Saturday, December 29, 2007

Sweeney Todd - mini-review

My oh my - I haven't seen a movie with that much blood in it since my last Tarantino/Rodriguez outing. If you can stomach the blood, go see this in the theater. It deserves to be seen larger than life and with the music swirling around you.

Burton's typically dark and twisted settings are perfect for the revenge story of a barber whose wife and daughter were stolen from him by a greedy London judge. Fifteen years after being wrongfully transported, the barber returns to reap vengeance. Initially frustrated in his attempts, Todd snaps and murders folk at will, assisted by his neighbor and landlady who bakes the bodies into her meat pies.

Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd is fabulous, inhabiting that dark soul fully and singing his little heart out. At the moment when Todd succumbs to the madness he was attempting to hold at bay, I remember coming out of the movie a little to think, "He better get nominated for a Best Actor come Oscar-time." I am a huge Depp fan - ever since his 21 Jump Street days - but he really is marvelous here. Helena Bonham Carter is her usual creepy, wonderful self as Mrs. Lovett; Alan Rickman made my skin crawl as the evil Judge Turpin. Young Toby, played by newcomer (?) Ed Sanders, has the best voice of the lot but Depp and Bonham Carter do themselves proud as non-singers.

I've never seen a stage production of Sweeney Todd (although I think my college put on a performance my senior year) and I did wish I'd been familiar with the songs: there is very little actual dialogue that is not sung so understanding the lyrics is important to understanding the story. I'm pretty sure I got the gist but folks who know the show better will have gotten nuances that I'm sure I missed.

Gore-o-phobes (Mr. Mouse, this means you) will not like this film. Devotees of the movie musical genre will not know what to do - even Little Shop of Horrors ain't nothing like this. Tim Burton afficionados may be surprised at the buckets and buckets of red heretofore unseen in TB's catalog. But if you are not in the least put off by the sanguinary decadence, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a treat.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Book review: The Girls by Lori Lansens

This is the second book I read over my long Christmas weekend with Mr. Mouse's family, the first being the soccer/Mafia one. Mr. Mouse was very cute, noticing me turning the pages much more quickly: "Like this one better?" he asked. "Oh, yes," I said, "I'm only half a chapter in and it's already a better book." To be fair, this is the author's second novel, so she's had a chance to feel comfortable in her voice; on the other hand, I'm guessing she figured out how to develop lush characterizations, an interesting and suspenseful plot and convincing dialogue in her first book too.

The Girls is a lovely and well-written story about Rose and Ruby Darlen, Canadian conjoined cragiopagus twins, age 29. Framed as the twins' written memoirs as their inevitable mortality looms closer, the novel takes us - in both present time and flashbacks - through the girls' birth, childhood and adult lives together. Each of Rose and Ruby has her own voice and her own perspective on their unavoidably shared experience and the author does a nice job allowing each sister to provide commentary on the other's narrative. At no time does the reader feel revulsion or pity for the Girls: as Lansens says in her afterword, they're normal girls ... who happen to be attached at the head.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Book review: St. John of the Midfield by Gerasamo Maccagnone

St. John of the Midfield is the first novel by the author of a short story collection and a children’s book. It’s a valiant attempt that falls a little short, and by “short” I mean 169 very small pages of very large print. In addition, the characters are not as fleshed out as I would like for a full-length novel – the plot is there, just not actualized as it might be. There are also two very brief short stories tacked onto the end of the book. It’s almost as an afterthought, as though Maccagnone had wanted to put them in his previous short story collection but didn’t quite have room, so he just adds them here to give them exposure. They’re little more than anecdotes: the first a disjointed story about juvenile pranks and the second an ode to a good dog.

The story is set in Michigan, outside of Detroit, and is narrated by Mario Santini whose son, Luca, is a young soccer prodigy. Luca tries out for a youth soccer club and makes the Rochester Crusaders. The Crusaders are coached by Bobo Stoikov, a former World Cup soccer star who defected from Bulgaria some twenty years earlier. Injured during his escape from Bulgaria and no longer able to play himself, coaching soccer is all Bobo has left. He is a wonderful coach, focusing on developing ball skills and passing techniques, encouraging the boys to play elegant European-style soccer.

In his devout, Slavic idiom he describes the positions with apostolic metaphors: defenders are like Peter, “tough and strong. Judas is a striker. He play[s] for himself.” But midfielders are like St. John: obedient, generous, smart. Luca Santini, a good Italian Catholic boy, is a midfielder, one of the best in the league. The boys (and their parents) quickly love the eccentric Bobo and soon the team is winning all of their games.

Trouble comes in the form of another soccer coach, an ex-con who is envious at the great team Bobo has built. He starts a smear campaign against the Crusaders, culminating with a false accusation that Bobo is a pedophile. The team falls apart and people end up dead, although we only hear about it offhandedly, which seems to be a bit of a chickening out storytelling-wise.

