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Archive for February, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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State of Grace

On the cover of The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint is a quote from Alice Hoffman: “No one does it better.”

I am inclined to agree.
The setting this time around is the desert southwest rather than the now familiar Newford, so the flow isn’t quite as smooth, but the story is still beautifully told, and the characters still draw you into their world and their lives.
I love the ease with which de Lint’s characters come to accept the extraordinary.  Sometimes it takes a while, but I find myself starting to believe as the characters do, and before I know it, everything makes perfect sense.
After all, the basic premise in all of his stories is the possibility (or even likelihood) that the world is simply not only as it appears, not only what you can see with your own eyes and what you have known and believed all of your life — there is more to the mystery that is life.  All you have to do is open your mind to the wonder of possibility.
Grace is adrift in her life after the death of her grandfather.  He was the only family member to who she was really close, and he was the one to introduce her to the love of her life — cars.  Specifically vintage cars in need of restoration.  She is still trying to regain focus and motivation when her own life is cut tragically short by a junkie trying to rob her neighborhood corner store.
Because she lived in an apartment building called the Alverson Arms, she doesn’t end up in Heaven or Hell but rather an in between sort of Limbo centered around the apartment building and stretching outward for several blocks.
Everyone who is there died somewhere within the Alverson Arms’ sphere of influence.
Once she accepts where she is and how she got there, Grace sets out to unravel the mystery of why with the help of some of her new neighbors and John, a man she meets on Halloween, one of the two nights of the year she is able to spend with the living.
John feels such a strong connection with Grace during the few hours they get to spend together before she disappears back to the alternate Alverson Arms world that he is determined to find her and see her again, and even finding out that she died a few weeks before they even met doesn’t stop him.
Instead he learns as much as he can about her, what happened to her and what the possibilities might be so that on May Eve (Beltane) when she reappears, he is outside the corner store where she died, waiting for her with her restored ’57 Ford Fairlane.
At that point, I was deeply involved enough in the story and the characters that when he was waiting for her with the car, I pretty much clapped my hands and cheered.
That’s the magic and power of the storytelling of Charles de Lint.  He brings you close enough to his characters that you can share their joy and their heartbreak, their hope and their confusion, and when you reach the end of the story, you wish them well on the next stage of their journey.
Of course, happily ever after isn’t a realistic path for these two to follow, but you will have to read the book yourself to find out where their paths do lead.
The Mystery of Grace is a bewitching combination of old magic, new magic, tradition and good old fashioned faith, reminding the reader that, no matter what it is, you should have something you can believe in unconditionally.

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Green by Jay Lake is an odd book.

I really wanted to like it, enjoy it, and lose myself in it, but while the protagonist resonated for me to some extent, I was never able to sink in as far as I wanted to.

As a small child, Green is sold … not exactly into slavery, but into a life which she does not choose, and she spends the next ten years or so trying to maintain a connection to what little past she can remember and searching for a way back.  When she is finally able to retrace her steps, she is not surprisingly disappointed, and discovers that she no longer belongs in this old life.
Once again adrift, she searches for purpose and meaning in her life.  She wants to find a way to protect other children from suffering her fate.  She wants to be independent and answer to no one.  She does not want to belong to anyone or anything lest that person or organization be able to lay claim to her.
She wants to save the world, but only if she can do it without letting it lay any claim to her, so she travels and learns and drifts, but never really belongs and is unable to work within any particular structure or adhere to any particular set of rules for long.
As the years pass, she becomes a sailor, a cook, a lover, a friend, an assassin, a god killer, and a deity creator.  She learns about independence and love and trust and betrayal.  Fairly standard coming of age lessons.
Somehow and for some reason which is never really explained (at least as far as I was able to tell) she is a lynchpin and a catalyst to great religious and mythological change going on in the world around her, but no one, even those who would try to manipulate her to further their own ends, is sure what her role is really supposed to be.
As she journeys, Green does learn a great deal about herself and the world, bringing about important change in the process, but by the book's end, her journey is far from over.
I have not yet decided if I want to know more, but the ending of this particular chapter in Green's history is satisfying while leaving plenty of room for a sequel without creating a cliffhanger.

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Walking the Edge

Mel Gibson's latest film Edge of Darkness was not what I was expecting.

Since it is an action movie starring Mel Gibson, I was still expecting to see Mad Max or Martin Riggs.  While they are definitely still in there, and time has been good to Mel, he is also definitely older and knows that every physical battle is going to take more of a toll than it used to.  While Max and Riggs would just wade right in, Tom Craven watches a bit longer, plans a bit farther ahead, depends on the gun a bit more, and his accuracy has only improved with time and practice.
The silliness is gone as well.  He's more serious, and any humor is more along the lines of sarcasm.
It looks good on him.
The plot follows a standard formula in that the bad guys take what matters most from the hero, but it is heartbreaking in a way and to a degree which I have never encountered in an action film.  First his daughter dies a horribly violent death in his arms, and then throughout the rest of the film he hears her voice and sees her as a little girl, reliving his favorite father/daughter moments.
The special effects and stunts are there, of course, but they are not so over the top as to eclipse the plot or characters.  Their relative subtlty allows for a greater degree of realism and makes the surprises more surprising when they happen, despite heavyhanded foreshadowing on the part of the musical score.
Ray Winstone is the only other actor I recognize, and he is brilliant as Darius Jedburgh, who adds an interesting subplot as he tries to decide which side he should be on.  Everyone assumes him to be on the side of the bad guys, but he's not so sure, and he's not willing to just do their bidding without finding out for himself (or letting Craven find out) what the real story is.  He adds a few more shades of grey in a genre dependent on black and white.
The bad guys would like to be as complicated as our hero and his potential accomplice, but it is only their protective web of lies which is complicated.  The men themselves are simply about power.  The fact that they could easily be real people — a defense contractor and a senator — who are part of our everyday existence makes them terrifying.
People in power think that it protects them, and to some degree they are correct, but if it insulates them too well and they depend on that protection, they can get complacent, or it can become isolating or even suffocating. They lose sight of what is going on in the world outside of their little sphere and either forget or refuse to acknowledge that there are consequences, and consequences don't apply only to other people.
The United States government wants its citizens (and as much of the rest of the world as possible) to be afraid of the terrorists, and maybe we should be, but the terrorists or hostile governments in other countries don't hate America because of its citizens.  They hate it because of its government, which loves power just as much as they do. The U.S. government is just as capable of horrible things as any member of the so-called “Axis of Evil.”
Edge of Darkness tells a story which could be unfolding right now, although the ending might not turn out quite the same.  The first few minutes of the film eliminate the possibility of happily ever after, but there is closure and redemption, and, from a certain point of view, justice.

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