Archive for June 2011

Food for Thought: Eleanor Roosevelt's Letter to a Congressman

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I've just discovered Brad Delong's excellent website, which posts all sorts of political and historical ephemera along with cracking economic analysis. Given the current controversy about the undeclared Libyan war, this letter he posts, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Rep. Hamilton Fish, seems especially prescient.

My Day by Eleanor Roosevelt, June 28, 1941: EASTPORT, Maine, Friday

—I have just received a slightly delayed communication from my congressman, the Hon. Hamilton Fish. His letter, addressed to the people of the 26th Congressional District in New York State, interests me very much. He suggests in the first paragraph that:

an undeclared war is an invention and creation of totalitarian nations, and a negation of democratic processes and our constitutional form of government...

Nowhere in the letter does he seem to suggest that, this being the case, and we being a peace-loving people, we may find ourselves the victims of an undeclared war, whether we like it or not, even if we ourselves adhere scrupulously to the "democratic processes."

He encloses in this courteous note, a postal card which reads:

The United States should:

Enter the war...

Stay out of the war...

All I am asked to do is to check one of these statements, sign my name or not, as I like, and return my ballot within three days of receipt.

I understand from a newspaper item which I read, that my congressman has received an overwhelming number stating that the United States should stay out of war. That seems to me fairly natural.

If I thought I had a choice in the matter, I should answer wholeheartedly that I did not wish to enter any war anywhere in the world. But it seems to me that my congressman has over-simplified the question which confronts us at the moment.

We would like to stay out of war. The people of Norway, Holland and all the other countries in Europe, even France and Russia, and Germany itself, would probably have liked to stay out of war. But that wasn't ever put before them as a choice. The war was suddenly upon them. In some cases, their government in the form of a dictator decreed it so. In others, because they woke up one morning and found soldiers of an enemy government marching down their streets.

I can think of a number of questions, Mr. Congressman, which you could have asked your constituents that would have been more enlightening to them and to you. Just as a suggestion, why not ask: "Shall the U.S. allow any enemy nation to obtain possessions which may menace, under modern conditions of warfare, the safety of the U.S.?" Or: "Shall we accept restrictions on our trade or the abrogation of our right to travel in neutral waters throughout the world?"

We have always been a proud and independent people, Mr. Congressman. As a woman, I pray for peace not only now, but in the future. But I think we must look a little beyond next week if we expect to ensure an independent U.S.A. to our children. There is such a thing, too, as the moral values of a situation, and I do not think we are a nation that has given up considerations for right and wrong as we see it.

A Few Words on the Michele Bachmann Phenomenon

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So I just had the displeasure of reading Matt Taibbi's now infamous "profile" of Michele Bachmann in Rolling Stone. Suffice it to say that the article is hyperbolic, poorly reported and completely devoid of intellectual value. Instead of serious discussion (seriously, every quote is from one of her political opponents, who obviously have NO AGENDA WHATSOEVER), Taibbi offers this:

Michele Bachmann, when she turns her head toward the cameras and brandishes her pearls and her ageless, unblemished neckline and her perfect suburban orthodontics in an attempt to reassure the unbeliever of her non-threateningness, is one of the scariest sights in the entire American cultural tableau. She's trying to look like June Cleaver, but she actually looks like the T2 skeleton posing for a passport photo.

Charming discussion. Did I mention the article is chock-full of casual misogyny?

Levi Asher of Literary Kicks takes Taibbi to task in an excellent discussion of the article's failure as journalism. I recommend that you read the whole thing, which includes lovely quotes from hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons (I know!), but here he captures the crux of my feelings:

By telling us that Michelle Bachmann, who appeals strongly to many Americans, is simply "crazy", Matt Taibbi is actually telling us a few different things at once, none of them reflecting the message he wants to transmit.

First, he's letting us know that he doesn't have an even basic understanding of why Michelle Bachmann is popular, and why some smart people in this country take her seriously.

Second, he's letting us know that he doesn't think it's important to have a basic understanding of why Michelle Bachmann is popular. She's beyond discussion. To any Rolling Stone reader who might have ever found Michelle Bachmann appealing in any way, Matt Taibbi has nothing to say but "talk to the hand". These readers, presumably, are beyond discussion as well.

The fact is, the progressive media are caught in a shell game when they expend all their energies on fact-checking Michele Bachmann.

Her particular brand of inflammatory rhetoric is just far enough out there to distract from the serious issues plaguing the Republican Party.

So what happens when election time rolls around? Someone else, someone more hateful but less observably "crazy", gets the nomination, by which time the left has wasted 12 months trashing someone who is not a viable political candidate, no matter how many times the mainstream media say she is. The end result will be that the mainstream Republican Party gets a free pass for their heinous tactics in this congressional session, while bloggers and commentators continue to focus on purposefully created red herrings.

So Long, True Blood: Fangs for the Memories!



