Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Smita Jain: Kkrishnaa's Konfessions

Kkrishnaa's Konfessions Kkrishnaa, the protagonist, is a screen-writer for an Indian soap, and observes the inhabitants of a neighboring luxury apartment building with a telescope to find ideas for her soap (she suffers from writers block). The most bizarre things happen over there, but apparently not bizzare enough, because Kkrishnaa decides to stirr the pot and add a little pseudo-blackmail. After she witnessed a murder, her life is in danger. Incidentally, most people who live in the building are connected to the murdered woman. The police is very forthcoming to share their findings with K. and eventually, she solves the murder. Kkrishnaa is a witty, ruthless, not very likable but amusing person mostly interested in advancing her career, and surrounded by career-related intrigue. Plenty of examples of her screen-writing are given in the book, with insight into the values these soaps want to convey and the way Indian TV is written ("faints, repeat three times from different angles in slow motion"...). Interesting and fast paced, quite over the top exaggerations (I hope) of modern Indian life.

According to the author, this is a chick-lit. First time I heart this term, I guess I am out of touch (or maybe, not a native English speaker). 

Friday, July 2, 2010

SFOpera: Gounod's Faust

The conclusion (for us) of the 2009/2010 opera season at the San Francisco Opera was yesterday's Faust (Gounod). It started in a high-note: The lecture (by Clifford Cranna, Director of Music Administration) was excellent. In just under half an hour,  he gave a great overview of the origins of the Faust legend, and highlighted the most important plays that influenced Gounod, talked about the history of this opera itself, in the various incarnations, and told the story, illustrated by recordings, while giving us information on the musical styles that Gounod used. I wish they always had high quality lectures like this.

Now to the opera itself: The Faust legend in Gounod's interpretation has its emphasis on Marguerite (Gretchen), who has probably the largest part to sing, beautifully portrayed and sung by Patricia Racette.The production has traditional, with nice period costumes, and pretty scenery.
The other big part was Mephisto (John Relyea), whose characterization of Mephisto was quite believable and lively. He did remind me of the Pied Piper of Hamelin with a colorful costume in the second act, and the use of his violin in manipulating people.  I wished that his voice would be a bit fuller and warmer.
I never liked the character of Faust, in neither Goethe's play nor the other Faust operas I have seen (Dr. Faustus from Busoni, Mephistophele from Boito). Stephano Secco did a good job, and to me came over as the jerk he is supposed to portray. Siebel (Daniela Mack) and Marthe (Catherine Cook) were both quite wonderful. Brian Mulligan as Valentin stood out despite the bizarre lightning during his aria (The stage changed colors constantly, for no apparent reason). The performance was interesting and engaging, but lost some of its impact in the last scene.  After four hours (including two intermissions) we were happy to go home.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

R. E. Conary: Life's a Bitch. So am I. Rachel Cord, P.I.

'Life's a Bitch. So am I.' Rachel Cord, P.I.I bought this book because of the title: It promised an entertaining novel, and it actually was entertaining:

PI Rachel Cord tries to find a missing girl, and to solve a number of gay bashing incidents. At great personal expense, she solves it all, mostly through talking to the right people, and uncovers a crime ring. One wonders why the police wasn't able to do this, since they had more resources, and had all the information at hand, however, part of the solution to the crimes explain the inactivity of the police as well.

I am conflicted about this book. It has a lot of stereotypes, language reminds me of Sam Spade etc. I didn't appreciate at all a very explicit rape/torture scene. On the other hand, I couldn't put the book down.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Denise Mina: Resolution

Resolution: A Novel of Crime
The one thing they had in common was their victimhood, and that mantle was a negation of all the wonders in life, a license to brutalize without compunction. 

How true this sentence is, that to me sums up not only this novel, but also so many issues in all of our lives. I am sadly observing the development from victim to offender in several people close to me, fortunately none of them in a criminal sense but in a human sense. They don't see that with their actions, they don't just make their surroundings miserable, but also destroy their own lives.

This last book from the Garnethill trilogy is just as strong as the first one. Demonstrates how abuse and prostitution often go together and threads through all layers of society, and how lenient laws about prostitution are instrumental in keeping the abusers on the street.

