Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Questionable Talisman

Soooooo, about a couple weeks (and by "couple weeks" I mean a month) ago I read the memoir, Three Wishes by Carey Goldberg, Beth Jones, and Pamela Ferdinand, and I've been avoiding writing about it ever since.  Don't get me wrong; it's a pretty good book. It's just one of those that are really hard to put into words.  But the authors managed in the first place, so I can at least  put together a semi-coherent review. (yes? Yesh.)

The Basics
Goldberg, Carey, Beth Jones, and Pamela Ferdinand. Three Wishes. New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2010. Print.

All our authors have achieved significant recognition throughout their careers as writers and journalists (they're writers! Who'd a thunk?), writing for the likes of The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post. And no wonder, since if this book is any evidence, they're all superb writers. The memoir traces each author's journey toward equal success in their romantic and family lives.  As the book progresses, each woman relates her realization that she was tired of waiting for the right man to come along and enable her to have children.  Carey gets things started (so to speak. Sorry, I'm sorry.) by purchasing several vials of sperm from a bank. But before she can really put them to use, she finds love.  The vials are then passed to Beth, and the same process occurs. So they move to Pam, and again love strikes. (Like magic!)

The Book
This was a book that surprised me. Obviously I picked it up because I found the premise intriguing.  I'll admit I also had talismanic images of sperm vials floating through my head, which I found both amusing and disturbing.  Fortunately, the book failed to live up to that expectation.  Instead, I found the book had a rather apt subtitle: "A True Story of Good Friends, Crushing Heartbreak, and Astonishing Luck on Our Way to Love and Motherhood." This is a book about three women growing emotionally and gaining an even stronger sense of independence than they already possessed.  And, in that sense, I think it's a very powerful read.

I think that part of my difficultly with beginning this blog post centers around my inability to fully identify with the protagonists (if you can call real people such. Meh, why not?).  These women are quite different from me, and even as I find places to identify with them, there are an equal number of moments  that I can do little more than intellectually comprehend.  For example, as someone who wants children (you know, someday), I can understand their desire, but I have a harder time understanding the intensity of it. Or again, I have been in a committed relationship since I was 21 and was lucky enough to find someone with whom love comes easily. Thus, it is much harder for me to really understand the depth of their need and some of the things they go through in achieving romantic fulfillment.  I think someone with different life experiences (or just more of them) could get a little bit more out of this memoir. But even without being able to fully empathize, I found the book a very interesting and rewarding reading experience.

The absolute best element to this book is the way each of the three authors is able to pull readers through a huge array of emotions. Each author writes with a certain dry sense of humor that lightens the overall tone of what would otherwise be a very serious book.  It's the kind of humor that's hard to put your finger on; it didn't make me laugh outright, but it did get a couple of sustained smirks.  But the book also has a couple of heart wrenching moments, as the authors endure some of the most crushing blows an expectant mother can face.  Readers will feel each blow and each moment of hope in what is ultimately a very emotionally satisfying memoir, and an empowering one at that.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Turkey Day Gorging Part I

As you might have guessed, I cook Thanksgiving dinner in my family.  I love making huge feasts, setting the table with nice stuff and generally enjoying a big family meal.  Oh and the holiday magazines!  I love trying out recipes from magazines (and, you know, using my family as guinea pigs).  Today's featured recipe came out of said holiday magazine (okay, so technically it was on their website!): Grandma Erma's Spirited Cranberry Sauce, submitted by Leslie Sutherland of Fort Worth Texas to Southern Living.  I have long hated cranberry sauce (glaring at the previously canned blob from across the table each Thanksgiving) and been puzzled as to why it was a Thanksgiving staple.  Last year, I wanted to make some from scratch but was talked out of it after being told what a pain in the patootie it was.  This year I stuck to my guns, did my research and found Grandma Erma's delicious cranberry sauce, which is exceedingly nom-worthy.

What You'll Need
3 quart saucepan                                                        Blender or Food Processor
Stirring spoon                                                             Air tight storage container
Measuring cups
4 cups fresh cranberries                                             1/2 cup port
2 cups sugar                                                                1/4 cup orange liqueur
3/4 cup water

Now Let's Make Grandma Erma's Spirited Cranberry Sauce!
Please visit the site for the original recipe, linked above; below is my own rendition with details (as usual) based on the cooking experience. 

Begin by measuring out 4 cups of cranberries.  This is about 1 2/3 bags of Oceanspray cranberries; I have a 4 cup Pyrex measuring cup, that I filled up to the brim, which is slightly more than 4 cups. (greedy, greedy) Set the cranberries aside.

