Superfluous Matter
Books - Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood's latest work is a collection of nine short stories and as such is a nice counterpoint to my Alice Munro binging. They both are adept at conveying emotion, but Munro does so through more realistic and commonplace scenarios while Atwood likes to work with more fantastical situations. If I were the essay-writing sort, or just someone with more time, I think it would be a lot of fun to develop a comparative analysis of these two truly wonderful Canadian authors.

Several stories in this collection are set in Toronto which is super great. Atwood has a fierce loyalty to my favourite city and you can feel her love of it in her descriptions of setting.

I totally recommend this book and all of her other works. I've yet to read one I didn't enjoy.

Books - Saga (Vol. 1 & 2), by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

I haven't read many graphic novels, but each one I have read has been great. So when Adrienne suggested I borrow and read the first two issues of Saga from her I readily agreed.

I wasn't disappointed. The art is stunning and the story is great. Many suggest it is like Star Wars crossed with Game of Thrones, with dashes of Lord of the Rings, Romeo and Juliet and The New Testament. Cool stuff. My only problem is that I devoured the first two issues in no time at all. I've ordered a hard-cover edition from Amazon that collects the first eighteen issues so I'm pretty excited for that.

I recommend it highly!

Books - Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, by Alice Munro

A year ago I declared that Alice Munro is awesome, that it is shameful I haven't read more of her and that I would definitely read more of her soon. But then I began the process of tearing down my life in Toronto and rebuilding it in San Francisco. It's not a great excuse, but it took me until now to read another of Munro's collections.

I enjoyed "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" every bit as much as "The Love of a Good Woman." Each story was a delight to read (even those of darker tone) and it is becoming clear to me that Munro has a knack for the unexpected and the subtle. In this collection I particularly enjoyed "Floating Bridge" and "Nettles" for reasons so personal I don't know how I'd begin to describe them even if I was so inclined.

I have three more collections of Alice Munro on deck, but I intend to interleave other books into my reading and not binge on the works of this amazing woman. I feel there is value in having other works in my mind for comparison. Reading this collection after Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" made stark the notion of context I discussed in my post for that book. While I have almost no context for 19th century Russian literature I have a ton for Alice Munro's work. Many of her stories are set in Southwestern Ontario where I have spent most of my life. The descriptions of people and places are so familiar to me that I am instantly drawn in to the stories. It's fantastic.

Credit!

Something unexpected happened: I got a movie credit! Movie credits happen when working at ILM, but not very often for people in R&D like myself. ILM does not own most of the property it works on and so we do not have a lot of control over how many credits are available for our staff. However we just released Strange Magic which is a Lucasfilm property. They were generous with credits and the whole R&D department seems to have been included!

I now have my own IMDb page which is super super cool. My new job continues to be awesome.

I haven't seen Strange Magic yet, but the reviews are not very positive. Apparently the look is quite good though.

Books - The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I haven't been reading much lately but when I have made the time I've been very slowly working my way through Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot," considered to be one of his best. My final project in OAC English focused on his novel "Crime and Punishment" and I've been meaning to read more from him ever since.

Neither book is an easy read, although after some research this morning I learned that I had read rather old translations of each. More modern translations are considered to be not just more accessible but also better at conveying the intent of the original text. So if you decide to pick one up I recommend choosing your translation carefully.

I enjoyed The Idiot, much as I enjoyed Crime and Punishment, however I only achieved a superficial understanding. Although Dostoyevsky's novels are very much a study of people they are all set in 19th-century, pre-revolution Russia and my knowledge of that period is extremely limited. There is just so much context I don't have.

"The Idiot" centres around a man, Myshkin, who is so kind-hearted and selfless that his peers are often baffled by his behaviour. They call him an "idiot" as a shorthand for their confusion and also as a reference to his mild case of epilepsy. The book explores his interactions in a world that doesn't understand him and uses those interactions to provide criticism of the Russian ruling class of the day. Again, I'm sure there's a lot going on for Russian history scholars, or even the average Russian, but for me I mostly paid attention to the human element. I really enjoyed the stream-of-consciousness type of narration as Myshkin tries to work through the troubles he encounters. His character feels like a very real person.