Do you remember when True Blood was good? Well, not good exactly; it was always prone to excess, excess of camp, excess of sex, excess of "Sookeh", and so on. But it was a trashy good time that didn't challenge the intellect too much. Then something happened. It was a hit! And like magic, the showrunners forgot everything they'd ever learned about plotting, character development, or just plain sense.

Season two had the nonsensical Maenad plot and Lizzie Caplan as the supremely irritating hippie V-addict, but kept viewer interest by recognizing it's secret weapons: Jason Stackhouse, Lafayette and Andy. The show never pretended they were anything more than dumb lugs, so when they did stupid shit (all the time!) we forgive them because hey, they're kinda pretty (except Andy), and we don't expect any better from them.

But season 2 brought the complete batshit nightmare lurking deep inside Tara to life. She wandered through the first half of the season in a Marianne-soaked haze, and the second half of the season screaming for Eggs, Eggs, and more Eggs! Will someone get that girl an omelette already?

Season 3 brought the complete batshit nightmare lurking deep inside Sam to life. Which had the effect of taking a sweet but un-interesting character and turning him into a screaming bore. While this storyline did introduce us to wholly new milieus of Louisiana white trash (and what new glorious lows of humanity they reach!), it also resurrected that irritating kid from Prison Break, who definitely should have stayed dead.

While the systematic destruction of key characters would be enough to ruin ANY show, Alan Ball created a new twist by nailing the coffin shut with the systematic deification of another character, the aforementioned "Sookeh." While we accept that Eric and Bill fall in love with her (or even if we don't accept it, we can handwave it with that whole "sookie's blood is magical and made of fairy dust (spoiler!)." But when one poor lumberjack who's not drawn into this nonsense and is TOTALLY IN LOVE WITH SOMEONE ELSE falls in love with Sookie for no reason? WE DO NOT BELIEVE YOU, ALAN BALL!

Season four opened with promise; Sookie is not just in any land of fairies, but in the domain of Queen Mab herself! For just one moment, we are shown how good this show might be if Sookie is stripped of all the ballast that has ruined the Bon Temps storylines. But no. We find out Tara is now a lesbian cage-fighting champion (or something!), Sam is still a whiny drag (or something!).

So, despite my love of Hoyt/Jessica and of my genuine interest in Bill becoming King of the Vampires, I hereby quit. And fangs for the memories. NOT!

Breakfast Round-Up: Weekend Reading

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And a lovely Monday to you!

We begin with a lovely mix of the wonderful, the erudite and the vaguely horrifying. Just the distraction we all need to get through the Monday blahs.

What happens if Greece defaults?

Blogger-Feud: INSIDE JOB

  • Point: Ezra Klein, whose appeal to the MSM continues to baffle me, shares his thoughts on Inside Job. Apart from being grossly nonsensical, his basic thesis is that "lots of good people did bad things, therefore no one could have predicted the crisis, and therefore no one should be held accountable."
  • Counterpoint: Economics activist Yves Smith responds brilliant and harshly with a takedown of the entire Ezra Klein oeuvre.


Life Detectors for Coffins (just what it says on the tin! Old patents for strange devices to detect movement in coffins)

Courtesy of Film Experience, Mia Farrow auditions for The Sound of Music! Though what would we all do without the exceedingly camp performance of Charmian Carr? ("TOOOO RIIIIIIIDE ONNNNNNN")



Caine Prize Blog-a-thon: "In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata" by Lauri Kubuitsile

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As always, a link to the story (this one's worth it, I promise!): In The Spirit of McPhineas Lata

At last, a unique and illuminating story that doesn't drown in the weight of its setting, that never once mentions the materiality of its character lives apart from a throwaway line about how the citizens collect water at a communal tap.

And most importantly? It's really funny. I understand this type of humor might not be to everyone's taste, but I have a healthy love for ribald absurdity (one of my favorite novels of all time is Confederacy of Dunces, after all). But it's reductive to say the story is just about sex; more accurately, it's about a set of people striving to keep a community together, and sex is their herding tool of choice.

This types the story more as a modern inversion of Lysistrata. Lysistrata is an ancient Greek play wherein Lysistrata instructs the women of Sparta (possibly Athens?) to withhold sex from their husbands until they agree to stop fighting an interminable war. This play was, believe it or not, in my junior high school textbook. I distinctly recall my humanities teacher saying "WE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TEACH THIS IN SCHOOL. BUT THIS IS WHAT IT'S ABOUT (sex, sex, sex). IF YOU ARE INTERESTED, READ IT ON YOUR OWN TIME. ALSO, IT IS ABOUT SEX. So there you had it, 60+ 14 year olds who read an ancient Greek play, on their own time, without even a vague possibility of extra credit. (I remember our teachers pulled the same trick, to much the same effect, when we studied Canterbury Tales. DO NOT READ "THE VICAR'S TALE.") Teachers, take note.

