Monthly Archives: February 2018

Tibetan Tuesday: Vegan Broth and Momos

Another recipe riffed off of Jackie Kearney’s ‘Vegan Street Food’, with a few alterations. This was my first attempt at the Tibetan dumpling staple, and, while there’s room for improvement, it didn’t come off too badly.

Who’s that in the spoon? Spoiler, it’s me.

First, the ingredients I went with:

Broth:
3 medium carrots
300g celeriac
1 onion
2 moderate tomatoes
8 mushrooms
4/5 bay leaves
A dozen or so peppercorns
2 tbsp sweet soy sauce
1 tbsp olive oil
Good handful cilantro
3 dried star anise sections
3 garlic cloves
(all vegetables roughly chopped – this is just broth, after all)

Filling:
2 large potatoes
300g red cabbage
200g red bell pepper
hearty knob of ginger
1 spring onion
1 tsp hoisin sauce
~1/2 tsp salt and pepper each
2 healthy dashes of turmeric

Next, prep:

The hardest part of trying out a new recipe, especially one with more than a few moving parts, is figuring out how to make the timing work and cut back on waste and mess. Initially, I had thought to steam the cabbage and potato using the broth as it boiled. Alas, the amounts just didn’t jive (a real shame, the cabbage and potato leached a really vibrant blue colour that would have been  sweet for the broth), and so that was separated out into two pots. Kearney recommends 40 minutes for the broth to simmer, and I probably got there and more by the end of meal prep.

I put aside the creation of the dumpling dough until after I had the filling on the way, but I would probably switch the order next time. I used about 1 and 1/2 cups of plain flour with a sizeable pinch of salt, and somewhere north of a 1/2 cup water (at least so you know the ratios – more on that later). Kneading took about 10 minutes – a stiff dough is desired. The recipe originally says to set aside for 30 minutes, and I don’t think I left it quite that long.

Getting back to the filling for a moment – as I mentioned above, I steamed the potatoes and cabbage, each finely chopped, for 15 minutes. In the interim, I gave the ginger, pepper, and spring onion a chop themselves – the onion was on the rougher side, but the ginger in particular was minced. After taking my steamer off the pot, I (regrettably) emptied the indigo water and added a dash of sunflower oil, returning to the hob to heat. First went the ginger, followed shortly by the pepper. This was fried for about 5 minutes, enough time to render down. The potato/cabbage was added to this and mashed. This mix was poured into a moderate-sized aluminium bowl (the same I’d used to prepare my dough, rinsed) and the remaining ingredients were stirred in. Set aside to cool.

The recipe advises 16 “lime-sized balls” of dough, rolled out to a 3 mm width and sectioned with a 7.5 cm cookie cutter. I, erm, fudged that width part, and it came back to bite me. I suggest you follow it.

As I said earlier, I’ve told you the ratios I used for the dough, because you’re probably going to want to make more than I did – I only used about a third of the filling I ended up with, as you’re only meant to add a teaspoon to each dumpling.

Even what you see here was pushing it when it came time to fold

Wet your fingers a bit to seal up the top, or lip, depending on the style you elect – moons or money bags. Have a small amount of oil heated and ready in a pan – I used sunflower again, but any high heat type will do, I’m sure – as you will want to fry the bottoms of the dumplings till golden brown, before transferring to the steamer. Having left my dough too thick, I wasn’t able to achieve the sought-after translucence within the recommended 7 – 10 minute steam-time, though they did cook through.

Don’t be like me.

Thin your dough.

All that remains – kinda look like xenomorph eggs…

Though the dumplings were thicker than necessarily optimal, the flavour was present. The broth was a success, as well – the anise really pushes through. The original recipe calls for half a fennel bulb, which, though I didn’t have it on hand, I wouldn’t mind trying out next time. Other things that were changed were celeriac for celery (it’s what I had), the absence of a broccoli stem in the broth and sherry in the filling (have port, no sherry – ill equipped larder, right here), and the addition of the bell pepper and turmeric.
It seems a shame to toss so many vegetables post-broth – I’m going to see if I can make something worthwhile from the remains, and certainly won’t hold it against you should you try the same.

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Keeping it light – Easy Vegan Miso soup & Banh Mi

Following that heavy dinner, tried to play it light yesterday with a lunch of Miso soup.

You can find plenty of recipes online, and it’s a pretty simple dish to prepare. It took all of twenty minutes, and even that was an external constraint – the spring rolls had to be in the oven.

I used a moderate saucepan’s worth of water, maybe about 1 – 1 1/2 L, which I set to boil. Added 3 medium mushrooms, cut in slices, to the water fairly early on so that they had time to cook down a bit. If you elect to go with dried mushrooms you’l probably want to reconstitute them well in advance. I had some fresh on hand at the time, and used those. After maybe five minutes, I dropped the temperature and added two good tablespoons-worth of white miso paste. Towards the end of that twenty minutes I added several loose handfulls of dried seaweed and a teaspoon of soy sauce. The kelp didn’t take very long to take on water. I also put in another tablespoon of miso, for good measure.

Just before serving, I threw in some green onion and tofu. I only added these at the end to avoid losing their consistency – the green onions are nice and sharp raw, and the tofu, being silken, was likely to fall apart if cooked too aggressively.

I skipped out on adding any mirin, as most recipes will ask for, simply because I didn’t have it on hand. The broth was good, particularly after the mushrooms and seaweed had time to open up, but could have been a touch saltier.