Interwoven with the soccer is the narrator’s own story. Luca’s father is the legitimate son of a made man. Mario is struggling with his mother’s building insanity over losing a daughter in a car accident years ago. He and his wife, Luca’s mother, are having difficulty having another child and Mario ends up unconvincingly having an affair with another soccer mom. Mario also has to deal with his family’s Mafioso legacy, his father and uncles using violence to solve the problems of the family’s trucking business. It is here that St. John of the Midfield breaks down - it doesn’t need the Mob. I suspect the lengthy delving into Mario’s father’s history was intended as character development, but I found it distracting from what I was really interested in: the soccer.

It seems as though the author had two good ideas for his book – the soccer and the impact of a connected parent on a legitimate family – but he didn’t quite have enough material for either story for a full-length novel, so he smushed the two together. Maccagnone should have trusted himself enough to commit to one of his themes. St. John of the Midfield would have worked wonderfully as a long short story by focusing on Bobo and his soccer team, with Mario’s marital woes and Sicilian temper as a counterpoint. As a novel, however, it’s not quite enough.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christmas Past and Present

Funny how the holidays are the same date, every year, and yet every year Christmas sneaks right up on me. Wasn’t it just Thanksgiving? This year marks a milestone for me: this is the first Christmas in thirty-seven years that I will not be spending with my parents. Can you believe that? One year I even dragged them over to Crete after a semester abroad. After 36 Christmases in a row you start to get some traditions in place. A parental Mouse Christmas goes something like this.

On Christmas Eve afternoon we all traipse over to my uncle’s house for hors d'œuvres, cookies and presents. We have to be careful, however – no matter how tasty the snacks, we’ve got a long evening of food and drinks ahead of us. It’s important to take it slow. After a couple of hours, my uncle’s family heads off to church and we more heathen Mouses head to my parents’ house. Now the drinking can begin in earnest, as there’s no more driving to be done. One year my dad and I accomplished hot buttered rum, home brew, wine just before dinner, champagne with dinner (more on dinner later), more wine after dinner and then a bit of single malt scotch after the after-dinner wine. Mr. Mouse was appalled and I had a small headache on Christmas morning. We’ve since learned to (a) cut out the hot buttered rum entirely, (b) sometime substitute limoncello for the scotch, and (c) drink a glass of water for every glass of alcohol. Everyone’s happier that way.

I need to go back and tell you about the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. The family legend goes that when my folks were very young and very poor, they wanted to splurge on something decadent on one Christmas Eve. They decided on champagne and caviar, buying the best they could afford – which was about a $7 bottle and a $1.50 jar – and they’ve been having champagne and caviar on Christmas Eve ever since. The quality (and price) has gone up considerably since then. In addition, we have Raclette cheese, melted in front of the fire (the only time all year the fireplace in the den gets lit), and served with a good baguette, boiled potatoes, dill pickles and pickled onions. It takes forever since you have to wait for the cheese to melt in between rounds, we all end up in shorts and t-shirts because the room gets so bloody hot with the fire going, and you have to keep a close watch on the dogs who are extremely interested in the big plate of melting cheese right at nose level. Christmas Eve is my favorite.

Christmas Day has gotten a little over-the-top in recent years: everyone gets a fully loaded stocking; there's homemade challah pulla bread, coffee, broiled grapefruit and either stuffed French toast or egg, cheese and sausage strata for breakfast; we open presents for hours. If there’s enough snow, we’ll take the dogs on a short cross-country ski; if there’s not enough, we’ll walk. Christmas dinner in recent years has been prime rib and Yorkshire pudding, and often a chocolate stout cake; there was once an attempt at a goose, but that mistake was not repeated. Regardless of the entrée, Mr. Mouse and I roll home, stuffed, sated and possibly in need of a detox.

This year we’ll have Christmas with Mr. Mouse’s family. I’m looking forward to learning new traditions and, as he hasn’t been with his folks for the holidays in ten years, Mr. Mouse will be learning them as well. I love Christmas and seeing how different families celebrate being together - I hear there will be Christmas Eve visits with aunts and uncles and family friends, not so different after all. And I’m even bringing a bottle of champagne to share, because after thirty-six years some traditions are too good to let go.

Note: if anyone is interested in recipes for anything mentioned here, let me know in the comments and I'll try to rustle 'em up for you. Merry-merry and happy-happy, everyone!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Hot Fuzz - mini-review

Man oh man - how much fun was this movie? From the minds of the mad geniuses who created Shaun of the Dead (on my all-time top-twenty list for certain) comes the buddy cop action flick nonpareil, Hot Fuzz. I want to shake all those movie reviewers who didn't like this one. Did they not get it? Did they not get that this is an homage to all those over-the-top cop flicks we all know all too well? I'm feeling almost morally obligated to rent Bad Boys II after having enjoyed this movie so much.

