happen because ka wills them, but the characters are so used to this that the most bizarre coincidence or lucky turn of events barely registers to them. And, presumably as part of his effort to permeate his setting with ka, King points out how little the characters are surprised every time this happens.

It's one of several stylistic quirks that Stephen King has, most of which detract from the story. King displays a Palahniuk-esque (or, given when their books were written, maybe it's more accurate to say that Palahniuk has a King-esque) penchant for repeating words and phrases into oblivion. You know it from Fight Club—"I am [person]'s [unusual noun]."—or from Choke—"[descriptive noun] isn't the right word, but it's the word that comes to mind."

Yes, Stephen King, I'm aware that Andy the Messenger Robot has Many Other Functions. I get it, Susannah thinks that hot chocolate "mit schlag" is "the good kind." And there was a point in the second or third book that if I read the phrase "Great Sage and Eminent Junkie" one more time to describe Eddie's brother Henry, I would have thrown the book across the room in rage. When Palahniuk does it, it comes across as smug and postmodern. When King does it, it comes across as tiresome and repetitive. Either way, it's irritating and adds absolutely nothing to the story other than the author's (misguided) attempt at cuteness.

Perhaps King's worst stylistic blunder is his clumsy metafiction, when he not only inserts himself into the story, but uses his fictional Stephen King to expound on the nature of literary devices, including his frequent use of the deus ex machina. In the Afterword to the seventh book, King describes that he does not like the term "metafiction." But whatever he chooses to call it, it's undoubtedly there, and it threatens to strip some of the realism from the setting.

I get why he did it, and in fact there are plenty of reasons. It's King's most important work, and he wants to express that he really feels a personal connection to the story he's telling. It's part of the theme that literature is more than words on a page; it is a method of connection to another existence. And it makes the point that the conflict against the Crimson King is actually one that spans all universes, not just Roland's. At its best, King's ploy works: it makes us feel more connected to the story, and it adds a sense of both urgency and wonder as we start to comprehend what this might feel like if it really did play out in our reality.

But at its worse, it's frustratingly meta. Granted, I've never been big on the meta/"tear down the fourth wall" idea. It's easier, more sincere, and (most importantly) funnier just to tell a funny joke than to try and make a joke about the expectation about a joke being funny. The instant that characters in a movie begin to suspect that they're in a movie, the movie loses about three notches of credibility. (It's the only part where M. Night Shyamalan's otherwise tragically underrated Lady in the Water actually lives down to its reputation.) It's likely that a bigger fan of this style would appreciate the fictionalized Stephen King more than I did.

I could go on about the weaknesses of the Dark Tower—how Stephen King could really use a lesson in "show, don't tell;" how a handful of scenes felt wholly unnecessary; how until the fifth book, King apparently did not know that sometimes instead of "which," it's appropriate to use "that". But that wouldn't be doing justice to the many strengths of the series.

First, it's worth mentioning that King does do one literary thing very well, and that's pacing. In sharp contrast to the middle-late Wheel of Time books, for instance, I never felt like 700 or 800 pages of any given Dark Tower book ground to a halt. Nor did I often think that things were happening too quickly, and that I would have liked a little more exposition. I could sit down for a reasonable amount of time and make some reasonable amount of progress—after reading a few chapters, there's neither a feeling of lack of progress nor one of having rushed through.

Where the Dark Tower really shines, though, is in its imaginative setting. Not many storytellers dare to use "the entire universe" as a setting, but King one-ups them all by using every universe for his setting. In the Dark Tower, there are an infinite number of worlds arranged on a continuum. Starting from the Earth that we know, some are very subtly different, like ones where the suburbs of New York City are rearranged slightly, or where somebody besides Alexander Hamilton is portrayed on the ten-dollar bill. Some are more drastically different, like ones where the most popular Japanese imports are not Toyota cars and Sony cameras but Takuros and Shinnaros. And others, like Roland's Mid-World, bear only fleeting resemblance to our own… but even there, "Hey Jude" remains a popular song.

