Tag Archives: Books & Reviews

The Venereal Game

Pun

Forgive the rather idiotic comments on the source page for this humourus image. They only prove that one need not understand something in order to comment online.

The Venereal Game is the provocative subtitle of James Lipton’s 1968 classic, An Exaltation of Larks (reprinted in 1977, and later expanded in the 1993 “ultimate” edition). Venereal, in this sense, comes from venery which in turn comes from the Latin venari, to hunt or pursue, rather from the sexual connotation.*

The collective nouns in much of Lipton’s book come mainly from hunting terms (terms of venery), many originating in the 1486 Book of St Albans and similar contemporary works that Lipton documents. Since that publication, creating collective nouns has become a game for many of a lexicographical bent, hence the venereal game. Even Conan Doyle engaged in it, in chapter XI of his novel, Sir Nigel, which Lipton quotes at length.

Everyone is familiar with several common collective nouns (or nouns of multitude) like these:

  • a school of fish
  • a herd of cattle
  • a swarm of bees
  • a flock of birds

But there are many, many more and yet others have been crafted as recently as the last few years (as in “a deck of Trekkies” coined in 2014). Some are quite ingenious and express a playful approach to the topic.

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Anthony and Cleopatra

Anthony and CleopatraWhile Julius Caesar is my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays, I think Anthony and Cleopatra is my second favourite. I know it’s hard to choose any favourites from his plays, they’re all so good, but this one seems to resonate with me more than most others, enough to encourage me to reread it this week.

Perhaps it’s because both lead characters are past their prime (as I am), but – like all of us who have put a few years behind us – reluctant to acknowledge it and still see themselves as their younger selves. In that, Cleopatra shines, while Anthony looks like a guy in a mid-life crisis. In a more modern setting he’d buy a Harley or a sports car. Or, like Anthony in the play, take a mistress.

Perhaps it’s because while they are, despite the irreducible effects of age, still full of passion and life and love. They are also full of doubt and uncertainty: that makes them very human; full of the foibles that love, lust and politics bring. And that’s what Shakespeare does best: brings our foibles to the fore. No character in his works is free of flaws. Nor are any of us – it’s a lesson to remember.

It’s a play set on the cusp of great change: the Roman empire and Egypt are just on the edge of significant and critical upheavals. While Rome will rise in imperial power, strength and glory under Augustus – only called Octavius Caesar in the play – and his successors, Egypt’s greatness is behind her and she will fade after Cleopatra; reduced to a mere province in the Roman empire.

Reading the play is a bit like reading the story of the Titanic: everyone can see the iceberg approaching except the characters in their own story. Yet we cannot avert our eyes from the tragedy in store. Anthony’s comment that, “The time of universal peace is near,” foreshadows both the Roman victory and his own demise.

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The Road Not Taken

The Road Not TakenI was surprised to read a recent piece in the New York Post that suggests a poem I have long loved was actually not what I thought it was about. It was one of those epiphanies that made me reassess my attitude not only towards the poem but towards what I had assumed it meant.

The poem is Robert Frost’s famous piece, The Road Not Taken. You might remember it as “The Road Less Travelled” by which it is sometimes misnamed. It’s a short poem, only 20 lines long, each with a mere nine syllables. Many of us read it in school as part of our English courses. It remains a staple in many anthologies, a century after it Frost wrote it.

According to the writer of the Post piece, Stephen Lynch, it isn’t an “…ode of individuality, to not follow the pack even though the path may be more difficult.” Rather, it was written as a sly jest.

This notion comes from David Orr’s recent book of the same name. Its subtitle is “Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong” and in it Orr takes a fresh look at some of the most popular, modern poetry. I just ordered my copy. It sounds like fascinating reading. Orr writes the On Poetry column for the New York Times Review of Books.

Remarkably, for a book that is essentially about poetry, Orr’s work has generated a lot of discussion online. While it also explores many other areas, such as social issues and pop psychology, it is refreshing to see poetry become a major talking point again. Frost himself wrote that he saw his poems as “all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless.” Perhaps a book about Frost’s poems can do the same.
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Going Clear Reviewed

Going ClearI found it difficult to read Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (Random House, 2013): it gave me a sense of unease, forcing a frequent over-the-shoulder glance to see if someone was following me just because I was reading it. But nonetheless, it proved compelling – so much so that I dropped all other books and read it cover to cover, uninterrupted earlier this summer.

It is by far the most complete, detailled expose of the church I’ve read  to date, and it made me wonder, why hasn’t all of this come to light before? Or did it and I just missed it?

It’s definitely not a flattering look at the church and if you know nothing about Scientology, it’s a real eye-opener. A scary one, at that.

This is also the title of a 2013 book and a subsequent documentary by Alex Gibney, based on the book. In a review of the movie in The Guardian, it noted:

Gibney’s film convincingly argues that their methods and practices are exploitative, abusive and dysfunctional on a massive scale.

