Monday, September 30, 2013

Quality T.V. Shows with Large Female Casts

Last week I wrote about the Bechdel Rule. So today I wanted to share Part I of some quality television shows that not only meet the Rule but also cover a variety of genres. I am a big fan of all these shows and the actresses that star in them. If you would like to watch one of these shows from the beginning you can find them on DVD, Amazon streaming, iTunes, and/or Netflix.

Quality T.V. Shows with Large Female Casts

Call the Midwife is a period drama based on the book by Jennifer Worth. As the title suggests, this is a story about midwives working out of a nursing convent in the 1950s. We experience the beginning of the show through the eyes of Jenny and her resulting culture shock after moving to the impoverished neighborhood of East London. We not only learn about Jenny, but also the other young nurses and nuns at the convent and their many patients. Their stories are warm and moving but they are not light and fluffy. It's the grittiness in Midwife that both disturbs and delights me.
The best part: The sweet babies, and the stories of acceptance and love. (iTunes, Amazon, DVD)

Orphan Black - Okay, this is a bit of a cheat because the large female cast is played by a single actress, Tatiana Maslany. Orphan Black is a science fiction series about a woman who discovers her clone. She risks danger repeatedly in order to find more clones and figure out the secret of their creation.
The best part: The lead. Tatiana Maslany plays so many distinct characters so well you forget it's the same actress playing all 4 characters in the same room. She is amazing.

Game of Thrones is a extremely popular fantasy series on HBO. It is based on the books by George R.R. Martin. Everything about this show is intriguing and surprising. The acting talent and production value are through the roof. To watch this show it to live in another world. The fourth season will be on again in 2014 so you have time to binge watch!
The best part: The women of this universe are every bit as three dimensional and vital to the story as the men.

The Bletchley Circle is a period drama and a murder mystery. It is about four women who worked as codebreakers in England during World War II. The show is set in 1952 when they reunite to track down a serial killer. The women see patterns in the killer's work that police have overlooked.
The best part: Four female codebreakers in 1952 England track a serial killer!

For three more contemporary shows with large female casts please read Part II.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Let's Talk About the Bechdel Rule for Film

The Bechdel Rule for Film

The Bechdel Rule was introduced in Alison Bechdel's comic "Dykes to Watch Out For," in a strip called The Rule.  The strip was published in 1985 and Bechdel credits the rule to her friend Liz Wallace. Thanks Liz! In the strip her friend states that she only sees a movie if it satisfies the three basic requirements listed above.

I find myself naturally seeking out movies that satisfy the Bechdel Rule as a balance to all the male heros and anti-heros in film and television. There are a lot of great movies that do not pass the Bechdel Rule and I can enjoy them immensely, but it is not enjoyable or satisfying to watch them exclusively. They are only half of a whole, they're all yin and no yang.

Some take the test very literally and any conversation, no matter how short, between two women in a movie satisfies the rule for them as long as it is not about any man. A two minute conversation about potato salad in a 2+ hour film satisfies the rule for some. For me it does not. The potato salad exchange does not even pass for a conversation, it's completely superficial, and has no importance in the movie or in the lives of the female characters. For others Zero Dark Thirty does not pass the test because Osama Bin Laden was the only thing the female main character spoke about with any other character including her female coworker. For me it passes the rule because the man she speaks about is the sole focus of her work, her very important work. She may be defined by her work but she is not defined by this man and this man is not her love interest.

Maybe the Bechdel Rule was meant to be taken literally. Maybe in 1985 if it was not taken literally Liz Wallace would not have been able to see any Hollywood film. There are still so many that don't pass the rule. I believe that applying the test literally, as in the examples above, completely ignores the spirit of the rule which is to assess the presence of women in movies. Meaning, it should asses whether or not women are represented by three dimension characters. Is there is more to the female characters than just how they relate to the men in their lives? Does the film show the female characters' friendships, family, work, talents, concerns, problems, personalities, successes, and/or flaws?

And if I'm wrong about taking the Rule literally it's time to rewrite the rule. It's 30 years later and time to raise the bar a bit on the entertainment we consume.  