There are numerous ways to get between these different worlds, of course, and they all rely on magic, technology, or some combination of both. Plenty of settings have pitched the "magic versus technology" conflict before, but King is a rare author who leaves his imprint on it. Firmly rejecting the Clarke doctrine that "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," King asserts that technology was mankind's coping mechanism for the recession of magic from the world—and that it makes a poor substitute.

As a person of faith, it's easy to interpret things like that as King's affirmation of a higher power in his universe. In fact, as the series grows closer to the Dark Tower, the story becomes more overtly religious, with increasing references to both God and Gan (the Mid-World term for the higher power). The Crimson King, the overall antagonist of the series, is suggested to be a manifestation of Satan, and as the conflict develops, it becomes an increasingly dualistic struggle of White versus Red. And when Roland reaches the Dark Tower itself, he comes to believe that it is a worldly manifestation of Gan. The idea of faith and belief is one of several fascinating angles that the Dark Tower could be analyzed from, and one that would undoubtedly yield many different opinions depending on the analyst.

Sprinkled throughout this imaginative setting are a handful of incredibly executed scenes. In some, King uses shockingly beautiful language, the sort of imagery that reminds you that even if you disagree with some of his stylistic decisions, Stephen King is still a much better writer than you are. In particular, Jake's discovery of the rose that represents the Dark Tower (and therefore Gan) in his own world (book 3), Roland's funeral ritual he performs for Jake (book 7), and the denouement of Roland's ultimate arrival at the Tower (book 7) struck me as powerfully emotional.

There are even more scenes that are especially salient just because they're iconic and masterful storytelling. Roland's fight against Cort using David the raven as his weapon (book 1), bringing Jake through the portal to Mid-World and fighting both the doorkeeper and the incubus (book 3), the bar fight between Roland's people and Eldred Jonas's (book 4), Roland dancing the commala (book 5), and the battle at the Dixie Pig (books 6 and 7) are the ones that jump out at me. King's writing here is so descriptive and the situations are so relatable (albeit most of them in a strange, "I've seen this in a movie" sort of way) that there is no doubt in what's happening.

So, between King's shaky and inconsistent writing style and his natural gift as a storyteller, there's a pretty obvious way to make the Dark Tower one of the greatest artistic works of our generation: make it into movies. Any director would have a field day with such an expansive setting, and it would be trivially easy to be able to translate King's most important and well defined scenes to film. The concept of Stephen-King-as-better-screenwriter-than-author is nothing new; see Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption.

The bad news is that the Lost trifecta of JJ Abrams, Carlton Cuse, and Damon Lindelof are reportedly not going to have anything to do with the movie after all, but the good news is that it still looks like it's going to happen. Until then, read the books. It's worth putting up with a little Stephen King to be able to experience the brilliance of Stephen King.

Finally, it seems like no Dark Tower discussion is complete without some qualitative ranking of the books. Against my better judgment, ranked from best to worst:

  1. The Gunslinger, book 1. Chalk it up to primacy if you like, but there's no doubt that the first book is the best. The story is tight, the main characters are compelling, the supporting characters are memorable, we get coherent resolutions to both the main plot and the flashback story, and the book stands on its own as a brilliant novel while also integrating smoothly into the rest of the series.
  2. Song of Susannah, book 6. I feel like if I get flack for any of my placements, it's going to be this one. The standout part of Song for me was the character of Mia, who develops more organically and exhibits a more complex personality than any supporting character has any right to. The book also took some of Wolves of the Calla's more creative inventions and made them make sense with the rest of the books.
  3. Wizard and Glass, book 4. This is the "Across the Sea" of the Dark Tower, the hefty expository back story that some fans loved and some hated. Aside from The Gunslinger, it's probably the only book that makes sense on its own as a novel, and like The Gunslinger, it features excellent characterization and memorable villains.
  4. The Dark Tower, book 7. It was long, and it probably could have jettisoned the entire Dandelo subplot without really losing too much. However, the ending scene, where Roland reaches the Tower and begins to comprehend the truly important parts of his humanity, makes the length of not only this book, but of the entire series, worth it.
  5. The Drawing of the Three, book 2. Drawing was an odd installment, because it didn't have an overarching story or villain or objective; instead, it read like three loosely connected novellas. Still, it provided the first and only time I found Eddie interesting in the series, as we see his transition from addict to gunslinger.
  6. The Waste Lands, book 3. There was relatively little involvement here from any of the forces of the Crimson King, and the book suffers for it. In places, it reads more like Roland's Travelogue than anything to do with the Dark Tower. My favorite part of the book, heretically enough, was the cliffhanger ending that formally unites Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah, and Oy as ka-tet.
  7. Wolves of the Calla, book 5. Don't get me wrong—Wolves had plenty of things going for it, especially as you read books 6 and 7 and they started to make sense. Reading Wolves on its own, though, was like being dumped into a completely new series, with people, locations, and concepts we'd never encountered before—and the characters just accepting all of it like they were there all along and not just pulled from thin air.

