Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Book Review: Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food (2010)

Paul Greenberg's Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food is a good introduction to aquaculture and the industrial fishing practices that bring us our sashimi and scrod. Greenberg, a fishing enthusiast from an early age, contends that four fish--salmon, bass, cod, and tuna--have come to dominate our dinner plates. He devotes a chapter to each fish, vividly describing their physical and physiological characteristics, their range and habits, as well as the evolution of humanity's methods for catching them in increasingly larger numbers.

In this way, Greenberg underlines the inherent lack of sustainability in our collective fishing processes. Overfishing has had such a devastating impact on the focus populations, and Greenberg advocates for government regulation, showing that fish numbers tend to recover when official intervention gives them breathing room. His dismissal of individual consumer choice as a significant influence on the fishing industry is an interesting departure from other food books that I've read. He does have a point--if governments prevented overfished families from reaching the market in the first place, then ordinary folks wouldn't have to vote with their wallet, as it were. Greenberg thinks subsidizing artisanal fishing is the way to go.

Whether or not that has a snowball's chance in hell of happening, I learned a lot from this book! For instance, I found out that the larval stage has astronomically high mortality rates, so the fish we currently eat are those bred to survive that stage (if farmed), or are tough and/or lucky (if wild). I also had no idea that it takes so much fish feed to grow a fish. I was blissfully ignorant about how Chile, Norway, Alaska, and other places supply our sources of omega-3 fatty acids. I had zero clue that party boats for fishing were a thing. Finally, until I saw the cover of this book, I did not know what the eponymous four fish looked like in their non-filleted form. The more you know!

In conclusion, Four Fish is an informative, enjoyable read that practically radiates with the author's love and enthusiasm for, and deep connection to, the subject matter. The prose is clear, the ideas flow well, and best of all, I came away feeling that there are viable solutions to overfishing...if only we could get our act together, which we occasionally do!

TL;DR: A fun, educational book!

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This post brought to you by US midterm elections!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Book Review, Halloween Edition: The Little Stranger (2009)

'Tis the season to be...spooked!, so I heartily recommend The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. The novel is set in postwar England and the bulk of the action takes place in Hundreds Hall, a deteriorating mansion owned by the Ayres family. Waters' writing here is incredible, as she deftly intertwines themes of loss, family, societal shifts, and also, ghosts. It's a riveting read, and makes me want to see all the works of this author.

The protagonist in The Little Stranger is Dr. Faraday, a rural doctor who has a history with Hundreds Hall, having visited as a child. Thirty years later, he is called there for a medical check-up, and soon his visits become more regular. Through Faraday, readers realize just how far Hundreds has fallen from its glory days. The author vividly describes the estate's decline, which coincides with the deterioration of the family that owns it.

The Little Stranger is a slow burn, and a lot of space is given to illustrating the connection between Hundreds and the Ayres family members. All of them are burdened with their home, to some degree or other. The "master" of the hall, Roderick, is buried in the desperate work of keeping their finances afloat in the midst of a recession and postwar austerity measures. His older sister Caroline is a spinster who is reduced to household work because they can only afford one maid. And their mother, Mrs. Ayres, is in a perpetual (but hidden) state of grief over Susan, her first daughter, who died at Hundreds as a young girl.

Now, the trailer for the movie adaptation starring Domnhall Gleeson makes it seem like Susan is the ghost, but it's more complex than that. In Dr. Faraday's narration, the main characters perceive Hundreds Hall in starkly different ways: Faraday, the outsider, a man from a working-class background, sees a chance at healing and a return to glory; while the Ayres family gloomily foretell its demise, along with the end of the aristocratic class.

These opposing views come into relief once eerie events begin happening. As the Ayres fortunes become even worse, Roderick and Caroline--both sensible, stiff-upper-lip types--blame something in the house. By contrast, Faraday has reasoned explanations for everything. His skepticism and the bizarre nature of the Ayres' misfortunes create a tension and keep readers guessing about what's really going on. The cause, the "little stranger" of the title, is actually explained much later on, and it adds another layer to the mystery of what is ailing the mansion and its inhabitants. Are Faraday's rational conclusions correct? Or is something else at work at Hundreds Hall?