In your 3-qt saucepan, combine 2 cups sugar, 1/2 cup port, and 3/4 cup water, stir until well mixed and sugar has begun to dissolve.  Don't worry too much about the quality of the port, either (unless you want to/can afford to); I used a cheap port picked up in my local grocery store (granted, it was the only one they had...).  Add your cranberries and stir the mixture around a bit.

Heat the mixture over medium high heat. To begin with you will have many more cranberries than liquid, so don't worry. The cranberries will cook down a bit.  Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring frequently.  Cook until the cranberries begin to crack.  The original recipe says to cook for about 8-10 minutes; I found that mine took about 10.  Don't pull it off the heat at the first sign of cracking, let the majority of the cranberries split open first. Once this has happened, remove it from the heat and let it cool at least 15 minutes.

Now pulse!
Once the cranberries have cooled, pour the mixture into your blender or food processor (hold the lid down tightly if you use a blender; ask me how I know). Blend the mixture on a low setting until the cranberries have reached your desired consistency.  This can be pureed, as the original recipe recommends, or you can leave some the cranberries still partially in tact (as I prefer).

Pour this into the storage container, and stir in 1/4 cup of orange liqueur.  Southern Living tested with Grand Marnier, but I used Gran Gala, so I doubt brand matters too much. Seal the container and chill for at least 8 hours before serving.  I made mine two days before the big day. Serve with your favorite feast (or feast leftovers, as the case may be); I know I'll be whipping it up again for Christmas.  This recipe took me for a 180; I now eye cranberry sauce with longing rather than loathing. And, it was super easy, too.

Om nom nom


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It's Ooooooverrrrrr!

So, I'm avoiding my latest book post, so you guys get the last post I have on Moning's Fever series.  Enjoy.  Seriously I haven't felt like this since I read the last book of Harry Potter.  Except, I feel slightly better knowing that Moning has more books in the works.  That's right, today's post features the last (for now) of Mackayla's adventures in the Fever series: Shadowfever. This book is easily the best in the series as far as I'm concerned.  It's packed with all the things that make the Fever series compelling - humor, adventure, Barrons's mystery, hope, love - while adding its own spice to the mix.

The Basics
Moning, Karen Marie. Shadowfever. New York: Delacorte P., 2011. Print.

Shadowfever follows Mac as she finally conquers the Sinsar Dubh - the evil, sentient book created by the Unseelie King.  The book has been the recurring "villain" of the series, making it fitting that Mac finally, somewhat reaches a resolution with it.  However, throughout much of Moning's writing very little can be confined within terms of black and white, so don't be surprised when the conclusion fails to do so as well.  Ultimately, Shadowfever proved to be a highly engaging and satisfying read.

The Book
Self-deception is definitely the name of the game for Mac. And, in case you missed it in the rest of the series, Moning slaps you in the face with this theme on the very first page of chapter 1 when Mac admits "all I've succeeded in doing is swapping one set of delusions for a more elaborate, attractive set of delusions - that's me, the Queen of Self-Deception" (5).  But not to fear, Mac's moment of clarity and self-assessment is entirely too short-lived.  After all, the heroine can hardly conquer her fatal flaw on the first page; that's finale sort of stuff.  But Mac does take the first step on the road to victory - admitting she has a problem.  Case in point, after going what can only be described as bat-s*#t insane with loss after the events of Dreamfever, Mac decides that she's going to remake the entire world with the power of the Sinsar Dubh (that's She-suh doo to you, bub).  But this is nothing more than the ultimate in self-deception, since all she wants to do is create yet another massive illusion for herself.  As is fitting, before the end of the novel, Mac must overcome her flaw repeatedly.

One thing (of many) that I wasn't really expecting is the clear connection of the Fever books to Moning's previous Highlander series.  This is a fairly minor, but interesting, connecting thread; several of the Mackeltar, minor but integral characters in the Fever series, are also former main characters from the Highlander series.  I haven't read the other set of novels, but I know enough about them to recognize the connection. This pleases me in a nerdy joy sort of way, like catching obscure comic book references in the latest Marvel movie.

I'm afraid this post is doomed to be a bit shorter than normal.  My favorite aspect of Shadowfever is the delightful number of twists and turns in the plot.  Many of these are completely unexpected, even to a careful and meticulous reader, but once you see them, you can trace back all the hints and foreshadowings that Moning had planted earlier in the series.  As much as I wish I could provide you with an example, I cannot without ruining the book for someone who has never read it. Each plot twist is completely essential to the movement of the novel, right down to the twist at the finale.  All I'll say is that the book makes it impossible to lose interest and will keep you on your mental toes.

