>The Ugliest Cake Ever

>Is it just me or is it the ugliest cake you have ever seen, too?

I wonder what the cake is supposed to symbolize. A jail for Snickers bars? I’m also curious what a psychoanalyst would say to a person who actually gave this monstrosity to their mother for Mother’s Day. 
I found the picture of the ugly cake here. There are many other repulsive cakes on that blog but this one is the definite winner.
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Vegetarian: Clarissa’s Vegetable Ragout

Recently, I felt a craving for a good, colorful vegetable ragout. However, a long Internet search didn’t result in a single recipe that didn’t look boring or monochromatic and didn’t include either meat or canned vegetables. So I had to invent my own recipe. Some of the ingredients of this vegetarian ragout were things that I’d never tried before, like eggplants. (Yes, I’d never eaten eggplant in any form in my life.) I really loved the result and decided to share it with my readers.

Here is what my Vegetable Ragout ended looking like:
I’m folding the detailed description of how to make it under the jump break to spare those who aren’t interested the trouble of scrolling through endless photos of diced vegetables.

These are the main ingredients I chose for my ragout but you can, of course, change any of them. I selected three kinds of baby potatoes (yellow, red and black) because it’s very important to have a colorful ragout, juicy heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, baby turnips, baby eggplant, young carrots, garlic, ginger, and a bunch of cilantro.

Peel several cloves of garlic and crush them. Heat some olive oil in a large pan and place the garlic in the oil. In the meanwhile, cut your baby potatoes in half and place them in the pan, too.
Every step of this recipe looks colorful
and delicious. And it smells fantastic, too
Dice the turnips and the young carrots making sure that the chunks are not too small. If you cut them too small, they might become mushy, which is something we are trying to avoid. Vegetables in a ragout should be cooked but still preserve some firmness. Otherwise, we can just make a puree and be done with it. Then, add a bay leaf and some coriander seeds, if you like them. Dice ginger in very small cubes and add them to the pan.
The white chunks are pieces of baby turnip
Cut baby eggplant and add it to the pan. You don’t have to spread it around the way I did, of course. I just did it to make sure the photo is pretty, that’s all. During this entire time, the pan has been on medium-high.
In the same manner, cut the zucchini and the squash and throw them into the pan. Now it’s time to add herbs and spices (the choice is really up to you) and start making the sauce. Put 1 tablespoon of coarse-grained Dijon mustard and 1 tablespoon of tomato paste into the pan. Mix everything up. Add as much or as little salt as you want. (I’m trying to avoid salt altogether, so I added none and the ragout still tasted heavenly.) This is how your ragout will look after you complete this step:
Dissolve a tablespoon of flour in a cup of cold water and add the mix to the ragout. This will thicken the sauce. Close the pan with a tight-fitting lid and let the ragout simmer until the vegetables are almost ready. Then, dice the tomatoes and add them to the ragout. Also, add fresh cilantro. This is how the ragout will look at this point:
Mix everything up, close the lid, and leave the ragout on slow for another 10 minutes. And here we have it:

>Copyrighting Blog Photos

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What I find very weird is that many people go to the trouble of posting angry warnings that all photos on their personal blogs are copyrighted and shouldn’t be used without the owner’s permission. I’m not talking about any kind of artwork here. Just regular, completely unprofessional photos everybody snaps on a daily basis. I don’t know what possesses people to feel so protective about stuff that they choose to post online. 
As for me, if I post a photo on my blog, this means that I want people to use it. If somebody finds my clumsy pictures useful for any purpose, that’s great, I’m happy. Free exchange of information is the best thing about the Internet. 

Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman: A Review

The inexplicable success of Stieg Larsson’s mysteries is the best thing that has happened to Scandinavian writers since Selma Lagerlöf. Larsson’s untimely death left a void that publishers are trying to fill desperately. Scandinavian names, long descriptions of cold weather and depictions of carnage in Sweden, Norway and Denmark are suddenly in vogue. Since many Americans are a bit confused on where Sweden is actually located, all European mystery authors are experiencing a surge of interest in their books.  

As you can see from the cover of Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman, this author’s publishers are doing all they can to milk Stieg Larsson’s fame for all it is worth. This, however, is something that, in my opinion, this author doesn’t need. This book is very good. Its only defect is that it is too drawn out. In his zeal to create as many twists to the plot as humanly possible, Jo Nesbø goes a bit too far and creates a 100 or so pages somewhere in the middle of this long book that feel quite redundant.

If I had to compare Jo Nesbø’s style of mystery writing to another author’s, I would say he bears no similarity to the weirdly boring Stieg Larsson. Rather, Jo Nesbø is the Norwegian version of Michael Connelly. (Connelly apparently agrees and has published rave reviews of this writer’s work.) Nesbø’s protagonist called Harry (sic!) Hole is a police officer on a mission. He is also a lonely drunk and a die-hard romantic who gets treated badly by the woman he loves. Nesbø isn’t nearly as good as Connelly in creating a complex and richly-layered protagonist. His Harry looks a little cartoonish at times. He is much better than Connelly, however, in writing the ending to his mystery. Connelly’s endings tend to be much too abrupt. This gifted writer doesn’t seem to realize that you cannot announce the culprit’s name on the last page and just be done with it. The laws of the genre require that after the culmination there should be a winding-down period where the readers are offered an explanation of either what drove the murderer to commit the crimes or a description of the deductive process of the detective that resulted in solving the mystery. Nesbø’s ending is absolutely perfect.

The Snowman is a serial killer mystery. In the novel, Norwegians seem quite frustrated with the fact that they alone, of the three Scandinavian countries, have failed to produce a serial killer of their own. There are other cute moments in the book that have a very specific Norwegian flavor. See, for instance, the following passage that would have Ayn Rand die all over again were she around to read it:

‘It’s a very small shop. We don’t have many customers. Almost none until the Christmas sales, to be honest.’‘How. . .?’‘NORAD. They support shops and our suppliers as part of the government’s trade programme with Third World countries. The message it sends is more important than money and short-sighted gain, isn’t it.’

This is, of course, a very dangerous game that the third richest country in the world (after Luxembourg and Qatar) is playing. Oil comes and goes while people who have been corrupted by such ridiculous handouts remain.

There are some sparks of wisdom in this novel that I wanted to share with you. One of the characters says, for example:

Our generation has turned itself into servants and secretaries of our children. . . There are so many appointments and birthdays and favorite foods and football sessions that it drives me insane.

Anybody who has observed the frantic scrambling of the Western parents to organize endless play dates and activities for their children will have to agree with this observation. 

I enjoyed this book quite a bit and recommend it highly. Of course, it didn’t hurt that snow was mentioned pretty much on every single page making this summer heat somewhat more bearable.

Movies I Actually Love, Part I

I have mentioned time and again how much I dislike cinema. It pretends to be art but almost always fails to live up to the claim. As entertainment, it is too authoritarian for my taste. There are, however, several films that I love and consider to be as close to works of art as any movies can be. Here they are in no particular order.

1. Before Almodovar sold himself out to Hollywood and started churning out idiotic tear-jerkers of the Hable con ella and Todo sobre mi madre variety, he was actually a great movie-maker. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984) is, in my opinion, his greatest work. Every frame, every move of every actor, every single word are absolutely amazing. I really wish we could have the early Almodovar back, but obviously that’s not going to happen.
2. Before Javier Bardem sold himself out to Hollywood and became the new favorite lap dog of the egregiously untalented Penelope Cruz, he was one of the most gifted actors of his generation. Mondays in the Sun (2002) is so professionally and beautifully made and Bardem is so incredibly good in it that I can’t stop watching this film. I’m now on my second DVD because I watched the first one so many times that it became useless.
3. El verdugo (1963) or Executioner by Luis Garcia Berlanga is a classic of Spanish cinema. It is a very quiet, low-key portrayal of how easily and casually one can slip into performing acts of atrocity in the most mundane way possible. In many ways, this film is very symbolic of what the entire XXth century has been like.
4. In case you think I only like Spanish-language movies, you are wrong. Crash (1996) by David Cronenberg (not to be confused with a 2004 film by the same name) is a brilliant movie. It has been criticized by prissy viewers and film critics. Nevertheless, it is one of the most insightful cinematic analyses of sexuality that I have ever seen. The movie’s tone is subdued to the point of being flat which is precisely what makes it standout against the background of regular Hollywood concoctions that attempt to deal with sex. Hollywood film-makers and audiences are so terrified of sexuality that they talk, cry, babble and prattle it to death.
5. As I said many times before, nobody knew how to make movies like the Russians. It’s very difficult to choose one film that I consider to be the best among the incredible production of the Soviet filmmakers. I guess, Unfinished Piece for the Player Piano (1978) has got to be the winner from the Soviet epoch. The film is based on a play by Anton Chekhov. Chekhov is obviously a genius and making a film based on his work is a huge challenge. Nikita Mikhalkov, the director, used to be so good that he created a version of Chekhov which is better than the original. This is also the only film where Mikhalkov delivers a great performance as an actor. (His acting talents are extremely limited but here he was really good.) Forget about the plot of this movie, just observe how beautifully the director creates the ambiance. The actors are phenomenal, as usual in Soviet movies.
6. From the post-Soviet era, I recommend Heart of a Dog (1988). This movie is based on a novel by one of the greatest Russian writers of the XXth century, Mikhail Bulgakov. Once again, as amazing as the novel is, the film manages to be almost as good. Unlike the previous movie I listed here, I don’t think this one exists with English subtitles. Which is a shame because non-Russian movie-lovers are losing out on something huge here.
(To be continued. . .)

>Princess Olga

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Princess Olga the Beautiful lived between 890-969. For almost twenty years she ruled Kievan Rus. Her very first act as a ruler was to take a bloody revenge against Drevlians, the people who had killed her husband, prince Igor. She burned down an entire town with all its citizens because her rage was so great. 
At the age of 45, Princess Olga gave birth to her only child and ruled in his name until he became an adult. She was a very active ruler who traveled incessantly around the country, trying to improve life in her realm. Emperor Constantine of Constantinople kept asking her to marry him but Olga remained faithful to the memory of her dead husband.
She was also the very first ruler of Kiev who converted to Christianity. The Orthodox Church proclaimed Olga a saint and considers her to be equal to the Apostles. The name “Olga” actually means “a saint”, so she was obviously destined for sainthood from the very beginning.

>How to Be a Language Snob: From Ktravula

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A friend and a fellow blogger just posted this brilliant list on how to be a perfect language snob. I just have to share it with everybody because it’s too good.

1. Whenever you meet someone from a different country tell them “I like your accent. You don’t speak like other _____________ (fill in country name) that I have met.”
2. After meeting someone for the first time, let your idea of a compliment to them be “Oh you speak good English.” For extra points, ask them where they learnt to speak it so well.
3. Whenever someone says to you “I like your accent too”, look insulted and ask in a high voice, “I have an accent? What do you mean I have an accent?” For extra points, be actually insulted by that.
4. Be disgusted by people speaking their local language around you. For extra point, go to them (whether you know them or not) and ask them to speak English instead. After all, they are in America.

As for me, I especially enjoy being told that my accent makes me sound even more exotic and sexy.