Author - donkeh

1
Mmmm … Delightful Nova Scotian Foreskins
2
Oreo Cows in New Scotland
3
Betty Makes Damn Good Pies
4
The Vikings *is* Game-of-Thrones-Lite, and that’s why I like The Vikings more
5
Broad City … Once You’re In, There’s No Pulling Out
6
Black Mirror—Reflecting Our Bleak Future?
7
The Killing – the first two seasons
8
Lee Child’s Secret Sauce to Cook Up Suspense

Mmmm … Delightful Nova Scotian Foreskins

While we were in Nova Scotia, we visited Jost Vineyards, the province’s biggest and oldest winery. The main building had walls of bottled wine surrounded by a steampunk décor that reminded me of Restoration Hardware. Ugh, more quaintness. How can the locals take so much quaintness? I would just die.

A staff woman approached and greeted me. A few words of mundane pleasantry ensued. My eyes hopped over to a sign that advertised the wine tasting. Her eyes followed mine. “Would you like to try our foreskins?” she asked.

“Huh?” I stilled. My face flushed, although I had forgotten to slap on sunscreen that day so I might’ve been somewhat burnt anyway. I scanned around to make sure I was still in a winery.

“Foreskins.” She smiled. In a completely innocent way.

I stared at her, still wondering if I heard wrong.

“Foreskins,” she said again, louder and her smile wider. 

I tried my best to muffle giggles from the juvenile boy within me. “Uh, I was actually hoping to try—”

“Our foreskins are really good.”

“I’m sure yours are,” I lied. To be honest, there was no way I’d know whether her foreskins were any good, but I had to be polite. After all, I was a foreigner in her country, her province, her store. “However, I already have—”

Her eyes narrowed. “You have some too?”

I nodded.

“Really?” she asked as if I lied.

“I think so.” 

She frowned a little. “I bet ours are better than what you have.”

That was quite presumptuous. I should’ve been offended, but I really wasn’t. Not a big deal. What makes foreskins better or worse, anyway? Some like them one way, others another. Many, regrettably, don’t like them at all. It’s all subjective. Still, I had to defend my honor, or whatever. I wondered if there was a way to prove myself without violating local laws. “Well,” I said, shrugging, “mine is probably not that bad.”

She waved a hand as if to say, whatever. “I insist. You must try ours before you go. You won’t regret it.” This woman sounded like someone who really knew her foreskins.

“I dunno.”

“Our foreskins are even more exquisite when paired with the local artisanal cheese.”

I wasn’t sure if “cheese” was code for something, but I was afraid to ask.

“The result is a long, smooth buildup to a deeply satisfying finish bursting with fruity flavors amidst a woody subtlety,” she moaned. “It’s sooo good.” Her eyes closed as if to savor a celestial moment.

“Wow. Fruity flavors, eh? I’ve never heard that before.”

“See,” she said smugly. “I told you ours are better than yours.”

“Oh, okay,” I said meekly.

In the end, I did sample some local foreskins. Who knew Nova Scotia would have such fine foreskins?

(The above exchange was very loosely based on what actually happened.)

foreskins - IMG_6925

 

Oreo Cows in New Scotland

‘Tis hard to believe, but it’s been over two (long) months on the road.

We just left Nova Scotia, a Canadian province whose name means New Scotland. Before we left Los Angeles, we didn’t plan on going to Canada, much less Nova Scotia, which is so far away from LA it might as well be the old Scotland. In fact, Nova Scotia is farther away from LA than any contiguous USA location. It’s more northeast than Maine, which is already super far.

The most common comment we’ve been getting from strangers is: “You’re a long way from home.” Yes, we are. And they’re even more shocked that we drove. I had no idea people looked at car license plates so much.

How did we end up so far? When we got to Lake Superior, we wanted to continue east. The two choices were to go via the north shore (Canada) or the south shore (USA). Montreal and Quebec City seemed like nice places to see so we went with the Canadian route. After those cities, Nova Scotia appeared merely a bit further east, so we rolled on. Newfoundland tempted us, but we shut down that idea before it wandered too far. Plus it would’ve required a long ferry ride. It’s easy to keep going forever if you keep on thinking, Oh, it’s just a little further.

