Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book Review: Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

What's worse--the Black Plague is looming over your small village hamlet or hideous aliens are stranded in the woods just outside of your small village hamlet? The poor 14th century village of Oberhochwald is gored by both horns of this dilemma in Eifelheim, the Hugo-nominated novel by Michael Flynn.

Father Dietrich is Oberhochwald's pastor and the first to discover the alien's landing site. They appear like giant grasshoppers and horses won't go near them. Despite their strangeness, he is able to recognize the intelligence of the aliens and that they are injured. He enlists the aid of various people in town, including the local lord, Manfred von Hochwald. As more people find out about the Krenken (what they call the aliens), more is discovered about the aliens. Can they be kept secret from outsiders? Can the medieval society provide what the aliens need to repair their ship and go home? If the plague comes, will it wipe out human and Krenken alike?

The medieval story is interwoven with a contemporary account of historian Tom, who is investigating why the medieval town of Eifelheim was abandoned and never resettled. His live-in girlfriend Sharon is a theoretical physicist and their relationship provides some nice sciency discussions that aren't too hard to follow. Naturally, Tom's pursuit is a bit of a spoiler about what happens to Oberhochwald (which is eventually renamed Eifelheim in historical records), but it creates some suspense. It might have been better as one complete story at the end rather than interspersed among the main story.

One of the great things about the book is how well researched and believable it is. Lots of historic fiction seems to get its picture of the medieval world from the old Hercules and Xena TV series (which is wrong in so many ways); it's nice to read a depiction of the society that is much more authentic. Father Dietrich had studied in Paris under some famous philosophers and he has many philosophical, theological, and scientific discussions with both humans and Krenken. He writes to his bishop to find out if rational yet non-human animals could be converted and baptized. He is coy and hypothetical in his request but it has practical motivation--some of the Krenken show interest in the Christian faith. He is also curious about the Krenken equipment and space ship, often inventing words from Greek to describe their devices, e.g. the Krenken take images of things with their fotographia.

This book is a great read and I highly recommend it!

For more interesting commentary, listen to episode seven of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast, which I have finally listened to.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Half Moon Brewery, Bruges

On our last day in Belgium, we wandered around Bruges for an afternoon. We happened to run across the Half Moon Brewery tucked away down an inviting alley.

Half Moon entrance

The brewery has a sunny courtyard full of tables which spill over from their restaurant. The place also has a gift shop and brewery tour.

Courtyard of the brewery

It was getting late in the day so we couldn't do the tour but I did do some shopping. They sell the usual variety of tee-shirts, can openers, glasses, mugs, and beers. I bought a four-pack of Brugse Zot (regular and dubbel) that comes with a special glass.

Gift pack!

I also noticed they had a beer marked as a "quadrupel." I'd seen dubbels and tripels. I couldn't resist finding out about this new product and trying it!

Dubbel, Quadrupel, Regular

Brugse Zot is a tart lager that is refreshing with just enough bitterness to make it tasty, not nasty.

The Brugse Zot Dubbel is darker and more robust, probably from the double fermentation process. I enjoyed it even more than the regular.

Straffe Hendrik is their Quadrupel beer with a whopping 11% alcohol content. It has a dark, nutty flavor with a hint of smoky bitterness. The beer drinks well but it has a quick effect, at least on me!

The glass in action!

Just outside the brewery is a rather fanciful sculpture marked "Zeus Leda Prometheus en Pegasus bezoeken Brugge" which in English means "Zeus, Leda, Prometheus and Pegasus visit Bruges." They seem to be wearing more modern dress, but I suppose they are trying to blend in. There are a lot of horse-drawn carriages in town, after all.

Zeus Leda Prometheus en Pegasus bezoeken Brugge

Proof I didn't just make that up

After seeing that, we had to head back to the train station to get our bus to the boat that would take us back to Britain. The trip wasn't so eventful, so there will be no post on that. We made it home safe and sound and are having many other adventures that will soon appear...

p.s. There will be one more Belgian church this Sunday!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Bruges Wanderings in June 2013

On our way out of Belgium, we spent another half-day in Bruges. Since we were with my sister, we went to a lot of the highlights we had seen a year and a half ago. That trip was over Thanksgiving weekend, so it was already wintry and Christmasy. It was nice to see things in their regular state.

