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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Girl On the Train: A hell of a plot, or just plain hell...



Just finished reading The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins.  A frenzy of a read, written in the first person, but with a chorus of voices and constantly changing array of characters.  Rapid-fire divergences in who the hell is speaking may confuse you at first, but read on.  All will become manageably coherent.  And, you’ll soon be in joyful celebration that someone other than you owns these nightmarish lives. Let’s start with Rachel, the main voice. 

Rachel’s awash in a tsunami of angst.  She’s an overweight, divorced drunk, whose newly remarried husband, his new wife, and their new child live down the block in Rachel’s old home.  Rachel also lost her job some months ago, but travels by train to London everyday, just to keep up appearances, and keep her suspicious landlord/roommate at bay.  In short, Rachel’s angst surpasses waking up to find you had unprotected sex with a male stripper in a leper colony and you’re carrying his child.

Can it get worse and more problematic?  With this collection of dysfunctional misfits? Most assuredly. Hey, the book is a murder mystery.  Maybe.  Perhaps it’s just as delusional as Rachel, whose blackouts are darker than the streets of London at the height of the Blitz.  Perhaps no one was murdered, but everyone is guilty of something.  In this book, guilt runs like a pride of lions through a herd of gazelles.

Preposterous plot?  Yes.  So what keeps the book going?  Scintillating  writing.  Morbid curiosity.  Characters that sparkle like broken glass in a sewer.

Rachel lives in an undistinguished house, in row of undistinguished houses, in a small, nondescript village on the outskirts of London.  The houses hide a lot of secrets, but given the pathetic lives of the inhabitants, I find myself asking, “Do I really want to know?”  Oh, hell yes!  I’m as perverse as any other voyeur, with time to spare, a gin & tonic in my grubby hand, and a nearby train rattling my shabby windows.

In this hub of unwashed hypocrisy, husbands screw around with any skirt that stands still, or doesn’t move fast enough.  Wives are beautiful (except for Rachel) harridans who wouldn’t know happiness if it blooded their noses…or in that case, maybe they would.

The plot is a tangled web of lies and unforgiving hate, but nevertheless, you’ll be driven crazy until you know the truth.  In this case, the truth may not set you free, but it may make you want to immediately do something to pull yourself out of this tortured fug.  Gargle with lye.  Chug a pint of whiskey.  Euthanize a few dogs.  Sit on a curb with homeless people and explain why you’re unhappy.
                 A great read if you’re strong of heart.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Morning Coffee in London



I come to London often.  The usual tourist checklist languishes, forgotten, unless something special draws me, such as the flood of poppies at The Tower of London on Remembrance Day, or museum showings that beg to be seen.

Today, nothing harnesses me to a schedule.  It’s a blessing to dawdle in the great expanse of this city’s ebb and flow.  Without the pressures of time and need, I luxuriate in the moment.



The counter where I place my coffee order is rather tall and bordered by a large, glass display.  Croissants, small spit loafs bursting with cheeses, hams and tomatoes, as well as sweet rolls, sit in perfect rows.  The jeans and black t-shirt staff are an eclectic collection as well: tall, Italian men, short Thai women, all of them polite, but unsmiling.   The Thais glide through the restaurant like apparitions, their only noise a small click as the saucers find the tabletops.



I settle into a side table for two.  My coffee is what the Brits call ‘flat white.’  The Spanish would say café con leche and the French, café au lait.  I am in the same coffee shop I always come to.  Italian and quaint. A mix of tourists and regulars queue up, place their orders and either take away their caffeine in paper cartons, or sit and have it brought to the table.   Service is rapid.  Thick, white porcelain cups, resting on equally thick porcelain saucers, dot the dark wooden tables. A bare semblance of conversation floats in the air.  Could be English, Italian, Greek, Arabic, or any of a hundred other languages.  I catch brief whiffs of the morning patter.  Weather.  Destinations.  Appropriate dress.  My Spanish is as rusty as a weathered nail.