Currently listening: "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!", the Beatles

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Balcony Gardener: August 2010

I was pretty apprehensive about apartment-hunting in Berkeley.  Here's a town of pick any two: "less than $900 per person per month," "less than a half hour walk to campus," and "doesn't look like something you might find in downtown Detroit."  My roommates and I picked the first two without much hesitation, and to tell the truth, the inside of the apartment doesn't even look that bad.  (That the outside bears a striking resemblance to the Dekalb County Jail better illustrates this point.)

Worse, though, if you want to include "at all resembles a real house" in that list, you're looking at tacking $100 and/or 15 minutes onto the above.  The only amenity that my apartment has that even comes close is a small balcony, about 8 feet by 6 feet.  My roommates and I have crammed everything we can onto it to make it feel just a little like a real backyard.  We have a bit of "garage," a storage area for large and unwieldy items that just can't go anywhere inside the apartment, including one roommate's bike.  There's a little "back deck," including a grill, a few grill tools, and a bag of charcoal.  My other roommate uses it as a smoking lounge.

And proudly sitting on the balcony rail is my attempt at a garden.

From left to right, I have cayenne peppers, a repotted Easter lily from last April, and a whole lot of herbs.  Those multicolored glass contraptions are as-seen-on-TV Aquaglobes, which I bought on woot, $3 for a 4-pack.  I figured at 75 cents apiece, why not?  The garden gets about five or six strong hours of sunlight a day.  It's a west-facing balcony, so the light hours are biased to the afternoon and evening, from about 1 pm to about 6 or 7 pm, depending on when the evening fog rolls in.  I refill the Aquaglobes that need refilling (most notably for my hanging flowers, which you can't see but are located below the peppers) every day; on Saturdays, I give everything a more traditional watering from a can spiked with a little Miracle-Gro.

I started the peppers back in February in one of those covered dirt grids and moved them to their current location in March when they'd outgrown the tray.  They didn't do much in the way of growth until April or May, when daytime temperatures finally unstuck from the low 60s.  I thinned to about seven or eight plants in June right before they started flowering, and now that it's August, I have a couple dozen peppers in varying stages of maturity, with the biggest being about three inches.  Some appear to be stuck around an inch or less, and I think that's probably an unfortunate consequence of their limited root space.

Probably the biggest surprise is the recently regrown Easter lily.  I bought it for six dollars in March, it bloomed, and I had some nice flowers for a few weeks.  Then they all fell off, and I was stuck with what looked like a bootleg miniature palm tree, until those leaves started to yellow.  The thing was pretty unsightly at this point, so I read up on if you could actually do anything useful with a dying Easter lily.  Apparently, if you cut off the old plant and re-pot the bulb in a few inches of soil, it magically grows again. Sure, I thought, like this will work at all.  And to my pleasant surprise, it did!  I now have not one but two fledgling Easter lilies coming up from the old bulb, grown to an inch or two.

The herbs I have are rosemary, oregano, cilantro coriander, and basil.  Nothing too exciting here--they're all transplants from store-bought plants.  The rosemary is a little slow-growing but appears healthy.  The oregano is growing incredibly well and quickly, having gone to flower a month or two ago.  What used to be cilantro is now towering (and dying) coriander, with most of the seeds having matured and now drying in a paper bag inside.  And finally, there's my basil problem.