Kept to the theme of ‘unheavy’ with dinner, a quasi-banh mi – something I’d been craving for the last couple of days. No luck getting a proper baguette at the market, so I elected for ciabatta instead. Getting further from the original, I used some of the kimchi as an ingredient – it’s grown no less powerful!

Kept things standard with the use of cilantro, and, instead of the customary meat, I was able to pick up some flavoured seitan – made in Switzerland, of all places.

A Return to Osten Ard: Tad Williams’ The Heart of what was Lost and The Witchwood Crown

As I mentioned previously, there was another series that I had returned to recently to provide a nostalgia fix. Unlike Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy, though, which saw me rereading the original works, it’s been all fresh with Tad Williams’ latest series, The Last King of Osten Ard. The original series of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (consisting of a trilogy of books – The Dragonbone Chair (1988), Stone of Farewell (1990), and To Green Angel Tower (1993), though the final was split in two for resale purposes) won Williams a well-deserved place amongst the fantasy greats and paved the road later heavy hitters such as The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire. I’m pleased to say that the first offerings of this latest series have not let down the source material.

The Heart of what was Lost

Williams is nothing if not ambitious with this return to Osten Ard. Beyond the intended trilogy of full-length novels (and these are long books – ain’t called epic fantasy for nothing!), he plans to write two novellas to fit between the other works. The first of these, The Heart of what was Lost, came out before the first full book and acts as a bridge between the original and the new.

Picking up almost directly from the closing of To Green Angel Tower, The Heart does a good job at reminding the reader of the main characters, lands and history of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, while also trying out something fresh. The novella is actually really the story of a single battle, a mopping up by the human victors of the original series as the try to put to bed any chance of a resurgent Hikeda’ya troubling generations to come. If only they were so lucky.

We join Duke Isgrimnur and a sizeable force on the march north, travelling into lands still gripped by the former Storm King’s power – icy winter still blasting the Frostmarch and Rimmersgard, even late into the year. They chase the scattered remains of the Norn army – those Hikeda’ya and Tinukeda’ya who didn’t perish at the battle of the Hayholt. Inevitably, Isrimnur’s men lay siege to Sturmspeik itself, the last fastness of the Norns.

In a break with the earlier works, much of this story is from the point of view of Hikeda’ya, giving the reader insight into their culture and daily life in the subterranean city of Nakkiga. This does good work at fleshing out things only hinted at in the initial trilogy, which will be an important springboard for The Witchwood Crown, the first full novel of the The Last King series. New characters are introduced who will have roles to play in the novels to come, and there is a satisfying bit of pathos built up over the course of the work. The focus is tight, but there are some untelegraphed twists that hook in nicely to the larger story. All in all, an unusually lean offering, but one that whets the appetite for more!

The Witchwood Crown

Something about the framing of that view makes me uncomfortable…

The Witchwood Crown sees us back on familiar ground in terms of scope – we’re returned once more to the sprawling high fantasy of the original books.

King Seoman and Queen Miriamele are travelling, with full entourage, to Rimmersgard. Three decades have passed since the events of The Heart and Isgrimnur is an aged man, his once-mighty physique wasted away, leaving him on his very deathbed. The train make haste to the North, but, for political reasons, must make a detour to Hernystir in the West on their way. It is true that Seoman (still Simon, to his friends) and Miriamele rule all the lands of Osten Ard under the High Ward, but the client kings of the various states can be unruly, personal pride and expedience overriding allegiances to far-off Erkynland. True to his young self, Simon has little stomach for politicking, and it is a good thing that Miriamele, sole child of Elias, the Mad King, was reared for courtly life. Sometimes subordinates need a strong hand to remind them who truly rules.

It is during these travels that we are brought up to speed on the changed situation for the joint Monarchs and the whole of their Realm – their son, the prince John Josua, died some time ago –carried off by a fever that swept through the Ward. Luckily, he left two heirs, Princess Lillia and Prince Morgan. Unluckily, Morgan, the elder of the two, is a rake – interested in little other than wine, women and dice, he is a poor imitation of his virtuous, studious father, and certainly unfit to inherit the crown. Both monarchs have been devastated by the death of their son, which Williams is…very…keen…to tell you! If Barbara Hambly was intent on informing you Gil was a scholar, Tad is desperate for you to get just HOW DEVASTATED Seoman and Miriamele are. Perhaps I’m being unfair, and the death of child, something I’ve never even come close to experiencing, can leave parents with the degree of ptsd evidenced throughout the story, but it honestly got a bit tiresome. One of the more unfortunate aspects of the book, to my mind. At any rate, the clashes between generations are a recurring motif, as each party secretly recognises the right way forward, but, through stubbornness or self-pity, allows the situation to stagnate. It’s certainly frustrating for the reader at times, but, just as I was saying with Hambly’s approach, this is what sets the work apart. The characters are flawed, and better for it.

Meanwhile, in Nakkiga under Sturmspeik, dark things are stirring. Hikeda’ya society has changed radically after the events of The Heart, the near-sacking of the city showing the Norns that they would have to give up on many of the old ways if they were to survive in the world. But Queen Utuk’ku is finally awakening from her multi-decadal slumber, the somnolence between death and life she was cast into following the disaster at Asu’a, and there is every likelihood that she will denounce the changes, the desecrations, made in her absence. With her god-like control of the Hikeda’ya, Great Houses are known to fall at even the hint of her displeasure. Amidst this scene of tumult, a party of elite warriors are sent forth from the mountain, their mission fell and secret even to most of their number. On the edges of Norn lands they are joined by a Black Rimmersman, one of the Queen’s mortal slave-catchers – purportedly to guide them, but with motivations all his own.

