Two New Book Reviews

Take Time for Paradise book coverTake Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games by A. Barlett Giamatti.  New York: Bloomsbury, c1989, reissued 2011.

A book that makes my expensive liberal arts education seem worthwhile! 🙂

It seems a bit odd to be writing an “early review” of a book published in 1989, but I’m pleased that Bloomsbury chose to reissue this classic, originally a series of lectures, adding a foreword by Jon Meacham and a touching afterword by Marcus Giamatti (son of the author).

Take Time for Paradise explores leisure activity, including sports in general and baseball in particular, using the tools of philosophy, classics, and literature.  Giamatti invokes Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Homer in his explorations of “Self-Knowledge,” “Community,” and “Baseball as Narrative.”  If this description has you rolling your eyes and yawning, imagining an “ivory tower” analysis of your favorite activity, think again.  Giamatti was a scholar, but he was also a die-hard baseball fan—two characteristics which made him a good National League President and (briefly) Commissioner of Baseball; they also allow him to analyze baseball in interesting and thoughtful ways.

The first chapter/lecture, “Self-Knowledge,” sets the stage by examining the meaning and purposes of “leisure” as “not-work.”  Leisure is all about freedom; how we choose to spend our time when we are free to make that choice.  Leisure is how/when most of us seek fulfillment, aspiring to our vision of paradise.  To me, the most interesting passages in this chapter addressed the idea that sport is (like) religion.  Giamatti acknowledges the similarities in terms of sacred connections, rituals, and notions of paradise, but maintains that the self-transformation of leisure/sport need not be described in religious terms.

The second chapter/lecture, “Community,” explores sport as inherently connected to cities, rather than rural/garden/suburban contexts.  Here Giamatti addresses several sociological issues related to sports including drug/alcohol/steroid use, the danger of the cult of the young athlete, various forms of cheating, and the role of the spectator.  He also foreshadows many of the “modern developments” (e.g., giant scoreboards) and the need to accommodate both new and old fans.

“Baseball as Narrative,” the third chapter/lecture brings the themes of leisure, freedom, and community together in showing how baseball is about story.  The “plot” becomes a literal “plot of soil” in a whirlwind tour of the geometry and details of baseball fields.  The meditation on “home” manages to include family, Homer’s Odyssey and Romance.  Giamatti ties the series of lectures together by ending with a story of a hotel lobby during the World Series.

My favorite passage in the book provides an elegant response to those who view baseball as repetitious or boring:

“The game on the field is repetitious—pitch after pitch, swing after swing, player after player, out succeeding out, half inning making whole inning, top to bottom to top, the patterns accumulating and making organizing principles, all around and across those precise shapes in and on the earth.  Organized by the metric of the game, by the prosody of the play, is all the random, unpredictable, explosive energy of playing, crisscrossing the precise shapes in lines and curves, bounces and wild hops and parabolas and slashing arcs. There is a ferocity to a slide, a whispering, exploding sound to a fastball, a knife-edged danger to a ball smashed at a pitcher—there is a violence in the game at variance with its formal patterns, a hunger for speed at variance with its leisurely pace, a potential for irrational randomness at variance with its geometric shapes.” (p. 79)

In other words, all that repetition provides the framework for the quirky, unique story that is any particular baseball game.  Once you know that framework, and its rhythmic comforts, you can sit back (or on the edge of your seat) waiting for today’s story to unfold.  Giamatti goes on to compare this energy within rules to how the language of sonnets works: “The point being that freedom is the fulfillment of the promise of an energetic, complex order.” (p. 80).

I wept all the way through Marcus Giamatti’s afterword, a son’s tribute to and appreciation of both his father and the connection forged by a love of baseball.

If you find the most compelling thing about baseball to be statistics and fantasy teams, this probably is not the baseball book for you.  On the other hand, if you appreciate how scholarly analysis can combine with genuine enthusiasm to provide insightful musings on almost any activity, you will enjoy this book.


 

My Nine Lives book cover imageMy Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music by Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette, New York: Doubleday, 2010

As a former musician currently struggling with a hand/arm/shoulder injury and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I found much to relate to in this memoir: the endless search for “cures;” the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and (limited) acceptance of one’s “new” body/life.  (Unlike me) Fleisher was a child piano prodigy, student of Schnabel, and Outstanding Young American Pianist who later morphed into “the Bohemian” and “the young lion,” until “Catastrophe” (inability to use two fingers of his right hand) and its aftermath as conductor, teacher, left-handed pianist, and finally “renaissance man.”  And yes, those ten chapter titles capture the essence of Leon Fleisher’s story.  The joy and inspiration in what could have been a “woe is me” memoir come from the details and anecdotes that make up that arc of an 80-plus-year life.  Most of the stories are about music-making, but the personal stories (of famous musicians, of wives, children, god-children, students) reveal the truth of how one makes it through to the other side of a devastating “catastrophe” in life . . . “with a little [or a lot of] help from your friends.”