Whatever the case may be, the excellent writing is indisputable. Waters makes Hundreds Hall into another character, at turns pitiful, malevolent, and inviting. Her descriptions of the interiors of the estate are so clear that at one point, I put the book down and half-expected to see dilapidated wallpaper and antique furniture. The "hauntings" are also deliciously spooky, with the standout being a series of occurrences involving the nursery. Finally, kudos to Waters for writing a gothic horror/romance novel where the heroine is repeatedly described as looking like a real person, with big ol' thighs and whatnot, instead of a delicate beauty with slender fingers and suchlike.

In conclusion, The Little Stranger is a well written piece of historical horror fiction, and might I suggest reading it before watching its movie version, which came out in August and will hopefully be on cable sometime soon!

TL;DR: A haunting, disturbing read, perfect for Halloween!

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This post brought to you by Swedish chocolate!

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Junior: Fourth Annual Report

Junior spent the past year being a threenager. For those unfamiliar with the term, this is when a three-year-old acts difficult, i.e. by not listening, being inappropriately loud, swinging wildly between two extremes, or all of the above, whilst powered by some inexhaustible energy source. In short, it's been quite a year.

For reference, his previous reports are here, here, and here. Having re-read them, I realize that these notes ooze with delighted smugness. This report...does not.

1. So Much Talking
Junior talks nonstop. He is now completely capable of expressing his wants, needs, and opinions. He demands a “special treat” or something sugary very, very frequently. His vocabulary is expansive, and he uses nouns and descriptive terms correctly.

"More sugar!"

Meanwhile, thanks to Mamala’s three-month visit, Junior’s Tagalog skills have accelerated, to the point of his speaking it exclusively when talking to her. In fact, at one point she forgot the word for “wings” (“pakpak”), and he helpfully supplied it; from then on, he became convinced he could speak better Tagalog than her.

One caveat to this talent: his volume seems to be stuck at "Maximum." The silver lining is that it is impossible to lose him in a crowded area because he can be heard wherever he is, even on a different floor. The parental units are working on his inside voice.

2. Can't Stop, Won't Stop
Junior also moves nonstop. He is constitutionally incapable of standing still; when forced to stay in one spot, he will hop on one leg, or dance, shouting, "Look at me!" Per last year's recommendation, he enrolled in a ballet class, which he enjoyed immensely and apparently wants to do again.

He has also moved on from his balance bike (no pedals) to a bicycle with training wheels. Since he is outgrowing his child seat on mommy’s bicycle, the plan is to start him biking to daycare on the sidewalk. He has proven to be very good at braking at intersections and driveways, but vigilance is always key.

 
3. Drama 
Junior's performances are award-worthy. When denied something, he moans, "Oh, man!" and either flings himself despondently to the floor, or works himself up to crocodile tears. There are many instances of the parental units utterly failing to keep a straight face when Junior turns on the waterworks and pouty lips, because they are so, so extremely fake.

He is also terrific at mimicking his mother's exasperation, see all the eyerolling below:



Only time will tell if this phase leads to a future in theater.

4. Peer Pressure
Junior now says things like, "I want to wear a jacket like [REDACTED] does!" and "But [REDACTED] brings his trucks to school!" He will also break for water/snacks if other kids do so. So far, the parental units have exploited this new development by praising peers' good behaviors and ignoring undesired ones.

An unexpected effect of peer pressure is Junior's reduced bossiness; he seems more inclined to play with other kids rather than order them around, which was his wont for a while. He is also a very good sharer of his snacks.

5. Independence
Junior has been yelling, "I CAN DO IT!" all year, and indeed, he can, for the most part. He removes his shoes and puts them in the cubby upon reaching home, and he can also strip naked (still some difficulty with shirts) for pajama time. He can put on undies and shorts (again, shirts take longer), and even shoes, but socks-independence remains a goal. Surprisingly, he is also very good at cleaning up his room when incentivized (e.g. with TV or iPad time), but this process does end up with some surprises, like a bunch of underwear stuffed inside a race car kit.

Big boys are great at dentist visits!

