Sunday, December 4, 2011

British Television FTW Part 2

       I hope you enjoyed Misfits.  Today, I bring you another British television show at the opposite end of the edgy-ness spectrum.   Downton Abbey is a mini-series about a Lord Crawley, a British earl, and his family and multitude of servants in the years leading up to World War 1.  99% of the show takes place in or on the grounds of Downton Abbey, the gilded estate of the Earl of Grantham.   
        One thing that I really enjoyed about this show is the setting.  The 1910's are rarely portrayed in television, movies, and books.  There are countless WW2 stories out there, but very few about WW1.  The early twentieth century was an exciting and dynamic time.  Because the show is set in an estate in the English countryside it seems at first to be very isolated and removed from wider world.  One of the most interesting themes is how the outside world makes its way into Downton Abbey.  For example, one daughter gets involved in women's suffrage movement and is further politicized by the handsome, socialist chauffeur.  
       Sometimes it is easy to forget that England has long entrenched class system with titles and heirs and estates.  In the U.S., the divide between the ruling class and everybody else is huge, as the Occupy Wall Street Movement will attest.  But in England there is a tradition of a landed aristocracy.  Social stratification was seen as static.  In this context, the show explores the relationship between the servants and the Crawleys.  It also spends time exploring the dynamics between the servants.  
        The first season of Downton Abbey is currently on Netflix Instant.  The second season can be found on streaming sites like  Downton Abbey spins a complex web in a time and place that seems entirely foreign, and yet eerily familiar.  Class inequality and war remain all too contemporary themes.  

4 out of 5 ipods

Sunday, November 20, 2011

British Television FTW

British Humour is often touted as more sophisticated or edgier than American humor.  Mr. Bean not withstanding, I often agree with this.  Misfits, a British comedy about a gang of lovable juvenile delinquents with super powers, is a stellar example of the edginess of British humour.  Misfits follows a group of young adults sentenced to six weeks of community service.  After being struck by lightening in a freak storm, the group begins discover they have been imbued with wacky powers ranging from the awesome to the absurd.  The premise sounds ridiculous, right?  A little willful suspension of disbelief with not go unrewarding, fair reader.

Here is what sets this show apart:  The characters are all interesting.  It's not so much about emotional investment or relying on cheap sentimentality to get you hooked.  It's about creating characters and stories that are above all unpredictable.  There was never an obvious next move, which is a highly undervalued quality in a television show.  Also, the accents are effing amazing.

The sort of main character is a lovable creepster named Nathan.  He is truly one of the most interesting characters I have seen in a long time.  He is sympathetic and repulsive at the same time.  Nathan moves through the world with such an utter lack of interest in following social norms to make people around him comfortable.  It's like nails on a chalkboard and a simultaneous brain massage, which, to me, is profoundly interesting.

This show is definitely in the upper right on the weird to awesome scale.  It is both very weird and very awesome.  Misfits is currently playing on Hulu.  It's rated as Mature, so you have to signup for a Hulu account (free) to verify you are over 18.  5 out 5 ipods.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Saved By the Bell: The Dystopian Years

Teenagers make great subjects for dystopian tales.  Something about the inherent melodrama and confusion of being a teenager translates nicely to the way in which we understand and connect with tales of society gone horribly, yet sometimes, exquisitely wrong.  A few months ago I suggested you read The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  Having now completed the series, I heartily endorse it in its entirety.  IMDB tells me that they are making these books into movies, too.

In a slightly less successful attempt to break into the teen dystopian series game, Ally Condie brings us Matched, the story of Cassia, a teenage member of The Society, a futuristic society that has eradicated genetic disease through an intricate matching system of arranged marriages for optimal results.  She finds herself falling for the mysterious, brooding Ky, instead of her intended match.  She then begins to question everything.  Unfortunately, Cassia is shrill and not very likable.  Also, the world of Matched is just not as interesting as some other offerings in this spectacular genre.  It is however, available as a free downloadable audiobook to borrow from the Brooklyn Public Library, so if you live in Brooklyn, check it out!

