Ramen shop, directed by Eric Khoo, is a movie from Singapore with a slight plot (trailer), but who cares? The real star is the food. A young Japanese ramen shop worker’s father—a legendary ramen chef—dies. The son, in his early 20s, and a skilled chef himself, goes in search of his roots in Singapore. That’s where his father met his Chinese mother. He isn’t seeking just family connection, but also culinary roots, as a precious childhood memory is his uncle’s spare rib soup, bak kut teh. You see a lot of this dish being made (I’m using an online recipe to try it myself this week!) The healing power of food and the closeness inspired by cooking together as a family are sweetly invoked. If you don’t eat dinner before going to this film, you may end up chewing the sleeve of your jacket! Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 86%; audiences: 83%.
In Search of Beethoven
The composer’s 250th birthday year is generating numerous celebratory concerts and events, including resurrection of this 2009 documentary, written and directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer). Featuring a great many fine European pianists, string players, and orchestras, to a great extent the film lets the music speak for itself. It makes nice use of street scene photography (Bonn, Vienna), paintings and sculptures of the artist, and charming drawings of city life in the 1800s. The director is a frequent user of extreme closeup, in which you can almost feel the piano keys and violin strings under the musicians’ fingertips, which creates an unusual intimacy with the music. Nice sprinkle of talking heads and thoughtful narration. You come away feeling as if you’ve been to one of the best concerts ever. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 80%.
In Hollywood’s haste to release
films under the wire for this year’s Oscars, a number of excellent movies appeared
during the holiday season, and I haven’t even seen them all yet. But I would
Ford v Ferrari – One of the most exciting films I’ve seen in a long time,
and not a single spy in sight, other than the corporate kind (trailer). And the
tension held, even though I knew the ending. Yes, some of the corporate doings
of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his management team were fictionalized, but
not Ford’s 1966 accomplishments on the LeMans race course. Wisely, Ford
entrusted creation of his racing vehicles to legendary engineer Carroll Shelby
(Matt Damon), who insisted on using his favorite driver, Ken Miles (Christian
Bale). Damon and Bale are perfection. Rotten Tomatoes
critics rating 92%; audiences 98%.
Little Women – So much has been said about how writer/director Greta
Gerwig draws new insights from this much-produced tale. Her framing of the
story of four sisters growing up in the mid-19th century works (trailer), and in sister Jo’s
(Saoirse Ronan’s) negotiations with her publisher (Tracy Letts again), the
blending of Jo with author Louisa May Alcott is clear. Amy (Florence Pugh) receives
a more well-rounded treatment than usual. She has the best lines of the movie,
suggested by Meryl Streep, when she matter-of-factly explains to Laurie (Timothée
Chalamet) that marriage for a woman is not a question of love, but finances. Rotten Tomatoes
critics rating 95%; audiences 92%.
Dark Waters – Tales of crusading lawyers and journalists (think Spotlight,
The Post) are especially refreshing in these times, when idealism seems quaintly
outmoded. The film is based on the true story of how a determined Cincinnati
lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) takes on DuPont for covering up the damaging health
effects of Teflon exposure (trailer). He persists,
even though the head of his law firm (Tim Robbins), which serves many corporate
clients, is reluctant; his wife (Anne Hathaway) thinks he’s unhinged; his kids
grow up; and the powerful company works for two decades to shut him down. Rotten Tomatoes
critics rating 90%; audiences 95%.
Knives Out – It’s very entertaining to see writer/director Rian
Johnson put this great cast—among them, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni
Collette, and Ana de Armas—through its paces (trailer). Wealthy family
patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who made a fortune writing
mystery stories (this is fiction, remember) is found dead of an apparent
suicide. But was it? Not only do his children stand to inherit, but they all
have additional motives to kill him. Or do they? Courtly Southern detective Benoit
Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives to sort lies from truth. Rotten Tomatoes critics
rating 97%; audiences 92%.
“Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron,
ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple, rinds and raisins and walnuts
and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings:
why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.” –Truman Capote, A Christmas
Memory – Hear it
“This,” said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, “this is, indeed, comfort.”
“Our invariable custom,” replied Mr. Wardle. “Everybody sits down with us on
Christmas eve, as you see them now—servants and all; and here we wait, until
the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with
forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.” Up flew the
bright sparks in myriads as the logs were stirred. The deep red blaze sent
forth a rich glow, that penetrated into the furthest corner of the room, and
cast its cheerful tint on every face. —Charles Dickens, “A Good-Humored
28 from The Pickwick Papers.