6. Responsibility and Maturity (?)
Junior has turned out to be an excellent kuya/big brother. He adores his new baby sister and can be depended upon to watch her for up to 10 seconds. For example, when she is left in the middle of the bed, he will further ensure her safety by propping more pillows around her. He constantly affirms his love for her, hugs her at every opportunity, and likes to inform strangers on the street that he has a baby of his very own. His affection is very touching.


Junior has also overcome his aversion to vegetables, which he developed as an early threenager. He now eats broccoli again, albeit in the tiniest quantities possible. He reasons that, as a big boy, he should enjoy veggies, and has bravely nibbled on celery sticks to prove himself.

Conclusion 
Everyone survived Junior’s threenage year. We hope you agree that this in itself is impressive. As always, your support for Junior makes his continued growth possible. Thank you.

Sincerely,
The Fragrant Elephant Committee on I’m So Tired

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This post brought to you by pistachios!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Game Review: Persona 4 Golden (PS Vita)

Persona 4 Golden (P4G) is a remarkable departure from traditional JRPGs. Many beats will be familiar to JRPG fans – for example, the theme of fwendship, the turn-based combat system – but P4G stands apart for its core mechanic of daily micro-decisions that ultimately shape each player’s experience of the game. Overall, it’s a terrific game that makes me eager to get my paws on Persona 5.

In P4G, players take on the role of a silent protagonist high schooler who arrives in the small rural town of Inaba as a transfer student for the year. He’s staying with his Uncle Ryoutaro, a police detective, and Nanako, his 6-year-old cousin. But soon a series of murders and kidnappings engulfs the town, and it’s up to [HERO] and his friends to find the truth!

My first kudos goes to the graphics. The 3D sprites are reasonably proportioned (!), in that everyone looks like a typical Japanese person. The character postures and motions are also very smooth. The developers even captured the teenage boy slouch! While P4G is far from Uncharted: Golden Abyss in terms of beautifully rendered environs, its Inaba is an accurate representation of a small town in Japan. The overworld map, which lets players select a destination within the town, resembles a Google maps satellite image. In other words, everything looks realistic.

The breaks with reality occur within the confines of mundane, everyday activities, which is the game’s greatest strength. In P4G, players can enter another dimension swarming with “Shadows,” which can only be fought off with “Personas.” Personas are basically Summons, and they can be won in dungeons or created through fusion. Typical JRPGs have elemental strengths/weaknesses as a function of power, and this is present in P4G as well, but tarot categories (called “arcana”) play a larger role here. For example, your first Persona is Izanagi, of the Fool arcana, and he’s strong in lightning and weak to wind. Certain NPCs in the real world represent specific arcanas, so establishing “Social Links” with them increases the power of Personas you can create. So basically you’re as strong as your friendship level! It’s all a bit of a learning curve for newcomers to the Persona series, but it's bomb once mastered!

The P4G development team also threw in the mandatory sidequests—which are mostly fetch quests—as well as fishing, planting and harvesting, and model building (?!). In addition, your character can do part-time work after school, and/or join after school activities. And, certain actions will increase your stats (for instance, eating a suspicious item in the fridge raises Courage), which can unlock further actions (e.g. enough Courage lets you enter the shrine at night and talk to a ghost!). A lot of factors are day-dependent, such as soccer practice being on Tuesdays, Thursday, and Saturdays, or working at the daycare center being an option on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

What all this means is that every decision you make—who to have lunch with, how to spend the afternoon and evening (e.g. drama club? Basketball practice? Reading? Working? Eating ramen with someone?)—determines your strength and bonus abilities in battle, the other characters’ development, and the interactions near end game. The game makes it challenging to get 100% because one decision cancels out all others, so for example, if I chose to work as a dishwasher at the pub that evening, I would miss my chance to get closer to a classmate who wants to hang out. And players make these choices every single day.

The best part is that the game rewards players, not just through maxing out a Social Link and getting special interactions and skills, but also through the sense that the protagonist has a personality, based on the other characters’ reactions to your dialogue choices.

The combat system in PG4 is a joy. It's so entertaining to find or fuse Personas and then choose one who has the requisite skills to dish out the most damage. A few rules spice up battles: first, hitting a combatant with a weakness gives the attacker an extra turn--this is true for players and Shadows! Second, a hilarious group attack can be performed if all enemies are knocked down. Third, if you have high enough Social Links with your friends, they provide welcome assistance, such as canceling status ailments, removing one enemy from the field entirely, or boosting stats. Fighting is fun in P4G!

P4G has several themes, the quest for truth being the overarching one. A related theme is the role of television/media, which in the game is both a danger and a means to save trapped souls. Does the screen show the truth, or is it all illusion? Friendship and making connections are other major themes in the game, underlined by their centrality to the gameplay. P4G also invites players to think about what makes a family (blood? Love? Shared experience?). Finally, the game highlights the fleeting time that is youth, and how fun and painful and awkward it can be.

The excellent localization really brings these themes and messages across. Certain original Japanese terms are left as-is, conversations flow well, and the voice acting is outstanding. Not a single voiced character was annoying! Plus, in the thousands of lines of text, I only caught a single error (made by Yosuke during a high-level Social Link interaction, btw). So, well done, Atlus localization team and voice actors!

Lastly, P4G’s music is spectacular. There are plenty of J-pop numbers, jazzy tracks for running around town or being in class, a soulful aria for the Velvet Room (basically the Persona support center), and fun dungeon themes. My favorite track is “Signs of Love,” which is catchy and repetitive!

P4G is such a great game that I’m now intrigued by the series and will pick up Persona 5. Until then, I’ll be on my Switch playing Xenoblade Chronicles 2. The gaming never ends, my friends. Especially not when one's husband has correctly deduced that buying wifey console games = hubby free time for PC games!

TL; DR: A strong JRPG and a solid intro to the Persona series!

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This post brought to you by there honestly isn't enough coffee to compensate for two kids not sleeping well. -_-

Monday, August 20, 2018

Movie Review: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians is a wonderful escape into a world dripping with luxury and over-the-top personalities. The movie flaunts its unabashed Chinese-ness, with a soundtrack featuring Mandarin and Cantonese covers of highly recognizable US pop songs, as well as a pivotal scene where mahjong is key. Overall, it's an enjoyable journey that will hopefully lead to more stories like it!

Crazy Rich Asian's lead is NYU economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, or should I say, Woooo!), whose boyfriend Nick Young (HE'S MINE, HANDS OFF) invites her to Singapore for his best friend's wedding. Multiple surprises await Rachel along the way, many delightful (street food! Designer clothes!), and some downright terrifying (disapproving potential mother-in-law!).

The latter is played to icy perfection by the outstanding Michelle Yeoh, whose character Eleanor verbalizes the conflicts running throughout the film: sacrifice and tradition versus passion and independence, family versus outsiders, old money versus scrappy immigrants, and more. Although Eleanor places herself between Rachel and Nick, the movie has no true villain -- just fundamentally differing backgrounds, perspectives, and attitudes that, naturally, eventually swing in favor of our heroine, since this is after all a romantic comedy.

Apart from the strong writing, the supporting characters are fabulous. First place goes to Awkwafina, fresh off her triumphant debut in Ocean's Eight, whose portrayal of Peik Lin is so iconic that I honestly couldn't catch everything she said because the audience roared with laughter just about every time she came onscreen. A close second is Nico Santos (he's Pinoy!) who plays the resourceful cousin Oliver. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Gemma Chan, whose Astrid is tragic and kind and beautiful and tall and slim and I'm not jealous. That's just your imagination. Sonoya Mizuno is also in this movie, and I did not recognize her at all because I last saw her in Ex Machina, which you should also watch!

Apropos of nothing, the loving shots and scenes dedicated to food made me go, "This movie gets me." This movie is my husband.

Finally, the soundtrack is spectacular in that the music matches all the visual opulence. In particular, the opening song "Waiting For Your Return," "Wo Yao Ni De Ai," and "Money (That’s What I Want)" are very upbeat tracks that encapsulate the spirit of the film. And the song sung live (of course!) at the wedding is swoon-worthy. Love and money -- what a glorious fantasy!

TL;DR: MORE PLEASE!

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This post brought to you by boba tea!

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Movie Review: Ant-Man & The Wasp (2018)

Ant-Man and The Wasp has a lot of heart. It's a fun little adventure that scales back the stakes, but not the action or the laughs. Overall, it's a great antidote to the grimness of Avengers: Infinity War.