But I digress.

There are certain stylistic aspects that continue to frustrate me -- excessive use of passive voice, sloppy sentence construction, and actual punctuation mistakes -- but overall I commend the writer on her effort. And would kindly request a line-edit.

Also, I did find it slightly troubling that the humor in the story partially requires infantilizing its cast of characters. First, the woman are so perplexed by their husband's behavior that they automatically revert to a supernatural explanation. They hardly show reason or logic in arriving at this conclusion.

But the men are even MORE infantilized; in fact, they behave not like teenage boys, but boys even younger. They have a healthy curiosity about the female body, but that curiosity is not really sexual. They test their wives' responses the way a child would learn about the world, through positive and negative reinforcement rather than actual comprehension of response. And I find it hard to believe that these men have never encountered NECKING before.

But in the case of the men, it's possible this is only troubling from a Western socialized perspective. We often conflate "maturity" and "adulthood" with active sexuality, and sexuality as an expression of the self. And of course we are in a hypersexualized culture. I remember the first time I encountered the concept of necking and ear nibbling as erotic foreplay: it was in a book by Jerry Spinelli that I probably read in fifth grade. And you know what I thought about it? Just what the protagonist did: disgusting, gross, ear wax and giggles! (ah the truly deleterious effects of YA, turning kids off things before they even know what they are!) Why do we acclimate to such horrible sounding things? Experience.

Therefore, there's no reason for the men to comprehend these activities as turn-ons until they actually experience them. And thereby, I have talked my own way out of one of my quibbles. (If you continue to have quibbles about this, feel free to respond in the comments).

Other Blogathon Posts:

Backslash Scott

Zungu Zungu

Method to the Madness


Sky, Soil & Everything in Between


Sandman Re-Blog Issue #17: Calliope


This one feels a little like a reset button. "Calliope" retells the story from Issue 1, about imprisoning an immortal being, but everything's better this time around.

The artwork has started to take on a life of its own and the story seems to have more focus.

I struggled a little bit with the "nice fiction" tropes Gaiman uses to tell us how evil Erasmus Fry and Richard Madoc are (nice fiction being the Barbara Kingsolver trope of "not only are they black of heart, but in case you have any doubt, they also murder Jews and eat children!") When Madoc's first act was to brutally rape Calliope, I just thought, really?

A writer's blocked author gets his hands on a thousand year old muse and THAT's the first thing he does? Apart from being improbable, it leaves no room for moral ambiguity. Madoc's not doing this because he's desperately divorced from his creativity, which is a powerful motive, but because he's just plain evil. And that has the effect of dulling some of the satire as his star rises, about how he becomes vain, moves to America, etc. His journey is not from desperate writer to king of the world to Grecian fall from grace. It's from asshole to asshole.

But moving on. As usual, the god-level intrigue is far more interesting. Calliope is the daughter of the Hecatae, the three witches.

Morpheus, that lothario, once sired a child with Calliope. The child: Orpheus! Hmm...I wonder if this story of stories will find a way to retell that most famous story? I'll never tell. Until we get there anyway.

Needless to say, file Calliope's relationship with Morpheus as: "It's complicated." We are not allowed to discover exactly how complicated in this story, but it's strong enough that when Morpheus escapes his prison, he comes to free Calliope from hers.

And then we get to one of the most famously amazing endings in the story. Morpheus apparently ascribes to the Joss Whedon credo of "give 'em what they want, in the worst way possible."

The punishment for Richard Madoc? A neverending stream of inspiration. Inspiration that washes over him like a tsunami, leaving neither room nor time for actual writing or for any sort of sane thought. Once again, Morpheus's punishment is a complete removal from reality.

This issue, for me, is what made me fall in love. This is when Sandman really stops being an alternative superhero fable, and more of a ponderous journey of ideas. It becomes mind expanding, rather than diverting. And I can't wait to read the next one.

Coming up: Cats! Thousands of Them!

Sandman Re-Blog Issue #16: Doll's House, "Lost Hearts," or Desire Behaves Rather Strangely



I think the most important thing to take away from Doll's House in its entirety is that Rose is pretty awesome. I admit I was worried when we first met her, but she has more than redeemed herself. I'm not sure I've loved her more than this moment:

"I don't understand it, but I believe it."

No whining, no existential crises, just a simple acknowledgment of what's happening. Sure, she's a little confused as to WHY it's happening, but aren't we all?


That is one of the classic "twists" that creative writing classes try to prevent. You know the ones: it was all a dream, actually this is purgatory, we've all been trippin' on PCP, etc. But if ever the line "and then she woke up" is appropriate, it's here. It's a credit to Gaiman's restraint that he hasn't used this line until now.

In fact, he's killing two cliches in one stone: not only does the phrase end the previous story, it begins Rose's new story. And waking up is equally hackneyed at the front of a story as at the end. But it feels right here. Beautiful even.