Friday, June 25, 2010

SF Opera's original Spaghetti Western

Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West" is not one of the main-stream operas. I have never seen it before (but auditioned for Wowkle, the Indian maid, once, ugh). The setting is in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, during the gold rush. The protagonist is Minnie, the owner of the local saloon, and only woman the miners have contact with. She acts as a surrogate mother and object of desire. Especially the sheriff is lusting after her, but she won't let any man come close, until Johnson shows up, the local bandit planning to rob the place. Through love, Johnson gives up his thiefdom, Minnie rescues him from the noose, and they live happily ever after.

There are a few issues with this opera that probably make it less popular than most of the other Puccini operas:
  • The awkward setting in the Sierra foothills, during the gold rush (who would want to hear about the gold rush in Italian?)
  • The lack of memorable arias
  • The need for first class singers
San Francisco Opera's production had a lot of potential. The closeness in location (everybody here know the Sierra foothills and the history of the gold rush), a first class opera company, great staging, world class singers. Unfortunately, while mostly entertaining, this production didn't quite live up to its potential.

Several of the charactors' names were  familiar names from the area. The Wells Fargo agent, Ashby, was reminicent of one of the first settlers of Berkeley, William Ashby, now mostly familiar through Ashby Avenue, a major street in Berkeley. Wells Fargo (the present day bank) should have financed the whole production, considering that "their" agent played a good sized part. A miner's name, Sonora, most certainly came from the city of Sonora, a gold rush town on Route 49 (see picture on the right), a very busy town that we visited last on our trip to Knights Ferry

The orchestra, under the baton of Luisotti, sounded great, wonderful sound, very musical. But this is opera, and overpowering the singers, so much that several times, I didn't realize somebody was singing, doesn't do justice to the music, no matter how beautiful.

I have seen Deborah Voigt in many productions, mostly at the Met. She always impressed me with her soaring, beautiful voice, and her wonderful portrayal of the characters. I don't think, Minnie is the best role for her. Her portrayal was quite wonderful, she was a very convincing Minnie, but the beauty of her voice was hidden in the many "conversational", recit-like parts of her role. She was shining in the upper middle part of her voice during long legato lines, too bad there weren't more of those.

I saw Salvatore Licitra years ago, when he was flown in from Italy to take over what was supposed to be Pavarotti's final Tosca at the Met. He was promising at the time, and yesterday, he showed that he has developed into a solid performer, interesting voice, interesting characterization. However, he unfortunately hasn't figured out yet, how to connect the high notes to the rest of the voice.

Maya Lahyani, a new Adler fellow, sounded very beautiful as Wowkle, I am sure we'll hear more from her in the future.  The other men were good, but again, the orchestra drowned them out at times.

The staging was mostly entertaining. Minnie riding in on a horse lost a little bit of its impact by the two guides making sure the (very sweet) horse doesn't run into the pit. But this was the second opera in a row with animals on stage (after the dogs in Walküre), and with real fire (here a campfire). What are we going to see in Faust next week?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Yvonne Eve Walus: Murder @ Work

Neurotic mathematician Christine Chamberlain, working at a consulting agency Pretoria, South Africa day-dreams of killing her boss. She really wants to work and gain recognition as a mathematician, and is thrilled having been invited to a Math conference in Greece based on the research she has been doing in the evenings.
Unfortunately, her boss dies, and Christine is the obvious culprit, since she has shared her sentiments with her coworkers, and had access to the murder weapon. In a hurry, she has to figure out the truth by herself, so that she can attend the conference. To the leading detectives ire, she sticks her nose into everything, and eventually puts the puzzle together, and makes it to the plane.

Entertaining, short, interesting read about South Africa in the late 90s. I like particulary, how she gives us the different perspectives of people of different class and color, demonstrating how insulting it can be, when somebody complains about a small hardship in front of a person that has a much more difficult life, and no choice. 
Why Walus, a mathematician/author from New Zealand, writes about South Africa escapes me, but she obviously knows a lot about the country, and writes engagingly about it, so I am glad she does!  Maybe, I will create a wikipedia article about her, and others can fill in the blanks.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: My Soul to Take

My Soul to Take

My soul to take is the last line of an eighteen's century children's prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the lord my soul to keep;
if I die before I wake,
I pray for God my soul to take.

It reminds me of a German good-night song: Guten Abend gut Nacht.

The first verse of the German song implies that the person singing it will only wake up in the morning, if it's goods will. The English prayer asks for saving the childs soul, if it might die. Both sentiments must be very difficult to understand for a small child, and can be disturbing.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's crime novel "My soul to take" starts with a young girl, being buried alive in a cave, being told to keep praying until God takes her to her (dead) mother.

