Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The High Line

Until I came to New York City a few weeks ago, I had never heard of the High Line.  It gets masked by Central Park, and while Central Park is certainly a wonder, the delightful innovation surrounding the High Line makes it stand out.

So what is the High Line?  In short, it's an elevated railroad track that has been repurposed into a park that snakes its way from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street.  Unlike most of New York City's parks, it isn't a grassy space that appeals to picnickers and yoga troupes.  It feels more like a boardwalk peppered with modern art that hinges on being interactive.  Like the water fountain the begs you to pucker up.  Or the Lego cityscape that invites passersby to change it around.

Before we ascended, we stopped at the Gansevoort Market, which offers everything from crepes to quinoa.  I found happiness in a bowl of couscous topped with lamb kebab and baba ganoush, which I took with me into the park.  If you want to picnic, go elsewhere, but there are plenty of benches that afford an excellent view of the Hudson.

While the High Line is a bit of a hike for me, I intend to visit it often.  It's crowded, certainly, and it feels more so due to its narrow width, but it's more peaceful than Central Park.  And those built-in lounge chairs near the water feature?  Yes, please.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Dark, Stormy, and Delightful - A Review of SIEGE AND STORM

Let's start with the drink.

Really, there's only one cocktail that looks nice next to Leigh Bardugo's Siege and Storm--and that's the dark and stormy.  Or if you're feeling particularly punny, you might call it a "Darkling and Sturmhond."

I'm hilarious.

If you've read the book, then you know that the Darkling and Sturmhond are the key players here.  Alina and Mal?  Who cares?  They're gin and tonic, rum and coke.  Tasty, but tired.

Let's backtrack.

Make yourself that dark and stormy.  Sit back.  Dive into the second installment of the Grisha trilogy, which is Avatar: the Last Airbender meets Graceling meets tsarist Russia.  And there's monsters and shit.

When we left off in Shadow and Bone, our heroine, Alina, and her boy-toy Mal were fleeing the country (called Ravka) in case the evil Darkling wasn't as dunzo as they hoped.  Of course, he wasn't, because that would be boring, and that's where Siege and Storm picks up -- with the Darkling capturing Alina and Mal with the help of the pirate Sturmhond.

Dark and stormy, people.  Dark and stormy.

Anyway, the Darkling hunts Alina because she's the only person who can control light, just as he is the only one who can control darkness.  With her help, he could expand the Fold, a shadowy desert filled with flesh-eating bat creatures called volcra.  Obviously, she's not thrilled about that, which leads to a war between darkness and light.  Literally.

Except what's so great about this book is that the Darkling and Alina -- darkness and light -- are not always fighting.  Sometimes, they make out.

Okay, so Alina makes out with a lot of guys.  The Darkling.  Mal.  The Darkling.  Sturmhond.  The Darkling.  The Darkling.  The Darkling.

My biggest complaint about this book is that there isn't enough Darkling.  Mostly, he comes in weird visions, during which he creeps hardcore, and the rest of the time he's saints-know-where.  He's cunning.  Ruthless.  And yet, there's something about him that's undeniably appealing.

It's rare that a villain is my favorite character.  Rarer still that I ship the protagonist and antagonist.  But the Darkling gets Alina.  And, you know, he has saved her life in the past.  The glassy-eyed schoolgirl in me doesn't think he would actually hurt her.  All her loved ones, yes, but not her:

He was watching me in that cold, assessing way that always made me feel as if he were reading me like words on a page, his fingers moving over the text, gleaning some secret knowledge that I could only guess at.  I tried not to fidget, but the irons at my wrists chafed.

“I’d like to free you,” he said quietly.

“Free me, flay me.  So many options.”  I could still feel the press of his knife at my cheek.

He sighed.  “It was a threat, Alina.  It accomplished what it needed to.”

“So you wouldn’t have cut me?”

“I didn’t say that.”  His voice was pleasant and matter-of-fact, as always.  He might have been threatening to carve me up ordering his dinner.

