I miss Jon Stewart’s incarnation of The Daily Show every day. I knew I would, although I expected to like Trevor Noah a little more than I do, and I thought we’d see more of Jessica Williams and Hasan Minhaj than we have. Trevor Noah is doing a fair job, considering the shoes he had to fill, and is definitely improving–the Lindsay Graham episode was excellent. (If you haven’t seen it, try to catch it on the Comedy Central site before it’s taken down.) Nonetheless, the feel of the show is very different now.
I’ve been watching the show since its first incarnation with Craig Kilborn, and Stewart since he hosted Short Attention Span Theater. When Stewart took over from Kilborn, he shaped it into the platform for satire and biting commentary that it became–under Kilborn there was more pure silliness and every episode ended with a mock game show, if I remember correctly. Not that Jon Stewart’s tenure didn’t include a fair amount of pure silliness as well, but the moments I miss the most were the times when they kept the commentary to a minimum because it was so simple to show up the politicians and pundits just by playing things they’ve said at different times back to back. Speaking solely for myself, I’ve found the Republican primary race–not least Trump’s appalling and repellent performance–a tiny bit harder to endure without him. I missed the blend of acerbity and absurdity that Stewart’s crew perfected, and I worried that it would live on only in John Oliver’s show on HBO. (Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show is awesome, but of a completely different format, far more conversation and debate among guests than mockery and satire.)
I worried a little too much, as usual. Samantha Bee took a large part of what made The Daily Show great when she went over to create Full Frontal for TBS, and it is every bit as good. Unlike TDS and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, she doesn’t organize her program necessarily around the events of the past few days but focuses on specific topics that have been relevant for a matter of weeks, months, or, in many cases, years. She is also every bit as capable of making me–and my Conservative father–laugh hard enough to cry.
She deals with many of the same political topics that TDS, LWT, and other political comedy programs do, but she spends a good bit of the (too little) time she has looking at how the issues or events at hand affect not simply the country as a whole or a political class or income group, but at women in particular, and other minorities. Given the recent onslaught of state bills targeting women’s reproductive rights and the attempts to overturn both the ACA and the Roe v. Wade decision at the federal level–not to mention the attempts to block the LBGT community from marrying, adopting children, working without harassment, and using the bathroom–we desperately need this, and more like it. Jon Stewart and his TDS crew perfected this technique of keeping an audience informed while making them laugh, something essential to us as a society since the news networks have begun to sacrifice truth and actual news for the sake of propaganda, pandering, and feel-good segments.
Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal is on Monday nights at 10:00, and I believe the episodes that have already aired are available on the TBS website and on YouTube. In the meantime, here’s a taste: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDfpGdk3HgQ
Margaret did warn you that there would be kittens. They’re not actually kittens anymore, but they’re physically small cats, an inheritance from their likewise small mother, so I still have to stop myself calling them “the kittens” even though they’re coming up on two years old. I’m trying to adapt this to “the little ones”, but just now I have more important bad habits to break. They’re not actually silver, either, but their fur does look that colour when the sunlight strikes it in a certain way.
In a house full of cats, these are the babies, and almost universally beloved, an unusual event in my experience of introducing new cats to the house. My ten-year-old tortoiseshell Portia hates them, but she hates almost all other cats–she would prefer to have all the human attention to herself. Not to mention the treats and the cushiest places to sleep.
We did not plan on keeping them all. When I went away to university, however, my mother’s love of animals got out of hand–having left behind five cats and a dog, when I returned (due to her being diagnosed with cancer) there were so many animals that the words “there are too many cats” made it past my lips for the first time. The most recent addition, my father’s ginger tom named Tigger, actively resented my intrusion into what he had obviously come to think of as his territory, and it was at least a year before he accepted me as part of the household. We had lost a few to old age and feline cancers in the last few years, however, so I was pleased when Violet started hanging about the house, obviously pregnant and looking for handouts. They were born some time in June, coming up on two years ago, and Violet brought them out in the open for the first time on July 15, the day after my birthday. The plan was to catch them all and have them neutered, vaccinated, and treated for worms or any other parasites, then release Violet back into her usual haunts, keep one kitten, and have the others adopted. Events, however, intervened.