Edgar Wright (writer/director) and Simon Pegg (writer/lead character "Nicholas Angel") nailed all the clichés from all those action movies: from the long establishing shot of Nicholas walking into work, to the montage of his accolades, to the icy reception he receives in his new assignment, to the eventual loosening up under the influence of his new friend, to the "ironic" cutaways, to the apocalyptic crescendo of the big gun battle. For the first few minutes I was distracted by Pegg, thinking, "That's the guy who played 'Shaun.'" But soon enough I was sucked in by his new deep action-voice and steely single-mindedness - fanastic!

I just loved this movie, inching forward to the edge of my seat by the end of it. I did feel a little guilty watching Nicholas and Danny beating on a bunch of senior citizens, but the glee I felt during the Godzilla tribute in the model village soon pushed all flares of conscience aside. Genuis, I say. I cannot wait to see what Wright and Pegg come up with next now that they have conquered both the zombie and the buddy-cop genres.

P.S. - the shot when Danny opens his DVD closet? A movie-phile's dream - I want that closet.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Hero Worship

Disclaimer: this is an entertainment blog and therefore the "heroes" discussed herein will be fictional, not actual people. You'll have to find a meaningful blog if you want to read about that.

In view of the DVR wasteland where a Heroes episode should have been, I was thinking a little about some of the other fictional heroes I’ve discovered through the years. I generally prefer flawed heroes to the golden boys – I think most people do. They’re more human. There’s something identifiable about a hero who has been chosen and forced into action against his or her nature or someone who, but for the whims of chance, illimitable funds or a superpower or two, could be us. Faith is more fun than poor, put-upon Buffy. Achilles, pouting in his tent, is more interesting than noble Hector, while that sneaky trickster Odysseus is more interesting still than Achilles. Wolverine is way more compelling than Superman.

One of the first heroes I latched onto was Bigwig (Thlayli) from Watership Down. This bruiser could have been nothing but the muscle, an enforcer, yet he put his faith in the little brainy fellows leading the rebellion and grew to be much more than a brute soldier. His bloody battle against General Woundwort was epic and his military experience was instrumental in finally freeing the colony. But Bigwig was more than a fighter; he was impatient, funny, grumpy, forgiving, loyal and loved a good story. Oh hell yeah - I'm talking about rabbits.

I fell a little in love with Howard Roark the first time I read The Fountainhead in the 1980s. This talented, brilliant, unrelenting man who knew what he wanted to do and did only that fascinated me. To be able focus entirely on the work you were creating, with no regard for fashion, fortune or fame, was a heady concept to someone struggling with the cliques of high school. I never delved too deeply into Ayn Rand’s Objectivist leanings, however, preferring to simply see her protagonist as an icon of individuality and creativity, unburdened by too much philosophy.

Medea, specifically the character in Euripides’s play of the same name, captured my attention for my senior essay at university. Not a heroine as such is usually found in the Greek tragedies, Medea is a classical hero whose fixed purpose - to avenge the wrong done to her and bring honor back upon herself – is the focus of the play. After she is betrayed by her husband, Jason, she does not veer from her task; she adopts the heroic creed of “hurt your enemies and help your friends” despite the fact that she has no friends left and her current enemies used to be people she loved. She takes on enormous forces (her husband, three kings, her affection for her children, the traditional and powerless position of women ruled by men, the civic conventions of the time) and vanquishes them all, using her clever brain and her skill with poison to do so. Classical heroes do not normally possess the craft and persuasive powers that Medea does (with the exception of Odysseus, and he is almost as conventionally amoral as she is) but her character needs these strengths as her female physicality will not carry her through. Although her final revenge is unthinkable– she murders her own children to hurt their father – she must do it as the unspoken rules of classical heroic conduct do not allow for half-accomplished revenge. She must destroy Jason’s house no matter the cost and she does so by entering a form of aristeia [a transcendental state in which the hero archetype is able to go beyond the capacity of normal human behavior]. Madwoman, foreigner, mother, victim - Medea was many things to the ancient Greeks; Euripides made her one of the only female heroes as well.

Everyone needs a hero in his or her life. Hopefully, yours is a neighbor or father or big sister. But if you’re having difficulty tracking down real flesh-and-blood inspiration, crack a book. Joseph Campbell believed the same hero wore a thousand faces, showing up over and over again in mythology throughout human history. That means there are innumerable heroes out there, just waiting for someone to turn their pages.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Strange but weird - Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere

I can't remember exactly how I discovered Neverwhere. I think I was checking the definition of "malevolent" for a Deadwood recap and hilariously found (on the first page of the Google search, no less), which was created by Neil Gaiman. I poked around there and found a link to Gaiman's main site which lists all the stuff he's done: comics, books, theater, movies.

