Saturday, December 11, 2010

Vintage recipes - the good, the bad and the ugly

A number of years ago as a Christmas gift, my mother gave me folders full of family recipes.  (And by family I mean chosen family as well as blood relatives.)

Some are typed. Some are rewritten (as in copied out by hand).  Some are photocopies of the recipe cards which still live in recipe boxes.

It's a wonderful collection, just not very organized, so I decided in this age of modern technology and self-published that I would collect them all into a cookbook to share among family and friends.

I have just finished typing one stack which comes from the family of a dear friend who passed away almost five years ago.  (I think it has been that long.  My mother can correct my faulty memory.)  Even in this relatively small collection of 19 recipes, there is impressive variety, even though most are dessert related.

Some, like the Turtle Cookies, inspire me to make them right away even though I am no good at baking cookies.

Others, like Elsie Rich's "Good Salad," make me blink in wonder as my stomach gurgles in protest.

I share them below for your fun and amusement.  Enjoy!

Turtle Cookies
1/2 c packed brown sugar
1/2 c margarine or butter, softened
2 Tbsp water
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 c all purpose flour
1/8 tsp salt
pecan halves
8 caramels, each cut into fourths

Mix brown sugar, margarine, water and vanilla.  Stir in flour and salt until dough holds together.  (If it is too dry, stir in 1-2 tsp water.)

Heat oven to 350 degrees.  For each cookie, group 3-5 pecal halves (split if necessary) on ungreased cookie sheet.  Shape dough by teaspoonfuls around caramel quarters.  Press firmly onto center of each group of nuts.  Bake until set but not brown, about 12-15 minutes.  Cool.  Dip tops of cookies into chocolate glaze.

Chocolate glaze
1 c powdered sugar
1 Tbsp water
1 oz melted (cooled) unsweetened chocolate
1 tsp vanilla

Beat ingredients until smooth, adding 1 tsp of water at a time if necessary.

Makes 2 1/2 dozen cookies.

Elsie Rich's "Good Salad"
6 oz pkg of raspberry Jell-O (or strawberry or cherry)
1 1/2 c water
1 can whole cranberry sauce
1 c cottage cheese
1/2 c nuts
1/2 c chopped celery (Chef's note: "Not part of the original recipe.")
8 oz carton of Cool Whip

Dissolve Jell-O in part of the water which is boiling hot.
Add the rest of the water as ice water.
Add all other ingredients (except the Cool Whip).
Stir well.
Put in fridge until it starts to Jell.  (Love the spelling.)
Fold in the Cool Whip.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A bit of perspective

Kill one man and you are a murderer.
Kill millions and you are a conquerer.
Kill everyone and you are a god.
                   -- Jean Rostand

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Quote of the Day

Courtesy of the inimitable Julia Child, from a letter to Avis DeVoto on January 19, 1953:

"All this chef-hostess stuff is my particular interest ... but it does take practice and experience, so the stuff is really hot, but not over-done, etc.  When we get into 'recipes for dishes,' we plan always to have 'make ahead' notes for everything, including veg.  (I also think the young hostess should be advised never to say anything about what she serves, in the way of 'Oh, I don't know how to cook, and this may be awful,' or 'poor little me,' or 'this didn't turn out' ... etc. etc.  It is so dreadful to have to reassure one's hostess the everything is delicious, whether or not it is.  I make it a rule, no mater what happens, never to say one word, thought it kills me.  Maybe the cat has fallen in the stew, or I have put the lettuce out the window and it has frozen, or the meat is not quite done ... Grits one's teeth and smile.)"

Source: Page 46 of As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, Food Friendship and the Making of a Masterpiece, edited by Joan Reardon

I have only just started but am enjoying this collection immensely, even if I am having a bit of trouble deciding if I am eavesdropping on a private conversation between these two charming women or have been granted the opportunity to be a silent participant in same.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Which quote is the quote?

"If we have multiiple, highly skilled Special Operations forces identifying targets for precision-guided munitions, we will need fewer conventional ground forces. That's an important lesson learned from Afghanistan."
General Tommy Franks, in "American Soldier"
"If we have multiple, highly skilled Special Operations forces identifying targets for precision-guided munitions, we will need fewer conventional ground forces. That's an important lesson learned from Afghanistan."
George W. Bush, in "Decision Points"

No, I have not read both books.  I have not read either book.  I am not even 100% sure that this is not the stuff of urban legend (after all, pages are not cited).  I snagged these two quotes from, and while the entries under the "Say What?" heading usually amuse me, sometimes they are taken too far out of context to understand or to interpret any way other than incorrectly, so I continue to be a bit suspicious.

(Besides, doesn't the site's webmaster know that book titles belong in italics or underlined and not in quotes??)

Maybe they had the same ghost writer.  Maybe Tommy Franks is George W. Bush's ghost writer.  Maybe the laughable part is the idea that anyone with significant political or military power in this country has actually learned anything from the military operations in Afghanistan.

Draw your own conclusions as you will.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Jealous much?

Not everyone thinks that writing should be a torturous experience, although I understand that for some people it is.  I would like to be so bold as to suggest that if it is really that terrible, then don't do it.

As observed in the comments at the end of the article, Mr. Gresko has missed the point.  The point isn't great literature (although that is not ruled out as a possibility) but writing.  NaNoWriMo (I do not have the same aversion to the abbreviation that a writer who chooses to use a particularly erudite word like "hooey" in his headline) participants don't sit down and *try* to write crap.  They sit down and write.  The result might be terrible.  It might be good.  It might even be brilliant in spots.

The point is that the only way to write is to sit down and do it. Writing is writing. Preparing to write is not writing.  Thinking about writing is not writing.  Researching what you are going to write about is not writing.  Reading is not writing.  Talking about writing is not writing.  Writing is writing.

The goal is not to be bitter and complaining about how many years have gone by since the novel was started.  The goal is to put together fifty thousand words of prose fiction in thirty days.  I would even be willing to go so far as to say that the goal is to learn something in the process (even if the word count at the end of the month is less than fifty thousand) and a feeling of accomplishment when it is all over.

This is my second year taking the National Novel Writing Month challenge.  I learned quite a bit last year (although I have not touched that heap of writing since), and I am learning more this year.  One might even go so far as to say that I am building on last year's experience, and learning more about my writing means that I can improve it.

My suggestion to Mr. Gresko is that he stop wasting word count complaining about an activity enjoyed by thousands of people all over the world and get back to one of his unfinished novels.

That said, I am going to stop ironically expending word count on a blog post and get back to writing.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Voices of Dragons by Carrie Vaughn

Since I read a lot of books in a similar vein with similar storylines, challenges, themes and characters, I am always looking for an author to surprise me and draw me in with a different twist or take on familiar elements.

Voices of Dragons is a little more serious and a little less whimsical than a lot of the teen urban fantasy type books I have read.  It took some getting used to, but overall it was worth reading.  A savvy metaphor for the contemporary state of the world.

The setting is completely contemporary and modern. The only thing that isn't "normal" is the fact that there are dragons in the world, which is a bit jarring. It takes some getting used to that there is only one thing "out of place," only one magical element -- as opposed to, say, having a character discover that there is an entire magical world.

The dragons are not so much considered magical as large, powerful, intelligent, virtually eternal creatures whose fire breathing capability enables them to have extremely destructive potential. They are relegated behind borders negotiated sixty years ago, after the dragons took issue with the disturbance caused by the testing and detonating of atomic bombs during World War II. Neither human nor dragon is allowed to cross the borders. There is no contact, no communication. It is forbidden and illegal. As a friend pointed out to me, it has a very Cold War feel to it.

One day, Kay accidentally crosses the border when she slips and falls into a river while cooling off after a hike. A dragon not only saves her life rather than letting her die or eating her himself but also asks her to come back again and visit. He wants to practice his English. He is curious. He wants to learn. And so does Kay.

As the fragile and unlikely friendship grows, the larger situation becomes more unstable. The military can't leave well enough alone and begins testing the border ... in order to test new weapons. As the situation escalates, Kay and her dragon friend must make some extremely difficult (and courageous) choices.

The lessons about choosing education, communication and cooperation over suspicion, hostility and provocation are well taught, as is the importance of doing something for the greater good and the longer term, rather than focusing on the moment and the individual.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Quote of the Day

Courtesy of Seanan McGuinn's _A Local Habitation_

"The hero's journey has suffered in modern times.  Once we could've gotten a knight in shining armor riding to the rescue, pennants flying.  These days you're lucky to get a battered changeling and her underage, half-trained assistant, and the princesses are confused technological wizards in towers of silicon and steel.  Standards aren't what they used to be."

A few words in favor of ebooks

I almost made the heading "A few words in defense of ebooks," but that seemed a bit harsh.  I don't think they need defending.  They seem to be doing pretty well for themselves.  Beyond the standard necessity for the first amendment, I don't think that they need too much in the way of protection.

My next choice was "A few words in praise of ebooks," but I don't know that I am really being laudatory.  More like pointing out the somewhat obvious or a handy benefit of the versatility of ebooks.  (Not sure that versatility is the right word there.)

Anyway, my point.  I have one, I promise.  I sat down with one, and I am going to get to it.

The other day I wondered "aloud" on my Facebook page what I should read next, and I got a recommendation from a somewhat surprising source.  It turned out to be a rather good recommendation actually.