The ending has a bit of dues ex machina device going on, the solution to their problem swooping down with one of those aforementioned plot twists.   However, I'm not sure that's a bad thing.  Despite the suddenness of the event, it fits rather well within the course of the novel, rather than undermining the momentum or the characters.  Nor does this particular solution solve all the problems at hand; instead, it partially solves one issue.  The rest is left up to the characters to deal with, nicely setting up a premise for the series to continue on.  Given the extraordinary and supernatural nature of these books to begin with, the solution's unexpected nature really seems to suit. Besides, there were some hints about the end throughout the book, even if you can only see them in hindsight.  I found the ending satisfying rather than disappointing, so I don't think that the use of the device is really a point of critique.

  • For some nifty photos of Ireland and Dublin meant to provide readers with a pictorial of Mac's world, see this page on Moning website.
  • Moning's website advertises that she supports the Wolf Run charity.  It's a really interesting animal refuge.  See her take on it here and visit the Wolf Run website while you're at it!
  • And now for something completely frivolous, here is a Mac vs. the Shades game.  Have fun.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

So Cheesy!

Tonight I was waffling a little about what to cook for my blog post - not really having anything in mind.  But, I did have a can of Campbell's cheese that needed to get used. (I'm not too sure why I bought it to begin with).  So, this is something I just came up with on the fly based one what I had handy, and it's super easy, too!  Fun stuff.

What You'll Need
Cutting board                                                                Skillet
Knife                                                                             Spoon
Small pot                                                                       Measuring cups
Package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts             Thyme
1 cup rice                                                                       Olive oil
1 can Campbell's cheese                                               Salt and pepper
Small yellow onion                                                         1/2 tsp minced garlic

Now Let's Make Cheesy Chicken and Rice
To begin, measure out 2 cups of water and pour it into your pot.  Set the stove to high and boil the water.  Once the water begins to boil, pour in your 1 cup of rice.  Stir briefly, and cover.  Reduce the heat to low (which is actually about 3 on my lovely stove), and let the rice cook.  You can check the rice occasionally and give it a little stir, but otherwise you can pretty much ignore it until it's done.

Now, peel and dice your onion. To make peeling easier, cut the very ends off either side of the onion first.  Once your onion is diced up (and you've wiped your streaming eyes), pour a dollop of olive oil into your skillet.  This dollop should be about the size of your palm as it spreads out (the oil, not your palm). Set the heat to medium, and allow the oil to heat a bit.  Once the oil has heated, scrape your onions in, and begin to saute, moving the onions around the pan occasionally.

While your onions are sauteing, get back to your cutting board and begin cubing the chicken.  One breast at a time (your pack should have about three), trim the fat off and slice the chicken into small bite-size pieces.  Set this aside, and return to tending the onions.  Once the onions are cooked through and have reached a semi-translucent soft state, add the chicken to the pan.  If things are a bit dry and you need to add a touch more olive oil to the pan, do so before adding the chicken.  Saute the chicken until all sides have turned white and chicken is cooked through. 

Mmmmmm... cheese.
Now, open your can o' cheese and spoon it into the pan, reducing heat to a medium-low setting.  Stir the cheese in until it is thoroughly mixed with the chicken and onions.  Add a couple dashes of thyme and the garlic.  Stir this in well and add salt and pepper to taste.  I find that the cheese is not particularly salty, so don't be too afraid.

Once everything is heated through, serve the rice and cheesy chicken together and enjoy!  A few alternative things I would like to do with this recipe:
  • I would add some steamed broccoli when I add the cheese.  Why didn't I do this, you ask.  Because, my cousin Katie (see photo) is visiting for Thanksgiving and hates all things vegetable.  When I suggested broccoli she looked at me like I had killed Bambi.
  • I would mix the cheesy chicken (and broccoli) with the rice, slap it into a 9x9 casserole dish, sprinkle some shredded cheese on top and bake it at 350F for a little bit. 



Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dragony Goodness

Ah dragons!  By far, one of my favorite science fiction and fantasy character types.  I recently decided to revisit a well-loved novel from my early teens:  Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight. This book was one of my earliest introductions into the science fiction and fantasy genres.  I loved it very much at the age of 13 when my library escape was so important to me. It was nice to revisit it from a fresh and much different viewpoint, and I have to say that I find it as lovable and addictive as ever.

The Basics
McCaffrey, Anne. Dragonflight.  New York: Ballantine Books, 2005. Print.

Don't let the copyright date in the above entry fool you. This book was first published in 1968, and is, in my opinion, a classic in its genre.  Anne McCaffrey (gosh, where should I start?) is an extremely prolific and accomplished author.  McCaffrey has written nearly 100 books, coauthoring 30, and was the first woman to earn both the Nebula and Hugo awards.  She also became the first author (period) to have a science fiction book on the New York Times Best Seller list.  I could go on, but suffice it to say McCaffrey has long suffered repeated bouts of awesomeness and been well-recognized for it.  Really, if you're a fan of science fiction and fantasy and haven't read at least one of her novels you need to reevaluate your reading practices.

Of all the books in the series (and I've read most), Dragonflight is my favorite, perhaps because it represents both my initiation into the genre as well as the beginning of the planet Pern.  Set on a planet once colonized but long forgotten by Earth, the book follows the story of Lessa and F'lar, dragonriders and leaders who struggle to unite their planet and face a parasitic threat from space. (duh duhn duhnnnnn).

The Book
Dragonflight is a fantastic mixture of the science fiction and fantasy genres, blending the two in a way that will please fans of either genre.  On the one hand the book holds elements that pull it towards science fiction. The setting is a faraway planet once colonized by Earth. The characters face routine invasions by an alien species: the parasitic, spore-like Threads.  And, without revealing too much, let's not forget about the time travel.  Meanwhile, we also find fantasy elements.  Hello, dragons!  The setting is also vaguely medieval with most people living in Holds and governed by Lords.  There's also a crafthold set up frequently encountered in other fantasy novels. Dragonflight blends all these elements of genre (and many others) into one cohesive whole that's all its own.  Some of the best books defy easy categorization.

McCaffrey's characters are also rather delightful.  They feel very human and real (except the dragons, since, you know, they're dragons) with human motivations and flaws. Lessa, for example, is initially motivated by vengeance and over the course of the book has to learn to move away from that and become a leader.  The book successfully pulls her along on this journey, but she does keep a small spiteful streak that occassionally rears up and makes you want to slap her silly. Lessa, like many heroes, is also prone to spontaneous fits of vision and leaps to put such vision into action as soon as possible.  However, unlike many heroes, McCaffrey does not allow this to shape Lessa into an inhumanly successful heroine.  Instead, Lessa occasionally fails, or succeeds but at a cost to herself that teaches her to think ahead a little.  Rather than letting Lessa's vision be a superhuman strength, McCaffrey allows to be a flaw as well. (I appreciate this a lot more now than I did at 13, too).

The dragons are also rather interestingly crafted.  This was one of the first novels I read where the humans bond telepathically with their animal companions, a common enough theme now in the fantasy genre. In Dragonflight the dragons' characterization depends very much on their interactions with their humans, since dragons typically only communicate with their chosen human.  This could doom the dragons to one dimensionality, but McCaffrey skirts the issue in a number of ways.  Lessa has the ability to communicate with all dragons, which makes readers party to much more of the dragon's thoughts than they would be otherwise. Also, McCaffrey is very good at describing dragon body language (from their sarcastic tail twitches to their hungry bellies), creating a second level of communication from which readers can get to know the dragons further.

But perhaps my favorite aspect of this book is one that bleeds into the entire series: McCaffrey's affinity for worldbuilding.  I love novels that allow readers, not just to discover a great new story, but to uncover an entire new and complex world. Think about it; this is inevitably a marker of some of the best fantasy fiction out there (Tolkein, Rowling).  Pern is well crafted, featuring a system of government, a rich cultural history, and behaviors unique to the world's situation.  Nor does McCaffrey neglect the little details, such as naming traditions, cursing, common occupations, the essentials of dragoncare, etc.  What results is a well developed new world for readers to explore that goes much deeper than the surface. And while some of the elements found in McCaffrey's Pern are now fairly common in fantasy worlds created by other authors, we have to remember that Pern started in 1967 and McCaffrey likely pioneered some of this stuff!

McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series is well worth dipping into, but first let me warn you that it is massive.  But, don't let that scare you off, cause you'll love it!

  • First, you can visit Anne McCaffrey's website, which features a blog and biographical information about the author.
  • You can also check out the fansite, The Pern Museum and Archives, which houses some in depth information on the series.
  • And for some visual dragony goodness, visit Michael Whelan's art site, which features many of the illustrations he originally did for the Pern series.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Where's the Rum Gone?

