September 19, 2020

Two Modern American Fiction Works: “A Friend” and “Nothing To See Here”

When Sigrid Nunez finished “The Friend,” her publisher, Riverhead, decided to print just over 10,000 copies. It was her 8th book and this was a typical print run in the 23 years since she first had her work published. Slam, bam — she wins the National Book Award for this elegant little novel focused on a female writer mourning her mentor who took his own life. He leaves behind an 180-pound Great Dane named Apollo whom our narrator feels impelled to adopt. The nameless author’s life with the dog is the surface story, while underneath is a rumination on writing and the writer’s place in current society.

Nunez tackles dark topics with humor and utterly unique prose. A delicious revelation towards the end of the book will perhaps summon a puzzled smile like it did me.

Plot will not be the main reward in “The Friend,” but writing of the highest caliber. It did not hurt to have a charming dog as a main character either. Hey, whatever gets people to read fiction with a capital F.

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
Credit: Harper Collins Publishers

Another slim novel packing a literary wallop is Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing To See Here.” Lilian, a directionless woman living in the attic of her indifferent mother’s home, is asked to care for her old school friend’s two step-children. Magical realism steps in and makes these children literally flammable.

Lilian moves into the guest cottage of her friend Madison’s estate and is tasked with keeping the kids from burning down their home and bursting into flame in public. Their politician father is being considered for Secretary of State and having odd and possibly dangerous children is, shall we say, a career detriment.

Lilian’s unresolved feelings toward Madison and her nascent love for her friend’s damaged step-children is the heart of the novel, but the wacky family situations and acerbic prose will have you laughing out loud when you don’t have a lump in your throat.

“Nothing To See Here” was chosen as a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, People, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today and Time Magazine. This is the book I have been looking for since “Geek Love.”

MicroGreens Take Center Stage

I have written about sprouts and shoots in the past, but I started seeing microgreens in the refrigerated vegetable section at Whole Foods. A little research indicated that microgreens are harvested when they are smaller than “baby greens” but larger than sprouts. Sprouts are harvested with leaves, stems and roots. Microgreens do not contain the root.

Adventuresome chefs have been using microgreens for taste and plate decoration since the 1980s. Health food devotees have recently taken to microgreens in a big way since they add a huge nutritional punch to sandwiches, soups and salads.

I bought a small fresh tray of microgreens that came from Living Greens Farm in Faribault, MN. Their web site brags they use an aeroponics technique that uses 95% less water and 99.5% less land.

Crunchy Sunflower & Radish Microgreens from New Day Farms in Virginia boasts that their products are harvested when phytonutrients are at their highest concentration.

A plastic container of cress also found its way into my shopping cart from a company called Living Water Farms from Strawn, IL. The cress was a good addition to my other fresh-tasting greens. The Living Water Farms web site has great photos depicting the growing process.

Web info on all three companies is included below so you can see if they deliver to your locality. If not, please ask your local grocery stores to carry microgreens.

Aren’t we all looking for food that fortifies our immune system, but also tastes good?

https://www.livinggreensfarm.com

https://www.livingwaterfarms.com

https://www.facebook.com/pg/newdayfarms/photos/

More Reality Shows of Note on Netflix

How is Netflix getting me to consider programs I would not normally watch? When I open the app, a show trailer starts playing above the list of selections. The clips are engaging, upbeat and often pique my curiosity. How else to explain my current viewing selections: “Love On the Spectrum,” “Restaurants on the Edge” and “Sugar High.”

I have been a fan of “Sugar Rush,” a cooking competition using sweet ingredients. When I exhausted those episodes, Netflix automatically cued up a related show from the same producers, “Sugar High.” Stone-cold professionals compete to make sugar creations that delight the tastebuds and the eyes. Much like sculptors and glassblowers, the chefs skillfully fashion shapes using ingredients like sugar, isomalt and paper wafers. I would not have the heart to destroy these artistic creations by eating them, however.

“Restaurants on the Edge” is a bit sleepy in its pacing, but features scenic restaurants in different countries that need help with their menus, decor and promotion.

Three restaurant gurus arrive in the area and find local beverages, food stuffs and decorating ideas to refresh the dining establishment in question. The show tries to defy the adage that the better the view, the worse the food.