Now for some classics:  The Giver, by Lois Lowry, may be the most well known teen dystopian novel.  It takes place in a society without the burden of memory.  That burden belongs to one person, the Giver. In this story we follow Jonas, as he is chosen to fulfill this role for his society.  This book raises incredibly complex issues in a way that middle school kids can understand, yet still offers plenty for the adult reader to ponder.  Technology, control, memory, and the potential of human emotions all play a role in this fascinating and moving book.

Gathering Blue, also by Lois Lowry, is not a sequel to The Giver, but more of a companion novel.  This novel follows Kira, an orphan with a gift for fiber arts.  She is, like Joseph, is the caretaker of a coat of many colors.  Rather than enrage her brothers, this coat tells the story of her society.  But it holds many secrets.  Kira is another resourceful and humble yet powerful girl that makes these kinds of stories so great.  Kira lives some time in the future, yet humanity seems to have lost the knowledge of many kinds of technology we currently enjoy.  Lois Lowry creates an intricately layered world with many compelling details and characters.

Any other Young Adult dystopian fiction you know and love?  Leave 'em in the comments!

Matched  by Ally Condie 2.8 ipods
The Giver  by Lois Lowry 4.6 ipods
Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry 4.7 ipods

Monday, February 21, 2011

High Flying Awkward Fun

Flipping through the air will always have a certain pull on me.  Growing up I was involved in gymnastics and diving.  At about ten years old I started diving competitively and didn't stop til I finished high school.  I also coached diving for many years.  I have always been keenly interested in gymnastics and diving.  These flippy sports led me to their glamorous show biz counterpart: the circus.

The circus is magic for most kids, and many adults for that matter.  My love affair with the circus ended on a sunny day in March in 1998.  My dad took me and probably my brother, although I honestly don't remember who else was there, to Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey at RFK Stadium, I believe.  I was a bit, um, emotional because it was my sixteenth birthday and I failed my driver's test that morning.  No fear, we were going to the circus.  And who should greet us, but smiling pamphleteers from PETA decrying the use of animals in the circus.  That pamphlet forever changed my perception of the circus.

There are many circuses that do no use wild animals and instead either use only poorly paid people or they include only domesticated working animals, such as horses and dogs.  The Big Apple Circus is one of them.  My dad took my sibs and me to see the Big Apple Circus a few times as kids.  It was a very satisfactory experience.

Who cares about my childhood experiences with circuses, right?  Well, probably no one, but it will at least give you some context to how excited I was when I saw PBS made a reality tv mini series based on the Big Apple Circus.  Circus aired on PBS sometime in November, but, as I discovered this weekend, it is still available on the PBS website.  I watched all six episodes in one day.

Circus gives us a peak into the lives of the performers, management, crew and animals that make up the Big Apple Circus Family.  The segments on the performers are really, really interesting.  There is an ongoing theme of the division between people who grew up in circus families and those that came to the circus as adults.  There is also quite a bit of time devoted to the kids whose parents are in the circus.  Many of them are like 9th generation circus families.

The segments on the bosses, the guest director Steve Smith, and the founder/artistic director Paul Binder, are interesting but neither one of them is particularly likable.  Steve Smith is one of the most awkward human adults I have ever seen.  Paul Binder seems like some sort of circus despot.  Maybe its just my Bolshevik reflexes, but I did not like the bosses.

Now the crew... At first they set up life in the circus as extremely difficult but like a surrogate family.  This seemed totally interesting and I wanted to know more about being in the crew.  Unfortunately, they quickly started focusing on weird romances amongst some of the crew.  Talk about awkward.  The show begins by starting to explore why young people would choose such a hard and nomadic job, and by the second episode they completely move away from that to focus on the boring and weird love lives of a few of the more off putting crew members.  This is most "reality show" part of Circus and it is by far the weakest.  There was so much potential to do something really interesting with the crew, and instead they focused on the lowest common denominator of baby mommas and hook ups.

Over all, the show was very interesting but a bit disappointing.  If you love the circus, you will enjoy the behind the scenes view, but if you don't love it, you may want to pass on this awkward romp.

Circus on
2.75 ipods

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Wednesday Night in Brooklyn

Chad: You should check out this dystopian teen lit trilogy about [blah, blah, blah...]
Hollis: You had me at dystopian teen lit trilogy.