“’Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung
Our families back in England were toasting us that day
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.” –John McCutcheon, “Christmas in the
Trenches.” See it performed
You know how the photos of Christmas cookies in recipes are always Martha
Stewart-perfect? Take heart. Here’s a site with some of the ugliest cookies ever. You’ve
Now I’m off to wrap last-minute gifts, to the accompaniment of this holiday classic from The Waitresses.
Back in 2020!! Happy New Year! Celebrate with these Dancing Fireworks from the Pyronale 2019!
Visiting the sights near Cairo, we
criss-crossed centuries even more than we traversed the local geography. Yet, as
ancient as the Egyptian civilization is, its legacy can be found in our own
The tour took us first to the
Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square, a few short blocks from our hotel. There are
collected some of the finest examples of the ancient culture’s sculptures and
artifacts, though they are crowded together with little contemporary museum
curation and context-setting, so that it’s hard to keep straight what relates
to what. This situation will be remedied with the opening of the huge new Grand
Egyptian Museum, expected next year.
Gradually over the course of the
tour, when we saw other monuments, the treasures from that first day began to fit
into place. My favorite room in the museum was the one containing likenesses of
Pharaoh Akhenaten. Husband of Nefertiti, he was such an interesting character (and subject
of a Philip Glass opera). His elongated features and sensuous lips are markedly
different from the typical square-faced, mildly benevolent expression of most pharaonic
The oldest monuments near Cairo
that we saw were at Sakkara and Memphis, the Old Kingdom capital of Egypt.
Sakkara is an ancient burial ground for Memphis—Egypt’s capital 4500 years ago.
(The Tennessee city was given the same name because it too, is on a great
The area includes a beautiful
temple and the famous “step pyramid,” the world’s oldest major stone edifice,
built during the Third Dynasty for the pharaoh Djoser. It was the Egyptians’
first foray into this pyramid shape, something they later perfected with
different building methods. The step pyramid’s architect was Imhotep, and there’s
an archaeological museum there dedicated to him.
In Memphis are the beautifully
detailed remains, if you can call them that, of a massive limestone statue of
Ramses II, who ruled 3300 years ago, in the 19th Dynasty. Standing,
it would be over 30 feet tall. He may be old, but he’s still impressive! (His
statues inspired Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”: “ʻLook on my works, ye Mighty and
Highlight of any Egypt trip is a
visit to the pyramids of Giza, a Cairo suburb. You can be gazing at the
pyramids, turn around, and there’s a city. They are the perfection of the
pyramid form, used as tombs by the Old Kingdom Pharaohs. The largest is that of
Khufu (Cheops), the second largest is that of his son Khafre, and the third
largest that of Khafre’s son, Menkaure. Smaller pyramids for wives are nearby.
From a distance, the pyramids look smooth, like the pyramid on the back of the US $1 bill. But up close, their profile is jagged because of the stepwise layers of stone. Each of these stones is enormous, weighing several tons.
Theories still conflict about how
the pyramids were constructed, but our guide emphasized that they were not
built by slaves. Evidence has been found that during the limited
construction season, workers came from all over Egypt to fulfill their one-time
obligation to their ruler and were advised to consider it a privilege. I hope
It’s Khafre’s pyramid that has the unfinished-looking top. We learned that all the pyramids at one time had an exterior limestone layer that did make the surface smooth. Alas, thieves looted the limestone for other construction, and that bit at the top is all that’s left. Amazing as they are, they must have been even more so in those days. You can go inside Khufu’s pyramid, but it’s a very confined passageway and you have to crouch down to get through it. I declined. The taller men who went came back with skinned scalps. Treasures from inside are all in the museum or looted long ago.
We were told that one of the huge limestone blocks used in creating Khafre’s pyramid turned out to have flaws, so he directed his architect to make a statue out of it. From that block the Sphinx was carved, an animal with the body of a lion and head of a human–an Egyptian mythological invention. Repeatedly over the millennia, the Sphinx has been covered in sand, including when Napoleon Bonaparte came to Egypt in 1798, an encounter memorialized in a famous painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme that, amusingly, cuts the grand Napoleon down to size.
What to wear? Inevitably, some
American tourists did not get the message that conservative dress is preferred
in Egypt—no shorts, no tank tops, no short skirts, no excessive display of skin.
While this standard is pretty much adhered to in Cairo and, certainly, in
mosques throughout the country (where you are expected to show the skin on your
feet), near the monuments in the blazing desert sun, Bermuda-length shorts are
more the rule, especially for men tourists. Many women wore capri pants. Jeans,
which tend to be too form-fitting, were rare among women tourists. (I should
add that most visitors, on our tour and others, were “of a certain age.”)