Nevertheless, I’m glad we visited Nova Scotia. It is the most beautiful region we’ve seen thus far. Here’s a photo of a pasture we passed by.

bulls charge

Yup. Nova Scotian humor. Hahaha.

You can’t see the cows that well in the photo, but they have broad swathes of white in the middle of their bodies. At first I thought they was shaved or painted, but later I found out they’re actually Galloway cows, a breed originally from Scotland. Sometimes they’re called Oreo cows, as in the cookie. Cute. Friggin’ Nova Scotia, even their cows are quaint.

Upcoming post … slurpin’ on delightful Nova Scotian foreskins.

Betty Makes Damn Good Pies

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I recently watched David Lynch’s TV show Twin Peaks, season one. Disappointed. To be fair, I had high expectations of the cult favorite. It’s rare for a show to live up to high expectations.

Still, my reaction was surprising, given that I love love David Lynch’s movie Mulholland Drive. It’s a spooky mystery wrapped in a surreal atmosphere, a rare art movie with an engaging story.

Back to Twin Peaks. My first reaction was: this is slow. Well, actually it was: wow, does Kyle MacLachlan look young as Agent Cooper. The central mystery is the murder of a young woman, but neither the case nor the characters are all that interesting. And the show isn’t even that weird, as I assumed it’d be. Mostly, it annoyed me that the murder wasn’t solved by the end of the first season. Arrgh. There should be a law that bans season-ending cliffhangers for murder mysteries.

The best part of Twin Peaks is its music, which is probably more recognizable than any image from the show. It’s easy to understand why. The instrumental really sets the mood, a haunting melancholy. And if you know me, you know that melancholy has the same effect on me as flame on moths. However, the music began to sound repetitive after, like, two episodes. I was tired of it. Still, I give much credit to the music for the success of Twin Peaks. The signature melody is the soul of the show, which probably would not have been as memorable without the moody sound.

If you saw the show, you probably know why the title of the post is about pies and yet I’ve gone on to ramble about Twin Peaks.

You see, I’ve been on a cross-country road trip for about six weeks (the genesis of which is detailed here), and one of my hopes is to sample delicious local food everywhere. I got my wish along the North Shore Scenic Drive in Minnesota. The Drive is one of the most beautiful I’ve been on, and I heard it’s even more breathtaking when the fall colors arrive. What was initially intended to be a one-day drive turned into a multi-day affair. And that affair included meeting Grand Marais, definitely the quaintest town on the trip so far and certainly one of the most romantic I’ve ever seen.

One of the highlights of the Drive was my lunch at Betty’s Pies. I had two slices: the Great Lakes baked pie (apple, blueberry, rhubarb, strawberry and raspberry) and the five-layer chocolate cream pie (dark chocolate, cinnamon meringue, whipped cream and chocolate whipped cream). Both pies were excellent, but I preferred the chocolate one. Each layer was delightful; together the whole was even better. It’s no wonder that the five-layer chocolate is the bakery’s most popular pie. I’m not a big sweets person, so I was glad that the pies were not too sugary as many pies tend to be.

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As all pie-lovers know, good pies are not just about the filling. The crust is also important—not as important as the filling but still crucial for support. The pie crust is kinda like the groom in a wedding—he is vital to the event, but everyone knows the bride is where it’s at. Here, the crust was properly flaky and light. Oh yeah, under-baked and doughy tasting crusts should be illegal too.

So there I was. Having a slice of pie heaven while visiting a small town. The whole time I kept thinking about Agent Cooper eating his beloved cherry pie.

Ready for some tasty Betty’s pies? If you can’t make it to Minnesota, you can order it online and have the pies shipped!

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The Vikings *is* Game-of-Thrones-Lite, and that’s why I like The Vikings more

Source: http://www.vikingstvstore.com; Fair use - commentary

Source: http://www.vikingstvstore.com; Fair use – commentary

I like the TV series Game of Thrones. When I heard that the History Channel’s The Vikings was GoT-lite, I thought: Oh, let’s give that a try, but I know it ain’t gonna be as good as GoT, cuz GoT is pretty splendid.