The cast is easily the best part of the film. The gang from Ant-Man is back, and everyone shines: Paul Rudd is earnest and goofy as Scott Lang; Evangeline Lilly remains hyper-competent as Hope van Dyne; Michael Douglas' Hank Pym is brilliant and driven; and Michael Peña is a scene-stealer as the chatty Luis. Any interaction involving Scott's daughter Cassie (Abby Rider) is adorable. There are several new high-profile additions in the sequel, and every one of them is *Italian chef kiss*

The plot is equally enjoyable. There are a number of intertwined threads, but for the most part it's a straightforward proposition: our heroes want to enter the quantum realm and retrieve [SPOILER]. Appropriately enough for its micro-protagonists, this movie dodges the thematic weight of, say, the last two Captain America films. This is very much a family movie, as in the overriding theme is family: the one you're born into, and the one you create through shared experiences and goals.

Watching Ant-Man and The Wasp overcome obstacles is exceedingly entertaining. The CGI during fight scenes is very well done, with slo-mo being used sparingly but to hilarious effect. The soundtrack is high octane from the get-go. And the villains are interesting! Ant-Man and The Wasp face off against two sets of antagonists who want the same thing. One pair has surprising depth, while the other group, despite not being terribly formidable, is certainly persistent.

Also: The Wasp has her hair in a ponytail when she's fighting! This alone almost makes up for the movie not passing the Bechdel test. Soon, Marvel, soon you will be less sausage-y and more...y'know, I'm just going to leave this at: Black Widow movie, woo-hoo!!!

In closing, since this is a Marvel movie, there are two end credit scenes: one after the principal cast list, and another at the very end. Stay and watch, and marvel at Marvel's ability to link its movies!

TL;DR: Fun, brisk, and moving. 

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This post brought to you by summer showers!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Summer Book Recommendations

I went on a reading binge after Juniorette was born--what else to do during all those night wake-ups in the first six weeks? Below are the four best books of the bunch, in my opinion:

1. Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats (Maryn McKenna, 2017)
McKenna traces the rise of chicken as the main protein in the United States, a rise inextricably linked to heavy antibiotic use. She describes how chickens lost their diversity and essentially became standardized blocks of tofu with feathers, legs, and beaks. She examines industrial practices as well as the alternative movements that have sprung up in response to rising consumer awareness of the health costs of so-called "superbugs." Her documentation of the bacterial threat is chilling. However, Big Chicken does end on a positive note, unlike, say, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Incidentally, I haven't bought chicken since reading this book.

2. Molly's Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World (Molly Bloom, 2014)
Molly's Game is a memoir about how former Olympic skiier Molly Bloom ended up running an invite-only, high-stakes poker game for the moneyed dudes of LA and New York. She includes observations about the mindset of poker players, presents the drastic lifestyle changes her new role afforded, and describes her evolving strategy for staying on top of the game. Gotta respect the hustle! Now a movie starring Jessica Chastain.

3. The Secret Life of Fat: the Science Behind the Body's Least Understood Organ and What It Means For You (Sylvia Tara, PhD, 2016)
The author, a biochemist, makes a compelling case for loving your fat by understanding it as an organ critical to your body's performance. She uses examples of fat-related diseases to emphasize that having too little or too much can cause havoc on our health. For those hoping for some tips on how to lose weight, alas, it's the same old (yet effective!) advice: diet and exercise. Still, this book made me appreciate the role that fat plays in my health, and I'm now less judge-y of myself and others who have muffin tops. Just means there's more to love!

4. Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life As an Animal Surgeon (Dr. Nick Trout, 2008)
Dr. Trout is a British animal surgeon who has plenty of experience under his belt. He's passionate about his patients, and his empathy extends to their human companions. He structures the book around one day to showcase both the clinical issues he has to deal with--starting in the wee hours of the morning!--as well as the other challenges of the profession, such as cost considerations for owners, how to communicate with patients who can't talk, teaching and mentorship, etc. I would bring my pet to Dr. Trout based on this book, because his love for animals shines through. I mean, if I had a pet.

TL;DR: All four books are great summer reads to expand your mind!

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This post brought to you by swimming!