Although I wouldn’t have
expected it, my shirts with three-quarter, loose-fitting sleeves were just as
comfortable as short sleeves, because they protected my arms from the sun. I
got a last wearing out of my somewhat battered hat from Hawai`i with the wide
brim. Women tourists were never expected to cover our hair, although most of us
had scarves or shawls that could have served that purpose.
But what about the Egyptians? In
Cairo, the men generally wear Western dress. The women wear long sleeves, long
pants or skirts, and cover their hair with the hijab, usually a colorful one.
Occasionally you see a Cairo woman wearing the enveloping abaya (almost
always in black; it looks suffocating) and wears the veil. The farther south
you travel, the more women are so attired. Wearing the faceveil (the niqab) is
seen by many as a political act in support of Islamism, not a religious duty, and
the country’s leadership has tried to
In the south, many men wear the
long garment called the gellabiya. Most often, as I remember it, the
gellabiya is gray, as it is in the photo of workmen at a construction site
outside the Temple of Dendera. As every woman knows, a skirt is often cooler
than slacks, because its movement creates a little breeze—automatic air
conditioning. Many southern men wear a small turban. These keep the sun from
beating down directly on their heads and are common among farmers in their
Our tour guide told us that in much of the 20th century, Egyptian women did not cover their hair. But in the 1970s, when satellite television came to Egypt, there were many broadcasts by imams of Saudi Arabia’s conservative Wahhabi sect, who claimed that to be a “good Muslim” and go to heaven, women should cover. Eventually, our guide said, the authorities stopped these broadcasts, but the seed was sown. With about a third of Egypt’s population being Coptic Christian, you wouldn’t expect that headscarf-wearing would appear so near-universal.
The first question almost everyone asked when they learned I
was traveling to Egypt had to do with safety. So let me tell you what has been
done to protect tourists—vitally important to the country, as tourism is a
multibillion-dollar source of revenue and a huge employer. Tourism is on the
rise again in Egypt, and our guide estimated it’s reached about 80 percent of
pre-2011 levels. It’s an odd balancing act, really, with concerns about safety
on one hand and wanting to see these popular monuments sans crowds on the other.
Friends who visited Egypt shortly after the Arab spring had
the Valley of the Kings almost to themselves. By contrast, we visited it on the
same 95-degree day as the vice-premiere of China and his many perspiring,
black-suited minions, big video cameras, and hangers-on. That was a special
case, but you could see how a crowd affects the experience.
There is a big police presence in Egypt, and wherever you
drive, as you enter a new jurisdiction, there are knots of police, road
barriers that must be negotiated—drivers cannot just barrel through—and
elevated sentry posts, most of which have six or eight inches of a rifle barrel
sticking out of them. If the young man inside sees you driving by in your bus,
he smiles and waves.
As I understand it, whenever 10 or more tourists travel anywhere, they must be accompanied by the Tourist Police, and several times our three buses had to await the arrival of our police escort. Usually that escort consists of a police car in front or behind. In one rural area, the accompanying officer was so energized by this assignment that he gave us lights and sirens—charming and embarrassing in equal measure. Traveling to some sites, our security detail also involved a plainclothes policeman (always a man) traveling with us inside each bus. Yes, they were armed. Once when I lagged behind the group to take a picture, I noticed one of our accompanying officers discreetly hanging back to make sure I got back with the group. The tour company also had staff keeping track of us, especially in crowds, watching out for turned ankles, falls, over-insistent hawkers, and the like. Probably the right word here is teamwork.
On the boat there were police, but they were invisible to
us, and a guy whom we’d occasionally see coming in from deck patrol carrying an
AK-47. Our itinerary did not include the Red Sea or the Sinai Peninsula, where
security is likely much tighter, as that’s where most of the trouble has
All this is separate from the well-armed security personnel
working at the monuments themselves and not specifically for our tour. When we
were at the pyramids, I even saw a policeman on a camel!
The Semiramis Hotel in Cairo has two public entrances, each guarded by a clutch of uniformed police and a sniffer dog that walks around every car, even checking the trunk. It’s next door to the British Embassy and adjacent to the US Embassy, and security around those blocks is extreme—piles of big, ugly concrete block the streets, police everywhere. The US embassy is capped by something that looks like a rural water tower—stuffed with listening gear, I suppose—and has asked the hotel to confiscate guests’ binoculars. Our guide advised us of this in advance and suggested simply, don’t bring them. They are returned on check-out.