My interpretation of the Rule

A movie or television show must have:

1, at least 2 women who

2, talk to each other more than just superficially about

3, something other than a male love interest.

For me, this criteria satisfies my need to see women depicted as three dimensional human beings in art and entertainment. It is only when this criteria is met that I feel a strong personal connection to the work. Again, I do not need to feel a strong personal connection to every film and television show. I have really enjoyed Breaking Bad as much as the rest of America without relating to it on a personal level (one would hope!). But, my entire entertainment portfolio, for lack of a better word, can not be made up of Breaking Bads. I desire more of a balance between humor and drama, realism and fantasy, feel-good and violent, sexual and asexual, male and female. 95% of the films, television shows, and books I have, and will, discuss on this site satisfy my interpretation of the Bechdel Rule.

Feminist Frequency has a great short video introduction to this topic and some very interesting links for your reading pleasure.

I also highly recommend Alison Bechdel's graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. This memoir is heartbreaking, humorous and downright intriguing. Give it a whirl when you're in the mood for something different than the traditional novel.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wednesday Book Links

Cozy Reading

Have you heard of blind book dates? You've heard of not judging a book by it's cover, but what if you also didn't know the author or the title? Would you buy the book if you only knew the price and a few themes and plot points? I honestly probably wouldn't, I'm too cheap and picky...I mean frugal and discerning. (HGTV)

Lovebird bookworms unite! Buzzfeed shows us how to throw a fabulous literary wedding. My favorites are the library card save the dates with their cute phrases and the dog-eared paperbacks as wedding favors. (Buzzfeed)

24 cats that love books almost as much as we do. (Flavorwire)

I am super psyched about this movie coming out in December staring George Clooney and Matt Damon. It is based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.  The title pretty much says it all. This was an elite group of men, part of the U.S. military, that were charged with minimizing damage to the art and architecture of Europe during WWII. There is also an excellent documentary called The Rape of Europa that I highly recommend.
 The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
And last but certainly not least, the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 program honors five young fiction writers selected by past National Book Award Winners and Finalists and this year the honorees all happen to be women.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Mystery Novels Set in the Art World

When I seek out mysteries I always search for novels set in the art world.  The art mystery is my favorite sub-genre. Most of these novels have plots that revolve around either art theft or forgery. I enjoy reading them because they are relaxing and enjoyable reads that take you to interesting places around the world. But the good ones are not brain candy. I always learn something from them, it could be about an artist, a movement or a museum. I'm pretty sure I could forge a painting at this point. If you are looking for your next read here are a few book I've enjoyed recently.
Mysteries set in the art world.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
The heart of this novel revolves around infamous, and still unsolved, art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of 1999. A talented young artist, Claire Roth, makes her living creating reproductions for an online store. When a gallery owner asks her to reproduce a famous painting she agrees. But, is she painting a reproduction or a forgery? The book also delves into Claire's past relationship with her grad school professor and the scandal in their past.

Ghost Hero (A Lydia Chin/Bill Smith Novel) by S.J. Rozan
Lydia Chin is a Chinese American detective asked to investigate newly discovered painting by an artist known as the Ghost Hero. The problem is, Ghost Hero has been dead for 20 years. Are these old paintings or new? Is Ghost Hero still alive or are these painting forgeries? This story takes us through Manhattan galleries, studios of young artists, the Chinese consulate, and the art history department of NYU. Not all Lydia Chin mysteries are set in the art world but I will definitely read more.

The House Girl by Tara Conklin
Historical fiction that weaves together a story of an escaped slave in the pre–Civil War South and a determined young lawyer, Lina Sparrow. Because Lina's father is a well known artist we get to spend part of the book in the contemporary art world of New York. On a personal level Lina is trying to unravel the mystery of her mother's death. On a professional level she is looking for an appropriate lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking compensation for families of slaves. Both of these worlds come together when she learns about Lu Anne Bell, a renowned prewar artist whose famous works might have actually been painted by her slave, Josephine.