Spool forward a few decades, attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is asked by a client to find out about a ghost (a crying child, both been seen and heart) at his new-age resort. A couple of murders later, for which the client is held by the police, it becomes obvious to most people involved, that the ghost issue is not the main problem here. Not so Thóra, who rightfully insists that there must be a connection. After stubbornly proceeding with her unveiling of the resort-turned-ranch's history, much to the dismay of her visiting boyfriend Matthew, she eventually figures out the truth about both the murders and the ghost. Unfortunately not as strong as its predecessor "Last Rituals", Icelandic rural life, WWII antics, and small town animosities make this still an interesting and entertaining novel.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Denise Mina: Garnethill

Garnethill: A Novel of Crime
Last week, Aaron Vargas from Fort Bragg, California, got sentenced to 9 years in prison, for killing his childhood abuser. His friends and family are outraged at this high sentence. The judge argued, that not having him go to prison would encourage others to take the law into their own hands, instead of going through the justice system.

Is this also a feminist issue? Would there have been an outcry like this, if the killer would have been a woman, and would this woman have been sentenced to life in prison instead? It seems like violating a man/boy is perceived as more serious, because women/girls are violated all the time, anyway.

Denise Mina's book Garnethill is a crime novel with a protagonist (Maureen), who is still living through the nightmares of having been abused by her father as a child. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the family doesn't believe that it ever happened, an all to common occurrence, so additionally to having these crippling memories, Maureen also gets ostracized by her sisters and verbally attached by her mother. A great situation to be in, when discovering the dead body of her boyfriend, and further discovering that he probably got killed by a skilled an shrewd rapist, who targets women that are already so damage by previous abuse that they won't ever talk about it, to avoid reliving the whole thing over and over again. Maureen now has the choice of unveiling this to the police and causing more suffering to the abused women, or trying to bring the man to justice in different ways. I was happy that she didn't choose Aaron Vargas' solution.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Martin Edwards: The Coffin Trail

The Coffin Trail

Daniel, a history professor from Oxford and his journalist girlfriend Miranda from London decide spontaneously to give up their busy lives and settle in the Lake District, hours away from more populous parts of England.

Incidentally, the house they buy has a history: the son of the owner was suspected of a gruesome crime, but died before things got investigated properly. David used to know him as a boy, but doesn't bother to tell Miranda. It also turns out, that David's late father (with whom he didn't have contact for decades) used to be a detective in the area, and was the investigator for this crime. So, the spontaneous decision was more on part of Miranda, and David obviously had an agenda. So it comes to no surprise, that David wants to solve the murder, even if it alienates a lot of people in the tight-knit community. 

Systematically, the author misleads the reader with all evidence pointing to one person, but then David pulls all his brains out of the hat, and it turns out to be somebody quite different. Unfortunately, his ego doesn't allow him to share this information with the police, so he barely escapes death himself.

Nicely written, beautiful language. I liked to read about the area (Lake District in Northern England). I didn't care too much for the story and the protagonist.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson

This novel portraits a number of people either working in Antarctica, or having connections to Antarctica, their lives, their philosophies, their friends. Through their stories, the author also recaps the history of the continent, namely the early explorations (Scott, Amundsen, and others). The story then culminates in dramatic events, that bring all protagonists together, and surprisingly ends happily.

Most of the Antarctic story takes place in NSF research facilities (that's the National Science Foundation of the US). The usual dichotomy of scientists (here called "Beakers") and regular people is nicely described. Also, the author succeeded in vividly describing the cold of Antarctica. What a difficult place to live!

First I thought, that the story is situated in the presence, but later it became obvious, that it's actually more like science fiction, in the near future. Especially the gadgets (satellite wrist-phones, solar-heated cold-suits) were probably not quite available in 1997.

This novel, while not that long, too me a long time to read. I found the book informative and interesting, if a bit slow, not a lot suspense, so other things in my life became more important. I was disappointed in the ending, where sabotage leads to a better world (in Antarctica). That was way too smooth, easy, harmonious, to be believable.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Die Walküre

Unlike the common prejudice, women singing Wagner don't always wear horns!

A few years ago, the Mariinsky Opera company (formerly Kirov) from St. Petersburg performed the Wagner's Ring cycle at the Met in NYC. I scored a last minute ticket to Rheingold, and while waiting outside, my friend and I admired the many audience members wearing horns and similar accoutrement.  So one could say that the horns now migrated to the audience. 

