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).

Friday, March 12, 2010

Animals, Mushrooms and Plants

This post is an answer to who wrote:

Pilze sind Organismen, die nicht eindeutig tierisch oder pflanzlich zugeordnet werden können. Sie sind gewissermaßen eine Mischung aus Beidem. (freely translated: Mushrooms are organisms that are not definitely animal or plant, but something quasi in-between). 

This prompted me to make a picture of parts of the phylogenetic tree of some of my favorite organisms. Mushrooms, in the fungi clade, are genetically a little bit closer to animals than to plants. The main difference between animals and fungi, and between animals and plants, is the structure of the cell wall. Unlike animals and fungi, plants can make chlorophyll,  thus get their energy from the sun and not from other plants or animals.
For a more detailed and scientific view of the tree, please go to the NCBI Taxonomy Browser

Fire Salamander - Feuersalamander
The Fire Salamander has a special place in my heart. I had one for 15 years when I was a kid (they can live 25 years). An irresponsible teacher gave it to me in 5th grade. His name was Hermann, and it still bothers me that I didn't take care of him better. I couldn't let him go free, because he was not used to the wild, and considered humans his food source.

Wolverine - Vielfraß
2008, the first wolverine have been seen since 80 years in California.  He is still around, and marking the territory like crazy, probably looking for a mate. According to genetic testing, he came from Idaho. Did he walk all the way, or did he get kidnapped?

Human - Mensch
Hmm, what are those?

Turkey Vulture - Truthahngeier
Prolific in California, great to look at in the country. 

Snake - Schlange
Snakes have a bad reputation, but I think they are quite lovely. We have them sometimes in the garden (look like a little red garden hose). They make me happy when I see them in the wild.

Jelly Fish - Qualle
At the Baltic sea, the beaches are often swamped with jelly fish. Fortunately, it is usually not the poisonous type. The Monterey aquarium has an amazing exhibition of pretty jelly fish.
Dried jelly fish in Chinese food is a bit tasteless, the sauce it usually comes with is utterly important!

Chanterelle - Pfifferling
Most wonderful mushrooms in risotto!

Oyster Mushroom - Austernpilz
The only mushroom we see when we look for Chanterelles.

Baker's yeast - Bierhefe
In German, it's more commonly called "Beer yeast", talk about priorities!

Wheat - Weizen
What's not to like about a good bread (unless you are gluten intolerant, in which case you should buy your bread from Mariposa Baking). 

Beech - Buche
The tree of my childhood. Beech trees are prolific in northern Germany.

Crowfoot - Hahnenfuß
How I hated this weat!

Horsetail  - Ackerschachtelhalm
Pretty, old, nice ...

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Das Kindermädchen Das Kindermädchen by Elisabeth Herrmann

Unfortunately for the English speaking audience, this author has not (yet?) been translated to English.

This book is another example of present day dealing with "Vergangenheitsbewältigung" (process of coming to terms with one's past, one's country, family, parents, spouses, etc), that is quite common in present day Germany. Even Germans that are born too late to take the blame (blessing o late birth or "Gnade der späten Geburt") often struggle a lot with the country's past, and particularly with the (sometimes assumed) guilt of the parents and grandparents. And then others are deeply offended even by questions about these times. My sister is trying to get information about my family's life during Nazi times, but her very legitimate questions are readily perceived as hostile, and it is difficult to get answers. This leads to the suspicion that they have something to hide. But it just might be that they are afraid that somebody will find something embarrassing, and the easiest way to avoid it would be, not to talk about it at all.

This is the second book I read in the last few months, that cover similar issues that my sister researches: The lives and recognition of forced laborers in Nazi Germany, from Eastern European countries like Ukraine, is the main theme of the book. These particular forced laborers come from a barely known group: Nannies and housekeepers in wealthy, well connected households. The girls were young, between 12 and 16 years old. Working hours were 16 hours a day (as regulated by the authorities). Many were treated well by the families, many were not. They often formed a close relationship with "their" children.

The novel takes place in present day Berlin. In a quite entertaining way, a small demand of a former nurse, to be formally recognized by the family, so that she can collect a very modest pension, and the persistence of the leading character Joachim Vernau,  leads to the unraveling of two families, the discovery of a number of war crimes (stolen art), murder, love and betrayal, and the return of Vernau to the class of mere mortals after a discourse into the world of the "ruling class/quasi nobility" (at least in their perspective).