Into rum balls, of course (and, no, I can't help my dorky references to things)!  This is by far one of my favorite holiday season treats, and since I'm gearing up for my annual holiday baking frenzy (*twitch*), I thought I'd share with all of you.  I used to make these with my mom around Christmas, and it's a recipe that she used to do with her parents. It's quite the family tradition.  And if rummy chocolate goodness isn't enough of a reason to make these, they're also super-easy.

What You'll Need
Large mixing bowl                                                          Measuring spoons
Mixing spoon                                                                   Small bowl
Measuring cups (liquid and dry)                                    Cookie sheet
Cutting board                                                                  Knife for chopping
1 box Vanilla wafers                                                       2 Tbsp cocoa powder
1 cup pecans                                                                    2 Tbsp Karo's light corn syrup
1 cup confectioner's sugar + some for rolling                1/4 cup rum

Now Let's Make Rum Balls!
Haley smash!
We'll start with a little prep work.  Put a handful of vanilla wafers into a sandwich baggie. Press out all the air, and crush the cookies by using a rolling pin. (Or, if you're short a rolling pen at the moment, anything that's handy, like your cookbook). You don't have to crush them to powder, but you don't want any large chunks of cookies, either.  Once you've crushed them, pour the crumbs into a measuring cup.  Repeat the process until you have 1 1/2 cups of crumbs.  A handful of wafers equals about 1/2 cup of crumbs, so you won't be using the entire box of vanilla wafers (so feel free to munch on a few). Add the crumbs to your mixing bowl once you have the required amount.

Demonstrating the lever motion
Next, put a handful of pecans on your cutting board and begin chopping them up.  I find a large knife works better for this, and you can rock it back and forth or use it with a lever motion to most effectively chop the nuts. (Whatever your method, just watch your fingers). Like the wafers, you don't want the nuts to get chopped too fine, but you don't want any large chunks either.  Chop enough pecans to make 1 cup and add them to your mixing bowl.

Now, add 2 Tbsp cocoa powder and 1 cup confectioner's sugar to your mixing bowl.  Stir the ingredients around a bit.  Then, add 2 Tbsp of Karo's light corn syrup (no Southern girl worth her salt would use anything else) and 1/4 cup of rum.  The brand of rum isn't important, but don't use anything spiced or flavored; just plain rum, thanks.

Mix this up until it's nice and goopy.  You'll have to really work at it, since it's a fairly dry recipe.  Your end product will be on the sticky side rather than the liquidy side.  Make sure to routinely scrape the sides of the bowl and fold over the dough to ensure a thorough mix.  The dry ingredients will want to stick to the sides and bottom of the bowl.  Set the dough aside.

Fill your small bowl with cold water.  Dip your fingers in the water to wet them, then take a pinch of the dough and form it into a small ball. The ball should be about the size of a large olive (according to my grandmother's recipe, which sounds a little snooty to me). When formed, place the ball on an ungreased cookie sheet.  Repeat this process until all the dough has been used, neatly lining the balls up on the sheet.  Make sure to periodically wet your fingers, as this will make forming the dough easier and prevent it from sticking too much to your hands. Place the cookie sheet of rum balls in the freezer until they are firm (about 30 minutes to an hour).

Dump the water out of your small bowl and dry it thoroughly.  Fill the bowl with a small amount of confectioner's sugar (about 1/4 cup) for the rum balls to be rolled in.  (You can also use chocolate sprinkles if you prefer, but if you do you'll need to do this step before freezing). Remove the rum balls from the freezer and, one by one, roll them in the confectioner's sugar.  Place the finished rum balls in a sealable container as you go.

Refrigerate the rum balls until you are ready to serve them.  These are great around the holidays, and make for an excellent homemade Christmas gift.  This recipe can easily be adjusted to make rum balls in bulk. (I've been known to do quadruple batches).  As is, it make about 34 rum balls.  Enjoy!

   Pin It

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Villainy and a Cat

It's about time for me to feature another Young Adult novel on the blog, so today's post will focus on Catherine Gilbert Murdock's recent release, Wisdom's Kiss.  As the covers declares, this book is a "Thrilling and Romantic Adventure Incorporating Magic, Villainy, and a Cat." The book fulfills that promise and more and is eminently suitable for its target teen audience, perhaps most especially girls.  Although, we all know that the black cat on the cover is what really attracted me to the book.

The Basics
Murdock, Catherine Gilbert. Wisdom's Kiss. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2011. Print.