A Dangerous Talent (An Alix London Mystery) by Aaron and Charlotte Elkin
The main character is an art consultant that struggles against her family name. Her father is a well know art conservator that went to prison for art forgery. Alix meets a novice art collector and seeks her expertise about a recently discovered painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. Alix is hired to perform the authentication, and finally has the chance she needs to launch her career. The story takes them to Santa Fe and explains the city's history and status as an art center. I enjoyed this book immensely and was thrilled to see that it the start of a new series based on the main character.

On my reading list:

A Cruise to Die For (An Alix London Mystery) by Aaron and Charlotte Elkins
This is the second book in the Alix London mysteries. It came out on September 3, 2013 and I actually paid for it. That tells you how much I want to read it. I get 99% of my books from the library. This one is set in the Greek isles, I place I've been and loved. I'm looking forward to spending time with Alix again, a smart and knowledgeable woman, and seeing if they describe any islands that I have been too.

a deceptive clarity by aaron elkins

A Deceptive Clarity by Aaron Elkins
Obviously I have learned that Aaron Elkins is a go-to author for the art mystery. this one caught my eye. this is part of a series based on the adventures of an art curator. In this book he must determine the forgery among masterpieces. The same task that got his boss killed.

What's your favorite genre? Do you have a favorite sub-genre? Are you a mystery buff? Do you need a book recommendation? Let me know in the comments, I'd love to hear from you!

Happy reading!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Easy Sesame Candy

Easy Sesame Candy

I love Middle Eastern food including the candy. According to second edition of the Food Lover's Companion our friend the sesame seed is the first recorded seasoning in history, dating back to 3000 B.C. Assyria. Assyria, I believe, is modern day (northern) Iraq.  Which would explain why you find packaged sesame candies in Middle Eastern markets. With seeds, nuts and honey this is a pretty nutritious candy, super tasty, and really easy to make. 

A few tips:
1.  This sesame candy will keep for several days if wrapped up or put in an air tight container.

2. Pastelli traditionally uses pistachios but any nut you have on hand will work well in the candy. I honestly don't think I have ever used pistachios they are always too dang expensive when I go to buy them. I usually use almonds and/or walnuts.

3. If you happen to turn your back and accidentally toast the sesame seeds for too long on the first step, simply transfer them to a plate while you melt the sugar with the nuts. Return the seeds to the pan when you add the honey.

4. You can find sesame seeds in Middle Eastern markets, the bulk section of your market or co-op, or in jars in the Asian section of the market.

Easy Sesame Candy

Easy Sesame Candy

Coconut or vegetable oil for the pan
3/4 cup sesame seeds
1/3 cup shelled and roughly chopped nuts, pistachios are traditional
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey

Lightly oil a wooden spoon and a 9"x6" pan.

Place the sesame seeds and nuts in a nonstick skillet and toast them lightly over low heat just until they start to take on a deeper color. Be careful, low and slow here is the key. The seeds will continue to toast during the next several steps so you don't want to over do it on the first step. (See tip 3 above if you over do it.)

Add the sugar to the seeds and nuts in the skillet. Cook over low heat until the sugar melts and takes on a slight golden color. Don't stir, just give the pan a few shakes.

Add the honey to the skillet. Quickly stir the honey into the sesame seeds and nuts. Mix until the candy becomes sticky and thick. Scrape the mixture into the oiled pan and flatten it with the back of an oiled wooden spoon.

Let the candy cool for just a few minutes, turn it out onto a cutting board, and cut into small rectangles. Don't wait too long or it will be too hard to cut and you won't be able to have the cute little rectangles of candy and feel fancy and continental.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Better Than Gone Girl

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

I just finished Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. This book is truly dark and left a much bigger impression on me than Gone Girl did. I enjoyed Gone Girl while I was on vacation but there was something unsatisfying about it to me. It was too...orderly. I like stories that show how messy life can be.  A large part of Gone Girl was how planned and organized a large part of the plot was, but that is exactly what left me a bit cold.  As I said, I enjoyed it while I was reading it but it is not the type of story that will stay with me.

Dark Places has more sympathetic characters and more characters in general. Their lives are complicated and they have struggles and flaws.  This book is also literally messy and downright gory. I'm no wimp but I could not bring myself to read it before bed. For that, I had a palette cleanser book.

My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me by Hilary Winston

My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me by Hilary Winston was my go-to book at bedtime while reading Dark Places. (Yes, I am a multiple reader.  I usually can't handle more than two at a time though or else I get impatient to finish at least one of them.) Hilary's exboyfriend did indeed write a book where she figured heavily. He also referred to her in this book as his "fat ass girlfriend." Nice guy right? Hilary writes about him, her other exboyfriends, and her almost-boyfriends. She is single, a television writer, and loves her cats. She loves her cats as a single girl loud and proud! I'm all for tearing that cats + single lady = sad stereotype. This book is amusing, very relatable and had a few LOL moments.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Five British TV Shows You Should Be Watching

Five British TV Shows You Should Be Watching

A young boy is found dead on the beach of a small British coastal town. Detectives Hardy and Miller (David Tennant and Olivia Colman above) are on the case. Broadchurch is just as much a story about grief and community as it is a murder mystery. The acting is brilliant, so much so that at times I forgot I was watching actors and let me tell you, that does not happen often. The cinematography is beautiful and looks more like a film than a television show. Be warned this is an incredibly heartbreaking story. When I finished watching the last episode I need a big ol' bear hug.

Broadchurch is on BBC America. You can find the first season on Amazon and  iTunes.

Frankie is a visiting nurse who is incredibly good at her job. You get to meet her, her mean boss, her coworkers, and her police officer boyfriend. She is a spunky, smart, independent lady who rocks out to her favorite tunes, eats cold pizza for breakfast, and always puts her patients first. Frankie is the love child of a contemporary less sentimental version of Call the Midwife and Nurse Jackie minus the pills.

Franie is on BBC America. You can also find full episodes are available on You Tube.

Speaking of Call the Midwife, the star of this show is Miranda Hart, one Chummy from CTM. Hart was a stand up comic before her acting career. Who knew? Miranda is a funny, silly, feel good hal hour show about a single woman in her thirties, her small group of pals and the shenanigans they get into. Every episode ends with the cast singing a song and waving good night to the audience. I mean come on! I dare you not to smile while watching that! Watch Miranda when you need a pick-me-up.

Series one and two are available on DVD.  

Last Tango in Halifax
This one hour drama just began airing on PBS Sunday nights. After their grandsons put them on Facebook, two senior citizens and ex schoolmates, Alan and Celia, find each other after 60 years and their love reblooms. Their story is a sweet one that is complicated by their respective families. Derek Jacobi as Alan is incredibly charming and Celia's daughter steals the show as a very clever, strong, and verbal headmistress who does not take any flack, Jack. This show gracefully illustrates that life is messy and family is everything. Be prepared with a cup of tea because it flows heavily on this show. Always with the kettles and tea making!

Series one is also available on DVD.

Gavin and Stacey
An older series than Last Tango in Halifax but with a much younger couple that also get together after connecting online. Gavin and Stacey are in their early twenties when they meet, fall in love, and carry on a long distance relationship (he's in England she's in Wales). We get to meet them when they meet each other in person for the first time. Gavin and Stacey are a couple of sweethearts that you will quickly love to watch. Their more outlandish friends and family make this half hour comedy a great one. A US remake is scheduled for this fall on Fox entitled Us & Them. Do yourself a favor and watch the original instead of, or at least before, the US version. I am a Gilmore Girls fan too but Alexis Bledel does not have half the charm as the original Stacey played by Joanna Page.

Available on DVD and on iTunes.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Simple Roasted Salsa Verde

Simple Roasted Salsa Verde

I could not resist these tomatillos at the farmer's market last Saturday. They piqued my interest because of their color and texture and the fact that I rarely buy them. I like to rotate the produce I prepare in order to both try new recipes and get a variety of nutrients and vitamins. This salsa verde has a smoky/earthy/tangy flavor. It is a nice alternative to red tomato-based salsas.

