10 janeiro 2011

NewSouth Books, How Dare You Prefer Slave to Nigger?

Tobermory, by Saki, and other talking animals in literature

illustration by Markéta Vydrová, found here


"'What do you think of human intelligence?' asked Mavis Pennington lamely.
'Of whose intelligence in particular?' asked Tobermory coldly."
At Lady Blemley's house party, it is discovered that Tobermory the cat has been taught to speak by one of the guests. ("Cats," says Cornelius Appin, the guest in question, "those wonderful creatures which have assimilated themselves so marvellously with our civilization while retaining all their highly developed feral instincts.") The initial amazement of the other guests quickly gives way to alarm as they realise the embarrassment that may be caused by an intelligent and articulate animal that spends its time "creeping about our bedrooms and under chairs, and so forth," as another guest puts it.

Eeyore (Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by AA Milne)

Like many of the other characters in these two books, Eeyore is a slightly dysfunctional human adult masquerading as an animal. I always enjoy his relentless pessimism and heavy sarcasm: he is so extravagantly gloomy that even as a child, encountering him for the first time, you know not to take him seriously.

Behemoth (The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov)

The Devil pays a visit to Soviet Moscow. Among his retinue is Behemoth, a demon in the form of a huge black cat, who cheats at chess, puts glitter on his whiskers and goes to a ball wearing a white bow tie and carrying opera glasses. His deviousness, clowning and attention-seeking have something fittingly and convincingly cattish about them.

Lucius (The Golden Ass by Apuleius)

In this Latin novel, Lucius rubs himself with a stolen ointment which he believes will turn him into an owl. Instead, due to a mix-up with the magic ointments, he finds himself becoming a donkey. In his subsequent life as a beast of burden he is subjected to various abuses and indignities including beatings, threats of castration and bestiality, before the goddess Isis intervenes and brings about his transformation back into a man. Despite all this, the tone of the book, in Robert Graves' translation at least, is surprisingly light-hearted.

Red Peter ('A Report for an Academy' by Franz Kafka)

Red Peter is an ape, and the story consists of his testimony to the academy of the title. He explains how, after being captured in Africa by a hunting expedition and kept in a cage on the deck of the boat taking him to Europe, he learned to shake hands, smoke a pipe, drink schnapps, and finally to speak, in the hope of escaping his captivity. In this he has had some success. But as he reminds the members of the academy, "your ape nature, gentlemen ... cannot be further removed from you than mine is from me."

Toad (The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame)

Of all the characters in The Wind in the Willows, Toad is the one who interests me most, in part because he is so entertainingly flawed, but also because he has the most interaction with people, and is consequently the character whose ambiguous status in the human world is most thoroughly explored. One moment he's a poor dumb animal caught in the pitiless workings of the human justice system, the next he is a country squire patronising the jailer's daughter.

Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare)

This is a partial transformation, as Bottom only has an ass's head imposed on him; the rest of his body remains unchanged. As a result, not having a mirror to hand, he is unaware of what has happened to him – hence the unconscious comedy of lines such as "I am marvellous hairy about the face."

Hansaburo ('Horse Legs' by Ryunosuke Akutagawa)

Another partial transformation, this time involving an office worker, Hansaburo, who collapses and dies at his desk. It turns out, however, that his death is the result of an administrative error in the celestial bureaucracy. By the time the mistake is discovered, his legs have started to decompose, so he is sent back into the world with two legs from a horse that has just died. The rest of the story describes his torments with fleas, his struggle to curb the natural tendency of his new legs to gallop down the middle of the street, and his increasingly desperate attempts to hide his condition from his colleagues and his wife.

archy ('archy & mehitabel' by Don Marquis)

archy is an exception – a vers libre poet trapped in the body of a cockroach, the result not of a magical transformation but of Pythagoras's theory of the transmigration of souls after death. Although he is no less articulate than any talking animal, he does not actually speak: his free verse communications are laboriously banged out on a typewriter.

Snowy (The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé)

The comic strip format allows for an interesting refinement: Snowy and Tintin address each other directly, and the reader is privy to everything they say, but they do not necessarily understand each other. Snowy also has a conscience, which comes into play whenever he finds some spilt whisky, and works just like Captain Haddock's human conscience: a devil appears at one shoulder, urging him to drink; an angel appears at the other, urging him to refrain. Whether this moral equivalence between man and dog reflects well on Snowy or badly on Captain Haddock is open to debate.

