Review: Red Hot Kitchen


 

Photo by Bob Gathany/The Huntsville Times

Hypothetically, Huntsville “Red Hot Kitchen” restaurant could have been named one of any number of things.

No doubt, someone could have come up with some sort of clever name to reflect its unusual Mexican-Asian-fusion menu.

“Nacho Panda”? “”Taco Dragon”? “SinoSalsa”?

Hey, I didn’t say I could have. I said they could have.

But they didn’t.

Those chose, instead of picking a clever Mexicasian name, to call it “Red Hot Kitchen.”

This was a good decision.

Heather and I recently visited the restaurant on a diet-breaking date night. What better way to temporarily go off a low-carb diet than with a combination of rice-bean-and-tortilla-heavy Mexican food and rice-noodle-and-sugar heavy Asian food?

We intentionally picked dishes to take advantage of the fusion nature of the restaurant. (With that exploration made easier by the fact that two combo dinners and two extra sides were only $24.) Mexican fried rice — chicken fried rice with jalapeno-based seasoning — and the Asian steak quesadillas provided a taste of both Mexican-flavored Asian food and Asian-flavored Mexican food. The baja fries weren’t Asian fusion, but were more of a Mexican-American fusion taste — fries with a mildly Mexican seasoning and queso dip. The queso nachos included in the combo and the egg rolls weren’t fusion at all, per se.

Except …

In reality, everything at the restaurant became Asian-Mexican fusion by virtue of the sauces. As I recall, there were a total of at least seven different sauces on the table, to mix and match with the food. I’ve always thought it unfortunate that Asian foods are the one major food group in the world not to include cheeses (due to an ambient genetic predisposal to lactose intolerance, as I understand), so it was a pleasure to dip egg rolls in queso. I had baja fries with duck sauce. Tortilla chips with a variety of combinations.

And, yeah, getting back to the name of the restaurant, some of those were hot. Quite hot.

Of the foods, the Mexican fried rice was the only one that was inherently particularly spicy. But if you fully take advantage of the seasonings, everything becomes spicy at some point. I told Heather by the end of the dinner that I felt like Mexico and China were fighting a war in my stomach.

It was good. And worth the money.

But, yeah, “Red Hot Kitchen” was a good choice for a name.

Review: “Understanding Four Views On Baptism”


I wrote a post a while back about baptism, in which I basically said my thoughts on the subject were limited by the fact that I didn’t understand other people’s views on the matter.

Take, for contrasting example, the issue of predestination. I have my views on the matter. And I feel comfortable with those views because I’ve studied other people’s and felt like I understood them enough to say, “OK, I understand why you believe that, but here’s why I don’t.” It’s a complicated issue with lots of good arguments from the different sides, and I can respect the diversity of beliefs. Even the ones that are obviously wrong.

With baptism, on the other hand, I have a harder time. I, for example, don’t believe in infant baptism. It would be easier for me to say, “OK, here’s why I disagree with people who believe that,” if I understood why they believed that. But I don’t. I don’t feel like I have enough understanding of the arguments to evaluate them.

So my co-worker Johnny was kind enough, after reading my post, to loan me his copy of the book Understanding Four Views on Baptism.

I don’t know that it really changed my thinking, but it sure was fun.

The way the book works is this. It’s written by four experts representing four different belief sets, and is divided into four sections. In each section, one of the four experts explains what his group believes, and why. The other three then get to write why he’s wrong.

The problem with this approach is that you never get an unbiased look at anything, you just get a variety of biases to average out. I came out of the book with the same viewpoints I had going into it. I read the arguments supporting differing views, and still didn’t really understand how people could believe those things. But that may be as much a reflection of me as it was the book. It seemed a lot of the arguments involved adding things to scripture, which raises the question of whether those things were good things to add. Shockingly, the person writing that particular argument thought they were. The other people, shockingly, did not.

The discourse, however, was quite entertaining, in very much a polite “with all respect, I have no respect for this” tone. To be honest, I found it more enjoyable reading from a debate perspective than from a baptism perspective.

The book is part of a series, and I very well may have to go back and look into other volumes in the set to see what it looks like for other topics to get this treatment.

Kinda Review: “The Adjustment Bureau”


OK, so, first, I enjoyed watching The Adjustment Bureau.

The reviews I’ve seen have been mixed, though many of those have talked about finding the movie disappointing in comparison with its inspiration, the Philip K. Dick short story The Adjustment Team. I’ve not read the short story, so I can’t comment on how the two compare. I can only comment on it as an evening’s entertainment at the cinema.

And as an evening’s entertainment at the cinema, I found it agreeable. Matt Damon can be hit or miss for me, and was in fine form in this movie. Emily Blunt was not necessarily who I would have cast in her role, but the fact that I probably would have ended up with a more obvious choice for off-beat romantic interest like Zooey Deschanel or Maggie Gyllenhaal only means I’m less creative. And, oh, does I like me some Terrance Stamp.

So, the basic trailer plot set-up, for those that don’t know — Matt Damon’s a politician who, through a fluke, encounters the Adjustment Bureau, the behind-the-curtain team that makes sure that world events unfold properly according to the some all-encompassing plan. When things deviate from the plan, it’s their job to make “adjustments” so things go back on track. In the midst of all of this, Damon’s character meets a woman he finds irresistible, but whom the plan says he can’t be with. He has to figure out whether he can overcome destiny, in the form of the plan and Bureau, to be with her, and whether he even should.

On the superficial level, for me, it was an entertaining paranoid thriller, putting Damon on Bourne-lite turf of trying to outrun and outthink a powerful organization of foes. A good couple of hours of Friday night entertainment.

On the slightly deeper level — the movie says little about, but raises some interesting questions regarding, the issue of free will and predestination.

At one point Damon’s character is told he has no free will, he is only given the appearance of free will. People go through their lives, making their decisions, but in a world in which their circumstances are carefully manipulated to produce in the desired decisions or results.

From a theological perspective, it’s an interesting hybrid view of the two conflicting schools, and one that really only fully works in the world of the movie. But as the movie progresses, the “plan” and its enforcement are further fleshed out in ways that provide more grist for thought.

Without giving too much away, it ties into a theological notion I’ve “developed” of the Tapestry, interconnected and shifting threads being woven in real time to produce a beautiful result. I left the movie with some questions about the implications of the Tapestry that I may be mulling for a while.

But now I’m rambling.

It’s a pretty decent movie. Go see it.

Not Really A Review At All: “No Strings Attached”


 

Portman and Kutcher in "No Strings Attached"

I’m jaded.

We went and watched “No Strings Attached.” (We’re not proud. We had the opportunity to watch a movie without the boys, and the options that were playing in the time slot we had were limited, and this was definitely a movie to watch without the boys.)

The girl and the guy meet. And meet again. And meet again. And at some number meeting, end up in bed.

She has no desire to be in a “relationship.” She does have physical urges. He agrees to address the latter while avoiding the former.

<<Spoiler warning for those who have never watched a movie before>>

Against her plans, she falls for him. She decides that with him she does want a relationship. They end up together.

The End.

Awwwww.

Except that it’s “The End” because this is a movie, and movies run for some amount of time and stop.

Real life is a little more messy.

Falling in love and starting a relationship is not, in real life, The End.

In real life, that’s just The Beginning.

And this is why I say I’m jaded. At The End of “No Strings Attached” I couldn’t imagine any scenario in which The End is followed by “And they all lived happily ever after.”

I give them six months. A year, tops.

And it made me wonder if it even matters any more.

It used to be that the happy ending of a romantic movie was that you could imagine them growing old together.

I couldn’t imagine these characters growing old together.

Has it become enough just to end up together for a while? Is just being together at the end of the movie what passes for a romantic happy ending today? In the words of Kenny Rogers, “Who needs tomorrow; we’ve got tonight.”

Or am I just jaded?

Review: Troy Hickman’s Common Grounds


With Troy Hickman back on comics racks with his new series “Twilight Guardian,” I was inspired to order a trade paperback of what I recalled being his brilliant series, Common Grounds, which I had originally read in single issues as they came out.

Two things to get out of the way at the outset. The cover is horrible. I mean, as a piece of art, it’s OK, but not great. As a cover by which the Common Grounds book is being judged, it’s awful. But we’ll get back to that in a second. The other thing — you can buy a used copy of the collection for a little over a buck on Amazonwhich means you would be crazy to not. I mean, like, even if you don’t read comics; stop right now, follow that link, and order a copy.

OK? Back? Great.

Common Grounds is a brilliant comics reconstruction. Many of the noted works of the last 25 years have been comics deconstructions, taking apart the pieces of golden and silver age comics, seeing how they work, and building something dark and modern from them.

Hickman does a brilliant job loving examining the tropes and conventions that make comics work, but he then puts them back together in a way that honors, rather than diminishing, the classic feel. He’s a clever writer, approaching his stories from unexpected angles, and with the occasional surprise turn. But most of all, Common Grounds is a fun read.

From the secret struggles of a super-speedster to the reunion of two retired archrivals to the story of the Acidic Jew, Common Grounds is enjoyably fresh and greatly entertaining.

In some ways, there’s a feel to Hickman’s Common Grounds that’s not unlike Kurt Busiek’s Astro City(another must-read); there’s a similar lovingly creative approach to the classic elements of superheroes.

The other flaw with the Common Grounds trade paperback? The spine is marked with a large “Volume 1.” It’s a huge shame that it wasn’t followed up with a Volume 2.

Review: Anne Jackson’s “Permission To Speak Freely”


After writing this review, I wrote a follow-up piece here that has more rounded-out thoughts on the book.


The project began in May 2008 when Jackson posed a question on her blog: “What is the one thing you feel you can’t say in the church?” The response was immediate and heartfelt. More than 500 comments poured in with confessions about addiction and adultery, admissions of loneliness and lost faith, and much more.

The purpose of the book is simple, Jackson says: “to share the confessions I’ve received, as well as my own life and experience, to show you that you’re not alone in your battle with fear and secrets. We are not isolated in our brokenness.”

So says the official website for Anne Jackson’s book Permission to Speak Freely.

Which, together with copy on the back cover of the book, might give one the impression that is what the book is about.

One would be wrong.

Or, at least, one would be mostly wrong. Those things are in the book, and those do have something to do with where the book ends up.

The journey getting there, however, has little to do with people’s experiences with the church. There are a handful of the “confessions” thrown in as garnishes, but it’s not really about what people wish they could say or why they feel they can’t or what the church needs to do to change that.

It’s about bad things that happened in the life of Anne Jackson.

As such, it’s not a bad book. As a memoir reflecting telling her story, it lives up to her goal of openness and honesty. Jackson argues that the reason people feel they can’t say things is that nobody says things. The more we are transparent, the more people feel they can be transparent.

To be sure, there’s a limited amount of transparency here — it’s a relatively short book and there have been many bad things to happen to Ms. Jackson, so one hoping to learn from any of her experiences may also be disappointed.

I’ll admit it was interesting to read this week that Jackson and her husband are divorcing; their marriage figures prominently in the book, and arguably serves as example of progress in her life. I intentionally did not read what she had to say about the divorce until after writing this review in order not to color this further. But that was another of the problems I had with the book; one’s answers to life’s problems are valuable only if they’re efficacious, and Jackson fails to fully make that case using her life as example.

The book is an enjoyable read. I do agree with its ultimate conclusion. It meanders in getting to that conclusion, but is short enough, and enjoyable enough, that the conclusion is worth the read regardless.

Review: Jasper Fforde’s “The Last Dragonslayer”


The Last Dragonslayer,is Jasper Fforde’s first entry into the burgeoning world of the young adult book, home of such properties as Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games.

In recognition of this fact, the novel’s heroine is, herself, a young adult. (Or a teenager, which is that the term is generally used to mean.)

Anyone expecting there to be anything juvenile about the book will be disappointed, however. It’s accessible, but not the least bit watered down. Sure, it stays away from the offensive, but Fforde has never been one to delve into “adult material” in the euphemistic sense.

And “Last Dragonslayer” is very much a Jasper Fforde book. In the Thursday Next series, in the Nursery Crimes books and in “Shades of Grey,” Fforde excels at world-building. His books are set in alternate realities that are fully developed and internally consistent. But he also has fun with it; if one is creating one’s own world, one is wasting the opportunity to do what one wants with it. It’s not really necessary to have dodo birds brought back from extinction in the Thursday Next novels, but, really, why not?

And Fforde is clearly enjoying himself in “The Last Dragonslayer.” Creating a world in which magic use, and dragonkind, are both barely hanging on in a contemporary world doesn’t necessarily correlate with having terribly frightening but loyally friendly pet Quarkbeasts, but, again, why not?

In typical Fforde fashion, the plot both winds and unwinds as the book progresses, but the story is something along the lines of an orphan running a magic agency dealing with the ramifications of the imminent death of the last dragon on magic use. As one might guess from the title, a dragonslayer is also involved. The story is enjoyable, but the real delight is the world that Fforde builds and the characters he populates it with. When the story reaches an agreeable conclusion, you wish you could hang out there after the book, in proper Thursday Nextfashion.

If you’re already a Jasper Fforde reader, this book will delight on the basis of being a great Fforde book. If you’re not; then shame on you, and this book may be the easiest jumping-on point yet to get a feel for his worlds.