Any well organized, reputable tour company and hotel probably provides these levels of security. Was it oppressive? Not at all. I viewed it as a preventive measure. I was never made uneasy by anything or anyone I encountered, even on a post-tour day-trip to Alexandria with only a guide and a driver. And, at the major sites we always had generous “free time” to wander where we wanted to, take pictures, soak in the atmosphere. Probably when we were on group outings our escorts kept an eye on us, but it wasn’t obvious. When we struck out on our own from the hotel or boat, we were unaccompanied (and the hawkers knew it!).
I’ve listened to the book twice over the years. If the movie is as good as the book, it’s a must-see. It is for me, no matter what. Here’s my review of the book, read by Jones Allen.
Go Like Hell is the story of classic duels of machine and driver in the French countryside.There’s just enough biography of Henry Ford II (the Deuce) and Enzo Ferrari to understand the motivations of these two rivals, willing to stake their fortunes, their companies’ futures, and (all too often) their drivers’ lives on this grueling competition.
The Deuce believed—correctly—that supremacy in the racing
circuit would lead to sales of Ford cars. The components that had to be
developed to survive the 24-hour race at Le Mans were testaments to product
reliability as well as power, and many
advances originally developed for racing vehicles—such as independent
suspensions, high-performance tires, disc brakes, and push-button starters—have
found their way into passenger cars.
For Enzo Ferrari, whose interest in consumer cars was always
secondary to racing, the point was being the world’s best and proving it in the
world’s most prestigious and dangerous sports car race, Le Mans.
If you’re at all familiar with auto racing’s “golden age,”
the big names are all here: Carroll Shelby, AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill,
John Surtees, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren, and an upstart kid from Nazareth,
Pennsylvania, who took the pole position in the Indianapolis 500 the year I saw
that race, Mario Andretti. To get an idea of the speeds they achieve, Baime
notes that at top speed, they complete the 100-yard distance of a football
field in one second.
This was a fast, fun read that shifts between Dearborn,
Shelby’s racing car development team working for Ford in Southern California,
and Ferrari’s workshop in Maranello, Italy. For a Detroit girl like me, whose
grandfather, father, and many uncles worked for the Ford Motor Company, it was
a thrill a minute! But even for people who don’t get goosebumps when they hear
those Formula One engines roar, Baime’s cinematic recreation of the classic Le
Mans races of 1965, 66, and 67, with all their frustrations, excitement, and
tragedy is a spectacular true story.
Times have changed, and these past automotive battles have faded. But, hope is on the horizon. According to a 5/22/15 Jordan Golson story in Wired, new rules under consideration “could make Formula One exciting again.” Yea to that!
In a much-anticipated 17-day trip, I finally went to Egypt
this month. To see in person the legendary monuments and all the evidence of a
4000-year-old civilization was, of course, thrilling. The whole experience was
enhanced by the skill of our Grand
Circle tour guide, Gladys Haddad, who, despite her name, is Egyptian. The
overwhelming friendliness of everyone we met was heartwarming.
As you probably know, but may not have thought about, Egypt
is basically a desert. Almost all the country’s 100 million or so people live
in the narrow strip of arable land along both sides of the Nile River. Egypt’s
Western Desert, which extends to Libya, and its Eastern Desert, which extends
to the Red Sea, flank this fertile Nile valley. We were well aware of this in
Cairo, because of the tremendous amount of dust in the air and on anything not
moving, like a parked car or building. Check your plate when you sit down to
In some places, that fertile strip is miles wide, in others,
mountains encroach. There’s a sharp line between where palms, crops, and other
greenery will grow and where they will not. Here we have plants; here we don’t.
For millennia, the north-flowing Nile predictably and massively
flooded every June, bringing a thick layer of silt to the valley and recharging
the farmland soil. In the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam was built to control this
flooding, which has enabled much enlargement of the area available for farming
and building where it was impossible before. If you’ve seen old photos of the
Nile with the pyramids in the background, those were taken during the flood
season. In fact the river channel is many miles away.
In ancient times, several fingers of water flowed to the
Mediterranean, but over the centuries, many of them were blocked off, and now only
two form the Y of the delta at Alexandria.
I didn’t know or had forgotten that Sudan was originally
part of Egypt and was not an independent country until 1956. A tricky political
problem to watch is whether Sudan pursues a plan to build more dams on the southern
reaches of the Nile, closer to its headwaters. Such an act would be
catastrophic for Egypt, which has no groundwater and depends totally on the
In Cairo, our lovely Intercontinental
Hotel Semiranis overlooked the river, and, surprisingly, in this generally
conservative country, the party on the corniche 15 stories below seemed to go
all night. That I did not expect. Neon bedecked motor cruisers, water taxis,
and traditional feluccas are always out.