The individual narrative threads soon tangle into the skein that is the hallmark of these high fantasy tomes – characters haring off to the four corners of the map on seemingly unrelated quests that you can be sure a writer of Williams’ skill will pull together in the end. The close of The Witchwood Crown sets up the next novel on several fronts: new quests are just beginning to be undertaken, a genuine threat is declared from a corner long teased at, dark political intrigue blooms from an unexpected source (this one was a bit of a gut-punch, even if -some of it- was satisfying), and the right number of secrets are revealed to keep you wanting more.

I wouldn’t say that it punches at the same weight as something like the Malazan series (the review of which, incidentally, continues to be the most heavily-trafficked of all my posts. Must have some superior SEO or something.), but that also grapples with material of a more obviously-adult nature, coupled with a more ambitious narrative style. All the same, this long-awaited return by Tad Williams scratches the right itch. If you’re a fan of the original batch, or you’re looking to fall into some epic fantasy for a few days (as one would hope, the book can read as a standalone. Appendices are supplied glossing the history of the previous books and various peoples and places referenced, for the uninitiated), I heartily recommend these new books from The Last King of Osten Ard.
Unfortunately we will have to wait until September to get our hands on Empire of Grass, the next instalment. No doubt it will be worth it!

Valentine’s Special – Vegan Bean Burgers in Beet Wraps

In recognition of the day, thought I’d try out something thematic.

Cuz it’s red, get it?
Also, the other guys have much better photography than mine.

Swapped out a few things from the recipe, given that this was a spur of the moment decision. Rather than the sprouted wheat berries, opted for the same amount of quinoa. We all know that that is no-where near enough garlic, whether powdered or fresh. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to pick up any nutritional yeast flakes, and it was too little time to prepare my own. Otherwise, things were more or less the same.

As any vegetarian worth their salt will tell you, bean burgers are hella difficult to cook properly. This blend was no different. I tweaked the balance with every fresh round to hit the pan – making them smaller, adding aquafaba, and finally gram flour directly. There was definite improvement each time, but they still came out fairly crumbly.

Not Ideal

Slightly Better

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I took a run at the beetroot/gram flour wraps before doing the burgers themselves, which was…a beneficial tuition, shall we say? Initial efforts had the heat set too low, and the size of the pan made flipping the wrap unwieldy. The texture of the gram flour is quite granular in comparison with standard wheat, and is much denser without any gluten. This resulted in undesirable wrinkling and tears through the cook. Post-burger prep, swapped out the large pan for a smaller one, higher heat, and less batter per wrap. Improved the experience immensely.

Work intensive, for sure. Be warned – between the protein-heavy bean burgers and the ultra-dense gram flour wraps, this is a very filling meal. Don’t be expecting to polish off that box of Godiva tonight!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playing up the Nostalgia: Barbara Hambly’s ‘The Time of the Dark’

Given my rant against nostalgia before Christmas, I suppose it’s only fair that I fess up and expose my own recent reading habits. Neither am I without sin!

I don’t remember the precise circumstances, but I had the immense good fortune when I was a teen to come into possession of a literal trove of fantasy and sf. My cousin worked (volunteered?) at the library in her Northern Ontario town and, when it came time to liquidate the old stock – maybe to make room for more, though I have the sneaking suspicion the whole affair was being shuttered – rather than see the lot pulped, she sent me a massive box. Beyond the throughline of fantasy/sf, there really wasn’t much ‘curation,’ shall we say. Heinlein stuffed in next to McCaffrey, the latter 2/3rds of one trilogy floating comfortably amidst the entirety of a series. It was great. I’d been a pretty voracious reader up to that point, which is likely why said cousin thought of me, but this was my first look into sf in particular, and I had a smattering of the greats right at my fingertips. It was the first time I’d read anything by Glen Cook, who has become an enduring favourite (the box had both the whole of the Black Company and the Dread Empire – score!), the first I’d read of Asimov’s, or of Cherryh. It wasn’t all top-tier stuff, don’t get me wrong. There was as much pulp as there were classics, and even a few overtly arty pieces, like John Crowley’s Engine Summer.

So, as you can see, fertile ground for nostalgia of a personal sort, thinking about all the great stuff that I systematically chewed threw back in my formative years. Certain series and novels have stuck with me more than others, and it was two of these that piqued my interest most recently. Barbara Hambly’s Darwath series, which started life as a trilogy, has been something I’d thought about fondly often enough – and lo and behold, it’s newly returned to print! So you certainly shouldn’t go hunting for free copies online, because that is bad and would make you a bad person.

The second series I wanted to talk about is actually in the process of resuscitation, and I’ll be focussing on the newest instalments. That, however, will happen in a later piece.

The first Darwath trilogy (The Time of the Dark, The Walls of Air, and The Armies of Daylight) is an example of what is known as ‘portal fantasy,’ a trope very popular in the late 70’s – 80’s, which has died back slightly since then. If you read a goodly amount of speculative fic, you’ve probably seen instances of it at some point – someone from our world is transported to another, usually reluctantly, and has to quickly come to terms with the changes. From an authorial perspective, this is a ready-made way to expose the reader to a foreign world – the protagonist knows just as much as the reader, and they explore this alien space in tandem. Generally there is some contrivance that precludes immediately jumping back to modern Earth, and the quest is to overcome this and get back to ‘real life.’