At yesterday's opening night of Die Walküre (San Francisco Opera), I didn't notice any audience members wearing horns. That was quite disappointing, but maybe due to the fact, that we didn't hang out before the show, due to rush hour traffic on the Bay Bridge.

The opera was a memorable success. The production (Francesca Zambello) was quite wonderful. The mortals were in the forest or in a dump underneath a highway (with real dogs running accross the stage), Wotan looking like a CEO overlooking the skyline of a big city, the Valkyries were jumping from the sky in parachutes (great effect, even it these were supers and not the actual singers). A fair amount of pyromania and a bunch of lively singers guaranteed an entertaining night.

Now to the music: Donald Runnicles, the former Music Director of SFOpera was back for this production. Whenever he came out into the pit, he was greeted with ovations by the audience, and rightly so. The orchestra sounded fabulous, an pit and stage were harmonious.

The musical star of the evening was in my opinion Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde. Her clear substantial voice has a wonderful golden timbre, and she was very believable in her characterization. Additionally, I could understand her words very well.

Nina Stemme, in her debut as Brünnhilde, sang very well, sounded appropriate, and was also a very engaging actor. I'd have preferred a Brünnhilde with a little bit more oompf, but she certainly lived up to the role.

I was looking forward to hearing Mark Delavan ever since he was interviewed in the Classical Singers Magazine,  describing his difficult journey of his career. He sang very well, and portrayed Wotan in a very likable way. Unfortunately, he sounded tired and exhausted in the third act, and only just recovered for the ending.

The valkyries were impressive, especially one of them, who was significantly louder than all the others, with a wonderfully warm timbre. I don't know the opera well enough to know, which one it was, but it was somebody to look out for.

The evening ended quite dramatically, with fire all around the stage, much like the fire operas at the Crucible in Oakland. The railings probably got hot. Wotan put on gloves before climbing down the back of the stage. After nearly 5 hours, this was welcome entertainment!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Spirits in Alameda

Alameda is an island in the San Francisco Bay, accessible from Oakland via a couple of small bridges and a tunnel, the "tube".
Alameda is a conflicted island. On one side, the city of Alameda with picturesc Victorian houses, on the other side a decommissioned Navy base, that is in the process of being turned over to the city of Alameda.

We heart about a vodka distillery in the former Navy yard some time ago. It was time to check it out, when we realized that there is a winery next door.
On our way to the hangar area, where the spirits are located, the conflicted nature of the former base became apparent. On one side of the road an upscale development with beautiful landscaping. On the other side military housing behind barbwire. Abandoned warehouses, laboratories, factories. Streets so wide that it was unclear where the middle divider was. And at the end, a row of old hangars and a beautiful view of San Francisco.

Our first stop was at the Rock Wall Wine Company, an urban winery that houses Rock Wall Wines, and a number of additional boutique wineries that don't have their own wine making facilities.

The tasting room isn't actually a room. It is a table on the side of a huge hangar, surrounded by wine barrels. We were lucky that the "door" was open, and we could enjoy the view of the city.

The wines were also not to be missed. We especially liked the Rock Wall Zinfandels, and the 2007 JRE Napa Valley Cab (and no, that's not Java Runtime Environment!).

Right next door is St. George Spirits. Having never been to a vodka tasting, I had no idea what to expect.

St. George fortunately had quite an array of spirits, from the famed Hangar One vodka via Rasberry and peach spirits to Absinthe.

Some of the infused vodkas were quite delicious, especially the mandarin flowers, and the winter mix (orange with spices). I'll definitely try to make the Buddha's hand infused vodka, like limoncello without the peelingo of the lemons, and without the sugar.

Never having had Absinthe, I was curious what to expect. To my surprise, it just tastes like a high class pastis. The defining ingredient for Absinthe is wormwood, which grows in St. George's front yard.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sylvia Maultash Warsh: To Die in Spring

To Die in Spring
Dr. Rebecca Temple, a physician in Toronto, gets an unexpected office visit from a patient she is treating for paranoia and psychoses. Thinking that she has her worst episode, yet, she calms her down, assures her that nobody is trying to kill her, only to find out next day, that she indeed had been killed that night.
An intriguing story that starts in Nazi-occupied Poland, and continues in Argentina during the military regime, finds its conclusion in Toronto.