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Schneewittchen und die sieben Zwerge (Snow white)

On the weekend, I saw (probably first time in my life) Disney's Snow White. What a wonderful movie! The animation, the expression and movements of the people, animals and plants were just exquisit!

Since I am currently re-reading (after decades) Grimm's fairy tales, I jumped ahead to number 53, to compare the Disney version of Snow White with the Grimm's version. True to their name, the Grimm brothers have a much more "grim" story than Disney.

Here is a short summary of Grimm's Schneewittchen:

First the name: Schneewittchen's mother was spinning some wool, when she stang herself with the needle. A drop of blood fell on the ebony window sill, which was also covered partially by snow. So the queen wished to have a daughter that is "Weiss wie Schnee, rot wie Blut und schwarz wie Ebenholz" (white like snow, red like blood, black like ebony), hence the subsequent birth of Snow White with white skin, red lips and black hair. This description gets repeated frequently throughout the fairy tale, one of the numerous sentences from the Grimm's that I can recite.

The queen dies in childbirth, and a stepmother steps in her shoes, a vain mean person, who checks on the superiority of her beauty frequently through a magic mirror (Spieglein Spieglein an der Wand, wer ist die Schönste im ganzen Land?). When the mirror declares her the fairest, the queen orders the hunter to kill her. She of course gets away, and finds the house of the seven dwarfs. Schneewittchen then stays on as the house keeper, the queen finds her through the mirror, and eventually quasi-kills her with a poisoned apple. The dwarfs put her into a glas casket, a prince sees her, and she comes back to life.

This short summary leaves out a number of details, because they are different in the two version:

First AssassinationHunter can't do itSW pleads for life
Proof of deathBring heart to queenBring liver and lung to queen (who eats them)
Dwarfs' houseDirty, SW cleans allClean, SW messes things up
QueenOnce with poisened appleSuccessful third time with poisoned apple
AwakeningThrough kiss from PrinceThrough clumsiness from Prince's servants (SW falls out of coffin, poisened apple falls out of mouth, SW wakes up)
Punishment of QueenFalls off a cliffHas to dance until death in red-glowing hot iron shoes

I was especially surprised by the difference in the first scene in the dwarfs' house. It is very dirty in the Disney version, SW spends a lot of time and effort in the cleaning process, quite the opposite of her behavior in the Grimm version, where everything is very tidy, and she goes from chair, to table, from plate to glass, from bed to bed, and tries everything, makes it all a little messy. As my GF points out, this part is very similar to "Goldilocks and the Three Bears", a children's story first recorded by Robert Southey in 1837.

According to wikipedia, Goldilocks also evolved quite a bit. It the Southey version, and in an earlier version from Eleanor Mure, an old woman finds the house of a "Little, Small, Wee Bear, a Middle-sized Bear, and a Great, Huge Bear", eats their food, breaks their chair, and sleeps in their bed. Already in 1853, the old woman got replaced by a girl, to make the tale more attractive to children, and the best known version was published in 1904 in "Old Nursery Stories and Rhymes" with Goldilocks as the girl (or maybe, the name was created by Flora Annie Steel in her "English Fairy Tales" from 1918). Additionally, there are various other permutations of the "Three Bears" story, and a connection of Snow-white with this one has been suggested before.

Apparently, even the Grimm's version evolved. Initially, it was the mother and not the step-mother, and she took her to the forest herself. This has been toned down to me more suitable for children, just as it has been done for Hansel and Gretel (which also had the evil mother first, then the step-mother that sent them into the forest).

The fairy tale has been known since the middle ages in many European countries, in different variations. It seems to change to reflect contemporary taste and preferences. I found a recent major work that tells Snow White's tale: Schneewittchen (the opera) by Heinz Holliger, premiered 1998 in Zurich, based on a dramolett from Robert Walser (~1900). The dramolett (and subsequently the opera) try a psychological evaluation of the circumstances around SW, apparently difficult to stomach both musically and content-wise. This is certainly not a beginners opera, and not a children's opera either.