Outside the shop, a sandwich signboard reads, Free Croissants to the First One Hundred Customers, but in fact, croissants come with every morning cup I’ve ever seen in the place.  I munch mine and contemplate the day.  Flakes of my crispy roll float to the table.

Soft music, with catchy rhythm trills in the background.  You treat me like a stranger and it feels so rough.”



The walls feature evocative color photos of men, women, and tourist scenes, pasted together in random order, at odd angles, and doctored with bright colors.  Under them runs a thick dark border, peppered with white writing, expounding witticisms.

Canadian Capitalism:  You have four cows.  An American company buys your cows, then sells them at a profit and declares bankruptcy.   Communism:  You have four cows. The government confiscates them.  Two cows die from mismanagement and you are given only as much milk as the government thinks you deserve.

Beside me, an Italian mother and her ten year old son enjoy their breakfast.  The kid has baked beans on toast and starts to pick up the whole bundle.  The mother quickly intervenes to squelch this approach and the kid soon wrestles with a knife and fork.  I slide a little farther away.  I’ve seen experiments like this go awry.

Ever had an English Breakfast?  Eggs, English bacon, baked beans, sausages, grilled tomato, grilled mushroom, white bread toast.  A delicious, self-inflicted culinary punishment.


These days I stick with a flat white and croissant.

On the street, London is just waking up.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Gin? Vodka? What About the Tonic??




Gin, of course, but what about the tonic?

Gin and Tonic.  G & T.  A standby of the cruise line, or time by the pool.  Short sleeves, bathing suits, skin, honeyed by the sun.  Tall, tanned lovelies in string bikinis….but hold on a sec, I’m getting too far afield.

I want to talk about Tonic Water, or Quinine Water, if you prefer.  Some call it the perfect mixer, with gin or vodka, or just plain, on the rocks, with a twist. 

As you know, I’m a gin fan and Plymouth Gin, from the south coast of England, is my favorite.  http://stroudallover.blogspot.de/2015/02/plymouth-gin-from-plymouth-england-of.html

For the longest time, I just grabbed a bottle of a major brand of tonic (Schweppes or Canada Dry come to mind) and got on with the summer ritual.  Recently, I’ve discovered some other tonics and my world changed.

But, before we explore three little beauties, let’s contemplate tonic water itself.  Dates to circa 1858 and first used as a prophylactic against malaria.  Back then, quinine water may have done the trick, but the quinine content was much, much higher then.  The Brits in India, finding tonic water pretty hard to choke down while sober, began mixing it with gin and sugar to tame the extreme bitterness.  Even today, you sometimes see tonic water labeled as Indian tonic water.

So, the question rises up on its hind legs and whinnies:  Can quinine water still fight malaria?  Judge for yourself:  the daily dose to fight malaria is about 2100 mg per day for the average adult.  Modern quinine water is limited by the Food and Drug Administration to 83 mg per liter.  Just another reason to start early and drink for the rest of the day, especially if you’re getting your eyeful of bikinis in the tropics.  About 30 liters a day ought to do the trick.

What the hell is quinine and why are bikinis called bikinis?

First things first: Bikinis.  Thankfully, women have dressed scantily throughout history, but modern women, in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, covered up.  Fortunately, a French engineer, Louis Réard, introduced the modern bikini in 1946, naming it appropriately after the Pacific’s Bikini Atoll, where the French were testing atomic bombs.  Another French bombshell, Briget Bardot picked up on the idea and suddenly bikinis exploded.  The first bikinis may have been scandalous in the 1950’s, but by 21st Century standards, the first bikinis were pretty modest two-piece bathing suits, not eye patches held up with dental floss.

Just one variety of the Cinchona tree, this one from Peru


And what about quinine?  Comes from the bark of the Cinchona bush or tree.  The ‘or’ is because there are some 25 species, growing everywhere from Central America and the Caribbean to Africa.  The medicinal properties, such as reducing fever and inflammation, have been known for centuries.