The original artwork. The best artwork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Time of the Dark, while it doesn’t approach this in a very novel way, does pull it off effectively. We are presented with two modern Americans living very different lives – Gil (which I was forever pronouncing with a hard G, though I suspect it’s meant to be otherwise…), a history PhD student in her mid-twenties, bookish, mousey, and reserved, and Rudy, a motorcycle mechanic in his late twenties, already jaded with the rough-and-tumble life on the edge of society and secretly wanting something more. The book opens with several scenes of Gil’s nightmares, witnessing losing battles between some sort of medieval force and creatures of nightmare, with each subsequent one feeling more and more real – as if she were present at the scene, only hidden from view in plain sight. She herself can sense the horror rolling off these shadowy creatures, can hear the splash of water in cisterns and feel of the stone beneath her feet, as if, if she applied the slightest pressure, the fabric would rend and she would find herself in that world. As she is beset by these visions, night after claustrophobic night, it becomes clear that one of the residents of her dreams is growing aware of her presence – the wizard Ingold Inglorion, Gandalf-surrogate supreme. Inglorion pulls himself across to our world, where the two converse – Gil understandably manic with distress, the wizard doing his best to explain the situation: the current proximity of our world to his, the short distance to travel through the void, etc., etc. Things carry on for a few more days, until Inglorion shows up with a babe in tow – the castle has fallen, and he has escaped here, with the crown prince, as a last resort. The trio travel to a disused cabin Gil knows so that the wizard and prince might hide out a while. Rudy, our secondary protagonist, has stumbled into the vicinity himself, stranded after crashing a borrowed car, driving drunk. There is some back and forth, both Rudy and Gil mistrusting the other based on preconceived notions, Rudy expressing disbelief at the outlandish explanation Inglorion offers up with usual candour. All this is swept aside when they are beset by the one of the creatures of the Dark, which had followed Ingold across the gulf and had been hunting he and the prince. A fight ensues, and the only route of escape is to return to Darwath, the alternate world, where it becomes clear that any further travel to Earth will put that world, totally undefended and unprepared, at risk. While the threat of the Dark looms, Gil and Rudy will not be able to return home.

Gil, Rudy and Ingold find themselves a few miles out from the fallen capital, and make for the nearest large town, guessing correctly that the survivors will have regrouped there. The path seems clear – this is not the first time the people of Darwath have faced this horrifying menace: thousands of years before, a civilisation of great engineering and magical prowess was overturned by the alien darkness, leading to a literal dark age with many talents still lost. Humanity survived that first cataclysm by retreating to great forts built by magic, venturing out into the world only under the security of the sun, cowering in the dark as soon as night falls, praying their bastions held. Much was lost and society regressed into a superstitious shadow of its former self, but humanity survived – and one day, the Dark stopped coming – until now. The creatures can be fought, but the price is steep, their very touch can cause madness or death, their blood is as acid. Fortunately, the forts still stand, abandoned, places of ill omen, and the best chance for the rag-tag refugees. To get there, they will have to cross the country, risking attack every night. Making matters worse, it is not only treacherous physical paths they will have to navigate, but political as well: the brother of the Queen, now Protector of the Realm, has a growing desire for power and some very specific ideas about how things ought to be run. Then there is the Bishop of the Church and her military enforcers – eager as the Protector to assume temporal power, with a holy abhorrence of all things magic – one of humanities only effective weapons against the Dark. Disaster awaits any false step!

Thrown in to a dire situation, both Rudy and Gil find themselves taking on roles they never thought possible in the former lives, drawing on talents that, latent while on Earth, have surfaced now that they have found themselves on Darwath. The story is unusual, at least for the time it was written, for having a strong female lead that has both physical presence and intelligence. Hambly goes to great lengths to remind us of Gil’s university career – I couldn’t count the number of times we’re told she’s a ‘scholar.’ Without giving the ending away, the climax of the trilogy hinges on her ability to examine a situation systematically and to argue her position convincingly, so perhaps it’s all of a purpose.

Now that I’m somewhat older and better acquainted with the source material, the Lovecraftian aspects to the stories’ horrors – the language used, the behaviour – is readily evident. It’s been amusing to be able to see the series in a new light, as I hadn’t put two and two together in my memory of it at all.

It will be interesting to take a look at the final two volumes of the trilogy, to see how else my memory has fudged things. As I mentioned, the contents of the box were uneven, and this was one of those series for which I only received a portion of the full set. It was fun piecing together the story, finally getting a crack at the first instalment which I’d before only had my imagination to supply. I can still recall my enjoyment of the twists and turns in the narrative, with its aforementioned deployment of sociology and, though I didn’t recognise it at the time, the borrowed cosmic horror tropes, and I’m hoping that it doesn’t turn out to be thinner than I remember.

Given the electronic form I was reading the work by, I was somewhat surprised come the end of the first book – with no physical collection of quickly diminishing pages, I was left unaware of precisely where I was in the actual length. This isn’t to say that the caesura is overly-abrupt – the book finishes in a reasonable place, given the arc of the story – goals had been achieved, characters and relationships set up, the stage set for the next instalment. Perhaps I’d grown used to the extended, drawn out nature of epic fantasy – stories dragging on for hundreds if not thousands of pages. Quick, pulpy reads catch me off guard.

Hambly became known for her dedication to research in preparing her stories, and it’s in evidence here. As much as this was a quick read, the world of Darwath was detail-rich and coherent. The prose was ambitious, if not always successfully deployed. Even so, the attempt puts the work a cut above your average pulp fantasy, in my opinion. The primary characters are approached with nuance, insofar as space allowed. Most are motivated by psychologically-understandable reasons, which prevents any one from appearing a paragon or insert (and also makes them somewhat grey – a quick scan of online opinion has a number of people complaining that they weren’t especially likeable. Phah!). This also allowed for relatively sharp dialogue – understanding the desires of the characters, whether key or secondary, rendered their interactions believeable. As much as it played it pretty safe with the popular tropes of the day, the book hits the right triggers and snuck in a few surprises, even more so when, from what I can recall, you look at it on the level of the trilogy altogether. You can certainly do worse for a nostalgia read on a weekend or short holiday.