In the past, I would have made a late run to the bookstore, but instead I downloaded the book to Gertrude the nook and started reading almost at once.  (It is rather amazing how slight a connection is required to download an ebook.)  But that benefit/hazard is already pretty well known.  In fact, it is a major component of most ereader advertising campaigns.

The next day I managed to leave Gertrude at work buried under some papers.  Oh no!!  My reading material for the evening was missing!  What to do?  I considered driving back to the office, but really wasn't excited about that prospect.  I had plenty of reading material.  Surely I could find something else.  But I didn't want to find something else.  I wanted to find out what happened next!

Then I thought to myself, "Well, I could turn on the computer and read the rest of the book that way, even though I am not much good at reading backlit screens full of text for hours on end."  I sighed heavily.  Such tragedy.  To be without immediate, preferred access to my drug of choice.  Woe was me.

But wait!!  There was an alternative!  I have downloaded the nook application not only to my PC and laptop but also to Saraswati the Droid phone (just as any overly-gadgeted geek would do), and the Droid screen can easily be dimmed within the nook application to make reading easier.  Although it was a bit odd to be turning "pages" every few sentences, the smaller screen was actually less of a strain on the retinas, so I was able to finish reading the book from the comfort of the magic chair.

Not ideal circumstances, but I managed to survive the hardship with minimal trauma.  Had I been reading the book the "old fashioned" way, I would have been completely out of luck and would have either had to be patient or find something completely else to read or do with my evening.  Technology saves the day!!  Or at least staves off a few hours of boredom.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Butcher Bird - a ruminative draft

I am sure that I have mentioned being a big believer in and fan of reading the right book at the right time in the right state of mind, but I don't know who might be out there actually paying attention, so I am going to go ahead and mention it again.

The process works one of two ways.  Sometimes I know what I am looking for, and I find the book.  Sometimes I don't know what I am looking for, and the book finds me.

After I read Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey, I immediately wanted more and procured a copy of Butcher Bird.  I started it almost right away but then somehow got distracted by other shiny things.  Probably comics -- Sirens of Gotham City, a four-issue Sam & Twitch series, Haunt, and Marvel: 1602.  Somewhere in there I finally finished reading Shadowglass, which kind of made me think that I should read something a little more wholesome.  So I read the Fablehaven series next.  Once I finished that marathon, I cast about for the next read, unsure of whether I wanted a more "serious" or "literary" (the quotes being included to indicate the vaguery of those notions when applied to fiction) novel or to return to the realm of non-fiction (Appetite for Life is the latest addition to the "in progress" list) or if wanted to stay in a realm of magic and fantasy, potentially dark and urban respectively.

In the end, I picked up Butcher Bird again, and the narrative power was akin to the proverbial train wreck one cannot stop watching.  I'm still trying to decide if that comparison is suitably complimentary.  There were indeed parts -- descriptions mostly, as opposed to actions -- I wanted to look away from and not read, but I didn't want to miss a single gorgeously warped and twisted thing, so I managed a happy medium of reading by not allowing my mind too much freedom to conjure graphic, detailed imagery.

Spyder Lee is just a guy running a tattoo parlor (are they still called parlors?) with his friend Lulu who does the piercing.  Then one night, out behind his hole-in-the-wall bar of choice, he is attacked by a demon and saved by a mysterious woman known as Shrike, and his whole world changes.  He wakes up the next morning cursed with the vision of realization that the world has more layers than most people ever see or even realize are possible.

With realization comes responsibility.  There are demonic creatures claiming his best friend and business partner piece by piece, and intervening on her behalf puts Spyder in their ledger of people from whom they can collect unpleasant, if not impossible, things.  The two friends join Shrike on a quest.  Well, Spyder joins, and he brings LuLu along for her own protection and with the hope of finding a way to release her metaphysical bindings.  The quest leads them, and a few other misfits who join them along the way, quite literally into Hell.

There is magic.  There is mystery.  There is treachery.  And loyalty is found in unlikely places.  One of my favorite parts, because it is so well rendered, is the, for lack of a better way to put it, humanity of Lucifer.  Sure he's a con man and a trickster looking out for himself, but time and again it is clear that he only works with what humanity gives him, although I suppose for most people it is easier to simply write him (or any other "enemy") off as evil rather than recognizing the same potential which lies in each of us.  Man created God.  Not the other way around.  Even so, He/She (in whatever form or religion you choose to believe) is real ... as real as faith and hope and love.  A more accurate way to put it might be that each created the other, and in that creation, man discovered God.  I like that.  God created this spark of life or separated the light and the darkness, sent the universe on its merry way and then sat back and waited for someone to realize what had happened.  Upon that realization, the stories began.

Religious riffs aside, it's not uncommon for book endings disappoint me.  After all of the action and drama and conflict and torment and the moment of truth when everything is explained, endings tend to be kind of a letdown.  Some things aren't explained.  Or the author is at a loss of what to do with his characters once the primary conflict is resolved.  Sometimes there are plot holes or too many loose ends.

Not so with Butcher Bird.  The ending is ... real.  It makes sense for the characters and the story.  It winds down rather than lets down.  It's not happily ever after, but there is closure as well as possibility for the future (and I am not talking about a sequel).  After all, good endings should have the potential to be beginnings of something new.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What makes you pick up a book ... and what makes you keep reading?

The infamous "they" says not to judge a book by its cover, but you have to start somewhere, right?

Before you start calling anyone Ishmael or can nod knowingly that it was in fact the best and worst of times, there has to be a reason that you picked up the book in the first place.  Perhaps it is an intriguing title, a favorite author, or a glowing review that catches your eye, and most likely once it does, rather than start reading right away, you flip the book over or turn to the jacket flap for more information, more reasons to keep going.

Just as it is unrealistic for someone to say, "Check out the intelligence of that girl," based on a glance across a crowded room, a potential reader can't spot a strong hero up on a shelf.

Personally I am as much of a sucker for the feel of a book as I am the sight.  I test the weight in my hand.  I fan the pages to get a feel for how they will turn.  I finger the pages to decide if the quality of the paper appeals to me.  I run my hand over the cover.  (I tend to prefer soft, matte covers to those which are shiny and embossed.)  But I still have to be enticed close enough to the book to pick it up in the first place.

Sure there are recommendations from friends and reviewers.  ("She's got a *great* personality!")  Maybe these friends know your tastes well, and maybe you are familiar with the reviewers, but it is still you who must make the final decision of whether to start reading.

Which has more weight?  An endorsing quote or a summarizing blurb?  Is a few sentences enough to pique your interest, or does the entire back cover need to be filled?  If it is the latest book in the series featuring familiar and beloved characters, do you even want a hint as to the next adventure, or are you willing to take a leap of faith and be surprised?

I recently read the Fablehaven series in quick succession, and after the second book, I found myself avoiding any mention of the events to come in subsequent books.  I wanted to immerse myself in the story, watching as the plot unfolded and the characters grew.

Once your initial criteria are met, and the book has been in your hands for a moment or two, what happens?  Do you stand or sit in the store (assuming that you are not shopping online, of course, which presents an entirely different scenario) and read the first paragraph?  First page?  First chapter?  How long does it take to convince you that you want to get to knows the characters and find out what happens to them?

A common recommendation to writers is to start the story in the middle of the action.  Grab the reader's attention and hold on for dear life.  Somewhere out there is a quote to the effect of telling the author to "grab the reader by the throat and sink your thumbs into his windpipe."  Or maybe it is the jugular vein.  Either action ought to get someone's attention and hold it at least until the person passes out.  If a writer can hold a reader's attention even after the reader has relinquished consciousness, so much the better.

There are probably as many recommendations to begin a story at the beginning.  Once upon a time and all that.

I like it when things are already hoppin', as long as the author doesn't leave me in the dark for too long about the basic backstory of how the characters got to where they were when I joined the fray.

The author's style and vocabulary are major factors for me, too.

I can be hooked by a sentence, a paragraph, or a page, but I try to get through at least a chapter before passing initial judgement.

Then the real work begins for the author.  Once he or she has your attention, the job becomes keeping that attention all the way to the final page (and beyond if there is a sequel or two or six).

For me, it is all about the characters.  Yes, characters need to have something to do, but if I don't make some sort of connection with or have some sort of strong positive reaction to the characters, I don't make it through to the end, no matter how intriguing the plot.  On the flip side of the character coin, if I have too strong of a negative reaction to a character -- even if the character is supposed to be the despised villain -- I'll stop.  (Jean-Claude in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, series is one example.  I get that vampires are evil.  I'm all over it.  But he doesn't even have the stones to be truly, sexily evil.  He's just one more manipulative jerk pressuring a woman into a relationship she doesn't want.  It's not sexy.  It's not attractive.  And once Anita caved, I was pretty much done.  I think I made it through one more book after that.  I think I stopped after book four.  The series is now up to something like twenty.  It's too bad.  I really liked Anita.)  That scenario is a little less common, especially if I am really pulling for the hero.  On the edge between the two sides is when a character I like does something which is completely and unbelievably out of character (and I am not talking about outright deception but rather something to fit a formula or as a plot device) or which derails the plot (which is not the same as a plot twist or surprise).  Usually it happens when romantic/sexual relationships between characters end up being conveniently inevitable without really adding depth to either the story or helping the individual characters grow.  (That subject could be a whole separate rant all its own.)

Balance between plot and character is key to the successful telling of any story, and tilting too far in either direction throws off that balance, but I still look for characters first -- people or creatures who inspire an emotional reaction or connection so that I want to find out what happens to them and how they cope with and adapt to their circumstances. A compelling or intricate plot will not keep me reading if I do not have a vested interest in the characters, but interest in a fascinating character will keep me reading through a less than riveting plot.  I get entirely too wrapped up in the lives of imaginary people and thoroughly enjoy doing it.

Now you know (some of the reasons) why I read and what makes me keep reading.  What starts and keeps you reading?  Plot?  Characters?  Language?  Bragging rights?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Banned Books Week

As today is the last day of Banned Books Week, I am a bit late with this post but decided to go ahead and write it anyway.

Plenty of famous, classic books have been banned.  You have all heard of them and hopefully read at least some of them, perhaps without even knowing that they were banned, so instead I am going to post a link to banned graphic novels.

I can't say that I am surprised that any of these books have been banned or deemed objectionable.  What makes me wonder, even if it does not outright surprise me, is the grounds listed for the objection.  Almost all of the objections listed in this particular article are related to sex and/or nudity.

It continues to fascinate me that the standard objection to "objectionable" material is sex and nudity. Sex and "smut" are going to stunt and warp our children, but violence is not? Is that how it works? Take Batman, for example. Even as the hero of our story, he's pretty dark and violent, nevermind his various nemeses. There is some serious violence and emotional torment and trauma running through those story lines, but the objection comes from the sexual content? I don't think that I will ever understand why naked people are scandalous.

Is the conservative readership really that shallow?  Is it really the sex and nudity that is the problem?  Or is it the idea of literature in various forms that challenges the accepted norm (why it is accepted and how it is deemed normal is a whole other discussion) and sex is just an easy out so that the objectors don't have to think and come up with a thoughtful, reasoned argument.  After all, they apparently don't want others to think.

In my world, it comes down to personal responsibility and choice.  There is plenty of writing out there to which I object, and I am perfectly within my rights to do so.  Simply because I object to it or even find it offensive, however, doesn't mean that it shouldn't be written or published or read.  Therefore I make the choice to not read it.  There are plenty of books I read which many would find objectionable, and I try to be sensitive to the fact that my tastes may not even appeal to friends with whom I discuss and share books.  Some things I keep entirely to myself.  Others I share only in limited circles.  Still others I feel safe sharing or recommending far and wide, but even from within that feeling of safety, I expect anyone who might take me up on my recommendation to make the final choice for themselves.  If I recommend a book to kids, I expect parents to be paying attention to what their kids are reading.

If you read something you don't like or find offensive or makes you uncomfortable, by all means close the book.  Put it down.  Walk away.  Voice your opinion.  Speak up about what you don't like about it and why.  Just please don't close your mind at the same time.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

And the world spins madly on

This blog isn't really supposed to be about me.  It is supposed to be about books and music and movies and the occasional observation or bit of commentary (or even sociopolitical rant) when I just can't contain myself.

Well, I have had a pretty rotten day which means I need to take few steps back and get a bit of perspective, remember what's really important, and doing so has inspired a bit of personal introspection.  Ready or not, here it comes.

A bit more than thirty years ago I was simultaneously part of something horrible and something wonderful.

Shortly before my fourth birthday, I was diagnosed with a rare presentation of a cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma (say that three times fast if you dare).  That -- along with the subsequent radiation and chemotherapy -- was the horrible part.
My brush with celebrity at the ribbon cutting in 1980.

A little more than a year later, I stood on the porch of a big, friendly house -- the house that love built I do believe they call it -- while the mayor cut a ribbon to dedicate the city's first Ronald McDonald House, a place for parents from out of town to stay while their children were being treated at local hospitals.  There was a big, sunny turret in one of the bedrooms, a player piano in the dining room, video games in the living room, and a huge tree mural painted on the basement wall where a bunch of us kids made handprints for leaves.

My parents -- especially my mother -- were a big part of making RMH a reality.  They were a big part of a lot of people's lives during a very difficult time.  A vital part in the face of a lot of sickness and sadness.

I remember being sick.  I remember being stuck with enormous needles.  (I remember having to be strapped to a board with sheets of velcro so that I could be stuck with enormous needles.)  I remember radiation treatments.  I remember carrying around a peanut butter pail because of the nausea that went with treatment.  I remember enormous vile tasting pills.  I remember the horrible smell of the hospital parking lot elevator.  I remember my mother attending multiple funerals in a single week.

I also remember a nurse named Sandy with the most fantastic long red hair.  I remember a doctor so tall he had to stand me up on the table and still bend over.  I remember another doctor introducing me to her lab rats.  I remember IV pole races in the halls.  I remember arguing with my mother about eating "funny" brownies.  I remember a Halloween party with another patient's mother dressed in a shiny green spandex frog costume with the frog mask tucked under her arm as she spoke to a scared new parent.

Somehow in the face of so much illness and even despair, there was at least as much love and courage and support.  Too often the illness prevailed, but even so, hope remained.

Heroes bring hope, and I believe that more often than not, heroes are the people of quiet strength whom you meet every day.  People who, no matter what hardship, trouble or difficulty they are facing in their own lives still have enough hope and strength to share with others.  People who offer the support and encouragement to help make the dreams of others -- even complete strangers -- come true.

That strength and encouragement is what builds houses of love, and hope is what should remind you that no matter how bad it seems in the momnet, the day, the week or even the year, it is still possible to do something different, somthing else, something better, something more.  Even if it is only a small step forward, don't let the fear that there might not be a step after that stop you.  Take the step anyway.  Take the chance and see what happens.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Gadgetry Part 2 - Giving in to temptation

While I have faced one temptation head on and walked away unscathed, I have succumbed to another.

The other day I was out shopping for a protective housing for Scheherazade the iPod, preferably something not terribly expensive or sparkly (since I come from a world in which drawing attention to something is a good way to have it stolen).  I also wanted something simple -- no clips or buckles or moving parts, thank you very much.  The silicone housing which protects Saraswati the Droid does a fabulous job, so I was hoping to find something similar.

Just for kicks, I decided to start at the source.  I didn't expect much in the way of reasonable pricing, but as Scheherazade is an iPod classic (rather than the more popular and widely marketed touch and nano), I thought that I might have better luck with selection.  As it turns out, not so much.  (I did find something quite functional and reasonably priced at another establishment, so all is well.)

As I was in the apple store on a Wednesday morning, however, the store was not nearly as crowded as it had been on previous visits, so I had the opportunity to play with an iPad at my leisure.

It's cute.  It's fun.  It's a shiny new toy.  (And according to the current window display at the Apple store, it is the way to read ebooks.)  The touch screen is responsive, and all selections and commands are made though those handy little pictograms known as icons.  (Yes, I am implying that you don't necessarily need to know how to read [English or most any other language] to be able to use it.)  The virtual keyboard is, of course, much larger than anything you might find on a smartphone, but I didn't find it to be all that much more user friendly for the touch typist, and when held lengthwise, the device is too big to accommodate thumb typing comfortably.  (I will admit, however, that I did not try reorienting the device.)  There is space for the commonly used non-letter keys, but you still have to touch the 123 button to take you to a separate screen.  I would imagine that the goal is to emulate the aforementioned smartphone keyboards rather than the more traditional computer keyboards.

The screen is bright, and the resolution is impressively sharp.  I can see it being a lovely device for portable movie watching.  I did not immediately see icons for more practical applications such as a spreadsheet or word processor, and I did not investigate or inquire.  Most of the offerings were social in nature, including some applications geared toward personal organization, or else portals to various entertainment media -- music, videos, the web.

For all of the fun and flash and clarity, I was not nearly as enchanted as I expected to be.

For someone who spends a lot of time on social networking sites and watching videos, possibly even reading ebooks (more about that subject in a minute) and does not already have a smartphone and/or some sort of portable computer, it is just the thing.  For someone who already has one or more of those things, it is utterly redundant.

As I already have a netbook and a smartphone with which I am extremely satisfied, I was happy to learn that I have no use whatsoever for an iPad, or any other tablet PC for that matter.  Phew.

On the other hand, what I did decide not to live without is a nook.  I gave in about a week ago, and I dare say that I am officially happy with my extravagant new toy, whose name is Gertrude(as in Stein, as in Hamlet's mother, and even as in Jekyll because Marion Ravenwood is spelled differently than Marian the librarian and Maid Marian, and I don't know that I could choose.  Marian the librarian is, of course, the most appropriate, but I much prefer Ms. Ravenwood's spelling.

I'm still not quite sure about the size and weight and the feel in my hands.  The device might weigh about as much as a standard trade paperback book, but it is quite a bit thinner and therefore denser.  The corners are curved, but the taper from back to front creates a bit of an edge, which I hope to soften with a silicone cover, at least until I decide to invest in (splurge on) a leather cover of some sort.

The device is responsive, but does require just a bit of patience.  I can see so called "mad clickers" (those who will pound on the enter key or punish the left mouse button when a command is not instantaneously and obviously executed) becoming frustrated, and navigating with a combination of physical page turning buttons and the touch screen is a bit odd, but like anything, once I learn the quirks and the rhythm, I am sure that it will be fine.

Unlike the netbook, and even the Droid to some extent, even after being on for a couple of hours, there is virtually no heat output as far as I can tell.  The sleep and screen saver settings can be easily adjusted.  The WiFi, and to a lesser extent the 3G, connection will drain the battery in a hurry, but in "airplane mode" with all network connections disabled, a full battery charge easily lasts for days.

I have wandered around and downloaded a bunch of free content, and I am looking forward to reading blogs and trying out magazines and perhaps even newspapers.  The magazine selection is limited -- thirteen offerings at the moment -- but the New Yorker is really the only one I am interested in anyway, so I am set there.  I can purchase a single issue or opt for a monthly subscription, and either option is significantly less expensive than the paper variety.  There are twenty newspapers, including the New York Times and the Boston Globe.  I am not much for newspapers personally, but it makes me think of my mother who likes to read them online.

While I did set up bookmarks for all of the blogs I (would like to) read on a regular basis, I haven't spent much time with that particular feature just yet.  When web surfing, the text which appears on the color touch screen is highlighted by a black box on the main reading screen.  It's distracting enough that it is almost easier to read the tiny navigation screen, and I wrote to nook support and said so.  The web browser is still a beta product, so there is reason to hope for the future.  It is also possible that as I get used to it, the black box will not be quite as distracting.

As far as the actual reading part goes, the screen really is wonderfully soft and gentle on the eyes.  No glare, no eye strain.  It truly is nothing like staring at a computer screen.  I spent hours with the device a couple of nights ago as I went through one of my "read a book in a day" binges and felt no ill effects whatsoever.  In fact, with the adjustable type size, I would even go so far as to say that it is easier on the eyes than even print on paper.  The blinking between screen changes and page turns is only minimally distracting, although, again, a tiny bit of patience is required.

The 3G connection in and around the house seems to be decent -- I have downloaded a few free samples and complete ebooks -- but I had to return to the mother ship (or at least have a wifi connection) for my firmware update.  Of course, spending time at a b&n to update my nook isn't much of a hardship for me.

Like all good drug dealers, they offer temptations of all sorts of free stuff, although I think that the "read in store" capability might be a little more limited than I had originally thought and hoped.  It only works for an hour per visit.  There are free articles and ebooks and samples of ebooks and coupons for paper books and even the cafe.  And there are plenty of offerings which are almost free.  Temptation at every click of a button.

The free samples of ebooks are a bit disappointing in that the first three or four pages are taken up by title pages and copyright information.  I do not know if publishers require that information to be included or if someone just isn't quite paying attention, but when an eight-page sample turns out to be only three pages of actual text from the story, it is a bit disappointing.  (I wrote to nook support about that issue as well.)

As one might imagine, new releases are much easier to come by than backlist titles, so if you are looking to consolidate your library onto an ereader of any kind the way that you can consolidate your cd collection onto an mp3 player, you will likely be disappointed.  On the other hand, a lot of those classics that you think that you ought to read at some point (or at least a lot of the classics which I think that I ought to and would like to read at some point) are readily available at very reasonable prices.  Many fall into that "almost free" category mentioned above.  Will having a library of classics at my fingertips make me more likely to read them?  If Anna Karenina doesn't weight three pounds, am I more likely to carry it around until I finally get it read?  I'm not sure, but I think it might be possible.  I wonder the same thing about short story collections.

Just as having the Droid means that I can e-mail and chat without having to be sitting at or with a "real" computer, the nook means that I am carrying around an entire bookstore, which for someone like me is a fabulously wonderful and extremely dangerous thing.  It's a bit mind boggling -- Mr. Barnes and Mr. Noble everywhere I go, for research, for reading, for whatever -- but I think that there are grand adventures to be had.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

When in doubt, write.

When I started out the day, I had big plans.  Well, maybe not big plans, but I had at least three blog entry ideas in my head, and even a few vague aspirations toward working on the screenplay.  Once I sat down and logged in, however, I ended up wandering.

I read my morning comic strips and checked my e-mail.  I responded to a few messages, and followed enticing links in one which led to the downloading of free ebooks.  The further I wandered, the less inclined I became to write, despite an attempt at an entry about Dreaming of Dior and being an aspiring but somewhat reluctant fashionista.

In the midst of the wandering, there has been reading.  Of an actual paper and ink book.  Having started last night, I am thirteen chapters and eighty-seven pages into WWW:Wake by Robert J. Sawyer.

The story begins with a fifteen year-old American girl living in Canada who has been blind since birth traveling with her mother to Japan to receive a high tech implant behind her left eye.  The implant is supposed to essentially unscramble the mixed signals her brain is getting from her retina.  There is a much more comprehensive and surprisingly not confusing explanation in the book.  Or maybe it makes sense to me because I know a thing or two about dysfunctional eyes.

Meanwhile, a Chinese doctor is faced with the horrifying decisions involved in containing an outbreak of a new strain of bird flu easily transmitted between people so that it does not become a pandemic.

The action taken, while necessary, is potentially an international public relations nightmare, so the Chinese government blocks all communication to and from the outside world ... inspiring a few determined hackers to try to find the reasons and a way through the firewall.  (We're up to three storylines if anyone is counting.)

In chapter thirteen, the author hops the reader across the globe again to California to witness a web cam chat between a chimpanzee in San Diego and an orangutan in Miami.

Laced through these seemingly unconnected narratives is the not quite story of some sort of entity, some sort of being, struggling toward consciousness for the very first time.

While I am certainly intrigued, I am becoming concerned that if there are any more threads to follow, I will end up with a knot rather than finely woven fabric.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


There is no television reception in my house.  There used to be one of those big antennas (antennae?) on the roof, but while it seemed to work okay during the winter, once spring came and the trees leafed out, there was a noticeable decline in clarity.  So when the new roof was put on, the roofers were kind enough to take down the antenna.

I had a pair of not terribly old rabbit ears and even gamely bought one of those digital converter boxes, which was not so much helpful.

While I realize that you are paying for the service and the equipment more than the programming, I cannot bring myself to pay -- what is it these days?  fifty?  seventy-five?  a hundred dollars? a month to have advertising piped into my house.

Besides, the longer I am away from it, the less I miss it.  What am I really missing anyway?  Depressing news?  Celebrity gossip?  Reality television shows about teen pregnancy?  (Although I have to say, I took myself out to lunch today, and got to watch an episode of Julia Child and Friends on the cooking channel, which I very much enjoyed.)  These days, even when I sit down to watch a movie or a television show on dvd, about all I can think about is all of the other things I probably could and should be doing.

Some of those things are practical -- cleaning the house, doing the laundry, cooking a real meal and making sure that I have leftovers to take to work for lunch -- but many of the things are alternative recreational activities which make me happy and which even make my brain work from time to time -- reading, writing, knitting.

Even though I might not get much use out of the television and about the only time I listen to the radio is when it wakes me up in the morning, I do have a host of other technological gadgets of which I am rather fond ... so fond, in fact, that they all have names.

Kristos (because a young Greek man named Kristos does not count as Greek homework) the netbook travels with me most everywhere I go.  Scheherezade the iPod (so named because she was originally acquired for the purpose of listening to audio books -- a pastime which never really panned out) provides an extensive and varied soundtrack for my commute and when I feel the need to drown out ambient noise.

Someone was even generous enough to give me one of those snazzy pens that records sound as you write as well as an image of your handwriting.  Amat-Mamu now comes with me to meetings on a regular basis.  The software which converts the image of writing into text is a bit dodgy (or else I need better and more consistent penmanship), but overall, she is an extremely handy contraption.

There is a bright red wireless mouse who travels with Kristos but does not have a name -- Templeton, perhaps, even though he was a rat -- but there are tiny 4Gb flash drives -- Ceridwen and Belisama -- who do.

Saraswati the Droid is probably my favorite electronic friend (but shhh ... don't tell the others).  She keeps me in touch with the world via phone, text, instant message and e-mail -- the internet in the palm of my hand.  Amazingly, her presence in my life means that I spend a little less time in front of a computer screen.  She can play games, do any number and variety of calculations, tell me which movies are playing where (and show me previews), show me the stars and provide a weather report.  I recently figured out how to employ her as a modem when local WiFi is on the fritz.  I have even heard tell that I could use her to read books, but while sharp, her screen is just not quite big enough to be conducive to reading for long periods of time, and her stature is just a bit too diminutive to hold comfortably in a reading position.

Besides, I still can't quite bring myself to need electricity in some form to read a book.  Or not be able to loan or give a book to a friend once I have read it.

But I might be getting closer.

I have seen a few Kindles from afar, but have never played with one.  The nook almost had me with fancy advertising prior to its release, and the promise of a fifty-dollar gift card with purchase makes my ears perk up every time I hear it.  Still I resist because I stare at a computer screen for a living, and no matter how closely it might imitate ink and paper, an electronic screen is still an electronic screen.

There is the appeal of being able to carry a pile of books -- it is not uncommon that I carry three or four for various reasons -- in a slim device.  I am also trying to teach myself more about various computer programs, and I tend to prefer to do it the old fashioned way -- by reading a manual or using it as a reference.  A lot of these manuals are available at a discount or even free in electronic form, but it is difficult to read a manual on the same screen that I am running the program I am trying to learn.

There was also the nice gentleman I chatted with about the nook he was using who told me that it was easy to use and handy to have.

Then today I discovered that one of my Goodreads friends is actually an author.  Research told me that neither of his books was available in any of the local purveyors of printed words, but that I could download the Kindle version to my PC almost instantly for ninety-nine cents.

Wow.  Ninety-nine cents.  For a fifteen dollar book.  It's not even too much of an investment to keep me from purchasing a paper copy should I get far enough into the electronic version to decide that I want to read the whole thing but not on a computer screen.  There were plenty of other offerings at the same price point or a bit higher, but I dared not browse too far lest I get carried away and end up with a whole library.

The thing is that the ebook is only available for the Kindle (or for Kindle software downloaded to a PC or other compatible device).  So if I had a nook, I would have been out of luck.  I would be willing to guess that there are nook friendly ebooks not available for the Kindle.  I can, however, download both Kindle ereader software and Barnes & Noble ereader software to my PC for free, so both formats are readily accessible.

As a result, I am starting to dream of a tablet PC ... specifically a tablet PC which runs the Android operating system.  No Microsquash (I wonder if that name can get me sued for slander) and even no Mac.  (Although I did have a brief opportunity to play with an iPad not long ago and wouldn't turn my nose up at it if someone gave me one.)  The success of the Droid phones makes me think that the Android operating system is on its way to widespread, mainstream acceptance.

I don't need it to have all of the talents of Kristos, or even Saraswati for that matter.  It probably doesn't even need an internet connection, WiFi or 3G, although if it did, I would probably be more inspired to read blogs and online magazines.  (Okay, okay, I don't need it at all, but this is my daydream, so keep quiet.)  I'm thinking more along the lines of a handheld digital document reader for ebooks, pdfs and the like.

I can see it now -- relaxing on the patio or lounging by the pool, dozens, if not hundreds, of books at my fingertips to satisfy every literary (or not so literary) whim.  And the more I think about it, the more appealing access to online reading on such a device is becoming.  Reading in the bathtub is probably out though, wouldn't you say?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Margarita Chemistry

Last year, a family friend sent a marvelous pitcher from Estes Park Glass Works, and it was almost immediately dubbed the margarita pitcher.

As a result, I started making margaritas.

The first batch was basic and according to a recipe in a book called High Spirits: 1 1/2 ounces tequila, 1/2 an ounce of triple sec, juice from half of a lime and salt for the glass.  I put the liquor, lime juice and a bunch of ice in the blender and hit the button labeled "liquify."


A bit strong, and someone decided to add sugar, but I thought it was just the thing for a Memorial Day barbecue.

One of the leftovers from said barbecue was most of a twelve pack of Minute Maid pink lemonade, so the first experiment was the above recipe, doubled and with a can of pink lemonade.

Even more yum.  And a bit more dangerous as the pink lemonade disguised the taste of the liquor quite effectively.

As spring has been masquerading as summer from time to time this year, the margarita experimentation began a bit earlier.

The first variation attempted this year was substituting the can of lemonade for close to a pound of fresh, rinsed strawberries and a bit of sugar.  (I didn't measure, but it couldn't have been more than about a tablespoon.)  The yum continued.

Next up were peaches.  Not as much of a success, but I think that the real problem was a lack of lime juice.  I think that lime juice is the key to this particular concoction.

Today I tried a can of green tea ginger ale.  This time I had lime juice, and I was back to yum, although I think that it would have turned out better had the ginger ale been thoroughly chilled.  I will have to note that for next time.

Well, the next time I make green tea ginger ale margaritas.

The next experiment is going to involve the sorbet in the freezer.  I have lemon, and I have mango tangerine (I think -- some kind of citrus at any rate).  Sorbet really could do with a bit of liquor to spice things up, wouldn't you agree?

(You'll notice that none of these drinks contain "margarita mix." Do I even want to know what is in "margarita mix"? Other than sugar or high fructose corn syrup or some other close relative, probably not.)

I recommend that margaritas be consumed from a chilled glass and through a bendy straw.

7-3-10 Edit to add: The mango tangerine sorbet margarita experiment was conducted yesterday with great success.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sight to see

There is the cutest little blonde girl in a pink checked sundress sitting a few tables away.

Actually, she is kneeling on the chair, so that she can reach the tabletop where a gentleman I am going to assume is her grandfather  has sliced up a small, decadent chocolate Bundt cake, which she happily began eating with her fingers until a woman I am going to assume is grandmother insisted on a fork.

Now there is a whipped cream topped chocolately looking beverage to accompany the cake.

I just hope that there are big plans for running between the days rain drops and jumping in puddles to burn off all the inevitable, impending sugar rush.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Frenzied scripting

Much as November was spent writing fifty thousand words of a novel, so April was spent writing one hundred pages of a script -- in my case a screenplay adaptation of a novel.

When I officially crossed the goal line, a much more cinematically inclined and educated friend of mine asked me what I took from the overall experience, and after he and I had nattered back and forth at each other online for a while, I decided that I should natter a bit more comprehensively and coherently on the subject.

First and foremost, much like November's novel, the script is not finished.  Not even close.  Not even the first draft.  I've got the beginning and the middle, and the climax and ending are fast approaching, but they only exist in my head at this point, and even there they are vague.  So that means I need to keep working, and if possible, keep up the momentum.

Second, the screenplay writing process was not nearly as exhausting as the novel writing process.  I'm not quite sure why.  The time span was still thirty days, but according to my stats chart, I only actually worked on the screenplay on fourteen of those days.

It could be that after fifteen hundred to two thousand words a day, three or four pages which are more white space than text thanks to screenplay formatting requirements were not nearly as intimidating.  It could be that since I was doing an adaptation, I had source material right in front of me, so it was a matter of deciding which parts to use as opposed to having to come up with all of the parts on my own.  In fact, there were times it almost felt like cheating.  I picked a novel which is not terribly long (just over two hundred and fifty pages) and not terribly complicated.  The main characters each have their own stories, but they are extremely closely connected.

Now what I really need to do is finish roughing out the rest of the scenes and then go back and really look at the whole thing, almost to the point of starting over.  I'll kill a tree or two and print the entire document so that I can scribble all over it -- my preferred method of revision.

One of the major challenges for me was to try to write and visualize in movie terms.framework at the same time.  It's not enough to just see the scene in my head.  I have to think about the mechanics -- what the set needs to look like, what the characters are wearing and doing, and how the shot is achieved.  I have no yet spent nearly enough time describing the settings, or at least specific salient details, or telling my characters what they should be doing while they are speaking.

Transitions are also difficult.  I need to watch movies and pay attention to the transitions while I watch.  In a novel or a short story, you can often just start a new paragraph or chapter.

I also need to watch more films which weave two stories together.  For a while, I thought about The Lake House because the otherworldly romantic component figured prominently in the story I am telling, but that film has an ongoing correspondence which ties the characters and their stories closely together, so I am not sure that it quite fits my criteria.

Gladiator is another contender.  All of the primary characters are together at the beginning, and relationships and even mutual histories are established early on.  Then they follow separate paths for a while, and then those paths collide again.  They are parallel stories rather than a main plot and a subplot.

The most important thing I take from the experience is the reminder/realization that the best way to learn to write is to write.  And after you have learned to write by writing for a while, you learn more about writing by revising.  You can read books and take classes if you want, and I am sure that they help, but they don't actually do the writing for you, and they can't give you your voice.  That is something which you have to find on your own.

Script writing was a foreign concept, a foreign language even, on April 1.  While I don't have any plans to relocate to Hollywood or New York City just yet, I know for certain that I learned more about writing a screenplay by wading right in and writing it (with the considerable aid of a fabulous script writing program which eliminated all of my formatting worries) than I ever would have by just reading a book or even taking a class.

I still have plenty to learn -- more than can be covered in a single lifetime, I am sure -- but I plan to learn it by finishing the first draft of this project and then going back to the beginning, taking it apart, and putting it back together again.  My next goal is to get it to the point that I am willing to let somebody read it.  After the second or third round, perhaps.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The morning's writing dilemma

Somewhere along the line, I need to figure out where the exposition about the parallel world fits into the screenplay I am writing.

I can't think like a novelist.  I can't even think like a short story writer, even though some of the same rules of economy apply.  I have to think like a screenwriter.

I love novels because they can provide so much detail about characters and places.  You really get to know them as their reader.  When watching a film, you are barely introduced before you get swept up into the storm of activity.  It's the story, the plot and the action which captivate you (possibly aided by a pretty face or two and even majestic, beautiful or intricate scenery, because eye candy never hurts).  You might care about what happens to the characters, but you don't really know them.

With those thoughts in mind, how do I go about turning thirty-five pages of essentially conversational exposition into a scene or two of informative backstory so that I don't lose my viewers in lengthy conversations?

Do I write scenes that I know I am not going to use?  Will it help me write other scenes, especially those I have to create from scratch?  Will it be helpful just to get them down on paper (or up on the screen) and therefore out of my head?  Or is it a frivolous use of valuable writing time?

It would be practice if nothing else, and practice is almost never a frivolous use of valuable writing time.

With the novel writing exercise of last November, the keys to the kingdom were most certainly found in quantity over quality.  In comparison to fifty thousand words, one hundred pages formatted to favor white space on the page seems like a molehill, and quality and quantity might just be able to switch places on the priority list ... or at least sit a bit closer together.

One hundred pages I can do.  It's having a distinct beginning, middle and end happening to interesting characters in an interesting setting crammed into those hundred pages which is the real challenge.

Reading that inspires research

[Author's note: This partially written blog post has been sitting in the Drafts folder of my e-mail program for ages.  I am hoping that sending it out into the world as an unprotected draft will be more encouragement to finish it.  So, as usual, my readers, you are in on the ground floor of an experiment.  Take careful notes.]

The Swan Thieves sent me in search of my copies of The Story of Art and The Impressionists: A Survey so that I could read about Impresionism, but my recently recovered mythology books are coming in handy as well as because there is a reference to Leda, mother of Castor and Pollux and Helen and Clytemnestra.   For some reason it comes as a surprise to me that Helen is immortal.

I also came across the reference to Eris which my brain has been trying to unearth since I heard the name.  Eris is the goddess of discord.  Not sure if that is the reference intended by the Google Olympians (Googlenauts?) at HTC -- manufacturers of my beloved Droid Eris, Saraswati -- or not.  They do like to be upstarts, after all.

References and research aside, The Swan Thieves is an absorbing story of art, unconventional love, and the madness which so often shadows them both.

Perhaps it is simply that in all of my reading of science fiction and fantasy and food memoirs, I haven't read a "real" novel in quite some time, but Elizabeth Kostova's use of language is enchanting.  So much so that I finally understand the hype which surrounded her first novel The Historian.  Well, I potentially understand it since I only have a copy which I have not yet read, but if the style and the language are similar, I expect equal absorption and enchantment.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Coffee, cheese and the dangers of grocery shopping without a list

About a week ago, I received a small cash bonus at work.  Not enough to radically change my life, send me on vacation or buy a new car, but enough to make me want to do something specific with it rather than simply tossing it into the bank account with the rest.  I debated responsible versus frivolous and consumable versus collectible.

In the end, it came down to a wish to experiment with coffee and ended up with breaking the rules of pragmatic grocery shopping and a rather expensive piece of cheese.

First the coffee.

I have never been much of a coffee drinker.  My caffeine fix has always come from Coca Cola (affectionately known as the Red Can of Death in my world).  Somewhat amazingly, I gave it up about three weeks ago.  It might even be three weeks ago today now that I think about it.

I have known for quite a while that this particular bad habit had to go, especially since I now sit for a living and three hundred or so extra empty calories just can't be good for a person, no matter how good they taste or what sort of energy boost they offer.  Even though I strongly suspected that I was at least as addicted to the sugar as the caffeine, if not more so, I have read enough about the horrible things that caffeine can do to a person's bones to realize that it had to go as well.

The key was always going to be finding a reasonable alternative, and no, caffeine free diet Coke is not a reasonable alternative.  It's just trading one set of bad chemicals for another, and I can't stand the taste of artificial sweeteners.  Plain water was also not a reasonable alternative.  It might be good for me, but it's just not satisfying.

When someone introduced me to sparkling water with fruit essence, I was suspicious at first, but it has turned out to be a fairly convincing decoy.  Water, CO2 and fruit essence.  No calories and no artificial sweeteners.  When chilled, it almost tastes like soda, and if it goes flat, it's just slightly flavored water, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Other caffeinated and sugar-laden vices lurk in the shadows, however.  The grande mocha frappuccino with whipped cream is a not uncommon indulgence, and I have developed something of a taste for hazelnut coffee with a dash of Jameson's and a swirl of whipped cream.  Between those two items and driving past what looks to be a lovely new little coffee house in town yesterday morning I got to thinking about the possibilities of decaffeinated coffee.  After doing some research into taste and method, I decided that part of my small financial windfall would fund an experiment in decaffeinated hazelnut coffee (giving me the opportunity to use the long neglected French press coffee pot in my possession).

Off I went to the grocery store with thoughts of coming home with coffee and a gallon of milk (and possibly a dvd or two from the rental shop next to the grocery store).

At this point, the trouble started.  I was hungry, and I had no shopping list to stick to.  I definitely came home with coffee (three different kinds even though only two were decaffeinated) and a gallon of milk, but it seemed that everywhere I looked, there were tempting things which made my stomach grumble, so I soon had a shopping basket laden with two everything bagels, crusty Italian bread, a medley of olives (why just Kalamata, I thought, when I could try all of these others), a few mozzarella balls, a bag of Sun chips, raw almonds, frozen chicken strips and crinkly fries, toasted ravioli (which turned out to be quite tasty despite coming from the freezer section, a small jar of black olive tapenade (which I have wanted to try but never got around to), and a rather expensive wedge of cheese.

This wedge of cheese can be blamed for the purchase of the olive medley and the tapenade because the sign claimed that the cheese flavor would be complemented with olives.  (The sign turned out to be quite right.  A bit of cheese on a dab of tapenade on a hunk of crusty Italian bread is a grand and glorious thing indeed.)

I'm usually a mild or medium cheddar sort of a girl, with mozzarella (especially if fresh), occasionally Swiss, muenster, Havarti and Brie, and a nice blend of the harder cheeses like Parmesan, Asiago and Romano thrown in for good measure.  (Please excuse the seemingly random capitalization if it is incorrect.  I decided to trust this program's spell checker.)  Lately, however, what with the more cooking and reading about food -- especially food in France where they make all sorts of wonderful cheese and even have shops devoted entirely to the sale of cheese, which I imagine to be expanded versions of the cheese counter at the small Italian I remember frequently as a child with my mother -- I have felt the inclination to broaden my horizons, and decided that this was the opportunity to do so.  As a result, I decided to try Manchego, a Spanish cheese which is somewhat crumbly and has a tang similar to Asiago, though perhaps a bit sharper.  Delicious!

Meanwhile, I am so taken with the black olive tapenade that I am inclined to try to make my own.  But not today.  Today I am making creamy leek potato soup with crispy leek rings to ward off the spring chill.

As a somewhat related aside, while I do love to cook, one distinct challenge I have found is dealing with the cravings.  I don't just get hungry; I crave.  Sometimes it is a particular taste -- salty, sweet, chocolatey -- and sometimes it is a particular food or dish -- lasagna, hummus, potato chips, fried rice, potato leek soup.  When a craving for ravioli kicks in, I certainly could make them myself, but it is so tantalizingly easy to just pick up a package at the grocery store which is two minutes away from the house, especially now that more gourmet fresh varieties are as easy to come by as frozen standards and taste so much better.

Since I know that what I make usually tastes better than what I buy in the store (and I am a lot more aware of what is in it), the trick becomes finding those extra hours in the day for cooking and sensible grocery shopping.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Wendy Werris' Alphabetical Life

An Alphabetical Life: Living It Up in the World of Books by Wendy Werris was interesting enough to hold my attention because it is fun to read about the book business -- and a part of the book business beyond the retail world with which I am familiar -- but more than once, the author's style was off putting enough to make me want to put the book down and not pick it up again.  She is a bit of a drama queen and comes across as rather self absorbed and narcissistic even for a memoir, which is by nature pretty much I, I, I from beginning to end.

Once I reached chapter five in which the author chronicles the heartbreaking story of her friend and colleague's battle with kidney failure, however, I felt better about devoting time to reading this woman's story.

Chapter five is brilliant, but until that point the rest read like a gossipy, name dropping, guilty confession in which the author doesn't get around to confessing her most egregious sins, even though she is clearly dying to talk about them -- most notably her substance abuse, which gets mentioned and referred to but not detailed because -- as her editor or agent probably told her, or as she told herself, this is a memoir about the book business rather than dependence on one or more psychotropic substances.

There are moments when she sounds like an egomaniacal loon (to the point that it makes me wonder if she might have been high or stoned while she was writing the book).

She makes all sorts of references which I don't understand, so I am not sure if they are literary or cultural or both.  Some of them don't even register as references until I am well into the next paragraph, or at all.  Is it just another form of name dropping or trying to prove her depth of knowledge of ... I'm not sure what since I don't understand the references in the first place and don't don't find them intriguing enough to research.  It's tempting to have somone else or even several someone elses read the book for me and tell me what I am missing and whether or not it adds anything to the story she is telling or the picture she is trying to paint.

Perhaps because of these references, I found myself wishing for clearer cultural, social and historical context, but instead she assumes that her readers were there too and have a lot of the same shared context that she does.  The problem with that situation is that if I lived her life in her time, I might not have any interest in reading her story.

She mentions smoking pot several times, and maybe I am naive in letting myself think that meant that the smoking was also occasional, rather than an ingrained and regular habit -- like the smoking of tobacco cigaretts as everyone in the book seems to do.  When she finds the Book of Mormon in the drawer of her night stand in search of a place to stash her pot, I found the drug reference almost superfluous, as if she felt the need to work it in somewhere, when I didn't think that she needed to mention it at all in the midst of her discussion of religious ambivalence in a Salt Lake City hotel.

Her mention of a "fondness" for cocaine was surprising, almost startling, but again it's at most a passing reference used to explain why she was able to bond with a co-worker who had participated in an addiction recovery program.  She doens't go anywhere with it or do anything with it.  It doesn't provide context or add to the story.  She just brings up this major issue in her life and then drops it.  She would have been better off to say something along the lines of "We bonded over mutual addiction recovery stories."

She has a reverence for books -- don't use dust jackets as book marks, don't put the book face down -- and a flagrant disregard for the treatment of her own body.

All that is missing is for her to tell me what books she read and what literary luminaries she met at Betty Ford or whatever rehab center or program she chose.

By contrast, the story about her friend and colleague's battle with kidney failure didn't have any more to do with her career or the book business, but it was treated in depth and added to the overall story.  She's brilliant when she isn't talking about herself.

She doesn't seem interested in telling a whole lot of success stories about herself.  The embarrassments and humiliations and self doubts, meanwhile, are chronicled in excruciating detail.  She barely gives herself any credit for being a success in a male dominated industry when they were all male dominated.

"I didn't see the sense in hating men and never would. ... I could deal with the 'chauvinism' of those early days in my career, perhaps because I had the good fortune to not take it personally. ...  So I acquiesced to all of these gender-specific regulations, be they innuendos or direct instructions, and rarely felt that by doing so I was chipping away at my own soul.  It was fairly easy for me to distinguish between what was business and what wasn't."  (Page 99)

On the one hand, I love her self assurance, but on the other, I wanted her to recognize more clearly that she was helping shatter glass ceilings in her own way.

She has so many potentially fascinating things to say and stories to tell, and she keeps talking about drugs and alcohol (and cigarettes).  I know.  First I complained that she didn't talk about the drugs and alcohol enough, and now I am saying that it is too much.  That's my point -- all or nothing.  Pick what you really want to talk about, what story you really want to tell, and write it.  Don't keep jumping around and telling parts and pieces of different stories.

The book lacks a central theme or cohesive timeline.  If it had one or the other, I could forgive or understand the otherwise fractured nature of the memoir.  Realizing that it is a story built on memory, however, I wonder how realistic an expectation is cohesion.  Life, after all, tends to not happen in an orderly fashion, no matter how organized the participants, and recalling events from memory only encourages the chaos.

If the book becomes a bit less coherent towards the end as far as choice of material, it becomes better as far as the quality of writing and story telling.  She writes about her parents, her move toward representing (I can't bring myself to take seriously a word like "repping" which she insists on using as her job description.) university presses rather than more mainstream publishing houses.  Her story about the publication and promotion of The World According to Garp makes me want to read it.  Her profiles of the booksellers she worked with and got to know personally over the years make me want to meet these people.

"We never know what may happen when we pick up a book to read.  The turning of a page might actually change the course of our existence.  There is something miraculous about this.  Truth strikes at the very heart of books and the readers who turn themselves over with great trust to finding the essence of themselves." (Page 237-238)

Amen, sister.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Schizophrenic Knitting

My knitting is in danger of becoming as schizophrenic as my reading.

Although I have tried to become a bit more disciplined in recent years, I have a tendency to start reading a book only to be distracted by the possibilities offered by another book, and I simply can't wait to finish one before starting another.  I might repeat the process several times before settling down and making it all the way through a book.  I also have a tendency to decide that I need something new to read long before I have finished reading the titles on my To Read and my To Read Soon lists and shelves.

Unless I am doing research on a specific subject, my reading is far more emotionally and circumstantially motivated than methodical and organized.

So it seems to be with my knitting projects these days.

Several months ago, I fell in love with the fabulous sweater coat on the cover of the fall issue of Interweave Knits.  Purchasing the fabulous yarn practically put me in the poor house, but I was so excited about the project that I didn't care.  After I worked on it for a while, I decided that I needed a smaller project for those times when I didn't want to knit lengthy rows of stitches.

I became obsessed with lace patterns for scarves for a while, but none of them really took, so for a while the only project I had on needles was the sweater.  I have knitted some simple scarves with funky yarn, but those are done and were given away as Christmas gifts.

Projects get started and the yarn doesn't behave the way I expected, or I don't have enough, or I have too much, or the needles aren't the right size, and I end up ripping it out and rolling the yarn back up and putting it away.

The other day I decided that legwarmers were just the thing to make, so I found a free pattern that I liked online, and on my way home from work, I stopped at a local yarn shop and selected yarn and needles.  Given that the project calls for fine gauge yarn and is knitted on fairly small needles, getting the project started was a bit frustrating.  My hope that a small project wouldn't require quite so much concentration as the larger project dissipated quickly.  It's also slightly discouraging because one of the reasons I wanted to learn to knit in the first place was so that I could make my own socks, and the process is similar to that of making leg warmers.

It is quite possible that all I really need is practice to get the hang of working with fine yarn on small needles, but in the meantime, I am in danger of being distracted by the Jellyfish Bag.  Doesn't that look like fun?

I know.  I know.  I need to stick with the legwarmers.  And I will.  Perhaps the bag project can be my reward for completing the snuggly legwarmers.  That sounds like a reasonable plan, don't you think?


Author's Note: In case there is anyone out there reading who might take issue with my capricious use of "schizophrenic," while it may be unfortunate for you, these scribblings are my own which you may choose to read or not in an equally capricious manner as you see fit.  The workings of my mind are certainly not for everyone.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Everyday writing

In trying to put together or maybe even throw together a blog post or two about the last couple of books I have read, I remembered why it is important to write every day -- practice.

I do a lot of personal writing and stream of consciousness writing.  I take lots of notes as I read books, scribbling thoughts, ideas and observations down as they pop into my head.

While these activities are reasonably good writing practice because they keeps the words flowing, I don't have to worry about pesky things like coherence and sentence structure, or even proper punctuation and spelling.

I occasionally forget that in order to turn the personal writing and the notes into something more fit for public consumption, actual, serious revision needs to be involved.  Now, revision is much more of a welcome companion than it used to be, but that doesn't necessarily make it any less challenging or time consuming.

So, in the face of this reminder, posts about An Alphabetical Live and The Swan Thieves will have to wait a bit longer before they see the light of day on the blog.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Just so you know

Because my tiny little world should know, and because he would never admit to it, I just have to say that I know the COOLEST geek on the PLANET!!

So there.

And, no, he will not help you with your geek-related quandries.

Sorry, but you're on your own.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A few notes on cooking and the joy of leftovers

Cooking is such a rewarding activity, which is a grand and glorious thing because I keep hoping that it is rewarding enough to get me away from eating a lot of processed and junk food, although I am sure that I will retain a few vices, such as potato chips and Coca Cola, no matter what tasty creations I manage to come up with in the kitchen.

Yes, I understand that cooking can be time consuming, and it's hard to fit in around a busy schedule of jobs and lives and kids and kids' lives.  Yes, I know that it can be difficult to find the energy after a long day at work to prepare a meal when it's so much easier to toss a frozen pizza in the oven, microwave a frozen dinner of some sort or order take out.  I won't even suggest turning off the television, walking away from the computer and making the kids put down the video game controllers and cell phones to help you.

I get it.  There are all sorts of reasons not to invest the time and effort in cooking, even if you do worry about what sort of additives and preservatives you might be putting into your body and the bodies of your family members.  But if you can only cook every now and then, at least think about the possibility of making enough at once -- either many portions of a single meal or even multiple meals -- to have enough left over to, well, have leftovers, a surprisingly rewarding by product of cooking.

Some people love leftovers.  Some people can't stand them but begrudgingly eat them rather than letting the food to to waste (or because their parents make them eat them).  Some people refuse to eat them under any circumstances.

Me?  I have learned to cook with the intent of leftovers.  Of course, that achievement is really not too difficult because I am generally cooking to feed one or two people, and most recipes claim to result in four or six or eight servings.  I suppose that I could do crazy things like halve the recipes, but for some reason I like to start with the proportions in the recipe.  Well, sort of.  Sometimes I actually end up with more because I don't have alternate plans for leftover ingredients, so it just makes more sense to throw them in, rather than risk letting them go to waste.

I make big pots of soup and freeze most of it so that I don't eat potato chips and Little Debbie snack cakes for lunch, or so that I don't go out for lunch and either spend money I don't really have or end up eating inexpensive but deadly fast food.

I love soups and stews because the portions are easy to freeze, as opposed to, say, steak and potatoes and green beans, and because the have a whole bunch of yummy ingredients cooked right in -- zucchini and potatoes and onions and beans and possibly some sort of meat -- and all of the ingredients happily melded together mean that very little seasoning, especially salt, is required.

Leftovers also offer proof that it wasn't my imagination that a recipe turned out well, and a little positive reinforcement never hurts.

Today, for example, I had another helping of the winter minestrone for lunch, sprinkled a bit of magic cheese (my term for a blend of parmesan, romano, asiago and I think one other cheese -- I buy giant containers of the stuff at a wholesale club, freeze smaller portions in ziplock bags, and put it in just about everything) over the top, and once again, yum!

Another sign that this cooking real food deal is becoming more of a regular, normal, natural part of my life is that I am getting better at keeping staples in the house, even if I did discover a lack of parsley while I was making the minestrones.

Someone brought us over a couple of nice steaks the other day.  One has already been grilled and consumed, but I decided that the other one needed some sort of wine sauce with mushrooms, so over to the cookbook shelves I went and found a lovely recipe for flank steak with red wine sauce.  (Yes, I know that the link takes you to a recipe for flat iron steak rather than flank steak, but I haven't a clue what the difference might be, and the sauce part of the recipe looks the same as the one I am going to use out of the book Giada's Family Dinners.)  No mushrooms in this particular recipe (although I found a recipe for a roast with porcini mushrooms which I would like to try the next time I feel the inclination to cook a large piece of beef), and I have not yet decided if I might add some anyway, but the really nifty part is that I have all of the ingredients, including a can of tomato paste.

My next challenge is to find a way to either use up an entire can of tomato paste or to store it in some useful way so that I don't end up with open, molding cans of tomato paste in my refrigerator.  Why is it that recipes call for so much less tomato paste than is in the can?  And it's not as if tomato paste comes in giant cans.  Well, maybe it does, but I only ever buy the little six ounce cans, and still most of it goes to waste.  Gotta work on that.

I still need to start a compost heap somehow, but for the moment I am opting for the delusion that biodegradable matter in landfills somehow helps aid the process of breaking down those things which really aren't biodegradable at all.

Ingredients only and minimal waste.  Those are the goals.

Edit to add: Maybe I was too enthusiastic.  Maybe I was on too much of a roll.  Maybe it's the stress of having to return to work tomorrow.  Maybe it is simply that preparing steak is not my thing.

The zucchini was nicely steamed, but the mashed potatoes were too salty, the steak was overdone in some spots and underdone in others and tough all the way around.  I forgot that preparing a steak in a pan requires WAY less oil than the recipe ever calls for.

The sauce that was supposed to go on top of the meat just tasted like red wine.  I had a lot of trouble getting it to reduce for some reason.  It ended up going down the drain.

Eventually I seemed to find a way to make the meal edible, but I was quite glad that I was only cooking for me.

I hope that the chicken in the crock pot turns out better.

Maybe another reason to enjoy making soup is that there is so much time to take corrective action as needed.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Whip It, good -- The Ugly Truth, not worth hearing

In addition to going to the theatre to see Edge of Darkness, I rented two movies: Whip It, which was good fun, if a bit predictable, and The Ugly Truth, the stars of which are far too pretty for it to be ugly.

Whip It is a coming of age story in the context of southern beauty pageants and roller derby -- what's not to like?

Ellen Page plays Bliss Cavendar with the same open honesty that she played Juno, except that this time she (or the character) is not quite so self assured.

Her mother, played by the marvelous Marcia Gay Harden, is convinced that the only way out of the tiny Texas town of Bodeen is through beauty pageants.  Not surprisingly, Bliss is less convinced, but she is looking for a way out, for a life different than that of her parents.  

On a shopping trip to Austin to purchase unladylike combat boots -- an endeavor her mother actually endorses until she realizes that they are in a head shop -- Bliss is completely captivated by some roller derby girls who roll into the shop to drop off some flyers and then roll out.

Thus a secretive teenage rebellion is born.

There is the usual angst and conflict, but everyone ends up on the same page in the end.  What makes Whip It different than so many other similar stories is that Bliss actually has friends to tell her that her rebellion is selfish and that she really should think about the consequences of hurting her parents by trampling their good intentions.  So often the parents, especially the mothers, are cast as repressive ogres when really they mean well and are just trying to make up for mistakes made and chances not taken in their own lives.

In the opposite corner, what's not to like is The Ugly Truth, starring Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler.

Now, I have been a fan of Gerard Butler since Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life, and Katherine Heigl is funny and charming as the neurotic Izzy in Grey's Anatomy and on the big screen in 27 Dresses.

Admittedly, I stopped watching after the first forty-five minutes, so maybe I didn't give the film enough of a chance, but I'm not going back.

The problem was not that I had a hard time accepting the "truth" (because I agreed with quite a bit of it, especially the point Butler's character, Mike Chadway, makes about a woman needing to be both the librarian and the stripper) but rather because I couldn't believe the lovely, professionally successful, chicly dressed Abby as someone in need of a makeover.  There was not a chipped nail in sight, a hair out of place, or an article of clothing askew.  She was not a shrinking violet with a confidence problem.  She has her own house -- not an apartment or a room in her parents' house.  She does treat her love/social life like another job, which can be intimidating, but her only real issue is an insistence on believing in an imaginary man (which isn't much of an issue in my world as long as you recognize that he is, in fact, imaginary, and the reality will never completely match the fantasy, especially if it is an enduring one).

Heigl's character takes a lot of the same approach as I do -- "What's wrong with comfort and efficiency?" she asks when Butler's character complains about her wardrobe -- but I had trouble being sympathetic to the slim, leggy blonde whose definition of comfort and efficiency is still far more fashionable and feminine than mine.

I'm not trying to imply that gorgeous people have it made when it comes to love just by virtue of their georgeousness, but they are a few steps ahead of the rest of us when it comes to making that all important first impression on those extremely visual male creatures.  As Chadway, points out, "He doesn't fall in love with your personality at first sight."

I don't know how it turns out -- if she ends up with the orthopedic surgeon from next door who appears to be everything Abby has ever wanted or the crass loudmouth whose advice she is only taking to get him to quit ruining the morning news show she produces -- but there wasn't enough potential for transformation or growth by any of the characters to make me care enough about their "problems" to find out.

Feel free to watch the entire film on your own and let me know how wrong I am.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Swan Thieves

I am in love with this book.   If The Historian is written in the same captivating, lyrical style, why have I waited so long to read it?  Hype, most likely.  Too much hype, and I either lose interest or have to wait until the furor has died down.  That is what happened with the Harry Potter books, and that is what I am waiting for with the Twilight series.

Fifteen chapters and ninety-two pages into Kostova's second book, and I am having trouble deciding how much later I can stay up reading or if it is time to take a shower and turn in for the night.

So far, it is riveting and brilliant and all of those other superlatives that you are always afraid to believe when you read them in reviews.

I love the characters and the story and the hints at a related, possibly parallel, story from the past.

Rave, rave, rave.

I'm not quite brave enough to find out if all of the artists and paintings mentioned in the book are real, but I am going to try to dig out my art books tomorrow to read up a little bit on the artists and periods I do recognize.  You know, for context.  Because I am that kind of nerd.

From books and movies to food

In the last few days I have written about movies and books (one of my goals for the year being to write about each book I read and film I watch), so I think that it is time for a food post.

Several days ago, when there wasn't much in the way of dinner suitable food in the house, I made a late night pilgrimage to the grocery store in search of sustenance.  I wasn't much interested in cooking, so I was considering a terribly wholesome meal along the lines of Robust Russet Cape Cod potato chips and medium cheddar cheese, but as I made the short drive to the local supermarket, I remembered that the store has prepared meal offerings which might be a somewhat more nutritious and satsifying alternative.

I still came home with the cheese and potato chips, which will most likely be staples of my diet for the rest of my life no matter what health questions they may raise, but there was also a container of vegetarian minestrone (which I have heard might be a bit of a redundant term) in my handy dandy reusable grocery bag.

As with most prepared meals, the vegetables in the soup had been cooked to the point of dissolution into the broth, so I rummaged in the refrigerator's vegetable bin and came up with a slightly wilted carrot and stalk of celery as well as a presentable zucchini to chop up and add to the ready made concoction.  A few minutes of simmering, and I had a tasty meal, with enough left over for lunch the following day.

Thus minestrone became my next cooking quest.  The Italian cookbooks on my shelf didn't offer any recipes which made me say to myself, "This is it!  I simply must prepare this recipe," so I wandered into cyberspace to see if I could find a more inspiring alternative.

My minimal exposure to the Food Network has made me a fan of Giada de Laurentiis, so I started with a Google search for Giada and minestrone.

The first result in the list was Winter Minestrone, and the second was Fish Minestrone with Herb Sauce.

Neither recipe was terribly complicated, and each sounded tasty, so I ended up trying them both.

Not surprisingly, I made a few substitutions and adjustments based on what I already had on hand.  I used homemade turkey stock rather than beef broth or chicken broth.  The winter minestrone got a half a cup or so of Merlot that I wanted to use up, and the fish minestrone got a about a cup of Riesling because I think that I have decided that most any non cream-based soup needs a bit of wine.  It makes all of the flavors meld so nicely.

I had bacon, so I used that for the winter minestrone rather than buying pancetta, and ended up reducing the amount of olive oil while I was at it.

Snapper was not readily available for the fish minestrone, so I went with haddock, and I didn't have the fresh ingredients for the herb sauce, so I made a bit of paste with the dried counterparts and stirred it into the whole pot rather than doling it out with individual servings.

One substitution I did not make because I wanted to make the soup the same day that I bought the ingredients was dry beans for canned beans.  I generally prefer dry beans even though they require soaking and cooking because I don't like the extra stuff in the can with the beans.  The garbanzos for the fish minestrone weren't to bad, but the white kidney beans for the winter minestrone had a rather unpleasant slime on them from.  Luckily a good portion of it insisted on sticking resolutely to the bottom of the can, so rinsing wasn't too much of an ordeal.  Still.  Ick.  Dry beans and planning ahead hence forth.

Canned bean slime aside, the end result was two satisfying soups to chase away the winter chill.

Less successful, however, was the second attempt at the chocolate cake described near the beginning of The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz.

The first attempt was on Christmas Eve.  I dutifully followed the directions of baking for 35 minutes because of the added directive "Do not overbake."  Everything looked fine when I took it out of the over ... and twenty minutes later, I had a crater which crumbled to dust when touched.

This time around, I baked the cake for about fifty minutes.  It was still not nearly long enough, but at least the thing is edible this time.

Third time's the charm, right?  Perhaps for Easter.  Or the next time we have guinea pigs, er, guests.  In the meantime, I think I shall continue to focus on cooking rather than baking, except perhaps for bread, which I seem to be able to produce with reasonable consistency.