Neverwhere was a six-part television series made for the BBC in the 1990s - and each of the six parts is only a half hour, so it's a pretty quick viewing. The DVD also has a BBC interview with Gaiman that I only watched a few minutes of, but he mentioned that part of his inspiration came from the London Tube map with its imagination-firing place names: Angel Islington, Earls Court, Turnham Green, Piccadilly Circus, Hammersmith, Limehouse, Goodge Street. Set in those underground tunnels and sewers below London, this is the story of how a normal guy, Richard Mayhew, gets sucked into a nightmarish alternate world, all because he stopped to help a hurt girl. The girl is somewhat of a princess in London-Below and Richard helps her on her quest to avenge her murdered family, along the way discovering hidden depths about himself.

This little series is nuts - like a really, really, REALLY low budget Time Bandits. It looks as though it was filmed on videotape; the special effects are giggle-inducing. But all of the actors are playing it straight and they manage to nearly sell this crazy world. Two of the characters, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandermar, steal every scene they're in: they're murderers for hire and do their job with much humor and relish. "Can't make an omelette ..." says Mr. Croup near the end, and Mr. Vandermar (who likes to eat the rats and frogs he kills in his spare time) finishes, "... without killing some people." Hee.

Having now seen both Stardust and Neverwhere, I'm intrigued enough by Gaiman's work to want to move Mirrormask up in my queue and also to pick up some of his books, comic and regular. I'm not sure I'd recommend Neverwhere as the introductory course in a Gaiman education but it is definitely worth it as an elective along the way.

Monday, December 10, 2007

I got nothin' to recap tonight

But this meme is silly and kind of fun. I got it from this guy who got it from this guy. Go to the Wikipedia home page and click "random article." That is your band's name. Click "random article" again and that is the name of your album. Click "random article" fifteen more times: those are the tracks on your album.

Band name: Nusselt Number
Album name: City of Casey

1. Subdivisions of Galicia
2. Thermography
3. Gustavo Cerati
4. Lesser White-toothed Shrew
5. EMD G16
6. 1882 U.S. National Championships (tennis)
7. Beneficium inventarii
8. Glenn Knight
9. Iran at the 1982 Asian Games
10. Gregory Boyer
11. Singularity
12. Stanghelle
13. David Špiler
14. Traveler
15. Godin

I'm not really sure what we sound like (I'm leaning towards Bob Mould crossed with ABBA crossed with Bjork) but Track 4 is by far my favorite.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

New feature here at Friend Mouse Speaks

Perhaps you have noticed the new search box over there to your right. This is part of my little blog's recent Amazon Associates affiliation; the other part will be the new click-through product links I'll put in some of my posts. If you like a review/recap you've read here and are interested in purchasing the supporting medium, you can click through from here to and, at no extra cost to you and no extra hassle, toss a few cents my way. Same thing with the search box: if you search from here and then buy something, they'll reward me with a teeny little bit of money because I sent you to them.

I know, I know: sure didn't take long for Friend Mouse to sell out. And, personally, if I can buy something at my favorite local independent bookstore, that's what I do. But if I'm ever going to quit my day job and support myself solely by watching television and reading books and then reporting back to all y'all, I'm going to need some sort of income stream. So, buy buy buy (especially if you were going to get it at anyway)!

To make it extra enticing for you - and to practice my HTML coding - here are some previously reviewed products. Enjoy - and warm up those credit cards.

Friday, December 7, 2007

People like cookies too

I got to thinking and, really, why should the dogs get all the treats? My mom was kind enough to pass along some of the family's traditional Christmas cookie recipes - from her to me to you.

Spice Cookies - from my Grandma Bee. Bee was a great cook: her chicken-n-dumplings are legendary and are my homecooked birthday meal of choice. Her cookies ain't bad either. These spice cookies are best when dunked quickly in cold milk.

1 lb. butter
1 1/2 c. brown sugar
1 1/2 c. white sugar
5 c. flour
1/2 Tbsp. ground cloves
1 Tbsp. allspice
1 Tbsp. nutmeg
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. baking soda
1 c. chopped nuts (doesn't specify but don't go with peanuts)

Cream the butter and two sugars together well. Dissolve the soda in 1/4 c. boiling water and add to the creamed mixture. Then sift the flour and spices together and add to the mixture. Stir in the chopped nuts; mix well. Refrigerate in rolls for at least a couple of hours. Slice the chilled dough thinly and bake at 350-375 for 10-20 minutes on an ungreaseed cookie sheet.

Grandma's Christmas Cookies - these are amazing cookies that I hated when I was little. But I loved making them because my folks would invite a bunch of people over to chop the nuts and dice the fruit; we'd all sit around the kitchen table, talking and laughing, the occasional brazil nut flying across the room. Now I like eating them too.