To begin with, I had a hard time catching them. They would barely tolerate being touched; they fought so hard when I picked one up I was afraid I would accidentally hurt them, so they wriggled out of my grasp quite easily. Finally, when they were about four months old, I managed to throw a thin blanket over Tristan and bring him inside. It took him a couple of hours to calm down, and days before he’d let me touch him again. So began my first experience with taming feral kittens.
The other two took longer. We had already named them, and Jamie was starting to respond to that name by October, but it was nearly December before we managed to get them in the house. Violet had already pushed them away before I had caught Tristan, and Jamie was starting to trust us, so one night when it got very cold we left the door to the utility room at the side of the house open and Henry and Jamie came in on their own.
Because they were much older than is ideal when socializing kittens, and because my mother’s condition was worsening rapidly at that point, everything took so much longer than it really should have. After a couple of weeks we moved them into my bedroom with their brother; fortunately it took them only a couple of hours to resume their former bond.
Taming them took a long time, because we started too late and because until about a month ago there have been very few days in the last sixteen months when I have not felt completely overwhelmed. In the first few weeks after my mother’s death, though, knowing that I was responsible for my cats’ welfare was the only thing that kept me from being suicidal. They persisted in needing food, grooming, and affection when everyone else had either withdrawn or was too far away to visit, and if I wasn’t there to look after them they’d likely go to a shelter where they’d stand a poor chance of finding new homes, due to age (all but two of the older ones are over 14) or remaining wildness (the little ones). I promised my mother I’d take care of them, so I was bound to that if nothing else.
Rare shots of Henry not regarding the camera with deep suspicion, mostly because he’s not actually looking at the camera.
He really, really doesn’t trust cameras.
Before Jamie and Henry were moved into the house, Tristan had become quite acclimated, sleeping tucked up against my legs at night and occasionally enjoying a head scratch, but I had to start from scratch with the other two. I made a nest of sorts on top of a box underneath my bed for them–they were still small enough at that point that they could all fit into a single cat bed, and they’ve never grown out of their affection for one another. Many of the techniques advised for younger cats still worked with them, even at eight months old; if I made eye contact with Henry and Jamie, they’d run off, but if I slipped a hand under the bed they would (sometimes) tolerate being stroked. They grew to trust me as a source of food, and eventually learned how to ask for what they wanted with particular meows or behaviors (often involving staring at me fixedly, which is really quite unnerving to wake up to).
Like most cats, they’re very interested in whatever we eat, and the smell of roasted fish or beef brings them running. All three of them have a taste for bread, especially Jamie, for whom it is a favourite treat, one that he doesn’t get very often because it can’t possibly be good for them. I find this exceptionally strange in a cat, as I’ve never known other cats to show the slightest interest in the stuff unless it’s got butter or cheese on it. They picked the habit up from their mother: When she first showed up at our house she developed a habit of stealing the stale bread my father leaves out for the birds, before he realized she was a regular visitor and started giving her proper cat food. My father has had to break his habit of leaving the crusts of sandwiches or pizza where Jamie can reach them after we found a couple tucked away in his hideouts, obviously saved for later gnawing. Cats are weird.
One by one, they each decided that they were happy here. Tristan was over a year old when I heard him purr for the first time, which made me so ridiculously happy I nearly cried. Henry was next, and then finally Jamie, who surprised me one day by not simply tolerating his head being scratched but rubbing around my ankles for a full five minutes and inviting me to scratch his back and under his ears as well. He’s remained mercurial ever since–sometimes he refuses to be touched at all, at other times wholeheartedly affectionate, following me around and rubbing his chin all over my hand to mark me as his. Oddly, he’s the most tolerant of being held, even allowing me to carry him short distances before struggling to get down. Tristan and Henry will still dart away half the time if they think I’m going to try to pick them up; if they do consent to be held, it’s only for about thirty seconds at most.