The writing style is very accessible (most musical concepts are clarified in everyday language so even non-musicians can follow along).  I particularly appreciated Fleisher’s ability to look back on some of his less-than-admirable times/behaviors with both wisdom and wit.  The photos at the beginning of each chapter and in a separate center section provide the reader with a glance into the full span of the author’s life.  My only criticism would be that there is some repetition of points and stories, which seemed unnecessary as I was reading the book cover-to-cover, but in this age of reading excerpts and single chapters, I suppose they will be helpful to some readers.

I would recommend this book to anyone struggling with a career ending/changing injury as well as to any up-and-coming young musicians out there.  The five “Master Class” sections inserted amongst the ten chapters are also helpful and interesting.  Each is a brief (almost too brief) but insightful commentary revealing one musician’s way of thinking about a particular piece: Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor; Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58; Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major; Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503; Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major.

I only wish I had read the book before Fleisher came to town a few weeks ago.  I would have made sure to get a ticket.  Instead I will have to make due with listening to some of his many recordings (a selected Discography is included at the back of the book).

Roasted Root Vegetable Soup

I’ve been attempting a “no wheat, no dairy” diet for several weeks now. (Why? long story for another time.) This means lots of rice, quinoa, salads, and soups. Here’s one of my recent creations. I know “technically” it is now spring and we should be done with winter root vegetables, but up here in Minnesota it still looks and feels alot like winter . . .

Roasted Winter Root Vegetable Soup

Roasting some of the vegetables before making them into soup really brings out their sweetness.  Use your imagination with this recipe: substitute other root or winter veggies (yellow beets, butternut squash, white potatoes, leeks, etc), roast more or fewer of them (or none at all), and/or swap in other spices (curry powder goes great with this type of soup).

Ingredients
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 3/4″-1″ pieces
1 medium turnip, peeled and diced into 3/4″-1″ pieces
1 large parsnip, peeled and diced into 3/4″-1″ pieces
2-4 Tbls. olive oil, divided
1 large onion (or 2 small), very thinly sliced
2 ribs celery, diced
5 medium carrots, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 tsp. thyme (or 1 fresh sprig)
1 Tbls. minced parsley (or 1 fresh sprig or 1/2 Tbls. dry)
1 large bay leaf
1 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. fresh ground pepper, or to taste
6-8 cups vegetable stock or water (or a combination)

Directions

Preheat oven to 350°F.

While oven is heating, cut up sweet potato, turnip, and parsnip.  Spread sweet potato, turnip, and parsnip pieces out on a baking pan.  Coat with 2-3 Tbls. oil.  Place in oven to roast while you prepare the rest of the veggies (40-60 minutes).

Heat 1 Tbls. oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot.  Add the onion.  Cook, stirring frequently, until it begins to soften, 3-5 minutes.  Add the celery.  Cook, stirring frequently, 3-5 minutes.  Add the carrots.  Cook, stirring frequently, 5 minutes.  Stir in the garlic and ginger.  Don’t let anything brown/burn.

Remove the roasted vegetables from the oven and add to the pot.  Stir to combine everything.  Add bay leaf, thyme, parsley, salt and pepper.  Stir to combine.

Pour in stock/water.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat, cover, and simmer one hour or until everything is nicely cooked and soft enough to blend.

Turn off the heat.

REMOVE bay leaf (and thyme sprig if used).

Blend the soup until smooth with an immersion blender.  Taste to adjust seasonings.

Serve and Enjoy!

Yield: approx. 2 quarts.

NOTES

  • More obsessive chefs than I would tell you to leave the seasonings (garlic, ginger, bay leaf, thyme, parsley) whole, wrap them in cheesecloth, tie to make a “bouquet garni”, and add to the pot.  This process does make it easier to remove them before blending, but I can’t be bothered.  Just make sure you use a big enough bay leaf to be easily found and removed before blending.
  • There are other ways to purée soup if you don’t have an immersion blender, but why not just buy one?  For smoothies and puréeing cooked veggies the cheap ($9.99) versions work just fine (though apparently you can spend up to $40 bucks on the super-duper motor-a-boat versions).  If you MUST purée your soup in a food processor or blender, just be careful, let the soup cool a bit before blending (or things might explode), and do only a little at a time.
  • Even more obsessive cooks would tell you that after puréeing, you should put the soup through a sieve to remove any possible remaining celery strings, or small chunks of vegetable.  As you may have guessed, (1) I can’t be bothered with that and (2) I consider those strings and bits to give the soup added character.  But if you are serving your soup to the Queen or something . . .