So, what new brands of tonic have I recently discovered and how well do I like them?  Ladies and gentlemen, you’re in for some treats.

Fever Tree, Goldberg, and Gents.



I picked these three at random and did a G &T taste test before reading about where they came from, or how they were made.

Let’s first consider my personal favorite:  Fever Tree (aptly named, yes?). Launched in the UK in 2005, one of the founders of the company, Charles Rolls, had run Plymouth Gin!  He and his partner did their homework and the ingredients show it.  Highest quality quinine from Rwanda Congo, blended with spring water and eight botanicals and sugar.  No artificial sweeteners, preservatives, or artificial colors.



The quinine is certainly there, but not overpowering, nor is the sugar.   A G & T, made with Plymouth Gin and Fever Tree is as close to smooth perfection as I’m going to find.  No wonder Fever Tree has been loaded down with accolades from the world’s best bars.

Goldberg & Sons Tonic Water. 



This tonic comes from Germany and is spiced with a light lemon flavor to accompany a heavier accent of quinine.  If you’re more into a goodly bite of bitterness, but without harshness, this is the one for you.  Like Fever Tree, you won’t find artificial anything here.

Gents, Swiss Roots Tonic Water.

Like your tonic a tad sweeter, with a downplay of the quinine and an upswing of florals and citrus?  This Swiss drink will unquestionably satisfy your summer longing.  The ever so slight tang comes from Sicilian citrus fruits, the florals, oddly enough, come not from flowers, but from the root of the gentian, otherwise known as bitter root.

No matter which of these tonics you mix with your gin, or vodka, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.  No need to depend on the traditional purveyors of tonic water, laced with artificial this and that, and drenched in the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup.  Natural is better, but not just because some green goddess whispered in my ear.  My taste buds have the last word and the last word is GREAT!





Monday, March 23, 2015

Interview With the Coach



Following Spring Football practice, Coach Gaylord Schwantz of Southern Home Industrial Technology University held a press conference.

Coach:  Spring practice went well. Some of our recently paroled recruits are going to help us out of the box.  Our conference is one of the toughest in the nation.  There are no weak-tweaking-nose-flicking football teams on our schedule.  We’ll have to be willing to give 110%, 110% of the time and not be resting on what happens next.  However, we do have some things to fix.  But fixing is my job.  Now, any questions?

Reporter 1:  I understand your quarterback, Gimpy Scroggins, is questionable.

Coach:  That’s completely untrue.  He will not be available to take questions.

Reporter 1:  No.  I mean he may not be 100% by the start of the season.

Coach:  I’ve answered this a thousand times.  Now that we’ve got him fitted with a prosthesis, we expect a full recovery.  The loss of a leg can be a handicap for a quarterback, but I always say, we’re just thankful he’s not our kicker.

Reporter 2:  What kind of prosthesis?

Coach:  Well, I’m not a doctor, but as I understand it, Gimpy has a new titanium alloy, full motion, two and a half horsepower, turbo-diesel leg that allows him to run the 40 in a little under a second and a half.  Unfortunately, his jock strap can only do it in five seconds.  Balls to the wall is not just an expression.

Reporter 3:  Does that cause problems when his natural leg tries to keep up?

Coach:  We’ve had no complains from his natural leg.  Next question.

Reporter 2:  Is it true that many of last year’s starters are now incarcerated.

Coach:  Allegedly incarcerated.

Reporter 1:  The name Cocksure Johnson ring any bells?

Coach:  …don’t recall

Reporter 1:  Exposed himself to a troop of Girl Scouts at a fraternity keg party.

Coach:  I object to that nickname.  He allegedly exposed his alleged member to a group of alleged Girl Scouts at an alleged party, featuring an alleged keg.  Ivanhoe Johnson is a fine young man.