1 10 oz. package of dates
1/2 c. in-the-shell brazil nuts (it's more fun when they're in the shell)
1/2 c. in-the-shell almonds
1 c. in-the-shell pecans
1/2 c. candied pineapple
1/3 c. candied cherries
1/2 c. butter
1 egg
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 c. flour
3 Tbsp. fruit juice

Cut the dates into medium pieces. Shell the nuts and chop them, and the candied fruit, coarsely. Combine butter, sugar, egg, salt and spices and blend well. Sift flour with baking soda and stir into creamed mixture with the fruit juice. Add nuts and fruits and mix well. Drop rounded tablespoonsful onto lightly greased cookie sheets about 2 inches apart and bake at 350 degrees for 15-18 minutes. Let the cookies cool a little before taking off the sheet - they get sticky.

Giant Ginger Cookies - Mom usually doubles this recipe. These cookies are so good (I really like ginger) and nicely chewy.

2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
3 tsp. baking soda
3/4 c. shortening (butter is recommended)
1 c. sugar, with extra sugar set aside for sprinkling
1 egg
1/4 c. molasses

Sift the flour with salt, spices and baking soda. Cream the butter and work in the cup of sugar. Stir egg and molasses into creamed mixture. Add in flour mixture gradually; mix well. Shape the dough into 1 1/2 inch balls. Roll in the set-aside sugar; place on ungreased cookie sheets. Flatten the dough balls with fingertips and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

My faux paws, really

Becky wanted me to relay to you all that she was extremely put out that I would mention "homemade dog biscuits" in my last post and then not provide the recipes. So, in an attempt to right this dastardly wrong and appease my dog, here they are. As an extra added bonus, these dog cookies are perfectly edible by humans so if you ever get stuck between grocery store runs, you won't go hungry.

Tasty Only to Dogs Dog Biscuits - Becky loves these ... but she loves everything so if your dogs are wicked picky, they may turn their snoots up at them.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup powdered dry milk
1/2 tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. margarine, lard, chilled bacon fat or the shortening of your choice
1 egg
1 tsp. brown sugar

Combine the flours, wheat germ, powdered milk and salt in a bowl. Cut in the shortening until the mixture resembles corn meal. Beat the sugar separately with the egg. Then stir the egg mixture into the dry mixture, adding enough water to make a stiff dough (about 1/2 cup water). Knead the dough on a floured board until smooth, then roll to 1/2 inch thick. Cut into shapes [I have cookie cutters in the shapes of a pig and a dog bone]. Bake at 325 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until lightly browned. [I've found that dogs don't seem to mind if they're a little overdone.]

For variety, liver powder, dried vegetable flakes or cooked mashed green veggies or carrots may be added. You'll have to adjust the water accordingly.

Newf Breakfast Bars - compliments of my Newf friend, Annie. These treats actually look kind of like Clif Bars. Note: recipe can be halved easily and if you have a dog smaller than a Newfoundland, you might want to do that. Also, Annie says that "the treats should be kept in the fridge if you won't be using them within a week … since there aren't any preservatives in them they can turn into a science project." Thanks, Annie!

12 cups oatmeal
4 cups whole wheat flour
8 eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup honey
1/2 cup molasses
2 cups milk
1 large can pumpkin (optional)
3-4 mashed bananas

Preheat oven to 325. Grease two cookie sheets. Dump ingredients into a very large bowl and mix thoroughly. Pat onto cookie sheets; bake for 1 hour. Turn oven off, crack the door and allow cookies to cool. Remove pans and break the bars into whatever size you want.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Get the Christmas Spirits

'Tis the season - if you hadn't figured it out already from the Christmas crapola lining the store shelves since just after Halloween. I went to my first holiday party last Friday night; I've got one to go to this Saturday and then another next Saturday. I can hardly pack it all in: the multiple parties, the skiing, the beer-drinking after the skiing, the television-watching and matinee-going. I'm very busy, y'all.

Over the last few years I've made lots of Christmas treats for friends and family - infused vodkas, sugared- and spiced- nuts, homemade dog biscuits - I just don't know if I'll be able to do any of it this year, which is kind of sad. So, to alleviate my seasonal guilt just a bit, I thought I'd share some holiday recipes. That way YOU can make the sugarplums in case I don't get around to them.

Wassail - if you know the words, you really should sing them. Personally, I get lost after the first verse and a half.

1 gallon hard (or sweet) cider
10 cinnamon stick
1 Tbsp. allspice
1 bottle Calvados or Applejack
1/2 c. lemon juice
2 c. sugar (or less)

Combine all ingredients except for the Calvados and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes; add the Calvados and serve hot.

Hot Buttered Rum - it's a drink! it's a dessert! it's the most amazing thing ever! [N.B. This recipe makes a really lot so share with your friends or you'll be drinking it 'til Memorial Day.]