Copyright © 2011, Lucinda DeWitt

[Updated on March 23, 2011 to include the bit about sieving and add correct punctuation to the word purée.]

Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake

After many requests from friends, I finally made my first attempt at Red Velvet Cake.  I intended to make the Dark Chocolate Red Velvet Cake from the All Cakes Considered book by Melissa Gray, but after reading some negative reviews (e.g., http://www.annarbor.com/entertainment/food-drink/red-velvet-cake/ ) and noticing that the ACC recipe used much more butter and sugar and many more eggs than any other recipe I could find, I decided to do one of my “recipe-mergers” where I combine the ingredients and techniques from several recipes into one that makes sense to me.  Links to the three recipes I ended up combining are at the end.  The only thing I retained from the All Cakes Considered version was using sour cream instead of buttermilk (because I had already bought sour cream for the cake and didn’t want to waste it).  You can find both the cake and frosting recipes here.

 

Red Velvet Cake

 

Red Velvet Cake sliced

[Yes, I know it is not the blood-red cake some of you are expecting.  For that, you need to reduce/leave out the chocolate/cocoa.  A full explanation of the cocoa/food coloring balance is contained in the recipe.]

Enjoy!

 

Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

Last Friday I went to the Lagoon Cinema to see the five “Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animated” plus two bonus “Highly Commended” shorts.  I love this opportunity to see these films on the big screen for myself before finding out who “won”.  Here are brief descriptions (stolen from the blurb at the theater’s website) in order of my “liking”, which I can virtually guarantee won’t match either the critics or the official voters :).  My “review” appears in brackets after the description.  Official sites and other links are also provided where available.

Madagascar, Carnet De Voyage (France), a journey diary that redraws the trip of a European traveller confronted with Famadihana customs (a funerary tradition of the Malagasy people in Madagascar). [My love of artist’s books bumps this one to the top.  It is a travel journal/artist’s book “come to life”.  Add music and rituals and new friends and you have the kind of scrapbook we all wish we could make when we get home from a trip.]  Filmmaker’s Official site:  http://www.bastiendubois.com/ Best on the big screen, but also viewable at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eaWEzsLVGiA

The Lost Thing (Australia/UK), about a boy who discovers a bizarre-looking creature and sets out to find “place” for it.  [If you saw something that looked “lost” would you try to find its home?  Lovely story.  Fun animation.  I went back and forth between this and Madagascar about which to list first.]  Official site: http://www.thelostthing.com/

Let’s Pollute (USA), a modern satire on how pollution is our heritage and keeps our economy growing strong.  [Totally fun though horrifying at the same time.  Great satire.]  Official site: http://letspollute.com/

The Gruffalo (UK/Germany), the magical tale of a mouse who takes a walk through the woods in search of a nut.  [Pretty sure this one will win.  The longest of the “shorts”; Lots of famous names doing the voices.  A story kids might love, but which I found rather old hat and boring.  Some of the animation techniques are rather beautiful, but the whole thing left me rather cold.]
Movie Trailer available at:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yq1ddK-Rlng
More information:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00pk64x
Official site for the book:  http://www.gruffalo.com/

Day & Night (USA), the story of the sparks that fly when Day, a sunny fellow, encounters Night, a stranger of distinctly darker moods.  [Sorry Pixar, this just wasn’t up to snuff.  Imitation of old-style cartoons.  Story not very engaging or original.]  Official site: http://www.pixar.com/shorts/d&n/index.html

The two bonus shorts were:

Bill Plympton’s The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger (USA), a children’s fable about the power of advertising, the meaning of life, and ultimately the test of a mother’s love. [Rather horrifying and hilarious at the same time.  What would you do if you were a mother cow and your child dreamed of becoming a hamburger after seeing a billboard ad? . . . ‘nuf said 🙂 ]  Official site: http://www.plymptoons.com/

Urs (Germany), the story of a son who carries his aging mother up a dangerous mountain to find a better place for both of them. But she wants to stay at home. [Heartbreaking story of the need for change and what can get lost along the way.  The animated rock climbing was rather impressive.]  Official site: http://www.urs-film.com/

 

I should mention that these films are being made available in theaters through Shorts International. Their website has links to their iTunes channel where some of the films are available for $1.99.  Some of the films (and/or trailers) can also be found via other familiar sources (youtube).