This is the first in the Rebecca Temple series of Sylvia Maultash Warsh. I read the second one first, and I shouldn't have. It liked this one as well, but got a bit bored with the recounting of her history, that I was already familiar with from "Find me again".

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Two Sentences Tuesday

The rain was blowing hard from the ocean, coyotes started hauling in the distance; leaning against a rock, with the cliff descending steeply towards the water, Kate wondered whether she'd get out of this place in one piece. Dragging her injured ankle, she tried crawling through uphill through the mud towards the trail, hoping to avoid the fate of her companion, who lay motionless at the shore. 

The Women of Mystery encourage blogging two sentences on Tuesdays. Those are my first two sentences. Maybe, the story leads to something? I cheated a little by using a semicolon.

Monday, April 5, 2010


And here is the last variation on the Easter theme: Easter bread.
I baked three breads for Easter: one regular yeasted wheat bread, which I baked using my favorite "easy" recipe (adapted from Jim Lahey as featured in the New York Times): The secret ingredient is a huge cast-iron pot, high temperatures and time. Otherwise: easy peasy!

The other two breads are twins, two traditional German Easter braids.
On the left, you see a picture of the risen, unbaked product, freshly braided and equipped with egg-shells, so that the final eggs have a place to go. The bread is made of flour, milk, butter, apricots, raisins, vanilla, ginger, sugar and salt. This year, I used fresh yeast, which gave a significantly better result than last year's dry yeast.

I cheated with "coloring" the eggs: A Russian store around the corner sells cellophane egg-coloring wraps. Slide the egg in, put in hot water for three seconds, the wrapper will shrink-wrap itself around the egg. 

Friday, April 2, 2010


Yrsa Sigurdardottir's book, and the season, made me think of a pagan tradition that I grew up with. The Osterfeuer is the German name for a traditional Easter Bonfire, a probably saxon tradition that is still practiced widely in Northern Germany (as well as in the surrounding countries). In the region where I grew up, each village would have an Osterfeuer, mostly comprised of small trees, branches, everything that accumulates at spring cleanup. On either Easter Saturday or Sunday night, depending on village tradition, the fire would be lit on a field, and everybody would come to get some warmth from the fire, mulled wine or beer and Korn (a German version of vodka). Sausages and pea and lentil stews are very popular as well.

My family would drive to the area where my mother grew up, the Ottensteiner Hochebene, a high plane between Pyrmont and Bodenwerder in Lower Saxony (Bodenwerder is famous for one of its former citizens, Münchhausen).

The area is not very populated, and the lack if ambient light also makes it a wonderful area for star gazing. We would sample several fires and enjoy the night.

Another town close to Pyrmont, Lügde, practices a variant of the Easter fire. Large oak wheels are stuffed with straw, lit, and rolled down a hill. It is used as a oracle for next year's harvest: When the burning wheels roll all the way down the hill, the harvest will be great. This Easter wheel tradition can be traced to the 8th century, when Charlemagne was visiting the area, but is probably even older. The Easter wheel celebration is much more spectacular than the regular Easter fires, however, it also attracts a lot of visitors. I prefer the intimacy of visiting a village fire.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: Last Rituals

Last Rituals
I had this book on the shelf for a few weeks, saved it as a treat. It was recommended by a friend, who's recommendations are always excellent. And again, she was right: this is a great crime novel!

Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, a lawyer in Reykjavik, Iceland, is being asked by the family of a murdered German student to research the circumstances, and to find the motive and the killer. The police already settles on somebody, so they couldn't care less. Mutilation of the body, both while living and after death, and the subject of the student's studies (comparative witch hunts) point to rituals, which Thora and the private detective Matthew (an import from Germany, despite his English name) decipher by retracing the victim's recent activities and getting familiarized with the subject of his studies.

The story covers many areas of typical Icelandic live, from the difficulties of a single mother to description of the countryside, from the difficulties in pronouncing Icelandic names to caves and volcanos.

If you like witches, the history of witch hunts, magic symbols, strange rituals, all bundled into an intricate crime novel, you should read this wonderful book!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Knights Ferry in the Sierra Nevada Foothills

Last Friday's Cesar Chavez holiday is somewhat of an obscure holiday for most of the world. It is only observed by eight US states, and not by many employers in these states. However, it was a great holiday weekend to drive into the Sierra Foothills. Our destination was Knights Ferry, a tiny town that most people pass on their way to Yosemite.