The train station had a nice mural depicting Bruges and its environs. Bruges seems to be much larger than the towns around it, I don't think that is really the case.

Art in the train station

We walked back into the heart of town and saw the main Markt with the famous Belfort from the 1200s.


Civic center

Buildings around the Markt

Down a side street is the Burg, where the Stadhuis or state house is located, begun in 1376 and finished in 1420. This area also has the Holy Blood Basilica and Blind Donkey Alley.

Staduis (Blind Donkey Alley is the passage on the right through the white/yellow building)

Blind Donkey Alley opens up on the 19th century Vismarkt or Fish Market. The market area had plenty of whimsical decorations.

Quiet Fish Market

Slowest catch ever!

Milkman's house?

Cuddly lions

We went back to the playground for the children, seeing some nice church decorations at St. Anna's (which was closed) and some of the rest of the park.

St. Anna's doorway lintel with Epiphany

Around back of St. Anna's

Queen Astrid

Neptune on the water

Our next objective was to find the fabulous chocolate shop from the previous trip. On our way we ran into an organ grinder performing on Mariastraat. J put some money in. The fellow invited J to spin the wheel and play the music. J loved it even if his turning (and therefore his music) was not so evenly paced. L took a turn too!

J pays the piper

J takes it for a spin

L has her turn at the wheel

Further up the street we found The Old Chocolate House, which accurately describes itself on its awning.

The Old Chocolate House is totally honest

This is the place where we had a snack in the tea room on our previous trip, including a hot chocolate that was a large bowl of steaming milk with a cup of chocolate chunks next to it. We'd pour in as much chocolate as we'd desire then stir. Alas, on this trip the tea room was closed for renovations. It will be open again in August. It is definitely worth a visit. We bought some chocolates and some chocolate liqueur from downstairs.

We did some more wandering, discovering one of the breweries in the town, but that will have its own post next!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

St Niklaaskerk, Ghent

The church of St. Nicholas in Ghent, Belgium, was constructed from the 1200s to the 1400s by the merchants of Ghent. They chose as their patron St. Nicholas of Myra, who is the inspiration for Santa Claus. The church interior had many shrines and chapels sponsored by the guilds but the Protestant Reformation iconoclasts destroyed them in 1566. In the Baroque period, a massive and impressive altar screen was added as an expression of the Counter-Reformation.

St. Niklaaskerk, Ghent


Main altar

Altar screen detail (click to enlarge)

The pulpit is large and ornately carved, though doesn't seem to follow the St. Nicholas theme.


The church is filled with statues, mostly life size apostles, typically depicted with the instrument of martyrdom.

St. Paul with the book (he's a writer) and the sword (he was beheaded)

St. Peter with a smaller book (he wrote less) and the Key to the kingdom (no cross)

Unidentified apostle

The tabernacle (where the Holy Eucharist is kept) on a side altar is also quite Baroque.


Detail from tabernacle (click to enlarge)

A side altar to Mary has a nice painting of the Annunciation. You can also see one of the samples of the art exhibit the church was hosting in the lower right corner. About a dozen mannequins were spread throughout the church in various fashions. This particular mannequin is dressed as a nun, but other mannequins had fairly secular (and some tacky) outfits. I did not take pictures of those. I'm sorry if you're curious.

Altar to Our Lady

The church also has a nice organ and some well-carved confessionals.

Organ with organist and admirers


At the back is a painting of St. Nicholas which includes some children in a bucket, much like the altar piece above.

St. Nicholas painting

With a little bit of internet research, here's the legend: during a famine an evil butcher lured three young children into his home where he killed them. He planned to sell them off as meat. He put them in a barrel to cure. St. Nicholas was visiting the area, ministering to the starving locals. He immediately knew what the butcher had done and the children were resurrected through his prayers. This story comes from wikipedia referencing this page. I was familiar with the stories of punching out Arius at the Council of Nicea and providing a dowry for three sisters, but this is a new one.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Belgian Beers!

I tried a variety of beers from Belgium, because the country really is the Mecca of beer-making.