I watched the first couple episodes of The Vikings and wasn’t impressed. It was okay, but the production value wasn’t nearly as shiny GoT’s. To be fair, GoT probably had 5,000 times the budget. Then I watched more of The Vikings. By the end of the first season, I was hooked. Having seen three season, I can safely say that I love it more than GoT.

The two shows have one thing in common: political intrigue. But there are key differences. The Vikings has one dominant story line. My atrophying brain finds it very taxing to follow the multiple parallel plots of an epic like GoT. Some GoT storylines I just don’t care for that much, and I find myself zoning out while waiting for the show to return to the characters I care more about. Second, The Vikings is faster paced. Lots of fighting. So yes, The Vikings is lighter. Lighter is more digestible. And digestion is good. Sometimes less is more.

The story is about Ragnar, a Viking leader whose dream is to go overseas (i.e. England) and raid. And raid. And raid. Them Vikings like to raid so much you’d think they have nothing else fun to do. If you’ve seen Sons of Anarchy (another fantastic show), Ragnard might remind you of Jax Teller. They’re both smart, cunning, and ambitious. Most importantly, they’re patient, biding their time until it’s ripe. Whereas most of their peers would gobble up their marshmallows in seconds, Ragnard can wait for hours. Days.

Since modern-day Scandinavia is one of the most socially liberal and egalitarian places, it’s fitting that the The Vikings portrays a progressive culture as well. The people vote for their leaders. Unmarried people cohabitate without shame. People (even kids) talk about sex as a natural human activity, not a dirty taboo. When a woman complains about an abusive husband, she is believed by the authority, not dismissed like chattel. Upon hearing that, the English king mused that the Vikings’ pagan laws seemed more enlightened than the English’s Christian laws. However, I don’t know how much of the show is historically accurate.

Lagertha is probably the most unexpectedly fierce character on The Vikings. She is smart and headstrong, but the best part is that she kicks ass. She goes with the men on raids and cuts up people as easily as she chops turnips. One time she leads a group of shieldmaidens (female warriors) on a special covert mission, kind of like Viking navy seals. Shieldmaidens are prominent in Scandinavian legends, though scholars disagree whether such warriors actually existed.

My favorite character is Rollo. Cuz he fights awesomely and is awesomely sexy. ‘Nuff said. If you don’t find him hot then I don’t know what to say.

If you like ancient political dramas like The Vikings and GoT, another good show to check out is Rome. Unfortunately, that one had a short run (only two seasons), but it’s very compelling drama.

I’m a season behind GoT and I’m still looking forward to watching it, but what I’m really eager to see is the upcoming fourth season of The Vikings.

Broad City … Once You’re In, There’s No Pulling Out

 

Two young, goofy women deal with daily life in NYC—not the most original premise, but the humor of the TV show Broad City is all fresh. Less serious than Girls and less quirky than Portlandia, but funnier than both. Like Seinfeld, Broad City is a show that seems to be about nothing yet mines comedic gold out of the most pedestrian grounds.

Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, who created and star in the show, are best friends whose specialty is getting into situations that go wrong. Ilana “works” at a company that promotes internet deals, yet the only time she produces results is when she hires free interns to do her work. Abbi is an artist, but her day job is cleaning endless disasters in the restrooms of an obnoxiously positive fitness club. “Oh Abbi, hey, I know you’re not working today, but we could really use some Abbi magic. There’s a pube situation in the locker room that is unprecedented.” Hahahaha. Yes, I’m juvenile.

One of the funniest scenes is in the premiere episode of season two, when Abbi mutters a double entendre about “pulling out.” Pure comedic beauty.

Broad City is not afraid to push satire into risky territory, touching upon ethnicity, rape, sex offenders, and anal sex. And this is the deftness of the show’s style: it embeds subversiveness into humor and teases out absurdities from serious matters. Under the jokey veneer are thought-provoking takes on the complexities of taboos. Their jokes don’t usually have political content (maybe they do, and I’m just too dense to get the nuances). It’s always funny first, then implicitly asks you what you think.

Any twit can babble commentary (you’re reading it now). Smart commentary is hard. Funny commentary is harder. Smart and funny—that’s the hardest. Glazer and Jacobson are subtle enough to not seem like they’re trying to prove how smart and funny they are. I kinda have crushes on them both.

Seinfeld was the last pure comedy (i.e. not comedy mixed with drama) I loved on network TV. Since then, the best pure comedies have been non-networks, e.g. The Daily Show, South Park, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David ended his show, and to my distress, Jon Stewart will be leaving soon (please change your mind, Jon). Good thing Broad City has come along. On Comedy Central, of course.

The show has gotten great reviews, with the second season even better than the first. Though still a bit under the radar, Broad City deserves many more seasons to come. The Comedy Central website has locked all of the episodes except the first one of the second season.  It’s only twenty minutes, and I’d watch it just for that one joke. I probably replayed the scene five times already, giggling like a doofus each time. Yes, that’s how mature I is.

I watch Broad City on Hulu Plus, where you can stream all the epis. I’m also watching The Vikings and Twin Peaks, and about to start on Empire. Between Netflix and Hulu, there’s really no time for anything else in life.

Black Mirror—Reflecting Our Bleak Future?

Source: IMDB

Source: IMDB

Black Mirror is a thinky British TV series set in a near-future UK. The vibe is like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. The main theme is dystopian, but the culprit is really the masses, not so much the government. Basically, the future sucks because people suck. The masses are fickle and prone to mob mentality. When we get better technology, we can’t handle it since it enables us to do bad things in badder ways. Technology progresses so fast that our moral maturity can’t keep up. It’s like giving a toddler a tank to drive when the kid hasn’t even mastered the tricycle. So yeah, we is doomed.

The subtext seems to be that democracy, based on the whims of the masses, is bad. A valid criticism, but the depressing part is that we probably have no better alternative. (Aside from having me as dictator for life, obviously. And having my clones as successors. Because I am all that and a bag of Cheetos, as anyone who knows me will testify.)

My favorite episodes are the first and the third ones in the first season. In National Anthem (the first episode), someone has kidnapped a royalty. The ransom demand asks the Prime Minister to perform an act … um … that will make you cringe, to say the least. It’s also darkly comedic, as cringe-worthy things can be sometimes.

In The Entire History of You (the third episode), people have implants that record their life experiences. Kinda like a DVR of what you see and hear. You can re-watch your past as if it were a TV show, essentially. The good is that you can relive your happy past. But what about the unhappy parts? And the temptation to watch another’s past? This episodes falls under the “be careful what you wish for” category because what you want is not always what’s good for you.

Another thing I like about this show is that it’s pretty edgy—it touches upon or jokes about taboo topics. British media, compared to American media, seem generally more willing to offend.

Black Mirror is available on Netflix, which has seasons one and two (total of six episodes). Season three is in progress.

The Killing – the first two seasons

Source: IMDB

Police procedurals don’t usually lure me, but the TV series The Killing reeled me in. In one weekend, I binged the first two seasons on Netflix. The show is tense, suspenseful, and gripping. And really bleak, both visually and emotionally.

In the first two seasons, two homicide detectives – Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) – investigate the murder of a teen girl in Seattle, a city that doesn’t seem to get a single ray of sunshine through all 26 episodes. Almost all scenes are washes of gray, and so are the characters. Family secrets, political intrigue, and personal struggles gnarl the case. And there are plenty of twists and red herrings to keep you guessing.

As complex as its mystery, The Killing isn’t all plot. The two leads are deeply carved and wonderfully played. Linden is hard, aloof, and mostly not very nice, but she betrays tenderness. She cares, perhaps too much. As her own rough past surfaces, you begin to understand the fears that drive Linden’s obsession with the case. Her single-mindedness may be great for solving crimes, but threatens everything else: her relationship with her son, her rapport with her partner, and her own mental cohesion. Ironically, it’s when Linden is at her toughest do you see the most of her vulnerability. I’m not sure if I totally like her, but she is definitely engaging.