After passing the Altamont Pass, from where we could see the snow of the sierras in the distance, we drove through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a flat, farming area, with miles and miles of orchards.

Knights Ferry, between Oakdale and Sonora, was founded in 1842. Soon after, it had its short boom during the gold rush era, only to fall back into its sleeping beauty state. Knights Ferry is a cute little town, in the middle of beautiful countryside. It is sleepy and seemingly far from the world. A pretty and quiet place to take a break on the way to the Sierras. At one point, the number of people living in Knights Ferry was an order of magnitude higher, however, there is little evidence for it today.

It's claim to fame is a covered wooden bridge from 1862, spanning the Stanislaus river. Covered bridges were apparently common in the 19th century, because the cover protected the wood from the elements, and contributed to the longevity of the bridges. This particular one was a toll bridge, and is now a museum.
A bit of trivia about Stanislaus: He was native American, raised by missionaries, then fighting against them, but asking for forgiveness later.  He is believed to be the real Zorro.

Knights Ferry's prison was built in 1912, when an influx of workers (and I have forgotten the project, maybe a new bridge, or a road, or farming work?) was followed by a rise in the crime rate. The prison was fortunately only used for a few years. It is a big metal block, and reminds me of middle age torture chambers.

More cheerful is a view of the town center. It was early in the year, so the ice cream parlor was only open on the weekend. It seemed to be a popular meeting point for motor-cyclers, who were out en masse on this first beautiful weekend of spring. 

We were supposed to see a civil war reenactment event, but missed it. However, we didn't miss to have a peek into the gun shop, which carries rifles that were reminiscent of the civil war.

On the way to the ruins of the former mill, a barrel on wheels was permanently parked on a road corner. To me, it looks like a "Güllefass", a barrel to distribute manure on the fields.

Next to the ruins of the mill, at the river, we found evidence of old-style milling: grinding holes from native Americans. Nowadays, this is a popular river rafting spot.

At night, I explored historical pamphlets and collections about Knights Ferry, collected by the family of our host. The pride and care of the community for its history is heartwarming. The similarities in research and presentation of the history in my hometown, even though on a different scale,  was astonishing.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Algae and Lichen

In the post Animals, Mushrooms and Plants, I visited the phylogenetic tree of Eukaryotic organisms. Since I especially like algae and lichen (Algen und Flechten), I dug up some photos of those.

The first one shows lichen-covered stones on Mount Desert Island in Acadia National Park in Maine.

Quite a different color is the red lichen at Point Bonita in the Marin Headlands. I didn't have my camera with me, but check out the link for a picture on Flickr.

On the beach (here at Point Reyes), algae are abundant. They look like big snakes, and are hollow.

Point Reyes is worth a visit any time of the year. A special treat is a hike to Tomales Point during the mating season of the Tule Elk. The best time of the day is early in the morning, when few hikers are on the trail, and the Elk are close by.

On the top of the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, the ornamental cherry trees are covered in lichen. they are exposed to a lot of wind, and the lichen hides on the eastern side of the tree trunk.

The next pictures shows trees at Alpine Meadows, a ski resort in the Lake Tahoe area. While I don't ski, I enjoyed snow-shoeing the area.

Additionally to the liken-ed trees, I saw a dead one, that looked like a spiral. The poor tree spiraled it's whole life in search of the light, until it smothered itself to death.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Kel Richards: The second Death

The Second Death (Mark Roman, #1) As my first Australian book in the Global Reading Challenge, I read The second Death from Kel Richards.

The novel is about Australian radio host Mark Roman, who gets entangled in one of his callers' issues (Liz), and solves the connected crimes.

I found the book quite boring, and wouldn't have finished it, if it weren't so short anyway. First of all: It really annoys me, when I guess the main message of the story within the first 40 pages.

The story-line has a lot of potential, but the characters are too black and white and not really developed. It would have been nice to get the point of view of the villan, Liz, for example, without having to guess.

Also, the protagonist (Mark Roman) does a lot of thinking, but doesn't enlighten me, the reader, about his thoughts until later, rather describes his surroundings while thinking, thinking, thinking.

And it's inconceivable that the police would have been as passive as they were described in a high profile murder case.

All in all, unfortunately not recommended. I'll have to hunt for more Australian mysteries ...