Murdock was born in South Carolina and grew up on a Christmas tree farm (Christmas is my favorite holiday, so I think that's pretty awesome).  She is the author of several young adult books, including the acclaimed Dairy Queen series.  She is also the sister of Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame.  Wisdom's Kiss is a sequel of sorts to Murdock's novel, Princess Ben. However, it's definitely a stand-alone story, set in Ben's world, but not really picking up any of the same story line. (I have not, yet, read Princess Ben, and I was just fine).  The story follows several characters, including the prescient tavern maid, Trudy; the miller's son turned "soldier," Tips; and the adventure-seeking, not-wise-at-all Princess Wisdom.  Wisdom hastily agrees to marry the Duke of Farina on the promise of adventure, only to realize too late that she is about to enter into a family of immoral schemers.  The novel is full of adventure and suspense with just a dash of romance and magic to help things along.

The Book
There are so many things to love about Wisdom's Kiss that it's hard to know where to start. (Seriously, I've been dreading having to write this post). But, perhaps the most striking feature of the novel is the variety of forms that Murdock uses to tell her story: epistolary (letters), diary entries, a play, encyclopedia entries, and first and third person narratives.  Knowing this before I went in, I was a little wary and worried that the book would seem disjointed, but I discovered that just the opposite was true.  Each form Murdock uses tells the story of Wisdom's Kiss (here I refer to the event rather than the novel) from the perspective of a different character, giving readers a fuller picture of the story than they would find by following only a few perspectives. (It also thrills my inner literary nerd to see all the different forms).

I also liked how Murdock managed to connect all the threads of her various characters into one cohesive story line. With characters from such disparate worlds as Trudy the village tavern maid and Princess Wisdom the spoiled thrill seeker, it was important for Murdock to convincingly pull all the characters together, which she does.  She does this in large part through the various mysteries swirling around the novel.  The mystery of the nature of Tips's true profession ultimately pulls Trudy (though she has no idea there's a mystery until it's solved) along in the story line, leading her to link up with Wisdom and the Queen Mother.  Then we have the mystery surrounding Wisdom's fiance's mother and her machinations, which drive the overarching plot of the book.  A clever reader can follow along and even anticipate the goings-on that so puzzle the characters, but Murdock still manages to slip in some twists that you won't see coming. (At least one even had me exclaiming aloud). 

In all this plotting and storytelling, we also find some really great characters.  Murdock develops these characters with ease through her use of literary forms.  Each one has a particular form in which his or her story is told. Trudy gets a 3rd person narrative memoir; Wisdom, a diary; the Queen Mother, letters to her granddaughter Queen Temperance ; Tips, letters to Trudy; Felis, pompous 1st person narrative accounts of the past; and more.  And if any character need fleshing out beyond first hand accounts, we get entries in the Encyclopedia of Lax.  The book largely focuses on movement through the plot as each character is inexorably drawn to the conclusion, but in telling the story through each character's perspective and voice, Murdock simultaneously creates a real sense of character that seems so much more effortless than other novel's lengthy character descriptions.  I get the feeling that each reader will form their own attachments and have their own favorite characters, since each of Murdock's creations are equally engaging. (Personally, I liked the Queen Mother).

Lastly, you'll love the book's light and witty sense of humor that permeates almost every page. For one thing, Murdock selects some truly hilarious names for things, such as the Empire of Lax, the Siege of Cheese, or the Magnanimous Goat Incident (which, really, I'd like to know more about).  Princess Wisdom is also a great source of humor.  She's constantly and irreverently poking fun at things, creating an interesting combination of insensitive and hilarious.  For example, she ridicules her own country's naming traditions after learning that Trudy's mother's name was Mindwell: "Which is extremely ugly & extremely virtuous & only someone from Montagne would ever inflict something that awful on a poor defenseless little baby girl!" (239-40). My favorite moment, though, comes after Wisdom's entire retinue grows violently ill after eating some bad oysters and Wisdom deems the subsequent trip to Trudy's village the "Puking Path" (47).

I loved every minute of Wisdom's Kiss and think it would make an excellent stocking stuffer for the teenage girl in your life (or am I the only weirdo who thinks books are great stocking stuffers?). I know I would have adored this book as a teen. I mean, come on, it features a black cat named Escoffier for crying out loud!


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Stew on This!