Reporter 3:  Excuse me, but he’s 27 years old.

Coach:  Any starter with two years of eligibility left is a fine young man.  Also, the newspapers are quick to jump to conclusions.

Reporter 2:  But, several eye witnesses said…

Coach:  Those Girl Scouts are liars.  Several of Mr. Johnson’s teammates have sworn that at the time of the alleged incident he was on the other side of the city park buying cocaine…I mean ice cream.

Reporter 1:  Was that a Freudian slip?

Coach:  I don’t know whose slip it was, but I do know newspapers never mention Ivanhoe is a good provider for his girlfriend and her two children from a previous football team.

Reporter 2:  How ‘bout the allegations that some players are taking meaningless college courses.

Coach:  I deny that.  We are very careful that our student-athletes are meaningful students, who study meaningfully every day.

Reporter 1:  Amish Line Dancing ? Post-Coital Calisthenics?

Coach:  Not everybody can be pre-med, but we have two linebackers who are.

Reporter 3:  You’d be referring to Janic Thumbcushion, and Ivory Poacher.  Dynamics of Regurgitation?  Physiology of Sole Inserts? Oral Treatment of Testicular Stress ?

Coach:  Hip-high Jones’ major is statistics.

Reporter 2:  Handicapping a Horse Race and Handicapped Parking:  A Comparative Study,  Examination of Dice:  Dots and their hidden meaning.

Coach:  What none of you understand is that we support our student-athletes as they struggle to keep their eligibility. These young men deserve the chance to rise above their humble beginnings, date cheerleaders and make millions of dollars when they turn pro.

Reporter 3:  Should college football players be paid?

Coach:  You mean like graduate assistants and others who help the university?  Definitely not.  That’s not what college athletics are about.  College is a learning experience, especially concerning the fine points of the law, and attorney-client privilege.  It’s about the discipline to perform at your best after a long flight, two nights in a first class hotel, and a steak dinner.

Reporter 1:  What’s your prognosis for the coming season?

Coach:  I think we’ll do as well as we can, provided we can live up to our expectations.

Reporter 2:  That’s an evasive answer.


Coach:  We’re a football team.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Today's Special: A Very Special Movie




Generally, I don’t rate movies, or write film critiques.  To tell the truth, most of today’s movies are forgettable, cut and paste fabrications that are like serving the same hamburger with different commercially prepared toppings.  A little more catsup…ok, great, what a film!  Too much mustard, ok, we’ll tone it down next time.  AAA, AAA2, AAA3 and so forth.  It’s like a football team with so few plays in the playbook, the fans can call ‘em in from the stands.

Then, there’s the problem of perception.  Fact is, people have different tastes.  People can be holding  their sides laughing, while someone else thinks the humor falls flat.

Just found a movie so original and refreshing, it’s fine to watch it with a friend, a lover, by yourself, or even with a malcontent you thinks robins’ eggs are a nasty shade of blue.  Comedy? Amen.  Feel good?  Aced it. Realistic emotions?  Nailed on the head.

The marvels to me are the truth and depth of this film. Here’s the plot on a thumbnail:  Indian food.  Indian chef who has no clue how to cook Indian food and finds a taxi driver to help him.  Father who runs a failing Indian restaurant, and is in failing health.  Mother who plots to get her son married.  Interesting characters pop up throughout the movie.

Put these all together, add a bit of romance, the scarcity of jobs, a man who has no idea what to do next, loss of the deepest sort, love on so many levels you’ll have to take off your shoes to count them, and situational laughs that make you ponder while you chuckle.

Yes, it’s mostly set in an Indian context, but so universal in the presentation that you suddenly realize these are scenarios you’ve lived and suffered and laughed through yourself.

Too many movies are a waste of precious time. This one gives you an uplifting kick in the ass that makes you realize today is all ya got and you better love life and do something.

Best movie I have seen in years.  Here’s a short trailer: