Sunday, January 30, 2011

Chronicles of Narnia, part 1 (and 2)

There are spoilers in here for those who have not read the books or seen any of the film productions.

So far so good.  At first I was wary of this whole "reading order" idea, but as soon as I read The Magician's Nephew, which is about the creation of Narnia, I understood.  (The religious themes and undertones which have always eluded me are much clearer as well.)  I finished The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe last night and am about to start The Horse and His Boy.

Now that I look at it, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe should probably be The Wardrobe, the Witch and the Lion as Lucy discovers the wardrobe first, then Edmund meets the witch, and only when they are all in Narnia do they (and the reader) meet Aslan the lion.

The first time I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I was in second grade, and I remember the book being incredibly beautiful and magical and heartbreaking.  I wanted to have tea with Lucy and Mr. Tumnus.  I despised Edumund for his allegiance to the witch and wasn't nearly as willing to forgive him as his siblings were.  And my heart broke when the witch killed Aslan.  I remember seeing it all so clearly in my imagination.

This time around, however, I had to work harder to conjur the images.  The story seemed so much simpler (not to mention shorter).  I can't decide if it is a factor of growing up (or at least getting older) or a result of knowing the story fairly well already.

Further bulletins after I read more chronicles.

(And I haven't forgotten about Rostropovich.)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Howl's Moving Castle (first the book)

As part of my anime education, I received a dvd of Howl's Moving Castle as a Christmas gift.

Reading the credits on the back of the box informed me that the Hayao Miyazaki film is based on the novel Howl's Moving Castle by Daina Wynne Jones.  I had heard of the film, and I had heard of the author, but I had not heard of the novel.  As I have wanted to read something by Ms. Jones for some time but had simply not made a selection, I decided that this was my chance, and picked up a copy from my favorite haunt.

By the time I had made it through chapter two, I was convinced that this was yet another instance of finding and reading the right book at the right time.  The literary stars aligned, and knowing better than to ignore the signs, off I went on a delightful adventure.

(It turns out that there are two other "Howl" books -- Castle in the Air and The House of Many Ways.  My local library had both of them, so I can continue my exploration when the time comes, but I decided to begin at the beginning.)

Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters, and she is left to work for her step mother (who is by no means wicked, although perhaps a bit self-centered and exploitive) in her father's hat shop after her father passes away, and her sisters are sent off to apprentice, one to a witch and the other to a bakery.

Despite a gift for trimming hats, Sophie's life is frightfully dull and sheltered until one day she displeases the Witch of the Waste, who turns Sophie into an old woman as punishment for her honesty.  (She tells the vain witch that a particular hat to which she has taken a fancy does not suit her at all.)

Afraid to face her family and tell them what has happened, Sophie strikes out on her own.  On her way out of town, she rescues a dog who is tangled in a hedge and rights a fallen and somewhat dilapidated scarecrow.  (Pay attention.  These things become important later on in the story.)  When night falls and she finds herself out in the cold, Sophie takes refuge in the moving castle of the wizard Howl, who has a reputation for eating the hearts or stealing the souls (the stories are never quite clear) of innocent young girls, a fact which would have terrified Sophie as the young woman she had been but does nothing to deter her as an old crone as she seeks out a comfortable seat beside a warm fire.  Besides, in addition to the comfortable seat beside a warm fire, Howl might be able to lift the witch's curse.

Once inside the castle, which turns out to be far less impressive on the inside, she talks her way past Howl's apprentice, Michael, and befriends -- well, strikes a bargain with -- Calcifer, the fire demon who is bound to Howl and living in his fireplace.

Yes, I understand.  It sounds a bit far fetched -- an old woman striking out on her own and preferring to take her chances with wizards and demons than stay with her own family, but Jones infuses Sophie with a great sense of purpose and determination, even if she is not entirely sure of her direction or destiny, that you can't help but be on her side both to support her on her journey and to follow her to see where it leads.

Besides, that is just the beginning.  There are kings and princes and other wizards and lady loves, and it turns out that the same witch who put the spell on Sophie (who can't tell anyone about it, by the way) is after Howl as well, which is why Calcifer has to keep the castle on the move in the first place.

The elements of an entertaining story are all here -- a varied and engaging cast of characters, complete with mistaken and confused identities, and a plot rife with plans (good and evil), accidents, mishaps, magic, mayhem, and a bit of romance.  There is even a visit or two to a mythical place called Wales, where people travel by loud horseless carriages and children entertain themselves with magical boxes plugged into walls.

The ending itself works out well, even if the final approach to it becomes more than a little convoluted.  I had trouble keeping track of characters' goals and motivations, especially the hidden ones which I got the feeling I was somehow expected to figure out before the final revelations, but I have never been good at that sort of thing.  The solutions to mysteries are often a surprise to me, but then I don't put a lot of time and effort trying to get to the end before I, well, get to the end.  I read to be told a story, not to second guess one or write it myself.

The next bit of fun will be to see what Miyazaki's film adaptation has to offer.  Stay tuned.

Culinary alchemy

What the recipe said:
1/2 c red wine vinegar
1 1/2 to 2 tsp sea salt (or to taste)
1/2 tsp white or black pepper
1 1/2 c extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp French Dijon or yellow prepared mustard
1/2 tsp thyme
1Tbsp honey

Combine ingredients, whisking or blending together well.

What I did:
3/8 c red wine vinegar
sea salt (did not measure)
white pepper (did not measure)
1 c extra virgin olive oil
4 or 5 tsp prepared Irish Stout mustard
A little bit of honey (maybe 1/2 tsp)
A few shakes of a Mrs. Dash onion/garlic/spice mixture

The way more mustard was to balance the entirely too much vinegar.  My first taste test made my eyes water.  The little bit of honey was a test to see if sweetness would balance the vinegar a bit more quickly than the mustard.  And the Mrs. Dash was because the first recipe called for some herbs, and I thought "Onions and garlic go well with mustard, so in we go!"

I reduced the oil and vinegar because I didn't want to make too much (as I tend to do when following a recipe), especially if it didn't turn out.

The reason for the experiment in the first place was a general lack of salad dressing in the house.  A fantastic side benefit was that the dressing was fairly thick and was delightful over asparagus -- a reasonable substitute for or alternative to the trickier to make hollandaise sauce.

My first attempt at homemade salad dressing was definitely a success ... and I discovered that a lot of the same experimental principles of cooking apply.  Choose your own salad dressing adventure!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A bit more depth and breadth to go with the previous post

Things I want to do or finish this year, from general to specific, and in no particular order.  I am not big on New Year's Resolutions, but it can't hurt to have some sort of plan.
  1. Read LOTR.  Yes, I am a geek and a nerd, and no, I have never readLOTR.  I made three attempts to read The Hobbit.  I tried to watch the Peter Jackson films, and couldn't make it through the first one, but I am learning about role playing games (specifically Dungeons & Dragons), and the references and influence are everywhere.  I think that it is time that I find out and understand what people are talking about.
  2. Read The Chronicles of Narnia.  I read two or three of them a long time ago, but never finished the entire series.  Watching the new Disney films makes me want to go back, reread and finish, in part to compare to the film offerings and in part to simply enjoy the stories.  (I am not particularly interested in the religious themes, perceived or otherwise.)
  3. Learn about anime (and manga).  It's a fascinating art form which has eluded my interest for some time, but then someone introduced me toCowboy Bebop, and I became intrigued.  It's not nearly as isolated an art form as I thought it would be, although I am not sure why I am surprised.  References I have come across mean thatNeuromancer by William Gibson and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick (in graphic novel, novel and film form) have moved further up the reading list.  I have discovered anime based on Shakespeare and Dumas and Kurasawa, and I discovered that Howl's Moving Castle was first a book by Diana Wynne Jones before Hayao Miyazaki filmed it.
  4. PMP certification -- at least the training.  I am not as sure about taking the exam and completing the certification because I am not sure if it is something that I really want to do and/or maintain and because I am not certain the the work I have been doing for the last four years really qualifies as project management.  (The online course I am going to take should help in that respect.)
  5. Possibly find a new job.  Depends on how number 4 goes.
  6. Read x number of the fabulous cookbooks I have on my cookbook shelves and try y number of recipes from each.  X and y need to turn into actual numbers, but I am making this list somewhat off the cuff, and the cookbook library is not nearby, so this item will require future expansion and clarification.  I received a lovely book about soups as a Christmas gift, and books by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid and by David Tanis have been beckoning for a while.  Making flatbread on unglazed kitchen tiles definitely needs to be on the list.  I think that one new recipe a week might be a reasonable goal.  Also, I have a lovely collection of recipes from family and friends which I have begun compiling in a cookbook so that they are easier to find, use and share than they are on recipe cards and photocopies and in folders.  I want to finish the cookbook this year.  (I am using if anyone is interested and thus far am quite impressed with the application.)
  7. Clean out the storage unit.  I am down to the hard part as most everything in there is stuff I want to keep, but don't really have space for in the house.  It has been two years, however, and I wanted to get it done in one year.  Actually, I wanted to get it done in six months, but I knew even at the time that that idea was just plain silly.  Some tough love is definitely called for.  As a corollary, but I don't think quite deserving of its own item, I need to get the stuff off the porch and organize the whole upstairs better.
  8. Largely due to a buy one, get one free sale (and a few other coupons/deals), I went on a bit of a graphic novel buying binge, so I have a nice, healthy stack.  I should get those read.  I might even try to go back and finish reading Batman: Hush, which I put down after a shocking revelation and have never picked up since.
  9. Use the Wii.  I finally got my own little tv, and a bunch of games for Christmas, so I should play with my fancy, expensive little toy.
  10. Write.  I did better last year with the blog than I think I ever have, so I need to keep the progress moving forward.  One of last year's quasi-goals was to write something about every book I read and every film I saw.  It only sort of worked, but it makes for a good starting point.  April can be Script Frenzy, and November is National Novel Writing Month.  There is an unfinished screenplay which needs work, and the beginnings of two novels which could do with some serious attention.  The web site offers a number of courses which intrigue me, and that might be a good summer project, depending on their schedule.
  11. Read.  Related to 1, 2 and eight, not to mention the reading challenges I have signed up for, but my basic goal of a book a week remains the same.
  12. Knit.  I started several projects intended as Christmas gifts, and only one got finished.  I need to finish the others.  I also want to finish the fabulous sweater coat which I started ages ago.  My mother has received two scarves thus far, and likes them so much that she wants an afghan.  I don't think that is a realistic 2011 project for a number of reasons, but I'll put it on the radar just for fun.
Twelve months in a year, and twelve projects/goals.  Not exactly a one for one sort of setup, but a bit of symmetry or balance.  Sounds like a good start to me.  Time will tell how it goes.

New year, new list, new plan, new post

Well, here it is, January 1st once again.

I am not big on New Year's as a holiday, but it is a delightfully convenient benchmark.

A new year means that it is time to start a new reading list.  Since I have yet to achieve it (although I did get closer last year with thirty-four), I think that I am going to stick with the same goal of a book a week.  I am going to mix it up just a bit -- or perhaps give the plan just a bit more focus -- by participating in at least one reading challenge.

While I have never been much of a horror fan (although I think that more of what I read qualifies as horror than I think), I have become a definite fan of urban fantasy.  Last year saw me reading quite a bit of urban fantasy written for young adults and finding it at least as sophisticated and engaging as anything I have pulled off the main science fiction and fantasy bookshelves, so I see no reason not to continue the trend.  Therefore I am joining Book Chick City's Horror and Urban Fantasy Reading Challenge 2011.

She also has a Mystery and Suspense challenge that I am going to join because I used to read quite a few mysteries but got away from doing so as I discovered various sub-genres of science fiction and fantasy (i.e. steampunk and urban fantasy).  I think that it will be a challenge to get back to it, and it will also be interesting to find titles which qualify for both challenges.

Even if none of the titles cross over, 24 urban fantasies and 12 mysteries sets a goal of 36 books total, which is 2 more than my 2010 achievement and thus a good starting point.

I also think that it will be just as much fun to see what books from other genres distract me from these two challenges.

There are plenty of other book challenges out there, if urban fantasy and suspense aren't your thing.  Start here: or do a web search for reading challenges.  Or start your own.  It will be fun.

Enough blogging.  Time to start reading.