Tristan and Jamie are still devoted to each other, and can be found like this at least once a day.
Henry now greets me every morning as soon as he notices I’m awake by throwing himself down on my lap or my chest, settling into a soft, boneless heap of purrs for five minutes or so until he notices something he wants to chase. In the last week Tristan has resumed his old habit of sleeping pressed up against my legs at night. Tristan’s favourite being, however, cat or human, is Tigger, the (now ridiculously oversized) ginger tom, who got over his resentment of me after a couple of years and is now super-affectionate. Tigger is easily three times Tristan’s size (and probably four times his weight), but Tristan spends a good deal of time trying to persuade Tigger to engage in a bout of feline kickboxing. The first few times we heard Tristan wailing and carrying on we’d rush through to the living room, fearing disaster, only to find Tigger sitting quite placidly on the floor, watching Tristan stalking around him and trying to bully Tigger into a response with all the squalling. Occasionally Tigger will extend a paw and bat at him, but he’s been remarkably patient with the younger wannabe lion, permitting Tristan to paw at him, jump on him, treat him like a surrogate mother, and occasionally use him as a pillow while they sleep. (Tristan has a penchant for sitting down on his brothers like they’re cat beds rather than fellow cats; Jamie and Henry are rarely inclined to put up with this, being slightly smaller than Tristan himself, but Tigger does not seem to notice.) Once in a while Tigger does consent to run when Tristan wants to chase him; the glee on Tristan’s face in these moments is hilarious.
I still sometimes feel overrun, forever having to clean up after them and feed them. Never again will I have so many pets at once–it isn’t sensible, and can cause stress for the animals as well, although we’ve somehow avoided that complication. Neither, however, could I ever be without them. The best times of day are still the moments when they come to me for affection, wanting me to play or to act as a cushion while they sleep. They are a large part of what has gotten me through the last year and taught me to look forward to new days again.
About ten years ago I tried to read one of Sebastian Faulks’ novels–Birdsong, I think. I got about fifty pages into it and then gave up in disgust, bored to tears. A few weeks later I came across some interview with him in a paper wherein he was asked why he thought his novels appealed so much to women; his answer, if I recall correctly, was something along the lines of ‘I think women like my novels because I write from their perspective and in order to do this you have to really, really love them.’ This is patent nonsense. You can love a thing (or a person) to distraction and not have the faintest clue how they work inside. As far as I could tell from my attempt at reading his work, Sebastian Faulks’ novels are popular with women because they are romance novels in the line of Anya Seton and Daphne du Maurier; better written than your average pulp/Harlequin nonsense but often relying on the same tired damsel-in-distress motif to model a plot on. (Perhaps I do an injustice to Seton and du Maurier; from what I’ve read of them their damsels do have a bit of gumption and don’t–always–rely on a man to save them. Perhaps I do an injustice to Faulks–Charlotte Grey seemed like she might be a more interesting heroine. However, there are so many other writers whose work does not make me want to throw the book across the room in irritation that I have no intention of reading more of Faulks to find out.)
So anyway. This is not a post about Sebastian Faulks. This question of how well writers of one gender can write from the perspective of another is forever popping up in literary journalism, and it’s one I’ve always been interested in, mostly because I think it’s not actually that difficult to do if one can separate what makes a person human and from the boxes and labels that social prejudice has trained us to fix onto whatever is “other” to us, be that gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, etc. Alameddine excels in this regard, and has a particular gift for rendering characters of extraordinary quiet human grace.
The first of his works I read (well, listened to as an audiobook) was An Unnecessary Woman, in one of my sporadic attempts to keep up with novels when they’re published, rather than ten years afterwards (I still kick myself for having waited so long to read The Blind Assassin). I loved it and intend to read it again–as a paper book, this time–but it was that level of enjoyment that makes me seek out another of the writer’s books (in no great hurry) rather than immediately place that work on the shelf of my very favourites.