For a week on this trip, we were on the lovely MS Nefertiti, pictured below, cruising from Luxor south to Aswan with stops for the sights in between. 220 tourist boats (capacity 100-200) are licensed to use the river. About 80 percent of them were on the water this month, as Egypt’s tourism industry continues to recover from the dip after 2011. They dock six to nine abreast in the major ports. If we thought we were spoiled by the hotel staff, imagine 75 Americans on a ship with 63 crew! One night they set up a movie for us—what else, but Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.
“For never was a story of more woe,
than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” The
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
opened its production of this classic tragedy, directed by Ian
Belknap, runs through November 17.
You know the story. An implacable
hatred has arisen between two Verona families: the Capulets and the Montagues.
Prince Escalus (played by Jason C. Brown), fed up with the
constant street-fighting of the two households, vows to have any future
combatants executed. Romeo (Keshav Moodliar) attends a banquet
hosted by the rival Capulets in disguise. He sees their daughter Juliet (Miranda
Rizzolo), the two instantly fall in love, and Friar Lawrence (Matt
Sullivan) secretly marries them. Meanwhile, Juliet’s father (Mark Elliot
Wilson) intends her to marry wealthy Count Paris (Ryan Woods).
Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Joshua
David Robinson) is slain by a goading Tybalt of the house of Capulet (Torsten
Johnson), and Romeo slays him in revenge. Instead of executing Romeo,
Prince Escalus banishes him. Though the sentence is merciful, Romeo regards it
as a heart-breaking separation from Juliet. From there, everything goes
Over the years, seeing this play
and reading David Hewson’s admirable Juliet
and Romeo, I’ve come to recognize that, although Romeo is an effective
swordsman, with at least two notches on his scabbard, he’s something of a
weakling. He’s dreamy, falls in love too easily, and even his father laments
his lack of focus. Yet he needs to be a credible lover, a person who would
inspire passion and passionate acts. The weakness of this production is the
lack of chemistry and connection between its two eponymous characters.
Perhaps in trying to make the play
approachable for new generations, Belknap encouraged the actors to hurry along
and avoid becoming ensnared by the rhythms of Shakespeare’s prose. If so, it
didn’t work for me. At times, the main characters spoke so quickly I couldn’t
follow (from the front row). Romeo and Juliet is a wonderful play. I
want my full measure of enjoyment out of it.
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable
from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit
Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30
for theatergoers under age 30!
the average American may not encounter diabolical teen serial killers, sociopathic
torturers, or gun-toting assassins with preternatural aim and massive martial
arts skills of the types found so frequently in novels, there are plenty of real-life
tragedies to baffle our humanity and cry out for explication. Readers and
writers of crime fiction don’t have to look further than national crime statistics
to understand the interest crime stories hold.
passed on the following information from the October 2019 “violence and health”
issue of Health Affairs, the nation’s
top health policy journal. Here are some data points, drawn from the 20 or so
peer-reviewed articles—the real-life backdrop against which crime stories are
written and read.
In 2017, the United States experienced about
19,500 homicides and 47,000 suicides from all causes.
US violent death rates, which had fallen dramatically
since the 1970s and held steady for fifteen years are rising again, driven by
increasing rates of homicide and suicide by firearms. Rates of firearm deaths increased
between 1999 and 2017 in most states; in 29 states, the rate increased more
The firearm homicide rate in the United States is
25 times higher than that of other industrialized countries, while the firearm
suicide rate is eight times higher.
Many mass shootings involve domestic or family
violence, as when the shooter opens fire on a group that includes a target
More than one in five US children are physically
abused, and about one in six are sexually abused.
About three in ten emergency physicians are
assaulted every year.
About three percent of homicides are police
Research on violence is underfunded. The federal
government spends about $25 million per death on HIV research, about $200,000
per death on cancer research, and $600 per death on violence research.
In four surveys conducted between 2013 and 2019, in which gun owners were over-represented, the National Survey of Gun Policy found greater than 75% of respondents supported such policy measures as universal background checks, temporary gun removals based on family concerns, mandatory licensing for concealed carry including a safety test, and a mandatory safety course for first-time gun owners.
Journal editor Alan Weil says, “Even as media attention tends to focus on incidents of mass violence, it is the daily burden of violence in its many forms that takes the greatest toll.”