Book review: Dreaming Spies by Laurie King

Dreaming Spies (Mary Russell, #13)Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoy this mystery series and its unique and interesting take on Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, the past few books have been the weakest of the lot, so I was delighted that #13 in the series proved to be such a delightful read.
The book takes place in 1920s Oxford with a flashback to 1920s Japan. I’ve been to Japan several times and am reasonably familiar with Japanese culture, and the author did an excellent job describing pre-Westernized Japan as perceived through the eyes of the British. Her descriptions were quite accurate and perceptive and made for an enjoyable read (especially when you don’t have to throw the book figuratively against the wall and yell, “That’s simply not how it works.”).
In addition, the plot was extremely clever and well done. While I accurately picked out the major villain, there were several unexpected (at least to me) plot twists. I loved coming to the end of the book and having to do a re-read to pick up on all the clues that I missed the first time. That’s my favorite kind of mystery.
As always in these books, the characters are well drawn, and Mary Russell’s narrative is full of personality and character.
If you haven’t read this series yet, run, do not walk, to your nearest bookstore or library, and start reading. (It’s best to read it in order.) And if you’ve stopped reading the series, I highly recommend picking it up again. “Dreaming Spies” is a highly worthy addition!

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Book review: What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris

What Angels Fear (Sebastian St. Cyr, #1)What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is the first in a Regency mystery series featuring Sebastian St. Cyr, an aristocrat with an interesting set of skills learned in fighting for the British against Napoleon. Don’t let the Regency time period deceive you, however. This is not a Georgette Heyer-type mystery–lighthearted and mischievous (and I love Heyer Regency novels). This is a gritty Regency mystery, with dark descriptions of London’s underclass, the role of women in all levels of society, and a sadistic and unbalanced murderer. Sebastian St. Cyr is simultaneously troubled and appealing (but mostly appealing). And while there are definitely black-hearted villains in this book, there are no unflawed heroes or heroines.
Oh, and what angels fear is falling in love with mortals.
If you combined Georgette Heyer with Bernard Cornwell, you would end up with “What Angels Fear.”
I look forward to continuing the series!

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Book review: Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Alexander HamiltonAlexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is the inspiration for the Broadway musical (and cultural) smash “Hamilton” (and, in fact, the author receives royalties from the musical). I have mixed feelings about this biography and mixed feelings about the subject. Alexander Hamilton was clearly a brilliant man, excellent administrator, and masterful as the first Secretary of the Treasury. He was also vain, overly sensitive, and an irresponsible husband and father. The author has done some excellent research on the less well-known aspects of Hamilton’s life, specifically, the circumstances of his birth and upbringing on St. Croix. But he also falls into the biographer’s pitfall: falling in love with his subject. The portrayal of Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds is enough to make a reader cringe (Maria Reynolds must have been in love with Alexander–never mind the minor detail that she and her husband blackmailed him over it). And the portrayals of Hamilton’s political enemies–Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and, of course, Aaron Burr–are far from objective.
That being said, this is a solid biography of a complex, complicated, and insecure man who was instrumental in the formation of the United States. In addition, one of the most endearing characteristics of the author is the credit he gives and his portrayal of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton as a partner in Hamilton’s accomplishments and someone who ensures that his legacy lives on after Hamilton’s death.
In illuminating a relatively unknown Founding Father, the author does an excellent job of bringing Hamilton to life and showcasing his considerable accomplishments. Alexander Hamilton is the quintessential American story–a poor immigrant succeeding based on his abilities and work ethic. It is a story well worth learning.

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Water Gun Fight (aka Enjoying the Summer)

Our rising 9th grader (or, more accurately, our 14 year old son) decided that what was needed to make the summer more fun was a water gun fight with a bunch of friends.  He cleared the date and time with us, issued invitations to his friends (by text, of course), and on the appointed day, another eight 14 year old boys and girls showed up all ready to do battle.  (Most appropriate for a Quaker school, we thought.)

Weaponry and ammunition were provided:

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I can’t guarantee that a good time was had by all, but I can guarantee that EVERYONEwas sopping wet by the time the battle was over.

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As our son described it, “Best day ever!”

4th of July in Nantucket

We were kindly invited by some good friends to join them in Nantucket for the 4th of July weekend.  Nantucket is one of the very few places on the East coast that reminds of us God’s country (otherwise known as the West coast).

There were magnificent sunsets:

sunset on Nantucket

sunset on Nantucket

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Fun 4th of July fireworks (lit off on the 3rd of July but why quibble?);

on the beach for fireworks

on the beach for fireworks

A town water gun fight on the actual 4th of July (let’s just say that no one escaped unscathed from the battle):

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A parfait-making contest:

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And fabulous food, with many home-cooked meals, and a wonderful dining experience at American Seasons (to be blogged about on a later blog post).

It was a wonderful four days of rest and relaxation and good times and friendship.  And, by the way, Happy Birthday, America!

8th grade graduation

Our son graduated from 8th grade a few weeks ago in a lovely ceremony held at the school.  Being a 14 year old boy with only an embryonic frontal lobe (at best), he neglected to mention that he was part of an ensemble that was singing as part of the ceremony.  (If you knew the history of the non-existent singing genes of both the Lintott and Liang families, you would understand what a shocking development this is.)  Nonetheless, he did a lovely job (you can actually hear his voice during the performance).
It’s a little bittersweet to now have two children in high school.  I was a bit melancholy the week of graduation, but it was a sweet ceremony, and the kids were all great.  Our son has a great group of friends, which should stand him in good stead in high school.
I have already decided that come next school year, with a high school senior and a high school freshman, copious amounts of alcohol is what is getting me through the year! 🙂

filing in for the ceremony

filing in for the ceremony

singing (!) during the ceremony

singing (!) during the ceremony

graduating!

graduating!

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Movie review: Finding Dory

We were fortunate enough to be able to attend an advance screening of the latest Pixar movie, “Finding Dory.” (Thank you to Disney for donating the item to a Children’s National fundraising event!)

Jim and I are both fans of “Finding Nemo” and actually thought the emotional resonance of that movie was one of its many strengths. (But our son was born with a club foot, so we could definitely relate to Nemo’s bad fin.)

Thirteen years later, “Finding Dory” is Dory’s quest to find her parents. There are a few cameo appearances by Crush and the other sea turtles and a nice introduction/summary of “Finding Nemo” for those who haven’t seen it, but this is definitely Dory’s movie. Marvin and Nemo play strong supporting roles. But Hank, a mimic septupus, steals the movie. Voiced by Ed O’Neill (from “Modern Family” and “Married with Children”), he once again plays the curmudgeonly character with the heart of gold. Even more impressive is the animation that was required to give life to Hank. As the Disney representative explained to us, octopuses have no joints, which makes animation extremely difficult because there’s no joint to hang the motion off of. (They slither more than they move.) It took two years before the animators figured out a way to animate that movement. And each scene where you see Hank with all seven legs took months to animate. As a mimic septupus, Hank has to blend into his surroundings but still be obviously him—a tricky feat at the best of times and an added complexity to the animation.

All of this is fascinating, of course, but has nothing to do with Pixar’s real strength, which is storytelling. I think anyone who knows a parent of or a child with special needs will relate to this movie, as Dory’s parents worry about her future, as Dory copes with her limitations and moves forward despite them, and as Dory’s friends appreciate her very real strengths. The movie ends happily, of course (it is a Pixar movie, after all!) but not without plenty of obstacles, tears, and emotionally fraught moments. It is a worthy member of the Pixar family.

This movie received an enthusiastic thumbs up from all of us, and we are definitely going to go see it again!

P.S. Two notes: the short before the movie, “Piper,” is a definite must-see, so don’t be late when you go see the movie. And, second, the actor who originally voiced Nemo has a cameo role in this movie. (He obviously couldn’t voice Nemo again because in the 13 years between movies, his voice changed!)

Restaurant review: The Source (Washington, DC)

The Source is a Wolfgang Puck restaurant next to the Newseum. Scott Drewno is the executive chef and in addition to being an extremely talented chef, he is also a really wonderful guy (possessing both characteristics is not as common as you might think).
The restaurant recently revamped its menu, so we went and checked it out a few weeks ago, and it is even better than we remembered.

Disclaimer: we cannot comment on the entrees or the desserts because Jim and I did what we often do, which is to order an assortment of appetizers instead. But we have high praise for what we did order.

We had the following assortment of appetizers and side dishes:

Spicy Tuna Tartare, Sesame-Miso Cones, Shaved Bonito, Pickled Ginger, Tobiko (this is the appetizer that appears at all Wolfgang Puck restaurants and is considered one of his signature dishes)

tuna tartare in sesame miso cones

tuna tartare in sesame miso cones

Scallion-Onion “Bread” (this is a riff on the traditional Chinese scallion pancakes—much as I have fond memories of the authentic dish from childhood, this version is even better)

scallion "bread"

scallion “bread”

Table Side Wonton Soup, Shrimp & Pork Dumplings, Tea Poached Egg, 20 Hour Broth (a must have if you love rich, flavorful broth!)  And you’ll have to take my word on the fact that it was a lovely dish as well.

deconstructed wonton soup  :)

deconstructed wonton soup 🙂

Crispy Suckling Pig, Rhubarb Puree, Pickled Cipollini, Sweet Bean Sauce (crispy pig—need I saw anything more?)

suckling pig

suckling pig

Lobster & Shrimp Dumplings, XO Sauce, Sichuan Bacon, Spring Peas, Asparagus (the weakest of the dishes we had, but it was quite lovely)

lobster & shrimp dumplings

lobster & shrimp dumplings

Selection of Dim Sum: Scallop Siu Mai, Pork Potsticker, Lobster Springroll, Chicken Dumpling (we love the restaurant’s dim sum and rarely pass by an opportunity to order this)

selection of dim sum

selection of dim sum

Chinese Roast Pork Fried Rice, Sichuan Sausage, Asparagus, Sunny Side Up Egg (by this time, we were so stuffed that we only had a few mouthfuls. That is not to say this wasn’t delicious, only that we were quite full).

pork fried rice

pork fried rice

If you haven’t had an opportunity to revisit The Source since its menu has been revamped, we highly recommend doing so! The Source is located at 575 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Washington DC, next to the Newseum. (www.wolfgangpuck.com/restaurants/fine-dining/3941)

Book review: The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays

The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First FolioThe Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio by Andrea Mays
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Folger Shakespeare Library (located in Washington, DC) has the world’s largest collection of First Folios (the original compilation of Shakespeare’s plays). To explain how the largest collection of the world’s greatest English language author ended up in the United States, Andrea Mays sets out to explain how Henry and Emily Folger became interested in Shakespeare and his works. It’s a fascinating story of how Henry went from a student who went to college on scholarship to a wealthy and obsessive collector of all things Shakespeare.
The Folgers lived a frugal lifestyle, devoting every penny they could to their growing collection of Shakespeare First Folios and other Shakespeare-related items. Their wealth came from Henry Folger’s extremely successful career at Standard Oil. I thought the treatment of Standard Oil was very even-handed. The author is clearly well versed in economics and understands that Standard Oil’s ability to scale and take advantage of efficiencies resulting in low fuel prices for consumers. The fact that Rockefeller and Standard Oil were victims of a hatchet job skillfully performed by a journalist on a vendetta does not blind the author to the very real benefits gained by consumers thanks to Standard Oil (to the dismay of Standard Oil’s competitors).
Whatever your personal feelings about Standard Oil, there is no denying that Henry Folger’s professional success there enabled Henry and Emily Folger to assemble a stunning collection of First Folios and ultimately creating the Folger Shakespeare Library so that the collection could be shared and made accessible to the public. It was an extraordinary gesture of philanthropy and generosity. And the book gives an excellent portrayal of the two extraordinary people who made it possible.

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Folger Shakespeare Library London Board meeting

I am on the Board of Governors of the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Folger decided to have its June board meeting in London this year. The Board meeting itself was held at the British Library and quite productive. (Or, rather, getting to know the other Board members and the senior staff better was extremely productive. Hopefully, the staff, for whom this board meeting was orders of magnitude more work than normal board meetings, thought so, too.)

At any rate, we got to see not only the British Library, which had an exhibit not only on Shakespeare (duh!) but also had a punk exhibit, where there was the only document signed by all the Sex Pistols (kicking out one of the original band members and signing on Sid Vicious), but also two plays.

The first one was “Elegy,” which a board member who shall remain anonymous reacted to by saying he would rather cut off a finger than see it again. Someone labeled the play as a thought experiment, which I think is an accurate description. Note that I myself am not fond of thought experiments as plays.

The second play was “Romeo and Juliet” with Derek Jacobi as Mercutio and directed by Kenneth Branagh. It was a fabulous production—set in fascist Italy and superbly acted. As I get older, however, this play becomes less a romantic and tragic love story and more about the idiocy that results from an overabundance of testosterone. But I digress.

I stayed on an extra day and decided to spend it at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I emerged four and a half hours later. The museum is nominally about the decorative arts, but it really is so much more. It has everything from illuminated manuscripts to Leonardo daVinci’s notebooks (5 of them!) to ceramics from around the world to Islamic art to architectural models. Not surprisingly, the European exhibits are much stronger than the non-European exhibits, but everything is good.

V&A cast room

V&A cast room

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V&A medieval room

Add onto that an obligatory trip to Harrod’s to check out the food stalls, and I would call this a very successful visit!