A few months later I decided to listen to I, the Divine, because it kept popping up on my Amazon and Goodreads recommendations and I loved the cover. Once in a while a publisher does give a book a cover as gorgeous as the story within. (I didn’t set out to consume all of his novels as audiobooks, it was kind of an accident of circumstance.) About an hour in I started finding excuses to keep listening–I get so much more housework done when there’s an audiobook I’m desperate to finish–and wondering why it had not won *all* the awards when it was published. Did its publisher not submit it for prize consideration? Did people just not read it? Why? Once I’d finished the novel, I sort of understood why didn’t win all the awards, but I maintain that it should have won some and it deserves to be much better known. Upon Googling the book, I found a handful of reviews, but there wasn’t a huge amount of press–his more recent novels have happily garnered more attention. I’m glad An Unnecessary Woman and The Hakawati got all the attention that they did, but I, the Divine, is every bit as good. I suspect Koolaids will be as well–that’s next on my list.
I, the Divine is the story of Sarah and her rather large collection of parents, step- and grandparents, siblings, half-siblings, ex-husbands and lovers, at various points across their lives in Lebanon and the U.S. Each chapter is the “first”, approaching Sarah’s story from a new perspective, moving backward and forward in time until a full picture finally emerges. It is not a story about achieving a grand understanding, or how a single event shapes one life, or a number of lives; it is about one person learning to understand herself, and a group of people learning to understand each other, shaped by a series of events and relationships that not all of those involved are aware of, even as they are affected by the consequences. If you prefer straightforward, linear narratives, then this is not the novel for you, but if experimental and unusual narrative forms are to your taste, give it a try. It is variously wickedly funny, moving, and heartbreaking. It is about a large family in Lebanon and their experience during the war there; it is about living as a foreigner in the United States; it is about being a woman in two different cultures where women are still seen as less capable, and whose value is ultimately measured in terms of how well they fulfill the roles of wife, mother, and sex object, regardless of their other talents and accomplishments; and, like most good novels, it is an insight into how we can be damaged by events and actions we have no control over, how we try our best to conceal and grow past those traumas, and don’t always succeed. There is also a foul-mouthed parrot named Cookie whose few scenes would be worth reading the novel for even if the rest of the story was dull. (Trigger warnings: There is a lot of swearing, not least of which is the parrot’s x-rated commentary during his few appearances; there is also a fairly graphic description of a sexual assault. This is not a novel for young teenagers.)
I, the Divine made Alameddine one of my favourite writers, so like all objects of my hero-worship I started looking up everything I could find on him. He was a successful artist before publishing his first novel, and he maintains an active and interesting presence on social media. His blog, The Art Divas, is full of gorgeous poetry and visual arts, and he announces his presence on Twitter every morning with a spate of the funniest, most random, or just plain strangest gifs on offer on a given day. He also posts poetry from other writers on his Facebook page on a regular basis, and has excellent taste. I very much understand why some writers eschew social media altogether, but I love how he uses his presence to promote the things he loves and believes worthy of more attention, and I wish more artists did the same (Janelle Monae and Lin-Manuel Miranda do similar things, but we need more in this vein, I think).
If you haven’t read any of Rabih Alameddine’s novels, do yourself a favor and pick one up the next time you’re in a decently stocked bookstore, or order one from Powell’s or Amazon or wherever. His next novel, The Angel of History, is out next October, and I can’t wait.
I’ve always liked hot chocolate–I imagine there are few people who don’t. When I was growing up we always had packets of instant Swiss Miss mixes in the winter, and if we’d been to England to visit family, Cadbury’s cocoa or Drinking Chocolate. I discovered Droste cocoa when I was a teenager, and they finally started importing Cadbury’s products to Atlanta, and we stopped buying anything else.