Next will be The last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. I am really looking forward to it, since it has been  recommended by a friend with excellent taste and finding skills.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Brazil in December (crime novel)

December Heat

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza: December Heat

The crime novel is set in Rio de Janiero, Brazil: A retired cop looses his wallet, and in the same night, his hooker girlfriend gets killed. This set off a whole slew of killings of street people, which are all somewhat connected to each other, but the killings are for no apparent reason. The cop that investigates is described as a loner, not a lot of police support is visible. The author can't resist adding a couple of explicit sex scenes. The story is a bit convoluted and the ending is not at all satisfying. A lot of loose ends are untied, and I was left by the impression, that the real bad guys will not even get pursued. Overall, the story is a bit too macho for my taste.

It's interesting to read about the Brazilian culture. Especially the lack of referring or even mentioning the race, skin color, etc. of the protagonists is very different from what I experience reading US-American mysteries. That reminds me of a former colleague from Peru, who said once that the black population in Peru is declining. He was then asked whether it's because they leave. He said: Quite the contrary, they mix.

One thing kind of puzzled me in a historical sense: Everybody in the book depends on telephone land lines. Cell phones don't seem to exist, not even for the wealthy bad guys. The novel was published in 2002, so I guess, it was written about 2001/2000.  I didn't know that many people in the US with cell phones at the time, but they were a lot more common already in Europe.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Trains and Bridges

I am fascinated by the dramatic beauty of industrial constructions. Here, I want to share a couple of pictures of trains and bridges.

The first one on the right is made from the driving car (I was the passenger) on our way from Lake Tahoe to the low-lands. It was great weather, and I got a fair amount of good "cloud" pictures.

I shot the picture of the George Washington Bridge in New York from Fort Tryon Park, on our way to the cloisters. The park's garden didn't quite show its beauty in January, but it was still a peaceful, pretty place. 
The cloisters are certainly a great place to visit. Built by the Rockefellers, and completed in 1938, it is a collection of monastery buildings and religous art from Europe. It has been donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I found the train on the right in the town of American Canyon, in Napa County. We saw it hidden between a shopping center and development, while trying to get a close look of an old hops kiln. Everything was fenced up, and the only visible "landmark" was this colorful train.
The other bridge in San Francisco: The Bay Bridge, spans from SF to Oakland. This is an unusually photo, probably from Sunday morning. When I drive over at rush hour, the bridge is packed with cars.
The picture shows the western span on the bridge, between Treasure Island and SF. The Oakland side of the bridge is very different, and much less stable. During the Loma Prieta earthquake, the upper deck fell on the lower. The Oakland span of the bridge is finally getting rebuilt. Construction will finish probably in 2013.

For my European readers: A typical American firetruck! Not a train, but pretty, too. To me, it looks incredibly old-fashioned.

And finally, a picture of the Golden Gate bridge, from the Presidio to the Marin Headlands.

Edited later:
Another bridge: The Penobscot Narrows bridge in Maine is not only a bridge but also an observatory. Unfortunately, I got vertigo and had to leave immediately. If you don't suffer from it, visiting the observatory is highly recommended!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Praise to Mariquita

Once every two weeks, we can get a vegetable box from Mariquita Farms. They grow organic vegetables, mostly for their CSA and for restaurants. Every other Thursday Julia comes to San Francisco with a truck full of boxes, and parks at one of the restaurants they sell to. The boxes are preordered, and soon the place gets busy with pickups.
For us, this system works better than a CSA, because 1. we haven't found a CSA in the East Bay that has veggies as interesting and fresh as Mariquita; 2. we don't have to commit to a weekly box.
Check out their web-site and also Andy's blog (he is the farmer).

The picture shows the contents of last week's box: Little carrots and big carrots, escarole, rapini, other kind of broccoli, a savoy cabbage, mustard greens, swiss chart, garlic greens, sprint onions, leeks, spinach, fennel, and I am sure I forgot something. Everything is super fresh, organic and very tasty.

When the season is right, we go tomato picking and make sauce, we get a case of apricots and strawberries from a neighboring farms and make jams. Or we get delicious bacon avocados from yet another neighbor.  We love the Pimiento de Padron so much, that they will probably soon grow in our own garden. Thank you!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

New York in the 19th century

In a Gilded Cage (Molly Murphy Mysteries, #8) After reading most of Anne Perry's books, I started reading the crime novels of Victoria Thompson. They have a similar theme: Independent woman solves crimes in a 19th century metropolis. Thompsons first books were mildly dissatisfying to me, because of a lack of complexity. However, since I lived in NYC, and they were otherwise pleasing, I continue to read her novels. Since she only writes one a year, I was pleased to find another author with a crime novel serious of a similar kind.