1 lb. butter, softened
1 lb. light brown sugar
2 tsp. cinnimon
1 lb. powdered sugar
1 qt. soft vanilla ice cream

cinnamon sticks/whipped cream/2 tsp. nutmeg

Cream the butter, sugars and spices until light and fluffy. Add the ice cream and stir until well blended. Spoon mixture into 2 qt. freezer container and freeze until ready to use (thaw slightly to serve).

Place 3 Tbsp. of the mixture and a shot of dark rum (or more or less to taste) into a large mug. Fill with boiling water and stir. Garnish with cinnamon stick, whipped ccream and a sprinkle of nutmeg.

Rum Balls - I got this recipe from a dear college friend from New Orleans who used to throw the most fabulous Christmas parties. He got this recipe from his mom, I think. I almost always make these; you just don't want to snack and drive with these cookies on your breath.

1/2 lb. vanilla wafers, ground or crushed.
1 c. powdered sugar, plus another cup set aside in a bowl
2 Tbsp. cocoa
1 c. chopped pecans
1/2 light corn syrup
1/4 c. rum (bourbon would work too, but then you can't really call them "rum balls")

Combine the dry ingredients; add the pecans. Mix the wet ingredients separately [according to my friend, the amount of rum can be doubled and usually is!]. Combine the wet and dry ingredients; stir until stiff. Coat clean and dry hands with powdered sugar and roll the dough out into little balls, then roll in the held-aside powdered sugar. Let stand until the sugar is absorbed by the rum balls, then roll in the powdered sugar again.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Heroes recap: “Powerless” – airdate 12/03/07 (S2E11)

Mohinder, bearing the cure-all blood, returns to his apartment in New York City where Sylar and Maya are waiting for him. “Hi, Dr. Suresh. What happened to your nose?” snarks Sylar. Things go downhill quickly when Maya lets slip that Sylar has lost his powers. Sylar pulls out a gun and Maya freaks, firing up the black eye goo of death until Sylar orders her to get it together. It is decided that they should all go to Mohinder’s lab for some blood work, and then Mohinder can cure Sylar and Maya. Nathan, Parkman and Mrs. Petrelli have a brief confab, then Mrs. Petrelli tells them where the virus is being held (Odessa, Texas) and the boys head off after it. As they leave, she thinks at Parkman that if he can’t change Peter’s mind, he may have to kill him: one shot through the head, just like Adam. Speaking of the devilishly handsome, he and Peter are strolling through Primatech in Odessa, Texas, when Hiro freezes time on them. Hiro and Peter spar a bit until Peter grabs the samurai sword and sends some voltage through it, knocking Hiro out. Time unfreezes and Adam looks down at his old friend Carp, then takes the sword, saying, “I believe this is mine.” Both Adam and Peter are looking delicious today, I might add.

Claire going through her father’s stolen files, adamant in her decision to go public and expose the Company. Her mom thinks it’s a dangerous idea but Claire is not to be dissuaded, snottily tossing her a you-don’t-know-what-it’s-like-since-you-don’t-have-abilities. Back at the Company, Elle is getting a serious dressing-down from her father. Bob tells her she can’t go out in the field any longer and stresses how disappointed he is in her. Elle is really upset, upset enough to apologize. When that doesn’t work, she goes to see Mr. Bennett and pretty much begs him to tell her what her father did to her. Bennett tells her that Bob had ordered the testing on Elle to continue even after she passed out from the stress and pain. She was seven years old at the time. Yikes. Elle runs out when Bob stops by to tell Bennett that Claire is causing trouble. Bennett is sassy at first and then starts to worry about his little girl.

In New Orleans, Ali Larter is trying really hard to act like a worried mom. Fortunately, Micah comes home soon and convinces her to help him find the kidnapped Monica. Primatech employees are getting tossed all over the place as Peter and Adam stride through the halls looking for the virus. “I believe it’s up to the left,” says Adam and, at a you’re-kidding look from Peter, protests, “Oh please, it was 30 years ago!” They find a big old vault and Peter gets to work opening it because he still stupidly trusts Adam. Plus, Adam reminds him that “the woman [he loves] is trapped in some horrible future … you can change that.” Oh whatever. Peter just needs to get over Caitlin already.

Sylar, Mohinder, Maya and Molly go into Mohinder’s lab (formerly known as Isaac’s studio). Mohinder is none too gentle taking a blood sample from Sylar to see what kind of virus he has. As he draws the blood, he looks up at the smoke detector … which is a hidden camera feed that Elle pulls up on the computer in Bob’s office. When Sylar turns towards the camera, she jumps up eagerly. “Sylar! Oh, Daddy, you’re going to be so proud of me.” That poor girl needs some serious therapy. I am really enjoying Kristin Bell in this role. Back in New Orleans, the thug has tied Monica in some derelict building. He splashes some gasoline around while she tries to reach her cell phone … which Micah is tracking by talking to it through his mom’s cell phone. He’s also changing all the traffic lights to green in their favor. Neat!