I couldn’t shake the idea that I was missing something, though. In the children’s novel Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare, set during the Seven Year’s War, there’s a reference to two of the characters getting cups of hot chocolate from a stall or a shop. This tiny detail bothered me deeply when I first read the book–I think I was eight–because I couldn’t reconcile the idea of the watery sweet stuff I was used to being consumed in the eighteenth century. I knew what the characters in the story were drinking had to be very different from what I was used to, but I couldn’t convince my mother to let me melt a bar of solid chocolate into a cup of milk to get an idea of what I was missing.
Later on I came across more detailed descriptions, such as the number of people (4, I think) and the steps required to prepare and serve Louis XVI his morning chocolate. Experimenting with Droste cocoa I tried to make something that resembled what I read about in books, but invariably I ended up with something that was much too sweet and badly mixed. (I did try to make a paste, but for some reason it didn’t occur to me to start with the cocoa and add the milk gradually; I started with milk–always a little too much–and ended up with a cup that still had clots of unmixed powder in it. I stopped trying for a few years, as for a long time during and after university I couldn’t often afford good cocoa powder.
I resumed my efforts when I developed an intolerance for caffeine. (Long story–if you use or have ever considered using caffeine tablets, just say no, they really aren’t worth it.) Once in a while I’ll try a few sips of regular coffee and not have hours-long bouts of heart palpitations, but the intolerance always resurfaces weeks or months later. Sometimes I can manage decaf coffee and tea, but the rest of the time I have hot chocolate instead. I usually have to avoid eating any other chocolate during the day, but I don’t mind this so much.
When I lived in Edinburgh there were a number of places where I could get a very nice cup of hot chocolate. There was a place called Chocolate Soup (now sadly defunct) that was pretty awesome, but their confections were more like consuming an incredibly rich dessert than anything suitable for a morning drink. The Elephant House on George IV Bridge served very good hot chocolate when I lived there (I can’t verify that this is still true, but fingers crossed), and there’s a shop in Bruntsfield called Coco Chocolatier (http://www.cocochocolate.co.uk/) whose rose and black pepper hot chocolate is still my gold standard for the perfect cup. If you are ever in the area, try some of their chocolate. You won’t regret it. I have tried to replicate this several times since I left, but my versions are poor substitutes. I’m lucky enough to have friends who send and/or bring me some once in a while (Thank you Caroline!)
When I lived in New York City, there was a cafe in Union Square that I relied on for my hot chocolate–although I was able to drink coffee again by that point–but that place closed down, and now I can’t actually recall the name. Back in Atlanta, I hit a dead end. There are plenty of places to go for good chocolate confections, but hot chocolate just isn’t a trend, at least in my neck of the woods. I’ve tried Starbuck’s, but it’s too sweet and not really strong on the chocolate flavor. I relied on Cadbury’s drinking chocolate and the Mexican-style chocolate that comes in discs (several brands; Taza’s are the best, in my opinion), but I find these either too sweet now or difficult to blend into the milk smoothly. After much experimentation, I settled on a favourite recipe. I hope it bears some resemblance to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cups of chocolate that Wedgwood, Limoges, and other makers of fine china created such lovely pots for, but I need to do more research to find out if this is actually so.
My recipe for the perfect hot chocolate:
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons demerara (turbinado) or coconut sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 tablespoons cream
1 cup milk (low-fat or skim)
Put the milk on the stove to heat. I have a small cast-iron pot for this–it’s actually designed to heat up barbecue sauce on a grill, but I couldn’t find the kind of copper pot I was looking for at the time. This isn’t really necessary; I know every good kitchen should have a dedicated milk pan which is never used for anything else, but I don’t have the storage space for such a thing. I sometimes heat the milk in the microwave when I’m in a rush. Next, mix a bit of the milk (five or six large spoonfuls should do it) into the powder to make a paste. When the milk is just starting to simmer (you should be able to see the steam coming off the surface, and signs of tiny bubbles in the center), pour it into the cup with the paste and stir until thoroughly mixed.