A few tips:
1. Remember to remove all of the seeds from the jalapenos if you want the salsa less spicy. Leave all, or some, of them in for a more spicy salsa.

2. This salsa freezes very well. Save time and money by freezing half if you are cooking for one or double the recipe and then freeze half if cooking for a family.

Simple Roasted Salsa Verde

Simple Roasted Salsa Verde - Makes about 3 cups

1 1/2 - 2 lbs fresh tomatillos, husks removed
2-3 jalapeno peppers, halved (seeded for a less spicy salsa)

3 whole garlic cloves, peeled
2 T olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 T fresh lime juice
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tsp black pepper to taste
salt to taste (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Rinse tomatillos to remove the stickiness you'll find under the husks.
Place tomatillos on a rimmed sheet pan with the pepper halves and garlic cloves.
Roast for about 30 minutes until the tomatillos and pepper skins start to have black spots.
Remove the blackened skin from the peppers and transfer with tomatillos and any juices from the pan to a blender of food processor.
Pulse until chunky.
Add onion, lime juice, cilantro and puree until smooth. 

Add pepper and salt to taste.

This simple salsa verde is delicious on chicken or shrimp tacos and quesadillas. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Cozy and Inspiring Campus Movies for September

Wonder Boys
Grady is a rumpled professor and a novelist who teaches creative writing at a Pittsburgh university. He third wife has just left him and he is having an affair with his department head's wife. His current novel is over 2,500 pages long "and the ending keeps getting further away." His agent, a transvestite, a James Brown look-a-like, lots of writers, smart people, and Frances McDormand round out the cast. I love that this film takes place over the course of one weekend. The weekend serves as a microcosm of Grady's life and the seedier side of academia without being mean-spirited. Grady is a mess, he is a magnet to messy situations, but he is a good man filled with good intentions.
Mona Lisa Smile
Set in 1953 Wellsely College this movie is about the choices educated young women had at the time. A new art history professor arrives on campus to inspire some and come into conflict with others. I always find a large female cast inspiring and I think Julia Roberts is at her best in this film. She is very authentic in this role, she doesn't over play the bohemian aspects of her character's lifestyle, nor does she get cutesy or sentimental with the character. The debates she initiates with the young women about social issues, family, career, and the art history are alone worth watching the movie.

Dead Poet Society
Love poetry, seize the day, find your own voice, view the world from different perspectives, and on and on this movie goes with the inspiration. This film posses it in spade! Smart, curious and sensitive boys on a beautiful New England campus come of age in 1959. This movie is funny, heartbreaking and a classic.

Educating Rita
A charming British movie from 1983 is about a young hairdresser and wife who decides to find herself by taking an open university course. Michael Cain plays the burned-out alcoholic Ph.D. that opens a whole new world to Rita through education. Rita opens his eyes to a fresh new perspective that he has been craving. We watch Rita grow and blossom intellectually. She transforms herself and her life and it's a thing of beauty to watch. Five stars for inspiration!

Based on the play by David Mamet, this two-character movie is completely dialogue driven. The two characters are John, a male college professor, and Carol, his female student. Carol first approaches John about failing his class, later she accuses him of sexual harassment. John is desperate to have the charges dropped, his tenure, promotion and family all hang in the balance. This is an intriguing look at the power struggle between the two. This is a movie where a lot happens emotionally, but where there is very little physical action. I understand this is a turn off for a lot of people but I just get lulled into the rhythm of the dialogue.

A Beautiful Mind
A romanticized and cleaned up version of real life Noble Prize winner John Nash. Nash attended and later taught at Princeton University. Many scenes take place on this beautiful campus. Russell Crowe plays the mathematical genius who suffered from schizophrenia and Jennifer Connelly plays his long suffering wife. It's a bit sentimental but well made and well acted.


Real Genius inspiring in the sense that humor always inspires a good mood. If you don't laugh at the jokes you'll laugh at the goofiness of a very young Val Kilmer and the 1980's sensibility and fashion. A good watch for a lazy Sunday afternoon.