04 janeiro 2011

RIP Pete Postlethwaite, 1946-2011

In the movies, an actor's face is his fortune. It isn't simply a matter of being good-looking enough to play the romantic hero or rugged enough to carry an action picture. It's about having an instantly available, readable screen personality; it's also about attitude, a continuous professional battle-readiness: Hollywood talks about someone having their "game-face on" or having "the chops" for a certain job. And perhaps no actor's career or industry presence has been defined by his face more than Pete Postlethwaite: the British character actor whose rugged features made him every casting director's go-to guy for raw, lived-in truth.
The stark planes and bulges of his face created a veritable Easter Island statue of authenticity and plainness. On camera, his face read as "real", in counterpoint to all the prettyboy or prettygirl leads. It was impossible to imagine him young, yet neither was he old exactly. For around a quarter of a century he played the same approximate middle age, with the face of a man whose life had been hard-earned, and whose dues had been paid in full long before.
Postlethwaite was not ugly. Nothing so banal. The film world is full of ugly people who don't work much. Actually, Postlethwaite could look rather handsome in a gaunt, ruined and troubled sort of way. His face could suggest brutality, cruelty and violence – or precisely the opposite. It could be the face of a man who was stoically enduring these things, and quietly and heroically declining to reply in kind. His face had a gentleness and sweetness that the brush of Lucian Freud could not, I think, catch. But the camera lens did.
He began as a stage actor, a stalwart of the Liverpool Everyman and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and two years ago toured extensively with his much-admired Lear. But it was as a screen actor that he was best known, and established the poles of his potent personality with two early movies: Terence Davies's Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father (1993). In these, he played fathers good and bad. For Davies he was the violent and domineering working-class patriarch, a bully whose death liberates the entire family. In Sheridan's true-life drama about the wrongful arrest and imprisonment of the Guildford Four, this persona was turned on its head. Postlethwaite played Guiseppe Conlon, father of Gerry Conlon. Guiseppe is the innocent, law-abiding blue-collar guy in 70s Catholic west Belfast whose only concern is to stay out of the way of both police and Provos, and who senses that his tearaway son Gerry, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is about to get into serious trouble. So he sends him to London, where Gerry gets fitted up for the Guildford pub bombings and where Guiseppe finds himself wrongfully arrested too, having come to London on a doomed mission to bring his boy home.
There is a scene of almost unbearable pain when Gerry discovers his father in the same prison, being humiliated by the prison guards, smothered with delousing powder. Postlethwaite's face – stark and anguished like a ghost – made an unforgettable impression. The role earned Postlethwaite an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, and I believe Postlethwaite's overwhelmingly powerful performance as Guiseppe Conlon, the tragic, sacrificial figure who was to die in prison before his son is released, actually played an important part in popularising a new conciliatory mood in the political circles of 1990s Britain, which was to lead to the Good Friday agreement. At the very end of his career, Postlethwaite was to play Fergie Colm in Ben Affleck's drama The Town (2010), a West Belfast hard man in Boston, a villain who is the very antithesis of Guiseppe. It was a powerfully memorable role – and I sometimes wonder if some Hollywood producers assumed that Postlethwaite, the granite face of integrity and street-level toughness, was Irish. Actually, of course, the Warrington-born Postlethwaite was a Brit.
What gave Postlethwaite his iconic status with another kind of moviegoer was his portrayal of the sinister, uncanny Mr Kobayashi in Bryan Singer's modern noir The Usual Suspects (1995). In the course of its head-spinning plot, Kobayashi emerges as a man who works for, or claims to work for, the mythical criminal mastermind Keyser Söze. Söze is an underworld Satan, and Kobayashi is his emissary on earth, and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie certainly allows the audience to suspect at various stages that Kobayashi is, in fact, Söze himself in devious disguise. Who is this man? Kobayashi appears to be South Asian, which doesn't obviously fit with an apparently Japanese surname. He appears, smiling enigmatically, with his employer in the film's penultimate scene. This small part used Postlethwaite's unique looks in a different way, a starkly unsentimental way, to bring out their absolute alienness, and otherness. There were plenty of rough-looking, ordinary-featured, or semi-handsome guys in the film, from Kevin Spacey to Stephen Baldwin. It features the brutal-looking Dan Hedaya in a small role – not an oil painting, by any means. But none of these guys had a face that could suggest an unearthly, uncanny difference from the norm – beyond mere ugliness – which Postlethwaite's could.
These pictures established his reputation and led to his appearing in some of the most successful and liked films of the 1990s: he was the wise Friar Laurence in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996), Shakespeare's great romantic tragedy transplanted to modern-day "Verona beach". As the colliery band leader Danny in Mark Herman's Brassed Off (1996), Postlethwaite's face is a joy as he conducts a quietly passionate rendering of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez in a montage-sequence showing the dark backroom deals over pit closures that will affect everyone's future. He smiles, his baton movements calm and authoritative, with a connoisseur's appreciation of the music, occasionally wagging his head dreamily, keeping in check his growing euphoria at the skill of their new lead trumpeter Gloria, played by Tara Fitzgerald. It's an object lesson in less-is-more acting.
Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997) was the real-life slave-mutiny drama, narrated in flashback from subsequent legal proceedings, which gave Postlethwaite another villainous role. He was William S Holabird, an icy-hearted lawyer who seeks to suppress and undermine any evidence of illegal slave-trading that could set at liberty the captured Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou) and his fellow West Africans. Steven Spielberg, in awe of Postlethwaite's presence and beguiled by his personality, hailed him as "the best actor in the world". Modestly, Postlethwaite responded that Spielberg must have said that "he thinks that he's the best actor in the world".
He was certainly one of the most colossally loved and admired. One of his final screen appearances was in Franny Armstrong's ecological documentary The Age of Stupid (2009), in which a man known simply as The Archivist, speaking in the future, broods over humanity's failure to do anything about environmental catastrophe. Somehow, only Postlethwaite could have carried it off: he gave the film a natural presence, a bedrock of unflashy common sense, and was unfakably a warm, compassionate guy.
Postlethwaite had had health issues for many years, but the news of his death is still a shock, and a very sad way to start the new year. This unassuming, brilliant actor seems to have staked his final claim on our hearts at the moment of leaving: he was the national treasure we didn't know we had, until we didn't have him any more.