And so, may I present the first installment of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Audible, my audiobook service, happened to be having a "first in the series" sale so I got it cheap. The audio version is narrated by Carolyn McCormick.

The book takes place in a post America future in the fictional country of Panem. I'm actually not sure how its spelled because I listened to this, rather than read it. Chad, correct me if that's wrong. There is an all powerful and rich Capitol with 12 oppressed districts who make and grow things for the Capitol's enrichment. There is massive inequality and injustice between and within the Capitol and the districts. Our heroine, Katniss, lives in the coal mining District 12, which is what used to be Appalachia.

Many years ago the districts rebelled against the Capitol and were subsequently crushed back into submission. To remind the people of the Capitol's absolute power, every year the Capitol holds the Hunger Games. I won't reveal what it is, but if you have seen Battle Royale, you know what's coming.

Why you will like this book: It's pretty short and moves very fast. The main character is a self-reliant, smart teenage girl. The Hunger Games talks openly about class oppression. It's part of a dystopian teen lit trilogy.

Why you won't like it: It's short. It's violent. Really violent. It leaves many questions unanswered (but presumably at least some of them will be answered in the next two books).

A word about the audio version: I generally liked the narrator, but at times I found her voice to be too mature for a sixteen year old, no matter how responsible and resourceful she is supposed to be.

The Hunger Games
By Suzanne Collins
4.5 ipods

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Your Stock is Rising

How awesome was your chicken?

If you made some chicken and have some bones, now you can make chicken stock! Chicken stock is incredibly nutritious, providing minerals, electrolytes, collagen, and gelatin, which aids in digestion. According to Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions, gelatin in bone stocks has been shown to aid digestive issues significantly both in clinical studies and in thousands of years of culinary evolution.

Chicken stock is also delicious. It provides a superb base for soups, sauces, and countless other dishes. If you want to make good soup, use homemade stock. Not to fear, vegetarians, vegetable stock is a snap to make, as well.

The third awesome thing about chicken stock is you are connecting with countless generations of cooks before you who turned to stock as way to use every part of an animal. Instead of throwing bones away, you can use them to make some delicious and nutritious that will save you money.

Making chicken stock is easy but it takes an afternoon. It's really only about 15 minutes of active work, but you need to check on it about once and hour or so. It is the perfect thing to do on cold Sunday afternoon when you are cozy inside doing a project or watching a movie. Chicken bones can easily be stored in the freezer until you have time to make it.

Now that you are convinced, here's how you do it:

Put your chicken bones in the bottom of big pot. Fill the pot with enough cold water to cover the bones by an inch or two. Add a glug of vinegar (I use usually use cider vinegar). The vinegar helps pull out the minerals into your stock. Turn the heat on and keep an eye on your stock at first. You do not want the stock to reach a boil. Once you start to see a few bubbles, adjust the heat so your stock is simmering gently, not boiling. At this point you can add some whole peppercorns and a bay leaf, if you want. As your stock simmers you may notice some scum building on the surface. Periodically skim this stuff off. Like in capitalism, scum rises to the top.

After a few hours of simmering (3-4) It's time to add the vegetables. If you are making vegetable stock, start here. I used to add the vegetables at the beginning with the chicken bones, but vegetables give all they can give to a stock in about an hour and start to fall apart after that, so I switched to the vegetables in later method. You can save scraps from your veggies like carrot peels and celery tops or you can use whole vegetables. Cut up about the equivalent of 2 medium carrots and 4-6 stalks of celery. Quarter 1-2 onions. Add your vegetables. The reason I am giving approximate measures is you obviously need more vegetables if you are using more bones and more water. You can also use more of one or less of another vegetable based on your preference. Some other veggies that are lovely in stock include parsnips and fennel. At this point you can add several sprigs of parsley as well.

Let your stock simmer gently for another hour. At the end, strain your stock another bowl and let it cool. As the fat starts to separate, skim it off and either save it for future cooking or toss it. Once the stock is cool, you can put it freezer bags to put in the freezer or in tupperwares to save for later. If you refrigerate your stock it should thicken considerably and kind of look like chicken jello. This tells you it is full of the good stuff.

Next... Oh the things you can do with homemade chicken stock!