Yeah, yeah, I know.  Not the nicest guy on the block, but I'm optimistic.

Darkling.  Now let's get to the Sturmhond part.

Sturmhond is a new addition to this series -- and he's wonderful.  He's a pirate, an inventor, and so much more, as we find out in one of the story's early twists.  Like the Darkling, he's intelligent and charming, but in a different way.  Mainly, he has a sense of humor (which, unfortunately, the Darkling lacks).  And, of course, he believes in everything:

"When people say impossible, they usually mean improbable."

That brings us to our last two stars:  Alina and Mal.  Considering they're the main characters, they should probably be first, but they don't shine quite as bright as the Darkling or Sturmhond.  I like them.  I do.  I think Alina's transformation from self-conscious runaway to leader is well done.  She makes mistakes.  She needs help.  And a part of her recognizes that she and the Darkling are the very definition of frenemies.

I like Mal, too, except that he's a bit mopey in this book.  I like the fun Mal, the popular Mal, who thrives in every environment.  In this book, he's jealous and grumpy, so even though he's "the love interest," I'm not shouting "Pick Number 3, my lord."

I'm shouting pick the Darkling.  He may be a raging sociopath, but I have hope that he'll make like Prince Zuko, join Team Avatar, and save the world.

We'll find out in the next book.

In the meantime, drink up me hearties yo ho.

Dark and Stormy

Use one part dark rum.  Fill the glass with ginger beer.  Top with lime juice.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Brazen Fox

*Game of Thrones spoiler alert*

Until Sunday, I had never seen a bar fall into utter silence.  We stared, our breath bated, our knuckles white against our frosted glasses of Ommegang.  Beside me, a girl was crying, her tear-streaked face illuminated by the glow of six TVs.

On screen, Shireen was burning as her father watched on.

This was my first experience at the Brazen Fox, a Manhattan bar on the corner of 3rd and 13th that attracts guests with "nerd culture."  There are the usual sports, but there's also Dungeons & Dragons -- and, of course, Game of Thrones.

When we arrived at 8:00, the bar was crowded for the pregame show.  That is, last week's episode.  Fortunately, we were able to get a table, but soon afterwards the staff set up a waitlist as people flooded the bar.

Then, the opening theme.

I'll be honest:  I expected commentary throughout the episode.  I thought some dirtbag would spoil it, or wolf whistle at Dany, or make homophobic remarks regarding the Tyrells.  That didn't happen.  Not once.  Everyone was quiet, respectful -- and united.  I wouldn't have been surprised if we had held hands during Shireen's death.

Then, then

It's no secret that Jorah is my favorite character.  Not only is he a badass when it comes to fighting, his unrequited love for Daenerys is the best love story in the show.  (Think about it:  Jaime/Cersei, Jon/Ygritte, Tyrion/Shae).  So I was on the edge of my seat when he stepped into the fighting pit.

And so, apparently, was everyone else.
How can anyone NOT ship this?  Ugh, be still my heart.

The cheers erupted as soon as he started to fight.  Every time he took a hit, we gasped.  Every time he struck, we screamed.  The applause was monstrous.  Go Jorah go!  Hit him!  Get up!  Please, get up!  We were in the coliseum.  We were there.

As the episode raced toward its climax, the cheers escalated.  Naturally, my favorite moment happened when Daenerys accepted Jorah's hand, and my delighted scream joined four dozen others.  Seriously, who needs football?  We whooped and hollered for Tyrion, for Missandei, for Daario and Grey Worm and DROGON DROGON DROGON.

For Drogon, people jumped out of their seats, screaming as though the United States had just won the World Cup.

And it continued into the credits.

For me, Game of Thrones has always been a social event:  a way to bond with my brother and mom, a common interest among my coworkers at Barnes & Noble, a part of college culture that involved Martell-esque Mirassou served in plastic wine glasses.

The Brazen Fox takes that to a whole new level.  If you're in Manhattan next week, stop by for the finale.  It's more than a show; it's an experience.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Books and…Bananas?