The Usual Suspects

Tripel karmeliet is "Blond, robust, smooth and fruity 3 grain beer, with final fermentation in the bottle. Brewed with pride and patience after Carmelite tradition with wheat, oat and barley. 100% natural beer." And 100% awesome beer! The alcohol content is 8.4%, which is the normal range for a Tripel. (Regular is around 3%; dubbel around 6%; trippel around 9%) The flavor blend of the three grains is great, taking the best from each. It makes me want to become a Carmelite. At one of the beer-brewing monasteries. Now I just have to find one...

Oude Geuze is from Oud Beersel. The brewery is just outside Brussels and their beers have won many competitions. This beer was not to my taste. It starts with a nice, if a little fruity, taste but when the aftertaste kicks in, it kicks with a bitter sourness that I just don't like. I didn't even finish the bottle. Bummer!

Lindemans Kriek is a cherry-flavored beer that is more cherry than beer. It ends with a kick like a Sucret, which may be a little too much cherry for some drinkers. It's a hair too much for me. The beer still has a nice flavor and I would drink it again. Kriek is a style of lambic beer. Lambic beers are made in the Senne Valley where brewers for centuries have let air-borne yeast into their beer. They just leave their brew uncovered in the winter for a couple of months and then let it mature in wooden casks for a year.

Florival is a Tripel beer in the Belgian Trappist style. It is quite potent at 8.5% alcohol but it does not taste like straight alcohol. It has the nice wheaty but robust style I love about Trappist beers. It is very yummy, even if it is masquerading as a store brand!

Jupiler is one of those standard pilsners that every nation seems to make. Yet this is probably the best pilsner I've ever had. I like it a lot and would recommend it.

There are any number of stores that specialize in selling beer. We never found a favorite or a best. The stores did seem to cater to an English speaking/reading crowd.

Those are bottle necks in the sign for this fine Brussels establishment

Beer and souvenirs or beer souvenirs in Bruges

If you like beer, you owe it to yourself to visit Belgium, or at least try some Belgian beers.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Dual/Duel Review: Disney's Little Mermaid vs Ghibli's Ponyo

Dual/Duel reviews are an online smackdown between two books, movies, games, podcasts, etc. etc. that I think are interesting to compare, contrast, and comment on. For a list of other dual/duel reviews, go here.

The timelessness of fairy tales can be seen in how they are re-imagined and re-told by each generation. Often, purists seek out the original text and any deviation from that is considered, well, deviant. Such an attitude, while understandable, is a bit stagnant. Bringing new ideas or twists or perspectives to a story can provide a deeper appreciation. It's like seeing a statue in different lighting or from a different angle--nuances of meaning or interpretation can shift in unexpected ways.

One classic tale (though it is relatively young by fairy tale standards) is Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. After a long stretch of mediocre animated films, Disney was able to renew its artistic creativity and excellence with the 1989 release of their musical animated extravaganza, The Little Mermaid. The music is great. The animation is top notch. The characters are well-drawn and well-performed. The story is mostly faithful to Andersen's tale except for the typical "Disneyfied" ending. Has a Disney princess ever failed to get her man? At the time of the release, conservatives complained about how the movie endorsed children defying their parents, since Ariel was ultimately seen as right in seeking out the human world against her father's wishes. But King Triton is a more nuanced parent than someone like the step-mother in Cinderella, who apparently is okay to defy since she is baldly evil. The controversy was never quite convincing to me back then; even now, with a young daughter, I still can't agree with the criticism.

In 2008, Studio Ghibli, home of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, released Gake no ue no Ponyo which was released in America as Ponyo in 2009. The story is inspired by Andersen's story but set in the contemporary world. Five-year old Sosuke lives in a cliff-side home with his mom Lisa. One day he saves a goldfish with a humanish face, brings her home, and names her Ponyo. She likes him as he does her with the innocent and immediate friendship that five-year olds have. She's the daughter of a wizard and a sea-goddess and thus has magical powers. But her powers will fade if she becomes human like she wants to. When she's recaptured by her dad, she accidentally releases a potent brew he's working on. This causes a massive storm creating problems for the sea-dwellers and the land-dwellers too. A somewhat heavy-handed environmental theme is subsumed into the larger theme of living in harmony, having a balanced approach to life much in keeping with the Golden Rule. Ponyo's story is a great blending of real life, magic, and whimsy.