Today's post is on one of my family's favorites: Brunswick Stew. This stew is largely southern in its roots, but beyond that there's a bit of a debate about its origins. There's no really set way to go about making Brunswick Stew; it's basic ingredients consist of tomatoes, lima beans, corn, and okra, but meat and other ingredients vary (seriously, the original recipe called for squirrel). So anyway, this is my family's recipe, and its probably a good bit different than another recipe; that's just the nature of this beast. This recipe goes at least 4 generations back, though I'm sure it's evolved along the way as it passed from cook to cook. Oh, and traditionally this thing is cooked most, if not all, of the day; that's why it's a stew.  So, plan accordingly and start no later than noon.

What You'll Need
1 big stock pot or iron kettle                                   Knife for chopping and dicing
1 long cooking spoon                                               Measuring cups (liquid and dry)
Cutting board                                                          Measuring spoons
64 oz broth                                                              2 sticks butter
52 oz diced tomatoes                                               40 oz chicken, shredded (2 1/2 lbs)
4 onions, diced                                                         1 cup apple cider vinegar
32 oz frozen lima beans                                           1 cup sugar
32 oz frozen corn                                                     1/2 cup ketchup
24 oz potatoes, chopped                                           2 Tbsp mustard
10 stalks celery, finely minced                                6 cloves of garlic, minced
16 oz frozen okra                                                     Salt and pepper, to taste

Now Let's Make Brunswick Stew!
Before we begin, I have a few notes on ingredients, since, as I've said, the ingredients in Brunswick Stew are by no means set.  For the meat, you want to make sure to use something that can be shredded.  You can achieve that by boiling a chicken (hey presto, you've got your broth, too!), or by using leftover smoked chicken, like I did.  Or, you can do a combination of meats; sometimes I add in pulled pork barbecue.  It's up to you and your taste. Also, if you have the veggies for this recipe hanging around fresh, that's awesome! (I don't, and I'm cheap, and I'm lazy).

Finely minced, as it should be
To start, we need to do some prep work.  You may notice that some of those ingredients have additional descriptions attached, and it's time to make those happen.
  • If you haven't already shredded your chicken, do so now.  If it's easy to do, just pull it apart with your hands, being mindful to weed out any bones (especially those long prickly dangerous ones).  If you can't use your hands, or are using cooked chicken breast, pull a fork along the meat to begin the shredding process.  Set the meat aside. 
  • Chop and dice your 4 onions, wipe your eyes and set them aside. 
  • Chop up your potatoes into small, bite-size chunks.  Don't bother peeling them, but do wash them ahead of time. Set the potatoes aside.  
  • Now, take your 10 stalks of celery and dice them up. Now mince, mince I say,  until it's very fine. (I hate celery but know it adds necessary flavor; mincing it fine makes it less noticeable). Set the celery aside.  
  • If you need to, mince the garlic and set it aside, too. (I always use the jarred, pre-minced stuff).
Take a deep breath, the prep work is done.  Put your big stock pot on the stove, and add the broth to it (veggie or chicken broth, I'm not picky).  Set the heat to medium-high, which is about a 7 on my stove.  Add your cans of diced tomatoes, juice included.  Then add the add your veggies: onions, limas, corn, potatoes, celery, and okra.  Give it a stir, stirring from bottom to top, scraping the bottom of the pot to prevent sticking.  Cut the 2 sticks of butter into chunks, dropping them into the stew as you go. (stop cringing at the amount of butter and look at all those veggies!).

I forgot a picture when the meat
went in, so you get potatoes.
Once this mixture has heated through, add your meat and stir it in thoroughly.  Let the stew cook for a while.  Stir it regularly during this interval, making sure to stir from the bottom to prevent sticking.  When the veggies are soft enough, begin mashing them up whenever you stir until you've got a thick mush.  It's okay if some of the veggies are still in good shape; you just want a large portion to be mashed up.

After the stew has reached the aforementioned mashed state, add the vinegar and sugar, and stir them in thoroughly. Then add the ketchup and mustard (yes, that's right ketchup and mustard. Shut up! It's tasty). Stir these in well.  Lastly, add the minced garlic and salt and pepper, to taste, and stir them in well.  Reduce the heat to a low setting so that the stew will simmer. Continue to cook for at least an hour before serving, but keep in mind that the longer it cooks, the better the flavor will be.

Brunswick Stew with Irish Soda Bread
Serve with a thick slice of bread. I recommend Irish Soda Bread without the raisins, as it's thick heartiness suits Brunswick stew particularly well.  If you have any leftover stew (and you will, unless you're feeding a horde), you can store some for leftovers and freeze the rest.  This stew freezes really well, and it's great to be able to pull some out during the winter.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Just Like Chalky Valentine Candy

Well, isn't that just a ringing endorsement? While the candy sweethearts might be a little icky, today's book is not.  My Husband's Sweethearts by Bridget Asher first drew me in with it's unique title and premise.  Despite the shoes on the cover, this book is far and away from the fluffy chick lit genre (the girly, Sex and the City genre of the literary world).  Instead the book is a psychologically complex novel that dives into the emotional turmoil of its characters.  It is a book for and about women, but fluffy it is not. The book was not quite what I expected, which made for both a slightly disappointing and ultimately rewarding reading experience.