Rhys Ryan's Molly Murphy novels are utterly delightful. They are easy to read, but interesting and funny. Molly is the only woman of the books of the genre (at least of the ones I read), in which the protagonist actually calls herself a professional detective.

The newest one "In a gilded cage" has Molly Murphy investigate the ancestry of another professional woman, who works at a drugstore. In spite of being college educated, she is not allowed in the lab (which she would have loved) but has to work as a sale person.

Then another case showed up (connected to the first one), with the Poindexter family in the center. The client and women die, all somewhat connected. It appears to be the flu (I don't think that in the 19th century, people would have talked about "a particularly vicious strain of influenza", one of the rare historical mistakes), but Molly and her friend Emily are suspicious.

Molly's beau, a police captain, incidentally investigates overlapping crimes. Information that lead to nothing for Molly helps him to solve his cases, while she is not taken serious, but manages in the end well on her own.

Interesting features of the Molly Murphy series are the constant reminders of the status of women of the times, the differences between the classes, the vivid description of life in NYC of the times. In this particular book, it's mostly about the women that loose all independence once they are married, and a little bit woman's suffrage. Previous books in the series covered among other themes sweat shops, workers rights and more woman's lib.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Wine Road

The wine road is an organization of Sonoma County wineries, mostly in the Russian River area.

When Alaska was owned by Russia, Russian settlers as well as Alaskans were living in Northern California with the purpose of growing food to be shipped to Alaska. However, the food growing experiment failed, because the settlers didn't know how to deal with the climate and with the wild-life, especially the gophers that destroyed their crops. Fort Ross, at the Sonoma coast, is a  state historical park of one of the old settlements. In the early 1840s, the properties of the Russian American Company were sold to a rancher from Sacramento, and most of the Russian settlers left the area. What remains of them is the name of the river: the Russian River.

Once a year, the wine road organizes a barrel tasting event. About 100 wineries participate. For one small fee, one can drive from winery to winery and taste their wines. Even the designated driver gets something out of it: sometimes a gift, sometimes a juice, a lot of times gorgeous views and food. The lucky ones see some wild-life can bee seen on the side of the road (Turkey on the left).

Many wineries bring out the barrels from their not-yet-released wines. We got our tastings from a huge pipette directly from these barrels. 

Here are a few pictures from some of the wineries:
Russian Hill Estate had wonderful Pinots. They are located on a hill (surprisingly), with great views of the area.

One winery was growing bell beans, a variation of fava beans, on a field in preparation for planting Chardonnay grapes. Legumes enrich the nitrogen content of the soil.

Hop Kiln Winery sells a lot of food items additionally to their wines: mustards, vinegar, salami, dips and chips, and you can borrow plates and knives for a picknick on the beautiful grounds.
As the name indicates, the winery used to be a hop kiln. It looks like the area evolved from beer to wine (also, a hop kiln is seen in the picture above from Russian Hill).

Chalk Hill is an upscale winery with a huge estate and wonderful Chardonnays. You see their stainless vats on the left.

Graton Ridge Cellars was our first and last stop on the wine road. They had the best Petite Syrah, and one of us had to buy a bottle. They also had a bunch of chickens running around in their vineyard that ran away as soon as I got my camera out. Oh well, the truck is pretty, too!

I was lucky that I was able to make these pictures, since I hadn't charged my camera. Every picture I took was threatening to be the last. I didn't get anything from Twomey, one of our favorite wineries in the Napa Valley, that also has an estate close to Healdsburg. Twomey is the best deal in town in Napa Valley (close to Calistoga). They are the sister winery to the high-profile Silver Oak, and originally specialized on Merlot (made in Calistoga). Now, they also make great Pinots and Sauvignon Blancs at the Russian River. In Calistoga, they used to charge $5 for a tasting and we'd get the glass (a very nice Schott/Zwiesel glass) to take home. Now, tastings are free. Not to be missed!

The other wineries that were our favorites on this trip where Pellegrini (great deal on half bottles Sauvignon Blanc) and Russian River Vineyards (wonderful desert wine, not yet bottled).