This next bit is hilarious. We hear, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Slow down!” and Nathan, with Parkman riding piggyback, touches down on front of the Primatech building. Parkman jumps off and a grimacing Nathan stretches out his back, which totally cracks me up because Greg Grunberg is roughly twice the size of Adrian Pasdar. “We don’t talk about THAT ever again,” insists Parkman. “Agreed,” moans Nathan. As they turn to go into the building Hiro appears before them on the loading dock. He sees Nathan: “Flying man!” Parkman’s like, “Who is this guy supposed to be?” and Nathan tries not to roll his eyes too obviously.

West interrupts Claire and asks her to not go public with all the Heroes’ secrets, telling her – and rightly so – that exposing all the Heroes is not going to bring her father back. She hands him his Company file and tells him to get the hell out, turning around so he can’t see her sad face. Mr. Muggles yaps at her, then yaps at the front door which opens. Mr. Bennett walks in, “Hello, Claire-bear.” Claire’s face turns bright red and she tries not to faint at the sight of her alive and looking-good-in-all-black dad.

At Mohinder’s lab, Molly tries to locate Alejandro for Maya. She tells the older girl that her twin is dead – “he’s not anywhere” - and, predictably, Maya does not take that well. Just as Mohinder discovers that the Company injected Sylar with the same strain of virus that Niki has, Maya shrieks, “You killed my brother!” But before her eyes can rain black death upon everyone in the room, Sylar rolls his own eyes and shoots her. It’s friggin’ awesome. And long overdue, if you ask me, given how annoying Maya has been. “Now look what you made me do,” Sylar grumbles. Hee hee hee. While Molly whimpers, Sylar insists that Mohinder test the cure-all blood first on Maya and then, if it saves her, use it on him. A beaten Mohinder pulls the cure-all out of his bag and Sylar sighs. “You had it here all along? You and I have trust issues, Doctor.” Hee hee.

The Bennett family is fuh-reaking out over the return of their patriarch. Mr. Bennett tells Claire that she must cease and desist her quest to expose the Company. He has made a deal: if Claire lies low, he’ll go back to work for the bad guys. Claire sobs as her father, a Company man once again, walks out. In the Primatech basement, Peter has wrenched the vault door open. Hiro pops in to stop them and Peter telekineses him against a wall, choking him, as Adam goes into the vault. Parkman storms up, mind-pushing with all his might: “Let Hiro go. Go after Adam – he’s evil.” Unfortunately for Parkman, Peter is a much quicker study and starts mind-pushing back. Just as he’s about to smash Parkman into the wall, Nathan steps out to talk to his brother. Nathan uses his real superpower, Brotherly Love, and convinces Peter that Adam hasn’t been on the up and up. Peter rushes to the vault.

Meanwhile, inside the vault, Adam, who is holding the super-virus behind his back, and Hiro are in a standoff. There’s some back and forth (you were my friend, you killed my father, I’m going to live forever, etc.) before Hiro grabs onto Adam and teleports away … but not before Adam drops the vial containing the virus - uh-oh! Luckily, Peter enters just then and snatches up the vial before it can shatter. That was a close one. Peter destroys the virus with a finely controlled radioactive flare. The three amigos decide that the only thing to do is to hold a press conference and expose the Company for what it is. Nathan suggests that Parkman can use his mind-push to make sure that the public really hears the truth. However, the vault is of course on a hidden camera in the vent and while we aren’t shown for sure, I’m pretty sure Bob is watching that feed.

At the lab, the cure-all brings Maya back. Oh well. Sylar is way more psyched than I am and wants his shot right now. Elle picks now to come in, shouting Sylar’s name, fingertips crackling. He shoots at her. There’s much breaking glass as she hits him with some serious voltage but he manages to run out, clutching the cure-all. Down in New Orleans, Monica is about to get extra-crispy as the thug sets the basement on fire. Micah and Niki have tracked her down, however, and Niki swerves her little sedan in front of the van to stop the thug’s getaway. Even without her super strength, she pounds him – a swift kick to the nuts, then some pistol-whipping (this may be the first moment in this show’s history that I’ve actually liked Niki) –and runs into the burning building to rescue Monica. Monica makes it out but Niki is trapped. The building explodes, right in front of poor, probably orphaned Micah. Well, she wasn’t much use without her multiple personalities anyway.