If you've read my blog at all, you know that there isn't much I like more than books.  I love books.  I love to talk about books.

But you know what makes books even better?  Booze, especially when enjoyed with bread (bread here meaning "bit, piece, morsel [of food].") (Thanks OED).

That leads me to this.  In attempting to revamp my blog, I'm going to call on my certification in Beer, Wine, Mixology, and Bar Management (remember when that happened?), my repertoire of cooking skillz (still working on that), and my obsession with books to bring perfect pairings to your library.  Or kitchen.  Or dorm room.

So let's get started.  Unfortunately, there's no alcohol in today's pairing -- partly because I don't have any banana liqueur lying around and partly because I'm reviewing a kids book.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate won the Newbery Medal in 2013.  I had high expectations, even though I didn't know what to anticipate story-wise.

It's a simple story.  Ivan is a gorilla who lives a mundane existence in a mall.  He loves to paint -- bananas, usually -- but his artistic skills aren't enough to draw a large crowd.  In an attempt to rescue the business, his owner purchases a baby elephant named Ruby to join an older elephant named Stella.  Being wise, Stella knows that she's dying -- and she makes Ivan promise to help Ruby escape the mall.

That's the basic set-up.  It's a cute story with endearing characters that makes its reader consider the exploitation of animals.  Is it memorable?  Hard to say, considering I read it a week ago.  I forget some of the characters' names.  So there's that.  In a way, it's Water for Elephants for ten-year olds.  I, by the way, am not a ten-year old, but I think children's literature is of the utmost importance -- especially when it has the heart of The One and Only Ivan.

But you know what makes this book even better?  Fried bananas.  Ivan loves bananas.  He paints bananas.  I don't paint bananas, but I eat them.  Fried.  With honey, and maybe some other stuff if I'm feeling really creative.

Fried Bananas

It's simple.  A gorilla could probably do it.  Take a banana.  Green is good.  Slice it.  Lay the pieces in a greased skillet.  After a minute or so, flip them so that the other side gets cooked, too.  Then drizzle honey over the pieces.  Remove from skillet.

Top with anything and everything.  Shredded coconut.  Chocolate chips.  Walnuts.  Cinnamon.  Whatever.  I don't care.

Guys, I'm really good at food photography.

P.S.  If you can find a way to work rum into the recipe, tell me.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Book Thoughts - UPROOTED by Naomi Novik

It is rare that I read a book that comes this close to perfection.  Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, is both literary and fun, bold and romantic, as it explores the twin themes of belonging and finding your own way.

The story begins as a typical "Once upon a time…"  The main character, Agniezska, is imprisoned in the tower of a dark wizard known only as the Dragon.  She is quiet, obedient, and fearful of him, a man who is powerful, mysterious, and surly.  However, the tropes quickly unravel, which is what makes this book so phenomenal.

We get our first sense that this isn't your average fairytale with the arrival of Prince Marek, the "white knight," an image that dissolves when he tries to force himself on Agniezska.  In protecting herself, she discovers that she's a witch--that she is not the Dragon's servant, but his apprentice.

Unfortunately, the Dragon is not Dumbledore.  He's more of a Snape.  He instructs her in magic because the law requires it--and grows increasingly irritated with her desire to break the rules.  However, he understands that she has incredible power.  That she might be the key to defeating the horror known as the Wood.

The Wood is the great evil in this book.  It's incredibly unique--a shapeless thing, invisible without magic, that plots and sets traps and seeks revenge.  It gets into people's heads, tortures them, makes them do terrible things they wouldn't do otherwise.  Even though the Dragon has been attempting to hold it at bay, it grows stronger every year.  It's goal:  to devour the entire country.

This sets up the rest of the story.  While the action is wonderful, it's the characters--including the Wood--that really drives this book.  The only one that falls a bit flat is Agniezska's best friend, Kasia.  We see a little bit of depth when we get a glimpse of her jealousy, but it's contained to a single scene.  I would have liked to see more of her internal struggle post-Wood.  Like, she's practically Pinocchio, and it doesn't seem to bother her in the slightest.  While she certainly offers some great battle scenes, she doesn't contribute much to the conversation.