If you’re using whole milk, probably best to leave out the cream. Also, I like my hot chocolate just barely sweet, so you may find more sugar necessary, it’s up to you. You could replace the cardamom with cinnamon and/or nutmeg, or a pinch of ancho chili powder, or add a drop of food-grade lavender or rose oil. Sometimes I a little battery-powered cappuccino whisk to mix the milk into the cocoa, which makes a nice froth when you pour in the rest of the milk, but most of the time I just use a spoon, it requires less clean-up. If you have any cash to spare for kitchen staples and you like chocolate, I recommend investing in a high-quality cocoa powder; it really does taste better than your average Hershey’s stuff, whether you’re making hot chocolate or using it for baked goods. I like Callebaut and Valrhona, but there are several good brands. The drink is rich, but for me this is generally a breakfast in itself. I like this so much I actually look forward to getting up in the morning now.
P.S. Suggestions for chocolate shops in other cities are always welcome–I haven’t done much traveling lately, but I have plans. If you have a favourite place, post a message and let me know!
I am addicted to British costume dramas. My earliest memory of television is of watching a rerun of the original Poldark when I was in England one Christmas when I was three or four years old (a show I still love, despite the dreadful costumes and occasionally poor acting). I usually watch a film in the cinema or on television before deciding to spend money on it, but I missed Belle when it was showing; when I found it in Costco for $10 I went ahead and bought it, thinking it couldn’t be too bad, given its cast.
Oh was I ever glad I did. It’s one of my go-to films for those evenings when I’m stressed or frustrated or depressed: simultaneously sumptuous eye-candy and a celebration of one of the tiny steps British society made towards equality despite the rigidity of prevailing social rules regarding race and class at the time. It’s also a reminder that there were people writing and arguing in support of equal rights—although they wouldn’t have called it that—when the slave trade was at its most lucrative, even though their voices would continue to be drowned out by the preference for the status quo, mercantile interests, and the prevailing social bigotry for roughly two hundred years to come. (Some of the writings of Thomas Day, 1748–1789, are interesting in this regard, if you’re looking for further reading—Dido is reading one of his works in one scene in the film.)
Much of the story is heavily fictionalized, partly for the sake of telling a compelling story, but mostly, I think, because there is so little documentation of Dido Belle’s life aside from who her parents were, her position at Kenwood House, her great-uncle’s love for her, and her marriage to John Davinier. She actually married Davinier after her uncle’s death; whether they were in love is anyone’s guess, but I’d like to think that at least he must have loved her, to be willing to place principle over social prejudice, rather than just for the sake of her money (I’m not sure if her inheritance was as grand as is stated in the film, but she did get enough for a comfortable life). She had more to do with the running of the estate than is really portrayed in the film, John Davinier was not actually a law student, and the Ashford brothers are an invention for the story.
It’s still a great story, and so much better in almost every way than a number of the other films that got more attention that year. I like the balance Misan Sagay’s screenplay strikes between history, politics, and personal relationships–there is little in the way of Oscar-bait speeches because the issues the film deals with are framed not solely in terms of the significant historical event the characters are involved in (the Zong lawsuit), but in how the characters relate to and perceive one another. Most of the reviews I’ve come across, before and since, are good, and yet the film seemed vanish from the cinemas shortly after opening, and attracted only a small audience (in the U.S., at least). Gugu Mbatha-Raw is becoming one of my favourite actresses; even in her small role in the deliciously ridiculous Lost in Austen she steals every scene she appears in, and she’s got a number of big films coming out this year and the next. Sam Reid is also perfect for his role, and finally getting more exposure in other roles—he should have been the new Poldark, I thought, but hey ho. Everyone in it turns in a solid performance, even down to cousin Elizabeth, irritating character though she is. Amma Asante, the director, is also one to watch, I think—she has a new film coming out this year, A United Kingdom, and I can’t wait.