That said, there is another twist that does not really work for me: that Unity is in fact the Vortex, and Rose somehow inherits that status. It's a handy way to keep Rose alive and fulfil Unity's purpose, but the whole creation of the Vortex mystifies me. So Desire had sex with Unity and therefore Unity becomes the Vortex? Til now, I thought it was some random aligning of the cosmos that selected Rose Walker, and I would have been more satisfied if that was the case. The new twist means that not only is Dream a servant, a doll, of humanity, he can't even protect his domain from his less powerful younger sister. And I don't like the implications of that. It weakens him as a character.

Also, at the moment Desire's scheming feels extremely pointless. Creating Morpheus's love for Nada, yes, that makes sense within the context of what we know about Desire. But to what end would Desire have Dream kill one of his own family? By manipulating him to do so, she is not influencing his desires at all; he merely acts to destroy the Vortex out of responsibility to his kingdom.

Separately, now that I'm thinking about it, isn't it possible that Desire's act actually SAVED the Dreaming? When Unity Kincaid came of age to become the vortex, Dream was trapped and wouldn't have been able to do anything about it. His kingdom was in tatters, his powers at an all time low. Unity might actually have destroyed the Dreaming completely. So by moving the Vortex down a couple of generations, didn't Desire inadvertently create a situation where he could act to save his domain? I wouldn't accuse Desire of anything altruistic; she probably didn't know. But oh, the vagaries of chance.


See, didn't I tell you domains are important? Gilbert isn't a who, but a place. He is a domain unto himself, but isn't even master of his own domain. It's such a lovely idea, that places have character and personality. This is one of the ideas that really stuck with me long after I first read Sandman.

"What a wonderful place!"

"Yeah, it was a friend of mine."


Doll's House as a whole sets up many characters and themes that will dominate the series in later issues; pay attention to the denizens of the Doll's House, for they do not emerge unscathed from their proximity to the vortex.

I am going to pay a lot more attention to Desire's actions, because even when I first read the series I did not give them a whole lot of consideration. Of course she's important as a facet of humanity, but I want to pinpoint her importance to the Endless, to this particular universe, apart from being an irritatingly smug thorn in everyone's side.


Caine Prize Review: Tim Keegan: "What Molly Knew"



As always, you too can read the story here: "What Molly Knew"

There are things the story handles remarkably well, and things it doesn't. It was overly expository. It seemed to "tell" rather than "show" for the most part. But at last, we're in a story that has policemen instead of soldiers, working class poverty instead of famine, telephones instead of letters to nobody. A lot of my fellow bloggers have said this is their favorite story so far: I agree. It's still a major downer, but at least it's not poverty porn.

I feel like the story really hinges on how we, the reader, feel about Molly. I get the feeling the author expects us to sympathize with her, but I find myself disliking her immensely, never more than when she burns the letter her daughter wrote. That act perhaps functions better as a metaphor for colonialization; the colonial powers know what they did, they accept it, and then they attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility by ratcheting up or even creating tensions between disparate groups. So the powers arbitrarily divide India and Pakistan, moves Israelis into Palestine, invent racial disparity between Hutus and Tutsis, and so on. It's the most devious sort of scorched earth policy, where contemporary political scientists ignore the fact that the colonialists started it all, and just blame "racial conflagrations" instead.

But it basically tells me that Molly has no interest in her own agency. She's not being deprived of it; she could take that letter to the Inspector, she could get her husband thrown in jail, she could have listened and believed what her daughter had been trying to tell her for years. But no. She's utterly passive. She has no interest in her own fate, therefore it's impossible for me to have an interest in her fate. In fact, by burning the letter she actually decides to be active instead of passive, and to ACT AGAINST her own interest, the interest of her son-in-law, and continue to act against the interest of her daughter.

Rollo may have raped Sarah, but Molly could have stopped it at any time. And that makes her reprehensible. On a personal note, I very much believe that many of society's ills are accounted for by people acting flagrantly against their own rational self-interest, certainly in the United States at least. So it really bothers me to see Molly handicap herself in this way.

I feel like this might have  been alleviated in two ways: first, Rollo could have been less of a cartoon villain. There is literally NOTHING redeeming about him. And I'm sorry, hunger pangs do not overall fear of nightly beatings and rape of your daughter unless there's some other attraction to him. But there isn't. Second, Keegan could have clarified the relationship between Molly and Sarah. That relationship never comes alive to me, it's never clear why Molly would simply sacrifice her for her own contentment/survival. The author keeps saying how much Molly loves Sarah, but nothing she does is an act of love toward her daughter.

All that said, I did enjoy the mystery around the son-in-law. We really don't get to know him very well, but what we do learn makes me want to know more. His internal contradictions are lovely ways to show how race and nationality aren't as clear-cut as we like to think.

Feel free to weigh in in the comments. How did you feel about this story? About Molly?

Reviewnalysis: Suzanne Collins's "Hunger Games"




Read it, read it now, and love it. It's the perfect antidote to my obsession with Infinite Jest, it's fun, it's fast, it's dark and it's plotty. And you won't be able to put it down (I certainly couldn't. Nor the sequel. OMG is that the sun coming up?). Just be warned: it's easily the most violent novel written since Clockwork Orange.


Picture America as a giant Cost-Co, with the center, the Capitol, overseeingly 12 districts that each concentrate on different goods: electronics, coal, agricultural goods, etc. 75 years before, the districts rebelled against the tyranny of the capitol, which was committed to leaving District citizens in lives of poverty and hardship. But they failed. Now, each District is required to give two teenagers in tribute to fight a battle to the death. Naturally, this is the must-see television event of the year.


Ok, so far so Battle Royale, right? In truth the opening scenes of selecting the candidates for the Hunger Games by lottery reminded me of, well, The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson. (And also Ursula K. Leguin's "The Ones from Omelas", to a lesser extent.)

But the main strength of the novel lies in Collins's treatment of her setting. She treats it with seriousness and with gravity, not with irony. Her satire of the military-entertainment complex is subtle and barbed, not an excuse to fill the novel with cheap jokes about reality tv. (In fact, by giving the residents of the Capitol Roman names, one is put more in mind of Gladiators than of reality television. I suspect Collins is making a point about the timelessness of human cruelty, the ultimate cruelty being the ability to a) look the other way from it and b) watch it happening and remain indifferent.)

Our erstwhile protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to be the District 12 tribute in place of her EXTREMELY, dare I say ANNOYINGLY beloved sister, Prim. (Prim is the Beth March character, loved because she's "nice and kind," and therefore I assume she's definitely toast by the end of the series). She leaves poverty-stricken District 12 for the Capitol, an Eloi-land populated by indolent fashionistas who sit around gorging themselves. But in a way, just as all the districts are imprisoned into glorified labor camps, the Capitol is imprisoned by its own vices. In this division of labor, they are the entertainment labor.

Like most quality dystopian fiction, the book leaves us considering the subtle implications of our own public policy, in this case about the nature of exploitation and labor division. In some ways, Panem is the desired conclusion of free market policy; the goal of global free markets is that different nations specialize in producing whatever they are competitively superior at producing (i.e. one nation provides labor, one nature provides technology, one provides textiles, one provides agriculture, etc.) Of course, the instant you throw a totalitarian government into the mix you get communo-fascism. Basically, Panem is China.


And speaking of watching and doing nothing, we are the voyeurs who cannot look away. What happens to Katniss, the entire structure of the Games themselves, is absolutely brutal. I've never seen such violence. God only knows how they're going to make a sub-R movie of this considering all the blood, dismemberment and general horror (and nudity! Did I mention all the random nudity? People just strip off randomly and let people stare at them).

So when Katniss is in danger, we really feel she's in danger.

I feel it necessary at this point to convey my extreme love for Katniss Everdeen. She is a total badass. I find it fascinating that Collins doesn't fall into the conceit of making her some kind of perfect moralist; Katniss is very, very flawed, and that's what makes her unpredictable. She has serious misgivings about what she's been asked to do, but when push comes to shove, she finds more clever and more brutal ways to murder her competitors than anyone else. For that is the true horror of the Games; it exists not just to control society, but to dehumanize its citizens. Victors of the Games don't move on to glory and happiness; they live lives of gin-soaked guilt like Haymitch.


  • I don't know if I missed something important, but there's a sequence in the novel where Katniss seems to wake up in her tree, have a few thoughts, then go back to sleep. This happens about four times in a row, and I just kept wondering where the other hunters were. She wasn't injured, I don't think, so it was just strange. It was a strange, improbably interlude that stands out in a novel where everything feels entirely too plausible.
  • Now, one of my favorite things about this novel was the fake romance that had to be drummed up between Peeta and Katniss. It was entertaining and uncomfortable at every level, and I loved how Katniss treated it as a matter of practicality (did I mention that I love Katniss?). But I'm not so keen on how the cliffhanger was a romantic twist rather than a more general plot twist. It made me worry that the sequel would focus too much on teen love angst (and for the record, I was right). That said, I did fall head-over-heels in love with Peeta in this.


On Being Homesick For Food: Dal Is the Greatest Comfort

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Being a total mongrel (I'm a first generation Indian-American who grew up in Texas, California, Indonesia, and India and now lives in London) I don't have the clearest concept of "home" or "hometowns" or "home countries" or any of that. So when I get homesick, I get homesick not for places, but for food (and people, of course). The thing is, as a born and bred Texan, I get equally homesick for the healthy South Indian food I grew up with as I do for Mexican food of all varieties (Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, Indo-Mex, Mex-Mex, you name it).

Boy, when I need Mexican food, I have to have Mexican food. London is not great for this, admittedly. Luckily there are two burrito places within 5 minutes walking that are, in my opinion, superior to Chipotle. And of course there's Wahaca, which has possibly the best Mexican food I've ever had anywhere.

But if you're desperate for comfort food and don't want to eat out, let's face it. You can't really whip up an easy enchilada.

But the foods of my ancestral home? Far simpler (perhaps not simpler, but certainly less effortful).

Which brings me to Dal, the savory yellow porridge that feeds millions every day. I can't pretend to cook any South Indian food as well as my mother or my grandmother, except for Dal. I default to it so often that I've experimented it into relative perfection (spicy, tangy, umami with a hint of sweetness).

It's cheap, it's easy, and it's quick. What's better than that?

Serves 6


For pressure cooking:

  • 1 cup yellow dal (doesn't matter which, but moong tends to give the best texture)
  • 2 fresh tomatoes (chopped), or half a can of diced tomatoes
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
  • 2 green chillies, slit down the middle
  • Optional: Any vegetable, preferably zucchini
  • Optional: Fenugreek/methi if you have it

For the tadka (lightly fried spices that go in at the end):

  • 1 tbsp oil of your choosing (olive is healthiest though, folks)
  • 2 dried red chillies
  • 1 tbsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • Pinch of asafoetida

Before serving:

  • 1 tbsp salt
  • Mango powder/lime juice
  • Fresh coriander
  • Rice or Chapati/Nan, whatever you prefer (I choose rice every time)


  1. Place first set of ingredients into the pressure cooker along with FOUR cups of water. (If you don't have a pressure cooker, then you're gonna have to leave it to boil for AGES. Ages in this case defined as "around 30 minutes on medium-high but pay attention"
  2. Let cook until you hear FOUR whistles, which typically takes 5 minutes in all.
  3. Remove lid once pressure is released, and turn on to low heat. Add water if it's a little thick for your taste (I like it thick myself. That's what she said.)
  4. Once the dal is cooked, heat oil in frying pan.
  5. First put the mustard seeds. Once they start crackling, add the rest of the spices.
  6. Once they're cooked, (I wish I had a handy way of telling you how you know they're cooked, but I don't. This is when the old olfactory gland is useful, I find), add them to the dal in the pressure cooker.
  7. Add salt, and let simmer for about 5 minutes, then turn off heat and add lime/lemon juice or mango powder (or something tart) to taste. Also coriander leaves.
  8. Serve with rice or bread, or eat on its own.

Variations: I like to add green peas, but I know that's not always a popular choice, but hey.

And there you have it! Our first edition of Oncoming Comfort Foods. (and oncoming foods in general).

Weigh in in the comments. What are your favorite comfort foods? Do you have any special "dal" tricks?

Katy Perry's New Music Video



I was going to set the tone for the blog redesign with something serious and ponderous, but then I saw Katy Perry's new video and it was all over.


Why is Kenny G in this?

And DEBBIE GIBSON? (which reminds me, I need to see Dinosaur vs. Sharktopus)

And COREY FELDMAN? (I thought he was dead, but turns out that's the other Corey!)

And HANSON?!? Like, seriously, HANSON?!?

This is the most ridiculous video in the history of music videos, and I love it.

Not to mention how Katy Perry runs through the John Hughes geek characters, for which I give massive respect.

Song sucks, as you would expect, but that's totally irrelevant in this case :).


Caine Prize Blogathon: "Butterfly Dreams" by Beatrice Lamwaka


Hello and welcome to the second entry in our Caine Prize Blogathon! This week we're reading "Butterfly Dreams" by Beatrice Lamwaka, which you can read for free here:

After last week's foray into the Caine Prize nominees, I was sincerely hoping that the quality would only improve with each story. Sadly, I am disappointed. "Butterfly Dreams" fails both in the mechanics of its writing and in its storytelling, leaving no cliché unturned. Once again, it's a story about a child, and this time I'm not inclined to be as forgiving. Apologies in advance if I'm a bit harsh, but this story really rubbed me the wrong way (and I'm possibly making up for being too kind last week).

Boy, you name an African development storytelling cliché, this story's got it, from child soldier to displacement camps to walking to school though bombs to cartoonishly evil rebel soldiers. For a ten page story, it sure packs in a bunch of tropes.

This reminds me of what my fellow first generation Indian-Americans and I used to refer to as the "mangoes and jasmine" problem of Indian literature as published in the U.S. We would put down any book right away if we saw the phrases "the air was filled with the scent of jasmine" or "ripe, juicy mangoes" in any novel or short story.

In terms of African fiction, I'm starting to feel the same way about "abducted children" and "the rebels laughed." Perhaps interesting and novel ways of telling this story do exist, but Lamwaka has not found it.


If a writer chooses an unusual structure to tell a story, there must be a clear narrative purpose served, otherwise it comes off as a)showboating or b)lazy. Sadly, this story fits into the latter. The writer clearly had the seeds of an idea, a letter to a child soldier from the living family, and then ran with it without ever considering the purpose of communicating in this fashion to said child soldier. It doesn't tell a story of a family coping, in fact I'm not sure what it's about, it takes so many twists and turns. The constant switching from past to present tense certainly doesn't help. By the conclusion, are we meant to assume that the story is about Lamunu finally, improbably being saved? Or that a broken family has placed all their hopes in the prodigal child? I can keep guessing, but I'll spare you.

This writing is extremely clunky. The prose and syntax are halting and dry, and the whole tone feels incredibly artificial. For example, when Lamwaka writes: "We also didn't want your tipu to roam northern Uganda," are we expected to believe that locals would use the clinically geographical term of "northern Uganda"? Apart from being syntactically implausible, the narrator is a displaced person. Being displaced automatically means a sort of surrender of not only place but the very concept of place, so again, that clinical description just does not ring true.

Also, you just can't use local language signifiers like tipu and malakwang and also use words like "ululated," at least not if you're narrating from the perspective of any real human being. Ululating leapt off the page and bashed me over the head with an umbrella until I could never forget it (and I still can't. Dreadful word choice).

I cannot for the life of me understand the value in this story or in acknowledging it as 'best African writing.' The same story is told a million times elsewhere, and in infinitely better ways. I hope my blog-a-thon colleagues can offer some sort of defense or counterpoint, but I am really disappointed with this one.

Sandman Re-Blog: Issue #15 Into the Night, or, Sandman meets Infinite Jest





Part of the reason I've been a little lax about these Sandman Re-Blogs is that I've been sucked into the bottomless abyss that is Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. These are not two works that you would imagine a lot of crossover with, but more and more I can't help thinking what a great comic book series Infinite Jest would make. In fact, Wallace's trademark footnotes would work perfectly well as the sort of asides that are common in Sandman: quick cuts to the Dreaming, stray thoughts invading, passages and passages of loving description converted into art, etc.

In this issue, especially, the parallels leap out, particularly in regard to our friendly gothic sisters, Chantal and Zelda. Here, as with Joelle van Dyne, we have two beautiful girls with no outward deformity hiding behind veils. Chantal dreams of perfect sentences, as does Avril Incandenza. They are both willfully committed to this Doll's House.

In many ways, the Doll's House is the equivalent of Ennet House in IJ: these people aren't trapped there, they aren't locked in, they can leave at will, but for various reasons they don't (at least not yet). They are drawn body and soul to this place, whether that's because of Rose or whether that's because of something else within themselves. (Does this make Don Gately a vortex?)

We meet Gilbert the same way we meet Lenz: in a dark alley, dressed as a vigilante superhero. Like Lenz, Gilbert has other places to be, but he's content to be here (more than content, actually). Gilbert is not a serial killer in training though, of course.

But apart from the superficial similarity, there's a larger confluence in theme: these are people regarded as grotesques by mainstream society and are searching to find their true humanity, which seems only accessible in non-reality i.e. dreams in Sandman or addiction in Infinite Jest.

Likewise, dreams reveal lack of humanity. Look at Ken, going through the motions. In his dreams he is everything he wants to be, and what he wants to be isn't human at all, it's a caricature, it's a Bret Easton Ellis stereotype.


I said I'd come back to the whole issue of space and city and domain, and here we are. 
We are introduced to the necropolis in Zelda's dream: the city of the dead.

I believe I'd discussed before how the Dreaming appears to operate as a quasi-feudal system, with Dream sitting in the throne room, not micro-managing, but broadly guiding the kingdom. So it's interesting when Rose says "Each mind creates and inhabits its own world, and each world is but a tiny part of that totality that is the dreaming..." and then proceeds to break down the boundaries to create a single dreaming. So that suggests me that rather than executive ruler, Dream is more of a judiciary leader, a Supreme Court of sorts dedicated to maintaining the separation of different dreams. He creates and administers the rules, (and punishes offenders like the Corinthian) but does not govern the whole of the Dreaming. He just governs his judicial branch, as it were, with Lucien, Matthew, et al.


I'm probably not the first to comment on this, but I do wonder about Zelda being drawn explicitly in the style of John Tenniel's original Alice in Wonderland illustrations: See Alice Here. Going by the stories being told, it would be more fitting for Barbie to be drawn in that style, as she enters a sort of late Victorian fairytale herself, complete with anthropomorphic animals and magical talismans.

Next Issue: We Conclude The Doll's House

The Moment that Infinite Jest Broke Me: Ruminations on Tennis




59% was the moment that Infinite Jest put a claw around my heart, almost making it stop. 59%, when Hal decides to follow a serve in to the net, and makes a stutter-step at the service line.

The entire novel, David Foster Wallace has been speaking of a fictional tennis academy, that is, to my mind, fictional. He never attended one of those strange boarding school academies and neither did I. I often wondered why he chose that setting, as alien as it is, then realised he chose it BECAUSE of how alien those places are. I've played plenty of tournaments at tennis academies all over Texas, at St. Stephen's, at John Newcombe's, and so on. But we who were not so hallowed always wondered: what exactly went on in those places?

Places where 12 year olds are surgically excised from their tennis parents and from emotional support. Places where 16 year olds gather nightly in supervised common rooms to discuss...what exactly? tennis scores? Certainly they had nothing else happening in their lives to talk about.

Wallace speaks of a mystical place, where honor is treasured above all else, where the prorector has to lie about killer instincts. This is his fantasy of what happens at those places, where false commitments to humanity lead to neurosis and addiction. Now I don't know about the personal lives of the academy players I encountered, but I can tell you one thing; most of those I encountered do not treasure honor. They cheat on line calls, stealing points, the highwaymen of the tennis court.

But I respect Wallace's fantasy.

I was also bound for the mythical show. I was a 14 year old tennis prodigy, ranked #2 in the state of Texas, whose entire confidence was derailed with a single ankle break. I can tell you exactly where it happened; I can tell you the court number if you cared.

So when Hal approaches the net and makes that stutter-step, in the middle of a match that signifies the end of his domination, I have to put the book down. I can't bear it, not for Hal, and not myself. It's a split second moment, nothing more, where I know that everything is about to change for Hal.

This is the moment when his confidence is broken. We already know, from the non-linear nature of the story, that Hal does not end up going to the Show, as he has been meant to all his life. I feel his heart break, and it reminds me of my own.

Poem of the Day: "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace"

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I chose this because of a fantastic BBC documentary series I've been watching by the same name, which essentially traces the democratizing effects of networks and systems from Ayn Rand's thought through Silicon Valley's network utopians and then back through nature itself.

I've been reading a lot of Brautigan over the past year, but this is a different beast. Rather than his typical humorous anti-poetry, here he expresses sentiments that might have inspired Philip K. Dick dystopia.

It sums up the political theory driving the whole series: that computer systems will replace so-called governance as the guidance for ordered society, but only if man can create computer networks as free, open and structured as ecological systems.

I honestly wonder if some BBC producer read this poem and then created a documentary series to illustrate it.

"All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace"
by Richard Brautigan

I'd like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think

  • (right now, please!)

of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think

  • (it has to be!)

of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Caine Prize Review: "Hitting Budapest"

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Well folks, they've just announced the 2011 shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing, featuring five short stories (all are available to read at the website linked). I'm joining the wonderful Aaron Bady at zunguzungu, along with a few other bloggers, in reading and reviewing the pieces before the winner is announced.

I'm going to be honest from the get-go: I cannot provide the depth and quality of socio-political analysis that Aaron can regarding the African continent, so I won't even try. I'm going to focus on the works from an English literature perspective with a touch of international politics.

The prize will be announced in five weeks, so you'll be getting one review per week. But enough business, let's move on to the first story!

"Hitting Budapest" by Noviolet Bulawayo

The first thing that strikes me about this story is its strong sense of internal rhythm, almost childlike, and certainly accidental.

There's an interesting juxtaposition of dream vs. resignation within the story, the consequences of which are conveyed through basic childhood emotions of greed or jealousy and desires for conformity (if I'm a miserable Bastard, than you need to be one too).

I'm usually a bit wary of having this type of story told through the eyes of children (often the results and so-called insights are banal and cheaply manipulative) but Bulawayo takes the "Lord of the Flies" approach of conveying difficult conditions through dark humor rather than the Barbara Kingsolver approach of "and then they must kill their own babies! See who horrible their lives are? Cry now."

This is the power of hearing these stories from the voices of the native writers. Western writers, no matter how well intentioned, cannot help but inject heaping doses of pity, cannot help amplify the misery so that they can make themselves feel more grateful about their own world.

Instead, we get to hear from writers for whom this is reality, not tourism. Because it's their reality, they learn to accept it, not spend the entirety of their time looking for greener grass. Even when Darling states his life plan of moving to America, we get a subtle hint that that's not just a dream, or a hope, but something more simple. He wants to lord it over his friend that he could potentially get out, and Bastard can't.

It's this tension between the harsh conditions and adolescent one upmanship that drives the story forward. In this simple childhood play lies the seeds of violence, of corruption. Right now, when faced head on with their deprivation in the form of lust for the visitor's tossed away food, they scream like animals outside her house. When faced again and again with that deprivation, how will these children contort? What will they become?


Here are links to other excellent posts on the subject (many are not as kind as I am, but I always say look for the bright side! And the line "because her grandfather made her pregnant" really does hit like a soppy ton of bricks. But jump into the conversation!

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