The Basics
Asher, Bridget. My Husband's Sweethearts. New York: Delacorte P., 2008. Print.

Bridget Asher is one of two pseudonyms employed by the author Julianna Baggott.  Baggott holds an M.F.A. in creative writing and teaches at Florida State University.  She's a fairly prolific author with seventeen novels under her belt. (That's not quite Danielle-Steel-level prolific, but it still sounds impressive to me). Oh, and she writes essay and poems, too; you know, for kicks.

My Husband's Sweethearts tells the story of Lucy, an auditor who has been separated from her husband for the last six months after discovering that he had been cheating on her with two "left over" girlfriends and one new one.  She returns home after she learns that Artie, the cheat, is dying a slow death from congestive heart failure.  The story really gets going once she drunkenly calls up some of the numbers in his little black book and invites them to take a turn at his death bed (ah, drunk dialing, your so Klassy).  The novel follows Lucy's journey toward coming to terms with her own emotions, her husband's infidelity and looming death, and the makeshift family she forms along the way.

The Book
When I first opened this book, I was expecting a novel in which plot was the most important feature. Instead, I wound up with a book about character where plot is only present to keep things moving.  At first, I had a difficult time getting into the novel; it had a bit of a slow start.  Looking back, I realize this had a lot to do with Lucy.  At the opening of the book, she's a little distant and we're in this prelude stage of the book before things really get going and we can see the characters interact.  But, by chapter two I'm hooked when we get a glimpse of Lucy's personality beyond the cheated upon spouse. As she boards the plane, she encounters her disgustingly cheery seat-mate, who is too oblivious to stand and let Lucy slip to her seat.  Lucy handles this by sliding in butt-to-face in a delightful moment of passive aggression.  Lucy is interesting to follow (thank goodness, since she's the main character), and the more I read the more I grew interested in her funny, sarcastic commentary and her emotional ups and downs as she learns to cope with Artie's actions and his death.

I also enjoyed the little family that is formed around Lucy.  Her own mother is a hoot with her velour track suits and her jock strap toting dachshund (just think about why that's necessary).  Eleanor, one of Artie's many wronged lovers, whose precise organization skills coordinate the parade of ex-lovers visiting Artie's deathbed is entertaining. John, Artie's faux son, helps Lucy's coping process by accompanying her on the "Tour d'Artie" that takes them through various stages of Artie's life.  And Elspa, my personal favorite, has the most compelling side-story as the others help her get her child back and become a mother in fact.

I do have a few bones to pick with the novel, however.  For one, I didn't care for the running theme of all men as dogs/ liars/ weak.  While the women of this book have been wronged, they have been wronged by only one man that we see.  Lucy's mother does come from an earlier generation that (according to the book) expected men to be weak willed and unfaithful. But the younger women's protests against the idea and demands that men be held accountable rather than excused as weak alos imply that men are naturally flawed.  The author does not seem to agree with this assessment, given her "about the author" that makes it clear her own husband has never given her reason to doubt him.  So, why not give us another option besides Elspa's mostly silent belief in the good in people? My more minor complaint centers on the little twist about John's origins, which seems like a cheap way out of the squickiness of he and Lucy potentially being in love.

But overall, Asher pulls a wealth of emotions from her readers during the course of the book.  We often encounter hilarious moments, such as Bogie the dachshund making advances at one of the sweetheart's cylindrical dachshund-esque handbags or the granny-like sweetheart who turns out to be Artie's highschool math teacher.  We have moments of intense hope when Lucy goes to convince John to visit his father's deathbed or Elspa finally confronts her parents and takes on the responsibility of mothering Rose. And, we have moments of heart wrenching sadness when Lucy finds herself initially torn between love and hate for Artie, unable to settle on one when he's so close to being gone forever. Poof!  To love someone as much as Lucy does him but be so angry with him when he's dying must be terrible.

Despite my small qualms, I found My Husband's Sweethearts to be a really interesting and enjoyable read.  I liked that it was unpredictable and able to surprise me rather than following a formula. By the end of the novel, I felt like everything had come to a suitable resolution and I was satisfied.