This is the third basil plant I've had here.  I tried growing a batch from seed back in early spring, but all the seedlings sprouted and died.  Attempt number two was a small plant from Home Depot in late spring that turned yellow and died.  The one I have now is at least living, but what started out as lush, dark green leaves are lightening, thinning, and falling off.  I don't get it--I've had a lot of success with basil back in Georgia, and it's not like it's particularly fastidious as far as herbs go.

One more thing--it's not necessarily east to see in the picture, but I have a mystery fifth herb in the garden.  It came with the rosemary plant when I bought it, and I figured it was just immature rosemary.  Not so--it's actually thriving, but it's certainly not rosemary, whatever it is.  It's small--both in leaves and in height--and it's produced a few purple flowers.  Based on the leaf shape and size, and the slightly lemony aroma it gives off if you rub it, I'm leaning toward lemon thyme, but that could be entirely off-base for all I know.

Lessons learned from this month of balcony gardening:

  • Don't trust cilantro.  As soon as you see flowers show up, get rid of them, unless you want coriander.  I do like coriander, so in the future, I'll probably let one cilantro plant go to seed and valiantly fight to keep the other two as cilantro.
  • Sticking a bulb in the soil, even after it's already produced one plant, actually has a chance of working.  Give it a shot!

Questions for other balcony-gardeners out there:

  • Is it possible to grow good basil in the circumstances I've described?  I've grown basil in containers before, so I don't think it's that.  If I had to guess, I'd say it has to do with the relative lack of light, or the relative coolness.  Or maybe I'm just doing something horribly wrong.
  • If I decide to abandon my basil-growing, what's a good replacement herb?
  • Would thinning the pepper plants further, to say three to five plants, give me bigger peppers?  It seems like maybe it would because of greater free root volume.
  • Do I actually have lemon thyme, or something else entirely?  Is it even edible?  Am I going to puke then rip out the tiny leaves in retaliatory rage if I try to eat them, or will they be delicious?
  • Currently listening: "I Woke Up in a Car," Something Corporate

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Matt Plays Food Blogger: Omelets and the Science of Cheese

The omelet is among the greatest breakfast foods ever conceived.  (Unless, you know, you're one of those anti-egg crazies, then you probably won't enjoy them so much.)  Despite the French moniker, there's no pretension with them--as long as it's made of fried beaten egg, it counts.  You can add nothing (though that seems like a waste), or as much vegetable, meat, and cheese as you can stuff inside.  And like any self-respecting breakfast food, it has the potential to incorporate bacon.

Aside from the technically demanding "sandwich," and the always complicated "bowl of cereal,", the omelet was one of the first foods I learned to cook on my own.  I've increased my recipe from two to three eggs as it's become my usual Saturday brunch food, but otherwise my recipe has remained the same: a few crumbled slices of bacon or a couple shredded slices of ham, a handful of cheese, and whatever vegetables I had lying around--particularly spinach and (as I've grown to appreciate them) mushrooms.

But one of my preferences while making omelets has always stricken me as a little bizarre.  I strongly prefer fake processed cheese, a la Kraft singles, to actual quality cheese like manchego, gouda, or cheddar.  I always regarded it as an odd food proclivity, perhaps a primacy effect--that's what I grew up eating in my omelets, so that's what I like today.

When I thought about it more, though, I realized exactly what I didn't like about "real" cheese like cheddar in my omelets: it was too rich.  I consider the cream cheese danish my greatest weakness in life, but aside from those, I can't tolerate too much intense flavor for breakfast.

"But cheddar cheese isn't that rich!"  No, not really, especially when eaten by itself.  In science-y terms, cheese is not as much a pure solid as a coagulated and solidified emulsion, consisting of a protein phase and a fat phase.  At room temperature, as a solid, these phases are mixed together, so when you chomp into a block of cheddar cheese, you get blended cheesy goodness.