The Penury of Instapoetry; or, A Case for Reform in the Arts

There have been a few articles to pop up over the past month or so, mushroom-like, all focussing on the faddish popularity of ‘Instapoetry.’
Not really a user of the ‘gram myself, I only know about this situation second-hand, but coverage of its main stars and personalities has kept me at least current with the situation. For a while, I was trying to figure out a way of covering both the developing situation and doing service to the film in my recent review of Paterson. I ultimately decided to separate the two out into distinct articles – the subject matter of each has significant overlap, but I figured it would do them both a disservice to yoke them together, not to mention making a rather unwieldy piece itself.

Three articles, then – this one, published in a poetry journal decrying the lack of craft exhibited by this new breed, this one, hosted on the left-wing kulturkritik and variety site, ‘the Baffler,’ which echoes several points from the first while also adding a critique of Instagram itself, and this last one, poking fun at the malcontents and dark, misogynist underbelly of the scene.

Without having much skin in the game, I’m generally in agreement with much of what is presented in those first two articles – by no means am I a well-versed consumer of Instapoetry, but what little I have seen is fairly trite. The big names of the genre – Rupi Kaur, Hollie McNish, R.M. Drake, etc. – are moving vast numbers of units and making bank on banalities. Critics who up until a few years ago derided just this sort of cynical, thin gruel are now hypocritically bigging it up, knowing that there’s gold in that trough. The painstakingly-manicured image sold by Instagram (“the nicest place online”), built into its very architecture, is both escapist and harmful. Profiting from the usurpation of the spot-light, presenting oneself as the spokesperson for a whole block of society to the exclusion of other, more disenfranchised voices is loathsome behaviour. All these things need to be exposed and upbraided.

But I do think the articles, particularly the first, go too far in places.

The author of the first piece is a poet herself, and, while I’m certainly not possessed of the anti-expert, populist fervour so prevalent these days, it is somewhat difficult to smell no hint of sour grapes here. To her credit, she sticks more to critiquing the (lack of) craft than the remuneration, but it is a bit close to the knuckle. The effort to bracket poetry under the definition of that which  ‘has typically been to rid language of cliché,’ seems like a bit of a reach, and this retroactive defining hooks into a larger, discipline-level issue.

Perhaps because of its materials, its less-easily-commoditised nature, poetry as a form has done a rather poor job these last 150 years at popularising itself, and that has to be laid at the feet of the poets. I’m a big proponent of the democratisation of the arts, and certainly have a vested interest, low-born scum that I am, but the way it’s been handled thus far is woefully insufficient. As was ever going to be the case, profit-motive being the key factor that it is. More to the point, though, the opening up of the various practices of art, the increasing of accessibility, has taken the wrong route. Rather than raising the populace up (the time- and materials-intensive method) we’re seeing, as is the case with so much Instapoetry, the debasement of the form. Art is everywhere being lowered to mere object, fit only for immediate, unreflective consumption.

Within poetry itself, I’m not opposed to the shift away from regimented rhyme form or scansion. These were themselves relative late-comers, artificially grafted onto English-language works during the Renaissance and a wide rift from the previous, Anglo-Saxon alliterative. But by allowing for free-form, rhythmically unbound “verse” to be considered poetry, there is the obvious risk that any old doggerel could make a stand against genuinely well-crafted work on equal footing. By not spending the time to educate the public properly, it’s unreasonable to expect the average person to have the tools to discern good from bad. Then again, the belief that poetry in particular is suffering from this might be wide of the mark – it’s not as if music education is especially wide-spread, and any recognition or conception of the “superiority” of “classical” music as against modern pop might just be down to the form (orchestra, performance hall, old) rather than an understanding of the intricacies of composition. And it is certainly not the case that all music called ‘classical’ is superior to everything referred to as ‘pop’ – far from it, in fact. There needs to be something altogether more thorough.

This is where the situation overlaps with Paterson, dealing as it does with a non-professional poet. The film is built on whimsy, as so much of Jarmusch’s work is. The idea of a bus-driving poet is a bit stilted, doesn’t sit comfortably with standard assumptions – something so effete as poetry is not the usual passion of your red-blooded man. Given the sheer number of people living in America, I suppose the odds are that something akin to a Paterson does exist, but I get the feeling that that’d be a rarity.
There are a few scenes of Paterson at work in his basement, where he has put together a small library and writing area. The house he lives in with his wife is, while not austere, indicative of their class position, and so it is a statement of his intent that Paterson has put this space together. In another of the film’s unexplored little details, we see a framed photo of the protagonist in military uniform. It’s not stated directly, but with so many in America joining the army in lieu of pursuing higher education (as if it were a choice), it’s reasonable to think that the character is entirely self-educated when it comes to appreciation for and interaction with the arts. Paterson is a very unusual man, then, but does he have to be? Is it possible to conceive of a world where more are given the tools to do this for themselves? It doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

There is a place for entry-level art in our world, as it exists. Something needs to be approachable enough that the unschooled individual bites and takes hold. The real shame of it is that the lowest rung is often, perhaps because of this mass-appeal, the most rewarded, whether it be Rupi Kaur or Metallica or what have you. Insta-poetry is still relatively novel, but it’s been around long enough that one would hope to see the widespread popularity of the form benefitting older, established (worthier?), examples of poetry. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. As far as units sold and money earned are concerned, the trite banalities continue to dominate the market, sucking up ever-more of publisher’s attention and effort. This mirrors a situation playing out in film – the argument goes that the big ‘tent-pole’ productions, the brainless, formulaic moneymakers, are a necessary evil if we are to see more interesting, experimental work produced by larger firms with sizeable budgets. Unfortunately, this is simply untrue – the companies, by their very structure, are risk averse, and demonstrably go for the safer bet of the reboot or cliché rather than taking a chance on something new almost every time. The culture of the quarterly return is incompatible with artistic endeavour.