Even though both movies are based on the same story and are animated, it is not so easy to compare them. They both incorporate big, beautiful imagery that fires the imagination. Ponyo is a bit more fanciful. They both use music well. The Little Mermaid is richer here as a well-executed musical. The Little Mermaid is set in a quasi-medieval/Renaissance world (at least the human part of it) that is standard for Disney fairy tale flicks. Ponyo's use of a modern day setting is more bold, opening up new storytelling possibilities. Miyazaki takes full advantage of those possibilities.

Andersen was a story teller of a different type from the Brothers Grimm. They collected folk tales from oral traditions. Andersen crafted new tales that still have the mythic or timeless character of the tales handed down from generation to generation. Indeed, his tales now are handed down like the Grimms' tales. Andersen would probably favor Ponyo as something newer, fresher.

This is a tough call, but I have to give it to Ponyo for its greater originality. While The Little Mermaid is a classic, I might be a little burned out on it. Certainly both are great films. Both are worth owning and watching multiple times.



Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book Review: The Adventures of Tintin Vol. 1 by Herge

The Adventures of Tintin Vol. 1 by Herge

As you might guess from the title, The Adventures of Tintin Volume 1 includes the very first adventures of the young reporter as they appeared in Le XXe Siecle, a Catholic Belgian magazine published in the 1920s and 1930s.

The first adventure has Tintin going to the Soviet Union to report on conditions there. Several agents try to stop him, providing some action and jokes. When he makes it to the USSR, he discovers a lot of duplicity and abuse by the government. Soviet officials show off a factory that's operating at 100% efficiency, smokestacks smoking and metal clanging inside. Tintin sneaks in and finds two guys burning hay and banging metal sheets together. On a bread line, the distributor only gives loaves to people who enthusiastically admit they are communists. Other people are literally kicked to the curb empty-handed. Tintin goes in and out of jail, eventually returning to the West and delivering his report. The book delivers a surprisingly grim view of the USSR, though mostly justified if we remember the Ukrainian Famine, among other abuses. Even so, the grimness is lightened by the action and the absurdly competent Tintin, who can beat pretty much anybody in hand-to-hand combat and can rebuild or repair planes, trains, and automobiles. He's also a master of disguise. As a kids' hero, that makes him pretty awesome.

The second adventure has Tintin going to the Belgian Congo. The story begins with a caveat:
In his portrayal of the Belgian Congo, the young Herge reflects the colonial attitudes of the time. He himself admitted that he depicted his Africans according to the bourgeois, paternalistic stereotypes of the period. The same may be said of his treatment of big-game hunting and his attitude towards animals. [p. 145]
Tintin and Snowy start out for the Congo on a ship, where they have comic run-ins with a parrot and a stowaway. The stowaway becomes an ongoing villain for the story, sometimes tying Tintin up to feed him to the crocodiles or send him down the river. The adventures are another mixed bag of comedy, action, and improbable feats by Tintin. The fun is a little marred by the black-face, primitive locals, but the book is still fun enough for a kids' comic book.

Overall, they are a nice diversion from my regular reading.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bagel Making

One Saturday we tried a new experiment in cooking, the home-made bagel. The dough was pretty standard bread dough made by our faithful servant, the bread machine. Then we had to shape it like doughnuts, which was fun for the kids. Basically you poke your finger through a lump of dough and spin it around to make a bagel. Don't spin too hard or you might wind up with rim pizza.

Raw product

The next stage was boiling the dough. We had a pot ready but it could only take two or three bagels at a time. The kids were fascinated by fishing them in and out of the boiling water.

Setting the timer for the boiling bagels

After coming out and cooling a little, the kids did the next step, putting a little raw egg glaze on the bagels so they would have that nice, chewy exterior.

L is careful

Children are care-free!

Then we put seeds on some of the bagels. We had sesame and poppy seeds.

Goopy fingers!

Ready for the oven

After baking, they came out looking okay.

Finished product

Some of the bagels seemed a little doughy in the middle. The whole process is more work than it's worth. According to the foreman (Mommy), we won't be making them anymore!