However, as you cook cheese, it melts.  The catch is, fat and protein don't melt at the same temperature.  As you heat cheese--this is particularly evident with cheddar, though equally as valid with other cheeses--it phase separates, forming a greasy fat layer on top.  That's what's responsible for the head-buzzing richness you get when you eat too much melted cheese.  (But don't knock the fat in cheese too hard--it gives each its unique flavor, just as different fats make different meats taste different.)

To bring all this back to omelets, the reason that "real" cheeses taste too rich to me in them is because they have a higher milk fat content than do processed cheeses.  Compare cheddar at 33% milk fat to Kraft American at 23%.  To exacerbate the richness problem, cheddar and its ilk are denser than processed American, so if I add what looks like the same amount of cheese, I'm actually adding far too much.

The phrase "far too much" is not one that would usually be appropriate to describe "cheese," but it appears that it is when addressing the delicate balance of delicious that is the omelet.

Currently listening: "Guyamas Sonora", Beirut, from The Flying Club Cup

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Chronicle of My Whitest Day Ever

If you're unfamiliar with Stuff White People Like, take the opportunity right now to familiarize yourself. It's worth it.

Though my straight-up no-frills Eastern European heritage may beg to differ, by the SWPL standard, I am not the very whitest guy out there. Don't get me wrong; while I'm as big a fan of farmers' markets, Netflix, and wine as much as the next white dude, I can't so much get behind snowboarding, unpaid internships, or frisbee sports. This past Saturday, August 7 2010, however, may have been the whitest day of my life.

From the very beginning of any day, August 7 or any other, I have a couple of white points already in the bank. I go to grad school in Berkeley.  That means I live in the San Francisco area pretty much out of necessity, though like any self-respecting white person, I think the city is pretty great too.  August 7, though, began with me walking through downtown Berkeley wearing a t-shirt illustrating the Shins, one of my favorite indie bands.

I should have recognized it for the portent it was.

Instead, I happily and obliviously engaged my Apple iPod with three of my favorite podcasts: Grammar Girl, NPR's Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me, and The Onion Radio News.  My errands in Berkeley concluded, I headed home and surfed Facebook for a while, killing time before the evening.

I spend that evening with my friend Stephanie, who is an Asian girl.  (Full disclosure: she's Indian, but we had a lengthy and informative discussion on the matter, and we decided it counted.)  We went to Yoshi's in downtown Oakland.  While it may not appear so at first, Yoshi's is actually a doubly white establishment.  It is owned and operated by Japanese people, and it features jazz concerts.

At this point, I was finally beginning to catch on to how white the day was becoming.  When we ordered an edamame appetizer, though the garlic-flavored beans were probably delicious, it seemed only natural to pick the sea salt beans.  And it was a given that I'd order sushi at a Japanese restaurant.  (Cool rice, fishy eel;/ Piquant sauce like summer sun/ Spicy dragon roll.)

After we finished eating, it was time for the jazz concert portion of the evening.  This Gerald Albright fellow played some notes I didn't know could even come out of an alto sax and made them sound good.  Nevertheless, I was almost as taken aback by the sheer whiteness of the experience as I was by the musicianship.  Despite SWPL's assertion that jazz is a form of "Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore," after having seen the the clientele for the concert, I'm forced to disagree.  However, this just provided an opportunity to experience diversity, and (at least in my immediate vicinity) I was the only white person around.

Two of the whitest drinks are tea and coffee.  During the concert, while I wasn't busy standing still, I enjoyed a cup of green tea.  Then, after the concert ended, we decided it was a fine evening for coffee... but downtown Oakland wasn't giving us that chance, no matter how hard we looked.  (10 pm on a Saturday night, and you're closing your coffee shop?  Thanks, guys.)  We did pass a Goodwill, though, prompting Stephanie to remark on her love of vintage.

And finally, I took the BART home, only to encounter a bunch of drunken UFC fans, apparently returning home from an event at the Oakland Coliseum.  They were so obnoxious that I found myself really hating people who wear Ed Hardy.

Currently listening: "Paint's Peeling", Rilo Kiley (sung by Jenny Lewis, a girl with bangs)