Returning to the craft for a moment, I think there is an important point made in the first article, a quote from a critic named, ironically enough, Paterson – “Serious poets, I should say, don’t start off amateurs, but apprentices – just like any other vocation.” There is something to be said for intentionality, the approach to an activity that shapes the way it is performed. You can certainly machete your way into virgin jungle, carving your own path and achieving your own goals, but it then becomes rather disingenuous to claim for yourself an existing mantle. There are things that must be learned, methods that must be acknowledged, even if they are ultimately set aside. You can’t break the rules without knowing them first.

Can elitism and snobbery be pulled apart? I suspect so – as the article points out, nobody thinks it’s snobbish to expect our doctors or our engineers to have achieved a high degree of excellence. Why is it bad that our poets (or our musicians) should be held to that? A large part of the problem, I think, is the reactionary, fawning attitude towards ‘talent,’ a holdover from the Romantic period with its Byronic heroes and myths of causa sui masterpieces (you’re on blast, Coleridge). Bach, inarguably one of the finest composers, looked upon himself as an artisan, and approached music as a craftsperson, recognising that his success came from hard graft and not because he was possessed of some special genius. This isn’t a bad example to follow.
That the most celebrated artists are currently held up as something distinct, their successes stemming from some inborn quality rather than a recognition of the work that they do, is pernicious and obviously offensive. Plus, just like our tent-pole narrative, it’s just not true. If the language we use in discussing our artists can be stripped of this obscurantism, I suspect we can have a recognition of quality without seeming to close off the heights of success. But this would also require that overhaul in education – the ladder to achievement must at least be indicated, if not necessarily supplied directly.

The proposed changes to the culture of poetry, and art more widely, would likely ameliorate much of what is covered in the third article. The behaviour described, that of ‘lit-bros’ complaining of some manner of conspiracy or cabal, inevitably made up of women, keeping them from material success in the same way as so many other Insta-poets, really finds its roots in the general culture of misogyny that chokes our society and would ultimately have to be solved at that level. However, if we had a more transparent approach towards what it means to be a ‘good poet,’ this avenue of grievance would be closed to them, and the toxic developments from it – the emboldening of other reprehensible channels – would be stymied. It would be difficult to build a case against some shadowy, gynocentric editorial board (incidentally, also ‘imaginary’ – far and away the majority of such boards are heavily stacked towards the white and male) when the argument stalls on the obvious lack of quality in the materials. Or so we hope. Delusion runs deep.

Obviously, all this is unlikely to come about amidst society’s fixation on homo economicus. With liberal education under full-scale assault, the very idea that human life has worth beyond the role it plays in the GDP constantly undercut, it seems a bit rich to be calling for an overhaul in arts instruction, especially in such a nebulous manner as the above. But, how else do we push back against the rising econometric tide? If we had genuine control over our society, wresting control of life away from the insanity of the Invisible Hand, it would be a simple thing to implement. As is, this will likely have to be a bottom-up effort, a struggle of inches and feet. If it is genuinely accomplished, though, it may be that small changes won there, in the aesthetic world, make the larger victory in the wider world more feasible. Changed minds open up different worlds of possibility.

Two Recent Psychology Works that Miss the Mark

Caught this article a few days back, and, whilst I mainly agree with the arguments made, there are some important counterpoints I think need to be voiced.

The piece in question is a ‘review’ of two recent books, both published by people within the world of professional psychology, trying to get to grips with the current malaise of American society. Neither of which I’ve read myself, so, I can’t comment in good faith beyond what is being reported. Review of a review – this blog brings the quality!

The first, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, purports to be a cautionary statement regarding the current president, written by a collection of professionals. Importantly, they dodge falling foul of the Goldwater Rule – that unwritten law of the psychology community which prevents professionals from commenting on public figures whom they haven’t, themselves, examined – by saying that they are speaking not as practitioners, but as concerned citizens. As the article points out, if this is the case, that they are nothing more than another set of voices in a remarkably substantial torrent of commentary, do they deserve to be accorded any special status? Not really, especially when the main thrust of their argument is comprised of nebulous statements drawn from speciously broad tracts of ‘data’ or things that other people have already said elsewhere. This is little more than signal boosting, providing a veneer of professionalism (while carefully dodging even the commitment to that) to the standard, anti-Trump rhetoric we’ve been fed the past year and more. As I’ve mused before, this may have its instrumental use, but I’m hardly about to shell out for it. So much for that, then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the second book where I begin to depart from the article’s position. Rather than focussing so closely on a single character, such as the president, Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump. takes a look at American society more broadly. The author, Allen Frances, is a bigwhig of the evo-psych movement, and brings that “methodology” to bear in looking at the current state of Yankiedom. At least from what the article presents, this is classic evo-psych overreach – we have broad-stroke, un-nuanced generalisations based off a wonky understanding of evolution being used to try and explain events and trends best investigated by other disciplines. Frances seems to end up at a neo-Malthusian position – the real evil in our world is not gross gulf between classes, or the perfidious ideologies of racism or sexism – no, the genuine article driving all misery is over-population. From here, he jumps into a righteous indignation that so many women had the gall to not vote for Clinton, actively undermining the access they would have to prophylactics, thereby continuing to burden the planet with their undesired and undesireable offspring. I grow ever closer to the anti-natalist stance myself, but this line of argumentation is just silly. Repeating the tired adage that people owed their vote to HRC, because she was a woman, or the Dem candidate, or was possibly the lesser of two evils, is at best to misunderstand how democracy works. The tenacity with which a certain stripe of liberal grips this canard is indicative of the hubris that was such a large part of why Trump won the election (even with fewer votes – it’s a stupid system, but he still won). Clinton was ultimately found to be undeserving, and the condescending expectation that it would be otherwise played a big role in that.