02 janeiro 2011

3 recipes, that's all you need

Sustainable Food, from the NYT

Chop, Fry, Boil: Eating for One, or 6 Billion

“Revolutionary” diet books flood the market this time of year, promising a life changed permanently and for the better — yes, in just 10 to 30 days! — but, as everyone knows, the key to eating better begins with a diet of real food.
The problem is, real food is cooked by real people — you! — and real people are cooking less than ever before.We know why people don’t cook, or at least we think we do: they’re busy; they find “convenience” and restaurant foods more accessible than foods they cook themselves; they (incorrectly) believe that ready-to-eat foods are less expensive than those they cook themselves; they live in so-called food deserts and lack access to real food; and they were never taught to cook by their parents, making the trend self-perpetuating.
Yet Americans watch 35 hours of television a week, according to a Nielsen survey. (Increasing amounts of that time are spent watching other people cook). And although there certainly are urban and rural pockets where people have little access to fresh food, about 90 percent of American households own cars, and anyone who can drive to McDonald’s can drive to a supermarket.
But perhaps most important, a cooking repertoire of three basic recipes can get anyone into the kitchen and beyond the realm of takeout food, microwaved popcorn and bologna sandwiches in a few days.
One could set off a heated argument with a question like, “What are the three best basic recipes?” but I stand behind these: a stir-fry, a chopped salad, and the basic combination of rice and lentils, all of which are easy enough to learn in one lesson. (“Lessons” might be called “recipes,” and need no “teacher” beyond the written word.) Each can be varied in countless ways. Each is produced from basic building blocks that contain no additives, preservatives, trans fats, artificial flavorings or ingredients of any kind, or outrageous calorie counts; they are, in other words, made from actual food. The salad requires no cooking; the stir-fry is lightning fast; the rice-and-lentils, though cooked more slowly, requires minimal attention. The same can be said for other recipes, of course, but not for all of them, and certainly not for the food that most Americans rely upon most of the time.
These recipes offer other benefits: They’re nutritionally sound and environmentally friendly. They’ve sustained scores of generations of societies worldwide, using traditional farming methods and producing little negative impact on the earth. (Almost without exception, your ancestors relied on something like one or more of these dishes.) All of them can be made with meat, poultry or fish, but they can be satisfying and delicious when made vegetarian or even vegan. In fact, if you cooked only variations on these three dishes you’d be well on your way to becoming an intuitive, fluid cook (the fanciest pilaf is essentially a rice-and-bean variation), eating more healthfully and with a lighter carbon footprint.
There is one notable thing these recipes are not: magic. You cannot produce them without having a functioning kitchen (a sink, a refrigerator and a stove will do it); some minimal equipment, including a pot, a skillet and a bowl (though in a pinch, the salad could be made in the pot); a couple of knives; some utensils; a strainer and a cutting board; and the ability (and money) to stock a pantry and at least occasionally supplement it with fresh food. These requirements cannot be met by everyone, but they can be met by far more people than those who cooked dinner last night.
(It’s worth noting, furthermore, that the stir-fry and the rice-and-lentils can be made entirely from the pantry, if you allow for the fact that frozen vegetables are a completely acceptable substitute for fresh, especially in winter, when “fresh” may mean “flown in from Peru.”) This pantry list can be as simple as oil, vinegar, grains, legumes and a few other things, but as people learn to cook it inevitably grows.