Her partner Holder is a likeable dude that brings levity to an otherwise deathly serious show. As a detective new to homicide, Holder is the apprentice to the veteran Linden. But Holder offers more than what you would expect. He may seem silly, even loserish at times, but under the slacker veneer is a man who is thoughtful and caring, with much to contribute to the partnership. It’s no surprise that he may be driven by some of his own dark history as well.

The Killing isn’t for everyone. It is slow, but I didn’t mind the pace because I was absorbedThe show, basically a Seattle noir with a Nordic vibe, reminds me of the Swedish Stieg Larsson movies.  After all, The Killing is a remake of a Danish TV show. Also, if you like the miniseries Top of the Lake*, you will probably like The Killing. Both have the same measured pace, depressing vibe, and intimate focus on a female detective.

The first story arc spans the first two seasons (13 episodes each). Much to my disappointment, the series was canceled after four seasons. Boo.

* Top of the Lake is a beautifully filmed missing-persons mystery set in New Zealand, starring Elisabeth Moss. Those who have seen the TV series Mad Men will recognize her as Peggy Olson. She is equally compelling in both shows.

Lee Child’s Secret Sauce to Cook Up Suspense

 

How do you create suspense in a novel? Since I’m attempting to write a scifi thriller, it is the number two[1] question on my mind these days.

A couple of years ago, I read a New York Times article written by Lee Child, the author of the popular Jack Reacher series. In that article, he revealed his secret sauce to create suspense. I still like his pithy advice. More on that later.

More recently, I read an old bestseller that’s an impressive example of suspense. I’ve never read another novel that’s as effective in maintaining tension. Whether or not one likes the story, the book is a superbly crafted thriller, at least on a technical level. I should’ve read it long ago but kept putting it off, thinking that the story was ruined because I’d seen the movie.

When I finally read the book, I noticed this: many chapters end with a mystery. When I write, my intuition is to wrap up each chapter neatly – conclude the scene before starting the next chapter. You know, tidy. The thing is, while sphincteralness may be great for the sock drawer, it may not be the best way to create suspense.

What this author often does is to end a scene at the beginning of the next chapter.[2] For example, one chapter might conclude like this (I totally made this up):

“Luke,” Darth Vader wheezed like a 20-year-old Hoover clogged with cat hair. “I’m going to tell you who your father is.”

“OMG,” Luke squealed. “It’s Obi-Wan, isn’t it? I swear we have the same cheekbones. LOL. Don’t tell me it’s the Emperor. He doesn’t look like he ages well. No, it’s gotta be Yoda. That’s why the Force is strong within me. Wait, does that mean I’ll turn green if I don’t get enough sun? Spit it out, you bastard. I gots to know!”

End chapter.

Are you gonna stop there? Of course not. Like Luke, you gots to know, right? You glance at your clock on the nightstand: 12:03 a.m. You promised yourself to read only one chapter before going to sleep. Cursing, you flip over to the next chapter, which might start with:

“I am your father,” Darth Vader said.

Nooooo, you mutter to yourself, eyes wide. Bookmark that page and go to sleep? Uh, no. If you’re like me, you like to finish a chapter. Thus you read through the current chapter. By the end of that chapter, the author baits you again. Damn it. The evil cycle repeats. Again and again. The clock now reads 2:14 a.m., and you have to get up at six to go to work. Massively screwed up the … well, you know.

To sustain this continuous suspense, you have to create a series of mysteries to string the reader along. But that’s really hard and a lot of work. Merely thinking about it makes me tired. Also, this setup wouldn’t be right for every story. Nevertheless, it’s good to know.

If you’re still reading this, then perhaps Lee Child’s advice worked: you create suspense by dangling out a question and delaying the answer. What is this novel I’ve been babbling about? Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The first question being why does my story suck zonkey sphincter, but that’s a different post for a different day when the self-loathing Dark side is stronger. (A zonkey is the offspring of a male zebra and a female donkey. A female zebra and a male donkey produce a zedonk.)
  2. If the next chapter switches POV, then the scene might continue in the chapter after that, when the original POV resumes.

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