Reading the article comes at a good time for me – I’ve been working my way through Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True – which is a book on how Buddhist practice, stripped of its more metaphysical trappings, syncs up quite nicely with the modular theory of mind. A lot of Wright’s explanations stem from evolutionary psychology – it’s what he’s famous for, after all – but the way in which he brings it to bear is importantly dissimilar from the abuses the field is so often used for. Rather than some lock-step, “society-is-this-way-today-because-we-were-this-way-100,000-years-ago-so-your-manager-deserves-to-make-more-money-than-you” is/ought nonsense, Wright marshals our evolutionary history in a much more conservative way. Rather than go for the strong, ‘everything we see today is precisely down to our evolved nature,’ Wright presents the weaker claim that our bodies, and hence our minds, are not really interested in the things we might deem important (like happiness, truth or personal flourishing) – rather, they are geared towards genetic proliferation, and will cut corners to get there. They’re all we’ve got, but they shouldn’t necessarily be trusted. And meditative practice, so the argument goes (as well as the evidence), is a good way of both identifying where we’re being lied to, and eventually overcoming it. This accords with my own views, so, this critical look at another use of evo-psych is a good reminder that I shouldn’t be allowing my own prejudices to give Wright’s ‘just-so’ stories a pass. In omnibus operandus premebantur!

If you get any of them, get this one!

But, all that doesn’t really detail my divorce from the article. Assuming the presentation of the two works is accurate, I generally agree with the criticisms made. It’s the closing statements where I take umbrage –

“What are psychiatrists good for, in the political sphere? On the evidence of these books, not much…A therapist can’t offer to give you more money, or literal freedom, but they can teach you to tolerate your lack of it without acting out. They can help you to function in society as it is. This is a crucial function, and what the books bring us: a bit of foresight, but not a diversion from our fate.”

While this statement may be true for far and away the majority of main stream psych, and certainly the pabulum offered up by these two books, I feel as if it is throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater to dismiss the whole discipline. For the past couple of years I’ve been thinking of going back to school to study psych, with the belief that, if answers are to be found anywhere as to why people continually vote against their own interests, why solidarity and class-action constantly founder, why people so often bow to their dishonourable, rapacious desires in the face of what they know to be just, then it must be at the intersection of psychology and sociology. And if those answers can be found, perhaps the way to overcome these failings can also be discovered.

Furthermore, I feel like teaching a patient to ‘tolerate [the] lack…without acting out’ is falling grossly short of the ideal. It’s true that much therapy does aim for this, in particular the novel fetish for ‘mindfulness’ in the workplace, whose proponents should be driven from our communities with pitchfork and torch like the monstrous class traitors they are. But the real goal should be the shoring up of the person, providing them the skills to surmount their situation, to better push back against it. Psychotherapy shouldn’t be perceived, nor practiced, as a rearguard action, but rather as the buttressing of a position to better sally forth from in the next battle.

Garlicky Mushroom & Kale Linguine…sort of.

Tried out this recipe earlier in the week, with a few tweaks.

Not actually linguine. Obviously.

 

The base recipe is entirely vegan, which fits with the continued effort to stick to Veganuary+.
Took care of a good chunk of the kale on hand, though I ended up grabbing an additional punnet of mushrooms. I suspect my ratios were a bit off of what the recipe recommends, and so we didn’t end up with quite the ideal sauce-to-pasta balance. As per the photograph, I also added a courgette that needed using.

Like a villain, I ended up adding some parmesan when we first had it. The recipe as is just isn’t quite round enough. The wife made a good suggestion, saying the addition of something like chestnuts might get us there – will try it next time. There was also the thought of tomatoes, but I kind of felt as if this should be an alternative to the go-to, standard red pasta sauce, if you feel me. I ended up having the non-dairy-adulterated version for lunch today, and it certainly wasn’t terrible. Perhaps time was the necessary ingredient. Not thyme, because thyme tastes like mould.

Tonight’s soup was properly vegan – finishing off the kale, with a butternut squash, mung beans and various root vegetables. Not the best colour, but fortifying stuff.

And that bread!

Metal!

No guarantees that it is vegan, as I picked it up from the baker’s stall in the market – bread should usually be vegan, and these folks generally do a straight job, but without listed ingredients it’s impossible to say. It was particularly cold today – coldest week of the year, thus far – and I didn’t want to detain the proprietor longer than necessary. There was a queue. It simply isn’t done.
That superior hue comes from activated charcoal – supposedly, rife with health benefits, including “detoxxing” (which your body does just fine itself, btw) and curing hangovers, but likely just a load of woo. The flavour is that of a regular sourdough, and it’s got a nice smell to it, but, at £6 a loaf, this is one impulse buy I shan’t be making regularly.

Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson: Ben Swolo goes to the Emotional Side

Like a significant slice of the globe, we caught the latest Star Wars over the holiday break. It hit the right buttons at the time, for what is really just a kids action piece – we’ve fallen into a bit of a tradition with this third-wave Star Wars series along with another couple, one group picking up the tickets for everyone on a rotating basis, then having a bit of a gab afterwards. We all walked away from this one fairly pleased, and only on thinking it over afterwards did the more egregious issues surface, as is usually the way of these things.

Given the rather cut-and-dry characterisation in Star Wars VII, I was hoping (with little reason) that there would be more available for the actors in the next film. It was an improvement – the characters had been established, and the narrative hinged, even if rather clumsily, on presenting the possibility of a grey character in Kylo Ren. But, as is ever the case with the monomyth, VIII is a story told in broad strokes – not so much characters as archetypes.

Thus, on the nearer side of Christmas, we finally got around to watching Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016), the story of a bus-driving poet named Paterson, from the city of Paterson, New Jersey. Given the subject matter and the possibilities hinted at in the trailer, I was more than interested. Thus far I’ve avoided watching Girls as a matter of principle, so I thought, here might be an example of the actor Adam Driver could be, in a work that was actually palatable.

Accolades aplenty

Unfortunately, this is not that film.

Paterson is a very Jarmusch film – if you’ve seen any of his previous work, you know precisely what I mean: heavy emphasis on style, with a pacing that allows for the slow accretion of meaning to build, lachrymal. Unafraid of extended scenes without dialogue. Patterns recur without exterior development – following the relaying of a dream, Paterson continually meets pairs of twins – never explained, never developed beyond their mere, quirky presence. Scenes, interactions, are repeated with near-exactitude, allowing for a lateral development following small tweaks to the running. The repetitious nature of the film does a good job at underscoring the rhythms of Paterson’s working day, and, ultimately his life. It’s not necessarily tedium, no grinding trudge, as, as with most other things, the character accepts the monotony and the individual oddities with an easy-going calm.

And that’s kind of the issue, at least for what I was hoping for from the film. The performance isn’t flat, with moments where you can see Driver holding a mounting anxiety or a hot despair just in check, but it is muted. Those emotions never rise above the surface, and we are left with a film that is more like a photograph than a dynamic arc. The plot doesn’t really develop so much as follow; a week in the life – certainly, there is a climax of sorts, but, as the final act closes, it feels as if we are back at the start, that the resolution sets the clock backwards, rather than builds off of what came before.

Other characters are mainly pastiches or stereotypes – the hen-pecked publican, the besotted, broken hearted actor, the morose colleague. Even Paterson’s partner, Laura, accorded far-and-away the most screen time after the protagonist, is pretty one-note as something just this-side of the manic pixie dream girl. They are all there to play a role, though – the repetition of scenes, with ever so slightly shifted interactions, gives the feeling that this is much more Music With Changing Parts than it is Koyaanisqatsi – a slow swell that changes without the viewer really noticing. “Jagged” is not the word for Paterson.

I recall the score seeming slightly out-of-sync with the rest of the piece – much darker than the general tenor, lending a feeling of unease. Granted, I wouldn’t describe any of the characters as especially ‘triumphalist’ – even Laura, the most positive in demeanour of the lot, has an air of the slightly, poignantly, cracked – but neither is this some Loachian social-realist castigation. The meditative shots of post-industrial New Jersey cityscape, the circular lives of its denizens, are examined for the most part without an agenda – merely viewed, rather than marshalled. If there is tragedy here, it is a retiring one.

What of the poetry, then? This is actually one of the better parts of the film, by my lights. We see Paterson jotting down thoughts at various points – before he starts his route, whilst on lunch, whenever he can steal a quiet moment. Generally, our view of the writing is accompanied by a voiceover by Driver, reading back to us what he is laying on the page. Crucially, this isn’t just some stream-of-consciousness, first-draft-and-we’re-done deal – we see revisions being worked through, and improvements being made. A nod to the presence of genuine craft. By the second act, the references to William Carlos Williams are coming in fast – he is Paterson’s favourite poet, the city of Paterson was his home town, as well, and his body of work, and its following, play a key part in the resolution of the film’s primary crisis. Paterson’s own poetry resembles Carlos Williams’, though generally it isn’t as good – which is not to knock the film or Jarmusch, who wrote it – the lyricism should be looked for in the cinematography, not the materials it uses to get there. The portrayal of a blue-collar, autodidact poet is much more important than what he actually writes.

And, for all its bracketed delivery (the more I think about it, the more I’m reminded of how Richard Dreyfuss described using lithium as medication – chopping off the peaks and troughs, a more regulated bandwidth), this portrayal comes through. Without ever dipping into the maudlin or the precious, the film argues the case that you don’t have to be some ivory-tower aesthete or high-born toff to both (as if needed to be said) have a richly emotional internal life and to be able to articulate it. Though we’ve had fair warning about being a hero, a working-class poet doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to be.

All in all, an enjoyable watch, even if it didn’t supply what I was hoping for. If you’re looking for something soothing, meditative – hungover Sunday afternoon fare, or the like – this’ll fit the bill nicely. However, even sticking with Jarmusch, I’d say you’d be better served by Only Lovers Left Alive: a more sumptuous film, in my opinion.

The Superior Vampire Romance (RIP Anton, taken too soon)