Given ingredients, a kitchen and equipment, all that is left is some time, and with a well-stocked pantry that time can be about the same as driving to Burger King and back. You can make a chopped salad in 15 or 20 minutes, practicing knife skills and producing a vegetable-heavy dish quickly and easily. Anyone who can boil water can whip up a batch of rice and lentils in just over half an hour, providing fiber, protein and one of humankind’s classic comfort foods. And anyone who’s learned how to chop (primitively is fine), apply heat to a pan and stir can produce a stir-fry — really the epitome of a traditional dish based mostly on plants with just enough meat or other protein-dense food to contribute additional interest, flavor and nutrition — in less than half an hour.
Make these three things and you’re a cook. And with luck and perseverance, these foods will crowd out things like (to single out one egregious example from hundreds of its competitors) KFC’s Chicken Pot Pie, which costs about $5 (so much for the myth of cheap fast food; a terrific meal for four can be put together for $10); contains nearly 700 calories, more than half of which come from fat; and has well over 50 ingredients — most of which cannot be purchased by normal consumers anywhere — including things like “chicken pot pie flavor” and MSG.
By becoming a cook, you can leave processed foods behind, creating more healthful, less expensive and better-tasting food that requires less energy, water and land per calorie and reduces our carbon footprint. Not a bad result for us — or the planet.
The Recipes

Broccoli Stir-Fry With Chicken and Mushrooms

Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings.
2 tablespoons good-quality vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
4 scallions, chopped
1 pound broccoli, trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces, the stems no more than 1/4-inch thick
8 ounces button mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and sliced
8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch chunks or thin slices and blotted dry
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper.
1. Put a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add half the oil, swirl it around, and immediately add half the garlic and ginger. Cook for 15 seconds, stirring, then add the broccoli, mushrooms and all but a sprinkling of the scallions. Raise heat to high, and cook, stirring, until mushrooms release their water and broccoli is bright green and beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes.
2. Sprinkle with salt; add 1 cup water. Stir and cook until almost all liquid evaporates and broccoli is almost tender, another minute or two more, then transfer everything to a plate.
3. Turn heat to medium, add remaining oil, then remaining garlic and ginger. Stir, then add chicken and turn heat to high. Cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken has lost its pink color, three to five minutes.
4. Turn heat to medium. Return broccoli, mushrooms and juices to the pan, and stir. Add soy sauce, sprinkle with more salt and some pepper; add a little more water if mixture is dry. Raise heat to high and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced slightly and you’ve scraped up all the bits of chicken. Taste and adjust seasoning, garnish with remaining scallion and serve.
Stir-fries work with virtually any combination of vegetables; protein-dense food (meat, poultry, fish, tofu, etc.) is optional. Use pork (like shoulder), shrimp, beef (like sirloin), or tofu instead of chicken; slice the meat thinly or the tofu into cubes.
Use cabbage, cauliflower, asparagus, green beans, snow peas, carrots or spinach in place of either the broccoli or the mushrooms or both. Or use other mushrooms.
Use fish sauce instead of soy sauce and finish with a squeeze of lime to give it a Southeast Asian flavor.
Use olive oil, skip the ginger, use onion instead of scallion, and substitute 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary or thyme to give it a Mediterranean flavor profile.
Use coconut milk instead of stock; 1 tablespoon curry powder instead of soy sauce to give it an Indian flavor. 