Hiro teleports back to Japan and informs Ando that Adam/Kensei will never hurt anyone again: Hiro has teleported him into a coffin in the Nakamura family graveyard plot. Can someone who can’t be killed die of starvation? That’s pretty horrible. And damn cold – Hiro is one step closer to being a bad ass. Elle returns to the lab, moping that Sylar got away from her. She perks up a little when Mohinder thanks her, saying they owe her their lives. She is grateful for their gratitude.

Parkman and the Petrellis have set up their conference in the Odessa police department. Nathan starts speaking and goes on WAY too long with the introductory comments, although this gives the producers ample time to flashback on almost every important scene in the show’s 1.5-season history. But, because he takes too long, Nathan gets shot twice in the chest before he can tell anyone his secret. Peter clasps his (dying? not if they can get his birth daughter’s magical blood to him in time!) brother in his arms as Parkman gets a glimpse of the assassin. It looks like Mr. Bennett. A little while later, in New York, Angela Petrelli is on the phone with someone, tears glittering in her eyes. She says, “I know, it was unavoidable,” then adds, “You do know that you’ve now opened Pandora’s Box.” And that’s the end of Volume Two.

Volume Three: “Villains” – Sylar, a bit crispy around the edges from Elle’s high voltage blast, shoots up in an alleyway with the cure-all blood. His wounds quickly heal and he reaches out, fingers quivering. An empty can (spinach) flies across the alley, compliments of his newly returned telekinesis. “I’m back,” he growls, satisfied. It would have been funnier if he’d said, “I am what I am,” what with the spinach can and all, but I guess they weren’t really going for funny. And that’s all the Heroes we get until 2008.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Book review: The Rozabal Line by Shawn Haigins

The Rozabal Line is a new thriller á la The DaVinci Code in which the author, through his fictional characters, investigates an actual world myth. In this case, the myth is quite controversial: what happened to Jesus after the crucifixion. We all know what the Bible says - even those of us who aren’t religious. This novel offers up another point of view.

Haigins’s far-flung plot is incredibly convoluted. At its simplest, a priest, Father Vincent Morgan, has been the recipient of visions of the crucifixion as well as some of his past lives. As he sets out to follow the clues contained in his visions, he stumbles upon the alternative religious theory that Jesus did not die upon the cross but was instead rescued and taken to India where he lived out the remainder of his life as a prophet, a husband, and a father. Obviously, the Catholic Church’s leaders do not want Father Morgan to find any proof of these theories and they send an assassin to stop him.

Further complicating things is the involvement of thirteen fringe terrorists (the leader of which it is insinuated may be descended from Christ and the twelve other men, when they are finally killed, are each murdered as each of the Twelve Disciples were killed) who are attempting to bring about Armageddon. This fringe group ultimately works for Osama bin-Laden who in turn is being manipulated by Opus Dei and the Illuminati (recently made popular in Dan Brown’s books).

Amid the religious quest and terrorism plot is an enormous amount of comparative religion information, some imparted as exposition-heavy dialogue between the fictional characters but mostly set forth in narrative flashbacks. There’s a lot of ground covered: for example, one chapter alone bounces from North India 3127 B.C., to the Indo-Nepal border 566 B.C., to the Judean Desert 26 A.D., to Persia 1000 B.C., to Syria 2000 B.C., to Egypt 3000 B.C., back to Persia 600 B.C., returning to Judea 23 A.D., then North India in 2001 A.D., Constantinople 337 and 553 A.D., France 185 A.D., and finally Turin, Italy 1988 A.D. The Christian Gospels, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Shinto, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Apocrypha all get discussed in a fair amount of detail, as well as the cult of the divine feminine and the beliefs of the ancient Greeks, Romans and Incans. There’s even some tantric yoga and past-life regression hypnotherapy thrown in for good measure.

The story part of the story is difficult to follow because of the many, many jumps between plotlines and timelines. In addition, I found that I really didn’t care what happened: so little time was spent with any of the various fictional characters that I was unable to relate to them. I was actually more interested in the comparative religion discussions than I was in the fiction. At one point, Haigins points out that many world religions have “gods, prophets, messengers or angels who [share] commonalities with Jesus Christ.” He mentions, among others, Osiris and Horus (Egyptian), Perseus, Hermes, Hercules and Adonis (Greek), Mithras (Indo-Iranian), Baldur (Norse) and Quetzalcoatl (Aztec), all of whom existed in legend prior to Jesus, and each of whom shared something with - or contributed something to - the Christian Messiah, whether it be virgin birth, performance of miracles or resurrection after death. I am not a religious person, but I have always loved to read different mythologies and I found this fascinating.

The Rozabal Line is Haigins’s first work of fiction. According to the “About the Author” note, he is currently working on two more books, another novel and a non-fiction book on the history of religions. Given this current novel’s strengths and weaknesses, I think the history text will be very interesting as Haigins obviously has a comprehensive knowledge of and affinity for the subject. I just may wait a little while before picking up his next cliff-hanger.