As far as strong female characters go, Alosha is better.  She's a blacksmith.  She's badass.

The Falcon--another wizard--serves as a great foil for the Dragon.  He's slimy, loves court life and attention, thrives in war, and lusts after Agniezska's power.

But he isn't a villain.  In this story, there is no black-and-white:  the Wood has its motives, the Dragon's moral compass doesn't quite point north, and even Marek--the would-be rapist--has redeemable qualities.  He's brave.  He loves his family.

Of course, the star players are Agniezska and the Dragon, who complement each other like pretzels and Nutella.  She is sunshine; he is rainclouds.  She goes off the beaten path; he is a stickler for rules.  She understands the depth of the human experience.  He…doesn't.  At least, not until she gives him a firm scolding.  Here, for instance, she confronts him about his practice of taking village girls as slaves, essentially:

He made an impatient gesture, not looking at me; if he had seen my face, perhaps he would have stopped.  "I don't take puling girls who want only to marry a village lover, or ones who cringe away from me--"

I stood straight up, the chair clattering back over the floor away from me.  Slow and late and bubbling, a ferocious anger had risen in me, like a flood.  "So you take the ones like Kasia," I burst out, "the ones brave enough to bear it, who won't hurt their families worse by weeping, and you suppose that makes it right?  You don't rape them, you only close them up for ten years, and complain that we think you worse than you are?"

He stared up at me, and I stared back, panting.  I hadn't even known those words were in me to be spoken; I hadn't known they were in me to be felt.  I would never have thought of speaking so to my lord, the Dragon:  I had hated him, but I wouldn't have reproached him, any more than I would have reproached a bolt of lightning for striking my house.  He wasn't a person, he was a lord and a wizard, a strange creature on another plane entirely, as far removed as storms and pestilence.

But he had stepped down from that plane; he had given me real kindness.  He'd let his magic mingle with my own again, that strange breathtaking intimacy, all to save Kasia with me.  I suppose it might seem strange that I should thank him by shouting at him, but it meant more than thanks:  I wanted him to be human.

While not my favorite scene in the book, it's one of them because it gets at the central conflict between Agniezska and the Dragon:  his self-imposed detachment from ordinary people.  It's an issue that Agniezska must confront in her own life, too, as she realizes that she will have to face the same curse that caused his isolation:  as a witch, she will live for centuries, forced to watch her loved ones die.

Fortunately, she has the Dragon.

There is no insta-love here.  In fact, the word "love" is never used to refer to their relationship.  It's one of mutual respect, admiration, and a recognition that the other is intelligent and courageous in his/her own way.  Neither is possessive.  Neither is jealous.  And while the Dragon often uses choice words when speaking to Agniezska, his actions are kind.  In short, their relationship is beautiful, as seen in this incredible scene in which they combine their power to help Kasia:

He resisted at first, holding for a moment to the clean precision of his own working, but my own magic was offering his an invitation, and little by little he began to read--not any less sharply, but to the beat I gave. He was leaving room for my improvisations, giving them air. We turned the page together and kept on without a pause, and halfway down the page a line flowed out of us that was music, his voice crisply carrying the words while I sang them along, high and low, and abruptly, shockingly, it was easy.

No--not easy; that wasn't even an adequate word. His hand had closed on mine, tightly; our fingers were interlaced, and our magic also. 

All right, so there are certainly some weird elements to this relationship.  Stockholm Syndrome.  A professor/student relationship.  The fact that he's 150 years older than her.  You know, stuff that wouldn't fly in a lesser story.  But it works.  The Dragon isn't creepy or controlling.  Agniezska isn't obsessive.  Both manage to live very independent lives, but every once in a while, they get together and make some magic.  Literally.  And not so literally.

All in all, this book is dark and magical and sexy and incredible.  If you're a fan of Gregory Maguire or Leigh Bardugo, this book is a must-read.

You can find it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble!