Burger report: Five Guys

July 16th, 2009

We saw that Five Guys Burgers and Fries had opened a Sugar Land location last weekend. On President Obama’s (and my in-laws’) recommendation, we decided to check it out.

Considering the source of the recommendation, we had pretty high hopes. However, Five Guys didn’t make the cut among our burger testers. Dan thought it was excellent, but my mom and I weren’t that impressed. The quality of the burger itself was great, and the condiments were fine, which has not always been the case. However, their buns were too fluffy. They were too thick, number one, so the bun to burger ratio was too high, but they were also very airy. I like a denser bun, and my mom agreed. This was specifically where Dan and we parted ways, I think. As a side note, the fries, which get second billing in the name of the chain even, were not to anyone’s taste. I actually burned away skin on the roof of my mouth on one, which is a bit too hot, I think. (We had to be very careful about what we let The Boy eat, as a result.) Besides that, the fries were skin-on, which I’m not a fan of, and they’re thick and floppy, as opposed to thin and crispy, which is my preference.

Overall, Five Guys gets a 1.5 thumb rating, although I was tempted not to even give it the half-thumb I did (Dan, of course, was the 1). This puts it on par with Prince’s, so it’s certainly not terrible. In fact, Prince’s made the original Best in Houston list by the Chronicle, so some in Houston are sure to consider Five Guys a contender for that crown. My dad, however, as a (non-voting) guest reviewer summed up the experience with, “I wouldn’t go back.”

Correction: I have been alerted that my recollection of the scoring was inaccurate. My mom gave Five Guys a thumbs-up, as did Dan, so the revised score is 2.5 thumbs. I think that’s a bit high, but I’ll be accused of cooking the books if I rescind my half-thumb.

Summer Lit

July 7th, 2009

This has been the summer of the faux Victorian novel for me. It’s a genre that I’ve enjoyed for some time (Think Mr. Timothy, The Poe Shadow, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, etc.), but somehow I’ve chosen to really steep this summer in it.

Last week, I took in The Dark Volume, the sequel to Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. The Glass Books was probably the best thing I read in 2007, so I was excited to find that Dahlquist had written a sequel. The Dark Volume was disappointing, though. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (and given how fantastical The Glass Books was that’s saying something), and the characters’ motivations are hazy at best. Some of the most tantalizing questions of the book, like what exactly the so-called “dark volume” is, and, by the way, the tome in question is never referred to as such within in the pages of the book itself, are never explained. Moreover, one of the best things about The Glass Books was that it was so smutty I was ashamed to be reading it. The Dark Volume is … not. On the other hand, Dahlquist’s main characters — Miss Temple, Dr. Svenson and Cardinal Chang — are so compelling that I would read more. And the ending of The Dark Volume is ambiguous enough to lead me to think that I may get the chance to. Grade: B-

Over the weekend, I ripped through John Harwood’s The Seance. The cover called it a novel for Wilkie Collins fans, which I have to confess to not being, but it had a very definite Gothic feel. I would put it in the Ann Radcliffe vein, with definite Romantic influences (Shelley, Byron). Basically, it’s an extended ghost story. Harwood’s modern vantage point shows in that the narrator evinces a goodly amount of skeptical distance from the events that unfold, but it’s certainly meant to be taken earnestly. It was a good, quick read, but it’s already been sold back to Half-Price Books, so it’s nothing I would return to. Grade: B

By far the standout of the summer has been Jonathan Barnes’ The Somnambulist. What’s particularly noteworthy is that I just stumbled upon it on the wall at the checkout at Borders a couple months ago; otherwise I would never have heard of it and my summer reading would’ve been confined to mediocre fare. The Somnambulist is outstanding, though. Barnes has twisted together literary history (again the Romantics, specifically Coleridge) and fiction and then added a good dose of horror. In fact, the most intriguing part of The Somnambulist are the characters of the Prefects, whose entrance and deeds I had to read aloud to Dan because they were so compelling. The Washington Post reviewer refers to them as “a demented, supernatural Tweedledum and Tweedledee who take pleasure in pain.” Indeed. They’re marvelously terrifying, and I couldn’t stop thinking about their every appearance on the page (as much as, believe me, I wanted to after I had turned out the lights after reading).

At the end of my copy of The Somnambulist, the publisher included the first chapter of Barnes’ second book, The Domino Men. Upon reading it, I thought it had nothing to do with The Somnambulist, being set in the present day and all that. However, as I neared the end of the rest of my reading, I asked Dan to pick it up for me. Lo and behold, the Prefects are back! So I’ve just very happily settled into The Domino Men. So far it reads more like Jasper Fforde than anything Victorian, which I’m perfectly content with. (As a side note, I’m as lucky to have stumbled upon The Domino Men as I was to have picked up The Somnambulist: apparently, even though it was only published in January of this year, the unsold hardcovers were already being shipped back to the publisher. When Dan asked for it at Bookstop, the clerk had to go get it out of the box in the back in which it was already packed for return.)
The Somnambulist Grade: A
The Domino Men Grade: in progress, but probably A

Contemporary fiction

April 30th, 2009

It’s hard for me to believe, and even harder to say out loud, but I’ve actually really enjoyed my contemporary fiction class this semester. As I’m sitting down to write my final paper, I’m realizing that there’s a real liberation in writing about contemporary works, which is that there isn’t an enormous body of critical literature to consume on top of the text itself.

We’re told, as literary scholars, that we have to make an original contribution. But we’re also told that we have to situate ourselves in the scholarly debate over texts that have been around for, often, upwards of three hundred years. That becomes an incredibly daunting task. I, for example, had an article rejected from a journal this winter because the readers didn’t think I had engaged enough with current scholarship on the subject. It’s a fair, and very common, criticism, but the thing was that this is a topic I’ve been researching for three years. I wrote my master’s thesis on it. And I honestly felt good about the research I’d done, felt like I really had looked at everything. The readers felt otherwise.

As exhorted by my professors, I had an original contribution to make; in fact, the reviewers agreed that I had an insightful, new angle on the material. They just didn’t think I’d used enough of other people’s recent scholarship. That’s what makes it refreshing to sit down with a book like Percival Everett’s Erasure (2001), which I’m writing about in my final paper, and simply write about it. It’s liberating to know that I can simply make my contribution. I did a literature search; I have half a dozen sources. But I can also be reasonably sure that I’ve exhausted the critical material that’s been written about it.

Certainly I see the value of research. I’m willing and able to conduct it. But at some point, does the literature search become just an exercise? The bar for tenure and even hiring in the humanities keeps rising: we have to be published even to get a job these days, and we have to have a book contract to be considered for tenure. But the bar for publication, too, keeps rising.

I’m not thinking of changing my field. But I am thinking.

Separate and unequal

March 26th, 2009

Is it OK to like one of your classes better than the other? This is pretty typical for me. I often have one class that participates eagerly and another that sits there like lumps every day. The same lesson plan will get the first class enthusiastically buzzing and then fall flat in the other. I used to teach at 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning, and I thought that accounted for the difference. You would think that would mean the 8:00 class would be dull and the 9:00 class engaged, but it was usually the other way around. I hypothesized that the 8:00 students were in an 8:00 class because they were morning people and wanted to be there, but that for the 9:00 students, that was the earliest class they could drag themselves to for the day. This semester, though, I teach at 10:00 and 11:00, and it’s the 10:00 students who are lumps and the 11:00 students who are lively.

I think it’s understandable that I enjoy the class that responds better to me. This is true even though the more boisterous class usually, and this is borne out this semester, has some jokers or loudmouths that I have to work to keep in line. But because the tone of the whole class is more responsive, that doesn’t take too much effort. Since the kids are on my side, they often help to check the loudmouths.

So, fine; I think all of this is normal and fair. The question, though, is whether it’s fair to treat the two classes differently. An example: yesterday, I plodded through the 10:00 class with what I thought was a good assignment (breaking down some sample papers in groups and then together as a class on the board). Because I had used my usual 10-minute ice breaker at the beginning of class, in which students bring in any kind of “controversial” topic that we can discuss, we were rushed at the end, and I didn’t get to make all the points I wanted to make about the samples. As I erased the board, I thought, “Oh, well. I’ll do this again for the next class. I’ll cut the 10-minute discussion at the beginning so we have more time, too.”

The problem was that I couldn’t help thinking, “Besides, I like the 11:00 class so much more…” I was then appalled at the idea that I was sort of giving the 11:00 class a leg up for the paper they’re turning in on Monday, because I like them better. I was looking forward to giving them the better class, which would in turn make them more prepared for the paper, which would, hopefully, result in better grades. Is that wrong? It’s not as though the two classes are in competition with each other, except in the grand scheme of things in which these students will compete for jobs down the line and what have you. But I feel guilty now about not treating the two classes equally, especially since I know it arose from my feelings toward them.

NB: Yesterday’s topic was “Would you let your 18-year-old daughter pose for Playboy?”, submitted by a 20-year-old female student. I turned it into a discussion of parental control over adult offspring. I was surprised at how many of my students were willing to say that their parents still exerted almost total control over their decisions, even though I confirmed that they’re all 18.

Pottery Barn Robots

February 27th, 2009

We got the latest Pottery Barn Kids catalogue yesterday in the mail, and since I had nothing else allotted to the five minutes before I left for class, I flipped through it. I was seriously creeped out by the lifestyle they’re promoting.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I loves me some Pottery Barn. Dan and I actually have an apothecary table and matching TV stand. However, somehow with the main Pottery Barn catalogues, I’m able to distance myself from the vision of life they’re selling and just focus on the furniture and rugs themselves.

With the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue, I found that incredibly hard to do, maybe because there were actual kids in many of the pictures, which is almost never the case in the regular catalogue. The kids’ bedrooms all looked spotless and constructed. This is not inviting in the way it might be for adults. It felt very restrictive. Not only was everything put away, but the rooms were full of gleaming, heavy wood furniture and obsessive toy-organizing structures. The “playrooms” were even worse; they looked like classrooms. I was offended by the fact that all play seemed to be happening only in the playrooms, and the play actually being conducted in the playrooms seemed more like work. Also, everything, everything had a kid’s name on it. In some of the bedroom photos, there’d be a pillow with the kid’s name on it, and then the name on the wall in cut-out letters, and then the name on the baskets in the cubbies in the wall organizer.

It was all just so sterile. It seemed designed for the family that a) uses their kids’ rooms as showpieces in their perfect homes, and b) can’t remember their kids’ names, probably because those kids are actually boarded out until needed for endearing photos. I’m all for organization, especially if it’s going to help Nate read, and I’m even in favor of showcase homes, but kids have to get a pass on that. You can make the choice to be an obsessive adult with a perfect home, but leave your kids out of it.

Checking IDs

February 17th, 2009

Dan and I finally went to see Slumdog Millionaire this past weekend at the AMC theater in Sugar Land. (Verdict: outstanding. It would get my vote for Best Picture, although I’ve only seen two of the other contenders (Milk and Frost/Nixon))

Anyway, I had occasion to notice, as I passed by our theater a couple times before going in to sit down (on concessions and bathroom trips), that next to Slumdog (rated: R) was the new Friday the 13th movie (rated: R). The theater staff were aggressively checking IDs for the kids heading into Friday the 13th, and turning them away with statements like, “No, your parents actually have to come into the theater with you,” and “You can exchange your ticket at Guest Services to see a different movie.” Not that I’m against making teenagers follow the rules, but this seemed hypocritical to me, because they weren’t checking IDs for people going into Slumdog.

The argument, I assume, is that teenagers want to get into Friday the 13th but don’t care about seeing Slumdog Millionaire. That may be, but where does the theater draw the line? After all, that same night, Gran Torino, The Reader, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Revolutionary Road, The International, and Defiance, all rated R, were all playing at that same theater. How does the theater decide which ones will be most popular with teenagers? The ones with big stars like Clint Eastwood and Clive Owen? Or the ones with violence, like, again, those two movies, Underworld, and, to be truthful, Slumdog Millionaire? Which R movies does the theater want to protect the youngsters from? (Spoiler alert!) The violent ones? The depressing Holocaust films? The movie about how the suburbs will drive you to abortion and suicide?

The thing is, they all have “mature themes,” or they wouldn’t have gotten an R rating. It seems to me that the theater can’t and shouldn’t be in the business of deciding which R movies are no problem for teenagers to see and which are too violent or scary or disturbing or have too much sex in them. That, in fact, is what the ratings system is for, however flawed it, too, is. So the theater either needs to enforce IDs or parental accompaniment for teenagers all the time or not at all.

Burger report: Smashburger

December 30th, 2008

The title of this post should properly be “Holy crap! Smashburger is Awesome!,” but for consistency’s sake, I’m leaving it as it is.

Dan and I tried Smashburger the day after it opened last week, to see if it would be worth taking my mom to to try for our burger hunting. It was amazing, so when we saw her later that day we told her about it. Kelly was so impressed by our gushing, which included the statement that it was better than Scotty P’s in Dallas, that she demanded we all make a trip before she went back to Dallas after Christmas.

All four — including Kelly’s guest vote — votes having been cast as “fantastic,” Smashburger gets a record 4 thumbs up. It’s clearly the best burger any of us has had in Houston so far, and here’s why: they use soft egg buns that toast really well, and they start fluffy, but compress nicely when you squeeze down on the burger to eat; the patties are clearly hand-formed, right before cooking, with little crisp edges and filigrees coming off in all directions; the condiments are well-applied, so that they’re noticeable, but not overpowering; and, as a bonus, they serve what Dan calls “the closest fries to McDonald’s” that he’s ever had.

Locals will probably scoff at the newcomer, as Smashburger is a chain based in Colorado. In fact, they have only two locations outside of Colorado: Wichita, KS, and now, Houston. The fact that it’s not a Texas-grown burger will probably not allow Houstonians to call it the “best” in Houston, but we’ve tried the hole-in-the-wall, native Houston places, and they simply don’t compare. I don’t care where the product is from, as long as it tastes this good.

Dan and I have, in fact, now had Smashburger three times in a week. That seems like gluttony, I know, but a) it’s the holidays, and b) we had it today as a last family hurrah before I have to go into isolation for a few days from my thyroid radiation therapy. As a result, though, I can now report that Smashburger doesn’t travel all that well. It was still a great burger, but not nearly as good as eating in.

History lessons

December 17th, 2008

Dan and I saw Frost/Nixon last weekend, and it brought up a point that he and I have talked about many times before: When were we supposed to learn about contemporary American history? It didn’t happen in school, but we’re too young to have lived it ourselves. We were born just after the Frost/Nixon interviews happened, so I, at least, didn’t start paying attention to American politics or the rest of the world until the very late 1980s.

My US history class in high school, which was a very good, AP-based class, only made it to a bit past World War II. We simply ran out of time in the school year to cover anything later. Since the AP exam, at the time, only covered that far, we didn’t worry about cramming in Kennedy, civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, etc. So I feel like I have a big hole in my knowledge of American history.

Journalists, at least those covering politics and world events, are by and large older than I, so when they refer to events from the 1960s or ’70s (or especially 80s), they do so as if they were givens. They don’t bother to fill in details that their readers, whom they assume experienced the events first-hand as well, would already know. Not sharing that first-hand cultural history, I don’t have a good way to catch up on it. Watching a movie like Frost/Nixon, or Milk, which is the next one I want to see, points up my deficiencies. Any suggestions for how to fill in these gaps?

Burger report: Lankford Grocery and Tornado Burger

December 3rd, 2008

The burger detectives went to Lankford Grocery over Thanksgiving. Incidentally, any place that doesn’t have a website I can link to is a good candidate for “best burger,” because that means it’s a one-off kind of place and not a chain.

Anyway, Lankford was incredibly crowded, which affirms its status as a lauded Houston institution. We were lucky (or pushy) enough to grab an unbussed table and clear it ourselves. (I say pushy, because other patrons stood around looking dolefully at other unbussed tables, leading me to conclude that we Northerners weren’t observing Southern etiquette.) The burgers took a long time to arrive, due to how crowded it was. They were clearly hand-formed, so my mom was immediately pleased by that. Dan and I loved the fries, although my mom was less impressed.

Everything was hot and fresh, but there were some flaws. The menu says all burgers are served medium, which the waitress reiterated. Mine, however, was well-done. Lankford’s burgers are also thin-patty style, which I’m coming to despise. The condiments on mine were applied with a heavy hand, such that I couldn’t taste the cheese. When I mentioned that to my fellow detectives, my mom said that, come to think of it, she couldn’t taste the cheese on hers either. Which was really odd considering that she had gotten a plain burger with cheese as the only adornment. All of this caused me to give Lankford a half-thumbs up, although the others each gave it a full thumb, for a total of 2.5. We gave our ratings before we tried to pay, at which point we discovered that Lankford has a “wait in line and pay at the cash register” policy. Given how busy it was, Dan waited 15 minutes just to pay.

Lankford was the first universally-acclaimed burger joint we’ve tried, and I have to say that it was disappointing given the hype. On the other hand, today’s special bonus review was a pleasant surprise. I pulled into Tornado Burger for lunch today. Their sign says they’re the “Best Cheeseburger in Houston” according to the Houston Press. I thought I’d give it a try on my own and bring the other burger detectives along sometime if it was worthy. It’s not that good, but since it’s in a run-down old Long John Silver’s location on a shabby stretch of Murphy Rd in Stafford, I wasn’t really expecting much. It was the best fast-food burger I’ve had in Houston. Someone there has clearly been to In-N-Out and decided to try to replicate it. The bun was grilled and crispy, and the fries were great, albeit seasoned, which I know is a deal-breaker for my mom. The burger was thin, and the condiments heavily-applied (is that just a Texas thing?), but overall very good for a fast-food burger.

Fall TV ’08

November 16th, 2008

I only picked up two new shows this year: Life on Mars and My Own Worst Enemy, and one of them has already been cancelled. Fortunately, it’s My Own Worst Enemy that’s been cancelled, because I have really preferred Life on Mars.

Life on Mars, ABC, Thursdays 10 ET/9 CT
The 2008 version of Detective Sam Brady is stuck in 1973, due to a freak car accident. He is (and we are) not sure if he’s dreaming, hallucinating, in a coma, or what. When I started watching the show, I assumed that the car accident was just a gimmick to give the producers a reason to set a show in 1973, but it’s instead an ongoing mystery as to why he’s there and how he’ll get back. In the meantime, he’s encountered his parents and his 2008 partner. The mystery part reminds me of early seasons of Lost, when speculation was rampant about whether the characters were dead, in purgatory, or what-have-you. I’ve gotten so into this show that I stay up late to watch it (we can only watch TV after about 9:00 p.m. these days, after Nathan goes to bed, and that means on Thursday nights that I have Ugly Betty, The Office, and Life on Mars to try to cram in between about 9:00 and 11:00).

One of the noteworthy things about Life on Mars is that it’s an adaptation of a BBC series. I’m tempted during every episode to go find out about how the BBC series worked, but I’m afraid it’ll spoil the intrigue if I do. Every week, I decide instead just to watch and to follow the American series, allowing it to twist and turn on its own.

The show has gone on hiatus until late January, when it will apparently be teamed up with Lost on Wednesday nights. I’m glad of the pairing, but when I watched the promo at the end of this week’s episode that said, “When Life on Mars returns in January…,” I was genuinely sad that it won’t be occupying my Thursday nights for awhile.

Grade: A

My Own Worst Enemy, NBC, Mondays 10 ET/9 CT
The show revolves around Christian Slater being a superspy who has an alter ego that’s a mild-mannered family man. Unlike other spy shows, though, the cover is unaware that his other life is as a spy. Or at least, he’s supposed to be unaware of it. Due to a glitch in the CIA’s software, Henry keeps waking up as Edward in the middle of assignments. Embarrassing.

I’m not nearly as fond of this as I am of Life on Mars. The pilot looked promising, and then the second episode was terrible. I watched the third episode to see whether it would be more like the pilot or more like the second episode, and it sort of split the difference. I’ve continued watching since, to continuing testing it out, and it keeps splitting the difference. It’s not terrible, but not gripping, either.

The plot holes do get to me, too. For example, why is it important that the two personalities not know about each other? Other spy programs just give the guy a cover and he keeps track of it. Furthermore, the spies’ covers are all as happily-married family men, which just seems like a bad idea. Sure enough, Edward’s partner Raymond’s wife is now suspicious that he’s having an affair, because he keeps cancelling plans and not calling her. Why would you intentionally entangle your spies in these kinds of lives? In other words, I’m not sorry that it’s been cancelled, but I’ll continue to watch the episodes that NBC keeps airing.

Grade: C+