And the review in The Independent concluded:

Gibney is too subtle and diligent a film-maker to indulge in a one-sided hatchet-job. The tone of Going Clear is inquisitive, not sensationalist. The documentary is painstakingly researched. If its accusations are “entirely false” (as the Church claims), it is surprising that quite so many former members continue to make them.

(The documentary isn’t on HBO Canada, by the way, but is on HBO USA – one of the reasons I don’t have cable any more: too much of this exclusive, anti-Canadian nonsense.)

Even if you look for it on YouTube, it’s not there (only the trailer is). You will, however, find several pro-Scientology rebuttals, some of them very acerbic and confrontational. Which is to be expected, if Wright’s claims in the book about the church’s paranoid and aggressive responses to any criticism are true. That also jives with the BBC reports I’ve linked to YouTube videos here.

And in my experience, I have reason to believe at least some of the claims for aggressive defence are true.

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Victor Hugo’s Hunchback

HunchbackI have just finished listening to a well-read audio book (in English) of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Hunchback of Notre Dame, or more properly, Notre Dame de Paris, as the original title was written. I had read the novel several years ago in a more recent Penguin edition, but hearing it on my peregrinations around town with the dogs gave me time to focus on some sections I had glossed over in the written form.

Unlike the abysmal Disney animation of 1996, and unlike all the films and TV series that have been made of the story since the first (Esmeralda, 1905), the novel doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s a sad, bitter tale. And Quasimodo, the hunchback, is not the main character. It is only in part his story. The happy, dancing hunchback of Disney’s tale is a cruel abomination of the tragic figure in Hugo’s novel.

Lon Chaney’s 1923 version was the first truly great portrayal of Quasimodo, but the censors of the time, under the Hays Code, forced the writers to recast several characters – Claude Frollo goes from villain to virtuous, and his brother, the drunken scholar Jehan, goes from vain bumbler to villain. The plot is also twisted to include bits Hugo never wrote, including a Pygmalion-like ball where Esmeralda is disguised as a noble lady.

If you don’t mind silent film, you definitely should see it for Chaney’s portrayal, but it isn’t the story Hugo wrote.

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The Geometry and Topology of Pasta

Pasta by DesignI’ve always had a geeky appreciation – and awe – of mathematics. I have spent countless hours tinkering with programs that create math-based designs like fractals and Spirograph-style curves. As a young teenager I spent hours playing with an oscilloscope making sound waves dance on the tiny screen. But I never really thought much about the math behind pasta until I stumbled on two books: The Geometry of Pasta and Pasta by Design. And once you open them, you have one of those ‘ah ha!’ moments where you discover mathematics and cooking intersect.

These books offer radically different approaches to pasta from my usual reading (and neither are about making your own pasta, although the shapes and histories may help inspire you). What is odd is that both take an unusual approach and yet both were published within a year of one another.

Shape of course matters. The shape of pasta defines several key elements: amount of surface area and size (which matters to cooking and when determining which utensils to use to eat it), thickness (matters to cooking time), sauce holding ability (rough or convoluted shapes hold more when eating) and visual appeal. Shape determines how much water a piece of pasta absorbs, how the heat is absorbed and transferred – knowing these data, one could choose the type of pasta to best match a particular sauce, or vice versa.

Texture, too matters, to sauce retention, cooking and mouth feel, but that’s micro-topology, and not covered here.

The first, The Geometry of Pasta, is really a cookbook designed to both entertain and express the complex design inherent in pasta shapes, as well as offering a bit of history and regional information. It comes from the chef of a very chic UK restaurant ( Bocca di Lupo) and a brilliant graphic designer. It also sports a delightful website in which you can explore the shapes of 77 types of pasta in elegant black-and-white illustrations:

Lasanga ricce
penne

The text that accompanies that illustration of lasagna ricce at the top – the shape for which I recently acquired an attachment cutter for my Atlas pasta machine – says:

Lasagne ricce are crimped, wavy or ruffled lasagne – lasagne with wavy edges – that are decorative and may allow lighter sauces to infiltrate the dish better. This shape of pasta is primarily a southern thing. Across Sicily, baked al forno with layers of a rich ragù and ricotta, it is a staple of the Christmas table.

Under the heading of sauces, there is a recipe for using lasagna ricce which, since it contains mammal meat, I will have to eschew. However, there are other equally attractive recipes on the site (and in the book) I can substitute. If, that is, the authors don’t know I’ve done so. They have written in the introduction, that…

…the Italian “preoccupation with choosing the right pasta shape to go with the right sauce” is not just some silly European thang, but can actually “[make] the difference between pasta dishes that are merely ordinary and truly sublime”.