Lentils and Rice With or Without Pork

Time: About 45 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 medium onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
4 ounces bacon or sausage, chopped, optional
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups lentils, rinsed and picked over
1 cup long-grain brown rice
3 or 4 bay leaves
Chopped fresh parsley leaves for garnish.
1. Put the oil in a large, deep saucepan over medium heat. When it’s hot, add onion, celery, carrot and meat, if using. Cook until vegetables begin to become tender and meat begins to brown in places, 5 to 10 minutes. Add garlic and some salt and pepper and cook for another minute or two.
2. Add lentils, rice, bay leaves and 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat so liquid bubbles gently, and cover.
3. After 30 minutes, if rice and lentils are tender and liquid is absorbed, the dish is ready. If lentils and rice are not tender, add enough liquid to keep bottom of pot moist, cover and cook for a few more minutes. If rice and lentils are soft and there is much liquid remaining (which is unlikely), raise heat a bit and cook, uncovered, stirring once or twice, until it evaporates. Discard bay leaves. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary, fluff with a fork and serve, garnished with parsley and drizzled with more olive oil.
Use any grain instead of brown rice; you can even substitute white rice. (Cooking time for white rice is half or less that for brown, so add later.)
Similarly, use any bean: cook longer as needed and keep an eye on the water to make sure the beans stay submerged in about 1 inch of water during cooking; wait to add the rice until the beans are tender.
Stock will add flavor, but don’t waste money on the canned stuff; use water instead. (The dish will taste like lentils and rice.) For more flavor, add onion, carrot, or other vegetables and an herb like thyme.
For the dish called Moors and Christians, substitute a red bell pepper for the celery and carrot, black beans for the lentils, and 1 cup chopped tomato for some of the liquid; let the beans cook until half done before adding the rice.
For smoky red beans and rice, add 1 tablespoon tomato paste and 2 teaspoons pimentón to the vegetables. Use red beans instead of lentils and cook until they’re half done before adding the rice (which should be short-grain). Simmer for another 15 minutes, then bake uncovered at 450 degrees Fahrenheit until the beans and rice are tender.
For mujaddara, skip the meat; cook two sliced onions in a couple tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat until they’re dark brown but not burned, and serve on top of the rice and lentils.
For lentil and rice soup — or any bean and rice soup — use more water, or stock if you have it. 

Crunchy Cabbage Salad

Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
2 tablespoons or more white or red wine vinegar
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic, or more to taste
Salt and black pepper
2 celery stalks (preferably from the heart), chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 small red onion, minced
3 or 4 radishes, chopped
1 red or yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
1 small cabbage, cored and shredded.
1. Combine vinegar, oil, garlic, a large pinch of salt and a smaller one of pepper in a salad bowl. Beat with a fork until combined.
2. Add the vegetables, sprinkle lightly with more salt and pepper, and toss. Taste and adjust seasoning, and serve immediately.
Use lettuce or other greens instead of cabbage.
Add 1/2 cup chopped nuts.
Add 1/2 cup chopped dried fruit or a cup or so of fresh fruit.
Add a couple teaspoons of mustard, chopped fresh herbs, tomato paste, minced fresh chilies, yogurt, soy sauce, one or two anchovies, or some spice (like curry powder or fennel seeds) to the dressing.
Add leftover cooked beans, grains, meat or fish.
Crumble feta or other cheese into the salad.
Use any other cooked or raw vegetables you like: carrots, snow peas, avocado, tomatoes, cucumber, fennel, beets, corn, potatoes, green beans, asparagus or broccoli.

Happy New Year, so be it ;)