“Love on the Spectrum,” an Australian documentary series, introduced me to young people who are autistic and in search of what we all want: love and romance. Cian O’Clery, the series’ creator and director, films men and women as they openly discuss being “on the spectrum.” We watch them go on first dates and interact with their families. The show accomplishes something rare as we feel genuine empathy for young couples who have found love and for those still searching for romance. “Love On the Spectrum” finds the balance between documentary and reality show which impels you to keep watching. At just five episodes, the series leaves you wanting progress reports on all of these endearing people.

During these stressful times, Netflix has carried many serious scripted shows, but I am keeping my streaming subscription because they are offering fun, reasonably intelligent programs that emphasize food, fashion, art, travel and love.

Leypin Selfie Stick/Tripod from Amazon

I was singing for a funeral recently and saw a family member set up a tripod with a phone so she could broadcast the service to friends and family who could not attend. My big question after the ceremony was who made the cell phone stand and where did she get it?

Not surprisingly, she bought the Chinese-made Leypin accessory online from Amazon. I ordered the same thing and the package arrived in two days with the company name Yunteng on the box. Much to my chagrin, the tripod comes disassembled with tiny paper instructions; the parts are plastic and seem very flimsy. Despite those negatives, after some experimentation, I was able to assemble the parts to hold a smart phone for filming. Curiously, I ended up with two extra pieces that I did not use. Another plus is you can fold the tripod and use the holder as a selfie stick.

One note of caution. It was fairly easy to try the bluetooth remote control attached to the tripod to activate my phone’s video-filming. After immediately receiving a SPAM phone call on my iphone, I decided to NEVER use the Bluetooth remote control again.

All in all, I am satisfied with the $25 spent on a gadget that facilitates my ability to make videos and take photos without someone shakily holding the device. Ready for your close-up?

Indian Matchmaking on Netflix

I saw the title, “Indian Matchmaking,” on Netflix and laughed at the absurdity of wanting to watch a program on that topic. The Netflix home page had a trailer for the show which I inadvertently started watching. Call me flabbergasted, but I got hooked into watching episode one which led to episode two, three and…

The star of the show is an Indian matchmaker hired by families and sometimes individuals to find them a suitable mate. This is a very foreign concept in the U. S., so that was the first thing that intrigued me. In fact, Indian singles do sometimes find their own spouses which are referred to as “love matches,” but tradition dies hard in Indian families both in India and abroad.

The cast of characters includes lawyers, a doctor, a blogger/podcaster, business owners, teachers, a jewelry designer and a wedding planner, with most of the families appearing to be upper middle class to wealthy. It costs money to hire a matchmaker after all.

Some of the prospective brides or grooms are endearing, so I found myself rooting for them to find successful matches. Other candidates make it apparent why they are single with entrenched opinions and unrealistic expectations.

Several singles from the show have dangling marriage searches so Season Two is all but assured. One couple did in fact make it to the wedding feast during the show. The series “Indian Matchmaking” is a mixture of cultural study, travelogue and mystery romance. More, please.

Culture Beat Blog History

Way back in my high school days, I started writing a column about theatrical plays, music and books called “What’s Up” for my school newspaper. It helped that the editor was my best friend. I even had a logo of a student giving a “thumbs up.” Mind you, I had never heard of Siskel and Ebert.

During one of my longer piano bar tenures (at the Chicago Fairmont Hotel), I resurrected my column and mailed it to fans and friends under the rubric “Culture Beat.” When the internet allowed me to bypass postage, I converted my culture writings into an online blog featured on my elizabethdoylemusic web site. The Constant Contact app has made it easy to keep in touch with my favorite people on a regular basis.

The next time you are searching for a new book, a nature venue or new food, check out my “Past Blog Posts” for new ideas. My particular area of interest is foreign drama television. We are living in a time where you can find Scandi-noir, historical romances, documentaries and detective shows from every major European country, DownUnder, South America, the Middle East and Asia.

I have literally been writing a version of “Culture Beat” for decades. To keep things fresh, I welcome your recommendations for movies, books, videos, nature walks and all things that make life more creatively interesting. “Culture Beat” blog posts are definitely my favorite thing to share, after MUSIC, of course. (Neon image of me is by multi-media artist John Bannon.)

Romanesco Broccoli

I am now a big fan of the chartreuse-colored vegetable called Romanesco Broccoli, a cross between cauliflower and the green stuff Bush #1 did not like. I first encountered this cruciferous vegetable at Whole Foods where the distinctive fractal shape drew my eye.