Anyway, good stuff, but very heavy. I will be going lighter for my next few books which will maybe help me reestablish a more regular reading habit.

Zhuhai/Macau/Hong Kong!

For American Thanksgiving my company gives two holidays: the Thursday and the Friday. A four-day weekend is too long for me to not use it to travel somewhere so I decided to use three of my precious and few vacation days to extend it and take a week long trip.

KJ, one of my oldest friends, has lived in Zhuhai, China (near Hong Kong) for the last ten years and I had never visited her. When she told me she and her family plan to move to Germany in 2015 I realized it was now or never. I booked plane tickets to Hong Kong for the week of Thanksgiving and got a double-entry Chinese visa in order to be able to stay with KJ and her family in mainland China (Hong Kong does not require a visa for Canadians).

In addition to seeing Zhuhai I spent a day in Macau and four days in Hong Kong. KJ was an excellent host and guide and as a result I saw so many amazing things in a very short time. The focus of the trip was definitely food and many things I ate have claimed the spot of "best I ever had" in their respective categories. Hong Kong is a wonderful food city. Besides the food I saw some great scenery, enjoyed being in a world class city and had a wonderful time catching up with a dear friend and her family.

I've written up my usual trip journal very quickly this time as I wanted to finish it before Christmas. Check it out!

Tucson!

In October I went to Tucson for the weekend with Matt and Adrienne. It was super fun to see the desert and the city itself is pretty amazing too (like Portland or Austin but in Arizona). I've written up a short trip journal for it. Check it out!

Books - The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is great. He writes short stories, graphic novels, regular novels, screenplays for movie and TV (he won a Hugo for an episode of Doctor Who) and he tweets like crazy.

His latest novel continues his legacy of awesome. It seems to have the trappings of a fairy tale, but not like any I've read before. It's also quite short, in a good way. It's succinct. It gets right to the business of inspiring unusual thoughts and musings in your mind. It sticks with you days after reading. And the prose are just lovely. At one point a main character is described as looking like "pale silk and candle flames" immediately following the narrator's description of dark matter as "the material of the universe that makes up everything that must be there but we cannot find."

I'm super excited to have the opportunity to attend an event at the San Francisco JCC entitled The Enchanting Neil Gaiman in March where he will have a live conversation with another amazing author, Michael Chabon. I'm definitely going to get one of my volumes of the Sandman series signed if I can.

Job Awesomeness

When I accepted the offer to come work for ILM I knew that it was going to be a pretty cool place to work. There is the amazing set of co-workers, the endless inspiring work produced by the studio and the cutting-edge technologies. I also get to help out with the new Star Wars movies. But I expected all that stuff based on conversations with Mike and my on-site interview. I was not prepared for all the other awesome things that happen all the time.

I'd like to document here some of the amazing things that have happened since I joined less than three months ago (and which can be shared publicly). I'm not trying to brag, I just realized that I literally will not be able to remember all of this a year from now without aid and I don't want to forget any of it.

First of all ILM has a huge theatre that is used for screenings both internal and external. The Academy regularly uses the theatre to provide screenings of new films to its members. Employees are often invited to join in on these Academy screenings. ILM also provides employee+guest screenings of movies we work on and also just random movies that people might be interested in seeing. There's at least one movie a week and since joining I've seen the following in our theatre: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Lucy; Noah; Men, Women and Children; Guardians of the Galaxy; and today I saw The Theory of Everything.

Free movies are awesome...but the kicker is that many of the screenings are associated with a special guest. ILM has something called the Speaker Series where various personalities from the industry come and give an hour long chat plus question and answer session with the company. I've been to four now: Gareth Edwards (for Monsters), Jason Reitman (for Men, Women and Children), Darren Aronofsky (for Noah) and Eddie Redmayne (for The Theory of Everything). These sessions are not trivial, the guests go very deep into their processes and so far all of them have been super inspiring. Edwards, Reitman and Aronofsky are all incredible directors whose work I admire so it was really cool to hear them speak in person. I was not as familiar with Eddie Redmayne before today. However his performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything was absolutely incredible. I would be shocked if he did not at least receive an Oscar nomination for best actor. It was so cool to hear him talk about how he was able to put together that performance.

In addition to cool screenings and special guests I've now had the opportunity to hear several members of senior management speak and that has also been truly incredible. The president of Lucasfilm is Kathleen Kennedy, a woman with a long history of producing many of my favourite films. She is currently producing Episode VII but had time to give a talk to the company a few weeks ago. It was immediately clear to me that she is an amazing leader. I've used this word a lot but it was very very inspiring to hear her speak. Similarly, the president of ILM (the subsidiary of Lucasfilm that I work for) Lynwen Brennan, has spoken at a couple company meetings since I've joined and I feel just as strongly about her leadership abilities as I do about Kathleen's. Plus, in a recent update meeting she recognized my little team directly for our contributions, naming us each in front of the whole company! So cool!

On the technical side of things we have Dennis Muren (a true visual effects pioneer) and John Knoll (original creator of Photoshop and VFX supervisor on many amazing ILM projects). Recently Dennis Muren gave a talk to the company about his very first feature film, Equinox. He made the movie himself in the sixties and did all the visual effects. His budget was tiny, but the things he learned he later used in his work on movies like The Empire Strikes Back. There was a point in his talk where he showed how he applied something from Equinox to one of my favourite scenes in Empire. It was, perhaps, the coolest thing ever.

It's been a wild ride so far and I haven't even been at the company for a whole quarter. In addition to all the big things the little day-to-day stuff is pretty fun too. I've been made to feel so incredibly welcome by everyone. I'm working very hard, but I rarely notice. It's a very special company.

One more awesome thing. Almost everyone cares at least as much about Star Wars as I do and so everyone loves to talk about it all the time. This fills me with joy.

Cooking - Thai Red Curry Tomato-Squash Soup

I've settled in enough now in my new home to be cooking regularly once again. I haven't done anything new yet, but I have many "staple" recipes that I regularly make in large batches and freeze for future use. One such recipe is for a squash-based soup which I made this evening. Much of my cooking is cumulative and this soup is a perfect example as many of the ingredients are things that I have prepared in advance.

Shortly after moving into my new apartment I made a slow-cooker full of bone-in chicken thighs (rubbed with my current favourite spice mix of cocoa powder and smoked paprika) and I saved all the bones in the freezer. Then a couple weeks ago I roasted a whole chicken using an awesome recipe from Jamie Oliver. The thigh bones were added to a pot of water with the chicken carcass and a splash of apple cider vinegar and then simmered for four hours to make chicken stock. I froze the stock and use it for rice or for soup.

I regularly buy large quantities of tomatoes and roast them slowly in the oven to make sun-dried tomatoes. Thinly sliced and mixed with olive oil, salt and pepper, these tomatoes become like candy after three or four hours in an oven at 275F. They freeze well and add excellent flavour to many dishes. Lately I've been using "dry-farmed" Early Girl Tomatoes for this recipe with great success.

I also make and freeze my own tomato sauce in big batches from time to time. Rather than deal with blanching and peeling fresh tomatoes (which may or may not be in season locally) I buy four 28oz cans of whole peeled D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy. These are generally canned at peak freshness and as such are always delicious. But I get ahead of myself. First I heat a half cup of olive oil in a big pot and then add a bunch of anchovies stirring them until they dissolve. Then I add half an onion, finely chopped, and sauté until tender. Next I add five cloves of garlic, thinly sliced; one and half tablespoons of fennel seed; two tablespoons of oregano; some dried chili flakes and sauté until fragrant. Next a cup of red wine is added which I simmer until the volume is reduced by half. Only then do the tomatoes get added, breaking up the chunks right in the pot. Finally I add a cup and a half of finely chopped fresh basil and a bit of salt and pepper. I bring the whole mixture to a boil and then simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least an hour. At the end I purée the sauce with a hand-blender to achieve a pleasing consistency.

I know, this post is supposed to be about soup. But all of the above happened before I could make my soup today. What's more, I will often use the soup as a starting point for future, more complicated meals. The soup is good on its own but you can also add various meats and vegetables to make it a more complete meal. I will sometimes thaw a pre-made container of the soup and heat it on the stove with leftovers to use them up.

The recipe for the soup is flexible (like most things I make these days) but I consider the following to be the canonical version. First get a big, orange-fleshed squash and roast it in the oven until soft. I've successfully made the soup with butternut, kobacha and red kuri. The roasting method will vary depending on the squash but for butternut you can just cut it in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, rub the cut-side with olive oil and roast on a pan cut-side down. Once roasted it is pretty easy to peel away the skin.

At the same time as roasting the squash you should also roast a whole bulb of garlic. Simply chop off the top, pour olive oil into the bulb and wrap it with tin foil. Leave it in the oven for however long the squash takes. When it's done you can squeeze the delicious roasted garlic right out of the skins. Try not to eat too much of it immediately as it is meant to go in the soup.

Once the squash and garlic are roasted heat a generous amount of coconut oil in a big pot. Add a bunch of chopped onion and sauté until tender. Then add a few inches of minced ginger, the roasted garlic, some chili flakes and two or three tablespoons of concentrated Thai Red Curry Paste (I get the "Thai Kitchen" brand, but you can also make it yourself). Mix until fragrant, then add a bunch of sun-dried tomatoes, some tomato sauce and the roasted squash. Mix well and then add four cups of chicken stock and a can of unsweetened, full-fat coconut milk. Bring to a boil while stirring and then simmer for an hour or so. Turn off the heat, then add a couple tablespoons of freshly squeezed lime juice and purée with a hand-blender until smooth.

Do I need to make my own chicken stock, tomato sauce and sun-dried tomatoes to make this soup? No, not really. But I feel that the end result is much better. Plus, all the precursor ingredients are easy to make, keep well in the freezer, and have a ton of other uses. In fact, when I don't have a freezer full of such precursors I find day-to-day cooking to be much more challenging. I really should make my own red curry paste at some point and freeze a bunch of that too.

I've made a few variations of this recipe in the past. Obviously you can add veggies like spinach, kale, broccoli or cauliflower, or meats like crumbled sausage or shredded chicken. But I prefer to keep the soup pure and plain. Then I freeze it and add extra stuff later in order to increase the variety of meals achieved by a single batch. However, for the base soup you can use leeks instead of onions or you can swap the tomatoes for chopped, peeled apples. You can also substitute beef bone broth for chicken broth to get a heartier result.

More so than chicken, beef broth should definitely be home-made. Gather a bunch of bones (ideally from pastured cows) and put them in a big crock pot with a splash of apple cider vinegar and enough water to cover everything. Cook on low for at least 24 hours (I normally do 36). My mix of bones generally includes an oxtail, some marrow bones, some knuckle bones and some neck bones. You can roast the bones for an hour before making the broth to get a darker more savoury result but it's not strictly necessary (but if you have marrow bones be sure to eat the marrow on its own after roasting...delicious!). Strain the result with cheesecloth and freeze. If you've got good bones and simmered them long enough the broth will be very gelatinous even at room temperature. This is exactly what you want. I often drink the broth plain when I'm feeling less than 100%.

Many of the precursor ingredients I've discussed here are also used in my chili, but as this post is long enough I shall leave that recipe for another day.

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