Reviewer Joanne at Eats Well With Others has written:

Using the geometry of a given pasta – each with its own nuances, personality traits, online dating profile – one can actually turn the art of pasta preparation into a science; an architectural study, if you will.

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Pasta Books Reviewed, Part 1

pasta booksWhile I can’t say my collection of pasta making and recipe books is as exhaustive as it could be had I an unlimited amount to spend and equivalent time to read and make pasta, I have garnered a few useful books over the past month. I wanted to share some opinions and comments about those I have collected to date. Also see part two of this review for more titles.

Books on pasta have been around ever since cookbooks themselves. But the art of making pasta at home – outside Italy or by those of Italian descent – seems to have been fringe pastime in North American kitchens, given way to the convenience of store-bought, dried pasta. It is, I believe, slowly gathering momentum. After all, homemade pasta is, like homemade bread, infinitely better than the mass-produced varieties.

Making basic pasta using a home roller isn’t very difficult: mix the dough, let it rest, roll it, cut it. But after you’ve done that once or twice, you really want to expand to other types and doughs with other ingredients. That’s where the cookbooks come in. Unlike some publishing areas, the market for them isn’t saturated (yet).

The history of the pasta machine is somewhat hard to uncover. The first machines to extrude pastas seem to have been created in the 1600s. Back in the late 18th century, Thomas Jefferson had one and experimented with other types. Machines have been manufactured in Italy since around 1800. The common kitchen machine was patented in 1906 by Angelo Vitantonio, an Italian who had immigrated to the USA.

It seems that it wasn’t until the widespread introduction of inexpensive, small, home pasta rollers/cutters in the late 1980s (as far as I can tell – many of them now made in China) that pasta making started to gain attention in North America. And that’s when the first popular-press pasta-making books also appeared. Most of the books reflect only the roller-type machine, not the extruder, which seems a somewhat later invention for home use. One of the things for novices to look for is detail about using a pasta machine (i.e. the optimum thickness of a particular pasta), not simply general statements.

Some of the books reviewed here are for strictly semolina pastas, some for all-purpose flour, others introduce different flours, and some extend to noodles and dumplings (which bypass durum and semolina flours). Pasta can be made from many types of gluten flour, and I recommend trying several. Tastes and textures will vary (as a point of personal preference and dislike of fads, I avoid any book with recipes for gluten-free products).

Few books provide  information on drying and storing homemade pasta, but because many recipes use eggs, this is quite important.

Some general or regional cookbooks include (often limited or brief) instructions on making pasta by hand. These aren’t covered here, nor are the cookbooks which focus solely on using premade or store-bought pasta (with one exception). The rest of these books were purchased specifically to learn about making my own pasta, using a roller (and more recently an extruder) machine, and eventually by hand-rolling.

The three challenges fledgling pasta makers face is 1) finding the appropriate recipes from the myriad of them in print and online, and 2) scaling the recipes for your serving size (in my case, two people with average-to-small appetites). 3) Can I substitute for something I can’t find locally? What about altering a meat-based recipe for a meatless one (or to use, say, fish or chicken instead of beef or pork)? Do the chefs offer suggestions  or alternatives?

I’m still playing with percentages of flours in my mix; I have learned that 140g of flour is about right for we two for most pastas, but too much by about one third for ravioli. Some sauces require a reduction in dough to balance pasta with the additional ingredients. Many of the books have recipes for 4-6 or more. You need to scale the recipes to suit, and that is not always a simple mathematical activity.

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Pasta Books Reviewed, Part 2

pasta booksThis follows from part one of my book reviews, posted on this blog. Please see that post for the introduction. These, with either the Pasta Bible or Pasta Cookbook (preferred) by Jeni Wright, from the first post, are the recommended books.

I’ve rated the books from A (highest) to E on TRIPDO technical content (T – what details they offer, whether they use weights and volume measurements or only volume, how much technical information about ingredients is presented, etc.); recipes (R – quality and quantity); imagination (I – what variety of ideas, what variations in items to make, what new or unusual concepts or recipes are contained); presentation (P – attractiveness; how the book looks: its illustrations, layout, typography and design), depth (D – what what breadth of foods and ingredients they cover beyond basic pasta and how exotic are the recipes) and an overall impression (O) also the ‘wow’ factor.

Contributing to the ratings are such things as how many unusual or different ideas are presented; for example whether the recipes explore Asian noodles and dishes use heritage flours, non-Italian cheeses, use unusual or uncommon (for North America) types of pasta, etc.

Keep in mind these are personal and highly subjective, and based on my own rather limited experience making pastas. I’ve also noted whether I think these are for beginner, intermediate or advanced pasta chef.  For me, pasta is a staple in my life, and making my own is like making my own bread: I control the ingredients, the process, the result. While my own experience is limited to a few types, I hope to extend to other types, including  Asian-style noodles, this summer.

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