The dictionary calls the shape of the head a logarithmic spiral. Romanesco Broccoli is no recent hybrid; it’s been grown by the Italians since the 16th century. Whatever it is, Romanesco is a most beautifully architectural vegetable.

The taste is slightly different than either broccoli or cauliflower with a crunchy, delicate nutty flavor. I have tried it raw with dips or steamed it as a side dish; both are delicious. Buon Appetito!

N95 Masks vs. other respirator face masks

I got into a discussion about respirator face masks with bass player Jim Cox and had to do a little layman’s research to better understand what’s what. Health authorities are allowed to recommend foreign masks during health and manufacturing emergencies. The 95 or 99 number refers to the mask’s ability to filter out 95 or 99 percent of viral particles.

Here are some of the respirator face mask models with their region of origin:
N95/N99 – United States
FFP2/FFP3 – Europe
KN95 – China
Special 1st – Korea
P95 – Mexico
P2/P3 – Australia
DS/DL2/DL3 – Japan
I love “buying American,” but could not find any US-made N95s or N99s, so I went with the Chinese-made KN95 purchased online. Thus far, I have been happy with them.

Happy hunting for these masks, especially if you will be in an indoor setting with other people. Outdoors, the pleated paper masks seem to be fine. Homemade or purchased reusable masks are a whole different story. Regardless, the eyes have it.

iPhone SE vs. iPhone Pro Max

Do you get a sinking feeling when your phone fails to keep a charge for very long? Your storage is so full you have to jettison photos, videos and phone messages? Yes, you have hit the timed obsolescence planned by cell phone purveyors. You need a new phone.

I reached that sorry state recently and narrowed my search to two Apple phones, the low and the high, the new SE or the iPhone 11. Price was the immediate difference — the current SE starts at $399; the iPhone 11 begins at $699.

The next point of comparison was the ability to take pictures. The SE has one camera — the iPhone Pro Max has three. The Pro Max gets higher resolution in the front-facing camera and can take better photos in low light. The Pro Max averages multiple images to get the best picture.

Photo taken with iPhone Pro Max at 40 feet.

Another point of comparison is the phone’s size. Some like the 4.7-inch pocket size of the SE, while the myopic might opt for the iPhone 11 Pro Max at 6.1 inches.

You may discern which way I was leaning. Yep, I went for the bigger phone with more bells and whistles. The iPhone Pro Max takes great photos and videos, has outstanding battery life and the larger screen makes it easier to read everything.

Having previously owned an SE, I can attest that it is great value for the money, but if you will be using your phone for a lot of media, you may opt for a version of the iPhone 11.

Photo taken with the iPhone Pro Max at 10 feet

If you can eke a little more use out of your current phone, you may want to wait for the iPhone 12, but the release date is up in the air.

Even though Apple stores are not open, buying a cell phone online or by phone could not be easier, The product comes beautifully packaged and Apple support is all too happy to help you set up your new device.

One final note, I bought a black Apple Silicone Case for my iPhone Pro Max for $29.99. A wise investment since my butterfingers frequently drop this expensive little business investment.

Fauda tv series on Netflix

My first binge-watching experience was with the tv series, “24.” The local library had all eight seasons on DVD which worked out to 192 episodes. I just discovered another tv series that checks some of the same boxes; international intrigue, high action scenes and cliff-hanger episodes that have you saying “just one more.”

“Fauda,” an action series from Israel currently streaming on Netflix, was created by Lior Rax and Avi Issacharoff who based the show on their experiences while working for the Israel Defense Forces.

First season is set in Kafr Qasim, a predominantly Arab-populated city just 12 miles from Tel Aviv and managed by Israeli security forces. In this depiction, you can’t always tell the good guys from the bad. Doron, an Israeli soldier, comes out of retirement when he discovers that Taufiq Hammed, a Hamas terrorist he thought he killed, is still very much alive. Doron scopes out a Hammed family wedding in hopes of catching “the Panther.”

The viewer sees how every killing, including mass bombings, ratchets up enmity on both sides. Wives, girlfriends and children not only suffer collateral damage, they sometimes become radicalized themselves. This is no mere “shoot ‘em up,” but a look at the personal and professional lives of opposing sides locked in a deadly battle of geography, culture, religion and power.

Fauda means “chaos” in Hebrew, and thought-provoking entertainment chaos it is. I have appropriated the word for aspects of life today.

Please note that Netflix has made the decent English-dubbed version the default. You can, however, change the settings so you can get the original Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles which is my preference. Your choice.